Wana Udobang polishes words with the skill of a diamond cutter: when she recites her poems, her words hang like beautiful paintings in a room. Their authenticity and power hold you spellbound.
Wana Wana, as she is popularly called, has also captivated listeners of Inspiration FM, Lagos, Nigeria. She joined the station in 2009 and has become one of the most recognizable voices on radio.
In this interview, Wana, who graduated with a first class degree in broadcast journalism from the University College for the Creative Arts, UK, spoke candidly about her love for poetry, writing, being single and, hold your breath guys…what she is looking for in a man.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You anchor a very popular radio programme on sharing life’s issues, where many listeners confide in you, do their stories inspire you?
Wana Udobang: Absolutely. If listening to the sheer resilience of Nigerians cannot move you, I don’t know what else will. Someone once called living in Nigeria an ‘over-exaggerated reality’ and sometimes I am amazed at what human beings go through on a daily basis and even more perplexed by just how they keep going.
It’s like watching an object being stretched to the limits and yet it doesn’t quite break. I remember being in a creative writing class and being told not to pile tragedy on tragedy on your characters because it affects the believability if the story and I was thinking, if you know the piles of drama and tragedy people live with on a daily basis here, you would know that anything is believable.
We are an incredibly strong people. Whether it’s being ostracised for being an outsider, making a mistake and finding a way to keep going despite that or manoeuvring your way through a world that doesn’t give you much to start with, we are strong people and that strength is inspiring. However the fact that people are now anaesthetised by the pain is frightening.
Sam Umukoro Interview: As a presenter on one of Nigeria’s premier radio station, what have you learnt about Nigerians and their diverse views?
Wana Udobang: I have learnt way too much that I feel like I would probably start to bore people going into it. But I would say that we definitely underestimate the impact of culture and social conditioning on the way we think and live. Also, we are a people with a herd mentality, as our society doesn’t give much room to interrogate ourselves, our beliefs, or the systems that we exist within. We are not encouraged to ask questions about why we do the things we do and why we believe the things we believe. That absence of self-awareness and interrogation can be very restrictive on one’s thinking.
So there seems to be some kind of a preoccupation with always needing to project a false sense of perfection, and listening to people’s frustrations every night, you realise individually we are imploding.
Being somewhat without a choice is something that we are much acquainted with, which means we are constantly acclimatising or just trying to cope. I say all these things because these different views become somewhat a microcosm of much bigger and deeper themes affecting us in more ways than we imagine. One more thing I have realised is that we don’t leave very much room for diversity. Most people believe that their truth is ‘the truth’. Nevertheless, the programmes and listening to the views of millions give you a good understanding of the collective consciousness of us as a people.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Many among the present generation of Nigerian radio presenters have been criticised in some quarters for lack of professionalism. What is your view about this?
Wana Udobang: Some of the people that criticise just want things to stay the same way it has always been, but change is constant and so are consumer trends and tastes. So people have to deal with that. At the same time, I recognise that the business of radio has recently become quite glamorous that a lot of people believe that all it entails is turning up a microphone, adopt an interesting accent and say whatever you will. I think it is unfair when the criticism is generalised because a lot of my industry colleagues work very hard at what they do.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You have written a few times about Nigerians in diaspora moving back. Why did you personally decide to move back to Nigeria?
Wana Udobang: The truth is that I actually bought a return ticket, said I needed a break and wanted to explore Nigeria, and I got a job really quickly. So I started exploring and building other skills, and here I am four years later. I describe Nigeria as a hustler’s paradise and I love that about it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What does feminism mean to you?
Wana Udobang: In an interview I did with the novelist and poet Lola Shoneyin a while back, she says feminism is ‘about the luxury of having options, the value of being able to make choices.’ I feel like it is such an apt description. In all the challenges women face in this environment, feminism means way too many things to me, but two words that encapsulate all those things would be freedom and choice
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are also a performance poet, how did you get into it?
Wana Udobang: I started writing what seemed like poetry at 16 and I wrote solely for ‘the page’. Then like most other people, I remember watching the movie, Love Jones, and then spending way too much time on YouTube watching Def Poetry Jam and eventually attending a few spoken word gigs when I was in England, whilst at University. I still write for ‘the page’, but the style has been altered a little for performance.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some critics believe that performance poetry is a diluted art form and is for a ‘bad poet’?
Wana Udobang: I find it very interesting when people say that, I can understand the puritan point of view, but I think art is one area of creativity and expression that requires a great deal of openness. It is consistently evolving. I was never a traditional poet and even when I write for the page, I am still not traditional.
I remember attempting to write in that traditional style because I felt a bit insecure and thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously, but the material I produced ended up coming off as forced and quite empty in terms of emotion, because I originally started writing as a form of catharsis. So it stopped feeling organic. I welcome change and transitions in art forms and the convergence that follows.
I watched Inua Ellams’s one man spoken word style play called 14th Tale and it was one of the most fascinating and incredible performances I have seen. I think it’s important that we are open to innovation in art, be it with words, sound or performance. Innovation shouldn’t be limited to just business and technology. We also want people to be able to consume it in interesting ways as well.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some people say, in Lagos, poetry seems to be the exclusive preserve of the middle class and returnees from the diaspora, thereby not quite popular. How true is this assertion?
Wana Udobang: Telecommunication and technology mean that the world is now shrinking and we all have access to so much learning and ideas. So I wouldn’t quite agree that it is the exclusive preserve of the middle class. Ewi is a form of poetry in itself and there are people I know that fuse that with elements of contemporary spoken word and they come from diverse backgrounds. As for popularity, well, I think some poets are doing their rounds but awareness could be better.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once wrote about the pressure of being a single woman in Nigeria and your belief that not every woman will be married; did your parents’ divorce influence your view?
Wana Udobang: Yes, it did influence certain things for me but not in the way that most people think. I just think that the pressure put on people to get married is a bit exhausting and unnecessary. It’s a decision that alters your whole life and people should be allowed to be mature enough and ready, they should be given the opportunity to make that decision without feeling like they have a bomb strapped to their skull.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What are the qualities of your ideal man?
Wana Udobang: Sadly, I am a bit of a cliché. I’m quite character-driven when it comes to choosing people I let into my life, but I tend to like cerebral men with a dry wit or an awkward sense of humour because I am a bit awkward myself. But beyond that, it’s the typical stuff; kind, compassionate, loving, loyal, emotionally generous, supportive, hardworking, visionary, and definitely expressive and a good communicator. I like a bit of special attention, so he has to be a listener.
I don’t do macho, hard man, inexpressive, or dictatorial. Partnership is important to me.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Who are your favourite writers and why?
Wana Udobang: I love J.M Coetzee because of his subtlety. When I read Disgrace, it read as though something had been buried, but the body wasn’t well embalmed and the smell still lingers on the tip of your nostrils. His writing left me with a feeling.
I was a late bloomer as a reader and writer, so I also like the contemporary writers like Shoneyin for her dark humour and the way she handles serious multiple themes and doesn’t lose that humour. Teju Cole has a certain freedom; it feels like he just doesn’t care and as a new writer one needs to be able to dispose of that self-consciousness so the work can flow. I love Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Junot Diaz, Charles Causley’s poetry and Julian Barnes.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Would you also like to share any aspect of your life that your fans out there can learn from?
I have always been pretty open with my struggles, but I never like to dwell on them. That said, I just try to live everyday to the fullest and I hope that inspires someone.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Are you currently working on a book and when is it out?
Wana Udobang: Well, I’m working on some short stories for now, but my spoken word audio project will be released next month. It’s called ‘Dirty Laundry’. Then I’m working on a play after that.
You can read Wana on www.wanawana.net