Daily Champion (Lagos)

15 July 2007

Nigeria: The Chris Okigbo Update - From Unesco to Harvard

opinion

Lagos — Another Nigerian author is set on the path of additional immortality, with the acceptance of the unpublished papers of Christopher Okigbo as part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Heritage List. Championed by Prof. Chukwuma Azuonye. a Fellow of the W E B Du Bois Institute of Harvard University, he is the chief convenor of the 2007 Okigbo Conference in Boston, being held by Harvard in association with Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Wellesley College as co-hosting institutions, this September 19-24. The time then is apt to recall the enduring power of the poet and ˜bon vivant, who, though killed during the civil war, leaving a daughter, Obiageli Ibrahimat, who has grown to champion the works of the father she never knew, continues to endure. Here, from a previous column, one recalls the pleasure of the pull of the devotee who gave us ˜Mother Idoto and other wistful literary memories.

One of the most delightful events in recent times came the other day " Wednesday, May 24, to be exact - at the Nigerian embassy to the United Nations when the world, so to speak, gathered to honor the memory of one of the most enigmatic African talents of the last 100 years " Chris Okigbo, an incarnate of the Idoto godhead, the same one whom Ali Mazrui, himself another enigma, had in mind when he wrote The Trial of Chris Okigbo. In the imagined African Afterlife, Okigbo had been arrested after arriving and put on life for endangering his life in a senseless war and thereby depriving mankind of his sacred possession of the gift of lyrical poetry and his destiny of bestirring the continent.

Chris Okigbo, great friend of Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, was a product of what has come to be known as The Magical Years at Ibadan to paraphrase the well-known by Robert Wren (Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature at Ibadan, 1948-1966). He was referring to the confluence of remarkable events that threw up a bunch of outstanding wordsmiths who went on to become international literary stars " Chinua Achebe, famed author Things Fall Apart, Soyinka, better known for A Dance of the Forests and The Man Died, and Okigbo whose Heavens gate still mesmerizes, Flora Nwapa (Idu) and Chukwuemeka Ike (Toads For Supper), JP Clark (The Oziddi Saga) and Elechi Amadi (Sunset in Biafra), to mention but a handful of the best known and their most seminal titles. There were many others - Georgina Beier, Zeke Mphahlele, Amos Tutuola, D. O. Fagunwa, Dennis Williams, Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke, Frances Ademola and Janheinz Jahn

All was recalled at this tribute put together by the newly formed Christopher Okigbo Foundation, founded by his only daughter, Obiageli; its mission, stated below, in a moment, Okigbo was a character who left indelible impressions on all who met him, from his childhood through high school and at Ibadan. Many recalled him during the war, smart in his Majors uniform in the Biafran army " ready to make a statement of a different kind. But what a great moment it was to see the equally talented artist and poet, Obiora Udechukwu, stride to the podium and burst into a haunting elegy for Chris in

fluent idiomatic Igbo, to the cadence of low drumbeats! The emotional gasps in the rapt audience " many of them non-Nigerians and non-Igbo " showed the sort of connectedness people feel when it came to Chris Okigbo. I knew that even at 21, as an undergraduate at Nsukka and founder of what we called the Nsukka Conference of Creative Artists that dew adherents from engineering, medicine, theater arts, mass communications, sociology and architecture, to mention a handful " when the late Donatus Nwoga gave me a copy of Dont Let Him Die: Poems in Honor of Chris Okigbo, edited by his colleagues Achebe and Dubem Okafor; Okafor happens to be Okigbo's cousin.

The critic, Prof. Chukwuma Azuonye of the University of Massachusetts was there. The columnist and poet, Obi Nwakamma, author of an unpublished biography of the poet, took center stage. The performance poet Irobi, thrilled the hall with folksongs from the war, the sort that the truly angered Okigbo would have partaken in as the convoy moved north to meet with the Federal side which, with its warplanes bombing civilian relief centers, bustling marketplaces, town residences, and filled churches with Sunday crowds in their festive attires, truly seemed to be only too eager to conclude the genocidal massacres (just think of Darfur today or Kigali yesterday), that had begun with the wholesale slaughters in Kano and the drowning of thousands at the Markurdi bridge. (The fact that the war-time atrocities on all sides remains unaddressed, may well be a reason Nigeria has known no peace " witness the emotions at the useful but typically relegated Oputa Panel findings.)

His death was but one of many in the ill-fated Nsukka sector so early in the war " where Nzeogwu had also fallen, as accounted for in Emma Okochas Blood on the Nigeriaâ- (US Edition by Triatlantic Books). Okigbos sister who had raised him, for their mother had died young, Iyom Victoria Okigbo Okuzu, assured me that he and Nzeogwu did not die at the same front as is often believed; rather she recalled Chris' premonitions of war as far back as 1965, following the massively rigged 1964 General Election that practically brought the country to a standstill, till Zik broke the ice by insisting that Balewa create a government of National Unity. But it was too little too late as the southern fears of a northern, NPC-led stranglehold on power led other networks to start plotting the end of the First Republic. The rest, a year later, as they say, is the bloodstained history we now recall, of Nzeogwus botched coup and its aftermath.

The Okigbo revival is planned to be on a global scale, as Udoma Kalu and Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor recently reported as follows: Boston, Harvard, Massachusetts and Wellesley College, all top United States universities, have lined up to host in Cambridge and Boston to host the First International Conference on the Life and Works of Christopher Okigbo next September, 2007. This honour to Africa's most lyrical poet is coming 40 years after his untimely death at the Nsukka battlefront. The conference however is part of Okigbo's 75th posthumous birthday. The landmark event is collaboratively sponsored by the universities and the Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF). The Conference themed Postcolonial African Literature and the Ideals of the Open Society/Teaching and Learning from Christopher Okigbo's Poetry is one of the numerous activities outlined for celebrating the socially transformational vision" of the legendary poet on the 40th anniversary of his demise.

The US conference, to be anchored by Azuonye with the support of Achebe, Soyinka, Skip Gates at Harvard and others, will pay attention to the issues of global culture and consciousness, multiculturalism, perennial philosophy, cultural syncretism, cultural freedom, decolonisation of the mind, and above all, the humane values of an open society, which Okigbo's works clearly.â- Ultimately the foundation would hold events in Nigeria, culminating in 2007 with the creation of an artistic retreat at the poets hometown of Ojoto, where, had he lived, he might well have returned to his incarnate roots as a priest of the deity. Well, who knows?

In New York at the UN plaza that May 24, it was more festive than mournful as young Nigerian professionals " Yuppies mostly " trooped in from Wall Street, the universities, assorted law firms and medical centers and graduate schools, to reflect on the enigmatic poets career. But it was more of a resurrection as auctions were held on various first editions of some of the classics now associated with Christopher Okigbo " one donated by Achebe, another by Soyinka, yet another by Mazrui and so on.

Watching the next generation get things together " putting up the various artworks that sought to interpret their uncleans imageries, manning the doors, putting up the AV system to show the poet speaking at a rare New York interview with the South African journalist Lewis Nkosi in 1965 that was discovered by Obiageli in the archives of the Schomburg Library on Black Culture in Harlem, part of the New York Public Library system, the second largest in America. The event in essence, a tribute of sorts to the power of family hood, African styles, as the dozen or more Okigbos assembled with their friends and associates, to join their long-lost cousin in her bid to reclaim her fathers estate and build him a sanctuary at his natural homestead right by the banks of the Idoto stream that had so fired the imagination of the author of Path of Thunder.

And this is to preface the fact that the African heritage of the extended family can be wonderful in a sense " the push-pull effect of siblings on the move and the wonderful synergy of family rivalries acting to push and pull everyone to even greater heights. Across the Igbo world there have been instances of families of exceptionally talented types that have featured two brothers or three, maybe even four, with the potentiality of leaving legacies that last. One remembers the Ogan brothers of Ohafia, the Ezeilos, the Ekwuemes and dozens like that, families of 3-4 or 5 outstanding brothers and sisters. One thinks of Fela and the other Ransome-Kutis. Of the Okigbos, very few have matched the renown of the celebrated Okigbo brothers "Pius, the distinguished economist, whose PhD in that area at Northwestern was reputedly the first by an African, a feat celebrated in a conference two years back, and of course Chris, who saw himself as a universal poet. Bede Okigbo, the well-known agronomist, is from the same family group. But Chris other brothers did very well professionally and financially" the eldest was such terror to him that when he ordered him to return to Ibadan and finish his studies, Chris whose own father could not prevail upon, knew he had no choice!

More important is Okigbos impact on the current generation. Just as W.B. Yeats has been considered for generations as a poets poet, so Okigbo may well be to many of those seeking today to unburden their creative souls in dealing with the worlds around them. One such is Afam Akah, author of I Return to Okigb, who was quoted in Molara Woods online blog as reflecting on the Okigbo legacy as seminal to his own literary formation: Poetry was the very song of life. And in Okigbo, poetry was markedly African like me. His lines came alive as you encountered them, filling you, making you, moving you, not letting you get away without feeling their tangible presence. You felt the love. You lived the rage. You saw the beauty. You did not merely read words. Those lines of his poems had character, emotion, attitude, intelligence. They possessed you as you read them.

I don't think the Classics graduate of the Ibadan of yore, the same who who would stand naked before Mother Idoto and swore he was her reincarnated priest, could have been any prouder.

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