Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: How Abuja Stood Still for Poet, Okigbo's Daughter

Obiageli Ibrahimat Okigbo, daughter of famous poet, the late Christopher Okigbo (1932-67) was a special guest at the critique reading of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Abuja Branch.

The date was Thursday, October 9, 2008 at the Shehu Musa Yar'Adua Centre, Abuja. During the special event that started by 4:30pm, the artist and architect read three poems from Okigbo's famous book, Labyrinths to the excitement of the writers.

The event equally witnessed a question and answer session coordinated by the ANA Abuja Secretary, Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor.

During this session, Obi Okigbo responded to numerous questions from the curious writers excited at meeting for the first time the daughter of the legendary hero of the Biafran war and Nigeria's enigmatic poet.

Before the question and answer session commenced, Obi Okigbo spoke on a wide range of issues bordering on the late Okigbo, his works, the Christopher Okigbo International Conference that took place in Boston last year, proposed writers residences at Ojoto, Okigbo's home town and the Christopher Okigbo Foundation and her efforts so far to return Christopher Okigbo's books to the bookshelves, libraries and the school curriculum as Okigbo's books have been out of print for the past 20 years and have not been in use in schools because of their unavailability.

On the Christopher Okigbo Africa Prize for Poetry, Obi Okigbo told the audience that the prize is being repackaged and is poised to return and thereafter remain in perpetuity as there will be enough money to ensure that the prize is awarded annually.

She assured that it will be the biggest literary prize in Africa and will be administered by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).

Obi Okigbo also spoke on the famous 'Christopher Okigbo Collection'. It would be recalled that several of Christopher Okigbo's unpublished poems were recovered along with the original manuscripts of some of his famous poems. The collection was passed to Obi Okigbo as her heritage by the Okigbo family.

The priceless collection was recovered and preserved by Obi Okigbo's uncle, the famous economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo of blessed memory. This has since been taken to Brussels, the headquarters of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation.

Following an application by the Foundation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), what is now known as the 'Christopher Okigbo Collection' has been included in the Memory of the World Register.

It will also be recalled that the institution of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation achieved this rare feat sometime last year and was issued a certificate to that effect on August 2, 2007. By this singular feat, the late Okigbo became the first and only African dead or alive to be accorded that honour.

This was following the recommendations of International Committee of the memory of the World programme. Okigbo's collection was also catalogued by the distinguished Okigbo scholar, Professor Chukwuma Azuonye of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who helped the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in nominating them for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

In the words of Kichoro Matsaura, the UNESCO director-general, the inclusion of the Okigbo Collection (documentary heritage) in the memory of the World Register 'reflects its exceptional value and signifies that it should be protected for the benefit of all humanity.'

Obi Okigbo told the happy audience of her plan to celebrate it at a special ceremony in future where a plaque will be unveiled to commemorate the event.

The Memory of the World Register is a UNESCO's programme aimed at preserving and disseminating valuable archive and library collection world wide. Christopher Okigbo's inclusion is based on the established fact that he is the 'greatest Anglophonic, post-colonial, modernist African poet of the 20th Century."

According to the UNESCO official site, this was established in two major studies of his works as well as in tributes paid to him in Don't Let Him Die (edited by Professors Chinua Achebe and Dubem Okafor). Further, Labyrinths, his classic collection of poems was listed as one of the most influential 100 world literary masterpieces of the last 100 years.

He is also considered today as one of the major modernist writers of the 20th Century. In the words of his American publishers, Africa World Press, New Jersey, "He has emerged as clearly the most significant and influential African poet, a reputation that rests on a slim but irresistibly powerful oeuvre as well as a penetrating and uncompromising intellect.'

Fondly called the poet-prophet because of his famous, final poem Elegy for Alto, where he prophesied his own death and saw himself as a sacrificial lamb for the freedom of humanity, Christopher Okigbo has influenced several generations of African poets including the most famous writer from Zimbabwe, the late Dambudzo Marechera.

When a member of the audience wanted to know why UNESCO can't pick up the sponsorship of what will soon become the biggest African Literary Prize, Obi Okigbo disclosed that UNESCO doesn't sponsor literary prizes but added that the listing of Okigbo papers will, however, help facilitate the finding of sponsors for the endowment of such a prize.

The artist who founded the Christopher Okigbo Foundation to perpetuate Okigbo's legacy did not rule out the possibility of relocating the foundation to Nigeria from its Brussels headquarters which is what the audience agitated for as soon as logistics and funds are made available.

The writers were of the opinion that since Okigbo was a Nigerian, it is proper for the Foundation to operate from Nigeria where people can access the now famous collection.

In her closing remark, Obi Okigbo thanked the writers for the warm reception accorded her adding that she enjoyed every minute spent with the writers in spite of the tragic incident that brought her to Nigeria.

It will be recalled that Obi Okigbo's uncle, the younger brother to the late Christopher Okigbo, Chief Ikem Okigbo, was murdered in his Enugu residence on September 2, 2008 by yet to be identified gunmen. The late Ikem Okigbo was the erstwhile Chairman of Idemili South Local Government Area of Anambra State.

The special critique reading was graced by prominent stakeholders of the ANA Abuja including the host, Dr. Seyi Adigun, the branch chairman who coordinated the Critique Reading session, Barrister Ahmed Maiwada, the branch legal adviser and poet, who read one of his poems, Hajiya Sa'datu Fika, financial secretary, Teresa Ameh, vice-chairman, Ben Ubiri of the Newspage Newspaper and Patrick Oguejiofor who coordinated the question and answer session.

One of the highpoints of the event was the autographing of the Nigerian edition of Christopher Okigbo's famous Labyrinths by Obi Okigbo as well as personal and group photographs with her. Although the late Christopher Okigbo died over forty years ago at the Nsukka battle front, meeting his daughter was like meeting Okigbo himself.

Okigbo not only immortalized himself in his verses, he equally did so in his only progeny, the intelligent and graceful architect daughter, Obi Okigbo who had since 2002 been promoting the legacy of a man who has become not only Africa's most revered and most loved poet, but also Nigeria's national poet.

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