By Anote Ajeluorou
Last Sunday, poetry lovers gathered at The Life House in Victoria Island, Lagos to celebrate the work and life of one of Nigeria’s greatest poets, who sadly passed on at the early stage of his mercurial career in Nigeria’s bloody civil war. It was part of The Life House’s new historical project to refocus a people easily prone to forgetfulness.
ACCORDING to The Life House’s Executive Officer, Ugoma Adegoke, who welcomed the audience, “During the month of May The Life House, Lagos will host its first historical project, Remember for Tomorrow, a month-long engagement of cultural, creative and educational activities relating to watershed points in modern Nigerian history. Over the last fifty years since independence, we have constantly sought ways in which to clarify our nationhood, determine the extent of our ties and decide on how we intend to share our collective space. Throughout this history some actors have felt constrained to take positions which have caused fear, want, violence and death.
“From the riots and instability of the early 1960s, to the Nigerian Civil War, the military legacy which spanned over three decades and the constant and ongoing battle for belonging among ethnic groups, Remember for Tomorrow aims to bring our darkest stories into the light and build a better understanding of ourselves. It is our hope that Remember for Tomorrow will provide an opportunity for storytelling, education, artistic expression, social discourse and most importantly, further documentation”.
With Nigerian Civil War fought from 1967 to 1970, The Life House could not have better project and a more capable hand than Odia Ofeimun to anchor the programme. Himself an accomplished poet and a young man at 17 when the war broke out, and an intent to join up on the Nigerian side with which he was opposed, and even rejected as a recruit, Ofeimun gave ample historical background to Okigbo’s excellent life as a man of letters who was to yield himself up for a narrow but necessary life as a soldier from which he never came back alive to tell his own story.
The evening easily became Ofeimun’s, who regaled his audience in what was a star performance that brook no opposition, “At that time poets all over the world imagined that something great was coming out of Nigeria. It wasn’t just Okigbo; there was also Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, who were coming out with this massive output that we may all look back now and consider great. But they were doing so many new things and Okigbo was at the centre of it all. I came here with an English/Italian version of his collection by a guy I met in Rome. And once he knew I came from Nigeria, we could talk about nothing but Okigbo. The fellow told me Okigbo is not a poet; he is the poet! It was as if after him, there was no more poetry to be written, and before him, there wasn’t any poetry.
“That would energise any patriotic person; it made me a little heady because in that conference in Rome, there were writers from all over the globe. But we ended up talking about Nigerian poetry because Okigbo was at the centre of all that happened.
“There are many stories about Okigbo we ought to know. He started as a whining little boy celebrating what appeared to be little things. Very many therefore look at Okigbo’s poetry not in terms of its vast amplitude that are seen in those little volumes, but in terms of just the ‘calabash’, the ‘pumpkin leaves’; these were things that were merely symbolic of the grand issues that Okigbo wanted to build his poetry. He set out believing the world was divided between the traditional order within which was inscribed a very strong religious code and then the so-called Christian, civilised order, which was represented by the Catholic Church.
“Okigbo was always deep political poet, who did not see the world in terms of the roots of his village, but in terms of the grand things that will take over the world. How he imagined them and how he did not imagine them is not what we’ll talk about here.
“I think what we are expected here is to celebrate the poetic in the political, the poetic in the traditional, and what Okigbo regarded as the priestly role of the poet. He never abandoned it, and never giving up the necessity to raise values above the merely material.
“I like talking about Okigbo in relation to the politics that overtook him. I mean because he died during the period of the Nigerian Civil War, many people do not forget that he was not supposed to have died in a war. Okigbo believed the world was too large a place to be reduced either to the ethnic, the national or even the continental. Poetry for him was not something that needed to be looked at from the standpoint of a given geography; cultural geography was not his province. Poetry was a world-encompassing phenomenon that needed always to be reduced to the level of individual, so that the individual that enters poetry was entering a larger world irrespective of where you were born, what religion you belonged to, and what your ancestors did or did not do.
“Which was why when he went to Nairobi, Kenya for the first Pan-African Conference of Writers, he told them he did not read poetry to none poets, you have to be a poet in order to understand poetry. He actually insisted that there was nothing like African literature because for him, literature was just a universal parameter for all that belongs to all of us whether you are Chinese, Zulu, Eskimo, Yoruba or Indian. The capacity to make that something work inside of you and to share it with your fellow human being is the first thing that makes a human being what he is. For Okigbo, that is what makes all of us owners of a common property called literature. The only armoury he had with which to take on the world, no matter what he was doing, was the power of the written word.
“And so the movement from Okigbo the non-soldier, the non-political, to Okigbo of the town-crier, where he had absorbed all the contradictions of his environment and was now prepared to take on the world; Okigbo died in a war. He never failed to say in his poetry, that that return of which he had to make was like forcing himself through the narrow neck of a calabash because this man who believes so much in the universal and the universality of his poetry found himself retreating and moving back into a calabash he had thought he had outgrown. Unfortunately, we never quite outgrow our origins if you live in a world where you come from becomes an important issue.
“Many people believe Okigbo would have lived if he did not attend that Paris conference… I mean, a young man enters a plane during a period of civil strife, and then suddenly discovers that it will land in a part of the country where he could be slaughtered if he was seen at the airport. He runs out and leaves behind a handbag, which I was told two decades later, contains several poems handed to him by many African poets whom he met at that conference… The plane was to later crash off the coast of Gabon. Very many Biafrans started carrying the story, about how a particular boy, who is supposed to be very patriotic, found himself inside a plane that was carrying ammunition to only-God-knows-where!
“Many argued later that it was because of the need to prove himself true to his calling that Okigbo chose to become a soldier; he needed to prove himself. Perhaps, he didn’t need to. Okigbo was a very excited and excitable young man, who knew only one thing about himself: the need to create also requires that you have the capacity to defend what you have created. Those two did not quite mix for him. But finding himself in the contradiction of a poet defending something that he considers a shrinking of the narrow neck of the calabash, it makes us to remember Kenya’s Prof. Ali Mazrui, who wrote a book called The Trials of Christopher Okigbo.
“All Mazrui thought was that a poet has no business dying in a tribal war. A question Ali Mazrui never tried to answer is, what do you do if your humanity is being denied by people who believe that there is race? If tribes do not matter, what do you do when other people deny you what is yours because of your tribe? It is a question you can’t answer by being neutral; when you are confronted by the evils of a given situation, you won’t need to answer the question. Okigbo took a decision that many of us would have had to take. Okigbo chose where he believed he would be safe. And, many years later Ken Saro-Wiwa showed us a different way of looking at that problem. We have not resolved that problem yet; we do need to resolve it.
“Unfortunately, those factors that led to Okigbo’s death are still very much around us today. And, we are not just victims, we are also promoters of that which led to Okigbo’s death. Okigbo’s life teaches us something, that whatever we wish to commit ourselves to, we must start early and never give it up! If you’re truly good at what you have to do, the world will beat a path to you. It doesn’t matter how long it disparages you or ignores you; if you do it right, it will beat a path to you”.
Ofeimun’s historical recap on Okigbo’s life and work was spiced with performances from an array of poets and performers, who read and performed from Okigbo’s poetry. Notable was children from Oasis Montessori School and Hall, who performed ‘For he was shrub among poplars’. Also, generous portions were read from Obi Nwakanma’s Christopher Okigbo: Thirsting for Sunlight, a definitive autobiography on Okigbo that just came out, which showed other sides of Okigbo to include the intensely sexual, businessman and highly principled man who would not succumb to offering bribes to get contracts.