Saving A People, One Me At A Time

Preface: I wrote this week’s column (excerpted from a talk I gave in Brussels, Belgium) before the deadly plane crash, with its shocking toll of death. I am one with Nigerians in mourning the dead, the wounded, the bereaved and the scarred. Tragedies like Sunday’s are a reminder of the extent to which Nigeria has become a graveyard for its citizens, rich and poor alike, ruler and ruled at once.
The truth is that many perhaps most of the gruesome events that happen in Nigeria (whether it be a plane crash, a loaded bus that plunges into a river, gutted highways, scary health services, schools so ill-equipped they can only mis-educate, terrorists who bomb churches and markets at will these tragic events are, finally, human-made disasters.
There’s a relationship between all the funds that are looted through fuel subsidy scams, illicit contract schemes, security votes, etc, etc and the devaluation of every sector of Nigeria. Too many Nigerians have embraced the creed that wealth, however odious the mode of its accumulation, is the very essence of life.
In pursuit of this delusion, too many of us are willing to betray every principle, every cause, other Nigerians.
Then, when a plane crashes or a fuel tanker explodes on our ill-maintained highways, there are no fire trucks to come to the rescue, no water with which to fight the fire, no roads to access the scenes of accident.
Sadly, tragically, we are the authors of our misshapen lives.
May the souls of the perished find peace with God.
**The rest of my column:
There are no words I know to capture the sense of elation, my sheer delight and gratitude, at this invitation by Ohaneze, Belgium to be your guest today and to give the Okigbo Foundation Lecture. I do not exaggerate in the least if I say that, of all the talks I’ve given in the last few years, this one is by far the most emotionally satisfying, the one that has brought me into the most marvelous experience of what our people would describe as obi uto a sweet, sweetened heart.
Numerous reasons account for this sense of intoxicating pleasure, but I will focus in the interest of saving time on two. The first has to do with Christopher Okigbo, the extraordinary aesthete and even more extraordinary man in whose memory we have gathered today. Sprung from the soil of Ojoto, this man enlarged himself and us. By the time of his death, this gift of Ojoto had remade himself into a global luminary, a man whose works and life continue to grow in scale, moment and importance and appear bound to garner greater recognition as the years roll by.
It is something of a misnomer to speak of Okigbo as if he lived one life. He touched on something vital and true about his own experience when he wrote, “…Into the soul/ The selves extended their branches,/ Into the moments of each living hour,/ Feeling for audience…” In actuality, then, he was a being much like the ogbanje. Like the ogbanje, he lived multiple lives, trod a multitude of paths, sang to us in a variety of magical tones, and was is our inimitable escort and guide through the caverns, the in-between spaces.
Christopher Okigbo became, in the 37 years he lived among us, a chief priest, librarian, mystic, raconteur, prophet, editor, publisher, gadfly, musician, translator, businessman, husband, father (to Obiageli Okigbo, that magnificent daughter-son), warrior, poet to make do with a rather abbreviated list.
A few years ago, an online poetry journal called Drunken Boat invited me to join a few other writers in writing an essay reflecting on our experiences with poetry. Much of my contribution focused on Okigbo. In several ways, he was the man who secured my enchantment with poetry. There are those hauntingly evocative opening lines: “Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand;/ before your watery presence, a prodigal…” Who could encounter lines of such crisp, heartbreaking beauty and emotional depth and fail to be bewitched? Who could resist the lyrical, spellbinding force and imagistic power of such lines as “Bright/ with the armpit-dazzle of a lioness…” or “The flower weeps, unbruised,/ for him who was silenced…” or ‘Distances of her armpit fragrance/ Turn chloroform enough for my patience …” or “…And the gods lie unsung,/ Veiled only with mould,/ Behind the shrinehouse…” or “lion-hearted cedar forest, gonads for our thunder,/ Even if you are very far away, we invoke you:…”
To encounter any of Okigbo’s poems is to experience sheer enchantment. Yet, because one came to the poetry long after the poet’s death, there was always for me a sense of mystery. How did this man look and sound? What were his idiosyncrasies? Beyond the poems, how did he see and speak about the world?
Over the years, I would pose variations of these questions to anybody who knew the poet in flesh and blood. For more than two decades, I’ve asked Chinua Achebe about Okigbo. I also spoke to Kofi Awoonor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the late Emmanuel Obiechina. In the stories they told, I tried to recreate Okigbo. Through the vicarious means of the rich anecdotes I heard, I wanted to come close to hearing Okigbo’s voice, touching his flesh.
You can imagine, then, the absolute thrill I felt yesterday when his daughter, Obiageli, let me listen to taped recordings of several interviews and one or two poetry recitals by her father. What came across, unmistakably, were the man’s high-pitched voice (exactly as Achebe had described it), a noticeable Igbo inflection, and the quick pace of a self-possessed man confident in his own genius. The experience of hearing Okigbo’s voice was, in itself, enough reward for my trip to this small country whose history especially in the days of King Leopold 11 intersected so tragically with that of Africa.
As we know, Ali Mazrui executed a fictive trial of Christopher Okigbo in the novel titled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. In Mazrui’s vision, Okigbo’s election to enlist in the Biafran Army and to make the ultimate sacrifice as a Biafran patriot amounted to a betrayal of the (in Mazrui’s mind) superior claim of art. My suspicion is that, were Okigbo to speak from beyond the grave, he would announce his readiness to make the same choice over and over again even with the terrible outcome for his person. He’s likely to remind Mazrui and us that the claims of justice supersede those of art or, put another way, that any notion of art that is indifferent to the imperative of justice is, at best, a dispensable plaything.
At any rate, Okigbo may have died physically, but in many respects, he remains through the enduring power of his poetry and the bravery of his conduct a vital, potent and imperishable being. In 2007, he became the only African, living or dead, to be included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” roster. Christopher Okigbo, nwa Ojoto, has been elevated to the pedestal of Okigbo, nwa uwa n’ine. To paraphrase the title of a collection of poems edited by Achebe and the late Dubem Okafor in honor of Okigbo’s memory, he will never die.
The second reason I am thrilled by this invitation is the fact that your group, Ohaneze Belgium, exists at all, informed by the mission of doing your individual and collective best to ensure that the misfortune the tragedy that besieges our lives as Igbos and Nigerians does not carry the day. Diasporic collectivities like yours, formed by Igbos and other Nigerians abroad, bespeak a people’s determination to continue to have a say in the tense struggle of our people a struggle in which we are, oddly enough, both the putative enemy and the prospective hero. What do I mean by this paradox?
Simply that, when we bemoan the manifest dysfunctions of Igboland or the space called Nigeria, when we express bewilderment at the toxic pollution that has bedeviled moral values in our homeland, we are, willy nilly, describing ourselves. We as Igbos, Nigerians, Africans are the virus we flay; we are the maladies we disdain; we are the malignant, cancerous condition we diagnose.
The point one is this: It’s not aliens who misshape our lives; it is us. It’s not aliens who read annual budgets only to empty the funds into private accounts; it’s us. It’s not aliens who rig elections, who uphold the legitimacy of usurped mandates; we do. It is not aliens who loot the resources of our people and cart away same to private accounts in foreign lands, including Belgium; it is people we know, people we befriend, people we’re kin to, people we applaud.
If we, not some faceless aliens, are the problem, it follows that the solution potentially resides in us. Okigbo’s life holds out many lessons for us. One of the most compelling, if you ask me, is the power of activating personal courage in a time of social crisis. Igboland Nigeria is in a state of crisis. Any man or woman who wishes to be part of the solution ought to stand up and make a commitment. In a season when those who do the wrong thing are venerated, at a time when it is exceedingly tempting and profitable to act with little or no restraint, it behooves enlightened citizens to insist on doing the right thing. To enlist in the fight to save a people, as Okigbo taught us, is at the deepest level to make a commitment to save yourself. Let’s save our community, one me at a time.
** This column is extracted from the inaugural “Christopher Okigbo lecture” delivered in Brussels, June 2, 2012 **

Okey Ndibe

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