‘’Have you seen Nduka Otiono?’’ ‘’No I haven’t. Am sorry’.’ ‘’When you see him, tell him am angry with him.’ (I think Nduka, her host, had abandoned her temporarily). ’She moved her simply enthralling personality along then. And I was left standing there. Staring at her and her tall very white gypsy arrayed friend Sandra, who had accompanied her on this homecoming fiesta to Nigeria, wishing she was mine to keep forever and a day! Stupid me! I would discover later upon more camaraderie and closer inspection that she was older than my immediate elder sister Mariam and of course, the glaring differences of our worlds and feel more frustratingly stupid!
This was at the ANA Convention in Makurdi 2002, the lingering moments of the last days of my youth, bachelorhood, vagabond and miscellaneous desires- and how I met the OKIGBO heiress – Obiageli Ibrahimat Okigbo. Notwithstanding, the earlier cited differences between us did pretty little to ectomise me of that miscellaneous desire. In my hotel room later staring at her complimentary card, that hollowness still harassed me and did for quite a long time after the Makurdi Convention.
‘’Will you enter comments in my book?’’ She said to me after the festival of life, when I had just done my now accustomed bit of compere at this iridescent ritual, taking over from Austyn Njoku (my crewmate) who was blowing like a whale from exhaustion (Austyn and I are on the huge side) ‘’… and may the Okigbo spirit never die’’. I don’t quite remember now, but I think I’d written something like that. She was knitting the OKIGBO FOUNDATION idea together then.
‘’I wish I met your father.’’
‘’Ha!’’ A chuckle. ‘’I was very little when he died.’’ I did meet your uncle once in Abuja though, Pius Okigbo- a very distinguish individual!‘’ ‘’That he was, thank you.’’ She is smiling now. All kinds of vibes are coming from Sandra, standing beside Obiageli and beaming a hundred watt smile. ‘’ So which one do you want now?’’ I hear my subconscious call, teasing with laughing sky blue eyes. ‘’ leave me alone’’. I drift away with that deflating emptiness of poetic, albeit foolish heart genuflecting on the altar of a goddess that could never be mine, feeling lucky still, about a rare acquaintance made. That musician Loveless, who would later confuse the audience with an equally loveless performance, was self-assured by Sandra’s side, but four poets hovered there too, rhyming like Afro-American hip-hop Macs, or as if tomorrow was just a rumour! Before I went into the hall to conduct more poetry reading sessions, I noticed now that Loveless is hanging in a limp and Sandra is giggling like a child-splendid Poetry‘ll get a woman any day!
Born thirty eight years ago ( two years older than me actually) to one of the most influential, enigmatic and symbolist African Poets of all time Christopher Okigbo, Obiageli Ibrahimat Okigbo, Architect and Artist, his soul heiress, is bestowed and bequeathed with the most emotional task of keeping his luminescent memory alive. Just two years old and losing her dearest father at the early but not unusual age of thirty five (poets die young remember?), wholeheartedly defending the University town of Nsukka where his voice first rang to the world as a Poet. ‘’Okigbo’’, as most of his peers and budding apprentices of our arduous yet noble trade now refer to him, was one of the earliest Biafrans to pay the ultimate price for the secessionist course of which his role and sacrifice would be eternally remembered.
You wanna see war? His heart jumping out of his mouth.
Okigbo said again, if you‘re a real war correspondent,
you should see a battle, and I recommend that.
The above, being credited to Prof. Chukwuma Azuonye of African literature at the University of Massachusetts in an interview with Henry Akubuiro of the Sun Newspaper, the correspondent in question who encountered Okigbo, days before he would exit this sinful world, to be tried in After-Africa (see THE TRIAL OF CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO by Ali Mazrui), for abandoning the pen as a weapon of struggle for the gun.
don’t be stupid! if you want to be safe, bend low and move
to the position where the fire is coming ( this would ordinarily
be interpreted as the logic of the illogicallity isn’t it? Well, not from a Poet’s
Perspective) and under the fire, you can flank out when you safe
Okigbo! Intrepid! Gusto laced with sheer death cheating bravado, admonishes Azuonye as recounted via the same interview. But as Samuel Johnson described that inevitability somewhere, ‘’the old bald cheater’’ and midwifenight was to come for this gallant but mortal man a few days later at Opi junction in the September of 1971, the very first year of the Nigerian civil war. Just two years old. And at age thirty five, the man Obiageli would have called daddy was no more!
One of the pioneer students of the then University College Ibadan, alongside living and diseased legends like Elechi Amadi, John Pepper Clark, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mabel Segun, Flora Nwapa e.t.c Okibgo is known to have founded the mbari club. Among his other literary activities were the numerous contributions to such literary journals as Black Orpheus, Transition and The Horn.
Labyrinths, his trim but widely acclaimed poetry collection of dense jets of language, images and symbols of classical, European and Igbo mythology and his Collected Poems are his only published works till date.
Manuscripts such as Pointed Ashes, documenting his personal experiences, life, letters and influences on his writing is reported to have survived the Hill Top bombing
of a house he shared with UGO NA ABO, the Eagle on Iroko- Chinua Achebe . Others recovered from beneath the bed of his esteemed Economist brother Pius Okigbo after the latter’s demise, were said to have being damaged by termites and Prof. Azuonye who is presently working on these recovered manuscripts for suitable publication to the public via the OKIGBO FOUNDATION and series of workshops, seminars, anthologies, is said to be filling the damaged parts together. Hear him ‘’ … Okigbo tends to reuse the same materials or certain musical phrases as templates, there’s possibilities that gaps could be filled this way.’’ He continues ‘’ Okigbo wrote ‘’ cruelty of… with this medium of deduction cited above, Azuonye came up with ‘’Cruelty of a Rose. He hopes to do this for all the missing texts.
Very… deductive I’d say. But look, I don‘t know about you, but nothing that comes outside of Okigbo`s CNS would ever ring true as Okigbo for me. I‘d sooner prefer these termite eaten manuscripts are published the way they were recovered for the literary world to ponder where he was going- this is a poetic exercise on its own.
Why would a very learned man like Pius Okigbo keep this kind of VALUABLES under his mattress for safe keeping you may want to ask? But again, this is a very emotional affair you see? I guess he didn’t trust any bank! But look what happened incidentally!
Among these much valued recovered harvests of the Okigbo literary oeuvres are ten poems entirely versified in his native Igbo and what will be henceforth known as the Okigbo brio- his adopted style of Igbo oral songmaking in poetry creation. Recovered also is the much revered BIAFRAN ANTHEM , his last poem before dying, partly reconstructed from his earlier ELEGY OF THE WIND.
The Okigbo Foundation in Nigeria, an offshoot of THE CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO SOCIETY created by Obiageli in Belgium is putting together an anthology CROSSROADS to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of his demise (of which I hope my bulk submissions may be considered from). Among the editors are the erudite, charismatic and energetic Dr Umelo Ojinma of the Nassarawa State University, the versatile scholar and social commentator Patrick Tagbo Ogujiorfor and writer-critic E E Sule e.t.c.
The Emman Usman Shehu led ANA Abuja has since held a literary evening in his honour and many such activities are going on worldwide at the moment.
To end this piece however, my own humble tribute to the memory of Christopher Okigbo, a fellow poet and literati and a celebration of my chance encounter with his enchanting heiress, let me return you to once more to Obiageli, the one on whose shoulders lives the burden of keeping his memory alive!
The first step Obiageli took after sufficiently dousing her soul in her father’s poetry was to set up the earlier cited Okigbo Society whose first task was to re-publish his two poetry collections LABYRINTHS and COLLECTED POEMS, which has not been printed for about two decades. Through Labyrinths, where she discovered the father she never really knew, she also discovered herself. And this discovery further saw her tracing his beaten path to the very place of his birth OJOTO near Onitsha, to the stream that gave the world the poem Heavensgate, popular like the unforgettable beginning of Ben Okri‘s Man Booker wining novel THE FAMISHED ROAD for the following:
before you, mother Idoto
naked I stand
before your watery presence
Being reborn thus, metaphorically and symbolically speaking, she proceeded to the very successful exhibition of her paintings LABYRINTHS REVISITED. And all that her father did in LABYRINTHS, she replicated in her work i.e. synonymous to the seven poetic structures of the rainbow in the poetry collection. Reminds you of the Natalie and Nat king Cole duet doesn’t it? Cool!
In a trunk inherited from her Uncle Pius, she had discovered the poem dance of he painted maiden dedicated to her very self at six weeks! A much treasured heirloom you’d agree. Not having known your father could be one of the most painful experiences in life and even more painful for this daughter was when she first heard her daddy‘s voice in a recorded tape at the Schaumburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in New York. Hear Obiageli:
It was almost a morbid experience.
I was older than my father was when
I heard his voice. I was expecting to hear
the voice of a dad, even though I know he
was a young man when he died, so it was
a double shock to hear a very young voice.
I didn’t recognise that voice and it didn’t trigger any memory.
The story of Christopher Okigbo, analogous to the Biafran story is equally the Nigerian Nation story. We still live with that collective loss, that collective suspicion of one another, making that collective and individual /tribal-socio-political bigger better mistakes, like the summation of Okri‘s Famished Road… building and decimating civilisations and ourselves, BLAMING THE WEST FORVER like Chimamada Adichie recently acknowledged via her character Richard’s note: The world was silent when we died in her Orange prize winning novel HALF OF A YELLOW SUN till all the seas run dry and the birds tumble from the skies and Abikus and Ogbanjes cease their cyclical odysseys into the world and mankind is no more!
To my friend, Obiageli Ibrahimat Annabel Okigbo: May 12 Angels guide you!