And now the horn may paw the air,
– Christopher Okigbo, Labyrinths and Other Poems
1.30am, Saturday, October 8, 2005. The shrill cry of my cellphone woke me up. I turned and grudgingly picked it up. Who could be ringing me up at this time of the day? Such calls are either about extremely bad news or extremely good news. Preparatory to the NLNG Grand Award Night, calls had kept coming through till late into the night. And my colleagues and myself had been standing and shouting ourselves hoarse at the MUSON Centre venue for the awards. So, good news or bad I could do without. The one thing I sorely needed was sleep. With this phone call, that was the one thing I may not get.
Then I looked and saw the name – Ezenwa Ohaeto. That decided me. I sprang out of the bed. Ezenwa was one of the 3 shortlisted for the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature. For Ohaeto to call me this late – or this early, rather – something was the matter.
“Hello, Sir,” I took the call.
“Hi, Emeka. It’s Ezenwa,” he responded.
I told him I knew. It turned out that he needed my attention at the check-in counter at Eko Hotel. I hurried down with a colleague of mine to attend to him. When we came down, there was only one fellow leaning on the counter, his back to us.
“Is that him,” my colleague asked.
“Oh no,” I assured him. “Ezenwa is a very robust fellow. That man is too lean to be him.”
We looked around. The lean man was the only fellow at the counter. I brought out my phone and placed a call to Ezenwa. The lone man at the counter made to answer the call. I cut the call and we strode up to him. Then he turned and I saw his face. That allayed my confusion and gave birth to another: Yes, he is Ezenwa, but, no, what has happened to him?
He saw the unspoken questions in my eyes, and – the ever thoughtful fellow that he was – offered an explanation:
“Emeka, I have been sick, but I hope to be okay.”
I did not know how to respond to that, so I just mumbled something incomprehensible and kept quiet. But I also did not want to offend or embarrass by letting my shock linger too long on my face, so we quickly made arrangements and had him settled into his room.
But it is not this Ezenwa that lingers in my mind. It is another Ezenwa – in another time and age – or so it seems now. It was in December 2002. I had looked at the list of people I had yet to talk to for my book of interviews on Nigerian poets and he was next in line. I then made enquiries and got his Awka address: goldfish has no hiding place.
Awka was a sleepy innocent town that Saturday morning. The calm belied the bedlam that would follow shortly after. An amiable Ohaeto received me when I knocked on the door. He looked a little different from the Ohaeto I knew, a little less robust, but certainly not as lean as the Ohaeto I met at Eko Hotel lobby three years later. Perhaps this was the onset of the illness that has now finally claimed him.
Clad in a simple trouser and shirt, Ohaeto insisted that I must drink something and settle down first before the interview started. His wife had just stepped out, he apologised, or else I would have had something to eat as well. I took a bottle of malt and watched him play with his children. It is such images of a simple, loving man that mob my head as I think of him. These are the images that linger.
Ezenwa was a lover of literature. Perhaps it would not be amiss to say that he lived for it; and that it was the one thing that gave him immense joy. For I remember where I first met him – at a literary occasion – ANA Convention in Abuja in 1995. I was in the company of Eze Chielozona, a poet and now teacher of literature at Northeastern, Chicago, when we ran into this little crowd that had gathered round one robust fellow in jeans and canvas with a head full of jet black hair, the style known as afro – the symbolic gesture of self assertion by the Negro blacks in the 70s America. The man was Ezenwa, and he was surrounded by a crowd of younger writers who were tapping from his experiences, for within the literary circles, Ezenwa certainly enjoyed a reputation built on solid achievement.
It turned out that Eze Chielozona was a classmate of Ohaeto’s, or something of the sort, in Germany. As they exchanged pleasantries and reminisced about their old German school days – in snatches of German, English, and Igbo – Eze introduced me. I had heard of him, but had not met him before then. As the evening wore on, Ezenwa turned out to be an ebullient spirit, full of life and thunder, with a healthy sense of humour. It is the image of this robust and ruddy, chubby-cheeked, afro-haired Ohaeto that lingers in my mind, as I think of him now. And this is the image I shall cherish.
Again I remember when I held Ohaeto by the arm and led him to the stage for his prize. It must have been a moment of ultimate triumph for him as he walked up the stage, shook hands with Chris Haynes, the MD/CEO of Nigeria LNG Limited, received his plaque and his cheque as co-winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature in front of a distinguished audience of more than 500 eminent Nigerians. When he was given the microphone, you could tell he was too shocked for words. The ever-unassuming Ohaeto was quick to acknowledge that when he saw his name against Gabriel Okara’s he felt he stood no chance beside that literary giant and that making the shortlist alone was winning enough for him.
Those are the images that linger, not the Ohaeto ravaged by ill-health, but the quintessential Ohaeto – ebullient, robust and humourous, the triumphant Ohaeto holding up his plaque on October 8, 2005, the caring Ohaeto playing dad to his little boys in his Awka home in December, 2002, the ruddy Ohaeto encouraging younger writers at ANA convention in Abuja, 1995. These are the images that will endure.
Ohaeto was a man at peace with himself. He loved what he was: Igbo, Nigerian, African. He knew that a man could only give as much as he had and no more. That a writer’s works are only as deep as the man. That he can only give a sense of identity to his fellow Nigerians and Africans if he had one himself. That he can assert his individuality only to the extent of his acceptance of that individuality. He knew these, as is evinced by the body of works he has left behind.
This knowledge, coupled with Chinua Achebe’s words that there is as yet an untapped repository of resources in our indigenous languages and cultures for the serous minded writer drove Ohaeto to a dialogic engagement and conscious re-interrogation of his African inheritance, and birthed such works as The Voice of a Night Masquerade and The Chants of a Minstrel. The judges in their citation on Ohaeto’s The Chants of a Minstrel acknowledged this much when they wrote: “In The Chants of a Minstrel Ezenwa Ohaeto successfully presents himself as an inheritor of the African tradition of oral performance intervening in the age of print. He inserts an indigenous folkloric tradition into the modern global system, and forms a deliberate alliance with a tradition of oral performance and so, by implication, turns away from the clerical and cerebral forms that dominate much of modern poetry.”
This interest in the African heritage is not an accident. Ohaeto, in his poetry, had merely applied some of his strongly held principles as attested to by his stand in his other book, Contemporary Nigerian Poetry and the Poetics of Orality in which he explores the modernization and reflection of orality and modes of communication in contemporary Nigerian poetry. He examines the creative work of Nigerian poets who came into prominence in the 80s and how this orality is represented in subject matter, language and the general mechanics of poetry. For Ohaeto, in this work, and in his poetic practice, orality aids the functionality of poetry by giving it immediacy.
Perhaps Ohaeto’s greatest contribution to the world of African literatures is his biography of Chinua Achebe, a work which has been so acknowledged by such critics as Biodun Jeyifo and Lewis Nkosi. Working on the Achebe biography, having to wade through piles and piles of writings (interviews and critical essays) on Achebe from all over the world was and could only have been a labour of love for Ohaeto, an acknowledgement of his teacher and role model.
Yes, sad as it is, Ezenwa Ohaeto is no more on this side of life. He has undergone that inevitable and final rite of passage. He has walked through that sanctified portal and embarked on a long, long journey. But as we nurse our sadness, we take solace in the fact that his was an accomplished though short life. Ezenwa was the author of six poetry collections: Songs of a Traveller, I Wan Be President, Bullets for Buntings, The Voice of the Night Masquerade, If To Say I Be Soja and The Chants of a Minstrel. He won a BBC poetry prize, the Orphic Lute Poetry Prize, ANA/Cadbury Prize, the Friedrich Wilheim Bassel Prize and was co-winner, 2005, The Nigeria Prize for Literature. He had taught variously at the University of Bayreuth, University of Mainz, Humboldt University at Berlin, University of Texas, Harvard University, Cambridge and Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.
We also take solace that writers do not really die – their words live far into the long days that follow the long night of their exit. And so it shall be with Ezenwa Ohaeto.
Ezenwa’s words, the poet’s words, are words that bite. His memories are those that linger, they shall not die. I hasten to reassure Ohaeto, if that is still a possibility, as he journeys on, in his own words to Ola Rotimi in The Chants of a Minstrel: “Your memory will last long.”
And now the horn may paw the air,
Christopher Okigbo, Labyrinths and Other Poems