There is an eagerness for everyone to say something about Biafra, to blame somebody for the chaos that is about to unfold if care is not taken. This is not the time to say that IPOB had it coming. The issue here is that human lives are being wasted.
First, the killing of Biafran agitators by armed soldiers and the inhumane treatment soldiers have been metting out on Nigerians for decades now is not justifiable under the law and must be condemned for what it is – a gross abuse of the fundamental human right to life and human dignity. At the same time, the hounding of Northerners and other ethnicities in the Southeast, to be murdered in cold blood in the name of retalition by Biafran agitators should also be condemned in the strongest terms. These acts could lead to a cancerous spread of retaliatory violence in other parts of the country and in that case, no one will be safe. The anxiety in Jos should serve as a resounding alarm.
One would think that the lessons of history should serve to remind us that violence either by the authorities or by the civilian populace has never resulted in any meaningful accomplishment. The civil war and more recently the Boko Haram insurgency as well as the Zaria massacre should be enduring lessons for us.
But unfortunately, it would seem we are too anxious to repeat the same mistakes, perhaps on an even grander scale.
Since we are not savages, and I strongly believe we are not, both the government and the citizens must follow laid down laws to pursue their objectives, hence:
1. All acts of violence by all parties in all parts of the country must stop at once. We simply cannot have our soldiers turning their guns on us at the slightest provocation, neither should we take laws into our hands.
2. All those, soldiers and civilians, who are found culpable in killing or maiming persons or destroying property or otherwise causing a breach of the law must be subjected to the laws of the country. Peace can only be sustained by justice and fairness.
3. We must recognise that not every Igbo person subscribes to Nnamdi Kanu’s suicidal ideology the same way that not every non-Igbo hates the Igbo and should therefore avoid generalization and stereotyping people as well as spreading hate.
4. That if some people no longer wish to be part of the country they should be allowed to pursue this within the framework of the law. If the constitution does not recognise a referendum then IPOB, which I understand has the ears of some senators and political leaders from the Southeast, should push for it through constitutional means (via the National Assembly) and if this succeeds, a referendum could be conducted within the framework of the law. But until that is done, the Nigerian constitution maintains that the country remains indivisible and the president is sworn to defend the constitution and the territorial integrity of Nigeria.
5. IPOB must recognize that forming a parallel government with a “Biafran Secret Service” is a treasonable offense as well as Mr. Kanu’s hate speech and calls to “burn down Nigeria.” Regardless, there are lawful ways of dealing with this issue. If a court of law believes that Mr. Kanu has violated his bail conditions and issues a warrant, he should be re-arrested lawfully and prosecuted. And the last time I checked, these is not the duty of armed soldiers.
6. Muhammdu Buhari is the duly elected president of the country. He is human and admittedly could have handled this issue with more tact through considerate words and actions (that 5 percent talk was a grave error of judgment). And Igbo leaders as well could have played a bigger role in curbing Kanu’s excesses. This is the time for leaders, not rulers, to step forward and appeal for calm, for anxious gladiators to sheath their swords and for reason to prevail. That which hate cooks will always leave a lasting bitter aftertaste.
The sanctity of human lives must be prevalent in our minds at all times. Overhead, the vultures of doom are circulating and for the young ones eager for action, remember what is said: when surrounded by vultures, try not to die.
May reason and peace prevail.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a multiple award winning writer and journalist who lives in Abuja.
this memory that, always
ends up in the recycling bin
and recycles itself at whim
the look you normally gave me –
that look that said aloud that
you weren’t too sure I hadn’t been
dropped on the head as a child
that look of the martyred
that look you wore each time
I talked about the children of the poor
and the dogs of the rich
you always wondered –
what hair was it off my chest
if the children of the poor
would gladly swap places
with the dogs of the rich?
and with the dexterity of a
boomerang thrower you would
throw me that rhetorical question:
The poor … don’t the poor have dogs?
I’d smile, I’d always smile–
the way I smile when memories of
the war invade my peaceful day –
I’d smile, I’d always smile
for I’d learnt to wrap my pain in a smile
I’d smile and love you even more –
with a pain that no smile could wrap.
from That other country (Ibadan: Kraft Books, 2010)
Hyginus Ekwuazi is a multiple award winning Nigerian poet. He has also earned several credits for script writing. He lives in Ibadan where he teaches Media Arts (Broadcasting and Film) at the University of Ibadan.
(for Chinua Achebe)
You Stubborn Soul
Saturate with thoughts they hated
You who littered stubborn words in our hard hearts
Words too stubborn to die
Too stubborn to be forgotten
You literary glitterati
The grief that strides
Like a bullet through Biafra forests during the war, you pierced
Too stubborn, you refused to die
Oh, you stubborn soul
In death you refuse to die
You this man who so encapsulated the African experience
In my heart you always stubbornly live
Until like you I stubbornly live
Achebe, oh, my Achebe
Now that your words live
I know you will never die!
Kator Hule is a poet and fiction writer. He lives in Makurdi, Benue State Nigeria where he works and also writes from.
Osofisan recounts this incident about how Okigbo took him to Mbari club one night to work. He was barely out of the secondary school and Okigbo was mentoring him. How for a few hours he managed to bang away at the typewriter before falling asleep. How in his sleep the smell of the midnight oil mingled with the aroma of tobacco as Okigbo hammered and chiselled the night away. How in the morning, Okigbo showed him the outcome of the long night of creativity: a sheet of paper with some four lines of poetry. Bewildered, he watched as Okigbo read the four lines, crumpled the paper – and threw it into the wastepaper basket…
This incident flows into my mind as I examine the new edition of Okigbo’s Labyrinths, issued by Apex Books (2008). The cover – a picture of a sitting, long-sleeved, youngish looking Okigbo contemplatively lighting a pipe – is a ‘sunny’ departure from the sombre density of the earlier edition(s).
The edition was issued by Heinemann as number 62 of the African Writer’s Series in 1971 and reprinted in 1975. A solid phalanx of over a decade separates the Heinemann reprint from this new edition. Within this time, a lot of waters has gone under the bridge and left the sands thoroughly ruffled. The poems have spawned countless imitations, more often than not, poorly; sometimes, with remarkable success. They have featured in essays, theses/dissertations and symposia: they have been subjected to all manners of criticism, including post-modernism. Icons from the universe of the poems now dot our literary landscape: one quick example – the Ibadan Department of English journal is called Idoto… Okigbo has since become the quintessential study of the making of a classic – in the context of a generation whose posturing indicates that it is more difficult to read poetry than to write it. Anyway, I find it significant that this slim volume of 72 pages has since transformed into the vertebra of African poetry. No wonder the Heinemann edition has since become a collector’s item.
Okigbo is a mantra; a roadmap and a marching song; he is the cultural property of all (would be) poets, critics and lovers of good poetry. He is, therefore, sacrosanct – like a holy book. And no publisher alters a holy book. He may tone up the colours; illustrate; annotate – but the body must remain inviolate. “The versions here,” Okigbo had noted somewhat presciently, “are final”: and his death set them in marble. What I’m leading up to is this: I can’t fathom why this new edition has been titled Labyrinths & Path of Thunder – though it contains all the five poems (‘Heavensgate’, ‘Limits’, ‘Silences’, ‘Distances’ and ‘Path of Thunder’) which together constitute Labyrinths – the title of the Heinemann editions. The other remarkable difference in the new edition is the insightful foreword – the 1994 toast of the poet by his elder brother, Pius.
Perhaps it is the picture of Okigbo on the cover page but as I thumb through this edition and wonder at his enduring legacy, kaleidoscopic fragments of his life mingle with lines from his poems… The Okigbo in the maelstrom of controversy for his unapologetic assertion that he does not write his poems to non-poets… The Okigbo that turns down the Langston Hughes Prize for African poetry on the grounds that there is nothing like African poetry: there is good poetry; and bad poetry… What memory, I wonder, has Labyrinths of this controversy?
From the opening strophe of ‘The Passage’, to the forlorn final notes of ‘Elegy for Alto’, the stock of references are intimidatingly global: Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek; Eliot, Hopkins, Melville, Tagore, etc are interwoven with haunting references to the oilbean, the funerary ram, kepkanly: the fauna, flora and human life of the poet’s world – deftly turning them into “globules of anguish strung together on memory” and, thereby, hanging them on that sublime height “to which all imperishable cries must aspire.” Indeed, good poetry by any standard; and it only happens to be African. Ben Okri, is, therefore, right: ‘Labyrinths…is a meditation on everything from our origins to our obscure destinies. It should be read by everyone in every country.’
“Fanfare of drums, wooden bells; iron chapters: / And our dividing airs are gathered home…/” Finally home across the Niger, among a people traumatised by the events of 1966, Okigbo divorces his wife on the other side …over the telephone… “Grown are the ears of the secret!” But Labyrinths, published posthumously a year after the war, is dedicated to “Safinat and Ibrahimat/mother and child”: a dedication that pulls at the reader’s heartstrings; and that has since been turned into a formula and recycled to death.
And his untimely death. “The wailing is for the fields of men/for the barren wedded ones/for perishing children…” Sporting the emblem of half a yellow sun on his sleeves and on his shoulders, the lone eagle of a major, he was among the Biafran troops that fought to the last man to hold Opi Junction. Had the outcome of the war been different, I’m sure a sagacious Biafran directorate of national orientation would have placed a plaque there exhorting any passer-by: Stranger, go tell Biafra Okigbolies here in obedience to her command. A romantic death – though contentious. Thus we find Ali Mazrui (The Trial of Christopher Okigbo) condemning him for wasting his life on the altar of sectionalism; and Odia Ofeimun insisting that when all else fails, it behoves the poet to take up arms and fight for a poet’s vision of the world. I stand with Odia.
Like Byron, Okigbo was a romantic: the evidence is strewn all over the poems, especially in ‘Silences’, ‘Distances’ and ‘Path of Thunder’: a swashbuckling cavalier who’d fight for liberty – his, or anyone else’s. Biafra only chanced by, and his roots happened to be there. The Okigbo so vitally alive in Labyrinths and in the retold tales of his friends would have found enough casus belli in the Niger Delta: “The wailing is for the great river; / Her pot-bellied watchers/Despoil her…” and we can imagine him “Riding with the angry stars/Toward the great sunshine.”
Okigbo saw only too clearly, the abyss into which Nigeria was plunging: “The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon. / The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power; / And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air, / A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters – / An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.” The time was really out of joint; and like all romantics, he felt he had been born to set it right. Living in a state of emergency, he knew the perils of talking in the wrong company: “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth, I’ll soon go to hell, / I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell”; and the intimations of morality was heavy on him: “So we must go, even mist on shoulders, / Sun’s dust of combat / With band end burning out at hand-and.” When Okigbo penned those words (“The version here… are final”) on his manuscripts, it is not unlikely that he was seeing through a grave darkly: “And the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye…”
I like to think that I was a witness to the canonisation of Okigbo – “The mythmaker accompanies us…/ Okigbo accompanies us the oracle enkindles us.” Obumselu, Anozie, Azuonye, etc: their works have been in inestimable in the Okigbo cause. Besides, to be published under the Heinemann African Writers Series was a much coveted prize. To my mind, however, the apotheosis of Okigbo was done in Echeruo’s Poets, Prophets and Professors, his inaugural lecture at Ibadan. The title, I believe, must have been cribbed from Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’: “Screen your bedchamber thoughts/with sunglasses/ who could jump your eye/ your mind-window/ And I said: / The prophet only the poet/ And he said: Logistics/ (which is what poetry is)…” Echeruo’s inaugural, in effect, rifled the contents of Okigbo’s ‘logistics’ and scattered the contents every which way. Scholars and would-be scholars of Okigbo are still picking up the contents. It was only after that inaugural that Okigbo started figuring prominently on reading lists in our universities.
The enduring legacy of Labyrinths can be traced to a number of reasons. The romance of the poet’s life and death. Also, the uncontainable and uncontaminable passion of Okigbo lovers. But in the main – and this is the point – because, in the words of one of his protégés, “Okigbo wrote damn good poetry.” “O mother mother Earth, unbind me; let this be/The ram’s hidden wish to the sword the sword’s/secret prayer to the scabbard.” In other words, we have in Okigbo that vintage poetry that makes “broadcast with/eunuch-horn of seven valves”: the poetry that remains evergreen.
This vintage poetry will be encountered less through secondary sources. That, for me, is the value of this new edition of Labyrinths by Apex Books.
Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi, multiple award winning poet and writer is a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, Oyo, NIGERIA.
INTRODUCTION: Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi is a lecturer with the Theatre Arts Department in the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. He is also a notable behind-the-scenes name in the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood as well as the founding Director-General of the National Film Institute, Jos, Plateau. What is not so popular about him is his writing prowess despite his four collections of poems consisting of the trilogy Love Apart (2007); Dawn into moonlight: All around me dawning (2008); and Monkey Eyes (2009) alongside That Other Country (2010). These collections earned him the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize (2007); and ANA/NDDC-Gabriel OkaraPoetry Prize (2007); ANA/NDDC-Gabriel Okara Poetry Prize (2008) ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize (2010).
He also has to his credit a children’s novel, I’ve got miles to walk before I sleep and several plays including Morning yet on creation day. His major brush with literary fame came in 2009 in the now popular NLNG Award issue where none of the featured poets was offered the prize. In this interview with Su’eddie Vershima Agema [me of course!] at the University of Ibadan in June 2011, he talks on his poetry among other things, the interview starting with a strong statement…
I lost a lot of my poetry because I would write and just give out.
You would just write and give out. How?
I would write a poem and just give it out. If I collect all the poems that I gave out, it would be more than a collection. I would write and give to friends just like that. I wrote a lot of poems and would not [keep it], you know what I am trying to say. I was just writing, there was no thought of publishing them. I was just writing….
I wrote many like that. I would give to colleagues and give to friends. When I was in Jos, I wrote many like that, I would just write and give out. I edited the Idoto magazine in UI [University of Ibadan] as an undergraduate.
Wow! I never knew. What year was that?
That was ’79… [No] I graduated in 78… So, I edited it in my 200 level. I know that I published one or two articles in Idoto which was understandable but as a collection, it just didn’t work.
Are there extant copies of Idoto?
Yes, I think I saw… One time I went to the library and I saw some. Strange enough, the ones I saw were not the ones I edited but I saw some of my poems in an earlier collection. You know, Idoto died for a long time and then it was resurrected. One copy was published, then the next one was the one I published but I didn’t see that in the library. Sorry, the one I edited, not published but the other one I saw in the library and my poems were there.
So, there is no shop where anybody can get them again?
But you know the country that you are talking about.
Oh yes, oh yes. I think it is very sad.
Yes it is. I wish I could lay my hands on my earlier poems. They are not masterpieces, you know but I would have liked to…
See where it all started?
Yeah, see where it all started, you know. I had a lot of them. If I hadn’t done a lot like that, there is no way the lecturer in charge of Idoto could have made me the Editor. It means he already knew of my poetry somehow.
And was probably impressed.
Yes, otherwise, he wouldn’t have picked me to edit the magazine.
How does your composition of poetry come about? Is there a particular mode to it?
Anytime I write, I usually need to have a structure. Sometimes, I have the work complete but I need the structure. I need a structure with which to render it. Sometimes, I need to have a vehicle with which to move the poems. It was the same thing with Love Apart and Dawning [into moonlight, all around me dawning].
When you wrote Love Apart, did you have it in mind that you were going to turn it into a trilogy or the idea for a trilogy came later?
It came later. When I started it, like I told you I always need a structure. So, when I had the idea for the second one, I discovered that I had a structure. So I said, ‘why don’t I build it?’ So, that is how it came because I had found a structure and part of the structure was to be in the same persona. You know, it came after.
And eventually Monkey Eyes had to follow the same pattern?
Monkey Eyes seems to be a very sad and sick book, very sad and unlike the others…
Monkey Eyes was written at a very bleak period in the country. Nothing seemed to be moving. I had something in my head but I didn’t have a structure. I can’t work without a structure. Then it hit me: sick country, sick President. Where do sick people stay? So, I got my poetic protagonist to stay in the hospital and everything was set. I thought to myself, I already have a structure. So, I took the structure and constructed it in that light.
You know, I had the inspiration for that book a long while. I was looking for the structure for it and the work came. So the work was affected by time.
So, when you were writing Dawn into Moonlight, all around me dawning, you didn’t have any idea that the third book would complete the trilogy or…?
I thought I would have exhausted a connection with just two booksbut again when I started looking for a structure, I found I had a structure in this and to use this, this is what I was talking about separation and other things. I could actually use this person’s view.
So, let’s exploit the good old [persona of] Love Apart?
Yes, but I have rested that for now.
For now, I just hope we don’t get any addition.
No, because otherwise this one [his fourth poetry collection] has nothing to do with it.
You know, what I thought about is what is poetry but memory? So, I saw it like a giveaway; Memory on a dark night, memory on this… there are many poems that are titled memory. So, I said let me use that as a line that would be something else.
So, you named it That other country?
Yes, because memory is that other country.
More like that other planet.
Yeah, and I thought I had so much on the Civil War. So, I wanted to write a collection on the Civil War. I think I would write a whole collection totally on the Civil War; everything.
It [the civil war] really took lots of space [in your collection, That other country].
Yeah, it is something that has always been. Anytime I remember the Civil War, I get angry because do you know the number of people that died? I am not talking of those who were shot in the war o! I am talking of those who died behind lines and then, that one was very avoidable, very very avoidable. And everything that happened at that time, my God, you begin to wonder.
I think it was a foolish war.
It was a very foolish war, the provocation and everything. Look at the massacre in the North. Like I said, my family, we were all in the North so we saw all those things. If any family were touched by the hand of miracle, we were because somehow we all came home. WE didn’t really lose anybody in the Civil War or anything. My father was in the army. My father was in the State House, Ojukwu’s State House during the war.
I am about to say something; You want to guess who said this?
No, I am not good at quotes.
ONCE WITHIN THE GATES OF ROME, YOU’RE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE EMPEROR. Once within the gates of Rome, you’re in the presence of the Emperor. Who said that?
Ah, I am very bad. If you told me my quotes, I wouldn’t know it. Well, I would say Bernard Shaw…
* * *
Okay. Nice. You know what one of my teachers taught me?
He said no poem has ever been finished. You abandon it at one stage or another. Sooner or later, you abandon it and hope that you abandoned it at a good…eh…
At a good enough stage…
Yeah, but [usually] when you go back to it, you say ‘I should have done this.’
On retirement, what are your thoughts on it? Any hope to retire soon?
I noticed that when one retires and goes home to rest, they go home finally to rest. I signed many retirement cheques at the Film Institute and those who went home to rest died, and we went for their burials. Those who stayed behind doing one thing or the other grew stronger and stronger. It is like that even in the military. People are retired compulsorily. So, imagine being active all your life and being made to do nothing at all. My father got home and discovered there was a need for a motor park in the village. So he decided to construct a private and commercial one. My mother complained and then the elder sisters came and also quarrelled him.
My mother told me to see the madness that my father was doing. That if the people needed a park, what was his business? His [Dad’s] elder sisters said the same thing and said that I should call him back to order as he had refused to listen to them. I told my father that this is what they had said. He told me that didn’t I notice that with the park project, when he woke up, he had something to do. He would go out and come back, tired and ready to sleep. Did I expect him to just wake up and stay idle all day? So, I became a big supporter of my father building the park. He built it without receiving one single kobo.
That spells my view on retirement.
That Other Country was originally scripted as Memories Caught on a fly (in which form I first saw and worked on) but was changed later along with a great part of its content, part of which Ekwuazi explains soon.
For more on Hyginus Ekwuazi from this blog, you can visit:
The name Hyginus Ekwuazi is no longer strange in poetic circles. He has made a mark on the Nigerian poetry scene with more than three books of poetry published already. A notable fact is that each of his books has a theme, symbol or idea that all the poems reflect. Mercifully, the poet always carries this dominant image or theme in his title. Perhaps he does this in the true knowledge that Literature in whatever form, is different from Mathematics and seeks to entertain, not ‘punish.’ Hence, the readers do not have to do a puzzle and look for the common denominator in all the poems. And for those who still do not get it in the title, he takes his time to explain or rather, explore this idea in a preface given a particular title, and subtitled “In lieu of preface…” In Dawn into moonlight: all around me dawning, the idea is that of the moon and twilight. So, all the issues discussed therein are shown in relation to this. A person might quickly jump to the conclusion that all the poems would be monotonous or plain boring since they are all tied around the same thing. This is where Ekwuazi delights in showing that person wrong. Ekwuazi with the thoughts and imaginations of a million tales simply weaves them up in fine verse describing different situations, events, feelings, people and the like in poems that are simply related to, but not confined to the already mentioned dominant vehicle, memories.
It is in this light that we find varying themes in each of his work ranging from love to betrayal, missings, national consciousness, Biafra, and the like… but kept organized by that one denominator, which we are introduced to even before the first poem.
This is what he does in all his books and centralizes as theme in That Other Country, his latest collection. The amount of poems in this collection boasts thirty-nine poems which begin on the Dedication page, to the Preface right into the main section of verse…
That Other Country is a collection of several memories, that true definer of man, which the poet defines and explores from different views in lovely flowing verse. In an illuminating preface, the poet describes memory as the best gift to man and its meaning to him (the poet). He goes ahead to define memory in the first poem of the collection, ‘Memory is’ (9). In it, the persona explains memory as another country, “that other country/of a trillion trifles time has tossed aside.” It is not, (s)he explains, a graveyard but something moving- “A life already lived/& a journey already made.” With this definition, one understands the reason for the poem being the first in the collection, and indeed, this review. In the very next poem, the poet defines memories as “…bats/that are hanging upside down/in the cave of the mind…” Indeed, bats are creatures of the night who like memories come out in full force in the dark. They, memories, cling upside down in the cave of our minds in the day but take over in our private and quiet times – our darkness. We try to shoo them off severally but like the bats, they never go extinct, flying evermore in our hearts, drowning us in emotions and thoughts.
In ‘Today is Father’s day’ (33) we ‘see’ a father who fought on fields and lost, but won at home. The war of the fields is probably the Biafran war – which we get to see a lot as the collection progresses. From another perspective, it can be looked at as the various wars that life places before man – wars of catering for one’s self and family, wars of want, wars of social stance, wars of a failed country, career and all. However, this father wins the home war, perhaps the greatest of them all. There is an allusion to the bible (Isaac and Abraham) which gives humor to this otherwise grim remembrance. Also there are hints at the prodigal son that bring deep thoughts. In this poem though, he arrives a day too late to see the final mound of his father. There is a longing expressed in the thoughts of the persona that slowly begged to be shared, and spent on another father. This poem which is multi-themed calls for deep introspection and reexamination of values.
There is the recurring symbol of the half of a yellow sun, the symbol of Biafra. There is nostalgia for this nation that died before its birth cries could be heard fully. Ekwuazi brings into contemporary poetry all the several showings that we are now getting accustomed to in prose as best exemplified by Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (which reawakened interest in that literature). Several poems concerning this symbol in full are evident while there are others that show an allusion. The poet uses varied personas to show that the memories of Biafra are very much alive and living. ‘The Pied Piper sang of a home he didn’t know’ (64) is concerned with children affected by the war who are taken to a camp. They are forced to see the horrors of their family killed and in the camp. ‘A dear frank’s letter’ (69) is the most obvious of the Biafran poems as all devices are thrown with a vivid and direct tale told. Okigbo is recalled in nostalgia, Biafra and Nigeria spoken to. The persona recalls Frank, a dear friend, with whom many a drink and poem was shared. It is shared into six sections. There is the memory of an “evening of/drinks and readings at the British Council” the persona and Frank have a swell time. The lines run-on (literally too) and soon we find that Frank is dead. We are then introduced to a book that Frank had written on the several people killed in Asaba during the war; a planned pilgrimage to Opi junction (where Okigbo fell); plaques that might have been put there (at Opi); … Then, the poem comes back to where it started, at the British council. A disagreement drank away is remembered and in the final lines, the persona expresses a deep missing of Frank. (It is worthy of note that this same Frank – Frank Mowah, appears in Love Apart–Ekwuazi’s first poetry collection) and is the person to whom That Other Country is dedicated to.)
Biafra also comes alive in ‘I shed lava-hot tears for/both halves of the yellow sun’ (17) where the persona talks of the feelings that he has at the remembrance of the several evils that befell the people. ‘…why the sea is boiling hot’ (20) and several others follow the theme.
A feminist leaning comes in ‘Isn’t Biology destiny?’ where the poet through his persona looks at how the maturity and the institution of marriage limit women and changes their lives, downwards. There are the usual love poems Ekwuazi is known for (though most told with pain); parenting tales and some nationalist verses. Major Nzeogwu finds space in the pages of this work and is honored in a poem ‘It isn’t only mystics who wear their sadness like a halo’ (102).
For those who love long poems, there is a lot in store here as there are a lot of them in this collection. The longest poem is the book is ‘Memories linked one to another like Stations of the Cross’ (51) which span six pages of a hundred and fifty eight lines. It is also one of the few poems in the collection that a reader might find a bit difficult to understand at first glance. The poem revolves around traffic lights and memories that they evoke in the mind of the persona as he awaits the green, on red. The memories become like the Stations of the Cross. The headings for these stations are emboldened and tell three different but difficult to completely decipher stories that might leave a searching reader puzzled. There is hardly any link between the three of them but come to the mind of the persona as the memories are laid in the sepulcher of the mind (another section of the poem). At this moment, the persona comes back to himself in time to see the lights change, “signaling not so much the end/as the beginning to every memory…” He drives off into a day, “over-burdened with memories.”
The problems one might find with That Other Country, like those with most works of poetry, are specific to picky readers. The first would come in the length of poems. Like in his previous collections, there exist a lot of long poems (like ‘Memories linked one to another like Stations of the Cross’ explained above) which span several pages and lines. His exploration of Biafra in several poems might also not sit well with a lot of readers who might not take his side or others who believe that this particular theme has been ‘over explored’ in diverse genres would out rightly oppose its appearance. The major preoccupation with pain that form a huge part of the tale behind the collection is another issue that some readers would not like. Furthermore, one notices a great sense of Christianity shown in the general body of the work through biblical allusions (this is particularly evident in the poem, ‘Today is fathers’ day’ (33) and a specific title that even has ‘Stations of the Cross’ in it!) The romantic musings of some of the poems would also pose trouble to some readers who would have wanted a thorough political work telling of the issues of the land, either challenging or proffering solutions. His usual style of simple diction and verse would also pose a challenge to critics who prefer hard to understand, ‘poet’s only’ poetry. Then, there is the presence of a few typos (poetry’s worst distorter) that might go unnoticed…
Like in all his collections, Ekwuazi proffers solutions as best as he can to sooth these seeming problems. He takes more time on the longer poems so as to enrich them and make a reader get lost in the thickness of theme and depth of it making the length disappear. Indeed, a reader might be caught asking for more after coming to the end of such poems. There is no excuse for Biafra but sincerity that is used to weave its lines so that it is not a mere re-rendering of the overtly told tale but a new twist in a new tongue that sings a melody that gives honor to the Nation, child died in death while embracing Nigeria, ever mother. It is the words of a patriot longing for a country he knows would never live, devastated by the murder yet loving still, his forced country in a unity that he wishes would have been merciful in leaving. One notices that there isn’t much Christian imagery that one can hold firmly to in the collection except in ‘Today is father’s day.’ Most of the romantic musings have an undertone to them that when properly evaluated show diverse themes that in some cases, centre on issues of state. The love of country and politics is also shown clearly in some poems. ‘The almanac’ (81) for instance, talks of the various military coups that have occurred in Nigeria (and Africa too) and what might have been if they did not occur. The simple diction used in the poems is a façade to very rich imagery. Ample uses of devices that stem through the entire collection further make the simplicity colorful. This deceptive simplicity is something that Ekwuazi thrives in and is evident in the several themes in each of the poems and the confusion that some readers might find in deciphering some poems.
In the end, one discovers that That Other Country is centered on memories – majorly, painful memories. The memories of lost ones, loss, longing, disappointment, death, Biafra, bitter happenings, among others, are dominant. This might be the reason why memory is compared to the bat whose time of abode is the night. Memory, like the bat, is hidden away in the day as we all rush to do different things. In the night, with nothing but our thoughts for company, our memories like the bats fly out, soaring the skies, taking over. These poems, very personal ones, tell the tales of a poet – a man, through diverse personas, who has harbored a lot of painful memories that he wants to get rid of, but must tell the world before shutting the gates evermore. This might also be why Ekwuazi in the preface says that the gift of forgetting is God’s greatest gift to man. In this collection, there is no hiding under the sweetness of words to show emotions as the lovers’ tale of other collections. He speaks in clear terms of his heart wrench as occasioned in the various crises that have beset the two countries of his love, Nigeria and Biafra. The pain of the continuous persona in the loss of friends, loved ones, and family among others are part of the conclusions that the pain bring. Somewhere, one finds the misplaced cherry thought (like ‘Memories that tear cheerfully through my day’ (57), a poem of parenting and pride in one’s offspring). There is also the sprinkled humor in most of the poems that the poet brings to bare in most of the poems to give soft bedding.
The beauty of Ekwuazi’s poems lie neither in the powerful and vivid imagery used nor the musicality of his lyrics that leave a reader tapping in enjoyment, alone. These ones stand strong on their own, but can be found easily elsewhere. The basic strength behind his verse is the tales that lie behind each poem. For in each poem, one notices a pretty tale replete with all characteristics. This is the magic that he wands into his latest collection, That Other Country where with the vehicle of memories, he uses all the freedom of theme, to navigate to the best of tales and renditions in a delight one cannot – wouldn’t want to miss for anything else. Indeed, within the covers one finds worthy memories that the few kobos and moments used on the book would get justified.
Conversants: Ada AGADA[i] and Su’eddie Vershima Agema[ii]
Contributors: Maik Ortserga[iii] and Samuel Okopi[iv]
Ada AGADA: A famous European critic once correctly argued that both Achebe and Hardy are particular. While Achebe is a literary denizen of his Igbo environment, Hardy is domiciled in his Wessex (or Dorset) environment. Both wrote about village life. Both missed (if you like) out on the Nobel prize although eminently qualified for it. While Achebe studied English and is simple and eloquent, Hardy studied Architecture and wrote awkwardly. Both have attained literary immortality. I think Hardy is more universal than Achebe because he thought more deeply and expansively than Achebe. Hardy dissected, without being boring, such profound issues as pessimism, fatalism and the question of evil in relation to God’s existence. Achebe’s little philosophical striving remains bound to mythology. Hence I encountered him in African Philosophy as a mytho-philosopher. The Eagle on the highest Iroko himself acknowledged in an interview with Ezenwa Ohaeto that he wished he had done more in his works by way of philosophizing. Wole Soyinka thought more deeply than Achebe. I have not read most of the great contemporary authors yet due to lack of a library, but from what I read in papers Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, and others paid their debts to thought. Why is Goethe so sublime? It is on account of the quality of his mind and his ability to make intellect serve art. So Mr Agema, in my opinion all writers reflect universal concerns but only those intelligent enough to produce sublime thoughts and feelings are called universal regardless of their deficiency in craft. Tolstoy was regarded by some as technically deficient. Hardy wrote awkwardly. Yet one is the world’s greatest and the other England’s greatest (arguably). They were not the best craftsmen but they had great visions, made possible by their great minds.
Maik Ortserga: With due respect to the literary giant of Africa, I agree with Agada that Achebe is not deeply universal in his thought. I strongly believed it is what has kept the Noble Price inching away from him over the years. Although his ‘Things fall Apart‘ and other works have contributed in changing the perception one race had of another entire race, that is not enough to project a universal vision of life. His latest work ‘There was a Country: A personal History of Biafra’ shows how personal Achebe could be in his feelings and thoughts.
Ada Agada: You spoke my mind Maik.
Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA: I have been in talks with friends. Ada over here via this means, Joshua Agbo in the university and Maik all through our journey, the stay and return from Uyo. Now, I am not raising comments about the writer, Achebe -many times, I try to leave them in some cases- but the work in question. Ada,you have raised some concerns in ur query, mainly that philosophy is d stomach of universalism. From what I infer,you mean that a story on its own cannot be that of the world unless shrouded in deep philosophy
My stand on the issue is that more than just the deep thinking &all, there is the story told. I view universality from asking – is this applicable everywhere? Is this story human, realisable and near attainable in its setting &actualisation in any given place? Yes. No. Judge from that parametre and you have my views.
Saying this I realise that various critics have their viewpoints to judging universality such that some would even mention a ‘standard ruling scale.’ My view is that which I just mentioned.
I make it clear here that my argument is not of Achebe as a universalist or being more universal than Hardy (a comparison I fault by the way..You’re universal or you are not) but to point that stories can be universal in themselves devoid of the parametres we put them.
Friends, think of our folklore of old quickly dying. Remember our forebears telling these tales of what was & what came to be. Of the legends &myths. I remember talking with my big sister, Unoma Azuah & her reminiscence of tales told by her grandma. I remember those told me by our relations from the village, by my father… I have come across these stories severally in various literature across the world in different formats with little change or none. What is so mythological or local about these all?
If I derive a tale from my life & infuse all these with people from various world parts recognising them & even embracing them, would that be a pointer to universality or locality? What is the line between myths & history? What forms the difference between our ‘myths’ & those taken as fact (i.e. the Bible, Quran e.t.c)? How is the story of the Igbo different from that of the Red Indians &other such people? Of course, give a few minus and additions but you would get to the heart of what I mean.
GET to the thrust of this all &you would understand the universal picture painted in my thoughts.
Ada AGADA S’, you belong to the group that denies universality to art. For them art is simply culture-bound.
Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA: Hmm, do I sound that way? I think differently in my mind though. Note what I have said thus far… that there is a universality but it is found in the particular that can be expressed and accepted everywhere…. Does that find a string to culture?
Ada AGADA Maybe! Particularists also have a strong case.
Samuel OKOPI I think that the particular is in many ways connected to the universal. It’s what makes one read a book from another time and place and connect with it on so deep a level. Because in the end, whatever we may think, believe or live; it can all be broken down into constituent parts shared by every human in some way: eating, dressing, singing, being happy, experiencing sadness, loving mystery, needing someone etc. And yes, deep thinking that succeeds in reaching pages in a way that is accessible to it’s intended audience on a deep level, yet reaching many more outside this sphere, on some level, is to me the stuff of masterpieces.
I should also say, beautiful piece here.
Ada AGADA: @Samuel. Great comment. Well done.
I don’t see our culture withstanding the onslaught of Western liberalism on its own. We are going to lose a lot that makes us Africans and become increasingly like black Americans. The signs are there. Western liberalism is decadent and therefore alluring. To me only intellectual pride can stop the tide by masterminding a rebellion against Western excesses.
Samuel OKOPI Exactly Ada. Exactly. I keep telling people that our culture will not rise from seeming obscurity to the limelight if we treat it as it is; in its romantic and frozen form (yes frozen because the ‘onslaught of Western liberalism’ and popular culture has prevented any coordinated growth of our own cultural aesthetics; what we see instead is a ‘presentation of culture.’). I strongly believe that we must think deeper, investigate more to find the basic sauce of our culture that can be drawn out and transformed to a magical beauty that provides a strong identity for us and a strong allure for other peoples.
Su’eddie Vershima Agema: When it comes to our concepts of universality again, I think of it in this way: you being a philosopher look more towards it in terms of elevated thoughts. I being just a lay man look at it from the view of expression – an expression that can be felt and owned by people everywhere. Our very stands are created based on our personas, learnings, and thinking. Would we ever agree? I wonder. We would argue based on our various thoughts and leanings… We have read much to support our stance and would easily argue to that effect. Would we reach a compromise? Can we agree to disagree?
Ada AGADA: @S’. I think we have already reached a compromise although our core beliefs stand. The agreement is that there can be no universal without the particular. We only disagree about the dimensions of universality. In fact I suspect you are a particularist, one who believes the universality thing is superflous.
Su’eddie Vershima Agema: The talk continues man. We would discuss more. For now, let’s write.
[i] Ada Agada is the author of the novel, The Anxious Life (Aboki Publishers, 2011). He is also a poet. He holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of Nsukka, Nigeria.
[ii] Su’eddie Vershima Agema is the Vice Chairman of the Benue Association of Nigerian Authors and author of the poetry collection, Bring our Casket Home (Karu: SEVHAGE imprint, 2012)
[iii] Maik Ortserga is the Secretary of the Benue Association of Nigerian Authors. He is currently working on an M. A in Literature from the Benue State University. He is an Executive Editor at Aboki Publishers, Makurdi.
[iv] Samuel Okopi is an Editor on Naija Stories (a leading site on contemporary Nigerian literature) and a computer whiz.
The Igbo say that a mature eagle feather will always remain spotless.
It was the kind of day in the middle of the rainy season when the sun felt like an orange flame placed close to my skin, yet it was raining, and I remembered when I was a child, when I would run around on days like this and sing songs about the dueling sun and rain, urging the sun to win. The lukewarm raindrops mixed with my sweat and ran down my face as I walked back to my hostel after the rally. I was still holding the placard that read Remember the Massacres, still marveling at my new — at our new — identity. It was late May, Ojukwu had just announced the secession, and we were no longer Nigerians. We were Biafrans.
When we gathered at the Freedom Square for the rally, thousands of us students shouted Igbo songs and swayed, river-like; somebody said that in the market outside our campus, the women were dancing, giving away groundnuts and mangoes. Nnamdi and I stood next to each other and our shoulders touched as we waved green dogonyaro branches and cardboard placards. Nnamdi’s placard read Secession Now. Even though he was one of the student leaders, he chose to be with me in the crowd. The other leaders were in front carrying a coffin with NIGERIA written on it in white chalk. When they dug a shallow hole and buried the coffin, a cheer rose and snaked around the crowd, uniting us, elevating us, until it was one cheer, until we all became one.
I cheered loudly, although the coffin reminded me of Aunty Ifeka, Mama’s half-sister, the woman whose breast I sucked because Mama’s dried up after I was born. Aunty Ifeka was killed during the massacres in the North. So was Arize, her pregnant daughter. They must have cut open Arize’s stomach and beheaded the baby first — it was what they did to the pregnant women. I didn’t tell Nnamdi that I was thinking of Aunty Ifeka and Arize again. Not because I had lost only two relatives while he had lost three uncles and six cousins. But because he would caress my face and say, “I’ve told you, don’t dwell on the massacres. Isn’t it why we seceded? Biafra is born! Dwell on that instead. We will turn our pain into a mighty nation, we will turn our pain into the pride of Africa.”
Nnamdi was like that; sometimes I looked at him and saw what he would have been two hundred years before: an Igbo warrior leading his hamlet in battle (but only a fair battle), shouting and charging with his fire-warmed machete, returning with the most heads lolling on sticks.
I was in front of my hostel when the rain stopped; the sun had won the fight. Inside the lounge, crowds of girls were singing. Girls I had seen struggle at the water pump and hit each other with plastic buckets, girls who had cut holes in each other’s bras as they hung out to dry, now held hands and sang. Instead of ‘Nigeria we hail thee,’ they sang, ‘Biafra we hail thee.’ I joined them, singing, clapping, talking. We did not mention the massacres, the way Igbos had been hunted house to house, pulled from where they crouched on trees, by bright-eyed people screaming Jihad, screaming nyamiri, nyamiri. Instead, we talked about Ojukwu, how his speeches brought tears to our eyes and goose bumps to our skin, how easily his charisma would stand out among other leaders — Nkurumah would look like a plastic doll next to him. “Imakwa, Biafra has more doctors and lawyers than all of Black Africa!” somebody said. “Ah, Biafra will save Africa!” another said. We laughed, deliriously proud of people we would never even know, people who a month ago did not have the ‘ours’ label as now.
We laughed more in the following weeks — we laughed when our expatriate lecturers went back to Britain and India and America, because even if war came, it would take us only one week to crush Nigeria. We laughed at the Nigerian navy ships blocking our ports, because the blockade could not possibly last. We laughed as we gathered under the gmelina trees to discuss Biafra’s future foreign policy, as we took down the ‘University of Nigeria, Nsukka‘ sign and replaced it with ‘University of Biafra, Nsukka.’ Nnamdi hammered in the first nail. He was first, too, to join the Biafran Army, before the rest of his friends followed. I went with him to the Army enlistment office, which still smelled of fresh paint, to collect his uniform. He looked so broad-shouldered in it, so capable, and later, I did not let him take it all off, I held on to the grainy khaki shirt as he moved inside me.
My life — our lives — had taken on a sheen. A sheen like patent leather. We all felt as though it was liquid steel, instead of blood, that flowed through our veins, as though we could stand barefoot over red-hot embers.
The Igbo say — who knows how water entered the stalk of a pumpkin?
I heard the guns from my hostel room. They sounded close, as though thunder was being funneled up from the lounge. Somebody was shouting outside with a loudspeaker. Evacuate now! Evacuate now! There was the sound of feet, frenzied feet, in the hallway. I threw things in a suitcase, nearly forgot my underwear in the drawer. As I left the hostel, I saw a girl’s stylish sandal left lying on the stairs.
The air in Enugu smelled of rain and fresh grass and hope and new anthills. I watched as market traders and grandmothers and little boys hugged Nnamdi, caressed his Army uniform. Justifiable heroism, Obi called it. Obi was thirteen, my bespectacled brother who read a book a day and went to the Advanced School For Gifted Children and was researching the African origin of Greek civilization. He didn’t just touch Nnamdi’s uniform, he wanted to try it on, wanted to know exactly what the guns sounded like. Mama invited Nnamdi over and made him a mango pie. “Your uniform is so debonair, darling,” she said, and hung around him as though he was her son, as though she had not muttered that I was too young, that his family was not quite suitable, when we got engaged a year ago.
Papa suggested Nnamdi and I get married right away, so that Nnamdi could wear his uniform at the wedding and our first son could be named Biafrus. Papa was joking, of course, but perhaps because something had weighed on my chest since Nnamdi entered the army, I imagined having a child now. A child with skin the color of a polished mahogany desk, like Nnamdi’s. When I told Nnamdi about this, about the distant longing somewhere inside me, he pricked his thumb, pricked mine, although he was not usually superstitious, and we smeared our blood together. Then we laughed because we were not even sure what the hell that meant exactly.
The story was gotten from and continues at Zoetrope