Sentinel Poetry (Online) #57 ISSN 1479-425X


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By Obi Nwakanma


This past July, I finally mailed off the manuscripts of the biography of Christopher Okigbo, which I had been working on, at various levels of intensity, since 1990 to the publishers at Oxford (not the University Press). The title had changed from “A stifled Sneeze” to “Thirsting for sunlight.” The first reaction to the earlier title was by Okigbo’s friend, the famous and redoubtable scholar and literary critic, Ben Obumselu, who said to me, “Christopher’s life was certainly not a stifled sneeze.” I have gained from such illuminations. These were the various ways by which I was guided towards collecting and organizing what I hope would make a full and complete picture of the life and times of the poet of Labyrinths. The biography of an absent and complex figure like Okigbo demands that whoever was insane enough to attempt it, be ready to enter a dance with the spirits. I have felt frequently, the hands of Okigbo, his spirit propelling me towards the things he wished me to see, and the ones that he wished to hide. On a particular occasion in 1994 or thereabouts at the University of Nigeria Nsukka home of his friend, the distinguished mathematician, Professor James Ezeilo, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, this presence was manifest. Just as he began talking to me about Okigbo, Professor Ezeilo was suddenly seized by a hiccup, which persisted in spite of drinking glasses of water. “Ah! That is Christopher playing his pranks with me!” said this rational scientist. But he was not alone. Most of those I spoke to about the poet, often spoke of him unconsciously in the present tense; his spirit was endowed in the memory, and remained alive by the vast and splendid drama of his short life. He was kept alive, in other words, in the unconscious; at the deepest forges of the mind or the psyche where we shape meaning. I became aware of Okigbo by indirection: it turns out that my father knew him socially in Ibadan of the 1960s. The poet was socially active and very well known in the city. Indeed as his friend Torch Taire would say, “everybody knew Christopher Okigbo in Ibadan.” Ibadan in those years was a very cosmopolitan place, and so was the University at Ibadan, before its reduction by circumstances of history to its current provincial status in a very provincial city.

But Ibadan was once the crossroads of national culture, especially from 1948 when the University was established there, with its incredible promise as a national institution; the gathering of the “talented tenth” of the new nation going through colonial transition, in one of the headiest eras of modern African history. Ibadan was Okigbo’s city: the city of the poets, celebrated in the immortal words of his friend, the other poet, John Pepper-Clark as a “broken china in the sun.” Out of the fragments of its landscape was woven a tapestry of lives and experiences that made it the epicenter of the cultural renaissance in West Africa in the 1960s. It was the city of highlife – Agu Norris, Tunde Nightingale, Roy Chicago playing at Paradise, or the Central Hotel or any of the palmwine bars of Mokola; it was also the city of the Mbari club, just slightly beyond the Mokola roundabout, at Adamasingba. My parents lived in an upstairs apartment on a block of flats built on the hills in Mokola. I was born in that apartment in the year of turbulence. From the back porch of the flat, you looked down directly at the Eleyele barracks, just a whiff away, my parents recalled. Not too far from the Eleyele barracks was the UAC crescent, the business part of town, where Okigbo lived in Cambridge House. Perhaps I felt connected to Okigbo by this history of shared things. Perhaps his name had crept up occasionally in the conversations, and some of those occasionally loud debates between my father and some of his friends in our living room. I used to have an inordinate curiosity for adult conversations as a child. Sometimes it was about the English pools forecasts and the betting of which some of those men were incorrigible addicts; sometimes it was about the vagaries of national politics; sometimes it was about metaphysics – my father contemplated the idea of becoming a Rosicrucian for a while – and sometimes it was just about the weather and God-knows-what.  I listened, perhaps more seduced by the sound and drama of utterance, rather than its meaning.

I must have absorbed the name of the poet from some of those beer or scotch-oiled debates, because somehow, it rang with a hazy familiarity when I encountered it again in secondary school at the famous Government College Umuahia, an English-style boarding school for boys, which Okigbo had also attended, from 1945-50. But I did not encounter him as a poet: it was as a cricketer; in the surviving cricket scorebooks which had been archived in the school’s library, and in the reports in The Umuahian, the Government College Umuahia magazine, which had been full of Okigbo’s redoubtable life as a sportsman in the 1940s. I had become a cricketer too by indirection: while dodging inspection and parade at the lower fields, and at the orchard one Saturday, I had been discovered by the cricket master, the Indian Mr. Unni who also taught English, and who was an elegant cricket batsman. The Colts – the Government College Umuahia cricket team – were practicing at the Pavilion that morning. Since I was dodging parade, which was an unforgivable sin as far as Umuahia went, Unni had the option of sending me off to the principal, where I would surely get my just desert of six of the best, among other things, but he chose to put me to better uses: he asked me to field, and even found me better at the wickets, soon after. It was this new interest that guided me to Okigbo, and over the years, as I began to read his poetry, towards the meaning of his life. Christopher Okigbo’s life was richly textured: complicated, intense, unorthodox, competitive, cruel, kind, extremely generous, and fascinated by dramatic intrigue: Okigbo was a natural and effortless mathematician, to quote his teacher Isaac Dagogo Erekosima, but he was also quixotic – mercurial in the ways of genius –and so he went off to the University college Ibadan to study Classics with scant a background in Latin! He was drawn to the cult of the difficult. He died fighting at Opi, at a quiet and obscure corner of the universe, near Nsukka where he earlier wrote some of his finest poems. That dreary spot has become a place of memory and history: that is the meaning of Okigbo’s life, because he returns again, and again to that spot, to remind us about the unbroken cycle and mystery of renewal and rebirth: “An old star departs/ foreshadows a new star approaching/ the new star appears/ in a going and coming that goes on forever… .” That is the meaning of Christopher Okigbo: the recurrent power of his prophecy and the genius of the insight, and the power of the rhetoric that conveyed them. There was nothing like it in modern African poetry. And for all that, the solitude in me remembers Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo: poet, and Idoto’s prodigal.




     Obi Nwakanma

      Obi Nwakanma    





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