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


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Okigbo: Empty Grave for the Poet

by Uduma Kalu

Christopher Okigbo is considered by many as
Africa’s most celebrated poet. He occupied the poetry chair of the continent’s post-conquest literary academy in the
1960s – with Chinua Achebe in charge of the novel faculty and Wole Soyinka as head of drama. Since then, Okigbo’s poetry has influenced the work of several poets including those of his generation. Considered Africa's most lyrical poet by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Okigbo's papers were included, recently by the UNESCO in its World Memory Register. He was the only African to be honoured in that list. Happily, after 40 years without a grave or memorial, the family last weekend, celebrated the poet in what his daughter Obiageli tagged a funeral for her father, albeit in an empty grave.

IT was as in his well-known verse: "An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore/Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching/The new star appears,
foreshadows its going./Before a going and coming that goes on forever." but it brought to mind, images of an empty grave in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.
In this book, a family not seeing the body of its slain son built an empty grave as a memorial. In Ojoto, hometown of the late poet, Christopher Okigbo, the incident repeated itself. A grave, though empty, has been built for the poet, considered one of the greatest poets of the last century by the UNESCO.

In a way, his spirit has found rest in his home town, Ojoto Uno, in Ojoto Town, Idemili south Local Government Area of Nigeria. For 40 years, his ghost hovered without a grave. Okigbo died in the Nigeria-Biafra War and was buried in the trenches at Nsukka with some Igbo burial rites performed on his grave. In his hometown, however, his family did not see his body; therefore there was no grave to mark his death. His only child, Obiageli, now married to an Italian, who was two weeks to shy of her third birthday when her father died, did not know the man. All she had was a shadowy picture of her father.  Of course, in the compounds of the large Okigbo family, tombs of some of the late family members dotted everywhere. The graves of Christopher's father and his wife sat behind the colonial bungalow they built. The first son, Lawrence built a storey house and his tomb with a bust wearing traditional Igbo clothes and red cap sat on a grave. In Pius Okigbo's house, flowers encircled his tomb.


Today, a tomb has been built for the poet. It stands beside his parents', just behind the colonial house. While the white graves of the parents are joined beside the poet’s, his own stands separate and higher. It is built in marble with the insignia, "In memory of Christopher I. Okigbo. 1932-1967, Poet. Requiescat in Pace” The grave was bare, without flowers that Saturday morning,  but soon afterwards, flowers in vases were kept beside it. In the family compound, echoes of Okigbo's poetry as it related to classical, jazz, blues, Christian and country music, such as Jim Reeves, filled the air. And later, just as in Okigbo's Labyrinths, traditional music in the background began to echo.


From the Catholic Church nearby, the entourage drove into the Okigbo family compound. Then, Obiageli, Christopher Okigbo's only child, with her Children,
Sofia and Luca came in with their grandmother, Mrs. Judith Attah, who was Christopher Okigbo's wife, along with the publisher, Joop Bekhout in red cap and white Agbada, the novelist, Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike and his son, Osita, both in Ekpe society cap. There was also Ikem Okigbo, last surviving brother of the family. Pius Okigbo Jr., son of the late economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo, Raphael Okigbo, an Associate Professor at the Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka, Aminu Atta, Judith Atta's younger brother who never met Chris but had heard so much about him as an in-law. He is today a politician. And the Catholic priests, in began to pray, "Let us pray for our brother, Christopher. Father, give him eternal life. Let him not be punished for his wrongdoing. Let him be united with angels in heaven. We pray that he rest in peace," they prayed. There was the blessing of the graveyard, a laying of wreath by Obiageli and the breaking of kola nuts by the Ojoto elders. Then came the main event, including recalling of memories of Chris Okigbo by those that knew him. Before this, the traditional musicians, bearing drums, drummed along like the royal Ofala music, wearing ankara shirts with caps such styled in Yoruba fashion.

Bede Okigbo, former deputy director IATA, kicked off the Eulogy for Chris. It was a segment of tributes by those that knew and interacted with Christopher Okigbo.
Bede began his tribute, saying, "Myself and Chris are different in outlook and worldview. But we interacted beneficially. What is happening today in Nigeria," he went on, “as it happened in January 1966, when the first coup took place in Nigeria, is that people do not recognise that we are different, but we are all children of God working for the common good. My mother died. And not long after, Chris’s mother died too," he continued. "But our first major change and interaction occurred because Pius went to Christ the King College, Onitsha, and did not go back…. And CKC didn't want me."  This led Bede to the Government College, Umuahia (GCU). "Chris followed me. He was interested in Classics. I was interested in biology. In 1948, I went to the University College, Ibadan. Chris followed me there. From 1952-58, I was in the US. Chris updated me with events at home. When I returned, he took me to Fela's Republic. Then, he went to Fiditi. I was at Ibadan. Later, he was in Nsukka. I joined Nsukka."


Why did Chris go into the war? Bede repeated the worn-out question, perhaps, in response to Ali Mazrui who wrote a novel entitled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, and blamed the poet for wasting his creativity in a senseless war.  Bede gave an insight into the reason, saying, "Chris couldn't stand the sight of corpses being brought from the north." That was during the pogrom in 1966. "He joined the army. He did joint instant training," Bede said.


Christopher, he narrated, performed some major military feats for Biafra. For example, "He purchased weapons for Biafra." Another feat Bede remembered was Christopher's ability, in commando style, to retrieve some animals and birds in the Agricultural Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  Before the outbreak of war, the department had 300 cattle, over 10,000 chickens, among others. When Nsukka fell, the university staff and students ran away, thinking the animals had been taken.

"One day, Chris sent me a message to bring a vehicle," and Christopher was able to collect 30 animals, live chickens in commando style. They were sent Umuahia and Nekede. "Despite our obvious differences, our lives were for the common good. He was a role model, philosopher, the writer who sacrificed his life…. May his life be remembered and celebrated," he prayed.

Chukwuemeka Ike began his tributes in Igbo. "Ndi ebe anyi ekele mu unu," he saluted, raising a clenched fist. He had met Okigbo at the GCU, he began.
"We interacted. He was striking in many ways. He was an idealist. This made him give his life."


The poet was also a pioneer senior staff at the UNN in the 1960s before he joined Cambridge Press. And then returned to the UNN with Achebe.  Ike also returned to the reason why Okigbo joined the army, saying many people ask why Okigbo joined the army. He did not want the infidels to set foot on the revered academic soil of Nsukka, Ike opened up. The infidels, he explained, as Christopher would put it, were those that did not value academics. Christopher had set up a printing press with Achebe. "War planes bombed that Citadel Press. Chris was there." The infidels, he continued, "destroyed books. They burnt books. They said too many books were coming out from there. He was an idealist." Ike repeated. And in cricket, which the students at Umuahia practised, he was unconventional. "It used to be straight back. But Chris believed in swing back. Yet, he was in the team. We played against Government College, Warri." Even though Pius played the straight back, he lost. But Chris won. "He won his caps. He was in the team because he could score. He was free. He shared things. He contributed poetry in Ibadan. He wrote as he liked. One day, I told him, this will make or mar you."


Ike also gave another insight into the life of Okigbo, perhaps, on the musicality of Okigbo's verse.  In Ike's house, before his wife, Christopher would sing his poetry to the rhythm of a bottle he beat.

"That was how it started," declared Ike. "People often ask what would have happened if he hadn't died?" Ike reminded, saying that there is a conference in US on Okigbo. He did not like the Ojoto attendance. He was talking about the near absence of old boys of GCU. Ike had brought a copy of the college book so that they would sing the anthem. He ended by citing his novel, The Search, which he dedicated to Okigbo, Rose Nwoye and another for their belief in one Nigeria.

Then Mr. Torch Tarise began, wondering what a businessman like him was doing among professors. But he knew Christopher Okigbo. Both lived a short distance away in Ibadan. "He was a great man from the beginning." Okigbo was his best man when he married in 1965. "When NEPA was not cutting my light, they were cutting his. I am not a poet. Chris was a poet. When they cut his light, he would come to me and ask me to go to his rooms and do whatever I could do without light in his dark rooms. While he would use my lighted bedroom to write. He was a delight with the girls…. After my wedding, I went to the hotel room to thank the bridesmaid. I saw Chris. But Chris said, 'Look at that man. I was his best man. Now, he is chasing girls. Bring him out.'  He was brilliant. Argumentative. But he was receptive to ideas," Tarise went on, noting how Christopher helped him get his mother back to Sapele after the second coup of 1966.

"Christopher did not believe in Sandhurst," he said. "He said, 'You learn about war in war. It is straight line. Shooting and moving. When I read Ben Gbulie I saw that Chris was taking straight line, his body exposed. His only regret will be that his body
was found. He admired Federico Lorca, the Spanish poet whose body was not found. He believed he would go that way, his body not found."


Federico García Lorca, born June 5, 1898, died August 19, 1936. He was a poet and dramatist, and is also remembered as a painter, pianist, and composer. An emblematic member of the Generation of '27, he was killed by Nationalist partisans at the age of 38 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Okigbo died at 35 in Nigerian Civil War.


In college, Okigbo earned a reputation as a gifted pianist, accompanying Wole Soyinka in his first public appearance as a singer. It is believed that Okigbo also wrote original music at that time, though none of this has survived.
"He was fascinating in behaviour. He was direct and said his thoughts," Tarise went on. "He never bore grudges. If he quarreled with you, the next day, you would find him drinking wine with you in his beautiful white carpeted house, " Tarise went on, remembering an evening of poetry in Okigbo's house, with J. P. Clark, Soyinka, in attendance.  "When JP saw me, he asked me, who invited me there. I drove out with Obumselu. I invited JP."


Tarise later went to Enugu and saw little Obiageli. Her mother told her that "he knew your father long before I knew him." Okigbo's friend also touched on the immortal statement of Okigbo that he never read to non poets. "He read to non poets as well, including me, who do not write poetry," he corrected.


Then Joop Berkhout spoke. He lives in the same Cambridge House Okigbo lived. He had bought it. "I never met Chris Okigbo alive." He said. In 1992, Berkhout saw the house. "I was told a publisher once lived in that house. It was for sale and the price was reasonable. I bought it. One day, I got a call from someone who said he wanted to put a bust of Chris in front of the house. I was surprised because I thought such thing happens in civilised countries."


Just like Tarise, Valentine Onuekwusi gave another insight into the life of the late poet. "Chris was my uncle," he began. "I knew nothing of him when he was in the west. But when he was in Enugu, he was a big influence in my life. I saw him as a great man." The two used to meet at the Catering Rest House, Enugu, where important Igbo who returned during the pogrom lived. But when they went to see Okigbo, he would say, 'What do you want? I don't want you?' Those that knew him would ignore him and sit somewhere. Later he would attend to them.
"The pipe! Chris was the greatest piper. …He had 40 pipes. He cleaned all, one by one. He would spend a whole day on that and would later stuff them with Eric Moore. He would pipe them, one after another. Once any of them began to bring out water, he would leave that one and go to the next. "Pius had the pipes. I wanted to keep one of them. His death affected my life. I was following a hero, like the wise men followed a star. But the star left me."


This was followed by a reading of Okigbo's 'Elegy for Alto', by his daughter and nephew, Victor Okigbo.


And finally from Ikem Okigbo came, "Chris was my elder brother. He spoiled me, as a child. All the good things, and all the bad things I do, he thought me those things."


©2007 Uduma Kalu









Uduma Kalu



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