Sentinel Poetry (Online) #57 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
Features & Reviews
Okigbo: Empty Grave for the Poet
by Uduma Kalu
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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