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The International Magazine of Poetry & Graphics ▪ Bi-monthly ▪ March/April 2008


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ESSAY

 

Okigbo as Cultural Globalist

 

Dr. Dubem Okafor

Kutztown University of PA

Kutztown, PA 19530

 

 

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (1932-67) was a world citizen. Even though his passport was Nigerian, he saw himself in global terms, and was not to be bound by the constraints of geography or race. His education had prepared him for world citizenship, and his vast and polymath erudition ensured that he remained solidly in that select category of people. Thus, he was very much at home among the ancient Greeks and Romans, as he was with the moderns. His affiliation was with writers, artists, and learned people of all races, even though he was very much at home with the folk, especially the artistic, from whom he continued to learn. His range of reference was, therefore, broad, indeed. In terms of thematic coverage, he oscillated from Graeco-Romanism to Worldism to Africanism, while his style was a movement from symbolist and modernist obscurity to the deceptive simplicity of traditional Igbo rhetoric. Okigbo was truly a cultural globalist. [I am using “globalism” in the sense of cosmopolitanism, because I am aware that the term global describes a lopsided and uneven state of affairs in which parts of the world do not operate in a level playing field.]

 

Much has been said about Okigbo’s repudiation of Christianity and the embrace of his people’s religion. In fact, as a true globalist, Okigbo thought that there was no contradiction as such between Christianity and Traditional Religion. He said as much in the interviews he gave in his life. In one, talks about the possibility of reconciliation between Christianity and “paganism:”

 

I do not feel that as a Christian I have ever been uprooted from my own village gods. We have a goddess and a god in our family, our ancestral gods…. But the way in which I think Christianity can be reconciled with this aspect of paganism is that I believe in fact that all these gods are the same as the Christian God—that they are different aspects of the same power, the same force. (Marjory Whitelaw. “Interview with Christopher Okigbo, 1967.” JCL No. 9 [July 1970]:35. Also quoted in Adewale Maja-Pearce’s “Introduction” to Okigbo’s Collected Poems. London: Heinemann, 1986: xx.)

 

Along the same line, he had said in an interview with Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse:

 

I think that it is a lot of nonsense talk all this we hear nowadays of men of two worlds. I belong, integrally, to my own society as, I believe, I belong, also integrally to some societies other than my own…. The modern sensibility which the modern poet is trying to express, is by its very nature complex, and it is a complex of values, some of which are indigenous, some of which are exotic, some of which are traditional, some of which are modern. Some of these values we are talking about are Christian, some are non-Christian, and I think that anybody who thinks it is possible to express consistently only one line of values, indigenous or exotic, is probably being artificial. (Duerden & Pieterse. “Interview with Okigbo” published in African Writers Talking. London: Heinemann, 1972: 144; also quoted in Maja-Pearce xviii)

 

Only a true cultural globalist can hold these views!

 

Education

 

Okigbo’s education was both global, in the best sense of the word, and prepared him for life as a cultural globalist. His primary schooling, undertaken in several schools within the former Eastern Nigeria and the former Mid-Western Nigeria, was to set the stage for his later peripeteia. His father, late Chief James Eze Onyeligolu Okigbo, was a school- teacher, then school headmaster (principal), which positions in those days, under the provenance of the Roman Catholic Mission, entailed frequent transfers. Thus, with his father, Okigbo moved through various primary schools. This broadened his already capacious sympathies, and reinforced his ebullient restlessness. This stage of his education also instilled in him the fundamentals of Roman Catholic catechism and liturgy, which latter would later play a part in his poetry.

 

After his primary school education, Okigbo proceeded to the prestigious Government College (high school), Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria. One of only three in Eastern Nigeria, the other two being Owerri and Afikpo, Umuahia fed Okigbo with a curricular fare that was truly global. He had the English Language and Latin; Ancient and British History; Classical Music; World Geography, especially the geography of Britain, Europe, and Australia & New Zealand; Oratory & Debating; Mathematics; and English/British Literature. His extra-curricular sports included soccer and cricket. He himself diverted himself with writing and incipient journalism. The curricular and extra-curricular activities were given and supervised by British tutors. A truly world citizen was being produced, and the stage was further being set for a cultural endeavor that was to be truly global in scope.

 

On graduation from Umuahia, Okigbo proceeded to the only University in colonial Nigeria, the University College, Ibadan. Ibadan was one of the many University Colleges set up by Britain, under the aegis of London University, in her many colonies. Okigbo had gone to Ibadan to study Medicine, but apparently, this course of study, being too narrowly focused and scientistic, would not have been in alignment with his later global cultural enterprise, and he quickly changed to Ancient History, Greek, and Latin. This combination, aided by his own avid reading, was to create the polymath that was Okigbo. In Ibadan, he played sports and music, did journalism, and wrote poetry. Global echoes marked even the early poetry of these Ibadan days. And those who did not understand that his poetry was a tool in the arsenal of Okigbo’s cultural globalism, complained about the obscurity and difficulty of Okigbo’s poetry. But, in these Ibadan poems, Okigbo was only trying to fine-tune his instruments for a broader and eventual cultural-poetic adventure.

 

Vast & Polymath Erudition

 

Okigbo’s education was vast, was broad as it was deep: it was a felicitous combination of the horizontal and vertical systems of education. He went to several elementary schools, as he moved with his father whose position as Roman Catholic School teacher, later Headmaster, necessitated frequent transfers. He then attended the Government College Umuahia, where he received first-class high school education in a curriculum that was truly, perhaps unintentionally, global. Always spirited and rambunctious, Okigbo's high school education at Government College, Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria, afforded him the ambience in which he experimented with, and developed, his budding interests in all known sports, music, and journalism, even as he pursued his education under austere colonial teachers and administrators. After graduating high school, he proceeded to the University College, Ibadan, where he further broadened the scope of his enterprise. There, he further nurtured his interest in Music and remained interested in Mathematics, even though his major was Classics. Music and Math, we all know, are truly international “languages.” I remember, when I was living with him, how I went to write the Concessional Entrance Examination of Ibadan University.  When I came back and showed him the question papers, the only thing that caught his interest was the Mathematics question paper. He quickly went through the questions and began solving them, showing me one which he said was on the Parabola. Up to this day I have no idea what the parabola is all about. This is just to show how even as a classicist and poet he was still excited about Mathematics, a truly global and unbounded subject.

 

Occupations

 

In terms of occupations, Okigbo rapidly moved from job to job, looking for, but not seeing that which would satisfy his global concerns. He worked briefly as Assistant Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Information and Research. He worked as Manager in the Nigerian Tobacco Company which, even though it was an arm of a global, multinational company, failed to satisfy Okigbo, because what he saw there was greed and the profit motive which were the driving force that motivated and drove this company that peddled mere poison to humanity. Okigbo himself was a heavily addicted victim of the company’s rapacity. He then tried teaching at Fiditi Grammar School, Ibadan. He liked it there, for he taught a subject he liked, and mentored the students, serving as Patron of several Student Organizations. But, the job of school teacher, though rewarding in many respects, and though it enabled Okigbo to begin an educational-cultural crusade, was too local and limiting. He moved on to the new University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as its first Librarian. Even though this job enabled Okigbo to be and live among books, which he loved, and to interact with students and faculty interested in culture and literature, it did not afford him a platform for a broader cultural crusade. So, he moved on to Cambridge University Press as its West African Regional Representative and Nigerian Manager. Here again, he was among books, with which he traveled to various educational sites inside and outside Nigeria, and interacted with those who lived in and produced culture. He was happiest in this position, which still failed to give him a truly global arena. He, finally, negotiated with WarTrade, a truly international company. Even though this company already gave him company perquisites, including a company car, it was well that his association with it was short-lived, for his experiences there would have been similar to those at the Nigerian Tobacco Company. In the end, the genocide in Nigeria afforded Okigbo the opportunity to abandon all cultural ambitions and die fighting on behalf of a section of humanity faced with extinction in the face of insensitive and brutal collusion between the reactionary feudalism of Nigeria and British imperialism.

 

Actual and Imaginative Travels

 

A vastly traveled man, Okigbo undertook several travels within Nigeria, inside Africa, and in Britain and Europe. Okigbo also traveled in the United States. I remember that, in 1966, after he had received an invitation for a lecture tour in the States, he had asked me if he should go. I thought for a while about this and, flabbergasted by the amount of money he was going to be paid in dollars, said he should accept the offer. He thought about it and decided it was not worth it. These travels expanded his horizon and enabled him to get ready for his political-cultural crusade, which spanned the world, including Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were the cradle and citadel of human cultural and educational achievement. The latter revisionist Eurocentric history which emphasized the Graeco-Roman roots of civilization was shown by Okigbo to be patently false. He was to be borne out later by the works of eminent Africologists including George G. M. James (The Stolen Legacy 1954), Martin Bernal (Black Athena I & II 1991), Samir Amin (Eurocentrism 1989), and Cheikh Anta Diop (The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality 1967[1955], Black Africa 1974, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa 1978 [1963, 1959], and Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology 1991).

 

Influences and Intertextualities

 

Okigbo did not believe in the theory of influences. With regard to his works, one should pay attention rather to the complex and rich weave of intertextualities. Like Eliott and Pound, whom he admired, he invaded the texts of dead and living poets whom he appropriated into the fabric of his own unique poetry. Okigbo himself talks about the various poets whom he thus appropriated: Debussy, Cesar Franck, Ravel, Raje Ratnam, Malcolm Cowley, Stephan Mallarme, and Rabindranath Tagore (Egudu 1984 339). Egudu goes further to talk about Ezra Pound’s “influence” on Okigbo:

         

The poetry of Ezra Pound has vastly influenced the poetry of Christopher Okigbo, as many critics have noted but have not demonstrated. Although Okigbo is an African poet whose work shows African linguistic traits as proverbs, gnomes, and riddles, yet because he is writing in English, his poetry, like that of other African poets writing in English, reflects the influences of English and American poets, among which that of Ezra Pound is remarkable…. (337)

 

As far as this essay in concerned, what Okigbo did was no different from what Pound himself, or T.S. Eliot for that matter, did, and would not fall under Lord Henry Wotton’s description:

 

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thought, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, and actor of a part that has not been written for him. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, quoted in Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence 1973 6)

 

Of course, we know that Okigbo thought his own thoughts and sang his own songs, even if these were a rich tapestry of intertextualities. According to Bloom, “poetic influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them more original (7).” He goes on to talk of such influence as “poetic misprision” (7) or “intra-poetic relationships” (8), which more accurately describes Okigbo’s poetic maneuvers.

 

Thematics and Cultural References

 

As an unlocalized citizen of the world, Okigbo self-described himself as a prodigal, who refused any type of racial categorization, including those that sought to pigeon-hole him merely as a Negro or African poet. He simply saw himself as poet, as a world poet, who wrote for fellow poets wherever they came from. In the same way, his geographical range and reference was indeed global, ranging from Nigeria to Mesopotamia. The critique of colonialism and cultural imperialism was thus to be a major preoccupation in his poetry, especially in Heavensgate and Limits.

 

Conclusion

 

In the end, even though Okigbo died salvaging wrecked humanity on the fields of Ekwegbe (near Opi Junction of my poem); even though people like Ali Mazrui had, before his recent conversion, dismissed him as merely an Igbo poet, which designation, as well as that of “Negro” poet, Okigbo had repudiated in life. Mazrui saw a serious contradiction between Okigbo as poet and Okigbo as citizen of an embattled section of Nigeria, and accused him of sacrificing a larger, poetic cause for an ethno- sectarian one. Many people beside Mazrui have also made so much of the apparent contradictions in the life and letters of Okigbo. The simple answer to this simplistic observation is that life itself is, if anything, a paradox, a contradiction. William Blake advised us years ago that “without contraries there is no progression,” and Walt Whitman, following him, said that he was large enough to contain contradictions. In the same way, Okigbo was capacious and large-hearted enough to accommodate contradictions. In the end, even though Okigbo’s roots are indigenous and a bulk of his images comes from his cultural doxa, the importance of Okigbo remains his cultural globalism. 

 

 

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