Monday, April 13, 2020 12:30 am
By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
So it was that we, poets, journalists and writers who take ourselves more seriously than the rest of the country takes us, gathered in the serenity of an auditorium at the University of Lagos, to take Nigeria seriously in academic and scholarly discussions, because Odia Ofeimun who takes Nigeria seriously crept into the pantheon of septuagenarians! It was a feast of the word by men of the word who managed to pull resources together in celebration of the rambunctious and cerebral poet whose legacy is already written in verse and prose in a heap of books mountainous enough to make a communal library! Were we deluded into thinking that we could make a difference in a country that has been beaten and defeated by acidic rain spilling from the heaven of incompetence, rapacity, greed and intense myopia?
From across the country, across the Atlantic came men and women with different connections to Odia, filled with testimonies of commitment, tenacity, material poverty, intellectual wealth and political sagacity. Testimony of an academic, Professor Biodun Jeyifo, who flew in from America despite doctor’s no-fly orders to give a keynote speech which helped us, enthusiastic celebrants give history to the man Odia! This poet who loves to take Nigeria seriously, had once ventured into politics with the dream of Chief Obafemi Awolowo to turn Edo State into a model. He was stopped at the train station and sent back to the heap of books somewhere in Oregun. Did he come back with tail between legs subdued and dispirited after the climate of exclusion became clear to him? No. He had prepared himself for the journey with arms of knowledge, of history, knowing that even siblings do not share fish with the same equanimity with which they eat eba orpounded yam or amala!
The poet as iconoclast, bubbling with ideas had served as private secretary to a sage whom the Nigerian people once rejected for a primary school teacher. So, he had sipped waters of wisdom from the fountains at Ikenne to ready him for encounters life-changing, if need be. The political terrain in physical terms is shark-infested and strangers cannot break in if cash is not flowing in billions. That is the story. That is the tragedy. That is the narrative that holds the nation Odia wants to take seriously! It is a hard sell, this story. Take a nation seriously that is locked in the pockets of tenth century herders in a twenty-first century world? Herders who perceive power only from possessing it, not for its transformative powers!
So, restructuring came up. And Femi Falana fired all the shots from all cylinders to ignite thinking about the structure of restructuring! And we were warned that while clamouring for an officially restructured Nigeria, we should note with elephant memory that the governors in a new Nigeria must be held accountable. They are emperors already. Dispensing largesse and looting the common till with the no thought of tomorrow. We were reminded that some states are already nibbling away at the notorious exclusive list. It is a thing to celebrate. The shaky feet of the bumbling empire are being nibbled at ferociously despite the unitary control lodged in the false and outlandish comfort of supine Abuja. Blood of innocent people is spilled every day and the ancestors of Nigeria, if they had a voice would say ‘enough of the delusion; to your homes and regions O! children! Is this the Nigeria to take seriously, some ask?
Yet it is our home. Home from the creator of the universe. Home for some sixty odd years. Home after a civil war. Home after many years of uncertainty. The big countries are shutting their borders, shutting us out after raping our economy. So, Odia believes we must take our home seriously and mend the leaking roof. Odia, we grant. Can take such liberties. He is ten years older than what his master once truthfully called a ‘mere geographical expression’! the next generation, the wasted one calls it a ‘geographical contraption! So sad. So bitter. So disappointing!
So, while Odia was asking us to take Nigeria seriously, we decided to take him seriously too by evaluating his works as a poet, dramatist, essayist, polemist, philosopher and columnist. For this is the greatest tribute contemporaries can pay to a man of letters who has given his life to the academy albeit in an informal manner. Peripatetic preachers spread the word, win converts but may not smile to the bank. So, we wonder what gave Odia the courage to take a vow of formal-work celibacy in a country with no social support of the elderly? Beyond seventy, when Odia no longer can rake in funds from lectures and writing engagements, who will care for him? Certainly, not this Nigeria that he so believes should be taken seriously. Blind faith, sometimes, carries its own reward. Of such stuff are philosophers made. They shall live by the word.
As we heartily celebrate Odia’s intellectual oeuvre at 70, we have spread before us, laurels and legacies in books and essays that the world would (now sitting on the edge of the bitter precipice) continue to read long after Odia may have succumbed to the mortal call of nature, decades and decades away. What has the nation offered but blood, toil and suffering as insensitive minions preside over the remains of the bumbling empire? For, there is no certainty that the nation Odia so loves will outlive us, especially in its present shape of fatal and self-consuming contradictions. We look forward to Odia siring a biological seed that would tell him the story in aeons to come when all eyes would have been shut in the final sleep. We join the family to say it is not too late to leave an offspring that would enjoy the sweetness of Nigeria that Odia so faithfully believes in.
Words have power. Odia proclaims hope in verse and prose. Optimism. Positive words. They are spoken into the Nigerian geographical space. Everyday. Every hour. Every minute. And the spirit of Nigeria is savagely attacked daily. The spirit is willing, may be. The flesh is weak; yes, weak. Which will triumph over the other ultimately? As Odia has been able to discipline his passions and channel them into things sublime, may be that spirit would ultimately win the struggle over the soul of our ‘mere geographical expression’ and birth the Nigeria of the septuagenarian’s dream!
And so, our elders say, and Odia is one of them – ‘when Boatman summons Canoe ‘take me to my destination; Canoe does not dance on one spot once there is water to glide on; water has no enemy, says Fela, but Fela had enemies made from water who threw mama down from the tower! And as Odia dances into the 70th decade of his poetic life, we hope the boat will take him to the destination where poets don’t tell lies. Let us hope for a better life and let hope keep the spirit aglow even in lands ravaged by herdsmen and scavengers!
-Read Odia Ofeimun at 70 interview, “My Life, Literature and Struggle” here