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The range of development

I MUST begin my review of this complex work with the profession of disconcertion. All through my experience of life, the assumption has always been that people got assigned intellectual jobs on the incontrovertible basis of their ability to deliver.

But here I am, a non-academic, saddled with the onerous responsibility of reviewing a compilation on thought and action, put together by some of the best literary minds in our society today.

I asked why I got chosen to carry out this exegesis; my choosers replied that they considered me equal to the task! I certainly know differently. I got this job because Ezenwa-Ohaeto, in whose memory this book came to life, was a dear friend of mine. In his hit single entitled Synthetic World, Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican reggae superstar, sang that “friendship is like acid: it burns!”

But what does friendship burn of? The gift of interpretation? The instruments of analysis? Or, put simply, the onus to stand up and be counted among those who must honour the one to whom honour is most due? I stand for Ezenwa-Ohaeto. I plead with you to stand by me with toleration, in spite of my diffidence, even as I wrestle with this elephantine deployment. Of course, fright is out of the question, especially as it got fully explained to me that my review must be bordered on all sides by brevity. Again, did not our people say that the fire placed in a child’s palm does not scald it?

he operative words in this review are Literature and Development. These words call for definitions that may be universal but are, nonetheless, also of my own articulation. Literature is the representation of life and near-life in written or oral mode. Development lends itself to a two-pronged explanation. At the primary level it pertains to the individual; otherwise the beneficiary is the larger society.

In either case development represents improvement. Improvement along the strain of a single notion or in terms of motions that are multifaceted.

The proposition, therefore, is this: In what particulars does the gun of literature trigger the report of development? In my view, justice can only be done to this question by going down to brass tacks. As our people rightly point out, the purposeful search for a murderer must commence with the location of the blacksmith that crafted the murder weapon. In non-sanguinary terms, I am suggesting that our topic will take on added poignancy if we dwelt a little on the head on whose account the cap of literary compendium was made: Ezenwa-Ohaeto!

As I pointed out in the first paragraph, Ezenwa-Ohaeto was a dear friend of mine. I used to visit him here in Awka when Awka was no more than a provincial enclave, when it was far from becoming a state capital, when Anambra State hadn’t even been created and when the Nnamdi Azikiwe University existed only in the imagination.

He was then a lecturer at the College of Education in this town. Our discussions centered mostly on literature in those days and all through the twenty-something odd years that our friendship coursed through our essences. Over time his craft developed and blossomed. As our people say in street lingo, “Good thing no dey hide!” There was no stopping Ezenwa-Ohaeto. I dare say that the high point of his literary output was his quintessential biography of Chinua Achebe whose London launch in 1997 I attended at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Memorable months

When Ironside, my biography of General Aguiyi-Ironsi was published in 1999, Ezenwa-Ohaeto appeared on the blurb, pronouncing the work “an act of justice.” He did a critical review of Surbenia’s Day, my novel which appeared in 2004.

And I also “conscripted” him to write the Introduction in Shadow of the Masquerade, the autobiography of the late Professor Nkem Nwankwo, which my company, Press Alliance Network Limited, published. I mention these facts to underline the closeness that existed between  us. During his last year with us, we shared three memorable months in the United States during which both of us engaged Dr. Obi Nwkanma in a three-sided tele-conference first thing every morning. I was in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nwakanma was in St. Louis, Missouri. And Ezenwa was in Boston, Massachusetts.

The high point of our discussions was the medical reports which indicated that the health reverses depersonalizing Ezenwa were in remission. Then, back in Nigeria, he became (with Gabriel Okara, the grand, old man of letters) the joint winner of the LNG Literature Prize. We hadn’t concluded the celebrations when his final curtain fell…I shed a tear on account of the threnodies that attended his transition. I aver that I still celebrate him on two scores: his humanity and his commitment to both his teaching vocation and his literary craft. Many of the contributors to the book under review also underscore the two points on which my fortissimo for Ezenwa-Ohaeto is indexed. This clearly makes the point that this publication in his honour is richly deserved.

About a quarter of the contributions in this book are essentially on Ezenwa-Ohaeto, his person and his work. The eleven chapters of Section B, which zero in on Ezenwa-Ohaeto in African Literature, deluge us with the thematic exploration of this subject. But we must return to Section A, Literature and African Development, in order to exemplify and amplify the sentiment and judgment I have posited.

The lead paper in this section is Ezenwa-Ohaeto, the Poet and National Development: Implications for African Literature of the Twenty-First Century. Written by Professor J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, it lays the solid foundation upon which all other contributions stand. Said Nwachukwu-Agbada of Ezenwa: “His entire life was wrapped around his burgeoning literature. He did not just love African literature, he believed in its writers and believed too that Nigeria and Africa could be uplifted by this rising literature in the firmament of world literatures.

His life was completely devoted to the cause of this literature in various ways, which is why he pursued several writers to their homes and interviewed them, was in touch with oral creators in the local language, did an unimaginable volume of book reviews having to do with literature, was a critic of special note, used newspapers as his critical and creative outlet, was present at literature conferences in far-flung places, created poems, presented them in far flung places too, wrote biographies of writers, wrote obituaries of writers and critics, devoted several poems to dead and living African artists and writers, etc.”

Nwachukwu-Agbada, like many of the contributors, uses Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s Bullets for Buntings – a volume which, by the way, may have been more appropriately entitled Bullets for Bunting – to demonstrate his concern for the national well-being, his premonition for ever-lurking danger in the entity and his lamentation of our collective moral depravity. This from “The Bullet is Blind”:
Bullets plucked for buntings
Festooned on roadside streets
Pasted on worn out walls
In varied shapes diverse sizes
Bullets for buntings grace the path
Awaiting monarch on tour

Nwachukwu-Agbada’s summation: “To all intents and purposes, Ezenwa-Ohaeto had a direction in his poetic craft. His artistic aim was to use his poetry to propel his Nigerian people out of their inertia in a world that has left them behind, particularly in national development. His chosen style of doing this is the satirical mode, while his character preferences in his use of mockery are such unserious archetypes as the drunkard, the madman, the itinerant traveler, the street urchin, the minstrel and the songster, the saucy masquerader who appears only at night, the inquisitive idiot, the prattling village poet and the village gossip, the dreamer, the questing/questioning figure, etc.”

This leads to a concern of mine. What are we doing ourselves to propel our Nigerian peoples out of their inertia? Or are we like the perennial driver’s mate who says incessantly that his master’s vehicle plies the Sapele route, without ever moving in the direction of owning an automobile of his own? Other than by teaching and writing, in what ways might the writer change his society for the better?

There is a way that works wonders, which is less abstract but which is, unfortunately, the road rarely taken. I talk of the way of personal example for which I crave your indulgence to cite a few instances. Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, led the campaign that suspended apartheid South Africa from the Olympic Games in 1970.

He didn’t achieve the feat by his Letters To Martha! Wole Soyinka is the author of The Road, a play whose characters posited drivers running over dogs as a panacea for the carnage on our highways. It took him decades, but it finally dawned on the Nobel laureate that someone had to go out and do something about unmitigated vehicular accidents.

He established the road marshals, which is the precursor of the Federal Road Safety Corps we have today. Chinua Achebe is, in my book, the foremost Black novelist.

At crunch time he didn’t require to write another bestseller in other to tell Obasanjo to get lost; he simply rejected the “national” honour with which the despot contrived to tarnish his hard-earned reputation. Christopher Okigbo, one of our finest poets, didn’t believe that the grotesqueries of 1966 were to be mastered through poetising.

He picked up his gun and headed for the battle front. Tai Solarin knew that his role as columnist was not enough to shift us from social inertia and political stupor.

He personally moved decaying corpses from the streets and deposited them in the offices of those who had national hygiene as their primary responsibility. So what are all the contributors to this published “Proceedings of the Ezenwa-Ohaeto International Memorial Conference” doing for our individual and national development? Are they fulfilled simply to teach and poetise?

Is teaching solely to be conducted in the classroom? Don’t we have poetry of the variety chanted inside marketplaces and at street corners? What happened to the guerilla theatre? Do we really believe that we develop much within the anonymity of onscurantism and the mistaken security of the ivory tower? There is no intention here to celebrate opaqueness.


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