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Tribute: Emmanuel Obiechina: A Great Escort

By CHIMALUNM NWANKWO

Exactly one month after  he was inducted into the NNLG Hall of Fame by the Nigerian Academy of Letters, (NAL) Prof. Emmanuel Obiechina died last week in the United States of Americas at the age of  77.

The distinguished and prolific scholar of English language, English literature, African Literature and general arts Prof. Emmanuel Obiechina , is the author of the acclaimed books Onitsha Market Literature published by Heinemann in 1972, An African Popular Literature : A Study of Onitsha Market Literature, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1973.

Prof. Obiechina got his Bachelor of Arts degree (English) at the University of London in1961 through the University College Ibadan, Nigeria, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge in 1967.Today Arts on Sunday present to our readers a befitting tribute from another important poet and scholar, Chimalum Nwankwo, which captures the magnetic spirit of the departed master of the art of criticism.

Again the big drums roll from across the seven rivers, and the ancestors stand firm with their inviolable will. Who can protest the call? Emmanuel Obiechina has answered with that trade mark ease which has marked his entire life. Always humane, always progressive, always caring…Who will forget his compassion and who, his humility? He strides away into the twilight colonnade of ogilisi trees, toward the great hall of our ancestors. The eternal tablets have decreed his work finished. But he leaves us with the eddies of his character, a rare gem from the rarest markets. His priceless soul of tender giants rides on a gentle breeze, unwilling as ever to cause pain or controversy, without sickness or panic to protest the call of the ancestors.

Prof. Emmanuel Obiechina

Long after the curtains had be drawn on the turbulent drama of power and abuse of power in the nineteen eighties at the University of Nigeria, and we had all checked out into the various precincts of a restive wilderness, I engaged my great teacher and colleague, Professor Obiechina about his role and what I was convinced stood for errors of judgment. To my amazement and embarrassment, he responded with a most disarming candor and contrition. He explained to me that no matter how good a human you are, at a time of evil, it is very difficult to know when you get sucked in. Now, few of his generation would have let me escape unscathed for my effrontery.

I was the one who was sorry for exhuming the ugly subject. And recently, when our mutual friend, Professor Dubem Okafor exited this world in tragic crimson robes, the great teacher sent me a most harrowing e_mail. He asked me like a father, inconsolably mournful over a for ever lost prodigal to please explain. Because he was fully aware of my deep fraternity with Okafor, I knew I really owed it to him to tell him as much truth that I could tell.

Obiechina was not just our teacher. He was , beyond most of his contemporaries, our father. I and Dubem Okafor were his most impossible children but he still loved us. At the end of my explanations, deeper than whatever I have told the media or anybody else,  he said to me in Igbo : Dalu…Dalu…dalu. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The words came out in wrenching agony. I remember those simple words now in tears and deepest anguish because I felt the depths from which they were coming.

Emmanuel Obiechina was a great soul. As a teacher, he taught us how to teach with the ego of genius shrouded in the extinction of self. As a leader he showed that without empathy with the led, all are wanderers. As an explorer of human thought, he insisted on respect even for the nuisance brambles in the bush, compelling us to believe that a systematically committed clearing was more crucial than the bestial and vengeful need to maim or kill the enemy.

What the wizards know with the ring of chalk around their eyes, he knew too! And so as a nurturer of our stories, Obiechina leaves us with memories of how so precious  and how so sacred our stories are, and how it remains for ever our duty to tell those stories well, because in the seasons of storms, no other beacons or bolsters will mark from the wilderness, the shelter of home. Emmanuel Obiechina! One of our elders and greatest masters, Chinua Achebe, declared the story our escort through one of his fictive characters. Emmanuel Obiechina! You were a great story and will remain, through your fastidious labor and our deathless memories, a great escort, invaluable and everlasting…

Chimalum Nwankwo id Professor of English at the North Carolina A&T University Greensboro, NC   USA,


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