I wished I’d known him
By Donu Kogbara
A FOND farewell to James Udensi Akwari Iroha, OON, the iconic veteran comedy actor, scriptwriter and director who died earlier on this week.
Because I grew up in England during the pre-satellite era when Nigerian TV programmes could not be accessed abroad, I never actually got a chance to see any of Iroha’s acclaimed performances as Giringori Akabuogu, houseboy to the fictional Chief Zebrudaya Okorigwe Nwogbo (played by Chika Okpala).
But I knew a lot about Giringori anyway because many of my Nigeria-based relatives and friends who passed through London at the height of Giringori’s fame would affectionately mimic him and regale me with hilarious stories about his buffoonish on-screen antics. Giringori had so many ardent fans, including normally serious-minded uncles who did not make a habit of being humorous. One of Iroha’s sons, his namesake, Akwari, has said that his father wasn’t interested in wealth acquisition and that his TV show, which enthralled audiences for nearly two decades, was “a kind of tonic for peoples’souls. It offered them a kind of break in their tension-charged atmosphere…”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself and think it safe to say that few invented characters or television dramas have had such a huge and positive impact on popular culture and on Nigerians of all types. Giringori was a wholesome breath of fresh air and national treasure who became firmly lodged in the realm of my youthful imagination; and I yearned to watch “Masquerade”, the long-running soap opera in which he was a leading light.
Amusing and touching post
While I was reading a tribute to James Iroha in another newspaper, I came across an amusing and touching post that had been pulled from his Facebook page. It appeared at the end of last year, on the eve of Igbotonma, a festival that is celebrated in Item, the part of Abia State Iroha came from. Igbotonma celebrates the passage of time; and Iroha, who had just turned 70 and was about to be honoured alongside other members of his new age-grade, issued the following open invitation to the general public:
“If you happen to be anywhere near Amokwe Item on December 27, I would seriously like to have you come to mine for a very unserious event…I am being forcefully retired from traditional activities and apparently it will have to be celebrated, as in loads of wack, drinks and laughs….
“…Come with your autograph books as some of my professional colleagues will be present, don’t forget to update your insurance policies as there may be risks of cracking your ribs whilst laughing, (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Seriously guys, it will be a privilege to have you around for my ‘Igbotonma’.”
Cheerful, informal, big-hearted, atypical, unmaterialistic, creative, unpompous and self-confident enough to make fun of himself. Definitely my kind of person! How I wish I’d been able to meet and know him.
WHY is almost every Nigerian I have met so obsessed with government? Those who are out of government are obsessed with getting into government and will do anything – from going down on bended knee and selling their bodies to dishing out bribes and betraying their friends – to achieve this objective.
Meanwhile, those who are already in government are totally obsessed with staying in government and can’t bear the thought of doing anything else…even if they have cosmopolitan talents that will enable them to do well anywhere. Even when someone is doing excellently overseas, they will be pressured to rush home to join government. Even when an entrepreneur is thriving without depending on government, he must somehow make himself part of government.
Even when someone has a personality that is not suited to the Nigerian government milieu – and possesses skills that are useable outside the Nigerian public sector arena – Nigerians will still urge them to seek government jobs. I am instinctively straightforward, unsychophantic, bullshit-despising and protocol-hating. I respect some institutions, some elders and some politicians, but I don’t automatically defer to The Establishment (a) because a lot of Establishment figures are woefully inadequate in my opinion and (b) because I am a free-spirited lateral-thinker and artistic intellectual iconoclast at heart.
I have been a full-time Federal Ministry employee before and was absolutely miserable most of the time. I am currently a non-executive Director of a government Board; and I am, bluntly put, certainly not enjoying the experience. Those who know me well know that I am not an ideal government candidate and that I’d rather write great books, make illuminating films, paint wonderful pictures or cultivate beautiful gardens than hang out in the corridors of power.
But, despite being aware that Donu and Government are like chalk and cheese, most of the people around me constantly hassle me to build my future plans around governmental aspirations. And I know that these pro-government advisors mean well, but I find their attitude depressing and mystifying. I have travelled widely and related to people of several different nationalities; and Nigeria is the only country in which I have encountered this bizarre belief that no other type of work matters as much as government jobs or contracts.
When I told one of my Nigerian pals that I felt appreciated when I lived in the UK because I had sometimes enjoyed privileges such as my portrait being displayed in the reception area of BBC Television’s Headquarters in London, he still couldn’t understand why I might wish to return to the British media scene.
When I say that while I would humbly take any job I was offered if I was desperate for an income, I am glad that I am not desperate and am proud to be a writer/broadcaster and would honestly rather be Wole Soyinka or Maya Angelou than Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or Diezani Allison-Madueke, my cousins wrinkle their brows in utter shock and nag me to forget about my wishy-washy literary tendencies and to go and beg the President for a senior sinecure!
When I say that I might have regarded government work as worthwhile if Nigeria had been the sort of place where reform-orientated perfectionists are allowed to make a significant difference, I am roundly told off for manufacturing stupid excuses for not clamouring to join the winners’club! Imagine a country in which almost everyone has the same ambition and is more interested in the status and thieving opportunities than the delivery aspect!
Imagine a country in which square pegs are routinely encouraged to squeeze into round holes! Imagine a country in which civilized non-governmental attainments are widely dismissed as irrelevant or inferior! Imagine a country in which everyone knows the price of everything and few know the value of anything!
One can only pray that God will one day liberate us from this massive psychological problem because you know what? Nigeria is in trouble and isn’t going to extricate itself from the mess until the collective mindset changes.
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