Letter from Washington

September 30, 2010

Dubem Okafor And The Garlands of Anguish…..

Dubem Okafor :
The living always modify or falsify perspectives to justify what they think of the dead. But, that is understandable especially when the dead lived a life so complex and ordinarily incomprehensible to most people.

And then, of course, to die like Dubem Okafor died creates even further complications, offering more baffling speculative takes and intensity of gaze than a normal death would have invited.

Dr. Dubem Okafor was my friend and school mate at the University of Nigeria. He graduated one year before me from the famous post-Biafran war University of Nigeria , Nsukka, known for its great concentration of talented students.

These were largely students trapped by the Biafra civil war and therefore entering the University at points when they should have almost been graduating.

Those students were also lucky despite the infrastructural decrepitude caused by the war ; some of the greatest scholars and teachers of the time were there to shepherd the ebullient post-war campus, especially the Department of English.

There were there ; MJC Echeruo, Donatus Nwoga, Emmanuel Obiechina, Romanus Egudu, Juliet Okonkwo, Helen Chukwuma, Nnabuchi Orji and a plenitude of young rising stars who were University Junior Fellows or Teaching Assistants. One could not have wished for anything better than being a student in those hands and environment.

It was a strange crucible of delightful work and inspiration. The best students in the Department were generally driven by the great desire to be like those scholars and teachers ; for in our ambitious eyes, each was a ball encasing ideal, idol, mentor, guide, and beacon of our ride into the rainbowed heavens of the future.

As under-graduates, we cliqued arrogantly into two groups, simply future writers and others. The “future writers” coincidentally, were always in the best brackets of performance. We cultivated an early haughty confidence and self-assurance which nearly derailed most of us before we could earn any garland or laurels.

Graduating, first class or second class upper was like the visa into the starry skies. But our encounter with the Western world was a “not-so-fast!” injunction that we had to learn to adjust.

We had thought that understanding the Western tradition and consciousness was the only ferry across their seemingly placid lakes of genteel culture and reason. We did not see through the mirage of political and ideological deception,affectation and pretense, the drama of phoney propriety, and the quicksands of pathological racist condescension.

It was only a matter of time for us to begin to understand the laborious finesse for negotiating the assorted subtleties demanded by cultural imperialism and a thinly veiled paternalism.

Dubem, like some of us, barely survived an M.A degree from England. He, again like some of us, also barely survived the Ph.D. in the USA. Despite his numerous books, creative and scholarly, he was denied a full professorship at Kutztown University where he taught for many years.

The vicissitudes attendant on the trails of his various paper chases exacerbated a drinking habit picked up as a young man who enjoyed life excessively, living with his unpredictable maternal uncle, the celebrated late poet, Christopher Okigbo.

The tragic death of Okigbo did not help his state of mind neither did the state of the Nigerian nation both of which he captured so beautifully in angry grandiloquence in Dance of Death. His second book of essays, Cycle of Doom, affirmed his uncanny understanding of human destiny as well as he defined the trajectory of his individual destiny in one of his poetry books, Garlands of Anguish.

For Dubem, anguish came from multiple sources. His Nigerian marriages were the unfortunate casualties of his tempestuous temperament. That temperament was that of a perfectionist, a terrible irony.

He sought beauty everywhere. He sought perfection in his reading and definition of the world. He wanted you, his friends, his wife and children, to reflect his own brilliance in their conducts. He hoped that he could lead by example. Alas, he could not.

His greatest pain came from his failed Nigerian marriages, especially the first marriage which he regretted up till our last conversation, two days before his sad death. He knew he was wrong with the wives but never knew how to use the spirit leash in all of us. His last wife, a Jamaican, came with a promise of renewal, but that hope we now know could not last too.

Exile first killed my friend, Dubem. Encourage Nigerians abroad to stay in touch with home always. Dubem Okafor was my friend alive, and remains my friend in death. Disoriented,his fortunes or misfortune as an overseas academic prepared the crypt for his death.

The debacle from a third marriage staged the burial. There are complex tearful dramas behind this sketch that will remain private. Irresponsible internet speculations and wild media speculations about a man who lost compact with his chi should be more cautious and sympathetic,attracting more prayers than insensitive condemnation. All religions and spiritual or mystical ways appreciate the wisdom in one old simple common injunction : judge not !

I was at the funeral. His little daughter snuggled up to me when I sat with  some of the bereaved family. After addressing me by my nickname, “Spirit”, she brought out her cell phone and started dialing. Knowing I was looking at her, she, in most painful innocence, looked up into my eyes and informed me : “I am calling my daddy”. A new flood of tears dimmed my eyes.

Chimalum Nwankwo Professor of English North Carolina A&T State University Greensboro, NC USA