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One birthday & a funeral

By Obi Nwakanma
It is Christmas again! It is my favourite time of the year – when the languid air smells of good fare: the sharing of goodwill; the visit of friends and family; the return of migrants from various corners of the earth; the salute to the belly by all forms of gormandizing acts – the sheer sense of completion of another cycle of life and of the seasons. All these amplify the significance of this time of the year.

This is what Christmas means to me. I am a revert to Odinala – the sacred practice of the covenants of peace in the ancient religious observances of the Igbo.

So, Christmas to me has assumed a different order of reality. It has become a time for celebration and reflection; when we cleanse the land after much thanksgiving and rededicate ourselves to the great mystery called life.

It is also a time to remember those who did not arrive at the end of the tape. One, Anthony Enahoro, journalist and nationalist politician, even now lies prostrate in the morgue, though his measure has already been fully taken by history. I shall do a proper tribute and review of his life in due course. But, let me pay due regard to the living: just this past November, Christian Chike Momah turned 80 years.

C.C. Momah, as his friends call him, like his best friend and classmate at the elite Government College, Umuahia and the University College, Ibadan, the novelist Chinua Achebe, were born in the exact month and year.

They both turned 80 on the marks. They also seem to share the same qualities of wise fortitude and quiet, self-effacing dignity and disregard for loud self-adulation. I think there’s something about their generation. But Achebe is the more well-known as a world famous writer.

So, a great event, the “Achebe Colloquium on Africa” was organised at the famous Brown University in Rhode Island to honour him appropriately.

Yet, Chike Momah, also a writer, could have been no less formidable had he pursued his literary instincts further in those early years when as a young Assistant Librarian at the University College, Ibadan, late in the 1950s, his short story was first published in that anthology edited by Olumbe Bashir. But he chose a different part and returned only later to writing, but by which time his generation had all but shared, the wood of the breadfruit tree.

To know Chike Momah, nonetheless, is to know a certain clear moral depth and a deep humility which makes him unsuitable for the deadly pace that fame and ambition propels us. He is a man at peace with himself. Yet, it is a peace that I find ironic, because at his great age, and, in the preparations of his life, he ought to be, not in some exile in America, but at home in Uruagu, Nnewi, shaping the spirit of the land.

Momah’s generation typifies for me that significant rupture of time between the sacred past of our antiquity and the secular present of our modernity. Born in Aba to a Railways man, Momah is in that generation of the modern Igbo; indeed, a clear product of the modern spirit and the appellations that Benedict Anderson makes valid in his work, “Imagined Communities.”

His situation has also been an accretion of his experience and motions through life: educated at St. Michael’s School, Aba, when Chu Okongwu’s father was Headmaster there, Momah was admitted to the Government College, Umuahia, in 1944 and the University College, Ibadan, in 1949, where he studied English and Religion.

He was a Lands officer in Eastern Nigeria in 1954 and moved in 1957 to become Assistant University Librarian at the University College, Ibadan, and later pioneer Deputy Librarian of the University of Lagos until 1966, when he left, following the Eni Njoku/Biobaku imbroglio.

Incidentally, he had been one of Saburi Biobaku’s favourite students at the Government College, Umuahia; a fact which did not stop Momah from telling his old teacher some firm truths in that incident. He moved that year to the Sorbonne in Paris and from thence to become a Librarian of the United Nations, first in Geneva, and later at the Das Hammarskjöld Library of the UN in New York from which he retired.

Thus did Momah serve, as an international civil servant, forsaking it seems, the hurly-burly of Nigerian affairs. He was in his time a formidable cricket batsman and a member for years, of Nigeria’s national cricket team of the 1940s and 50s. A fact which perhaps makes him very spritely and unbent by age or by affliction. He is a cancer survivor.

It was truly out of great regard for this icon of the Nigerian Diaspora community in the United States that I drove with my family all the way from St. Louis, Missouri to Arlington, Texas, to propose a toast to a great life at a party organised in his honour by his family, led by his daughter, Ada.

There, among many, were Dr. Dozie Ikedife, former president of Ohanaeze and Mr. Z.C. Obi (jnr.) whose elder sister, Ethel, is Momah’s eternal bride. But while we were celebrating Momah’s birthday, the piercing cry of mourning rent the air from the compound of Emmanuel Obiechina, another great icon of his age and of the Nigerian Diaspora in the United States.

His death was too sudden and unexpected. Professor Emmanuel Obiechina was one of Africa’s foremost scholars and leading literary critic and cultural theorist. There is that critical triumvirate – Echeruo, Irele and Obiechina – to whom we can ascribe the foundational ideas that have shaped modern African critical ideas in the academy.

Born in Jos, in the north of Nigeria, Obiechina, a radical and humane intellectual spent his early years in schools in Kaduna where he also taught, including people like C.K. Nzeogwu, before attending the University College, Ibadan, in 1957, graduating top of his class in 1961. He was appointed in 1961 to the Nigerian Foreign Service as a Foreign Service Officer and worked as a Political Officer in the Ministry of External Affairs until 1963 when he left for Cambridge.

Among his most memorable postings in the Foreign Ministry was as Political liaison officer in the Congo during the civil war in which the Nigerian Army served in the Peacekeeping operations.

As he said to me, “I remember very vividly because Emma (Ifeajuna) and I used to drive around in the Congo. I had no inkling what was going on in his mind but it was obvious that he was very impatient with the path that Nigeria was toeing after independence.” He was, however, surprised, while studying in Cambridge to be alerted of a coup in Lagos. He returned from Cambridge in 1967 and joined the faculty of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he made a lasting mark, publishing among many distinguished works, the book on Onitsha Market Literature.

I came to know Prof. Obiechina more closely in later years and I was impressed by his gentle, humane, thoughtful and witty nature – a fact which one of his favourite students, the poet Chimalum Nwankwo has consistently attested.  I had been with Prof. Obiechina in Syracuse, New York, only two weeks to his death, during a celebration of his friend, MJC Echeruo.

I remember vividly his sense of joy and his affecting, dignified and polite manners; and that last supper as it turns out with all of us – Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Obiora Udechukwu, Maik Nwosu, Anthonia Kalu, Lokangaka Losambe – and others in a repast in Echeruo’s home.

He was as usual ebullient and penetrating in his insights. Later, I rode in the same car with him back to the hotels; I observed that his movement was slowing, but I did not glimpse death in his eyes. But the days fly by us and so do great men. It is a coming and going that goes on forever.


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