By NNAEMEKA EZEMA
Pond of Leeches written by Stephen Kekeghe, a play of fourteen movements of varying lengths with an aptly illustrative cover page is another new voice ingeniously crafted as a strong indictment on the political leadership of our nation. The artistic manipulation of techniques and explicit depiction of our common and disturbing concerns are the hallmarks that have ensconced this literary piece within the functional ambience of African literature.
From the title of the play to the characters and settings are the metaphorical instances of our collective agony in Nigeria in the recent past. In the main, the conflicts that sustain throughout the events in the texts are the counter forces of the greedily grasping and growth stultifying hands of the leeches and the arduous efforts of the victims to extricate themselves and assert their humanness once more. It is obvious that these seen and unseen hands of these maniacally desperate exploiters are the very leeches that have dominated Okugbe Community, the pond.
It is instructive to elevate Okugbe beyond the precinct of a Niger Delta community in Nigeria to its real allegorical encapsulation of Nigeria as a country. This effort will achieve two things for us. We will be able to identify with the settings, characters and the thematic preoccupation that the playwright attempts to defamiliarize and properly situate the text on its true nationalistic pedestal.
Apart from Okugbe which has been identified as the Nigerian nation, other elements that can be viewed through the national prism are the Okugbe Community Hall and Egbo Quartres. The Okugbe Community Hall has every semblance of the National Assembly in Nigeria. Just as it is said to happen in the legislative chamber, Okugbe Community Hall is where people like Chief Shenye and Chairman converge to make decisions, fritter the public funds and corner large chunk into their personal purse. The Egbo Quarters is the resource base of Okugbe Community yet the least cared for.
In the words of Ophu, ‘A quarter from which comes the lion’s share of the wealth of a community also has the lion’s share of poverty in the community.’ This evidently alludes to the Niger Delta part of Nigeria where the playwright hails from. This is a people who has been dispossessed of their God-given resources and left abandoned and wretched, hence the conflict that has enveloped the area.
Apart from that, the characters are clearly divided into three sets to mirror the classes in our society and the tensions that have been generated as a result of the nexus of relationship among them. The chairman, Chief Shenge, and Bishop Ukemu conveniently occupy the category that could properly be identified as the real leeches, the heartless exploiters. While Oteri, Ovwata’s brother, belongs to the category of the people whose strength though palpable has been enfeebled by fear. Incapacitated by trembling nerves, Oteri has been conditioned to bear and endure and is never ready to ‘take up arms against the sea of trouble and by opposing, end them’, to borrow from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But Ovwata has vowed to pick up the gauntlet. He belongs to the third and last category who tries to confront the surging force of oppression. He confidently leads this class and drives the course with unrelenting passion and candour. The heartless and inordinate quest to appropriate collective wealth to individual selves springs the stringent voice of protest in Ovwata, conspicuously launching him at the very epicenter of the conflict that runs through the text. The consequences of this messianic disposition are not mild.
He has lost his son, wife and mother and taking his life has become a non-negotiable priority for Chairman. Ovwata hence deploys every strategy of survival, including navigating through the metaphysical (a practice that anchors the drama toward magical realism) to keep himself buoyed throughout the struggle. The Niger Delta question resonated in this wonderful drama piece should be of interesting concern to the Eco critics. The devastating environmental degradation and its attending hazards are sources of deep creative exploration in this work. But the worst of all is that while the so-called leaders scavenge on the resources from the Egbo Quarters, the common people bear the brunt of this disaster.
It is within the intricacy of this heart-wrenching injustice that the playwright has tempered on a very delicate ligament of the country. The call for justice and fair distribution of resources for a corporate coexistence obviously underlines the Marxist bent of Pond of Leeches. That is why this projection into the future should be taken very seriously as a warning and not necessarily a prophecy. There is no gainsaying the fact therefore that Kekeghe’s warning at this point should be taking very seriously, especially at the backdrop of very recent agitation for self-government in some quarters of the country.
In rendering these very important concerns, Stephen Kekeghe deploys a very captivating language rich in proverbs and graphic imagery. The lines of the drama easily yield to a very strong cadence which makes it a very interesting stage play. Its vivid depiction of the societal ills is further strengthened by this aspect of the play.
Despite some occasional punctuation errors and grammatical infelicities that can be attributed the printer’s devil, there appears to be a structural problem over Ovwata’s death occasioned by the surprising attack of the new Okukpe Community after the resolution of the conflicts appears unnecessary. Despite this, Pond of Leeches confidently secures a space in the functional paradigm of modern African literature and launches Stephen Kekeghe into the league of Ngugi Wa Thiongo and the likes
Ezema is a doctoral candidate of the department of English, University of Ibadan