By Obadiah Mailafia
THE poet Odia Ofeimun’s 70th birthday comes up on Monday, March 16. When I was a first-year undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in the late ’70s, the name Odia Ofeimun was quietly making waves on campus. He was a youth corps member teaching in one of the secondary schools outside the old city. But his fame was already spreading. He had won the poetry prize at Ibadan and was being celebrated as a budding star.
In 1979 Odia made headlines as the new aide to UPN presidential candidate, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. His star waned somewhat when some important party secrets were spilled to the press and Odia became the fall guy. It took quite a while before it became clear that he was innocent. Over the decades, he has established himself as a national icon, celebrated journalist, irreverent social critic and poet.
We only met in the late 1980s at Oxford, where I was a graduate student and he was appointed as Rhodes Fellow at St. Antony’s College. We struck it off immediately. Our bond became stronger when he discovered that one of the brightest young poets that was emerging, Idzia Ahmad, happened to be my cousin. Idzia died tragically young, in his twenties.
Odia was the sun around which the rabble of Nigerian and African students constantly gravitated. He had a way of challenging you and making you rise up to your highest potentials. When he was finalising the manuscript on Under African Skies, I was privileged to read and critic it. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe counselled that an educated person ought, every day at least, “to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words”.
Poetry has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was introduced to the romantic poets by my literature teacher in secondary school, a young English woman from Liverpool by the name of Linda Hutchinson. As a prelim student in Zaria, my teacher Mrs. Maude Aliyu made poetry come alive for me. When she recited Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale in class, I could swear I saw one flying through the window!
For most of my teens, you would never catch me without a slim volume of either Byron or Wordsworth or Keats or Shelley. I later added Christopher Okigbo to my quiver, and, later, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kofi Awoonor, Dennis Brutus and Tchicaya U Tams’i. Not to forget T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Anna Akhmatova, Rilke, Osip Mandelstam and the immortal Pablo Neruda. I have dabbled in poetry, but I do not call myself a poet. The accumulated wisdom of time and experience has taught me that one is born to certain vocations. You are either born a poet or you are not. Same is true of artists, musical composers, great inventors and mathematicians. We are all differently wired. In the inimitable language of our Igbo people, one has to know what one’s Chi is made of and then pursue it with all of one’s heart, strength and might.
Odia was definitely born to be a poet. Poetry discovered him, as it were. He apparently did not follow a normal scholastic trajectory like your typical middle-class Nigerian. He worked as a labourer and factory hand; educating himself entirely at home before gaining entry to our premier University of Ibadan. He majored in political science. It turned out to be wise choice. The cognoscenti advise that budding writers should not major in literature and languages, as these are capable of unconsciously forcing obedience to literary rules and conventions that can easily stifle creativity.
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In my intellectual and personal interactions with Odia Ofeimun, I have come to revere him as one of the greatest literary oracles our country has ever produced. When his dear mother passed on about a decade ago, he confided to me that her only regret is that she was not privileged to hold her grandchildren. Odia has never been married. I suppose he is already married to poetry, which is a very jealous mistress.
One of the hopefuls, a very beautiful damsel, legend has it, visited Odia’s house and discovered that there was no place to sit down. Books lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Even the settees were taken over by dog-eared tomes. She wisely understood that she had no future in such bohemian settings.
Odia is an epitome of self-discipline. Perhaps he got some of that from our political master Obafemi Awolowo. He does not touch alcohol. Wherever we go, he will only drink water. He does not smoke. He is also a vegetarian. It was from him I learned that even your diet can affect your intellectual output and your level of spiritual vibration. But I cannot lie to you, women worship Odia Ofeimun. As a poet, I suppose he cannot afford the luxury of not reciprocating the kindness.
I am currently reading one of the classic Bildungsroman of German literature, Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe. It is evident that great poets have a deeply romantic streak. Great poets must always have a muse – that one woman to whom they can pour out their very soul. In the case of Odia, I do not have the privilege of knowing who his muse is.
There is something that happened long ago that I have never revealed. During his last days at Oxford, Odia was invited to read some of his poetry in Italy. I have forgotten which city it was – perhaps Rome or Torino or Trieste or Milano. On his way back, something went wrong. British immigration rules prevented anyone from entering Britain with a passport that has not less than two weeks to expire. Absent-minded poet that he was, Odia forgot that his passport had barely 10 days to expire. He was turned back at Heathrow Airport. He had to go back to Nigeria, leaving his flat in Oxford, with all his books and personal effects.
The part of the story we never told him was that the late Tajudeen Abdurrahim and myself had to break into the flat and pack up all his books and personal effects for safekeeping. Because we were indigent students, we could not hire a taxi to help us convey the personal effects. We had to get some sacks, with Taju holding one end and me the other, dragging the things through Corn Market Street, into a storage at St. Antony’s College. Taju is now late, but the memory of him and me dragging Odia’s things through the streets of Oxford like miserable tramps still fills me with laughter!
Odia will forever be the vagrant poet. He once turned up at Abuja airport from Lagos, only to realise that he had forgotten his purse at home and had no money even to get himself into town. Odia’s wealth cannot be quantified in bricks and mortar or in terms of investments in blue chip companies. His wealth is in the immortal songs that have sprung from his pen and the many he has inspired to achieve great things in life. I am one of his mentees.
The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that poets are inspired by “a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean”. Perhaps it was for this reason that Plato advocated the outright banning of all poets from his ideal republic. Plato was, of course, a fascist. In our age of violent extremes, poetry civilises and humanises.
Poetry lifts us above the banal and the commonplace towards the sublime and transcendent; towards truth, goodness and beauty – towards the eternal. The wealth of a nation can never be measured by GDP or by other economic and financial indices alone. It must also take account of the quality of the people; and their largeness of heart and mind.
In our age of crass philistinism, the barbarians currently ruling us are incapable of appreciating poetry or valorising the greatness of a writer. Great nations like France or Brazil would have used the likes of Soyinka or Odia as cultural ambassadors for their country. But they sadly will never. Happy birthday, Odia di Great!
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