The maiden edition of a poetry festival to celebrate the late Christopher Okigbo may have come across as ambitious to many, but the two day event was a success by many standards. I arrived the hotel in Awka at about 4.45pm on Saturday, August 15, glad to see that many young writers and students had also converged from far and near to celebrate the iconic Okigbo.
We were scheduled to leave the hotel at 6.30pm for dinner with the governor of Anambra state – a very appealing date, you may guess. Unable to snooze for one hour as I had planned, I found myself swept into the embrace of the other five guest poets—all male I may add, and then a rather engaging conversation with Uche Umez and Chuma Nwokolo about today’s literature; craft, discipline, the seeming paucity of poetry (really?), and the rush to lose our cultures on the shores of popular culture.
Echoes of this conversation were heard during dinner with the governor who spoke about the sad reality we face in a country where many parents who can afford to school their children outside the nation’s shores, are proud to declare that their children speak only English – a trend which I daresay happens even with parents who live and raise their children in Nigeria. After the governor’s visit, there was a bonfire in the Okigbo compound.
Drums, flutes, dancing and poetry spoke coherent tunes all through the night. I was unsure of just what to perform, until we were asked to do an individual salute to Okigbo – before his gravestone. The inscription read REQUISCAT IN PACE, but being a believer in continuous movement after life in the flesh, I stood there and wished the poet a joyful onward journey. In those solemn moments I decided on the folksong that would usher in my performance. A refrain in Okigbo’s poem, Distances played again and again in my mind: ‘...I was the sole witness to my homecoming...’
The rains threatened the poetry and the bonfire, but the words, music and dancing surged on, pulsating in defiance to the elements. I was in good company, from Umez’s thought provoking poetry, Tade Ipadeola’s striking take of Okigbo’s poetry to Nduka Otiono and Chuma Nwokolo’s equally enchanting baritones, and not forgetting Chijioke Amu-nnadi’s flowing verses— so I sang lustily, in the assurance that each poets voice rang out in the clarity and uniqueness that made our collective ensemble a beauty to listen to. And then there was Palmwine! The last I tasted such sweetness was decades ago in Uyo, when my grandfather’s palms were still productive and the tapster would drop a gourd or two in our country home before proceeding to the market – but I digress.
Day two was the day each pilgrim retraced the steps of the persona that Okigbo presented in his collection Labyrinth. From Awka, we drove through Amawbia, Enugu-ukwu, Nri, Abagana, and other towns till we reached the edge of Idemili. On this stretch of the journey to the Okigbo residence, I sat with James and Odili, who regaled me ancient tales of each land— how the original settlers in Amawbia were out-of-towners, and how Nri is known as the cradle of civilization, not just for the Igbo man, but the world as a whole, and how Abagana was known for their war god, and how this was the one place where Nigerian soldiers had a tough time defeating Biafran soldiers during the civil war. It was on this bus that I learnt that Ojoto was made up of several clans and how Idoto was actually Ide-oto—supposedly meaning goddess of Oto.
The journey to Idoto involved brief stops at Ukpaka-oto, and Ide-oto; the male and female embodiment of the town’s diety. Leading the sojourn was a minstrel known as Okigbo Ibem. Ibem’s voice rang out distinct and sonorous in praise and invocation, and then we were joined by a priestess and then another priestess of Idoto. Standing next to the first priestess in red George wrapper and beads, I couldn’t help but notice her calabash, laden with items of worship—nzu (native chalk), egg and camwood, and some loose change. We watched her pay homage at both spots.
Later I would wonder if it was sexist or patriarchal; the fact that the male deity was housed in concrete and metal, while the female shrine was an unpretentious clearing in the bush. Or maybe it was simply that Ide-oto needed no fixed abode for she was boundless just like a river and a harbinger of unbound blessing, creativity and fruitfulness, like Ndem in Ibibio/Efik mythology, while the male counterpart was used for sorcery and other sinister pursuits.
But the priestess’ worship and the deity did not fascinate me as much as listening to a recording of Christopher Okigbo’s voice; as played by his daughter Obiageli. The voice crackled to life—a glimpse of almost half a century ago captured and replayed through an intense refinement of technology. Would Okigbo have imagined that his voice, reading ‘Lament of the drums’ could command that much attention decades after, seeping out through the speakers of a laptop — a device that did not exist in his day? The voice of Okigbo paved the way for readings of his poems by the guest poets. It may not have been the sweetest of appetizers, but it gave no doubt as to the proud origins, and the resoluteness of its owner.
The pilgrimage was interspersed with long treks through bush paths. Ibem, the minstrel called out a soulful invocation, and intermittently the priestess would respond. As we passed by an oilbean, and many farmlands of cassava, each pilgrim followed the minstrel’s voice and we trudged on in single file; missing our way once, and retracing our steps through the labyrinthine network of footpaths. Rest came when we were but a few meters from river Idoto. Rest came in the form of green canopies of bamboo trees, providing shade from the sun and encasing us in a scenic beauty that took one’s breath away.
Here, we enjoyed performances from all the guest poets, and a few other poets present on the pilgrimage. Traditional drums and an oja player completed the entertainment. The oja flutist was especially felt when Amu-nnadi read his poem ‘Shrine’, to round off performances and usher us to the last point of call.
Having experienced the long walk through the labyrinth, each pilgrim stood cleansed, eager worshipper at the shrine of poetry, ready to stand before the watery presence of Mother Idoto. The roads to her banks were flooded, yet the last pilgrims standing found their way to her, and soaked in her energizing coolness.
We would joke later that day, that having visited Okigbo’s graveside and undertaken the pilgrimage to Idoto, a special unction had now befallen each pilgrim—we were never to remain the same again.
As I end this piece however, the last lines in ‘Elegy for Alto’, from Okigbo’s LABYRINTH loom ominous before me:
‘An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before its going and coming that goes on forever...’