Saturday, 16 August 2014

84th birthday of Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo

(Born 16 August 1930, Ojoto, Igboland)
Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo is Africa’s most celebrated and most influential poet. He occupied the poetry chair of the continent’s post-(European)conquest literary academy in the 1960s with Chinua Achebe the head of the novel institute and Wole Soyinka, head of drama.

Okigbo’s scholarship and influences are extensive and varied: Igbo history, mythology, art and philosophy, ancient world religious and spiritual heritage encompassing Kemet (“ancient Egypt”), Nri, Idemili,  Babylon, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Greece and Roman as well as the poetry of Ovid, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Yeats, Mallarmé, Eliot, Pound, Hopkins.

Right from the outset, Okigbo’s perspicacious intellectual contribution in mapping out the tenets of Africa’s renaissance scholarship is his focus on both redeeming the European World-occupation’s assault on the spiritual embodiment of African existence, in the wake of the conquest, and confronting a ruthless genocide state-in-the-making in Nigeria at the first half of the 1960s. Okigbo’s worldview does not tolerate any excuses for either the perpetration or perpetuation of any forms of tyranny and subjugation of peoples. Consequently, Okigbo’s poetry has had a profound impact on the work of several poets of his generation as well as on the ever-expanding stretch of the “post”-Igbo genocide generation of poets and writers in other genres.

Crucial site

Fifty years on, the state in contemporary Africa is inherently a genocide-state – exemplified most catastrophically by Nigeria, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Okigbo’s incisive scholarship (see, especially, Christopher Okigbo, Heavensgate, Silences, Limits, Distances, “Laments of the Masks”, “Laments of the Deer”, “Four Canzones” and Path of Thunder), to the poet’s eternal credit, anticipates the nature and characterisation of the multifocal crises of this development and rigorously interrogates their tragic consequences. For Okigbo, given the operationalising backdrop of the European conquest and occupation, the spiritual is a crucial site of the African resistance and campaign for the restoration of sovereignty. This is because the eventual goal of the occupation’s assault is aimed at burrowing a cataclastic fault-line in the soul of the people to pre-empt or complicate their determined process of recovery on the morrow of the triumph of freedom. Evidently, Okigbo responds to this emergency, in his scholarship, by weaving a multilayered and panoramic landscape of often-complex fabric of overarching architecture of ideas that meditates on the variegated spiritual universe of the people.

 (The New York Contemporary Five, “Trio” – personnel: Archie Shepp, tenor saxophone; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet;  John Tchicai, alto saxophone; Don Moore, bass; JC Moses, drums [recorded: live, Jazzhus Montmarte, Copenhagen, Denmark, 15 November 1963])

In the 1960-1966 Nigeria historical context particularly, Okigbo’s scholarship of resistance pitches its tent squarely on behalf of those who would confront blatantly-rigged election results and imposed parties and leaderships, rigged census returns, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rabid and rampant authoritarianism and, most tragically of all, the Nigeria state-organised genocide against the Igbo people, Africa’s post-conquest foundational genocide. The poet himself was killed defending his beloved motherland. 3.1 million Igbo people were murdered during the 44 months of the genocide – 29 May 1966-12 January 1970.

In the gripping lines of his last poem cycle, Path of Thunder, written before the outbreak of the genocide but published posthumously, Okigbo breathtakingly presages the contours of the cataclysmic consequences of the genocide and his own likely death during the slaughter (Labyrinths with Path of Thunder, 1971: 71-72):

AND THE HORN may now paw the air howling goodbye …

For the Eagles are now in sight:
Shadows in the horizon –

THE ROBBERS are here in black sudden steps of showers, of
caterpillar –
THE EAGLES have come again,
The eagles rain down on us –

POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of
detonators –
THE EAGLES descend on us,
Bayonets and cannons –

THE ROBBERS descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our
thunder –

THE EAGLES have chosen their game …

POLITICIANS are here in this iron dance of mortars, of
generators –
THE EAGLES are suddenly there,
New stars of iron dawn;

So let the horn paw the air howling goodbye …

O mother mother Earth, unbind me; let this be
my last testament; let this be
The ram’s hidden wish to the sword the sword’s
secret prayer to the scabbard –

BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track –

THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave,
together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be
the ram’s ultimate prayer to the tether …

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 a going and coming that goes on forever…

Many a season

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo would be appalled by the devastation of Igboland, 44 years after the end of the third phase of the genocide. He wouldn’t rest on his laurels, though, in response to challenge and overcome what is undoubtedly a clear, conscious, fiendishly-scripted and targetedly-driven haematophagous monster to destroy one of the world’s very talented peoples. Okigbo, who believes in the power of words, would head for his keyboard … and more …

History testifies that the quest for human freedom is not often an engagement pursued over just one season. For many, and the Igbo appear to be incorporated in this group, it is rather much more painfully drawn out; it could entail a cast of over several, long seasons. This trajectory, therefore, inevitably, encapsulates its vivid vicissitudes of pain … grief … opportunities … turmoil … setbacks … triumphs … turmoil … grief …  opportunities … breakthroughs …  What is at stake here is for a more focused, more steadfast, and a more enduring understanding of the huge tasks ahead. Surely this is music in the ears of the resourceful and resilient Igbo people.

The Igbo can and will rebuild their battered towns and villages, and economy, which was one of Africa’s fastest growing power houses on the eve of the genocide. Unquestionably, the Igbo will restore their sovereignty. As the Okigboan œuvre demonstrates, human freedom eventually prevails most luminously. Okaa Omee.


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