By Uboho Bassey
AT this point, I wish to establish clearly the fact that writing this piece is a self-inflicted choice. No one threw down the gauntlet. I am not a journalist by training. If anyone had asked me to, I’d most certainly, respectfully decline. It feels like a precarious climb up a steep mountain, this feeble attempt to capture the events of the posthumous 90th birthday celebration of late Dr. James Ene Henshaw. I hope though that there’d be few hands to hold me as I tumble down the mountainside, temporarily. Temporarily, for I would still attempt to write again, another day!
How does someone present a paper without a paper? You’d have to sit in and listen to Effiong Johnson, a professor of Theatre Arts, Film and Communication Studies, University of Uyo, for you to have a clue. This was a class act. A gathering like no other. By the time he ended his discourse on Magic in Blood, it was evident he himself has “magic in his tongue!” For someone who hadn’t read the play before, Prof. Johnson broke down the content in the simplest of ways, leading the audience into growing with the characters, scenes and scenarios, delving into nuances of culture and traditional influences, the ethos and pathos of the literary work, etc. He wove an amazing tapestry of timeless essence that a piece that was written in the early 1960s came alife instantly. There’s certainly no question about his mastery of aesthetics!
You thought we were listening to the drama being retold? No! We were actually watching a drama being enacted right before our very eyes. And what are the elements of a drama, you might ask? Plot, character, tension, language, spectacle, audience, mood, atmosphere. Actors on the stage, performer after another, speaker after speaker, perfect script delivery always, seamless flow, flair and excellence captured in every scene, an audience activated! But let’s return to the beginning, when the curtain was raised.
Prof. Effiong Johnson (left); journalist and author of Ekong Nke, Ini Ite-Ubong and Dr. Udeme Nana at the 90th posthumous birthday celebration of Dr. James Ene Henshaw in Uyo
The evening started with the arrival of the academia, university dons of no mean repute, patrons, invited guests, students, members of Uyo Book Club, etc. The meeting room at City View Watbridge Hotel and Suites gradually filled up even as virtual guests steadily filled up the Zoom room with link provided. This is Our Chance is Henshaw’s best known among his plays.
At the background was the massive backdrop poster advertising the event:
THE JAMES HENSHAW MEMORIAL.
DR. JAMES ENE HENSHAW
A LITERARY LEGEND @90
At the high table were the following distinguished culture guests: Host and founder of Uyo Book Club (UBC), Dr. Udeme Nana, Chairman of the occasion, Mr. Ekan Ubong (rtd), Permanent Secretary, Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Education, Professor Effiong Johnson, Dean Faculty of Arts, University of Uyo, Professor Joseph Ushie, and the author of Eköñ Nke, Ini Ite Ubong. The energetic Chair, Planning Committee, Dr. Bassey Ubong held the reins seamlessly from the opening protocol to the finale in admirable style. Also worthy of mention were Patron, Raffia City Book Club, Abom Tony Esu, Dr. Martin Akpan, Professor Solomon Obotetukudo, and General Manager, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Uyo, Mrs. Alice Ugbe. Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. Ekong Sampson, was unavoidably absent but had his goodwill message read on his behalf by Mr. Samuel Udoma. Others present were Ndifreke Enefiok, Abak Book Club Coordinator, Mary Jonas, Mfon Ebebe, and a host of others too numerous to mention, but definitely wonderful people.
In his opening remarks, Founder of UBC, Dr. Nana, reiterated the mission of the club, saying it’s “To promote, to reawaken, to attempt a counter-culture on the reading habits of Nigerians.” He applauded the fact that Uyo successfully became the first-ever National Book Club City in Nigeria for two years running in 2021 and 2022. Uyo Book Club has, over the years, developed the culture of celebrating legends and literary icons. In time past, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka all enjoyed such honour, and now it was the turn of the son of the soil, Dr. James Ene Henshaw.
Dr. Nana then canvassed support for John Obot in his Guinness World Record attempt to read for 145 unbroken hours. He assured that when the success of the feat comes, the honour, limelight and focus will be collectively and positively shared first by Akwa Ibom State and then Nigeria.
The Planning Committee Chairman, Dr. Ubong added that Akwa Ibom State is known for astounding firsts, as it has also recorded the Guinness World Record for longest cooking hours held by Hilda Baci, and the first Nigeria Police Force Headquarters in Abuja named after one of her statesmen, Sir Louis Edet.
The chairman of the event, Mr. Ekan Ubong, expressed delight at being called to witness such a gathering. Describing himself as an avid reader, he said he set for himself an almost impossible dream of reading all the literary works in the library of his alma mater, Etinan Institute, before graduation. He said everyone must “Do something worth remembering in their lifetime.”
When Dr. Martin Akpan took the stage, not a few people in the audience had a clue to the dramatic performance that awaited them. He delved into his thoughts on Medical Doctors in Literature, an exhaustive and incisive commentary that had many other professionals wishing they were medical doctors, as he made his audience believe that doctors have a symbiotic relationship with writing. He cited a curious relationship between medicine and creativity and the mythological Apollo, on who’s creed new medical doctors are made to swear their Hippocratic Oath. Amongst the several postulated reasons for writing, we came away with the gospel of atonement! “The involvement of Doctors in literary activities dates back to antiquity,” he said. Akpan stated that Dr. Ene Henshaw, the man we gathered to celebrate, was not the first Doctor-Writer, saying there were many others. History is factual on this, and there will be others still. He had a standing ovation at the end of his speech. It was an incredible drama he wove on stage!
The citation of the speaker, Prof. Effiong Johnson, read by Mr. Idongesit Nnah, was a synopsis of the academic, personal, religious and societal influence wielded by the playwright. The pastor, playwright and author of 120 books was an exciting wonder to listen to.
Professor Johnson began with calling attention to the striking resemblance between himself and Dr. Martin Akpan. On certain occasions, he said, he’s been stopped by his ‘supposed patients’ to enquire of their diagnosis. He waded through such encounters with finesse and effusiveness. But in the matter of Magic in Blood, he brought to light his in-depth knowledge and the staggering dimensions of his wisdom and erudition. Little wonder Prof. Joseph Ushie said he felt at a great disadvantage, being told to speak after his ‘brother’ had doused the stage in intellectual fireworks.
He led the audience into the appreciation of arts and new terminologies like affective stylistics and literary devices: farce, melodrama, satire, tragedy, comedy, ironies, language, and transliteration that one might find in the play, Magic in Blood.
In his comments as the rapporteur, Prof. Ushie spoke of Henshaw as “The man who saw tomorrow,” saying his works are as relevant today as they were when they were written years back. In marrying the thoughts of the speakers, he raised highlights about today’s leadership in the Judiciary, legislative and executive arms of government and standing them in comparison with the characters in Henshaw’s play.
What’s a birthday without a cake? The family may not have had a cake as Mr. James Henshaw Jnr said in his remarks from his base in London, but one must trust Uyo Book Club. In my attempt at transliteration I’d say: ‘We no dey fall hand. We sabi! We are masters of Dia mkpö, ta mkpo, kod nwèd, after all that’s said and done, Readers are Leaders!’ Esu saw to the matter of cake-cutting while Professor Obotetukudo proposed the toast in celebration of one of Nigeria’s finest, brilliant minds, Dr. Henshaw. The audience then drank to the continuous growth of the arts, the humanities, and creativity and authenticity.
The evening was a howling success, a fantastic trip into the mind of one of the finest breed of Medical Doctor-Writers, as attested to by his son, Mr. James Ene Henshaw Jr, who joined the meeting via Zoom alongside other family members. There’s plans for the centenary celebration, he said. He read his goodwill message to the audience.
“On behalf of the family of late James Ene Henshaw and the JEH Foundation,” he said, “I would like to thank Uyo Book Club for organising and putting up such a marvellous celebration of the playwright. When I first heard of the event, I was overcome with emotion. I, the foundation, have been doing our best to keep his literary work alive, and the fact that such eminent persons as all who were involved in the organising and were present at the celebration took it upon yourselves to honour his work was most profound for me. Dr Henshaw was never a man to blow his own trumpet and there was a danger his work would die with him. But his work touches the nerves of our very existence – though simple, it makes us think – like an onion, one can always peels off a layer to find something new in his plays; they make us cry and, above all, they make us laugh. At this juncture, the work of Ene Henshaw is our collective property. We have to cherish and nurture it. If we don’t, who else will? From what I witnessed yesterday, his work will not be buried and forgotten. It still burns with great intensity in the minds of those who have read his work. Even the young readers couldn’t help but laugh while reading. That’s what Ene Henshaw does to you… Once again, UBC well played.”
* Bassey, a poet author and member of Uyo Book Club, wrote in from Uyo