By Ifesinchi Nwadike
ON Thursday, August 19, 2021, four selected poets, alongside other poets and literary afficionados converged in Awka for the third episode of Return to Idoto; a poetry festival/ritual in honour of Africa’s most beloved poet, Christopher Okigbo. The event was organized under the auspices of Awka Literary Society and championed by two literary allies, Odili Ujubuonu (award winning novelist and publisher) and James Eze (who was, in fact, the star poet of the event on account of his winning the ANA Poetry Prize of 2020 with his debut beautiful collection, dispossessed.)
The selected poets were James Eze, Aj Dagga Tolar, Nwachukwu Egbunike and me. My nomination was a clear case of sweet coincidence; I had visited my returnee mentor, Prof. Nduka Otiono in the guest house where he lodged and Ujubuonu was on ground to present his newly published novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream. Our discussions were largely around literature and the challenges faced by translators in reproducing a work of literature in another language. It was then that I mentioned to their hearing that I had begun translating Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths (1971) into Igbo language. The news elated them. Prof. Nduka, in his altruistic self, commended and pledged to be of help where necessary. He encouraged Ujubuonu to consider nominating me for the Return to Idoto festival and that was when Ujubuonu announced that the third leg was just around the corner and because of the work I’m embarking on, I stand nominated.
August 19, we assembled at Finotel Hotel, Awka, where the organizers arranged a befitting accommodation for us. It was even more befitting and comforting after the numerous and unnerving police, military and sundry armed forces’ checkpoints I encountered on the Benin-Ore highway to Awka. I set out for South-East with the first bus and was designated to be in Awka by 4pm latest, but that was not to be as the incessant stops and extortions by The Nigeria Police and Army delayed us into the night. But I was welcomed into the fold of kindred spirits: Ujubuonu was there with his affectionate fatherliness and James Eze’s disarming smile, made even more charming by his gap-tooth. The calmness of Dagga Tolar, the brotherliness of Nwachukwu Egbunike and the general friendly atmosphere engendered by the comradeship of poetry made my welcome worth it. I forgave myself for witnessing the humiliation a military man put an old man by whipping him mercilessly at their checkpoint in Ihiala, Anambra State, for refusing to be extorted of N2,000.
Professors Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Ngozi Chuma-Udeh were special guests of the opening night, alongside the state’s Tourism and Hospitality Commissioner. Whereas Prof. Adimora-Ezeigbo serenaded us with poems from her oeuvre, Prof. Chuma-Udeh took us to class with her insightful analogy on the personality and poetry of Okigbo. Then we took turns reading our poems, me, Nwachukwu, who read from his recently published collection, Nka!, Dagga Tolar, whose Marxist leanings manifested all through the night, James Eze, who musicalized every verse and even got a complete music band to render the musical translation of each poem he read, and then the guests reading beautiful poems and the night ended with closing words by Mr. Ujubuonu. I retired for the night, thanking my stars for that chance meeting with Ujubuonu; this was surely not a gathering to miss out.
Day Two was to begin with a picnic to Owere-Ezukala Cave but the rains would not let us, it fell till noon. We then set out for our second port of call for the day; a courtesy call on the King of Ojoto, Igwe Gerald Mbamalu who treated us to a sumptuous meal of ukwa and dried mangala fish; a rare, expensive delicacy in Igboland, served only to guests you wholeheartedly supported their coming. The master journalist and award-winning writer, Anote Ajeluorou had joined us earlier in the day and added spice to our outings. His Majesty, Eze Iweka III of Obosi, a celebrated writer and dramatist, joined us at the palace of Igwe Ojoto where the poets read lines from Okigbo’s “The Passage” before we gifted the royalties our books and who responded by pledging to support Return to Idoto 4.
By 8pm, we moved to Christopher Okigbo’s home where we were received by the Okigbos: the entire extended Okigbo family marshalled out to welcome us. The night was branded “Words on Fire”; a bonfire was ready for us, and we read poems upon poems, drank the sweetest and freshest of palm wines and munched barbecued goat meat prepared by the excited family. The highlight of the night was when the poets were asked to go to Okigbo’s grave and salute him. His tomb was the first of the tombs, directly behind the building he grew in. We were about to set out for that when masquerade cries pervaded the air, adding a nerve-rattling solemnity to the ritual. A.J Dagga Tolar broke down by the graveside. The night broke into silence: the smoke from the bonfire; the cries of the night masquerades; we could vouch we saw Okigbo’s spirit hovering the stratosphere, waving, and nodding in acknowledgement.
Day Three, a Saturday, was the highlight of the festival. It was the day we walked with Okigbo; poet, prophet, priest and pilgrim. We reenacted the seven stations in his work, feeling with him, all that coalesced to inspire his poetry.
- First Station: We arrived Okigbo’s compound to cut a birthday cake in his memory. The four major poets read “The Passage” in unison.
- Second Station: We visited the Ukpaka Oto shrine where the poet was said to always visit. The chief priest, a well-read man, welcomed us as we read “The Passage” again in unison.
- Third Station: We set out to the Idoto shrine, led by a witchdoctor in a red regalia, a staff, a calabash filled with white-chalk, kola, and powder with her two acolytes, male and female; their loud voices trailing off the paths as we journeyed.
- Fourth Station: Recall Okigbo’s famous line in “The Passage?” “Leaning on an oil bean”. We stopped by the oil bean tree, rested on it, touched it, and read poems there, too.
- Fifth Station: The Idoto River front, regarded as poetry’s most popular river. We read “The Passage” again.
- Sixth Station: We landed at the Otosi Grove where we had the grand performance: me, Dagga Tolar, Nwachukwu and James and the other participants.
- Seventh Station: Poets converged on the shallow end of the Idoto River to touch, wash and drink from it, the way Okigbo used to.
By 8pm that same night, we assembled at the magnificent residence of Prof. Hon. Justice P.N.C. Umeadi, former Chief Judge of Anambra State and a Patron of Awka Literary Society for our final reading. We were hosted to the best wines and an array of choice delicacies. He welcomed us well. Ujubuonu gave a rundown of what we had done so far, what Return to Idoto had been able to achieve, what it is set to achieve and its imperative in negotiating the path of literary festivals in Africa.
Then the last performances. James Eze broke loose, like a masquerade held back for so long. Dagga Tolar resurrected Esiaba Irobi. Egbunike took us to the hallowed chambers of a solemn mass. I brought us out from there with questions and probing. Gerald Eze, with his hand piano and flute, buried the night and made us atone for the sin of being poets.
Day Four. Departures. Difficult goodbyes and nostalgia. I didn’t want to go. I was angry at myself for wanting to go home. I felt at home. I hadn’t finished digesting the whole events, especially my two-time encounter with Okigbo. I was sure I saw him. He touched me. He blessed me. He was happy I was translating his masterpiece into Igbo. I wanted to live in Awka, Ojoto, precisely. Why would Mr. Ujubuonu dare to declare the event over? I made friends. No. I became families with everyone. The love and feeling were pure, genuine. The comradeship was and remains indescribable. Ajeluorou got Jahman Anikulapo to interview us via zoom on Spirit of Nigeria Radio; me, James, Dagga Tolar and Nwachukwu. Goodbye became a difficult word at once.
THE tourism implications of Return to Idoto festival renders itself seamlessly. Yes, the organizers have openly acknowledged the support of Anambra State Government during the inaugural festival. The government’s presence was also felt in this third outing with a free luxurious bus from the state’s ministry of tourism, but that is not all. Festival of this caliber deserves all the support it can get from both the state government and other well meaning Nigerians to preserve the memory and legacy of the poets’ poet. It is true the Igwe Ojoto pledged financial and royal support in the next leg, it’d benefit the Anambra State Government to even champion the festival because of its potential to boosting the tourism and hospitality industry in the state.
* Nwadike is a restless poet, who describes himself as the Trouble-Maker-in-Chief and whose first poetry collection How the Morning Remembers the Night made impressive impact at Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) poetry prize 2020