* Igwe Ojoto wants festival held every two years, promises support
Sleepy Ojoto town in Anambra State was roused when poets and admirers of celebrated musician, librarian and poet Christopher Okigbo converged on the ancient town to pay homage to their patron poet in a festival named after him in ‘Return to Ojoto 3’. It turned out a true feast of words in honour of a man cut down too early in a hail of bullets. Sadly, he and his patron saint are in search of proper rehabilitation for global pilgrims and patronage
Anote Ajeluorou was in Ojoto
LATE Friday morning, August 20, 2021. Awka, the Anambra Sate capital, is wet from the light rain drizzling. The poets and guests are gathered under a huge car-port at Finotel along Onitsha-Enugu Expressway. They are sitting in plastic chairs with tables in front of them. As usual, Aj Dagga Tolar has spread a rich bouquet of rare books on his table for collectors to have their pick. The ‘Discover Anambra’ tour bus is waiting. They are ready to take a trip to see the Owere-Ezukalla Caves in Orumba Local Government Area, but the rain is not letting up. But they are poets and can’t sit still, with the spirit of their patron poet Christopher Okigbo hovering around. So Aj Dagga Tolar takes charge and starts moderating a poetic session as the light rain pelts the car-port in fine sprays, a vast lawn stretching across to the hotel gate soaking in the rain.
With the rain aborting the planned trip to Owere-Ezukalla Caves, the ever creative wordsmiths turn the car-port into a theatre of performances in what easily becomes ‘Cave of Words’.
It isn’t just poems that are being read or performed. There is also lively conversation and critique of the performed pieces. Okigbo as patron poet-saint of Idoto River cannot be deterred by rain much less his acolytes who have come to pay him tribute. There’s discussion about the mystery of death and dying, about that final hour before transition when man is held in thralldom between the ‘here’ and the ‘netherworld’, as he hovers in some sort of suspended abyss, whether to stay or to go, that moment of transcendence beyond all else. What is usually in the mind of man at that curious hour? How can that fleeting moment be captured? When he took the bullets that silenced his gong, what was in Okigbo’s mind? Did he remember his gong and his goddess for whom he beat it? What did his patron goddess Idoto do? Did she appear and bear him home amidst her aquatic elfins in pomp and pageantry? Why did she allow her town-crier son depart so soon when he had so town-crying yet to do?
The conversation swirled around, with U.S.-based scholar Dr. Blossom Brown (a self-styled dibia – herbalist) lamenting how Africa’s children have deserted the continent’s glorious ways of life in preference for foreign ones that keep impoverishing them for the gains of the white man. Journalist and poet Izunna Okafor’s poem ‘Africa, where are thy powers?’ raises questions about Africa’s reliance on foreign vaccines for Covid-19 and other ailments ravaging the continent and her inability to take care of herself.
There is Ifesinachi Nwadike who is a protest and non-conformist poet (‘How to Set a Non-fiction Story in Lagos’, ‘Dreaming from a Hopeless Country’, ‘Purple is the Colour of Mourning’, dedicated to Leah Sharibu, and ‘Death Came Calling in the Guise of Pleasure’, dedicated to victims of rape), Ikechukwu Emmanuel Asika, Nwachukwu Egbunike (‘Nka nwa Igwe’, ‘Alusi’, and ‘Let me love, not fear, Responsibe-able’), Aj Dagga Tolar (‘Philosophy of fallacy’, ‘ Christopher Okigbo’, ‘Books are who we are’, dedicated to the history of books as protest weapons for freedom from oppression) and Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival’s star poet, Mr. James Eze’s ‘The Language of Genocide’, ‘Your love is like nkwobi bowl’, who equally responds to the rain with his lyrical poetry. His collection dispossessed is a loud cry against what is lost that needs repossession in the larger scheme of Nigeria’s skewed socio-politics. Of course, festival curator and novelist, Odili Ujubuonu, is in the background also lending commentary to the pieces on offer as snacks and drinks are also served. When the rain peters to a stop, the poets clamber into the tour bus and set off for Ojoto some 45 minutes away.
The trip to Ojoto, made famous by Okigbo, itself becomes another moment where words prevail. Ebullient Aj Dagga Tolar once more takes command and seizes the moment to integrate novelist and festival curator, Ujubuonu, who confessed to not having ever tried his hands on poetry, into the performance rites inside the tour bus. But Dagga Tolar does so in a most uncharacteristic manner. Ujubuonu would be performing from his latest novel, Crows of the Yellow Steam, enroute Ojoto for the very first time. For that virgin unveiling of the book, Dagga Tolar would rather not offer that special treat for free. And like a good salesman, he begins a ritual of solicitation from the inmates of the bus for an offering. And in no time, N7,500 is realised to energise Ujubuono for the unveiling, special reading treat. A treat of words it turns out to be, as Ujubuono regales his audience with fine narration from Crows of the Yellow Stream’s ‘Prologue’.
And between Dagga Tolar and Nwadike, the argument rages as to the true worth of Nnoka as a character in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. While Nwadike holds that Unoka is the most useless character, in fact, a man without character, Aj Dagga thinks differently, arguing strongly that Unoka isn’t just an artist as a flutist who serenaded the community at festive occasions and beyond, he is, in fact, a philosopher and an astute economist, who if given Africa’s failing economies to manage, would do a splendid job of them. Why, he says, would any rational leader devote over 30 per cent of his country’s annual budget to servicing debts when his citizens haven’t eaten? Unoka, he says, would simply have asked his creditors to look at the lines drawn on the wall and wait until he settles his most pressing debt burden, which is taking care of his citizens’ welfare before listening to his creditor, and that would have settled the matter! He enjoined African leaders to borrow a leaf from Unoka’s debt management philosophy in managing Africa’s ailing economies.
The first stop is at the royal home of Ojoto’s regent Igwe Gerald Mbamalu. While waiting for his royal presence, Igwe Chidubem Iweka (Eze Iweka III) of Obosi kingdom, also a member of Awka Literary Society (ALS), organizers of Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival: Return to Ojoto 3, arrives to join his brother king to receive the poets and guests. Igwe Mbamalu’s flamboyant spokesman and Okanga Ojoto, Chief Romeo Anyisia, ushers the guests into the palace chambers and brings out a bowl of the native white chalk, nzu, as a mark of innocence and purity: you welcome your guests with clean hands while your guests reciprocate by receiving your hospitality with cleans hands as well. Such a fine balancing of mutual reciprocity in cultural nrom. Everyone is required to draw lines with the nzu on the palace floor in ablution and then offer prayers for himself/herself and the host with clean hearts. Thereafter, Igwe Mbamalu is ushered into his palace chamber with Igwe Ezeka of Obosi in tow, along with several chiefs including Okigbo’s nephew and Ogbunechendo III of Ojoto, Chief John Okigbo.
Christopher Okigbo’s son, Onyemaechi, had earlier been introduced to the writers and guests.
The four festival guest poets: Eze, Tolar, Egbunike and Nwadike do the ritual performance of Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’ for the two igwe and the court. It would form the invocation pattern later that evening and the next day.
Igwe Mbamalu, who trained in computer science, says the gesture of the festival organizers in visiting him is commendable. He paints a picture of the differences in individuals regarding cognitive abilities where some are in love with words and the arts while others like him tend towards figures and mathematics. He provokes laughter when he recounts how a friend of theirs always won the hearts of the girls because he had a gift with words where they all failed to make an impression.
“It’s always tough at the beginning,” he admonishes his guests, “but everybody can’t be in the same field. Your profession has turned out to be special profession. Yours is from inspiration; even a profession of English may not be able to deliver.
“We need to show appreciation for not letting our son not be forgotten. Be assured that the next festival will be celebrated bigger than this one. It will be Ojoto-wide celebration. Feel free to come to us. We even want it to be every two years instead of three.”
Also, poet and Igwe Obosi, Iweka III, affirms that he is part of the festival organisers and co-host with Igwe Ojoto, saying, “It is a very special occasion. What you’re doing is worthwhile because it will encourage young people to write.”
As a published writer and culture promoter before becoming king, Igwe Obosi advises writers and all culture workers not to look at the money first, as it would discourage them from expressing their talent.
“Most writers don’t look at the money to be made from the arts,” he says. “So, don’t think about the money. Once you have that zeal, you must pursue your dream and keep your perseverance. Sometimes, it only confers prestige long after the artists are dead, like Picasso, who died poor. The arts is where you build yourself. Once you have the zeal, you keep going because one day it will materialize.”
Okigbo’s nephew John expresses his gratitude for the honour being done his uncle with the poetry festival named after him. “This is one way of bringing back that name: Okigbo,” he said. “Making it an Ojoto affair as Igwe has said has made me proud and the name of Ojoto and Okigbo will not be forgotten. Be rest assured that I will always do my best to make sure that this festival thrives.”
Thereafter, a delicious steaming Igbo delicacy known as ukwa reserved for royal personages is served the poets and guests.
Communing with Okigbo at his ancestral home
WHEN they left the presence of Igwe Ojoto and Igwe Obosi, the writers headed for Okigbo’s ancestral home at Ojoto-Uno to begin communing with the late bard at his resting place in the vast Okigbo family compound in what is aptly tagged ‘Words on Fire’. Before they arrive, canopies and chairs have been set up in what would be a bonfire night of poetry and celebration. John Okigbo is tending the woods in a heap and soon he sets the logs alight and the night sky is a glowing orange. Without much ceremony, Ujubuono takes charge and begins to order the ceremony by making small introduction to the events for the evening. He then invites Pius Okigbo Jr to welcome the poets and guests on behalf of the family.
He does not disappoint. He reels out titbits about his late uncle who was an eccentric child and could do amazing and unforgettable things like crawling on all fours over two kilometres just to get to River Idoto. Thereafter, an elder from the extended Okigbo family receives the kola nut and offers prayers for all. These prayers and other performances are punctuated by the chants of a minstrel Okigbo Mbem, who lend the needed panegyric flavour to the evening in honour of Okigbo.
The four guest poets read Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’ at his graveside. Then journalist and writer, Anote Ajeluorou, is first to honour Okigbo who lay listening in just a few paces away in his resting place with his elegiac piece, ‘Orature’s priest goes home’, in celebration of all prominent Nigerian writers who have journeyed home and have become ancestors of the writerly tribe. Then other poets take the floor one after the other.
Nwadike performs ‘Memory is a Crust of Blood’, which he aptly dedicates to Biafra, a metaphorically undying republic for which Okigbo met his untimely death while fighting, and ‘The Apocalyse’ from his debut collection, How Morning Remembers the Night. Egbunike also performs ‘I See with Your Eyes’ from Nka! and ‘Alusi’ from his first poetry collection, Blazing Moon. Asika also performs from his of collection, The Portrait of an Artist as a Mad Man. Dagga Tolar performs ‘They Killing our Dreams’, which is also set to music that the revolutionary Marxist and Rastafarian poet sings softly to, and then ‘You Who Cannot Be Like Okigbo’, selected from his yet-to-be-published Okigbo poetry collection. Okafor does a performance in Igbo that rings true and in tune with the night air.
Then it is time for the festival’s star poet Eze to perform. He does it with grace. Clad in combat shorts and Africa-patterned print laced with cowries, Eze lights up the evening air on fire with words. He begins with piece ‘A fistful of questions for my love’ (will you be there for me), ‘Biafra’ and ‘Elegy for the Weaverbird’, dedicated to Okigbo; these are also set to music, with Eze dancing to them. When he finishes, both the poets and guests dance around the bonfire to music issuing from the DJ’s deck. Meanwhile, palm wine and other drinks are flowing freely from several big cans to sate the thirst of the poets and guests.
Pilgrimage to a goddess’s abode
SATURDAYS are for the gods and goddesses. So it was in Ojoto on Saturday, August 21, 2021, when the poets and guests return to Okigbo’s ancestral family compound to continue the celebration. Egwu-Eke masquerades are everywhere performing. It is also Eke market dance and Okigbo was known to have been a keen follower and participant of this special masquerade dance and performance in his hey days.
Minstrel, folk music collector and performer, Gerald Eze Mmaduabuchi, arrives first and is already sitting on the gravestone of Okigbo and serenading the late modernist poet with the special Igbo flute, oja, made famous by Unoka. Later, the skilful flutist would write about his experience at Okigbo’s gravestone on his Facebook wall: “On ‘Return to Idoto 3’: At Ojoto, I sat on the grave of Christopher Okigbo to pay homage to the great man. Here, I summoned his spirit by calling him repeatedly. The ogbu-oja must mention who his message is for. I called Christopher Okigbo several times and praised him with the popular expressions: ‘Nwoke teghete’. At another point I called him ‘mbuba ka ibe ya ogo’.
“Much later, I described Chris Okigbo as ‘Ogazi kpucharisi gwejie aguba’. This last line of praise captures his nature as a non-conformist. Knowing how Chris Okigbo died and that the plan was the complete extermination of Biafrans, I echoed the phrase: ‘Mmiri mara ugo asago ugo aru’. Here we are, shining still, radiant and vibrant, the proud people of ‘Dot Republic’.
Indeed, Mmiri mara ugo asago ugo aru!
“I ended with ‘Okokoko…’
“What I have not told you is the exact time or order I played these phrases; figure them out; oja music is a code. Enjoy the music the way you like. Stay creative, people, stay authentic, live without fear. “I hope I served Okigbo well? I hope I serve you all well? I am here to serve your spiritual needs and to make you dance, and not to follow you around with my oja, begging for money.
“’Oja aburo pipiilo’, according to Dike Chukwumerije, ‘it is a voice’”.
Dagga Tolar, Nwadike, Egbunike and James Eze then begin the seven stations of ‘Heavensgate’ performance at the graveside of Okigbo before embarking on the pilgrimage to River Idoto, following the ancient footpath that Okigbo walked, to pay homage to his patron goddess. Okigbo’s graveside is the first of the performances. Then they proceed to Ukpaka-Oto (Ojoto god of war) shrine, led on by Eze-Nwaanyi; the shrine is nestled under an oil bean tree. They also read ‘Heavensgate’ here in chorus as the second station. Here, the priest stands at the threshold of his shrine to receive the pilgrim poets and guests.
From here, another oja flutist Egbejie joins the party and begins to exert his vocal cord to weave his enchanting oja musical notes in and out. He keeps on his serenade, as the party of poets and guests make their way through the two-kilometer distance from town to River Idoto. Then they arrive at Okwu Idoto, the altar of Idoto shrine. But it is a crumbling place and no sign of life is visible here; a stump of charred earth is what survives what might have been a revered altar in years gone-by. When they get to the oil bean tree where Okigbo and other children rested after walking up the long hill leading up to River Idoto, the poets ritualistically lean on the oil bean tree to perform ‘Heavensgate’ before proceeding to the river.
Along the footpath, the train meet children returning from the farm with bundles of firewood on their heads; they stand in awe of the procession of pilgrims and allow their August guests to march on towards Idoto river for the final rites of passage for ‘Return to Idoto 3’. A bamboo groove about 50 meters from the shoreline had been appropriated as the performance spot, also known as Otosi groove, with a huge banner announcing the festival providing a backdrop and resting on a cluster of bamboo trees.
Eze-Nwaanyi leads the way to River Idoto shoreline where she makes her offerings to the ‘river’ goddess now helmed in from both sides by advancing undergrowths and the brown river water flowing placidly eastwards. Then the four poets again make their way close to the water after Eze-Nwaanyi has performed her ritual appeasements for her goddess. The four poets chorus ‘Heavensgate’ ritual invocation at the fifth station for the patron saint of the man they have come to celebrate.
Thereafter, they leave Idoto shoreline and head for the Otosi groove for the grand performance. But before the poets settle down, both flutists – Mbaduabuchi and Egbejie – have set the groove to fine tonal fire, as they call to each other and respond in sheer flutist language to create pleasing orchestra of piping notes. There is no doubt that these are two artists who are dexterous with this Igbo special wind musical instrument and could spontaneously perform so harmoniously. It is sheer delight to watch them.
Then Nwadike sets the performance tone with ‘Apocalypse’. Egbunike steps up with ‘Ozoemenna’before Dagga Tolar takes the stage with his revolutionary piece ‘Freedom is the Poetry I Share’. Then Eze steps up to do ‘dispossessed’, the title piece of his poetry collection, with multi-talented instrumentalist, Mmaduabuchi, accompanying him on his ubo-aka, another Igbo string musical instrument; it is also spontaneous performance. Eze also then closes with ‘Elegy to the Weaverbird’.
When the performance ends, the party starts heading back and crosses the bulwark built to check the onslaught of erosion to River Idoto. At the other side of the bulwark, stand Igwe Iweka III in his spotless white while waiting to welcome his poet-colleagues back from River Idoto. The MD/CEO of Anambra State newspaper National Light, Sir Chuka Nnabuife, is also with Igwe Iweka. The igwe-poet also does not disappoint; he reads two pieces to entertain his kindred. First he does ‘Letter to Death’ and ends with a poem he dedicated to the pen he wrote his final exams with in secondary school. He gets warm applause from everyone.
The party of poets and guests then move to have late lunch in a restaurant under a canopy of trees before departing Ojoto for Nri town for a ‘Reading @ the Cradle Patron Night,’ hosted by Prof. (Hon.) Justice Peter N.C. Umeadi’ at his residence. Here, Dagga Tolar performs ‘Unoka’ and ‘House of Many Hearts’ and Eze performs ‘I found love’, ‘Teardrops on Ozubulu’, and ‘Tears on the pillow’. Nwadike also does ‘Who Says We Are Corrupt’ and ‘Vision Infinity’ while Egbunike performs ‘Agwu Ukwu Nri’, ‘Mgbaloto Eze’ and ‘Ogulani’. Other performers include Asika, Ajeluorou (who does ‘Heroines of our clan’), Nnabuife and Okafor also perform before Justice Umeadi further pledges his continuing support for Awka Literary Society, organizers of Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival: Return to Idoto 3.
For Okigbo, River Idoto, global tourism and pilgrims wait
HIS life was cut short at mere 32, but the sheer prodigious, precociousness of Okigbo’s literary output has put him on the front row of Africa’s literary greats. Although he was among the first casualties of the bloody Nigerian Civil War way back in 1967, his status is yet undiminished among Nigerian men and women of letters. But though an icon of the literary tribe, not much has come the way of Okigbo until nine years ago when the duo of Odili Ujubuonu and James Eze of Awka Literary Society (ALS) thought it proper to celebrate him beyond his texts entombed in the cold pages of books.
They had then embarked on an exploratory trip to Ojoto and then to River Idoto. That was how Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival: Return to Idoto started. Undertaking such bold initiative ordinarily should have attracted if not global but national attention and applause and provided a rallying point for a man who wrote a nondescript town and its goddess into potential global tourism attraction that is still waiting to be tapped more than five decades on.
But Ujubuonu and Eze are undaunted in their pursuit of the literary ideals of the man they rightly revere and have been beckoning on their fellow writers every three years to gather in OKigbo’s hometown of Ojoto to a feast of words if only that is what they can offer with their limited resources. The Anambra State Government has not been quite as forthcoming as it should. It showed interest in the first edition but that soon petered out.
Festival co-founder, Eze, however, is quick to rally the government he serves, saying it is the thinking of government that private sponsorship should have since stepped in to take ownership of the festival. Rightly so perhaps, but continuing presence of government is known to perform wonders in a clime where government is about the only effective industry that dishes out favours private sector persons swoon to outdo themselves in exchange for more favours. So perhaps Anambra State Government’s lukewarm commitment is at the heart of the scant attention the OKigbo festival has received so far. It is never too late to remedy that. The state culture ministry should take ownership and work with Awka Literary Society for a sustained and robust Okigbo festival. A prize has been instituted for Chinua Achebe; the same can be done for Okigbo for poetry, which can be awarded at the close of every Okigbo festival.
But it’s never too late for an all-time icon like Okigbo who outlasts governments in his iconography. New men and women of power will soon be in place in the state. What blueprint for culture and tourism is in the manifestoes of the frontline contestants for governorship? This is where culture stakeholders like Awka Literary Society (ALS) and other culture advocates in the state should step up to begin massive sensitization of these men and women questing for power in Anambra to pay more lipservice to culture.
Ojoto already has well paved roads, thanks to governments that took road infrastructure seriously. But River Idoto is in bad shape and needs urgent rehabilitation, as the patron saint goddess of Okigbo. Okigbo would turn in his grave if he were to see how much his patron goddess Idoto has been neglected 54 years since he passed away. In fact, the old footpath that Okigbo walked to get to the river is now a deep gully irregularly paved by erosion and now abandoned for a similar narrow path that is overgrown with weeds. Festival organizers had to contract a local hand to clear the path leading to River Idoto for the pilgrims to wade through the winding footpath. At the bamboo, wooded part that leads to Idoto shoreline, even Eze-Nwaanyi wasn’t sure which way led to the banks of the goddess she presides as priestess; the bamboo trees have spread their Indian hair-like branches on all sides it’s impossible to make out the path to the river. A few metres to Idoto shoreline is a massive undergrowth with razor-sharp grasses that slice the skin keenly with the slightest touch. All around are all bushes and grasses that present a dismal outlook, and you wonder: is this Okigbo’s Idoto or perhaps you’d come the wrong way?
Okigbo and his patron goddess deserve far more. The ancient footpath leading to River Idoto should be properly paved with inter-locking tiles; indeed, the road in that part of Ojoto town where Ukpaka-Oto shrine stands, located some two kilometres away from the river, is unpaved. And when you wind your way down the narrow footpath that leads to River Idoto, it’s as though you’ve stepped back in time, teleported even, to the time Okigbo also walked that path in its pristine state and was so inspired to scribble his immortal verses in adoration of the goddess that probably gives Ojoto its spiritual anchor. Clearly, Idoto is now a goddess only in name than substance; it’s perhaps why the neglect is so abysmal and total, even from the community.
But all these could be reversed with little attention, funding and an overhaul of the entire Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival structure to make it a truly global celebration of a renowned literary figure. Already Igwe Ojoto, Eze Mbamalu has canvassed a two instead of three-year circle from the next one. This is good; but he should pay attention to Okigbo’s patron saint, Idoto, and reposition her from a neglected, abandoned goddess. That way ‘Return to Idoto 4’ and subsequent ones would begin to attract global attention and tourists. The state government has to be persuaded to pave the ancient footpath leading to River Idoto and also make the shoreline into a platform for recreational activities for tourists. By so doing, the model for Freedom Park, Lagos, could be appropriated for River Idoto, with the state government making Idoto a proper tourism site and then handing it over to private hands as franchise to manage, with Okigbo festival as driving force for Ojoto tourism potential.
For festival organizers and Awka Literary Society, poetry performance alone is not enough, as a measure of the stature of Okigbo. The Okigbo festival could be made more robust to encompass the man’s entire ouvre that includes music, library scholarship, poetry and other forms of cultural expressions that still stand him out as a prodigious artist. In other words, there has to be a scholarly aspect to the Okigbo celebration where symposia and seminars would form part of the Okigbo festival. An Okigbo poetry prize is also a possibility.
However to achieve these, festival organizers would have to look beyond their limited resources and seek partnerships and collaborations with neighbouring institutions, local and foreign cultural agencies to take Okigbo beyond the confines of his resting place in Ojoto for his global status to truly continue shinning.
But in all, it was a beautiful poetic pilgrimage experience. With Igwe Ojoto showing commitment to the Okigbo festival going forward, the likes of eminent Justice Umeadi as patron, and the state government hopefully showing more interest, it is the expectation that the Christopher Okigbo Poetry Festival will grow bigger and bigger in years to come.