Christopher Okigbo metaphorically rose from the dead in his native Ojoto when six Nigerian poets sought to invoke his genius in a colourful ceremony held on the eve of his posthumous 85th birthday at the weekend.
The ceremony, aptly tagged Words over Bonfire saw Nigeria’s most enchanting poets, amu-nnadi (Through the Window of a Sandcastle), Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Nduka Otiono (Love in a Time of Nightmares), Chuma Nwokolo (Final Testament of a Minor God) Uche Umez (Dark through the Delta) and Iquo Diana Eke (Symphony of Becoming) singing the moon to sleep under the glow of a bonfire in an effort to give a new figurative life to the heroic poet.
The ceremony which held in the vast compound of the Okigbos in Ojoto-Uno, Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State was the opening sequence of a two-day poetry festival organised by the Awka Literary Society in honour the late poet.
The night began with a flourish with the poets arriving to the warm embrace of Obiageli Okigbo, the late poet’s daughter, her hitherto unknown half-brother, Onyebuchi and the rest of the family led by Uncle John Okigbo who had ordered several pots of tasty palm wine to slake the thirst of the poets who would soon ease into the performance mode to honour their hero.
The eclectic audience of writers, storytellers, culture lovers, students and curious Ojoto residents were soon to get a foretaste of what the night held in its vast folds when Okigbo Mbem, an extra-ordinary verbal poet with a voice that has no need for a microphone opened the curtain with a haunting invocation of Christopher Okigbo. His voice ripped through the night air and stirred everyone awake to the business of the night.
Okigbo Mbem is a well-known griot in Awka and environs who practices a very difficult artform. His rose and fell with the moods of the night as he painted a picture of Okigbo’s life of promise and its abrupt termination by war. He also heaped eulogies on the governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano for creating a conducive environment for the arts to thrive.
But the mood soon became sombre when the poets filled out and walked up to Okigbo’s grave to pay obeisance to the fallen poet. Each poet approach the tombstone with deep respect and stood before it for a moment before walking back to their seats.
Uche Umez was the first to take the stage. Every poet began his reading with a brief remark about what Christopher Okigbo meant to him or her. As Umez read, the bonfire crackled to life, sending an incandescent glow into the surrounding darkness. Umez’s performance was solemn and intense, heightening our sense of the moment. But all that changed when Iquo Diana Eke floated to the arena. Iquo’s performance was celebratory, involving a call-and-response that swept the audience along. The mood was infectious as the audience struggled to sing in Ibibio after her.
The night however took a new edge when Prof. Nduka Otiono, author of The Night Hides with a Knife took to the stage. His deep baritone rolled over his lines in a smooth delivery that had the feel of a waterfall on hard soil. His vast experience showed in his seamless glide through his poem, sweeping the audience on what seemed like a rollercoaster ride into a night of words over bonfire.
When Chuma Nwokolo stood up to perform, his grey hair glowing into the cascading shades of the night, the performance took yet another turn for the better. Nwokolo seemed so regal, radiating the sense of solemnity that descended on the scene when Okigbo Mbem opened the night with an invocation. Nwokolo’s voice sounded like the drop of a feather onto a dark still void, soft and soothing.
Tade Ipadeola performance was probably the first time Okigbo’s poem would be read to an eclectic audience of poets and writers by his graveside. Ipadeola’s delivery and choice of poem to read heightened the sense of gratitude from the audience to the fallen poet. His brief talk on why Okigbo would always be outstanding was just as brilliant as he recalled how Okigbo had turned around when the limelight was on him as Africa’s greatest poet and pointed out that the honour actually belonged to the Congolese poet, Tchicaya U Tam’si.
But the audience finally felt the magic in the night when amu-nnadi took the stage, accompanied by a flutist. Finally, the performance found its mooring. The flute sang intermittently, weaving in and out and twirling around the words of amu-nnadi’s lyrics, spraying magic around the scene. The bonfire glowed silently in the backstage as the smouldering wood crackled and hissed in the flame.
Dr. Mrs. Ngozi Chuma-Ude’s performance was a fitting ending to a night that belonged to the gods; a night which could only have been made possible by the spirit of Christopher Okigbo. It was an extra-ordinary night; a night when words reached orgasm on their own, frothing and hissing over a smouldering bonfire!
But perhaps more importantly it was poetry’s first night in South East Nigeria and a fitting posthumous birthday present on the eve of Christopher Okigbo’s 85th birthday!