Epistle To President Buhari
By Nengi Josef Owei
I TOOK the loss of Elechi Amadi at a personal level, Your Excellency. I feel related to him, and I’m happy to have known him one on one, not just as a writer and a patron of writers, but as a friend. He took me as a friend. He called me by my first name. We spoke on phone. We shook hands at public events, and I am honoured to know that I met Elechi Amadi, the novelist and the man.
As a man, he was blessed with an even temper. As a novelist, he was blessed with simplicity of expression. He was a gifted story teller. He told his story without stress, without artifice. I was fascinated by the story of Emenike and Ihuoma and their vindictive neighbour, Madume, from the time I was a boy in college, from the time I read Amadi’s first novel. He told a simple story of love in simple terms that has served to qualify the book as an African classic.
I think The Concubine was his finest work, and that story could only have been told in such an excellent manner by none other than Elechi Amadi. Along with The Great Ponds, The Slave and Sunset In Biafra, his record of the civil war during which he served as a captain in the Nigerian army – he effectively situated Nigeria on the map of world literature. He also took great pride in his plays, and he wrote four of them. The African Writers Series will never be complete without the name of Elechi Amadi.
Your Excellency, let me confide in you. I was nineteen years old, a second year student of the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Port Harcourt, when I took a definite decision that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be like William Shakespeare. I wanted to be like Wole Soyinka. The only way I could be like them was to write. Once I came to that conclusion, I wanted to meet with any writer I could ever get to meet so I could have a feel of what it meant to be a writer.
That was how I began to look out for all the writers in my immediate neighbourhood. I told a lecturer friend of mine, Dr Iheanyi Duruoha, that I wanted to meet with the poet, Gabriel Okara, and wondered if he could take me to him. Duruoha thought it might do me a world of good.
He was editor of the English departmental journal, Oruogolo, and I was a student member of the editorial board and one of the more promising younger poets in the Department of English. My lecturer and I made the journey from campus to Nembe Road in Rumubiakani, Port Harcourt, where I met with the venerable poet for the first time. I can still feel the soft touch of that handshake many years later. I will have more to say about that at a later date.
Writers have always fascinated me, Your Excellency, and I have always wanted to meet them. I had set eyes on Chinua Achebe for the first time when he came to give a talk at the University of Port Harcourt many years ago when I was in my second year. All the lecturers in the Department of English had lined up to shake hands with the eminent novelist just before he stepped into the crowded lecture hall, flanked by the Vice Chancellor of the university.
Achebe was dressed in a grey French suit that day, and he took long impressive strides. He shook hands happily with the lecturers one after the other, skipped Professor Charles Nnolim in the line up, and went on to shake all the others. I wondered why he did that, and I was hoping that I would ask Achebe why, if I ever got to meet him one day. I never did. I was to know later that Achebe was unhappy with Nnolim the way a royal friend of mine was unhappy with me over my ninth book.
The next writer I got to meet was not too far away. In point of fact, he was just around the corner, on the outer fringes of the University of Port Harcourt, in the adjoining village called Aluu. Until then, I had no idea that Elechi Amadi was living that close by. When I sought to know how I could get to meet him, my good friend Charles Ozuru of blessed memory, told me that I didn’t need an escort.
Anyone could give me directions as soon as I got to Aluu. All I needed to say was that I was looking for Elechi Amadi. I wondered how that was possible. The man was supposed to be hard to find. He should be living in a castle, guarded by an orderly with a frown on his face.
But I took my best bet and stepped out to meet the man. I could not believe it when I got to Elechi Amadi’s house. It was a typical low bungalow, unpainted, in a typical Ikwerre village, and there was nothing mysterious about the man. In fact, he was so simple, so everyday in a self-effacing way that I was awe-struck. He was actually smiling at me and, when he spoke, Elechi Amadi’s voice was soft and kind and daddily.
Sit down, young man. Have we met before?
No, we have not. I am a student of the university, and I wanted to meet you.
English and literary studies.
You want any help with your project?
No, I read your novel, The Concubine, in class three at Nembe National Grammar School, and I just wanted to meet you.
Elechi Amadi laughed, called out to his wife, and promptly introduced me as his friend even as he shook hands with me. That was how we became friends. I couldn’t believe it. I went back to my hostel and resolved to be a writer.
Many years later, when I was serving in government, Elechi Amadi attended a literary event in Yenagoa under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and acknowledged that he had read my first book of poems. I felt on top of the world. In fact, I felt giddy in the head to know that I was sitting on the high table alongside Elechi Amadi, a writer whose work I held in sheer reverence.
The event took place at the Samson Siasia Stadium in the heart of Yenagoa. The Bayelsa State government was holding the first formal reception for an award-winning writer who had brought honour and glory to Bayelsa. The writer in question was Bina Nengi-Ilagha for her first novel, Condolences, which had emerged top of the final three distinguished works of creative fiction in the inaugural edition of the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2004.
The high point of that occasion, I recall, is that Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, Governor of Bayelsa State at the time, donated the sum of one million naira to ANA Bayelsa in the interest of literature, and Elechi Amadi was witness, sitting beside his wife, my gentle self as chairman of ANA Bayelsa, convener of the meeting, and Oronto Douglas, Commissioner for Information.
Elechi Amadi said a salutary word about the emergence of a new generation of writers after his, and he was gratified by that reality. We are happy, he said, that there are story tellers to take over from us. Or, something to that effect. That was Amadi’s primary concern, the imperative of sustaining a noble heritage. For that reason, he made his light available for other candles to be lit so that the gloom of ignorance may recede and allow for a new awareness.
The news of Amadi’s demise came as a big blow to the Association of Nigerian Authors in entirety. That’s what I told Feefelo Peter when he came with a television crew to know what I think of Amadi. We will miss a decent, unassuming gentleman who believed in the power of the pen to make a change in the lives of others.
Elechi Amadi, I said, deserves to be remembered, not just as an Ikwerre man or a Rivers man, but as a national icon of letters. And I mean it, Your Excellency. Chief Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transport, has no business reducing the status of Elechi Amadi to Ikwerre land.
Neither does Governor Nyesom Wike have any business claiming Elechi Amadi solely as a Rivers man who should be honoured only by Rivers people. I will not buy into such reductionism with a rusty penny. I put it to Amaechi and Wike that Amadi was an African writer with a mandate to teach Nigerians how to write a good novel. He told his story with masterful ease, with the virtuosity of a first-hand witness.
Elechi Amadi had a face that sculptors would love to copy, a face that would be a sculptor’s delight. I have since suggested to Wike and Amaechi that none of that righteous contention about who picks up the bills for Amadi’s funeral is necessary. The first thing they should do, ahead of the burial, is to commission a world-class sculptor to cast a giant bust-size monument of Elechi Amadi and situate it at a vantage round about in Port Harcourt, as a demonstrable first step to immortalizing him.
Some pundits would go so far as to tell you that Elechi Amadi’s immortality has already been spelt out in the pages of his books, and they would be correct. No man who ever wrote dies. On the contrary, he lives forever. He lives for as long as his story is told in the genial light of history, for as long as his exploits are recounted from generation to generation.
That is the generous portion of my good friend, Elechi Amadi. We mourn the loss of a man whose muscle for living has slackened eventually into death at a time when his advice was still welcome, when his pull of conscience was still needed at this critical point in the life of our nation.