Odia the Beautiful: A Tribute to the Poet at 70
By Betty Abah
There is so much to be said about eminent poet and critic, Odia Ofeimum who turned 70 recently. So much. But, for now, suffice to say that Odia (nobody adds ‘sir’ or ‘Oga’ because he is that simple) who was private secretary to legendary Nigerian politician, Obafemi Awolowo but who is now known more for his gigantic imprints in the Nigerian literary circles, epitomizes humanity and is one of the kindest persons around. But also, he is the MOST AIRLESS PERSON around.
Absolutely no airs. Absolutely no attitudes. Ever accessible. Ever amiable.
How his poetry for which he is most known, his plays, essays and other body of work shape our sociopolitical consciousness, how his various contributions have enriched the shape and hue of the literary landscape in Nigeria, and how his scholarly debates and contributions have deepened the public intelligentsia in Nigeria especially with regards to debates on nationhood, are realities that have already been aptly articulated since his March 16 milestone birthday and for which symposiums have been so far organized in a number of places. Thus I will dwell more on his personal attributes which I have studied from knowing him in the last two decades plus.
Airless. Airless. Airless. Absolutely. No. Airs.
Odia is the first celebrated writer/poet I would be meeting. That was in Lagos as an undergraduate, sometime around 1998 in the company of my bosom friend and classmate Eno Reuben and the third in the inseparable trio tangle, Kemi, all from the English and Literary Studies department at UNICAL (it was at an event somewhere at Surulere, by the Association of Nigerian Authors ANA, a group in which he has played fundamental roles and which he led at a time). And every major English student must read his classic collection, ‘The Poet Lied’, and I wonder if I have yet overcome my ‘celebrity shock’ on encountering him: how a person could be so famous, so celebrated yet so simple.
Everyone knows Odia’s abode at Oregun. And everyone could just walk in unscheduled for an hour or two, engage the poet in a hearty or heated conversation or two, eat a meal or two and go through a book or two in his incredible library that practically swallows the house and almost everyone in it.
Odia symbolizes the sort of simplicity of character and indeed of life that is not an everyday attribute in our clime. He is married ONLY to his books, his writings and his ideals. And no socio-cultural norms or biases about marriage and offspring siring alters that stance. It takes character. It takes strength. It takes principles to be just yourself. And, in any case, the legacy he has left even as a living legend, already effectively dwarfs any being left by the character in Enugu with 58 wives and perhaps 101 kids, comparatively. And I do think that life is about legacies. Think about that of Mother Teresa and the parable of enduring legacies, for a split second.
And the last I knew, Odia also had no car and is hardly bothered about rides. You are likely to run into him around Ikeja and other places striding down the road, his signature swag, his signature smiles and his signature warm handshakes, and you could stop him and strike a conversation just as you could also ‘run’ into him for a chat at a crowded literary conference. In the age of Lagos’ horrendous traffic lock-downs, Odia will certainly boast of better health and fitness than most Lagosians who sit five or more debilitating hours in traffic almost daily. Which probably accounts for why the poet looks so young and vibrant even at 70.
Again, Odia is home-grown simplicity personified. On October 7, 2011, I launched my first book and poetry collection, ‘Sound of Broken Chains’, a collection of devotional Christian poems. Though I had taken a copy of the book to his house and invited him earlier, he was to feature as one of the ‘high table guests’. But the original chairman for the day, Pastor Emmanuel Nuhu Kure of the Throneroom Ministry, Kafanchan, Kaduna State, was held up in Cairo amidst Egyptian aviation workers’ strike. We quickly co-opted Odia and he became our emergency chairman for the day. No complaints and certainly no airs. What a man.
Edo State-born Odia defies the stereotypical image of the introversive and perhaps depressed-looking poet. Jolly good fellow. A good, hearty laugh here, a happy banter there. That is Odia, and with his good-naturedness and, of course, detribalized tendencies, he has been able to build a long line of protégés from across divides especially in the creative world whose careers he has helped mold in the five decades or more that he has been active (he published his first collection of poems as a teenager).
Odia has packed so, so much into 70 years and today he sits eminently on the seat of not just one of our greatest literary icons but also a national icon. I was privileged to present his citation at the 61st birthday of my former boss and activism mentor, Nnimmo Bassey in Lagos last June (where he gave a very compelling key note address extempore!) and his profile reads like an entire book!
This is just an excerpt from his Wikipedia page:
‘Ofeimun is the author of more than 40 works. His published collections of poetry include The Poet Lied (1980), A Handle for The Flutist (1986), Dreams At Work and London Letter and Other Poems (2000). His poems for dance drama, Under African Skies (1990) and SiyeGoli – A Feast of Return (1992), were commissioned and performed across the UK and Western Europe by Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble in the early 1990s, and his most recent poem for dance drama, Nigeria The Beautiful, has been staged through major Nigerian cities to wide acclaim.’
In both personal and public life, Odia who is by the way also extremely controversial and frontal in his views, teaches us humility, kindness and simplicity, as well as that of quiet dignity and commitment to life’s purpose without caving in to societal pressures. Let everyone be fully convinced and let everyone live out his/her life’s purpose, making a deliberate mark. And while at it, the less attitudes and needless airs, the better.
Happy 70th birthday, dear Odia! Such a huge pleasure and privilege to know and be inspired by you!
Abah is a Lagos-based journalist and activist.