Odia Ofeimun: Tribute to a resolute fighter at 70
By Richard Mammah
As a growing lad in Koko, Delta State and one who took a more than active interest in current affairs even back then, it was my good fortune to hear of the impending political campaign visit to our rustic community of the leader and presidential candidate of the then Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, or Awo for short.
And as could then be imagined, my quite small size at the time and the two kilometer walk to the Ojomba Primary School field where the event was scheduled to hold was not enough to constitute a hindrance. I was determined and ‘I went, I saw and I conquered.’
Awo was indeed something else. A resolute and principled personality, he pushed positions that looked fairly simple but which were however quite deep and fundamental. Going by the politics of the current era, though not a saint then, he definitely registers today as one who was very clearly an outlier.
Part of what made Awo tick was his penchant for assembling to work alongside himself, like-minded patriots, creative and resourceful minds and very diligent associates. And in our subject today – who had served precisely as Private Secretary to the sage – Awo indeed had caught a big fish.
I met Odia Ofeimun now and again before I finally met him in flesh and blood: on the pages of The Guardian, through his collection, The Poet Lied and his other profound writings that I chanced upon long before our first meeting. And he did not disappoint.
And then the first meeting if I recall very well was at ‘The House,’ a euphemism for his Obe Street, Ikeja House of Books where I equally encountered the likes of E.C Osondu, Maik Nwosu, Ogaga Ifowodo and several other stars of the then quite bubbly Nigerian literary firmament.
His serving as an Executive member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, also saw him coming over to interact with us at Calabar, the Cross River State capital that was at that time home to the then ANA General Secretary, Dr Ada Ugah and the annual International Conference on African Literature and the English Language, ICALEL. As a student of the Department of English and Literary Studies at the University of Calabar, I equally found space to also continue to engage with his works which we studied in our Nigerian Literature classes. And you got it: The Poet Lied in particular stirred not a few long-running debates and discussions! The sheer audacity of it all!
And then he left Nigeria for an extended research stay in Europe before returning to engage once again with the Lagos and Nigerian literati on home ground.
It was also about this time that I had begun to serve as Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Lagos and Odia would come to our meetings where very robust engagements, the type that came across as a natural for him, were almost always sure to happen.
As General Secretary and later President of ANA, Odia did all he could as it had to do with one thing that really needs to be done and continue to be done to properly situate the Nigerian writer in his place: grow functional organizational capacity for the association.
Other than his literary engagements, of which poetry and dance drama take a most deserved pride of place, Odia has also continued to engage the politics of Nigeria as clearly one of the most insightful analysts and visionaries of a renascent Nigerian, and I dare to add also, pan-African project. You do not engage with him on these matters and not come out most educated and better informed about where our challenges emanate from and what could be done to redress them. Nigeria would definitely be a better place with the likes of Odia in charge of its affairs. But as the Bible puts it, Nigeria as presently organized may simply just be a modern variant of the Jerusalem of the era of Jesus Christ that drew that famous lament from the master: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and you would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate.’ (Matthew 23: 37-38)
The story of Odia Ofeimun at 70 is really the story of an enigmatic Nigerian and African that has weathered storms, braved odds and remains transcendent in form and substance. And for me, the best part of brand Odia is that you do not encounter him at almost any time and not go away with some assuring tangible impact. Indeed, Odia Ofeimun is a man for our season.
Editor’s Note” Ofeimun would be 70 on March 16