Okpewho: Scribe lord of orature
It rankles because, in a country without regular literary journals and the necessary soirees that give contemporary arts their great moments, yes, in a society in which those who ruined the economy and the university system are still having a great showing in the public space as if waiting to be given laurels for their destructive engagements, whole armies of our best minds are still being driven off-shore. It makes past encounters that were of little moment, when they first occurred, to begin to spring wider associations.
Surely, one such moment I cant forget was during the burial of Isidore Okpewho’s mother at Asaba. It was like a convergence of the Nigerian literati in solidarity with him. Dancing through the streets with the ritual carriage on his head, he was acknowledging our toasting of his scion-ship in ceremonial fashion. Suddenly, he veered off and brought the funeral throng in a virtual stampede to where I stood on the other side of the road. Stomping around me, he lunged, without preambles, into an argument, about an opinion I had just expressed, that weekend, in my Guardian Review of his book, Myth in Africa. It was a review, now part of my book, A House of Many Mansions, which Stanley Macebuh and Yemi Ogunbiyi had thrust upon me as a test of intellectual nerve. Coming face to face with the author on the streets of Asaba, I found I had to step obligingly to the beat of the ceremonial drums, while we entered this intense argument about his aestheticist theory of myth.
The drums and gongs were pounding away. Around us, the women sang and danced and stomped along with us, as we punched the air from one leg of the argument to the other. But the man of ideas was intent on slugging it out over my insistence that a myth without ritual becomes mere metaphor. As ever, full of erudition, he conceded the point but refused to accept the implication I drew from it. Using one example after another, he kept reiterating the view that I missed the point he was making in his book.
I still cant stop laughing each time I recall that some people thought our argument, which the drums were contesting, and his dancing around me, were part of the funeral ritual. He made it look that way to justify his moving the funeral throng off its course. With some embarrassment, I kept nudging him about my not wanting to disrupt the ceremony. He shrugged it off. It was his ken to lead the funeral throng to where it had to go. So we argued some more before I literally had to run from the scene because I was beginning to enjoy the arguments. Surely, it was an incident that we were not going to run away from or let become a mere metaphor. We had to re-enact it again, and gave it ritual content when, some years later, once upon a visit to the United states, I grey-hounded a night-bus journey from New York to Cornel and then to Binghamton, to see him.
We, sure, had another, but more conversational jig, after attending a lecture by Amiri Baraka, who was the visiting lecturer at a University event on that day. We talked about projects and tasks confronting African writers and scholars, a subject on which he never stopped reminding me of Professor Abiola Irele one of the few great legends of his standing, whose passion on the subject of pooling knowledge for Africa, rises from romance to sheer myth in the face of a society at home that seems too far gone.
Assuredly, in fine intellectual fettle, still talking like a Senior Boy from St Patricks Asaba where he had his secondary school education, Isidore had the assurance of someone with so much work still to be done. Although he was recuperating from an illness, also because his wife, Obiageli, was away to see one or other of their four children Ediru, Ugo, Afigo, and Onome, we could talk a little far into the night. It was our last meeting.
I had promised to return to Binghamton again when I would be able to meet the whole family and if need be re-enact the jig. But as such promises go, time disposed otherwise. Here we are. On September 4, 2016, he was gone.
The great part is that, as a creative writer and scholar, Isidore Okpewho, wrote his hands black and left so much that can save many lifetimes, many generations to come, from the wastage that would have hounded their endeavours but for the humungous scholarship that he has left as guard and guide. He was always the great mind, who moved from oceanic dimensions to brooks without losing his swimmingly authoritative stride and stature. He won the 1976 African Arts Prize for Literature and, in 1993, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Africa.
His prestigious fellowships in the humanities include “the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1982), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1982), Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1988), the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard (1990), National Humanities Center in North Carolina (1997), and the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2003). He was also elected Folklore Fellow International by the Finnish Academy of the Sciences in Helsinki (1993).”
Not forgetting that he was a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and a recipient of the Nigerian National Merit Award, it is such a good feeling to know that he was honoured while he was at it.; and especially, that hereafter, his life’s work remains secured. His essays, a gargantuan production, will not just remain scattered in journals across the world. They have entered the stream of production by Professor Toyin Falola, assessor per excellence, one of the greatest minds that Nigeria has ever produced, who has promised to take the job in hand.
Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology has just been published through his auspices by the University of Rochester Press to be followed by his collected essays. Although the marvellous literary and academic productions by Nigerians abroad hardly manage to enter this country that lacks a respectable bookshop and library culture, it is good to know that when, someday, we catch up with the rest of the world, the work done by Isidore Okpewho and others forced into expatriation in the years of the locust, still in place, will be there as quite a harvest awaiting all of us.
Incidentally, how we could catch up was always part of Professor Isidore Okpewho’s unending concern. For his immeasurable contributions to that quest, certainly, he has earned his rest. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
Odia, a poet and author, lives in lagos
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