Death and memory

By Okey Ndibe

Akunwafo Obiligbo, one of the most gifted musical maestros in the Igbo pantheon, once turned his attention to the subject of death. Death, he sang, does not brook any human challenge. If we frown at Death for killing one person, Obiligbo said, then Death kills another. If we chide Death for bringing us sorrow, we only provoke it to visit greater grief upon us, to compound our agony.

That cautionary idea in one of Obiligbo's songs has been on my mind as I have reflected on what may be called Nigeria's season of tragedies. Over the past two weeks, death has been Nigeria's preoccupation. On October 22, Nigerians were shocked by the news that 117 passengers, most of them Nigerians, had perished in a plane crash. The same day, as it turned out, Stella Obasanjo, the president's wife, had died in far-away Spain from post-surgical complications. Nigerians, famously named by a British study as the "happiest" people on earth, were chilled by sorrow. A people accustomed to garrulity, mirth and exuberance were forced to slip into wailing, gnashing of teeth and mournfulness. A cloud, gray and funereal, had enveloped the nation. The national mood was one of catatonic amazement.

I was not personally close to any of the men and women who died in the plane crash, nor did I ever meet the president's wife. Even so, I was touched and moved by their sudden, unexpected deaths. Like many Nigerians, I was rendered speechless. Unable to put any coherent thoughts together for last week's column, I sent a terse e-mail to the editors of The Guardian. "I'm tongue-tied," I confessed. Death is a paradox, inescapable and yet deeply myterious, at once a commonplace and an inscrutable puzzle. Among the many reasons for our endless fascination with death is its brutal finality. It is a rite of passage in which the initiate retreats forever from the space of the living, leaving behind memories, good or bad, to be remembered by.

Did my sense of sorrow amount, perhaps, to a rebuke of Death? For I was still reeling from the tragedies when an e-mail arrived in my inbox with yet more news of death. This time it was the announcement that Ezenwa Ohaeto, a poet, biographer, professor of literature and longtime friend of mine, had died in Cambridge, England. The news was shattering, a tragedy whose portents I was quickly able to grasp. For that and other reasons, Ezenwa's passing struck closer to home.

Our friendship went back to the early 1980s when he was a lecturer at the then Anambra College of Education in Awka and I lived in Enugu, writing for the defunct Satellite newspaper. Some weekends, I would travel to Awka along with my friend C.Don Adinuba to visit Ezenwa and his colleague, Dr. J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada. We would spend the weekend drinking and in gregarious fellowship. We discussed writers and literature and, as the mood seized us, dabbled in political debate. We would talk into the wee hours and then finally succumb to sleep, sometimes slouched on couches in Ezenwa's or J.O.J's living room.

In those days he was already a poet, but his accomplishment was still a proposition, a promissory note awaiting future redemption. His promise as a poet was undeniable, and those of us who knew him recognised his capacity to evolve into a writer worthy of our attention. His work ethic was unmatched by any of his contemporaries. A man with a zestful spirit, I often marvelled at his uncanny combination of the Apollonian principle of robust pleasure with such disciplined devotion to poetry and such assiduity as a scholar. As the years rolled by, I watched with a mixture of admiration and awe as Ezenwa redeemed that poetic promise as well as came into an impressive stride as a biographer.

He may not, I suspect, be as well known as the quality and prodigiousness of his work should have entitled him. That this may be the case owes, I suggest, to a remarkable strain in his personality. While passionate about literature and politics as well as other things, he was never comfortable with self-promotion. He did his work and let his handiwork speak for him. Weaker scholars than he, and poorer poets, have sometimes managed to claim a grander reputation. But Ezenwa was constitutionally averse to self-inflation. He would never ramp himself up.

Inevitably, Ezenwa became the fulcrum of my thinking about Mrs. Obasanjo and the casualties of the Bellview plane crash. The lessons of his life, the rich memories he left me and the doubtless richer memories he must have bequeathed to his family and many other friends, gave me a handle to talk about the deaths of others who were virtual strangers or far less known to me. For in thinking about Ezenwa's death, I had to reckon with the fact that it is the sum of our lived experiences that recuperates death, rescuing it from meaninglessness. Death is loss, but a death that comes after a rich and enriching life can by no means be regarded as a total loss.

Ezenwa lived but a short time, being born only in 1958. Despite the brevity of the time allotted to him on earth, he touched many lives deeply, and he made himself available to be touched in return. His life was imbued with a certain earnestness, with a concern for humane enlargement, with an abiding investment in teaching as well as that form of poetry that asked serious questions and abhorred cant, superfluity and meretriciousness.

Ezenwa left us imperishable vignettes of poetry. His poetic voice grew sturdier and more assured as, with practice and hard work, he matured intellectually. Just weeks before his death, he became joint winner with Gabriel Okara of the LNG poetry prize worth $20,000. It was as if, on the cusp of death, he took the stage to sing once more to us. Or, as Ndubisi Obiora has suggested, he decided to treat us to the proverbial swan song. At any rate, his was a life marked by enrichment of others' lives.

Despite the muscularity and reach of his poetry, his biography of Chinua Achebe may well prove his most enduring intellectual legacy. It is, as the South African writer and scholar insisted in an often acidulous review, far from flawless. Yet, its range and measured tone as well as its forensic agility in teasing out hithero little known details of Achebe's formative years have earned it credit as the fullest biographical study of one of the world's most important writers. He was working on what he hoped would be an equally exhaustive biography of Wole Soyinka, one of the world's bravest and most complex writers, when death interrupted.

Incidentally, the last time I saw Ezenwa was last April at Harvard University. The occasion was a gathering of four Nobel laureates, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Derek Wolcott and Soyinka, an event organised by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to belatedly celebrate Soyinka's 70th birthday. I was aware that Ezenwa had been undergoing chemotherapy for his cancer, so it was a particular delight not only to see him but to find him still possessed of his infectious cheer and charm. After the edification of listening to the laureates, Obiora Udechukwu invited four of us, Ezenwa, Professor Chukwuma Azuonye, myself and a student of mine, to a cafe to grab some pizza and drinks. When I inquired about the progress of his book on Soyinka, Ezenwa said he was figuratively swamped by the material he'd gathered--and then noted that there was a lot more to harvest. Even with the benefit of robust health, most people would have been daunted by the sheer burden of attempting to limn a narrative out of the protean career and stupendous complexity of life of a man like Soyinka.

Not Ezenwa. He saw in the Soyinka project not a task that might overwhelm him, but another challenge that would draw out his steely determination and, in the end, yield the reward of success. To his death, he was focused and engaged, a portrait of the poet and scholar as a striving intellectual. In the breadth of his accomplishments no less than in the projects from whose pursuits death has permanently thwarted him, he left us a moving, magnificent measure of himself. He also instructed us on what we must to ensure that, even after we have died, death neither has the last word nor defines us.