Calvin Coolidge’s age-long maxim that “Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion” recently came to full manifestation, as poets and other literary enthusiasts from different parts of Nigeria stormed the cradle of foremost African poet, Late Christopher Okigbo, in his hometown, Ojoto, Idemili South Local Government Area of Anambra State in celebration of the 2021 Return to Idoto.
Held triennially by Awka Literary Society, which is an international society of writers, literature lovers and the creative arts; this literary journey to Ojoto, popularly known as “Return to Idoto” is a poetry festival organised in honour of the world-class poet, teacher and librarian, Okigbo, who died in 1967 during the Nigerian/Biafran Civil War.
In its third edition now, the event, which was first held in 2015 was also held in 2018, with many international literary figures in attendance.
The 2021 Return to Idoto was a special edition as usual, in the sense that it prominently featured both young and established poets who came from different parts of the country to poetically salute the master, Okigbo. Star poet at the event was Mr. James Eze, the author of ANA Poetry Prize-winning book, ‘Dispossessed’, and Chief Press Secretary to Governor Willie Obiano. Other special poets featured at the event include: Daggar Tollar, author of ‘Love in the Memory of Pain’; Ifesinachi Nwadike, author of ‘How Morning Remembers the Night’; Nwachukwu Egbunike, author of ‘NKÀ’ and Eze Chidubem Iweka III, Igwe Obosi, author of ‘So Bright a Darkness’.
The three-day event started with a literary evening, held in Awka, where national and international literary figures kept wake with poetry amidst fanfare and funfair.
Aside the above-listed poets, some other poets and performers who thrilled the audience at the Welcome Eveningvening include: Anambra State Commissioner for Culture, Tourism and Diaspora Affairs, Dr. Kenneth Anierobi; erstwhile NLNG Prize winner, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo; former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Prof. Ngozi Chuma-Udeh; author of ‘Mbize: The Rage of the Red Earth’ and the MD/Editor-in-Chief, Anambra Newspapers and Printing Corporation, Sir Chuka Nnabuife.
Others include: Dr. Ikechukwu Emmanuel Asika, author of ‘Tamara Love of an Angel’; Deputy Chief Press Secretary to Governor Willie Obiano, Mr. Emeka Ozumba, Izunna Okafor, author of ‘Ajọ Enyi’; among others.
Speaking shortly after reading his poem at the event, Anambra State Commissioner for Culture, Tourism and Diaspora Affairs, Dr. Kenneth Anierobi welcomed the poets into the on behalf of Governor Willie Obiano, and also described Anambra as a world-class tourist destination, and a home of arts and of writers.
While noting that poet Okigbo was a great Anambra son who did not only project the image of his community, but also made his state and his country proud through his poetry; Dr. Anierobi extolled the poet’s life and legacies, and appreciated the participants for honouring and celebrating the legend, even as he and reassured them of the state government’s unrelenting support to the project.
Aside back-to-back poetry renditions and performances by poets in the filed, the convivial and sonorous night also featured narrations on the life, personality, works and legacies of poet Okigbo, as well as goodwill messages on from poets in the field.
The second day of the event kicked off with the poets waking and warming the capital city with poetry, shortly after which they toured to the palace of the Traditional Ruler of Ojoto, Igwe Gerald Mbamalu (Eze Ojoto III), where he hosted them on a courtesy call, in the presence of some council members. Also present at the courtesy call was the Traditional Ruler of Obosi, H.R.H. Igwe Chidubem Iweka (Eze Obosi III), as well some members of the Okigbo Family, including Chief John Okigbo (poet Okigbo’s uncle) and Onyebuchi Okigbo.
Addressing the poets shortly after the breaking of kola nut, Igwe Mbamalu, who had earlier engaged them in nzu (white chalk) marking rite as a proof of hospitality, welcomeness and purity of heart, appreciated them for finding the need to immortalize their son, Okigbo, and harped on the need for everyone to aspire to live a life that is worthy of emulation and celebration.
While pledging the community leadership’s interest readiness to be part of and to support the subsequent editions of the event; the traditional ruler suggested that the event henceforth be hosted annually, rather than triennially, considering its enormous benefits to both the humanity and the society. The monarch was later presented with complimentary copies of books authored by some of the poets.
Contributing, the Traditional Ruler of Obosi, Igwe Chidubem Iweka, who is also a published poet and Patron of the Awka Literary Society, urged writers to hold their writing career to a great esteem. Referencing author Ositadimma Amakaeze’s poem, titled ‘Why I Can’t Write Today’, the monarch charged the poets to write always, even when the inspiration is not forthcoming, when they find it difficult to write, and when they do not see any reason at all to write.
In their separate remarks, some members of the Okigbo Family, Chief John Okigbo and Chief Pius Okigbo (Jnr.) who revealed some noteworthy things about Okigbo’s lifestyle, described Return to Idoto as one of the greatest honours done to their son, and further revealed that the event has always helped to keep the late poet ever fresh in their memories; even as they avowed that the family would ever remain grateful and supportive of the event.
The second day was wrapped up with a Poetry Bonfire Night at Okigbo’s residence in Ojoto, where the poets took their turns to salute the Master in his grave, and literally wet the Ojoto with poetry and sonorous epopees, buttressed with pure Mbem Igbo chanted by Sir Anthony Ugorji (Okigbo Mbem) and Izunna Okafor. The poets were indeed at their best that night.
The Okigbo Family’s hospitality was also at its best and second to none at the night, as they reciprocated the poets’ thrilling performances with sumptuous suya, fresh and chilled Ojoto palm wine, and assorted drinks of different brands, having earlier greeted them with kola nut, garden egg and fresh sauce.
The Poetry Bornfire Night eventually saw the poets and some members of Okigbo family dance round a fire lit at the center of the compound, amid performances and musical interludes. This, together with the vote of thanks capped up the night and second day of the event, after which the poets retired to the capital city.
The third day of the event was the climax and the best of it all, as the poets literally took their poetry to every nook and cranny of Ojoto, having earlier stormed Okigbo’s family and grave to ‘Wake the Master’. Referred to as ‘Walking with the poet, prophet, priest, and pilgrim’, the session saw the poets take over the streets of Ojoto, as villagers ran out to hail and behold them in amazement. The tour began after the poets and some members of the Okigbo Family had cut his posthumous birthday cake in his house.
The poets, in the tour, were led by Ezenwaanyị Ojoto, a bead-dressed energetic woman popularly known as Ọgbanje and fondly hailed as ‘Ọgbanje Nwere Grade’ by the villagers as she led the poets and the pilgrims around with her arcane ornamental staff, amid mbem chants, ọ̀jà traditional flute and well-calculated and repeated dangling of bells in the background, making the session a cynosural and interesting one indeed.
Ezenwaanyị Ojoto toured the poets to strategic places that were both topical and significant to Okigbo’s life and writing/books, and scenic places featured in his works; starting with Okwu Ụkpaka Òtò, a well-engendered shrine of the historic Idoto god, where the Ezemmụọ, Chief Ikechukwu Patrick Nwaokeke Obieze welcomed them and explained the significance of the Idoto god, after which he encouraged them to sustain the good work of remembering and celebrating their beloved son, Okigbo. He further confessed that he had been witnessing and enjoying the event since it started years ago.
The poets had earlier poured some poems right before the shrine.
From there, they journeyed diametrically to the Idoto Shrine (The Temple of Idoto, the female goddess), where they also buried some poems right before the temple. The temple was decorated with pieces of red and white clothes, with with a tall cynosural tree sheltering the alter and her pulchritude.
From the Okwu Idoto, the poets and the pilgrims headed antipodally to a cynosural oil bean tree, under which they were told, poet Okigbo used to sit and repose, and sometimes compose his poems back then whenever circumstances necessitated (as was featured in his poem, ‘Heavensgate’. Okigbo’s poem was also rendered by the poets, right proximal to the historic and apparently recuperating ụkpaka tree.
From there, they furthered down to the enigmatic Idoto River, prominently featured in the first line of Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’. It would be recalled that Okigbo had an affinity, and came to believe later in his life, that in him was reincarnated the soul of his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto deity (the Idoto water goddess). The guest poets also rendered Okigbo’s ‘Heavensgate’ in unison, right before the symbolic Idoto River.
Poets also took their turns to wash their hands and heads with the quite attractive Idoto River, as though to tap muse therefrom, as Okigbo did. One of the poets, Dr. Ikechukwu Emmanuel Asika unannouncedly became the man of the moment, as Idoto goddess literally swept his feet off the muddy river basin and quietly brought him into the river, as though to personally collect the poem he had prepared to read for Mother Idoto after washing his face there as others did. When he was rescued from the river which had drowned him up to chest, Asika was then fondly given the name “The Chosen One” by co-poets, who teased him with the prank that Idoto goddess has chosen him and collected the poem directly from his pocket.
Poetry rendition was at its peak and climax, when the poets and the pilgrims got under a snug and cozy Ọtọsị Groove, which is a spacious arena naturally sheltered by live bamboos, located right inside the bush and proximal to the Idoto River that supplies it with natural ventilation and soft breeze. This time, more new voices and established poets took turns to render their poems. Among these poets were: James Eze, Daggar Tollar, Ifesinachi Nwadike, Nwachukwu Egbunike, Izunna Okafor, Oluchi Gloria, Chika Chimezie, Anote Ajeluorou, Loveth Udezue, Dr. Eddy Chukwurah, Dr. Ikechukwu Erojikwe, Franklin Diala among other.
Poets Chidubem Iweka and Chuka Nnabuife, who could not tour the muddy Ọtọsị Groove with other poets waited at a dry land, proximal to Mmiri John, where they also presented their poems.
And from there, the poets bid final farewell to Ojoto and furthered their adventure to Eze-Ọtọsị’s Residence in Agụ-Ukwu Nri, the ancestral home and cradle of Igbo race, where Patron of Awka Literary Society and former Chief Judge of Anambra State, Chief Justice Peter Umeadi preparedly hosted and treated them to sumptuous delicacy and chilled drinks of assorted brands, amid readings, mbem chants, soft ọ̀jà tunes and musical interludes.
Addressing the gathering, the literary enthusiast, Prof. Umeadi, who also read a poem at the event, described the poets’ storming of his residence as a great honour and dedicated the night to Late Prof. Emma Okocha, even as he appreciated the poets for honouring and celebrating Okigbo.
He said, “I thank all of you for your commitment and for the energy you’ve spent over the years to celebrate Okigbo, from the first edition to the second edition and now the third edition. …I count it an honour to have you people here in my house. Please do well to come back another time. And wherever you are, invite me, I’ll come. I love you all.”
Other poets who presented poems at the event include James Eze, Dagga Tollar, Ifesinachi Nwadike, Nwachukwu Egbunike, Izunna Okafor, Oluchi Gloria, Chika Chimezie, Anote Ajeluorou, Loveth Udezue, Dr. Eddy Chukwurah, Dr. Ikechukwu Erojikwe, Franklin Diala, among others.
In their separate remarks, the founders of Awka Literary Society, Mr. Odili Ujubuońu who is an award-winning novelist, and Mr. James Eze, who is an award-winning and poet gave the background of the Society and the reason behind Return to Idoto.
Which appreciating Chief Umeadi for magnanimously hosting the poets further appreciated the poets and every other person who has contributed in one way or the other to the overwhelming success of the third edition of the event, even as they expressed optimism that next editon of the event will be greater than the past.
Indeed, Return to Idoto 3 was a huge success and memorable than ever, as both the poets and the participants went home refilled and redefined by the experience.
Born in August 1932, Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo, who died in September 1967, was a Nigerian poet, teacher, and librarian, who died fighting for the independence of Biafra. He is today widely acknowledged as an outstanding postcolonial English-language African poet and one of the major modernist writers of the 20th century.