Africa: The Days of Small Beginnings
In January 2016, on my way to Nnewi, I stopped to see the Radio Nigeria South East Zonal Director in Enugu. Ken Ike Okere had an idea, to replicate the sort of literary society he had helped nurture in Abuja, and wanted to know if I was game. And so began a love affair with the Coal City, flying in to attend the monthly Enugu Literary Society meetings, till the whirlwind of MADE IN NIGERIA struck. And, still, Enugu was my 2nd stop. I tell you. Not till Maiduguri, a year later, did I find an audience as embracing as the one I found in 042.
So, in 2017, when I bumped into Patrick Okigbo III in Abuja, and he told me about this thing he was doing in Enugu – this Centre for Memories, conjuring images of ghostly figures striding out of the harmattan mist on a cold December morning – I told him, if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. And he did – after he’d run a rousing campaign for Osita Chidoka in Anambra, and Nnanna Ude had called to ask me to speak for 10 minutes at the 23rd Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja, and he and Nnanna Ude had started a Guest Speaker Series, ‘Nkata Umu Ibe’, in Enugu – after all this, Patrick Okigbo III called to know if I would be their 4th ‘distinguished speaker’.
Me? True. This is not an easy path to follow, you know? After Professor Okey Ndibe, and Professor Chidi Odinkalu, and Dr. Okey Ikechukwu, and knowing Chief John Nnia Nwodo would be 5th, me?? So, I went first – as every child in troubled times is guided by our culture – to my mother’s hut. And she put a few words in my mouth and said, Speak from the heart. And then I went to Enugu. To Enugu Sports Club, to be exact, where the history etched into the timber columns and the high ceilings had me staring. You see? Ben Etiaba, Chairman of the Club, gave me the tour himself. Stopping on the way to introduce Stan Okoronkwo, ex-Enugu Rangers from the legendary ‘70s squad, and Professor and Professor Okoronkwo, the pleasant parents of Ndidi Nwuneli. And I thought again – me??
Because there to listen, in a hall quickly filling up, was Dr Joe Nworgu, former Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. To his far right was an old friend of my mother’s, and former FRCN boss, Chief Kelvin Ejiofor. And to his immediate left was an old friend of my father’s, and former DG of the National Orientation Agency, Professor Elo Amucheazi. You see? I am as I am. The jeans I feel most comfortable in, and the shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. I am often awkward in Nigerian social circles because I am not great at protocol and so can offend without meaning to. You understand? But Professor Amucheazi sat me close, even before the lecture, and said, ‘I am very proud of you’. And this is the confidence Love gives – to validate first.
So, I went to the lectern, where the speaker stands alone. From there I saw the amazing Igbo poet, Amarachi Atama, who had come from the screening of her latest documentary, ‘Biafuru’ to be present. Further back, Osinayah Prince Agu, who I knew had come all the way from Aba. From there, I remembered the warnings of Nnanna Udeh and Patrick Okigbo III, to expect an expectant crowd, for the hall had erupted in spontaneous applause when they were told I was coming, how Nnanna then laughed at the look on my face and added, ‘No pressure!’ And so, I gripped the lectern with two hands, took a deep breath – thought of my mother and the grey that charges like smouldering fire through her hair – and began to speak.
“We must, even in the face of excessive provocation, maintain our demand for a more meritocratic society where people are judged not by their tribe or religion but by their competence and ability. Because it is only this that can release the potential of this nation and all of its constituent parts. That is why Meritocracy is an Ideal worth fighting for. That is why it is an Ideal worth dying for. That is why we cannot give up on it simply because of the odds stacked against it, or because other people are acting differently and succeeding thereby. No. It is in times like these, in the face of frustration and overwhelming resistance, that we must remember proverbs like ‘mberede ka e ji a ma dike’. Because if apartheid could end in South Africa, if segregation could end in America, then meritocracy is possible in Nigeria. But in the pursuit of that Ideal there will be many days when we will be tempted to give up on our innermost convictions and give in to what is most convenient. It is on those days that we must remember the weight and import of that hallowed command, ‘Jide Ofo!’ For if we do, if we hold on to our Ideals and refuse to let go no matter what this world does to us, then there is, and will always be, hope for the better parts of our collective humanity.”
This is what I said. And Professor Elo Amucheazi rose to his feet. And Ben Etiaba brought out a fresh bottle of Hennessy, tipped a little to the concrete floor, and said, ‘You have done me great honour’. It is true, I tell you, that there is never a time the truth should not be spoken. But, know this too, every truth has its time to be heard. So, if your heart stirs consistently in a certain direction, rugged and rough, persevere in what it asks you to say. For, my brother, you can never tell by looking at the turbulence around you in which Times you live. True. This is what we mean when we say, ‘Jide Ofo’. It is how to walk through the darkness…
042. I thank you for the love.
Nkata Ume Ibe – the distinguished Guest Speaker Series of the Centre for Memories – holds on the First Fridays of every month at Enugu Sports Club, Enugu.
Enugu Literary Society holds its meeting on the 2nd Saturday of every month at Radio House, Enugu.
For did you not know? There is no tsunami that does not begin with a wave.
By Dike Chukwumerije