By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
There is no better way of introducing Odia Ofeimun than pointedly stressing that “Odia Ofeimun is Odia Ofeimun!”
Poet, publisher, editor, activist, polemicist, mentor, politician, columnist, factory worker, writer, dance-drama exponent, public intellectual, critic etc. Odia ofeimun has packed uncountable lifetimes into one tumultuous lifespan.
Born on March 16, 1950, in Iruekpen, an Esan-speaking town in Ekpoma, in present-day Edo State, Odia missed an entire year at the start of his primary schooling because, as was the practice then, his right hand could not cross his head and touch his left ear!
He eventually benefitted from the Free Education policy which started in the old Western Region in 1955, under the auspices of the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo whom Odia would later in life serve as a Private Secretary.
Odia had to drop out of secondary school in Class Three due to the business failure of his father.
He had discovered the joys of reading, and thus made the library of his uncle Odigie his true home.
The uncle happened to be studying in Germany then, and the daring Odia had the audacity to inform him that he planned to become a writer even without formal university education, not unlike Nigeria’s Amos Tutuola, South Africa’s Peter Abrahams, Ireland’s Bernard Shaw, England’s Charles Dickens and America’s Ernest Hemingway.
He sent some of his early poems to the newspaper, Midwest Echo, a sister title of the Ibadan-based Nigerian Tribune, and fortuitously got employed as a cub reporter.
He wrote poems that would later be published in the Chinua Achebe-edited Okike, and Nigeria Magazine edited by Frank Aig-Imoukhuede.
Leaving the newspaper which salary was in arrears, Odia made to travel to Ghana to function as a writer but only ended up in Lagos where he found work as a petrol station attendant and then as a factory labourer.
He made the rounds of the public libraries in Lagos and occupied his nights writing poetry.
Odia had the singular distinction of doing his A Levels in December and the O Levels in January.
Curiously, Odia failed literature at O Levels, only to get a B in the subject A Levels the very next year.
According to Odia, “Thankfully, I did not need any GCE or any formal qualifications to write… I sent some of the poems to Chinua Achebe’s Okike and some to Nigeria magazine edited by Frank Aig-Imoukhuede. They were published while I was waiting for my A Level results. It got a personal boon when Wole Soyinka was released from three years of detention. I took a trip to Ibadan to meet him. He was driving out of his compound at the University of Ibadan in an open mini-mock when I flagged him down. He took one look at the poems, summed up my factory labourer’s dressing, my bathroom slippers, whitish nylon shirt tied up below my navel, and asked: ‘Are you sure you wrote them?’ From that moment, I knew I could call myself a poet.”
The poems were eventually published in the celebrated anthology, Poems of Black Africa edited by Wole Soyinka and published by the esteemed London publishing house Secker and Warburg.
It is indeed striking that the poems Odia wrote at 18 is still being studied by 18-year-olds doing the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations.
Lack of material means could not stop Odia from taking an Upper Second in Political Science from the University of Ibadan.
Odia’s first collection, The Poet Lied, was published by Longman in 1980 but had to be withdrawn from the market because JP Clark claimed he was the subject of the title poem.
Odia has thus far published well over 40 books made up of collections of his poetry, anthologies edited by him, dance dramas, collected essays, creative non-fiction, polemics etc.
His publishing outfit, the Hornbill House of Culture, is a path-finding enterprise in the cultural mill.
Lagos remains for Odia an adorable city of wonder that he celebrates thusly: “Eko, my city by the lagoon.”
To dream big makes great poetry to happen. Odia Ofeimun is the unapologetic bearer of grand dreams.
For Odia, Lagos represents an entire cosmos bodying the dreams of a nation and a continent.
It is not for nothing that the street guys stress always “come to Lagos and be wise.” Nobody experiences Lagos without somewhat waxing poetic.
In the epochal anthology, Lagos of the Poets, edited by Odia, the poet undertakes a sweep that captures Lagos from the words intervolving Nigeria’s first president Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the early nationalist Dennis Osadebay, the breakthrough modernist poets such as Gabriel Okara, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, down to the modern days of Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Tanure Ojaide, Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Ogaga Ifowodo, Chiedu Ezeanah, Nengi Ilagha, Lola Soneyin, Jumoke Verissimo etc.
The icing on the poetic cake happens to be the inclusion of the maverick Afrobeat blaster Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, represented by his songs Confusion Break Bone and Go Slow.
The indomitable Odia is still hard at work on the biography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo whom he served as Private Secretary.
Odia has over the years served as the Publicity Secretary, General Secretary and President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
Odia was the chairman of our editorial board when we were practising Guerrilla Journalism in the hard days of General Sani Abacha.
Odia won the internationally coveted Fonlon Nichols award for excellence in writing and human rights activism in 2010.
Odia’s landmark birthdays have always struck a reverberating chord with me over the years.
At Odia’s 50th birthday party in his old house in Oregun, Lagos, my teacher Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka whom I had not seen for some time wowed the audience when he asked me: “My friend, where have you been?”
“Prof, Sir, I have chosen to remain in Nigeria to do battle with Nigerian poverty,” I replied.
Soyinka and Odia and the party had a good laugh at poor me.
When Odia’s 60th birthday was afoot I got an early morning phone call from Odia, and he was quite straight to the point: “I want you at my house this evening.”
Odia is of course “he who must be obeyed.”
When I got to the poet’s home in Oregun I was handed an impossible task. Odia wanted to launch all of 14 books on his birthday, March 16, which was then barely a week away, and he wanted me to proof-read, fact-check and somewhat edit the manuscripts.
In the world of Odia, nothing is impossibility.
He had made contacts with printers from Shomolu to faraway Dubai, urging them to be ready to print all the books to beat the tough deadline.
I spent nights wading through words.
Unfortunately, Odia’s go-between who sent the first three books to the printers did not do a proper checking such that errors were made in the frontispiece of all three books.
Odia, who always insists on perfection, was left with no choice than to dump all the printed copies that consumed a huge amount.
That is Odia for you: he can cast a fortune aside in his drive for excellence.
At 73, Odia Ofeimun has an encyclopedic mind that is as alert as ever. He still commits all his hours to just causes.
Let’s toast to the health of the master poet and indefatigable public intellectual-cum-activist, Odia Ofeimun, at 73!
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry.