Wednesday, October 04, 2006

221 Ways of Killing a Human Being

Ogaga Ifowodo had a reading at Jazzhole, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, last Saturday (September 30). The attendance was quite good, it turned out to be a gathering of writers, journalists, and art enthusiasts. Ike Oguine, Toni Kan, Araceli Aipoh, Niran Okewole, Chiedu Ezeanah, Austyn Njoku, Wumi Raji, Maxim Uzoatu, Uduma Kalu, James Eze, Akeem Lasisi, Chike Ofili... Conspicuously absent, however, was Odia Ofeimun.

Ogaga took us on a journey through his non-fiction (memoir-in-progress) and his poetry. He read an excerpt from his prison memoirs (it appears in New Writing 14, edited by Helon Habila and Lavinia Greenlaw), before moving through his poetry collections, HOMELAND AND OTHER POEMS, MADIBA, AND THE OIL LAMP.

All 3 of Ogaga's collections have won one or the other of Nigeria's most prestigious poetry prizes... his latest (3rd) collection of poetry THE OIL LAMP (published by the Africa World Press) explores the environmental degradation in the Niger Delta... he read poems from all three collections (HOMELAND AND OTHER POEMS, MADIBA, THE OIL LAMP).

Ogaga lives in the US now, he's currently on a Doctorate in Literature program at Cornell University. He studied Law at the University of Benin and was one of the most committed activists in the fight against military dictatorship during and after his University days -- earning a stint in prison (along with novelist and journalist Akin Adesokan) in the late nineties under the tyranny of the late dictator Sani Abacha.

What made the reading strikingly engaging was the fact that Ogaga was not just reading poems borne of the (quotidian) interplay of Muse and Imagination. In Ogaga's creative offerings, Experience and Memory are very active ingredients. Everything he writes about he has experienced; he has been (and still is, I guess) an activist, and he has been a prisoner (which in my opinion validates his poetic tribute to Madiba)

In addition, Ogaga hails from Oleh, in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Perhaps the only thing that surpasses Oleh's oil wealth (hundreds of oil wells) is the poverty of its people. He regaled us with first-hand tales of the fight against dictatorship, a vivid reminder of Nigeria's very recent -- and not altogether completely exorcised -- "darkest" days. One of his most moving narrations dealt with Major Okuntimo, the arrowhead of the military junta's murderous invasion and intervention in Ogoni Land (which culminated in Ken Saro Wiwa's death).

Ogaga narrated how Okuntimo had at a press conference during those dark days boasted of his knowledge of 221 ways of killing a human being. In Ogaga's poetry "Okuntimo" becomes "Kitemo" and in the mouth of a narrator of one of the poems becomes "Kill-them-all". The power of poetry to portray (and blend) horror and humour without obscuring hope/healing. We have survived the dark days (hopefully), but Ogaga's poetry remains a potent reminder of where we are coming from, and an encouragement to us, that we should never fail to send our present (and future) to the past's dark classrooms, to learn those lessons that cannot be learnt anywhere else.

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