The title is the beginning of “Heavensgate”, by Christopher Okigbo, the greatest modern Nigerian poem, and I think the greatest modern African poem. Okigbo is my patron saint, and my personal Janus (he died in the war that gave life to me), so it’s appropriate to pour out for him before I take a draught. The second proper and good thing for me to do is to introduce myself. I’m Uche Ogbuji, computer engineer and aspiring poet (I think I have a fair bit of skill with verse, but I set pretty daunting standards for myself). I recently started reading TNB, following my dear friend Erika. I’ve enjoyed my time here, so I was thrilled when she recommended me to Brad as a contributor, and twice thrilled when Brad welcomed me.
“Take it back to the days of yes ya’ll-ing”
I first heard Rap with everyone else: Sugar Hill Gang. I was in Gainesville, Florida, where my Dad was lecturing, having just got his Ph.D. at Case Western. That was my first stint in the US. Four years. We moved back to Nigeria that same Sugar Hill summer. Hip-hop followed me back home. Boarding school, equivalent of 6th grade. The uncool kids, many of whom had also returned from the US. Everyone else was seeing Kool and the Gang, Central Line, Shalamar, even Boney-M and ABBA. My crew was seeing UTFO, Newcleus, Flash, Melle-Mel and all that. Screw the park, we practiced the wave and scramble (crazy legs, baby) in the classrooms after curfew. Beatboxing because only prefects could own radios, and we were so not the prefect type.
For my first cool kid moment at school in Nigeria I was practicing my pop-locking and some of the school football (OK “soccer”, if you insist) stars were sauntering by on their way to practice, and stopped.
Kedi ihe o na e me kwa nu? O ara?
(That’s Igbo, my father tongue, for: What the hell is he doing? Has he gone mad?)
I ma go. O egwu bekee-a na e me kita. O di mma.
(You know, it’s the dance they’re doing abroad these days. Not bad.)
They stood and watched for a bit before continuing to the field. I gave them the best show I could. After that I’d often be asked to show off my moves.
Coolness didn’t last long, though. I’m not sure why, but I had a serious self-destructive streak back then. I did everything I could to piss everyone off and get back to not fitting in.
Of course, once hip-hop gets in your blood, there’s no shaking it. A few years shy of forty, I’m still a b-boy. And it won’t stop. And it don’t stop.
“Literature? Do you think I want you living in my house until I die?”
I’m pretty sure that’s close to what my dad told me when I suggested what School Certificate exams I wanted to take, outlining my truly desired career. In Nigeria, as in many developing economies, the humanities are studied by what those who aren’t accepted for medicine, law, engineering or something respectable, as well as those who succeeded in battling their parents, or getting disowned. I always had a gift for maths, so despite being even more at home with language, my father wouldn’t hear of my squandering the apparent opportunities.
I tried everything I could to get out of the cursus honorum, including getting suspended from school just before the School Certs. Did I do something cool? A panty raid of the girl’s dorms? Putting a magnum of gunpowder in the school bell? Well, I did consider doing the latter, having learned how to make gunpowder while I was supposed to be doing a science project on recycling abandoned clothing, but I chickened out. In the end all I did was ignore an emergency assembly in order to be marked AWOL.
Didn’t work. My dad drove to school and went toe to toe with the principal until the coward suspended my suspension.
I ended up in the best University in the country, one of the best in the world, really–University of Nigeria at Nsukka, stomping grounds of Christopher Okigbo, and the town where he died in the war. Completely by chance I met and became fast friends with Victor Okigbo, Christopher’s nephew and son of Pius Okigbo, a renowned economist. Pius was the responsible one, rising to the highest ranks of his profession. Christopher was the gallant who lived and died for poetry and his abortive nation of Biafra. Literally went out in a blaze of glory in the war. Victor was the re-embodiment of his uncle–fiery and gallant. He was one of those who fought his father’s aspirations tooth and nail, ending up in the marginally respectable School of Mathematics.
Being friends with the rich and popular Victor, along with my own emerging personality (I was 16 when I started University) made me popular for the first time since I’d arrived in Nigeria. Oh yeah. I lost my god damned mind. Party seven nights a week, and during the day Victor and I hung out with his roommate, who was studying literature, and we soon formed our own little salon circle. Problem was that Victor was in the Maths faculty and I was in Engineering. Everyone else was actually doing what they were sent there to do. So yeah, I was on the verge of flunking out (and had nearly killed myself in a car accident) when Dad sent me to the US to finish my education.
“La liberté éclairant le monde”
Ah, qui peut éviter le froideur du changement? Victor was an absolutely brilliant writer, something else he got from his Uncle, and our literary circle was pretty intense, so it was like being dunked in ice water when I arrived in New Jersey. I’ve wandered around since then, dutifully getting my Engineering degree at least, but stopping short of my Dad’s vision by not pursuing a doctorate. I’ve looked for bursts of inspiration throughout my journey.
- New Jersey. Clutching writing by Victor, Chinwuba Okoro and other Nsukka friends whom I’d promised to shop around in the US, to see if I could make our clique famous, I read the leading literary magazines and found that I didn’t recognize anything compatible with voices strained through the likes of Donne, Petrarca, Auden, Eliot, Pound, Okigbo, Dennis Brutus… (we considered ourselves too good for Soyinka, Lenrie Peters, James Pepper Clark and such). I pretty much gave up in despair.
- Cleveland. The less said the better.
- Milwaukee. I met my future wife and got my Engineering degree, so major bonuses, but more a sojourn of acculturation than anything else.
- Dallas. Almost hit the jackpot. I found a very good circle of poets, and got back to the things I loved, but work was killing me, so of all places I moved on to
- Peoria. Found entrepreneurial yen, thus scarce time for the pen.
- Colorado (Ft. Collins, then Boulder). Spiritual jackpot. Wonderful people. Gorgeous vistas. So much to do. The birth of three healthy boys. Occasional inspiration, usually from when I’ve had time to hang out with the likes of Erika.
“πολλῷ τὸ φρονεῖν εὐδαιμονίας πρῶτον ὑπάρχει.”
From Sophocles, Antigone [in english] [in greek]: “Wisdom is provided as the chief part of happiness” (it goes on to say: “our dealings with the gods must be in no way unholy.”) That “εὐδαιμονίας” is of course where Schopenhauer got his “eudaemonology” idea in “The Wisdom of Life”. Of course Schopey got it exactly backwards, misreading the bit about “unholy”. I don’t believe you reach the apex of wisdom and happiness by shutting yourself up from pleasures, but rather by snatching at and wringing every bit of happiness (and wisdom) you can from each circumstance. I’m content with my very incomplete literary life, but I’m hardly giving up on my original dreams. I plan to seize on arrival at TNB to get back into the rhythm of intense words and expression.
That is, if I don’t tread all over my welcome. Let’s see. My very first posting, and I’ve managed to throw Igbo, French and Attic Greek into a pit of self-indulgent auto-biography. I wrote this in a fury yesterday, but then I gave myself a cool-down period. I wanted to think hard before posting it. In the end, I decided: this is my real voice.
I’m a culture chameleon, and if you meet me in person, I probably sound like typical Coloradan Gen-Y, complete with off-hand slacker wit. But that’s not how I communicate with myself (my chi, Igbo for soul or spiritual second self) nor with the ghost of Christopher Okigbo, nor with the memory of my Nsukka salon (with most of whom I’ve lost touch).
Nah, the taste of my native tongue is puree of starched colonial education, wacky wanderings through America, Europe and Nigeria, and a heavy dose of Hip-Hop sensibility.
That’s me. Naked. Offered up to Idoto, the goddess of the oceans that separate continents, In search of a few more friends to join me on my journey, just for a modest time, while our paths are coincident. I won’t tell you how “Heavensgate” ends. Of course you can always follow my link at the top and read the text yourself, but for my part, I’m not just now in the mood for endings.
✄ ✄ ✄
22 Comments copied from the archived TNB site »
I just googled my name and found a link to this blog where you mentioned my name. Oh how I reminisced those intense days of poetry in Naija.
We need to hook up on FB. Yessss, Victor is there too.
Also, I need to know if you still have any of my old writings. In 1993 I was in a convoy that was attacked and the cars were all snatched and I lost my poetry manuscript that were in my luggage. Thus all my original poems are lost. If you still have any copies that would be simply, I would be sooo grateful.