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Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)


Nigerian poet who wrote in English. Okigbo died in the civil war in Nigeria, fighting for the independence of Biafra. His difficult but suggestive and prophetic poems show the influence of modernist European and American poetry, African tribal mythology, and Nigerian music and rhythms. "Prophetic, menacing, terrorist, violent, protesting – his poetry was all of these," S.O. Anozie said in Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric (1972).

Thundering drums and cannons
in palm grove:
the spirit is in ascent.

(in 'Sacrifice', The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, 1998)

Christopher Okigbo was born in Ojoto in eastern Nigeria, which at that time was still Britain's colony. He was the fourth child of James Okigbo, a primary-school teacher, and Anna Onugwalobi, daughter of Ikejiofor, priest of the Ajani shrine of Ire, Ojoto. James was a Roman Catholic convert, who taught in many new mission schools. Anna achieve great success in trading clothes and jewelry; she died in 1935, and James married Elizabeth, Okigbo's step-mother. His early education Okigbo received at Umulobia Catholic School. In 1945 he went for his secondary education to Umuahia Government College. Like many other major Nigerian writers, such as Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Pepper Clark, and Cole Omotso, he also entered the University College of Ibadan. Okigbo first planned to study medicine, but changed his major to Greek and Latin, graduating in 1956. He edited the University Weekly and translated Greek and Latin Verse. From the university days on he was a close friend of Chinua Achebe.

Okigbo tried first to start a career at the Nigerian Tobacco Company and the United African Company, but he never turned his fascination with big business into a money making enterprise. Between 1957 and 1958 he served as private secretary to the Federal Minister of Information in Lagos. On his first visit to the United States, Okigbo was involved in negotiations which led to the establishment of the Nigerian Mission in the United Nations in New York. However, Okigbo had little patience with bureaucracy, and he failed to secure a position in the Foreign Service. "Chris always struck one to be in the wrong place in those years," one of his colleagues recalled. "He had an amazing energy, a brilliant and acute mind and a real capacity to generate laughter." Before taking a job as the West Africa representantive for Cambridge University Press in 1961, Okigbo was employed as a teacher at Fiditi Grammar School, near Ibadan, and then as Assistant Librarian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he participated in the founding of the African Authors Association.

In Ibadan, Okigbo became a central figure of the Mbari Club. In the 1960s, this diverse and cosmopolitan city, largest in West Africa, was a haven for scholars, intellectuals, political exiles, artists, writers and bohemians. "Ibadan was a huge village and lived at the leisurely pace of the village; avoided the speed and neuroses of the city," wrote Nkem Nwankwo in his book of memoir Shadow of the Masquerade (1994). "That meant that life was easy and everything – especially sexual gratification – was available with minimum effort, at minimum cost." The great love of Okigbo's life was Judith Safinat Attah, an Igbira princess, the daughter of one of the most powerful monarchs in Northern Nigeria. They eventually married, but he did not give up his Bohemian ways, and turned her back to Yola in the North of Nigeria, if she came to see him without informing beforehand. To a friend Okigbo confessed, that he could not imagine living in the same house with a woman as his wife. When his daughter was born in 1964, Okigbo wrote the poem, 'Dance of the Painted Maidens' in celebration of her birth.

with the armpit dazzle of a lioness,
she answers,
wearing white light about her;
and the waves escort her,
my lioness,
crowned with moonlight.

(in 'Water Maid', The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, 1998)

Okigbo published his first poems in the student literary journal Horn, which was edited by J.P. Clark. As a poet Okigbo made his breakthrough in 1962, when his works appeared in the literary magazine Black Orpheus. In the same year he also published pamphlet, entitled Heavensgate, and a long poem in the Ugandan cultural magazine Transition, which was published in Kampala. Okigbo's early poems reflected the divided cultural heritage of his country, although first influences from Virgil, Ovid, Eliot, and Pound seem to be stronger than the oral literature of the Igbo. He knew Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' by heart, as well as Shelley's 'Ozymandias'. Heavensgate marked his return to the African part of his heritage and self-renewal through the goddess of the earth: "Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand / before your watery presence a prodigal / leaning on an oilbean / lost in your legend".

The 1960s was a period of great political upheavals in Nigeria. The country became an independent republic in 1963 and four years later the eastern Ibo tribal region attempted to secede as the independent nation of Biafra. Although Okigbo followed keenly the social and political events in his country, his early poems moved on a personal and mythical level. Path of Thunder (1968) showed a new direction – its attack on bloodthirsty politicians ("POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, / of detonators") and neocolonial exploitation ("THE ROBBERS descend on us to strip us our laughter, of our / thunder") was also in tune with the rise of radical movements of the decade. Okigbo won in 1966 the poetry prize at the Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, but he refused the prize because he did not believe that art should not be judged on racial basis. At the outbreak of the civil war Okigbo was working for an Italian business organization called Wartrade. With Chinua Achebe he founded a publishing company Citadell Press at Enugu.

Okigbo joined in July 1967 the Biafran army as a major, refuring more secure posts behind the lines. He was killed in action near Nsukka in August, in one of the first battles of the civil war. He was posthumously decorated with the Biafran National Order of Merit. The poems Okigbo wished to preserve were published posthumously by Heinemann as Labyrinths in 1971, with Path of Thunder, added. Okigbo left behind a wife and daughter, for whom he dedicated Labyriths. Forebodingly he had written in 'Elegy for Alto:' "O mother mother Earth, unbind me; let this be / my last testament, let this be / The ram's hidden wish to the sword the sword's / secret prayer to the scabbard –." According to some sources, Okigbo was working on a novel before his death, but the manuscript has not been found. The tragic hero Chris Oriko in Achebe's novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987) was modelled after Okigbo. Achebe and Dubem Okafor edited a volume of poems, Don't Let Him Die (1978), which commemorated the life and poetry of Okigbo.

Okigbo used often repetition, the rhythm is songlike, and the words flow melodiously, as if the poet were listening and interpreting distant sounds. In an interview he said that he stopped writing music when he began writing poetry seriously. Once he accompanied Wole Soyinka on the piano in his first public appearance as a singer, playing 'Amabola'. He also accompanied Fransisca Pereira. Nothing has survived of his written music. Okigbo occasionally portrayed himself as a singer-musician, who speaks with the ancient, pre-literate language of drums: "I have fed out of the drum / I have drunk out of the cymbal..." Recurring images are dance ("dance of death", "iron dance of mortars"), thunder ("thunder of tanks", "the thunder among the clouds"), and the sound of drums ("the drums of curfew", "lament of the drums"). In 'Overture' (1961) Okigbo was a "watchman for the watchword / at heavensgate" and in 'Hurrah for Thunder' a "town-crier, together with my iron bell" (from Paths of Thunder, 1968). With T.S. Eliot he shared a vision of a spiritual quest, which takes the poet to the realm of ancient myths and to his spiritual self. From the four elements Okigbo chose water, the dwelling place of Idoto: "Under my feet float the waters: / tide blows them under."

For further reading: The Chosen Tongue by G. Moore (1969); Whispers From a Continent by W. Cartey (1969); The Trial of Christopher Okigbo by Ali A. Mazrui (1971); Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric by Sunday O. Anozie (1972); The Breast of the Earth by K. Awoonor (1975); Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, ed. Chinua Achebe and Dubem Okafor (1978); World Authors 1970-1975, ed. John Wakeman (1980); Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo, ed. Donatus Nwoga (1984); Dance of Death: Nigerian History and Christopher Okigbo's Poetry by Dubem Okafor (1998); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); A Concordance to the Poems of Christopher Okigbo, edited by Michael J.C. Echeruo (2008) ; Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight by Obi Nwakanma (2010)

Selected works:

  • Heavensgate, 1962 (Mbari Publications)
  • Limits, 1964 (first published in Transition, July-August 1962, Mbari Publications)
  • Silences, 1965
  • Path of Thunder, 1968 (in the literary magazine Black Orpheus)
  • Labyrinths with Path of Thunder, 1971
  • Collected Poems, 1986 (with a preface by Paul Theroux, introduction by Adewale Maja-Pearce)

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