Although generally dreaded, death is part of life and human beings, the world over, celebrate its occurrence with great poetry. In Africa, the celebration of death is given high premium among other social events with lots of pomp and ceremony. Dirges are sung to celebrate the burial ceremony of people of high personage in Africa.
Birth is also celebrated but it seems human beings celebrate death more than birth. They regard the end of man as more superior and of greater significance than the beginning. In Christian theology, the death of Jesus Christ is accorded more significance than His birth, though both are critical tenets of Christianity.
But not all deaths deserve good poetry. Death by insurgents, security agents, armed robbers, kidnappers, ritual killers, angry husbands and wives, road accidents, drowning, and diseases, are regrettable. Death from these ugly quarters is not sung and celebrated with great poetry. Such death is lamented, condemned and wished that it never happens again yet like Ogbanje, it comes back again and again to haunt the living.
Because of these mindless killings and other ruptures in the Nigerian edifice, many Nigerians have called for restructuring of the country as a surgical way of saving the life of the beleaguered Africa’s most populous country. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar added his voice to it last week. Before it could gain the front burner of national discourse, death of great global sports men dwarfed it.
Let us treat the theme of death today through the lives of two great sports men and others and postpone the recurring restructuring discourse that will save Nigeria from Abiku death for another day.
The death of former world heavy weight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali and former Nigerian coach and player, Stephen Keshi had attracted greater poetry than ever. Their passage has dominated the media and elicited eulogies from political and sports quarters.
Theirs came after the demise of another two prodigious and colourful global musical icons, Prince Rogers Nelson and Papa Wemba. What unites them is that they were in the entertainment business and had African origins. Two were African-Americans, Muhammad Ali and Prince Rogers Nelson while the other two, Papa Wemba and Stephen Keshi hailed from Congo and Nigeria respectively.
All of them were legends. The title of this essay seems to suggest that the tribute is for Ali and Keshi. But at the same time, it is also for Wemba and Prince: thereby killing four birds with one stone.
Events happen so quick in this part of the world that before you write on one, about two or more incidents would have occurred and that beg for critical intervention. While growing up, I have great love for poetry, music, boxing and football and I still do. What unites all of them is poetry (entertainment). In all these, writing (poetry), the most jealous partner, conscripted me and held me hostage, while music trails behind alluringly. I still watch good football and boxing but abhor the violence associated with them.
Muhammad Ali was a great boxer and poet. His speech before the fight against George Foreman in 1974: “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” is one of the greatest poetic lines I have come across. Enjoy also his speech before the 1975 fight with Joe Frazier titled, ‘Thriller in Manila’: “It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
Sample this: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit.” Then this: “There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win.” And finally what Ali said before his ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ match with George Foreman in Zaire, 1974: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
To top and polished players like Stephen Keshi, football is akin to poetry as well. That is why they celebrate any scoring with poetic dance steps. Even the passes and kicks are like poetic verses for which the scoring is the climax. In the history of Nigerian football, Keshi occupied a pride of place as a good player and a successful coach. He dazzled all with his excellent football, poetry, disarming smiles, friendship, patriotism and charisma. His being a polyglot added to Keshi’s aura and mystique. That is possibly why they call him the “Big Boss.”
Wemba and Prince were two icons that revolutionized global music. Wemba blended African, Cuban and Western sounds and made it one of Africa’s popular music styles. Wemba’s music is poetic and danceable. In his music, the sound of poetry meets harmoniously with the sounds of music. His musical genres include Congolese rumba, soukous and ndombolo. Wemba’s poetic hit songs include Matambele Bangui, Sala Keba and Makonzi. The fashionable and sonorous King of Rumba also popularized the La Sape culture. The legendry Wemba would remain of one of the greatest musicians from Africa.
Prince Rogers Nelson was a great American singer, songwriter, innovator and multi-instrumentalist. He was eclectic in his musical compositions. He had flamboyant and colourful stage presence. He was so popular with purple. He was called the ‘Purple One’ on account of his life experiences and varied musical genres. Prince combined soulful lyrics and engaging performances. Prince will be remembered for his overt showmanship, good poetry and androgynous looks. The titles of his albums are also poetic: Purple Rain, Lovesexy, Sign o’ of the Times, Chaos and Disorder, Graffiti Bridge, Goldnigga, The Rainbow Children, Diamond and Pearls, The Slaughterhouse and One Night Alone.
What is common with these entertainment icons is that they had passion for their chosen career. These men were champions and legends. Like Ali, it is likely that they believed in the wisdom of his speech before his 1974 fight against George Foreman: “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the last minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill. Their story is a poignant pointer that nothing good comes easy. It takes hard work, vision and dedication to achieve success.