By HUMPHREY OGU
AS a master craftsman, Dr Elechi Amadi had many apprentices. I had the honour of being one of them. I commenced my formal apprenticeship in his workshop in the twilight of the 1990s. Ordinarily, having being issued certificate of merit as an evidence of completion of my apprenticeship in 1999, I should have established my own workshop and severed my relationship with my master. But, as his protégé, I realised that there was a lot more to learn from the literary icon.
His was not a carpentry or mechanic workshop, where mere manipulative skills are needed. It was a workshop where one’s intellect was put to task; where ingenuity at its highest level comes to play. Apart from being an expert in the business and craft of writing, my master was an epitome of virtues—honesty, humility and self-discipline. He was an encyclopaedia that every good student needed to consult from time to time. This explains my continual affiliation to his workshop, despite having completed my formal training for over one and a half decades ago.
I did not just wake up one day and strolled into his workshop. It took me a few years to even have the privilege of shaking his creative hand. After many years of interacting with him on pages of prose, it was only in 1997 that I met him in person for the first time at an event organised by the Rivers State Branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors at the Conference Hall, Rivers State College of Arts and Science (RivCAS).
All I could achieve then was a handshake. I wanted much more than that, though. A conversation with my poetry teacher, Dr Ibiwari Ikiriko of the Oily Tears of the Delta fame, opened the door for me to enrol as an apprentice in the workshop of the master craftsman. But I lacked the wherewithal to actualise that dream. As a diehard believer in my own dreams, I held on to it. Two years later, I went back to Dr Ikiriko, who had earlier taught me poetry in the Advanced Level course of the Interim Joint Matriculation Board (IJMB) programme of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria at the RivCAS.
I was a freshman in university, taking a degree course in English then. Defying all odds and all financial constraints, I commenced registration formalities. I managed to pay the first instalment of my registration fee and began my apprenticeship. Again, Dr Ibiwari Ikiriko was one of my tutors in the workshop. Although he handled Use of English, he could not just do without saying something about poetry in class. “Poetry good o! Ja Tamuno eh!” He would say in a very funny way, mixing pidgin English and Okrika (his dialect) to create a comic effect.
Then, there was Professor Charles Nnolim, who came to give a talk on Trends in African Fiction. He began his lecture with a joke about his diminutive stature. I was almost distracted by his weird moustache. I kept wondering if all professors wore similar look. He was the first professor to teach me. Three memorable months later I was issued a certificate of merit, having completed my apprenticeship. And I was bursting with ideas.
I can’t remember the names of all my course mates now; I also can’t forget Timi Ovuru and Charles Alfred. One evening, one of my teachers in the undergraduate programme, Daniel Ogum, was on Point- Counter-Point of the Radio Rivers 99.7 FM discussing literature. As I heard him on the radio programme, I was motivated to also feature in the programme. I simply went to the radio station and asked of the moderator of Point-Counter- Point. I met Dickson Jamabo.
A brief discussion ensued, and I became a regular guest on the programme for a while. I persuaded Timi to follow me to the studio on the condition that I would give her points with which to counter my own points. We had a deal. Originally from Ghana, Charles Alfred whose maternal home is Twon Brass, Bayelsa State, was the first person to entrust me with an editing job. First, his opinion articles for newspapers, then his books. Before long, I started contributing articles to local tabloids and national newspapers including: The Tide, The Argus, Independent Monitor, Tempo, Post Express, amongst others.
My formal apprenticeship ended in December 1999. I joined the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in 2001 –that was shortly after the celebration of Dr Gabriel Okara at 80 in August and before the 2001 ANA Convention hosted by the Rivers State branch of ANA in October. The End of Year Literary evening at a certain hotel in Borikiri axis of Port Harcourt was memorable.
For Dr Ibiwari Ikiriko that was his last supper. He passed on in January, 2002. He was the Secretary of ANA Rivers, with Elechi Amadi as Chairman; Williams Nimenibo as Treasurer and Chris Akani as Public Relations Officer (PRO). I was nominated and unanimously accepted as the (Ag) Secretary of the association. That was how I stepped into the big shoes of my poetry teacher, with whom I once shared pepper soup and drink after each meeting.
On Sunday, May 22, 2016, ANA Rivers State visited its patron and former Chairman, Elechi Amadi, in his country home, Mbodo-Aluu. The visit was to present the new leadership of the association elected on Sunday, April 3, 2016, to him and also wish him a Happy Birthday, having turned 82, 10 days earlier. On that occasion, we made known our intention to return to our host for a reading session. He was enthusiastic in saying: “I look forward to that.” I was to learn of the deterioration in his health a few weeks later.
My last encounter with my master was on his sickbed. The immediate past Chairman of ANA Rivers, Obinna Nwodim, the Legal Adviser, Chitzi Ogbumgbada, and I, the Secretary, visited him in a hospital in Rukpokwu Town on Friday, June 24, 2016. On arrival, he greeted: Obinna, how’re you? How’s ANA? Humphrey, how’re you? How’s the outside world. I was feeling somehow, so I decided to come and relax here.”
Jovial as he tried to sound, there were ominous signs in his voice. He was having breathing difficulties. We expressed the concern of other ANA members and decided to leave at once in order to allow him to relax without stressing him further. “Una do well,” he said, bidding us goodbye. We stood a few seconds outside the hospital before getting into the car and returned to our various offices in low spirit.
My master was billed to speak to an audience at the 2016 Book Reading of Total E&P Nigeria Limited on Wednesday, June 29. On my arrival at the venue, a staff of the company, Charles Nwosu, approached me; we exchanged pleasantries, and he said: “Humphrey, what of Elechi Amadi?” He looked worried as he asked the question. “He won’t be able to make it; he is critically ill,” I said. He asked for his wife’s phone number, which I gave to him. The wife, Dr Priye Iyalla-Amadi, arrived later on and addressed the audience on his behalf. Her words were moving and very lively. It was a very successfully event, a nice day for literature. But that was before the sad news of the sudden passage of my master came. The news broke my heart. It left me with excruciating emotional pain.
This is the story of an apprentice in the Workshop known as Elechi Amadi School of Creative Writing; this is the story of the winner of 2014 Elechi Amadi Poetry Prize. This is the story of my association with the literary giant, the author of The Concubine, The Great Ponds and The Slave. This is my tribute to my master, teacher, mentor and friend: Elechi Amadi.
Humphrey Ogu is the Secretary, Rivers State Branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and an Information Officer in the Information, Publications and Public Relations (IPPR) Unit, University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.