By HENRY AKUBUIRO
From cradle to stardom: Pathways of a quintessential giant
Late Elechi Amadi was born on May 12, 1934, in Omuokachi, Mbodo Village, in Aluu, an Ikwerrre clan in Rivers State, to the family of Wonuchukwu Daniel Amadi, a great farmer and hunter, whose economic interest extended to trading. A man with the largest farm in the community, Elechi’s father married eleven wives, of which Elenchi’s father was the third. Elechi became the first son of his father to survive the endemic malaria, others having died in infancy.
Being the first surviving son of the family was a privilege for young Elechi, and his parents pampered him. He was breastfed longer than his peers, who started jeering him. However, his father didn’t compromise with discipline, selling his ideals and philosophy of life to him. He took him along on hunting expeditions, taught him how to set traps and how to farm. They were to prove useful later in life.
Though he wasn’t educated, Wonuchukwu Amadi encouraged his son to go to school. Thus, Elechi proceeded to the Episcopal School, Mbodo, in 1940, for Standard One and later to Cental School, Igwurunta and Central School, Isiokpo, for his elementary education and Standard 5 & 6 respectively, before returning to Aluu to assist his father in the farm.
Amadi’s journey into the famous Government School, Umuahia, began when, one day, his former Headmaster at Isiokpo, Mr. PK Briggs, sent a messenger on a bicycle to announce that the Entrance Examination into Government College, Umuahia, would take place in two days’ time. Amadi was successful, and travelled by train to Umuahia, the first time he had boarded a train.
Umuahia played a major role in the emergence of Amadi as an intellectual. His teacher, P.J. Johnson, instilled in him the habit of studying English language. He was also made to read good novels. Each student was expected to read at least two novels per week, which enabled him to have a good command of English. He never knew the foundation for greater things was being laid.
His academic pursuit continued in the University College, Ibadan, where he studied Science and Physics. As a professional surveyor, which he practiced briefly after his secondary education in Umuahia, he reasoned the course would help him advance in the practice of surveying, which he hoped to continue in the future. Yet he didn’t allow his interest in the arts to wane.
On graduation from Ibadan, Amadi returned to his surveying job in Enugu. Gradually, he lost interest in the job, having realised now he was more intellectually inclined than being a technician. Thus, he resigned his job to take a teaching job at Oba near Onitsha, and it turned out to be a better paid job than his surveying job. From there, he moved over to Anglican Mission School, Ahoada, as a vice principal. It was a posting that led to the flowering of his talent in creative writing. First, he began writing short stories for pleasure before one of them morphed into the classic, The Concubine.
Life as a soldier
In 1962, the restless Amadi applied to join the Nigerian Army, and passed to proceed to the Nigerian Military Training School, Kaduna, and, on graduation, posted to the Military School, Zaria, before joining the mainstream corps of the Nigerian Army.
In the Nigerian Army, he taught Physics and Mathematics for three years. Some of his outstanding students who rose to become distinguished Nigerians, included Brigadier-General David Mark, Brigadier-General Tunde Ogbeha, Commander Amadi Ikwechegh –who were made state governors during the military era in Nigerian politics.
From the Nigerian Army, he returned to teaching after resigning yet again. Few weeks after he took over as the principal of Asa Grammar School, it was invaded by soldiers and the premises converted for military training. In his new biography, Elechi Amadi: A Quintessential Giant (released early this week), edited by Obinna Nwodim, Uzo Nwamara and Priye Iyalla-Amadi, the authors recounted that Amadi became a major suspect alongside some of his tribesmen who did not believe in the Biafran cause.
Besides: “His case was worse because, as an ex-military officer with no sympathy for the cause, he was seen as a great risk to the cause, and so there was a manhunt for him. There was the fear that he was training some fighters against the Biafran state; so, on a number of occasions, soldiers made attempts to pick him up at his residence in Asa. Each time they went for him, he was always lucky to escape. For Elechi,life during the war was an experience of living under constant threat. He was to suffer many reports and detentions, and later rejoined the Nigerian Army on the invitation of Colonel Benjamin Adekunle.”
As a civil and public servant
At the end of the civil war, Amadi joined the civil service on the request of the military governor of Rivers State at the time, Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff. He was posted to the Ministry of Information as Acting Permanent Secretary. His era in the Rivers State Civil Service took him to the ministries of education, commerce and industry, finance, establishments, and military administrator. Honesty, integrity and fairness were his distinctive qualities in the civil service.
At the Rivers State Ministry of Information, he was credited for setting up many media organisations, such as Rivers State TV, Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation (Radio Rivers) and Rivers Newspapers Corporation. He also brought other far-reaching innovation at other ministries where he worked.
In 1987, Colonel Anthony Ukpo became the Military Administrator of Rivers State, and invited Amadi to serve the state, but he preferred his job at the Rivers State College of Education. He eventually yielded to the governor, and became the state commissioner for education. He was instrumental to the establishment of the Rivers State Polytechnic, Bori. Two years after, he was appointed the commissioner of lands and housing.
Amadi returned to his teaching job at the Rivers State College of Education. So many friends and family members were disappointed that he was unable to enrich himself as a political appointee, because soon after leaving office as a two-time commissioner, his financial state became parlous, making it difficult for him to pay his children’s school fees or service his car; sometimes he had to ride on a commercial motorcycle to get to his next destination. His friends and family members were embarrassed seeing him on okada.
In order to help budding writers develop their talents, Amadi established the Elechi Amadi School of Creative Writing, Port Harcourt. In that post-retirement period, it helped to keep him busy intellectually. So, he only charged token school fees from the students, which made the students love him the more.
Amadi’s impact was also felt in community service. After the civil war, his Aluu community was in shambles, which made him mobilise other prominent sons of the community to form a social organisation called Ogbakor Aluu. He also served as the President-General of Ogbakor Ikwerre in 2001, taking its leadership to a new high.
In 2008, he was appointed the Chairman of Rivers State Scholarship Board by the then Rivers State Governor, Chibuike Amaechi. In addition to providing 154 overseas scholarships and 2,000 local scholarships, the board also made bursary payments to 37,000 students of Rivers State origin. On January 5, 2009, he was sadly kidnapped for ransom, and spent 24 harrowing hours with the kidnappers.
His literary career
As a child, Amadi loved listening to tales by month light. In primary school, he read his Reader over and over, and had the habit of memorising all the stories inside, -he was always ahead of the students and the teachers. The presence of a well-equipped library at Government College, Umuahia, made him a more voracious reader. By the time he left secondary school, he had gradually become a critic of novels, and was sure he could writer stories. Hence, he would scribble stories and read aloud to his wife.
It was this love for short story that led to the birth of his famous novel, The Concubine. The short story, which he began, writing in 1962 when he was the Principal of Ahaoda Country High School, refused to end as he began writing it, and he eventually finished it when he got enlisted in the Nigerian Army. It was to be published by Heinemann African Writers Series.
Encouraged by that breakthrough, Amadi began the next story, which culminated in The Great Pond, in 1969, a book predicated on inter-tribal war, informed by his stint in the army. Amadi was stunned by the popularity of his first two offerings. His fame had spread across Africa. To complete the trilogy rooted in African traditional life, he came up with The Slave. His fourth novel, Estrangement, took a departure from previous works, as it had a modern setting.
At the dawn of his writing career, Amadi decided to draw his stories from African traditional way of life, because the western authors were stepped in their own settings. His belief was that African fiction set on the continent would go a long way in telling the story of Africans and projecting their way of life.
Amadi’s writings were not propangadist in nature; rather, he elected to entertain his readers, which put him in the other side of the literary divide, with his contemporaries, like Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe moving for committed literature.
However, he had never underplayed the role of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in inspiring him to write. The publication of the novel set the tone for a new paradigm in African literature. The confidence of Amadi, like many other African writers on the fringe then, was boosted, though he didn’t like the introduction of white characters in Achebe’s works, which made him exclude them in his own novels, because Africans were not given prominence in western fiction.
Also a playwright, his first play, Isiburu, was produced in 1967 as a school principal at Asa Grammar School. But he didn’t stage it till 1970 when the war ended, in collaboration with the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture. The popularity of the stage premiere motivated the then military president, General Yakubu Gowon, to commission the playwright to stage it for his maiden visit to Rivers State in 1971.
He did not stop at that. The Director of the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture, Mr. Uriel Paul Worika, impressed on him to write more plays to keep the council busy. He responded with Pepper soup, The Road to Ibadan (1977), Dancer of Calabar (1978) and The Woman of Calabar.
Non-fiction, as well, formed part of Amadi’s oeuvre. Three years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, haunted by the memories of the war, he published his first nonfiction, Sunset in Biafra. His second nonfiction was Ethics in Nigerian Culture, a scholarly intervention x-raying the behaviour of different Nigerian ethnic groups from the pre-colonial period, against the background of the campaign against corruption by the Second Republic government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.
In 2003, Amadi published Speaking and Singing, a book of essays. While the essays were a product of his lectures and papers presented at different intellectual for a, the poems were collected from manuscripts he had kept since 1953.
Other works of his include The Beggar’s Story and Other Tales (2011), a product of his School of Creative Writing workshop, and the two works of science fiction, When God Came and Song of the Vanquished (2013).
State burial for Amadi
Late Amadi is survived by four wives (Dorathy Nwonne Amadi, Hilary Rouse-Amadi, Worlu Rose Amadi and Priye-Iyalla-Amadi), sixteen children, thirteen grand-children, and one great-grand child.
In realisation of Amadi’s contributions to the development of Rivers State and his towering personality as a literary Houdini respected the world over, the Rivers State Government, led by Governor Unisom Wake, approved a 6-day state, which started on Monday, November , 27, culminating today, December 3. It is the first time any indigene of the state has enjoyed such privilege.
Details of the 6-daycelebration of the life and times of the deceased literary giant will be available in our next edition.