Ohafia warriors are famed for their deeds of valour. In the olden days, they were dreaded as the most ruthless fighters in Igboland and veterans of many wars, who often returned from conquests with heads of slain victims as trophies. Nowadays, they no longer slay belligerents and perform macabre dances –they perform warrior dances to entertain on special occasions.
On Saturday, the Ohafia warriors came out in full regalia at Akanu Ohafia, Abia state, to perform for a warrior poet, Ikeogu Oke, who died of cancer of the pancreas. As the sirens conveying the body of the laureate to his village blared out mournful tones, the thinly clad Ohafia warriors with nzu-marked faces and body let their chests do synchronic jerks with brisk footsteps thrusted forward and withdrawn at intervals. And when the casket touched down at the family compound at Ugwu-affia layout, their mien became taut as their dances became flamboyant for moments.
In the past, many would have fled to the bush on sighting them. But, at Akanu last Saturday, onlookers watched in awe. But that was just a mild relief amid a tinge of sorrow in the land of warriors. Ikeogu Oke was just one out of the over thirty corpses being buried in Akanu on that particular day –of course, the last Saturday of every month was dedicated for the burying of the dead in the community.
Soon after the corpse was received by family members at his family compound at Ugwu-affia layout, the motorcade went round the community, including the palace of the royal father, Eze Ogo, for prayers; Nde Agbo compound and Ikeogu’s newly completed house, which he was yet to enter before his demise. Ikeogu, lest we forget, was survived by his wife, Nneoma, and three children.
The night before, dirges quaked the sky of Akanu as members of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) converged on the community to offer poetic wreaths. Led by ANA President, Mallam Denja Abdullahi; the Vice President, Camillus Ukah; the General Secretary, Ofonime Inyang, with the support of former ANA President, Dr. Wale Okediran, the writers, mainly from the Abia State branch of the association and environs, invented hyperboles and emotive verses to valorise the deceased bard, whom a new work, For Ikeogu, For Poetry: Tributes, had just been unveiled by ANA.
Little after Ikeogu’s body lied in state at his country home, the Chief Imo Ikeogu’s pavilion at Ugwu-affia layout played host to an open air service by the Anglican Communion, led by Snr. Rev. Okoro Onyeuwaoma. It was attended by family members, friends and associates, villagers, writers, among others. John Oke, the deceased writer’s younger brother, read his biography, while ANA President, Denja Abdullahi, read the association’s tribute.
Ofonime Inyang told The Sun Literary Review about his admiration for the late colleague, “I had interest in his poetry because of the performance dimension. He was a good poet. He was also very innovative and very strategic in his idea of poetry founded on operative performance. I think he did well. My only problem is that he didn’t have the time to experiment, to give us the opportunity to really assess the extent to which his innovation would have taken Nigerian literature
“It is important that we keep a man like this on public consciousness through programmes and activities. The government should also take more interest in the health of writers. It doesn’t augur well for government to wait for a writer to die before sending a tribute or condolence message.”
For Camillus Ukah, “Ikeogu was a man who pursued his convictions and career with so much passion. That was the road to his elevation. For us, we must pursue whatever we engage in, particularly, as writers, with passion and the last energy we can muster. To a great extent, Ikeogu was able to exhaust his energy culminating in his seminal poetry book, The Heresiad, which won the NLNG Prize for Literature.
“Though fifty-one years was a short period for a man to live on earth, it was quite consummate. So, it is not how long somebody has lived, but how much the person has invested that life in trying to fulfil his destiny or calling.”
Denja Abdullahi also extolled his virtues and creativity, “Ikeogu lived a creative life, and one of the few examples of writers who tried to live on their writings. He didn’t live an easy life, but he was able to achieve the ultimate in terms of literary stardom.”
He disclosed that, before his death, Ikeogu was one of the writers who was trying to champion the right remuneration for the work of the artist, because Nigerians take the creativity of the artist for cheap and offer all sorts of peanuts.
“We were on that project before he died. People who use the creation of the artist should sustain it. What we have are artists celebrated for their creativity only to die in penury. Though Ikeogu has died, we will continue with it,” he assured.
Abdullahi urged the society in general to see the value of what Ikeogu had written, “Ikeogu was not only a poet but also a children’s literature author, which people are not looking at. These are things we should popularise. Besides, he has written about aspects of the culture of his people, which we are encountering today at Akanu Ohafia. We have gone round the town, and have seen the roots of his creativity. We expect the community to sustain what he has done while alive.”
However, he was disappointed in the Abia State Government for not sending a delegation to Akanu Ohafia or supporting the burial, “The state government is nowhere to be found here. It only released a perfunctory message following his death. Beyond that message, there was no support from the state government. Even the federal government released another perfunctory message on the death of Ikeogu, but what is government doing for the artist? Nothing that I know.”