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University of Africa: Return of the Ozidi spirit – Part 1

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Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa.<br />

This Saturday, April 21, something dramatic and historic will happen at the new University of Africa, Toru-Orua, Bayelsa State.

That day the University will celebrate its maiden Matriculation rites for its pioneer set of students.

A total of 350 of them will undergo this baptismal transformation into academic boon-seekers.

The occasion will also feature the first Public Lecture to signal the institution’s emergence as a citadel of research, innovation, and service for humanity.

In the tradition of tertiary institutions, the event serves as a rite of passage festival, a critical juncture where the fresh undergraduates are formally inducted into the haloed fraternity of scholars and questers after a life of sublime visioning and dreaming.

The initiation of intellectual neophytes was originated about 5,000 years ago in the Black African Nile Valley civilisations of Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia.

In those ancient universities or “Houses of Life” as they were known in Egypt, matriculations and convocations had a divine aura about them as the priest-professors who presided over the ceremonies were attached to religious temples and centres of philosophical inquiry and praxis.

There is now incontrovertible evidence that great religious leaders, prophets and healers of yore like Moses and Jesus of Nazareth went through these rites as students of Black African universities in order to qualify for their missionary work.

In the five millennia since then, other civilizations of the world have continued with the practice, although with variation and additions dictated by climate and cultural tastes.

A modern version of that ancient ceremony will be enacted on Saturday with pomp and grandeur at Toru-Orua on the serene banks of the Forcados tributary of the 4,000-km-long River Niger, West Africa’s longest waterway.

The event will be an epoch-making one in another sense. The host community was one of the primordial city states of the Ijaw of the Niger Delta region.

Toru-Orua is of the Tarakiri lineage of the Ijaw nation, with deep cultural, military and linguistic connectivity to the old Benin Empire that bestrode the West African region like a colossus.

Bayelsa’s Governor Henry Seriake Dickson, the initiator and visitor of the University, is a native of Toru-Orua. He will be the Special Guest of Honour at the ceremony. For him, it will be a memorable homecoming experience.

The epic significance of the Saturday event will resonate, too, in the personality of the Guest of Honour, Professor John Pepper Clark.

He is acknowledged globally as an accomplished and multi-genius poet, playwright, scholar, literary theorist, translator, editor, and cultural entrepreneur. Fifty-five years ago (1963), Clark voyaged through the labyrinth of delta creeks to anchor at Toru-Orua beach.

He led an entourage of literary explorers and adventurers in search of an authentic version of the oral epic story now known universally as The Ozidi Saga.

He was not satisfied with what he got; he followed the trail of the story to Ibadan, he was a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies.

In Ibadan, Clark was guided by Madam Yabuku to discover the gifted, unlettered Ijaw bard, Okabou Ojobolo whose narratological delivery of the epic took four hours a day for seven days.

The published Ijaw-English text covers about 500 pages of story, song, music, ritual, fighting, feasting, wrestling, drama, drumming, and dance.

The Ozidi saga narrates the ordeals and triumphs of a posthumous avenger hero, Ozidi Junior.

His father, General Ozidi and commander of the Orua armed forces, is assassinated by his envious comrades shortly after Ozidi’s quarter of the town has installed a king following years of waiting for the rotational office. Unknown to Ozidi and all, his wife, Orea is already pregnant.

A son, Ozidi Junior and only child, is born on a day marked by storms and turbulence of Earth and the heavens.

The baby is nursed to maturity by the grandmother, Oreame, a progeny of herbal and pharmaceutical science. She is distinguished enough to qualify for a Nobel Prize in the medicine if one existed then.

The gangling prodigy is further fortified and inoculated by grandmother with arsenals of regimes of charms and concoctions for bravery, pugnacity, perseverance and an injury—proof body.

Ozidi soon ascertains the identity his father’s murders and, like young David in the Bible, challenges and eliminates all of them. In the course of the vengeance he mows down few innocent victims due to his boiling rage and reckless use of weapon.

Thus, through the blade of his sword and magical arts of the grandmother, Ozidi secures victory and self-esteem at last. He volunteers to cease fighting and blood-letting, reasoning that the land needed peace and settled life to develop.

But the Supreme God, Tamara in Ijaw, decides to punish his overzealous wielding of the powers of vengeance. Consequently, the valiant, indomitable warrior is struck down with smallpox, mistaken by the mother, Orea, as “common yaws and fever”.

In her innocence and motherly compassion, she plucks leaves from plants around and boils them for the son to drink. And Ozidi is miraculously healed of the lethal smallpox attack.

Rendered as I have done in this bald, sketchy synopsis, the story looks like an ordinary folktale; but in the enchanting, grandiloquent and vivacious voice of the gifted narrator, the epic, says Clark, comes alive as “a thundering tale” of heroic exploits, valour, horror, lofty deeds, humanism, nationalism, triumph over evil.

His ultimate victory also stands underscores the quest for restitution, honour, equity and justice for all.

It is an allegorical tale with relevance for the current struggles of the Niger Delta people acutely epitomised by the audacious efforts of Governor Dickson and his contemporaries in the region.

In pre-colonial times, whenever the Ozidi tale was performed throughout Ijawland, the deans and doyens of culture and aesthetic judgment presided. A similar scenario of sagacious authority will play out on Saturday with Malam Ibrahim Shekarau as chairman of the occasion.

A former Minister of Education and scion of Kano’s radical politics, Shekarau fits the role squarely.

Self-effacing, humble, humane but tough and rugged in Nigeria’s turbulent political landscape, Shekarau’s unsoiled profile of honour and integrity has been rising steadily, with the glow of his destined star increasing in luminosity as we approach 2019 and beyond.

He, too, will witness the drama of how the otherwise obscure, rural community of Toru-Orua has managed over the centuries to sustain the status of a small place where great deeds of accomplishment always reincarnate like the spirit of Ozidi.

To be continued tomorrow.

Prof. Darah is of the Department of English, University of Africa, Toru-Orua, Bayelsa State.


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