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Art community mourns literary icon, humanist

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor and Anote Ajeluorou
03 July 2016   |   4:14 am
Floods of cheerful sunshine serenaded the Royal Banquet Hall, Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt, this evening, as the literary community gathered to celebrate the humanist...
Okara and Elechi

Okara and Elechi

Floods of cheerful sunshine serenaded the Royal Banquet Hall, Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt, this evening, as the literary community gathered to celebrate the humanist and venerable writer at 80. The environment was subsumed in beautiful panegyrics, as one of the biggest events of the 2014 Port Harcourt Book Festival.

Six years earlier, in 2008, he didn’t receive the same attention, when the Association of Nigeria Authors, Rivers State branch, organised a dinner in his honour at the Senior Staff Club of the University of Port Harcourt.

Amadi, who read Physics and Mathematics at the University of Ibadan, said, even while he was a university scholar, he was focused and determined to excel. He told everybody who converged on the Royal Banquet Hall that what distinguished his generation of writers from others was the fact that they were focused and did not allow setbacks disrupt their progress.

He noted that in one of his compulsory courses, he was ill during the examination, but he was determined to do his best. Though it was a failed experiment, as it eventually brought down his cumulative grade point, it actually served as a rich source of guide to his career growth.

“People tend to focus only on positive results, but if you look at people who are successful, it is often those who also learn from the negative,” he said.

Earlier, at a celebration held for him at the University of Port Harcourt, folklorist, and teacher, Prof. Gordini Darah said of Amadi, “It was the unjust Nigerian state that he opted to serve as a surveyor and later enlisting in the army. Like many others, he was motivated by a patriotic commitment to the stability of the nation in the immediate post-independence years. The same urge of patriotic duty saw Amadi fight as a federalist soldier against the secessionist Biafra in the 1967-1970 Civil War. His realist portrait of the doomed Biafran project is evident in the title of his book, Sunset in Biafra. The literature generated by the war has been assessed by some interpreters as the most dynamic and diverse in the annals of Nigerian literature in the English language. Amadi was an early contributor to that genre of war writing.”

For almost eight years that the Port Harcourt Book Festival held, Amadi was a recurring feature in it. As one of the celebrated Port Harcourt writers, he helped to groom young talents. He and Pa Gabriel Okara, like Siamese twins, always tagged along, attending major seminars and symposia aimed at lifting the profile of Nigerian literature.

In one of the many sessions, Amadi was on the panel on ‘Women in Literature,’ where he made submissions on the difference between men and women’s writing, saying women suffer discrimination in society. He called on experts to study women’s writing properly to understand their psychology.

According to the culture icon, “whether we like it or not, there are different ways men and women think. A great way to enter into the psychology of a woman, into a woman’s mind is to read her; so, too, she can’t get inside a man’s mind. So, there are bound to be differences in writing.

“Sexual discrimination is a reality and it has to be examined. It’s bound to colour a woman’s work like it was in South Africa during apartheid. Women cannot escape the discrimination they suffer in society; it’s a grim social reality. Take women not being allowed to do certain things in society; it’s bound to feature in their writing. So, men and women live in different situations; they cannot write the same way. So, critics should examine the psychology of women’s writing and come up with a complete picture of their writing.”

The year 2009 would remain indelible in the minds of his family members. That was when he was kidnapped at Aluu in Ikwere Local Government Area of Rivers State. He was in the sitting room watching an NTA network programme with one of his wives when three kidnappers came calling.

As the wife asked to know who was at the door, the three gunmen answered in Ikwere dialect, pushed the door and dashed in. They immediately started barking orders while pushing her down and pointing a gun at her. They later ordered everybody to lie down.

They ordered Amadi to dress up. They led him to his bedroom, ransacked the room and then took him away in a Toyota Hilux van and a Mazda car. For days he was in their captivity until he was released.

Without sounding controversial, the culture icon put his voice down against any form of perceived injustice, whether by a man or woman. Apart from reflecting this in his work, he raised it when the situation demanded. One of such was his displeasure at the barbaric act perpetrated by disgruntled elements living within his Aluu community over the murder of the four innocent University of Port Harcourt students. He dismissed the falsehood peddle by people that Aluu community was a killer community.

He went on to express his indignation, “Aluu community abhors spilling of blood in any ramifications. Whoever kills in the community is banished until certain spiritual cleansing is done before such a person is absorbed into the community again”.

He equally pointed out that the incident took place in one out of the seven Aluu kindred clans that make up the community and also pointed out that the particular place the incident happened is a congregation of diverse ethnic groups, “because the Umuokiri community has sold all the land there to visitors building hostels for student and other accommodation.”

He said further, “Aluu community is a peace-loving people and brother to all ethnic groups living in our community and environs. We are not killers and we will never kill, but that does not imply that all indigenes are saints”.

Meanwhile, tributes have continued to pour in for the late literary octogenarian and author of iconic novels, The Concubine, The Great Ponds, The Estrangement, Sunset in Biafra and many other plays, who passed on Wednesday evening in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

A statement from the Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Femi Osofisan, reads, “adieu, Elechi, I called him Elechi, simply and without formality, as many did because he was that kind of man. In spite of his age and achievements, he had no airs. In his company, you laughed easily; and you learned because he was full of yarns and wisdom. Certainly, I was proud to be his friend, this man whose books were among the ones that taught us how to write. His prose was crisp, his narrative style brisk, compelling; he knew the art of total seduction through the manipulation of suggestion and suspense; he was thoroughly familiar with traditional lore and the world of mystery, magic and fabulation.

“You enter his fiction, and you are instantly gripped!. Even as you turn the last page, you find yourself king for more… And now he too is gone. No one, of course, was born to live forever, and the consolation is that Elechi, at least, stayed long enough with us to a full and ripe age. Still, his departure is painful, for it marks another sad loss from that fine generation of pioneers whose writing established and defined our contemporary literature, and gave our culture a refining ethical direction that, for better or for worse, the younger ones have since jettisoned. Adieu then, humble hero and superb story-teller! May you have a smooth ride back home to the ancestors!”

Port Harcourt-based Director, Rainbow Book Club, Mrs. Koko Kalango, said of Amadi’s passing, “Long before I ever met Elechi Amadi in person, I had met him through his writing. Amadi was an intriguing storyteller, whose colourful and detailed descriptions of the village life of his Ikwerre people (the setting of his early books) reflected the beliefs, customs, and religions of Africans prior to Western influence. Elechi Amadi was an educator, soldier, public servant and writer whose renowned trilogy, The Concubine, The Great Ponds, and The Slave are loved by readers the world over.

“For over 11 years I have had the privilege of relating personally with Elechi Amadi in the course of the work of the Rainbow Book Club, including the Get Nigeria Reading again campaign (since 2005), the Garden City Literary Festival, now the Port Harcourt Book Festival (since 2008) and the Port Harcourt World Book Capital project (in 2014/2015). Over the years, I have been touched by his simplicity, deep humanity and encouragement for education, literature and the general wellbeing of his people.

“His footprints, particularly in the area of the literary arts, would remain a treasure to Rivers State, Nigerian, and Africa. He was indeed an officer and a gentleman.”

In what he titled ‘A tribute to a great, enchanting realist, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Port Harcourt, Chidi. T. Maduka, wrote, “It is sad to hear that Elechi Amadi has now joined our ancestors leaving us with the echoes of his prodigious achievements as a memorable lyrical prose writer radiating in his texts as a novelist, playwright, and essayist. The rhythmic cadences of his diction vibrate with poise, clarity, and simplicity.

“Of significance is his felicitous domestication of the 19th-century European quasi-scientific, crisp, realistic mode of the rendition of the novel. He innovatively Africanized it by giving it an enchanting touch characteristic of the mythic undercurrent of the inter-related art forms of drama, poetry, narrative, dance, music and painting embedded in African oral literary performance.

“His proud mastery of the Ikwerre minstrelsy has enabled him to develop his cherished creative strategy (rooted in African sensibility) for combating European linguistic imperialism and defending the integrity of the contemporary African cultural experience—-an experimentation that reminds us of such writers as Soyinka (Yoruba), Achebe (Igbo), Awoonor (Ewe), Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kikuyu), Abrahams (Zulu), J.P. Clark (Kalabari/Urhobo) and Ojaide (Urhobo).

“His enduring legacy in African literature lies in his rugged cultural nationalism which often pushed him to reprimand African/Nigerian critics for not rooting their critical practice in theories deriving their force from African literary experience. Writers and critics will ever remember the lasting significance of his presence in African literature”.

Also, Head of Department, School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University, Lekki, Lagos, Prof. Emevwo Biakolo, said, “Nigeria has again lost a literary icon. Elechi Amadi was one of those, following Achebe, who defined a writing tradition of African literature on which others have built. His work will endure”.

Foremost literary critic and teacher, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, also mourned Amadi. He remarked, “So Elechi Amadi, too, is gone. Another loss to the literary community and to modern Nigerian culture. Amadi was a distinguished novelist whose reputation has remained for so long in the shadow of Chinua Achebe’s giant image that his true achievement was blurred in the perception of the fiction reading public. This was not just because the human community and rural setting of his novels seemed to be belong to the same world as Achebe’s, but primarily because the critics’ promotion of a School of Achebe within which Amadi was placed, blurred and diminished his true achievement, such that the reading public generally could not always take the full measure of his true stature.

“But he was no mere imitator. The differences between the two authors, though subtle, were significant. In a departure from Achebe, Amadi typically restricts his fictional presentation of traditional life to a pre-colonial world that was still protected from the knowledge of the white man and the intrusion of his forms of knowledge and irresistible power. To take a small, but significant example in The Concubine. Giving voice to the boatman in The Concubine is a small but masterly touch, especially in its recognition of the presence of a dignifying skepticism that kept in check the common modern attitude that traditional society was a naive world that fed the spread of superstitious belief in the power of spirits and other supernatural influences in the physical world, and encouraged the opportunism and exploitation of the animistic culture and faith of the community.

“We are all losers by this loss of Amadi, who will no longer present us with his imaginative recreations of a long-gone world and of the more recent present.”

Born on May 12, 1934, in Aluu, Elechi Amadi attended Government College, Umuahia (1948-1952), Survey School, Oyo (1953-1954), and the University of Ibadan (1955-1959), where he obtained a degree in Physics and Mathematics.

He worked for a time as a land surveyor and later was a teacher at several schools, including the Nigerian Military School, Zaria (1963-1966). He was a science teacher in Oba and Ahoada, 1960-63 and Asa Grammar School, headmaster, 1966-67.

Amadi did military service in the Nigerian army and was on the Nigerian side during the Nigeria-Biafra War, retiring with the rank of Captain.

After the war, Amadi left the army to work for the Rivers State government. Positions he held include Permanent Secretary (1973-1983), Commissioner of Education (1987-1988) and Commissioner of Lands and Housing (1989-1990).

He was a writer-in-residence and lecturer at Rivers State College of Education, where he has also been Dean of Arts, head of the literature department and Director of General Studies.

He was hailed as the successor to fellow University of Ibadan alumnus Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, broke new ground for African writers.