Reminiscences about Kalu Uka and his literary engagements at 80
Literature and the arts are like metaphysically inclined entities. They thrive in the imagination of humanity and at the same time draw adherents from the same source.
Every story, every poem or play weaves its self out of the character of human beings as humans also retain the distinction of being the major consumers of all forms of literature and the arts.
In the making of literature, some people carry higher burdens than others and in the process command widespread attention while also transforming into icons of the genre in which they display competence.
Names like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton Synge, Ernest Hemmingway, Gabriel Garcia Maquez, Isidore Okpewho, Lorain Hansberry, T. S. Eliot, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw, Ngugi wa Thiong ‘O, Mongo Beti, Bessie Head, Ola Rotimi, James Ene Henshaw, Ime Ikiddeh, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Flora Nwakpa, Efua Sutherland, Zakes Mda, Martin Akpan, J. P Clark, Zainab Alkali, Nnimo Bassey, Paul Grootboom, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and several others retain unbreakable affinity with both students of literature and the general public because of their literary productions.
They are bedfellows in the pantheons of contemporary knowledge production in the humanities and their books sit in revered places in the shelves of public libraries and homes. Some occupy the public imagination and circulate both lethal and moderate thoughts to a world that constantly fluctuates to ideas and abandons same when something new comes.
Writers, artists, performers, actors, poets and literary critics have a way of hanging around in an eternal demonstration of the power of ideas over raw demonstration of prowess.
Politicians and star leaders emerge and fizzle out with the raw energy of the era that sets them to the stage but books last while great literary productions grab the consciousness of the public sometimes for life.
A worthy example is the immortal Shakespeare, an eternal phenomenon not only of modern English literary configuration, but a spectacular influence across the entire earth.
The elan of his own drama and his unique ability to construct different dimensions of life especially of kingdoms and men of power into a creative universe that speaks to many realities in contemporary times commands immense attention and respectability.
His multidimensional sketching of societal dynamics in terms and hues that still draw humanity to a great intellect that transcend all fields and levels of thought sets him apart from the history books of ideas. Through the life and works of William Shakespeare, it is possible to identify many models of the power and success of literature and of the arts in our own time and country.
Kalu Uka, a foremost Nigerian dramatist, poet and renowned theatre scholar, who has studied and taught Shakespeare for many years and who recently clocked 80 years, is one of such models.
A literary personage and engine room of thought development, a rare breed of a scholar and fine writer of the Shakespearean school was born in 1938 in Akanu-Ohafia in present day Abia State, Nigeria, Kalu Uka’s education took him through many institutions at home and abroad.
From primary education in the Presbyterian Primary Schools Ohafia and Abiriba to The Church of Scotland Comprehensive Institute, Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar as well as Methodist College, Uzuakoli, the University College Ibadan to the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Uka’s search for knowledge can be described as a journey in search of his other self.
With an MA in English and Drama obtained in 1964, Prof. Uka has seen years as a teacher and scholar in England teaching at the University of Leeds as an assistant lecturer in literature and serving as a Fulbright Scholar of African Drama.
He also served in various capacities as Coordinator, Head of Department, Dean and University Orator at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, University of Calabar and the University of Uyo. Before a long academic life that spans several decades in service and post-retirement, Prof. Uka worked as Talks Programme Producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation where along with Ralph Opara, Yemi Lijadu, Francesca Pereira, Molara Leslie, Elizabeth Osisioma and many others, they developed and built that broadcasting entity to enviable heights in its formative years.
His years of teaching, research and scholarship at the University of Calabar boasts a record of reforms and development strides that resulted in the training and mentoring of many students from the undergraduate to the postgraduate level.
After years of meritorious service at Calabar, Prof. Uka was invited to help strengthen the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State where he remained for years in further active teaching, postgraduate supervision, curriculum development and many other advisory responsibilities.
It will be his second disengagement from the University system as he clocks 80 and also bow out of the University of Uyo.
What has singled out Prof. Kalu Uka out of the crowd of very erudite scholars and professors in the Nigerian and international academe is not only his fecund mind, an unusual appetite for well written English and speech arts, an amazing fertility of imagination, a unique physical and mental alertness complete with a rare eye sight that still gulps books without glasses but rather his passion to teach the young and mentor upcoming scholars into the professoriate.
With a pedigree that has given birth to so many professors of Theatre Arts, Mass Communication and English in universities across Nigeria and overseas, Prof.Uka remains faithfully committed to a mantra that defines personal growth from the growth of the young ones around him.
He brings unusual sagacity to defending the arts and humanities and situating it within a comfortably sublime position in the comity of disciplines.
In the University of Uyo Senate and at the Faculty, Prof. Uka’s strident fights for a better place and increased understanding of the uniqueness of the humanities and its requirements for effective operation is second to none.
A professor of professors and father figure of the emerging Nigerian intelligentsia, one that Dr. Gloria Ernest-Samuel eulogised in a recent FaceBook post as “a living template of father beyond measure.
“A man of average height but deep intellect, calculated, measured in style and elegance, almost piquantly but calmly eloquent, a free spirit and lover of humanity.
You cannot meet Prof. Uka without noticing the reticence of his polished English academic upbringing. His knack for the beautification of speech with indigenous wisdom and linguistic particulars sent many students back to the basics.
A believer in good arts and a writer of the obscurantist school, a non-surprising exertion of the Soyinkean mode that he supports and promotes not because himself and Wole Soyinka were classmates at Ibadan, but for the purity and sustenance of the arts and culture as institutions of existence.
Kalu Uka’s literary oeuvre is a big bag of treasures.
In poetry, prose, drama and essays, his extraordinary cultivation of the English language and literature and the successful accentuation of indigenous stylistics and phonology in works such as Ikamma sets him apart as one with the unique skills of a master of both worlds.
He delves into a cross-cultural experiment and transposing his dramatic space to Ohafia milieu where the Igbo concept of sanctification of space receives superb juxtaposition of the connection between the north and the south not only in cultural but metaphysical terms.
Patience Iferi idealizes this as “our cultural sense of sanctified spaces” It is his vision that these two worlds meet.
Joe Glass, his sophisticated but hypothetical character sums the tangling nexus of the bond between here and there while addressing Ugomma:
JOE GLASS (Looking limply up, weakly holds her hand) Look, look at my chest. Ugomma. Oriji.
Look, look at my chest. Ugomma.
Oriji. The scar of the crucifix
Still burns. That was another faith.
Come, Mma. Lay your head on this wounded
Chest. Feel it. Yes. Still it throbs.
Together we fall again on a block
And are auctioned to our own.
Feel my blood. Isn’t it warm enough
To mingle with that you already shared?
Let it carry you beyond the river
Where we shall meet as the gods
Always wanted it, cut and glazed
For each other. We shall descend
Into the bowel of the earth, two
Diamonds, formed of earth’s ashes
We shall reach the skies, fuse
And burn our ancestors out! (44-45)
What this confession throws up are lingering imagining of what the future held for the world that the writer may have stumbled upon while journeying in the higher realms.
His accentuated visions of the transformation that will take place in our world without actually seeing the reality of globalization in the terms that the world witnesses presently strikes a note of significance.
His idea of the perfect meeting place for African and Black lives did not envisage that ‘two diamonds’ will actually become Ryan Coogler’s vibranium, the super gem of existence, transformation and development in Black Panther many years after Uka’s odyssey in the Western world.
This therefore signposts the prophetic vision of a writer who felt the heartbeat of the black world, where the real black persons will always come home no matter where they are ensconced at the moment.
In The Hunt for Sugar Baby and A Harvest of Ants, Kalu Uka’s drama extends its tentacles to many dimensions including stretching into the realms of prose and the poetic.
While appropriating the story for A Harvest of Ants from Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, he retains the classical determinism of the Elizabethan poesy by sculpting lines that reads better as poems but matures and swells in drama in A Hunt for Sugar Baby.
Words take on very elevated state and exude a rare exuberance expected of kings but this yet again confirms that in the hands of Kalu Uka, words are kings and are treated as such: “The sun is beset by clouds/Dust rears tentacles”(5). So a read through his plays presents tragic but cataclysmic drama of existence nuanced by the flavour of the African universe.
Dust competes with clouds and affirms that Earth is Earth (1972). What all of these produce is completed in Colonel Ben Brim, a fictional factualization of the oddities and realities of a dark episode in Nigeria’s political life, the Biafran war or the Nigerian civil war.
But here again poetry rears its head in Grace’s poem but before this, an Epigraph that rears the fangs of Khalil Gibran’s poem adds sense to the direction that the novel will go.
In a straight jolt, “…I am like thee,/Oh, Night./I walk, dark and naked/On the flaming path/Which is above/My daydream…”(i) summarizes the pitfalls and catacombs that awaits the leftovers of the national space.
The poet in Kaku Uka rather than his claim to drama ascends before you each time and wherever you turn in the deep forest that is his creative nest. It is in this dense abode of letters that you meet Returning on the Way Out: Collected Poems (2003).
Herein referred to as Returning, this is a collection of the archetypal “Ukaen” poetry.
The calibration of Eliotian spree into lines that strike like thunder and knocks the unwary leaves you with a feeling of dated numbness and some excitement that tames your perception and reconfigures your perspective.
Are poets out to torture or liberate?
This is the question that strikes you again and again as you encounter Returning. For example, Overture 1 , which is dedicated to the dead and particularly to a Chris, surges with ‘Grounded seeds in earth/Are turning, turning/Into apparitions/Dancing in the dusk”(88).
The odium of a bitter experience mixes with the calamity of a painful passage stares you in the face and reminds you of the terminal overtures that daily beckons on humanity whether we like it or not.
That state remains a constant in a radius not far from all human beings creating a structure for fresh imagining of “this earth and us.”
Kalu Uka’s philosophical perspective crystalizes and emerges boldly and profoundly in his November 23rd, year 2000 inaugural lecture at the University of Calabar.
Titled ‘Creation and Creativity: Perspective, Purpose and Practice of Theatre in Nigeria’, here Uka exposes his context as a scholar in search of a permanent identity.
He highlights the temerity of his practice in a complex space where changing tides keep introducing new paradigms that reshape his views and methods. He therefore finds himself bemoaning his classical upbringing while also applauding the appurtenances of his present context.
In his words, ‘We of a certain generation, (were) nurtured before this internet age of computers (so, we) embraced a continuum of traditions that is a fusion of pure, pristine traditionalism through a transition into modernism and now into postmodernism” (7).
The obvious could be discerned in the career of a scholar caught between two worlds, two eras and thinking systems and yet survives and flourishes in both.
The imminent localization of his thought in a neo-classicism that acknowledges God, advances and embraces new thoughts and yet acknowledges the functionality of the indigenous canonic context.
In this scholar-intellectual, the source (the creator) nurtures the idea (creativity) and produces a world of beauty justified in what he calls ‘elementary facts of the way things come into existence.’
This is a creative space adulated by divine promptings but given shape by the constructivism and genius of man.
It is this world that affords us the space and opportunity to encounter a very seasoned scholar who gave so much in his heydays and yet still maintained the urge to give more even while returning on the way out.
We salute this great example of a well nurtured mind, committed teacher, speaker, writer, orator, father, thinker and a rare dispenser of knowledge.
• Dr. Inyang is of the University of Uyo and is the General Secretary of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
NOTE: “The Guardian Literary Series (GLS), which focuses on Nigerian Literature is published fortnightly. Essays of between 2500 and 5000 words should be sent to the series editor Sunny Awhefeada at firstname.lastname@example.org.” 08052759540.
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