Emma Okocha, David Ker and Sam Ukala
This is a particularly difficult time and season for my emotions. Starting from last year’s December up to now I have been experiencing and nursing the pains and pangs of distress and struggling to loosen the languorous strings that the death of loved and cherished friends and blood relations have woven around them. The constriction-and-construction has been a constriction-and-construction of the constriction-and-construction of visible and invisible manipulation of pains prolonged and re-prolonged by feelings and images that are not exciting and interesting.
I want to forget and put behind me all the personal feelings and impersonal ideas which excite and do not excite – which interest and un-interest – me at the same time. Do I really know what I am feeling and saying now? Just in the morning of this past Tuesday, September 14, 2021 when the inspiration entered and encouraged me to do a robust column on Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, the news hit me that Sam Ukala, a fair friend had just disappeared from our earth plane. It was a thunder-bolt from nowhere. Earlier, barely two weeks ago, David Ker, another fair friend of friends had departed from us. And much, much earlier Emma Okocha, a very delightful friend had taken his flight to leave everyone of his associates with tearful tears. It was a hard hit – his departure and its generated languor in us.
These three friends of mine had played pertinently significant roles in my social, academic, literary and professional trajectory and trajectory at different times. They were men, professionals and creators and scholars each of whom was well concerned with verbal beauty in their respective undertakings which related to the written word. They were very positively intelligent personages, distinguished intellectuals, who I particularly related with on account of their being-ness as philosophers of being, who equally knew their onions as de-tribalised, de-ethnicised patriots of your country my country our country.
Emma Okocha was Asaba, Delta State-born and a remarkably remarkable journalist of the Nsukka school and the author of Blood on the Niger, a historical and political-cum-sociological account of the murder of the un-armed youths of Asaba, a dastardly event that has since entered our inglorious war history as the Asaba massacre during the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970). As the editor of the Enugu-based newspaper Satellite (now defunct?) where he also distinguished himself as a sports columnist in the early nineteen eighties, he displayed his expansive mind as a patriotic patriot of this country, your country our country. In later years he wrote columns respectively for Vanguard and Daily Sun. How our paths crossed at different times in Nigeria and in the United States of America is not what I wish here to report on excitedly. I found him to be a very generous person of inspired maturity and controlled well taught spontaneity. He was fancifully cerebral and we were to do a joint-book on the Nigerian plague starting from the first military coup. We conceived of the idea at Harvard at the first Christopher Okigbo international conference. When I learned of Emma Okocha’s death and what led to it, I cried like a baby and wanted to do a column on this great Asaba traditional Chief, a progressively revolutionary one for that matter – but somehow halted my attempts that did not come to fruition. Why? Only the gods of Asaba, yes, only the Asaba gods and their devotees can say.
David Ker was a friend who was more than what a good friend could be or would ever be. He was Tiv by birth meaning that he was a denizen of Benue State in the agriculturally middle-belt state of famed farmers and fearless ancient warriors to boot. We met in Zaria in our under-graduate university days where he was ahead of me by two years. He and his late countryman, the late poet Dr. Ernest Emma Jenkwe of University of Abuja were two of my closest and tightest Tiv friends who also included Harry Hagher, a Professor of Drama, a past senator of this country and former ambassador to Canada.
When we left the university we were always meeting and not meeting and re-meeting. My Benin base (and Government Reservation Area home then) was always a place of open doors to David Ker, crystal academic and scholar and first rate critic and Professor of English and frontline academic administrator who early enough knew what interested him and pursued the essential which he gallivanted towards steadfastly and was presented him by the demon of hard-work in accordance with his accumulation of knowledge which was apt to impose only what would not deteriorate scholarship and the art and language of scholarship and learning. There was “nothing,” as T. S. Eliot would say, “of the superior person about him.” This made him terrifying, again to echo T. S. Eliot. Our last meeting, after many years of un-meeting was in Lagos on August 13 this year. After our initial pleasantries in an open gathering of sharp eggheads, I was going to rake up for our emotional pleasure sweet sensations of old when we were together briefly in 1984 at Stirling University, Scotland as a doctoral student and research visitor respectively. Fate disallowed our one-on-one agreed-to meeting in Lagos. The last communication on him I got in early September was that he had infelicitously left us with ease eliciting tears up to now from my eyes without emotional delight. I promised myself to do a David Ker eulogium in this column on his burial day but alas he was buried last weekend! I got this news at almost the exact time I got the un-automatic news about Sam Ukala’s death.
Sam Ukala was an Mbiri, Ika-born, Delta State’s think-tank personage of our governor, who was well beloved by the former senator. He was equally an esteemed fellow writer of my generation for whom I had (and still have) considerable regard. He was a poet, short story writer and playwright and dramatist, professional and literary nouns which justly cemented his standing as an eminent literary figure in our clime. As an academic and scholar of dramatic arts/literature, Professor Sam Ukala of the Nsukka school of English and later of the Ibadan where he read for his Ph.D. in Theatre Arts was a folklorist whose circumstances compelled him to fabricate history and mythology. I had written on his poetry and I have a forthcoming essay on his short stories, which he was aware of but which unfortunately he will no longer read and admire as he admired a great deal my “The Love Poems of Sam Ukala” which Chinua Achebe’s Okike published a long time ago well before Achebe vanished from us. Sam Ukala had also generously referred to my writings in his spoken and written words. We shared a bond that was a bond despite at times our mild disagreements. Let me cut short my Sam Ukala’s focus here. I am bleeding severely.
My three friends were writers, intellectuals, of thought, emotion and vision. They were conscious human beings who were truly human and were/are of rich philosophical and political attitudes of value. They were patriotic Nigerians who were more than patriotic Nigerians. They weighed soundly in my scale of sincere and loyal friendship – even though we never saw each other frequently as we should in our middle and later years. But I can affirm and I am affirming here that none of them stabbed anyone in the back or in the front to get on in life.
In our respective relationships we tried to keep true to ourselves and loyal to the other despite our ties of distance that never really un-tied us. But our friendship did. Boatman, ferry them well across all the rivers of their eternity where a lot of luck and more merit are and await them.
Afejuku can be reached via 08055213059.