Christopher Okigbo (1932 – 1967)
1967, start of the civil war in Nigeria, a young man, Christopher Okigbo, died on the battle field. He left a slim collection of 72 pages of poetry; an exacting, burning and truthful work from beginning to end. Prophetic and visionary, his words were first heard by his equals. An outstanding personality, Christopher Okigbo tells everyone not to be confined by cultural, political, artistic, creative and humane limits. Today there are a large number of intellectuals who recognise, in the prematurely deceased young Ibo, one of the founding figures in the development of modern literature in Africa.
Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo was born on August 16, 1932 in Ojoto, eastern Nigeria, at the time still under British colonial rule. He was the fourth child of Chief James Okoye Okigbo (Onyeamaluligolu Oda), a pioneer Catholic schoolmaster and Mrs Anna Onugwalobi Okigbo. Christopher was the fourth out of five siblings; Chief Lawrence Chkwuemeka (Onwa of Ojoto), Chief Dr Pius Nwabufo (Ebekuodike of Ojoto), Mrs Susie Anakwenze, Onodugo and Mrs Victoria Okuzu, Iyom.
Okigbo studied at the Catholic school of Umulobia and began his secondary studies in the State College of Umuahia in 1945. He was subsequently admitted to the University of Ibadan, like other major writers such as Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Pepper Clark and Kole Omotso. He was destined for a medical career, but he soon changed to studying Greek and Latin. Editor-in-Chief of the University Weekly, he translated Greek and Latin authors. He graduated in 1956 before teaching, notably in the University of Nigeria, where he also held the office of librarian.
Christopher Okigbo’s first poems were published in
Horn, the student literary journal where J.P. Clark was Editor-in-Chief. However, it was the publication of his verses in the
Black Orpheus magazine in 1962, which gained him his first recognition. In the same year he also published a collection entitled Heavensgate and a long poem in
Transition, the Ugandan magazine published in Kampala.
Heavensgate marked his return to his sources and a deeply felt personal rebirth with the mother-goddess. His maternal grandfather Ijejiofor of the Oto family has always provided the priesthood to the shrine of the deity Idoto. The Nigerian artist shared with T.S. Eliot the vision of a spiritual quest, which led the poet to classical myths and pointed him towards his spiritual identity. Christopher Okigbo wrote in a melodic mode, using repetitions, rhythms of incantation, and words, as if listening to and interpreting far-off sounds. Of the four elements, he chose water, the domain of the Goddess Idoto.
Naked I stand;
Before your watery presence,
Lost in your legend...
Endowed with a strange charm, an apparently fragile physique and a lively and penetrating spirit, coupled with a formidable intelligence, he managed to attract the coveted Igbira princess Judith Sefi Attah2, daughter of the one of the most powerful monarchs in the period of Northern Nigeria; the Attah of Igbiraland. She was probably the only woman to understand his quixotic personality. From this exceptional union, their only daughter, Obiageli Ibrahimat Okigbo, was born in 1964.
Eclectic and adventurous, his career led him into the world of business (time spent with the Nigerian Tobacco Company and the United African Company), into politics (Personal Assistant to the Minister of Information in Lagos), and into the publishing sphere (manager of the Cambridge University Press for West Africa).
Nevertheless, it was poetry which occupied the major place in his life. A vocation which he never shed:
There wasn’t a stage when I decided that I definitely wished to be a poet; there was a stage when I found that I couldn’t be anything else. And I think that the turning point came in December 1958, when I knew that I couldn’t be anything else than a poet. It’s just like somebody who receives a call in the middle of the night to religious service, in order to become a priest in a particular cult, and I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I just had to obey.
The time was ripe: many young artists at the beginning of the Sixties were looking for a platform to exchange their views and share their various talents. Okigbo and Soyinka, were also musicians, performing in jazz clubs. Consequently in 1961 the Mbari Writers and Artists Club were born in Ibadan founded by the German writer and critic Ulli Beier. He invited Christopher Okigbo to be one of the original Mbari committee together with: Wole Soyinka, J.P.Clark, Chinua Achebe, Zeke Mpahalele, Amos Tutuola, D.O. Fagunwa, Dennis Willaims, Demas Nwoko, Florence Nwapka, Uche Okeke, Frances Ademola and Janheinz Jahn, the ethnologist. The Mbari Club was a large-scale project with various activities including visual arts exhibitions, theatre, creative workshops and a publishing house. The latter played a decisive role in the birth of modern African literature; in addition to the writing of its members and adherents, it published the South African artist and writer Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma.
For the visual arts, it presented the pioneers, such as the painters Uche Okeke El Salahi and Yusuf Grillo, the sculptor and painter Demas Nwoko, and the silk-screen artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. They all became well-known artists in the country.
The crucial role of the Mbari Club was the creation of a true movement of contemporary African artists, whose ultimate aim was to generate a new artistic culture. They reconciled the continent’s cultural traditions and the technical language imported by the colonialists.
The independence struggle
In the Sixties, Nigeria was the scene of political upheavals, which led to independence in 1960. Seven years later following the massacre of thousands of Igbo in the North, the eastern region which was predominantly Igbo rebelled, claiming the creation of an independent nation of Biafra. Although Christopher Okigbo poetry always retained a personal and mythical record, Path of Thunder (1965-66) sees the turning point towards a more political tone. The denunciation of political oppression and neo-colonial exploitation coincided with the emergence of radical movements in the Sixties.
In 1966 Okigbo won the Langston Hughes award for African poetry at the Festival of Black African Arts in Dakar but he refused it, believing that art cannot be burdened by racial considerations.
Hero of Biafra
When the civil war in Nigeria broke out, Christopher Okigbo moved back to the East and together with his friend Chinua Achebe set up a publishing house called Citadel press. Alas, the conflict caused him to abandon these and other plans and he consolidated his commitment to his people by enrolling for combat in the Biafran war. Refusing safer positions behind the frontline, he fought with the rank of Major. In September 1967 he was killed in action near Opi junction, Nsukka, during one of the civil war’s first battles.
Posthumously, he was decorated with the National Order of Merit of Biafra.
1 Okigbo, Christopher, The Passage, in: Labyrinths, 1971, p.3 2 Judith Sefi Attah was born in Okene, in the north of Nigeria. After completing a post-graduate course in Education at Reading, England, she began her career as a teacher at Illorin, Nigeria. She became Director of Higher Education in the Civil Service, which led her subsequently to take on the functions of Nigerian delegate to UNESCO in the Eighties. She was appointed Ambassador to Rome then Federal Minister for Feminine Affairs and Development. Mrs Attah is also a member of several councils and committees such as the Nigerian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations and Human Rights Commission. 3 Okigbo, Christopher, Collected Poems, 1986, Preface. 4 Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet, who later received the Nobel Prize for Literature, took second place in the competition.