- Christopher Okigbo, 1930–67: Thirsting for Sunlight by Obi Nwakanma
BY OBI NWAKANMA
James Currey, 2017.
xxviii + 276 pp. ISBN 9781847011794 paper.
In late September and early October 1966, Christopher Okigbo undertook a secret gun-running mission on behalf of what would become the Republic of Biafra. He arranged for the sale of arms in Paris, proceeded to Rotterdam for their loading onto a DC-4 aircraft, then travelled on to London and Birmingham. When the arms-bearing plane crashed in Cameroon on the way to eastern Nigeria with some of Okigbo's personal effects on board, the poet was briefly presumed dead. In fact, though, a change in travel plans had sent him home on a separate flight. When the civil war between federal Nigerian troops and Biafrans who wished to secede from Nigeria began the following July, Okigbo was quick to fight for his new republic. Although usually referred to as a member of the Biafran army, Okigbo was "technically a civilian volunteer" who operated as a guerrilla and styled himself a Major "to ensure that rank-conscious Biafran soldiers would take his orders" (244, 245). These are only some of the revelations, hitherto confined to the realm of ephemeral news reporting or rumor, in Obi Nwakanma's invaluable biography of Okigbo. First published in hardcover in 2010, it is fortunately now available in paperback. [End Page 254]
Christopher Okigbo is an ideal subject for a biographer: he led a fascinating, intense, and little-documented life, cut short by his death in combat less than three months into the civil war. His enigmatic, haunting poetic sequences rank among the most influential poetry composed in Africa. Given that Okigbo was born in 1930—Nwakanma revises the previously accepted year of birth, 1932—and part of a highly select group of students to attend University College, Ibadan, in the 1950s, along with many of the country's future leaders, his life is as illuminating for "Nigerian political history" as it is for "modern African literature" (xii). To reconstruct that life on the basis of limited documentary evidence, much of which was destroyed by the war, Nwakanma began in the early 1990s to interview Okigbo's colleagues, family, and friends, many of whom have now passed away. Nwakanma's relation to his biographical subject is sympathetic without becoming sycophantic. More than seventy-five interviews, buttressed by published sources, form the basis for a vivid depiction of Okigbo as a charismatic student, businessman, teacher, librarian, publisher, soldier, lover, and, above all, poet. A chronology, a dozen photographs, maps, a family tree, and a comprehensive index supplement Nwakanma's alternately entertaining and poignant biographical narrative.
Okigbo was a friend of such titans of twentieth-century African literature as Chinua Achebe, his schoolmate at Government College, Umuahia, and Wole Soyinka, a student at Government College, Ibadan, Umuahia's cricket rival. Drawing in part on Nwakanma's research, Terri Ochiagha observes that Okigbo was ruled by "[t]he triumvirate of cricket, the Classics, and literary creativity" embodied by an Australian master at Umuahia (65). A decade later, Okigbo read Achebe's Things Fall Apart in manuscript. Its publication in 1958, writes Nwakanma, "suddenly proved that writers were not dead Englishmen, but were one's peers" (128). Late that same year, Okigbo's own turn to writing was precipitated by the loss of his civil service job due to dabbling in business at the same time that his import/export business went bankrupt. In retrospect, the superiors who let him go did a great service to literature: Okigbo accepted a post teaching at the rural Fiditi Grammar School, where he not only read Amos Tutuola's controversial The Palmwine Drinkard with his students, but also began to write poetry. While his initial attempts were heavily influenced by the Latin poetry he had studied at University College, Ibadan, and the Euro-modernist work of T. S. Eliot, he also began to encounter Negritude in the journal Black Orpheus and read American poetry like Allen Ginsberg's Howl, a gift from his distinguished older brother Pius, who once referred to Christopher's "piratical" approach to other...