Well, Armattoe did die young, though not “in a great air crash”, but of suspected poisoning. But before his death in 1953, at age 40, Armattoe had written his name in gold, having been nominated for the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize for medicine and physiology for his research mainly on Ewe physical anthropology, even though the prize was eventually won by John Boyd Orr, 1st Baron Boyd-Orr, a medical doctor and the director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization at the time. He had also published ‘The Golden Age of West African Civilization’, ‘Between the Forest and the Sea’, his first book of poetry, in 1950, while ‘Deep Down in the Black Man’s Mind’, his next collection, was published in 1954, after his death.
Like Armattoe, Ikeogu Oke, Nigerian poet, writer and journalist, who took a bow November 24 at the National Hospital, Abuja, after an apparently long battle with pancreatic cancer, could look death in the face and embrace it, even if he didn’t wish it upon himself. Oke was valiant unto death, seeing, as in those now all-too familiar words of Julius Caesar, the protagonist of William Shakespeare’s classic of the same title, that “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come”.
Nicholas Ibekwe, an investigative journalist, said in a tribute to Oke, “I am glad you looked death in the eye and scolded it with your best weapon – poetry.” Ibekwe’s reference was to Oke’s epitaph, which the late poet had posted on his Facebook wall on September 16, about two months to his death. It reads, “My Epitaph. Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart. Ikeogu Oke (1967 – ).”
Garba Shehu’s narration of his first and last encounter with Oke further tells the story of a man who saw his death coming and rose to embrace it valiantly.
Shehu, spokesman to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, said he met Oke for the first time about two weeks before the poet’s death and that the poet told him it would be their last meeting.
“I told him that I read his recent writings and he asked me if I had been impressed by them. When I observed that he looked unwell, he told me about his recovery from a recent surgery. Throughout the meeting, he was warm and affectionate,” Shehu said in a tribute.
“I don’t know what others will make of his telling me at that time that I and him will not meet again. To this, I protested and assured that we will meet again and again. He then requested me to join him in a photo and thereafter, he embraced me and said goodbye.”
In a 2016 interview with this writer, Pat Utomi, renowned Nigerian professor of political economy, told a joke about the skull market, where they sell the skulls of people who have died.
“They came to this market,” Utomi said, “and someone said, ‘That’s the skull of Albert Einstein, it’s auction time’, and somebody priced it $10. ‘What? $10 for the skull of a whole Einstein?’ Then they brought the skull of one Nigerian politician and the first bid was $10 million. ‘Hey! This people, what is wrong with you? Don’t you know value? Einstein was a genius’. They said, ‘Yes, we know, but Einstein’s skull is empty, it’s used out. That of the Nigerian politician has never been used’.”
Even though he died at 51, I’m sure that Oke’s skull was put to great use while he was here and, even though it is certain that he was not exhausted, his skull would cost nothing close to that of the Nigerian politician in that imaginary skull market of Utomi’s joke.
Like Armattoe, Oke wrote his name in gold before taking a bow. With great works that include ‘The Heresiad’, ‘In the Wings of Waiting’, ‘The Lion and the Monkey’, ‘Salutes without Guns’, which Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer in 2010 selected as her Book of the Year for the Times Literary Supplement, ‘The Tortoise and the Princess’, ‘Where I was Born’, and several other poems and writings that have appeared in journals, anthologies and other publications worldwide, Oke couldn’t be said not to have done his noble best on this side of eternity. Interestingly, he was a performance poet who performed some of his poems at various fora in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States, including as a special performance poet guest of Brown University, USA, in 2014. Through his performance poetry, Betty Abah says in a tribute, Oke “promoted the Igbo culture (Ohafia in particular) on local and international platforms while also creatively breathing life into his thoughts on universal themes, his trademark animal skin accessory, wrapper, traditional cap and other paraphernalia to boot”.
As Op-ed editor at BusinessDay Newspaper between 2012 and 2015, I received and published Oke’s articles almost every other week, each dwelling on a very topical political or socio-economic issue, each new article punchier than the one before it. His words tumbled out in poetic fits. And his articles ran not only in BusinessDay but also in various other newspapers across the country. That’s how prolific he was. And he was never afraid to speak truth to power.
Though his creative genius was recognised at various times, the crowning glory of Oke’s poetic ingenuity came in 2017 when he won the prestigious $100,000 Nigeria LNG Prize for Literature with his ‘The Heresiad’, a book of epic poetry, beating Tanure Ojaide (‘Songs of Myself: Quartet’), and Ogaga Ifowodo (‘A Good Mourning’) to the prize.
But while the ovation was still loud, while his name still lingered on the lips of the Nigerian and international literati, Oke took a bow and left the stage, never to return. He, however, left enough deep words, in lines and stanzas, for generations to chew on.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, once said, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” Oke’s life was one heck of a productive, prolific life packed into mere half a century, not even up to Nigeria’s poor average life expectancy. His acceptance speech for the 2017 NLNG Prize for Literature may well define the very core of his philosophy of life. He said, “Give all you have to what you do and love it with your heart. Do it with your whole heart, with integrity, seeking first the kingdom of excellence for which other things should be added for you.” Ikeogu Oke, undoubtedly, lived out this philosophy, which propelled him to the peak of an enviable literary career. And so, in the end, one can say, truly, “Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart.”