To my regret I have left this blog fallow for a forthnight now, against my earlier promise to myself to do all within my power to visit and add meaningfully to it, at least three times in a week. Truth is I fell behind on a development work I was doing, and therefore had to break every speed limit to bring it in on time. Unhappily part of the penalty was my inability to post.
A friend, Chike Ofili, while we spoke last night discussing the reading in honour of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi's 60th birthday, coming up today at the Jazzhole, let me know that Ebereonwu was dead. Last friday. Apparently the cause of death was yet not very clear but it was likely that it involved some kind of automobile accident.
I had got to know Ebereonwu in the late nineties to early 2000's when we were all actively involved in trying to make the Lagos branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors, in modern parlance, a 'go to' place. Ebereonwu was, to understate a bit here, unorthodox and didn't give a damn about it. Might even say that he got his rocks off on the number of people who threatened to blow a gasket at the sight of him. He was constantly driven to the expression of ideas which walked on the edge of rudeness to anyone who had gotten hold of the short end of his well known stick.
For instance I heard him once claim, face bland, to an association member whose detail at the day's meeting it was to oversee the attendance register, that the ownership of a surname was alien to Africa and Africans and as such he should be counted out of that bit of conformity. For him latter-day citizens of the sunshine continent had take much more baggage than was necessary and now suffered by being less than their forebears, in a desperate attempt to be seen as civilized. He held out in much of his living that joining the 'modern movement' was not a pre-requisite for joining the human race, which in any case, we had never left, or come to think of it, could never have left. So for him, to attempt to live up to somebody else's standard for inclusion into this was like living a blatant lie. The only truth for him, therefore, was to live a certain way.
But because he was essentially a poet, I believe, even before he was an activist, and therefore conversant with the presentation of truth and reality in a way that while defying reality, upholds the truth, I don't think he suggested that the way he wanted to live and work was the way our grand-fathers lived and worked. Simply put, he lived and worked to defy the conformism which he felt had inspired the losses we as Africans and as colonies of another power had been forced to bear. He was intelligent enough to realise that we could never reclaim all that we lost.
This I guess, was easy to divine in his dressing. I don't remember seeing him much in anything other than a pair of Jeans pants, and a top wear that varied narrowly from cotton shirts to an African print. His footwear - perennially, a pair of boating sneakers. And a variety of berets lofted on his head in a suprisingly non loquacious but all the same somewhat jaunty angle. I always imagined that he saw himself as something of a Che Guevara, with his uncompromising way of deconstructing all that his eyes beheld.
He could never return to the trust, the natal confidence which the burgeoning village square and community engendered in all that it enclosed. He could, however refuse to be embraced by what had evicted that community. He learned to live with his enemy but he never forgot who the enemy was.
Like all people who enjoyed the controversies traceable to them, whether they could help starting them or not, Ebereonwu had a theory about virtually everything he came across or that happened to him. For instance he had a tendency to blame the generations before ours for all ills of the nation. In my view he failed to see that while we subjected all others' shortcomings to the theatre spotlight of our criticism, the darkness surrounding that spotlight hid a festering, ours, whose final germination threatens ailments far greater than any that has come before it.
For instance it always galled him that there are hardly any publishing houses in Nigeria worthy of the name and practice. I read somewhere, remarks he had made that they had all fled the country because the generations after Achebe and Soyinka had not written much. This was in defense of self and subsidy publishing which he had unabashedly indulged in. If we had been handed a stable literary legacy, he reasoned, there would have been a robust market, able to produce successes and handle the failures which must inevitable arise in any mature literary terrain.
I believe he didn't get it completely right there because though I consider writing skills to a heritage of some sort, it is usually something that rewards development and practice.
As for our elders' constipation being cause for ours, I ask where is our heritage as writers? What have we done to carry it into enough temptation to see what fruits it would yield. The music business and film business, even, and especially in Africa, should convince all nay-sayers that if you are good with what you produce and create works that speak a thing or two to a sizeable audience, then the world will seek you out to publish and publicize you.
The problem is not so much that of a paucity of publishing houses as it is one of an absence of good writing. Publishers by the way are businesses. Successful publications are their lifeblood. It will be a bad businessman who invests in a material he has not been convinced will at least fetch him back his investment in the book market.
Where I think he got it very, very right however was in his belief that Nigerian writers would profit by taking a look at some of the methods in use by Nigerian home video makers. Now don't get me wrong, and I don't think he meant this either, but I am not in support of the often crass, formulaic, drivel that stand in for clarity of thought and plot in our movies. However to a large extent Nigerian films speak to Nigerians. They do not pretend that they want all Nigerian's to think with the incisiveness of Plato and express themselves in terms Voltaire would have envied. They attempt to engage Mr. and Mrs. Nigeria in their everyday living, in their fears, hunger, greed, wickedness, pain, suffering, kindness, loving and hating. Never mind that they do this remarkably unintelligently. But there is an enthusiasm in this attempt to engage.
I believe that is what commended the medium to Ebereonwu. I have read somewhere, a count taken of about thirty or so home videos he had made inputs either as scriptwriter or director. I always found this aspect of his work amazing. I can't say I saw a lot of his movies but I remember speaking with him after the first he had made, Behind the veil, I think it was called, and he expressed those same sentiments to me. I can't right now, say how successful or not, he was in dovetailing these two streams into a single mutually beneficial flow. But I still think that argument was spot-on.
I guess that having known somebody and having been deeply impressed by them, it is often not strange that news of their passage would elicit both a rush or memory and an attempt to straighten threads in known incidents involving that person. To seek a perspective that might have been lacking in the moments the events were unfolding. This clearly is as a result of some kind of emotionalism whose products in my view are somewhat suspicious usually.
I think it is better to do these things when distance has somewhat dulled frayed nerves and sentiment can be kept at bay. This is very important, for me, and I guess, also for Ebereonwu, because like it or hate it, the ideas he has represented, even though they are ideas clearly still in ferment, the work he has done, though they sadly might never be regarded as masterpieces, all these are important, very important because they I believe point to a road which our literature and our writing, though it might not be aware of it, is making progress on.