Enugu had not quite witnessed a literary event of such excellent standards in everything it set out to achieve. In terms of organization, it was splendid and completely embraced the sheer novelty encapsulated in the throbbing essence of the celebration; which was to give appropriate, yet long overdue recognition, to a distinguished literary icon.
At the same time, it equally re-invigorated the message and continued the clarion advocacy for the promotion of the reading culture amongst our young people.
Professor Anezi Okoro, one of Nigeria finest fiction writers and arguably the most distinguished author in the genre he embraced, writing for young teens in what some critics have come to refer to as the ‘village school stories’, was going to be celebrated and honoured at last, by one his own constituencies.
There was a certain surrealism, yet ironic epiphany in the collective inspiration and desire to celebrate a man who, in his own right and by the sheer application of a profound intellect, was already synonymous with extra-ordinary brilliance, and had indeed reached the sublime zenith of an outstanding academic career in a different field outside literature; Dermatology.
Again, and in absolute conformity with the extra cerebral gifts which defined him, even in the effortless simplicity of his excellent scholarship, Professor Anezi Okoro, could have just as easily become a double professor both in Medicine and in Literature.
His claim to literary Professorship need no further credentials, given the depth, intensity, breath-taking narrative extravagance and the poignancy of his imagination, laced with a perfect understanding of his existential socio/cultural responsibility, as captured in some of the most un-encumbered and lucidly hilarious installments of the rustic rural schools, its protagonists and its community, in his books,
Put in proper context, Professor Anezi Okoro, an octogenarian, is a literary icon who has written over fourteen novels and yet is largely an unsung hero in the literary community. A professor of Medicine, majoring in the field of Dermatology, and becoming the first Dermatologist in West Africa and the second in Africa, Prof. Okoro’s books have also undoubtedly elevated him to the Professorial echelons in literary calculations and this is without doubt, incontestable.
Locating Prof. Okoro, within the literary matrix of Nigeria’s creative evolution, irrefutably positions him right in the pantheon and revered company of those we have come to refer to as our standard bearers; Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo and Christopher Okigbo in Poetry.
The seeming injustice which emerging, post-modern Nigerian critical literary engagement has done to the likes of Prof. Okoro, M.J.C Echeruo, T.S Aluko, Nkem Nwankwo, and until recently Chukwuemeka Ike, amongst others, was the overriding motivation behind the desire of the Coal City Literary Forum, CCLF, to step out from the stereotypical regurgitations of endless celebrations of over celebrated icons and bring a welcome breath of fresh air into the historical appreciation of the great craftsmen who defined and gave essence to the Literature we inherited and which identified us in the global literary community, as a people with a completely homogeneous, excitingly original and according to some critics, distinctly revolutionary, anti-colonial literary culture.
Dateline was Thursday October 29, 2015 and the Venue, the serene Ofuobi Africa Center on Independence Layout, in the beautiful, almost pastureland scenic ambience of the city of Enugu, witnessed a gathering of Professionals and the academia who turned out en-masse to celebrate their one of their own; a man who has distinguished himself not just in the field of medicine, but had gone ahead to emerge as a literary icon.
The plan was to package a big, befitting, worthy and robust celebration for a man with the stature of Prof. Anezi Okoro, as no effort would be spared to place him right at the very pinnacle of national recognition and relevance, where he truly belongs, while at the same time and in that single swipe, re-direct the thinking of several generations in the direction of the inimical and intrepid Wilson Tagbo.
The objective was to remind the younger generation to appreciate that they also had once been the focal point of Nigerian literature and have been proudly located in the annals of our narrative space; the generation which, arguably, most if not all the members of the Coal City Literary Forum, now belong.
Of course, and as was to be expected, the gremlins trolling between the often well laid plans of men and the ultimate execution of such plans will, unapologetically rear their ugly, unsolicited heads in the course the celebration agenda.
For example, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a recognized writer and who had been billed to be father of the day, quite unexpectedly suffered the apparently unnerving shock from an exploded tyre while travelling within his neighbourhood, a few days before the event and that fortunately minor ‘accident’, celebrated with great media coverage and imaginative fanfare on social media, promptly put paid to all his other journeys, outside Ota Farms.
Incumbent Senate Deputy President, Ike Ekweremadu and former Senator Chris Ngige, were irrevocably embroiled in the unfolding drama of the Senate screening of nominated Ministers at that time, both on opposite divides; former Governor Chimaroke Nnamani had lost his wife a week earlier and so was in mourning and as though things could not be more skewed, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo arrived Enugu for an unscheduled state visit on the day of the event and that meant that the amiable and dynamic Enugu state Governor, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, (Gburugburu) would be unavoidably absent, attending to the Veep.
But as the saying goes, the show must go on and on it did with a glittering array some of the most distinguished academic minds in the South East, a full complement of young students and an impressive congregation of a secular audience all decked and spread out in a panoply and kaleidoscope of blended graceful colours, adorning the well decorated hall of the aptly named Ofuobi Africa Centre.
The array of dignitaries was as colourful as it was intimidating. The father of the day was Igwe Ambassador Lawrence Agubuzor of Olo, in Ezeagu LGA of Enugu State and there was a double touch of Literary Royalty too with the towering and unmistakable majestic presence of His Royal Majesty, HRM, Eze Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike, The Eze Ndikelionwu II of the Ndikelionwu Kingdom, Anambra state, as well as Her Royal Majesty, Alabota (Prof) Vinolia .S. Fubara, wife and queen to the distinguished HRH Alabo (Professor) Dagogo M.J. Fubara, Dappaye-Amakiri XVII, of Opobo Town, Rivers State..
Nigeria’s leading War literature author of books likes ‘The 5 Majors’, Colonel Ben Gbulie was in the audience, as well the doyen of female writers in Nigeria Prof. Ifeoma May Okoye and other notable personalities including Dr Jake Epele of the Albino Foundation, which was interestingly set up by Prof. Okoro himself, Prof Ukwu I. Ukwu, Dr Gambo, the Enugu State Director of the National Orientation Movement as well as the sister of the immediate past Enugu state Governor, Mrs. May Oji, nee Chime.
Then there was a plethora of balding, greyed and bearded Professors, over 65 of them, decked in flowing and colourful red academic gowns, invoking the intimidating aura of eternal knowledge reservoirs, embodied and contained in their divergent professorial frames. They all graced the occasion and gathered in ebullient, extravagant joy and overflowing goodwill to celebrate the man, the Author, the scholar, Prof Anezi Okoro.
The author of masterpieces like the unforgettable One week, one trouble; The village Headmaster; The Village School; Double Trouble; Flying Tortoise and of course the yet to be unequalled and unparalleled translation of William Shakespeare into Ibo (with Nwaobiora Chukwurah) in the classic, Akuko Ufodu Shakespeare Koro, which many discerning literary scholars have opined in quieter tones, is even more profound than some of the more celebrated Nigerian Literary works, not only in terms of its sheer literary audacity but most especially in recognition of the intellectual boldness of the engagement, and which, if it had been penned by a different name, would have firmly put Prof. Anezi Okoro right up there in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
To set ball of the show rolling, the President of the Coal City Literary forum, the elegant, adorable, charming Mrs. Adaobi Nwoye, herself a distinguished author and arguably the finest female fiction writer writing out of the South East of Nigeria presently, in her welcome address, not only reiterated the need to encourage a robust reading and writing culture among the youths, but equally called on government and other relevant agencies to partner with Coal City Literary Forum in redirecting the energies of our teeming youth population.
She equally led the audience to observe a one minute silence in honour of the recently untimely passage of Ogechi Atuonwu, daughter of the Chief of Staff Enugu state Government, House, Chief Victor Atuonwu, who had been very influential in supporting the activities of the coal City Literary Forum, as their patron.
In his opening remarks, the chairman of the occasion, Elder K.U Kalu, a retired First Class Banker and unflinching patron of the Arts, lauded the efforts of the CCLF and encouraged all and sundry to extend their goodwill and fellowship to the group with the aim of forging mutually beneficial partnerships with Coal City Literary Forum.
One of the key moments of the event was the eloquent, inspirational and highly motivational Keynote address by former Minister of Power, Prof. Chinedu Nebo, in his characteristic flawless diction, laced with the modulations of a celebrated griot, delivered in the most alluring, hypnotic, enchanting, anecdotal story telling mode, synonymous with those who went to the ‘old schools’.
He thrilled the audience with his narrative craftsmanship, in a long address which bordered on Service to humanity, moved them through different levels of emotional experiences, with anecdotes of existential and spiritual service delivery, which according to him, typified the rich, uncluttered life of Prof Anezi Okoro, exhorted them with a chaste prescription on humility and the unshakable tenet of the golden rule and finally re-emphasised the value of education in society, even as he urged the children in the audience to always be grateful for the education their parents had toiled to provide for them, noting that education was the major defining tool between getting to the top and remaining on the fringes of life.
Prof. Nebo also revealed a secret which took most of the audience by surprise, when he properly pronounced the first name of Prof. Okoro fully, and loaded it with all the onomatopoeically inflected nuances and the implied literal and literary meanings embedded in the parabolic phrase, now transformed into a rhetorical question, defying any existential answers to which a mere name could possibly pose; Anezionwu-onye oga-egbu? ‘Do you show death who it should to kill?’ The audience acquiesced in stunned, reverent, surreal, profound silence. It was a matter too weighty to vocalize.
There were several highpoints on an exciting day to celebrate a distinguished author and a living literary legend in his own right. The first was the decoration and award of excellence to Professor Anezi Okoro, for his outstanding contributions to the growth of Literature and the reading culture in Enugu state and beyond.
The award ceremony was preceded by the reading of the citation of Prof. Okoro, rendered by the Secretary of the Coal City Literary Forum, the dynamic, bubbling and charismatic Mrs. Chinemerem Anyi, the very prolific multi-lingual author of the popular and highly regarded novel Goddess of Hope, amongst others, in a flawless, almost hypnotising eloquence that had the audience applauding with great appreciation.
Then there was the decoration and presentation of award to the Governor of Enugu state, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi as the Grand Patron of the CCLF, received on his behalf by his representative, the Commissioner for Education, Enugu State. This was followed by the decoration and presentation of award to the Vice Chancellor of Gabriel Okoye University, Rev. Fr. (Prof) Christian Anieke as a patron of CCLF.
The dramatic entrance of the Cultural troupe from Godfrey Okoye University was greeted with loud cheering and when they proceeded to perform the Arondizuogu war dance, from Prof. Okoro’s home town, complete with all the trappings, costumes, throbbing and pulsating drumbeats, as well as the gyrations and flexing of gleaming muscles, glistening with the sweat of a robust war dance. The audience went into a long uproar of unfettered excitement befitting a festival of celebration.
Barrister Peter Odo, Permanent Secretary Government House, who represented the Chief of Staff, Government House, Chief Victor Atuonwu, was given the honours to do the inter-governmental homilies by reading a special letter from the Imo State
Governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, who hailed Prof. Anezi Okoro, as a son of Imo state from Arondizuogu and congratulated him on behalf of the entire people of Imo state, for his outstanding achievements in Literature and Medicine, even as he expressed his gratitude and appreciation to the Coal City Literary Forum for deeming it fit and auspicious to honour Prof. Okoro with such an excellent programme and award.
The final highpoint was the unveiling of Prof. Anezi Okoro’s books, re-printed with the permission of the author himself and presented in their shiny new soft paperback covers, like old tales in new pages, some of which were read to the audience by selected readers.
Professor Damian Opata, head of Department of English and Literary studies at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did a great job with the review of four books out of the lot, before they were unveiled.
And in a bid to achieve added significance and a bit of literary savvy to the event, the CCLF stretched out its hand of fellowship across the Niger and all the way to Asaba, Delta State and invited the President of the Delta Literary Forum, DLF Prince David Diai, to anchor the event and be part of the epoch making celebration.
Responding to all the comments and expectations from the various speeches and the keynote address, after the unveiling of the books, the Special Guest of honour, Rt. Hon Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, the Executive governor of Enugu State, ably represented by the Honourable commissioner of Education, Professor Uche Eze, applauded the efforts of the Coal City Literary Forum adding that Prof Anezi Okoro is indeed an icon to be celebrated.
He then solicited for partnership between the Coal City Literary Forum, CCLF and the state government to bring about a turn-around in the readership levels among the youth of Enugu State and promised that the state government would not only purchase and donate the books to libraries, but would also explore ways to ensure that the books of Anezi Okoro were re-introduced into the syllabus of secondary schools in the state.
Then were special recitations for Prof. Okoro by the school children, including the brilliant rendition by the little girl, Prosper Anyi and when it was time to say thank you to the guests and well wishers, Prof. Anezi Okoro, flanked by his dynamic and still athletic wife, who flitted in and out of the hall, making sure that everything went on smoothly, in his soft spoken, wizened manner, and overwhelmed by the outpouring of well wishes and very impressive attendance, was so full of gratitude and appreciation for the honour done him by CCLF and thanked everybody who found time to attend and celebrate with him.
The event was about celebrating Prof Anezi Okoro and re-launching his works, thus keeping them evergreen in the hearts and minds of those of the younger generation who have become alien to these works.
The Coal City Literary Forum, CCLF can beat its chest and pat itself on the back for a job well done, especially with the guidance of their Patron, Rev Fr. (Prof) Christian Anieke, through the dynamism and synergy of the President, Mrs. Adaobi Nwoye, the Chairperson of the organising committee, Mrs. Maureen Atuonwu, the Secretary, Mrs Chinemerem Anyi, the P.R.O Uche Gabriel, who was also Co-Master of Ceremony and the Vice President Dr. Maxwell Ugwuanyi, who gave the vote of thanks.
Indeed, with strategic support from media partners; Coal City Fm, Solid 100. 9Fm, ESBS, AIT, Sunrise TV and Kromatic Media, as well as the untiring staff of the National Orientation Agency, NOA, Enugu State, who provided personnel and logistic support, the celebration of Prof. Anezionwu Okoro, by the Coal City Literary Forum, CCLF has not only continued to attract massive support from individuals and agencies, who are committed to getting Enugu and of course Nigeria to read again, but will undoubtedly be one major literary event that will last long in the memory and annals of the literary life of Enugu state.
Additional Reports from Uche Gabriel (UC d MC)