Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning (Origami, Lagos; 2016) is poetry that rouses Africa’s collective memory on some of its darkest past. His poetry, like history, reminds its readers of the recent past. Sadly, it’s a past that has direct bearing on the present and a strong implication for the future.
The oxymoronic title poem, A Good Mourning, does not come until much later in the collection that highlights Nigeria, nay Africa’s chequered history. The poem is the moving account of the travail of the presumed winner of 1993 Presidential election, M.K.O. Abiola. Through the poem, Ifowodo, a vocal activist in that dark military era, reenacts that controversial, epochal political period, the significance of which has largely escaped the current political players, who are the beneficiaries of that grim contest.
But beyond Abiola’s political saga, the brutal assassination of his wife, Kudirat, and his own subsequent death in the hands of his jailers, Ifowodo’s poetic rumination also goes farther afield to Hitler’s Nazi Germany’s gas chambers, Rwanda’s killing fields, Sierra Leone and Liberia’s brutal civil wars and the emergence of child soldiers to Nigeria’s North-East and the scourge of Boko Haram. All these ruminations on the world’s dark history set this collection apart as the poet mourns with the millions of victims lost to man’s power mongering and his poor reading of history and how he tries to exact himself over others to the collective ruin of humanity.
Apart from the early poems in Part I, with some childhood fantasy (History lesson), how glasses restored the poet’s sight (Perfect Vision), a surgical operation he underwent (Ten Hours) his being a godfather and how he nearly committed the irreverence by snatching one such child from the priest at dedication (Godchildren), this part also contains some pieces that lead up to his main subject of Africa’s unsavoury historical unravelling.
Ifowodo’s activism and civil society spirit and quest for a just Nigerian society is roused in ‘Sixty Lines by the Lagoon,’ dedicated to fellow poet, Odia Ofeimun. Here, the poet persona’s lament is plaintive: “Ah, dear land! for a young country/your people have grown so old/gnarled and wrinkled under the red sun/of their suffering…” the poet acknowledges the land’s super abundance in all respects, but a badly managed abundance that has left many poorer than they should be.
So, rather than the song of joy, the poet is forced to lament of “Our wounded land requires of us a song true/to its torment, but how can we sing/with battered tongues? Under a sky once blue,/grown charcoal-dark…” largely because of “…the long reign of thieving kings.” The poet is, however, consoled by the fact of the inevitability of his poetic fidelity, as he must continue to keep sentry in spite of a once blue sky that has been turned charcoal-dark by the powers-that-be.
Ifowodo also pays homage to two of the slain co-travellers on the road to a just Nigerian society, who died brutal deaths – one in a road accident and the other through assassin’s bullet: Festus Iyayi and Bola Ige!
For the assassinated Minister of Justice, Bola Ige, Ifowodo’s telling lines ring true: “Death strolled into your bedroom like a bosom friend/for whose coming and going you had kept the doors ajar…” And till date, justice is yet to be served the chief law officer, as his killers still remain at large, because “Bewitched from birth/by our strange country/we boil the cauldrons night and day.”
In ‘To Name a Hero,’ Ifowodo lionises Iyayi as that academic, who went beyond the calling of “cringed pitiful dons,/careers built on a creed of silence” to challenge the status quo for better living for the generality of the masses. But in mourning his tragic end, Ifowodo also laments and questions the fate of the likes of Iyayi in a country that devours its brightest: Was it in vain/was it all in vain?”
Indeed, what has become of the struggles of the likes of civil society groups, Iyayi, Chima Ubani and many others, who died in the thick of the struggle that would yield a dubious democracy a little elevated above the tyranny that preceded it?
AND it was that tyranny that would consume Abiola, his wife, Kudirat and countless others, who fell in that hellish hour because of the greed for power of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sanni Abacha. Ifowodo’s recounting of that dark era is in memorable metaphors, as he traces Abiola from his humble Abeokuta roots through his financial empire, and his legendary consort with women. He muses that Abiola might still be alive today if he hadn’t “…longed/for more than money can buy,/only with the devil’s coin./…would plant him atop the rock/where his friend waited with the crown.”
Unfortunately, his friend would hand him Abiola thorns that would ultimately be his death instead. But Abiola would not die without a fight, at least, from those who believed in his ‘Hope’ message, who showed “How magnificent was their rage -/a splendrous/thing before it paled/with the sun at dusk!”
Also, Abiola’s insistence on his mandate, who would “…not sell his crown/bought with blood and sweat,/bought with ballots worth more/than his riches and the world’s gold” infuriated Babangida and later Abacha, ‘False-star Generals,’ to unleash uncanny military demons on Nigerians, with Sgt. Rogers mowing down Kudirat, a woman they expected to “mind her pots and pans,” but who would take the gospel of her husband’s injustice to the world because “They knew she’d break bounds, take her cry/to the streets, and the echo of her song/would charm stones but burn their aching ears.”
The poet also provokes the argument between Babangida and Abacha and how the former was forced to flee “…from one rock to another/stripped of his forked-tongue smile/he turned his back on the world and entered/the gilded prison he built for himself” in Minna. The ascendancy of Abacha worsened the prospect of Abiola being crowned.
Ifowodo pays tribute to the daring spirit of Nigerians, who dared guns and tanks: “But if we fail to dare the guns/what sign that we are humans/with only bent shadows drifting/home to darkened doorways?”
In Part III, Ifowodo visits haunted spots of the world beginning with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its holocaust gas chambers and its echoes of the long gone Jewish dead and the hellish Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade route of Africans to slavery in the Americas. He titles it ‘Where is the Earth’s Most Infamous Plot?’ and he roams wide. He sings of taskmasters and slave masters, who urge songs or ban songs, according to their whims, from their victims, and asks: “Is it Hitler’s death-industrial-belt/or the bone-littered route of the Great Trade?”
In ‘Liberation Camp,’ Ifowodo also visits places like Sierra Leone and Liberia’s brutal civil wars of the 1990s and the wounds inflicted on young minds adopted as child soldiers in those wars. There were those who were amputated in Sierra Leone like David Anyaele. In Liberia, we see a child forced into soldiery after his father had been shot dead and his mother raped before him, and a gun thrust into his hand instead of books to go on a killing spree. Gripped by the pangs of hunger, the child soldier sums up his dire situation:
“I was roughed/from the sleep of childhood/you can tell from the metallic/grating of my knees,/the dead sea of my eyes,/Now I’m on the other side/of fear, the world flees from me.”
But by far the more grueling poem that churns the innards with bile is ‘A Rwandan Testimony’ that also echoes Uwem Akpan’s short story collection famous for its children’s horror tales, Say You’re One of Them, particularly the Rwandan story from which the title is derived.
Ifowodo’s piece on Rwanda typifies the classic barbarity that was the Rwandan debacle, where former neighbours cut each other to pieces in a vile slaughter that arose from hate unimaginable in response to vile messages from the radio that ignited the genocidal orgy.
Evidence from one of the mobsters, a schoolteacher, about the convictions that fueled the mindless killings, clinches the argument: “I was past doubt: leave that to Hamlet!/Besides, what does it take to end a life?/a swing of the arm and the hatchet’s in the head/a flash across the throat and a body tumbles/glowing cigarettes tossed at the doused house,/a vigilant mob at the gate…”
Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning is an intensely personal and universal poetic offering that will charm the reader to stillness. Although dark in its musings, it offers a window into some of the world’s grueling places and gives them illumination. In it also, Ifowodo shows his usual mastery of the poetic medium to excavate depths of emotions and experiences, as he takes his readers by the hand and leads to places remote and dark. A Good Mourning is a finely wrought poetic journey.