Chukwuemeka Ike: Silent lullabies for the gentle giant

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Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

By Chris Paul Otaigbe

He is the Gentle Giant’, the man of humility, secure in his towering greatness. The much-acclaimed gathering of writers (from Europe, North and South America, Asia, the Middle East) diminishes in stature to a sweaty, marshy jungle humming with envy and ill-will.  Kannan’s preliminary introduction goes thus:

‘I ran into Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, our participant from Nigeria and a very distinguished and well-known senior writer. His novels and books were widely read in England, the USA, and other English-speaking countries…Very tall. Around six feet, five inches…And with a physique to match. It was a height that nearly made you break the neck while craning it up to talk to him. He would bear down on us from that great big height, so intimidating that it invariably made us feel small. The only thing that redeemed the situation was the expression on his face. It was always, always so gentle. Ike was soft-spoken, his voice low and well bred, his language bearing an unmistakable stamp of refinement and culture. For all his achievements, Ike was incredibly modest. With a natural inclination to respect the person he was speaking to.

He talked now about literature; the compulsive urgency that made one write…. Sitting down to speak like that in a soft undertone, Vincent Ike would be suddenly transformed as soon as he got up to walk. He would then turn into a black panther. In the nonchalant grace of the walk, in the way he carried his own huge physique lightly. Every little movement of his body registered an extraordinary strength. And a dignified bearing.  A measured restraint in his speech. A thoroughbred bearing, understated. Every inch, the gentle giant…

The black panther in the university. A pedigree panther. Poised. Burning energy coolly. A classy panther moving about with a serene self-confidence.’

That was Lakshmi Kannan, an Indian writer’s description of Chukwuemeka Ike. Lakshmi participated in the International Writing Programme (along with Chukwuemeka Ike) in 1987 and had dedicated an entire short story to her meeting with the celebrated Nigerian writer and the impact he had on the entire body of writers in Iowa.

Lakshmi’s capture of the persona of the Ike was equally true to the achievements and legacies of the late monarch.

Perhaps, this charismatic octogenarian may have lived longer but for the cruel hand fate dealt him with the loss of his son Ositadinma Ike. As if that was not enough, Osita, who died in 2016, had lost his only son to his Benin wife, towards his last days and by consequence, it meant his family would lose access to his boy.

His son, Osita as he was affectionately known way back then, had married the daughter of a Benin Chief, Osarunwense Eghosa, but the marriage hit the rocks at the last days of Ositadinma.

The union was blessed with a son named after the late novelist, Chukwuemeka Junior, but family disagreements meant the Ike family ceased to have access to Chukwuemeka Jnr. after their son’s death.

The event was said to have saddened the writer who longed to see his only grandchild and heir. Survived by his wife, Adebimpe, Ike was extremely heart-broken and was in deep trauma over his inability to meet his grandchild. An heir he never set his eyes on, a boy whose whereabouts remained unknown, until his death.

This double strategy was what broke the traditional ruler. Hence his health deteriorated till his passing, four years later.

The literary icon would later give it all up on Thursday January 8, 2020, at the Nnamdi Azikwe Teaching Hospital in Nnewi, Anambra State, at age 88 after a brief illness.

The story of Chukwuemeka’s twilight years is metaphorically illustrated in an excerpt of one of his writings titled the Chicken Chasers:

THE CHICKEN CHASERS

As Baby Face soaked her body in the hot bath, her thoughts went back to the S-G.

The ball was now in her court. The S-G had treated her like scum. She had gone beyond the bounds of propriety to let him know how much she adored him. She had given him a secret post office box number, to enable him to write to her at will, without the slightest danger that the letter would get into her husband’s hands. He did not have to write long epistles. Just some occasional sweet nonsense. Or simply to say when next he would pay an official visit to Manu. And yet he never wrote one single line. Not one word. Ask him today why he failed to write and he would say he misplaced the address. But if she were to give it to him again, there would still be nothing doing.

She had given him a phone number of a trusted friend who could carry any message safely to her. All he had to say was that he was in town, and she would get in touch. No. He never used the number, nor sent any message.

She ought to have given up but, how could she? Give up such a tall, masculine, handsome man, the mere mention of whose name, even in a newspaper story, was sufficient to send an electric signal right down her spine? She had taken the initiative and written to him, hoping his wife would not see the letter. Not much in the letter, but sufficient to make him aware that he could get a lot more from her if only he could show the faintest interest. No reply.

She had next obtained a copy of his itinerary, without his knowledge, just to know when to expect him in Manu. During one such visit, she was lucky to catch him in his hotel suite. What artifice did she not employ to win him over, but with what success? And what crazy things did she not do, after the cold rebuff?

Then came the final act. She was attending a UNESCO General Conference in Paris. The head of the Manu Mission to UNESCO gave a huge party that went far into the night. The S-G was at the party. Prior to the party, he had said a polite ‘hello’ to her after the formal opening ceremony, mentioning that he and two members of his staff were attending as observers. No sign of intimacy. Just a polite exchange of greetings, as if they had never met before, and he had melted away. The man she had done so much to catch!

All through the party she was watching the S-G, hoping he would come over to her. No. He was chatting away with a tall, pretty, fair-skinned African girl. Who could she be? Baby Face wondered. Had she not seen the two of them together at the formal opening ceremony? Could she be a girl-friend? His Paris mistress? A chance meeting at the conference? She observed that the girl had no wedding ring. Not even an engagement ring. That inflamed her curiosity.

As the S-G and the girl stood chatting away, Baby Face had to admit that the girl was naturally beautiful, without any make-up. She also had the advantage of youth – she could not be more than twenty-four. Her twinkling attentive eyes gave away the intensity of her feelings for the S-G, and this made Baby Face envious. Intensely possessive.

She hardly allowed her Honorable Commissioner who had been dancing with her to detach himself from her before she made straight for the S-G. No mincing of words. ‘I want to have a dance with you,’ she told him. He thanked her courteously, profusely, and said he would bear the tempting offer in mind whenever he was in the mood for dancing. Baby Face felt insulted, but decided not to lose her temper.

Just like Babyface in the story, Chukwuemeka did all he could to have access to the one desire he wanted most in the world, as embodied in the character of S-G. But cruel nature, like S-G was polite enough to give him attention as typified in the gift of Osita and Chukwuemeka Jnr., his only grandchild. But cruel nature declined his offer to have any of the two most important gifts on which he desperately invested his love and essence as a father and king.

Born in Anambra state, Nigeria, April 28, 1931, Ike was given the Christian name of Vincent but later chose his Igbo name, Chukwuemeka as his preferred choice (meaning “God has done great”). He was raised in a strict home. His father was a king, civic leader and disciplinarian who instilled in his son the necessity of civic duties and education. Chukwuemeka started early education in his native town. He left his town for further education at Ife-Mbaise and then from 1945 to 1950, he attended Government College Umuahia.

He started writing at Umuahia for the school magazine, The Umuahian, and he was also influenced by teachers that included Saburi Biobaku, who had honors in English from Cambridge. Some eminent Nigerian writers who attended the school include Chinua AchebeChristopher Okigbo, and Ken Saro Wiwa. After completing his secondary education, he studied at the University of Ibadan. While at the college, he was invited by Chinua Achebe to join the magazine club. He was a king, Eze Ndikelionwu of the great Aro town Ndikelionwu in Eastern Nigeria, with the title “Ikelionwu XI” in his hometown of Ndikelionwu in Anambra State.

Nigerian writer known for a mixture of lampoon, humor and satire, Ike owed a little bit of his style to his Igbo cultural upbringing.  Chukwuemeka began his career in writing from his days at Government College, Umuahia, where he wrote courageously in, The Umuahian. the school magazine.

Drawing motivation from the late novelist, Chinua Achebe, Ike was part of the golden set of pioneer African writers. His first story ever written, ‘A Dreamland’ was published in The Umuahian and set his foot on the literary space.

Ike was a former registrar of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). He studied history, English and Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan and earned a master’s degree at Stanford university. Among many of the younger generation, he was popular as the author of Expo ’77, a critical look at academic examination abuses in West Africa.

In Expo 77, Ike tackles the issue of examination abuses, exploring the theme of cheating through the eyes of a university registrar who is forced to hire a detective due to the lack of trust he has in some of his applicants’ résumés because test questions have been leaked. The detective would later discover a wide variety of examination manipulations; from the parents who demand new test results for their children, to principals who allow students to bring in textbooks for closed examinations. The author believed it was partly the corruption of the nation’s leaders that had permeated the society and led to rampant unethical excesses. In later years, the word “expo” was used in Nigeria as slang for academic cheating.

Featuring his hometown, Ndikelionwu, frequently in his works, notably Potter’s WheelToads for Supper and The Bottled Leopard, Ike never left his roots where he ruled as Monarch. He also remained loyal to his literary background as a literary administrator who coordinated the Nigerian Book Foundation for many years. A great alumnus of University of Ibadan, he was always supportive of the arts; even as the Eze of his people, Prof Ike continued to connect with Nigerian writers as individuals and as groups or associations.

Aside from writing, he served as an academic in different roles such as a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, registrar at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and visiting professor at the University of Jos.

He was also a former registrar of the West Africa Examination Council (WAEC), the first Nigerian to hold the position.

Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, a mid-generation writer and novelist, best positioned the undying legacies of the great literary icon in her celebration of Ike’s 50 years of trailblazing literary odyssey and the legendary contributions of the King’s works to the world of Literature:

The title of Chukwuemeka Ike’s first novel, Toads for Supper is a conundrum which took her several years to figure out. It is a catchy title for a fledgling novel, a title that was not soon to be forgotten. Conservationists did not have to rise up to the rescue of ‘toads’ in a West African country that were in danger of becoming extinct.

Based on the Igbo saying that any child who eats a toad loses his appetite for meat, Akachi believed the title symbolically refers to the forbidden union of inter-ethnic marriage partners, the Igbo and the Yoruba in this case. The ‘toads’ are rehabilitated in the sequel, Toads for Ever (2007) with the happy outcome of this marriage. Most of the young and adult readers in the 60’s and 70’s had been acquainted with Toads for Supper.

Chukwuemeka Ike, (like Chinua Achebe and a host of other Nigerian writers) had chosen to write in English, the language of the colonizer. The early exposure to English language education is largely responsible for this. The first-generation Nigerian writers, like Ike, are comfortable with the use of the English language.

According to her, it enables the writer to reach a wider reading public outside his/her linguistic group. What is more striking about Ike’s use of the English language was that he appropriated it and made it his own. The cultural nuances of speech and custom were effectively and effortlessly conveyed by Ike in the English language without the need for a glossary or other forms of cultural explanation.

So rich was his use of English in his 12 novels that two PhD dissertations have been written on it, one by a student in Ibadan and another in Jos. The Jos thesis bearing the title ‘A Linguistic Stylistic Analysis of Chukwuemeka Ike’s Novels’ (by Isidore Nnadi) has been published as a book in Bayreuth, Germany. Critics have also focused on the ‘phoric flow’ in Ike’s novels, Ike’s use of pidgin English and slang, the lexico-syntactic characteristics in his novels, and on the stylistic peculiarities as evident in his writing. All these point to a master-stylist who is deeply concerned with the craft of fiction and who has a remarkable command of the English language in which he has chosen to ‘speak’ to the world.

From The Potter’s Wheel (1973) to The Bottled Leopard (1985) to Our Children are Coming (1990), Akachi posited that Chukwuemeka Ike has consistently displayed a burning concern with children and youth, their education, training, and the future that awaits them.

Adolescents and young adults are at the center of the two novels, The Bottled Leopard (1985) and Our Children are Coming (1990).  The Bottled Leopard was a WAEC prescribed text for six years which meant that secondary school children across the country have closely read it, enjoyed it, and gained insights from it.

The book has also been translated into French as Fils de panthere. Chukwuemeka Ike wrote with autobiographical precision and nostalgia about the 1940’s Boarding School life modeled on the remnants of a colonial culture. Ike appreciated and approved of the discipline instilled in the school, the aim being the raising of young men of integrity who would be the future leaders of the country. The novel, at the same time raises questions about the colonial, imperialist attitudes to indigenous cultures and the conflicts arising from it.

Sadly, education has deteriorated and become so devalued in Nigeria over the past thirty years that the CMS supported Government College, Ahia, in the novel (modeled on Ike’s former school, Government College, Umuahia) remains a fictitious institution with lofty and imaginary educational standards.

Our Children are Coming (1990) is an unusual novel for many reasons. On the one hand it fits comfortably when seen as part of a trilogy of novels moving from childhood to adolescence, and arriving at the depraved condition of young adults in this work. On the other hand, the ‘gentle giant’ who has hitherto benevolently approached the foibles of society with subtle jibes, and gentle humor in the two earlier texts, lashes out in vehement anger and satire in this text.

Nigerian society of the 1990’s had also unfortunately changed for the worse. The injustices meted out to young people by adult society forms the focus of Our Children are Coming.  Ernest Emenyonu rightly observes that the novel is ‘structured on layers of irony, understatements, sarcasm, and satiric flashes. (The ‘black panther’ stalking through the jungle snarls – its menacing tone reverberates through the novel). ‘Young people cannot be better than the educational system designed for them’, says Ike.

The youth are victims of a corrupt adult society which throws up its hands in despair and says, ‘But, where did we go wrong?’ Chukwuemeka Ike puts his finger on the public conscience through his searching questions concerning the decay of parental power and authority in Nigeria of the 1990’s. How did the children of Eagles turn out to be vultures is the question that cannot be answered… Corruption of every kind festered at the heart of Nigerian society; the family, and the children were at the receiving end of its dubious benefits.

The novel is also unusual in style and technique – part drama, part journalism. The title of the novel, Our Children are Coming is a sobering reminder that the children we have nurtured in affluence, in careless abandon, in a country that can least afford it, are indeed coming!

The seriousness of tone continues in The Search (1991) and is accompanied by the gravity of content – sociopolitical predictions and prescriptions for Nigerian society. The conversation revolves around military coups, enslavement to industrialized nations, unmitigated corruption, and ethnicity. The storyteller, Chukwuemeka Ike, continues his search for answers to Nigeria’s problems. It is a complex novel that fuses fact and fiction, historical events, identifiable people and places, and imaginary scenarios.

Ike’s novel Expo ’77 sounds the alarm bells concerning exam malpractice as far back as 1980. It is a sad comment on the decline in societal values and our educational system that our youth have perfected the techniques of exam malpractice to an extent that the author could not have imagined when he wrote the book.

Conspiracy of Silence draws our attention to the social problem resulting from ‘fatherlessness’, that is, the various situations in life when one is unable to identify one’s biological father. The causes range from illegitimacy, cultural practices, and even incest.  Ike’s novels are concerned with transforming individuals and society by drawing attention to the shortcomings and vices prevalent in society. If the choreography of corruption that is unraveling in FIFA were taking place in Nigeria, Chukwuemeka Ike would have written about it!

Chukwuemeka Ike’s bold and compelling venture into historic recording of the Nigerian civil war bears the poignant and symbolic title, Sunset at Dawn (1976). The civil war spawned a great deal of creative activity and fictional mediations in the 1970’s and beyond. There were those writers, who like Ike, had, as Akachi stated, experienced the war firsthand and felt compelled to write about it.

The physical and psychological impact of the war on the nation Nigeria is amply documented in the works of Nigerian writers who were participants in one form or another. Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years during the war, Okigbo was killed in 1967, Elechi Amadi was a federal soldier and prisoner of the Ojukwu regime, Achebe and J P Clark served to publicize the Biafran cause abroad, and Chukwuemeka Ike supported the Biafran cause in various capacities. Achebe’s poetry collection, Beware, Soul Brother captures the anguish and the horrors of war and suggests the need for spiritual regeneration. Achebe’s There was a Country (2013) is subtitled a ‘personal history of Biafra’.

Forty years after the War, Achebe records the ‘cataclysmic experience’ that changed the history of Africa. In the section, ‘The War and the Nigerian Intellectual’, Achebe has this to say about Chukwuemeka Ike:

‘Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike also supported the Biafran cause and served the Biafran people in several bureaucratic positions. Later through prolific literary output, Ike took a well-deserved place at the vanguard of the continent’s leading novelists.’ (p.112)

The duration of Ike’s novel Sunset at Dawn corresponds to the emergence of Biafra as a nation. The greater proportion of the novel was written during the war. It has the immediacy and dramatic quality of felt experience. But what sets the novel apart from other war-inspired novels is the boldness with which Ike articulates his support for the Biafran nation and records the achievements and the tragedies of that period of Nigerian history.

The horrors of the civil war are placed in the context of human stories and the psychological impact wrought by conflict. Biafra was on the verge of becoming a first and truly independent African nation. Ill-equipped as they were in the years July 1967 to January 1970, the Biafrans managed an airport, refined petrol, made rockets, dried and packaged food and constructed houses made of earthen bricks.

War is not glorified however. There was a staggering loss of life on the Biafran side through air raids and the consequences of economic blockade. The novel poses fundamental questions concerning human reaction to conflict. Ike says:

‘It is children…who will find the answer after we are dead and gone. As they grow up and count the cost of this war, they must find the answer.’

Ironically, Sunset at Dawn missed being adopted as a set literature text for WAEC Advanced Level in 1978.  Government intervention prevented the process from going through, purportedly for security reasons.

The events of his last four years attempted to deprive him even in death, the dignity of one who lived to the glorious age of 88. At once, these tragedies aimed to diminish the gentle giant who awed the Indian writer and the world with his humanity, humility and heart for a better earth. But we would not give death the joy of sulking in sorrow. For any attempt to cry in mourning of this great son of Africa would be conceding defeat to the mortality of living.

He may have lost a son and a grandson, one to the cold hands of death, the other to the unfair hand of the law, Ike left this world a celebrity with the many children, his graceful literary paternity birthed. His children, adults and kids alike, living and the generations coming, would forever see Ike as the father who gave life to their art and their heart for literature.

So, no mourning songs in this tribute but lullabies to a man who traversed a complicated world with the magisterial grace befitting of a royal blood. His towering achievements in life, rivalled only by a few, immortalize him beyond the realm of human comprehension. Ike was a military General at heart who fought the war to save his planet bequeathing its humanity with the tools to conquer.

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