It is a very long way from Ibada Village (which no longer exists) to Charlotte, North Carolina. I was not even born there, but at Igberhe Village, so-named after the plantain plants that sustained the people. This hole, as my grandmother would describe it, was evacuated for Ibada Village, named after Ibadan, the Western Region’s capital. And “Ibadan” our new village was to my child’s eyes. The houses all had corrugated iron sheets, which bedazzled when new especially in sunlight. There was a pliable earth road through it connecting Okpara Inland and Okpara Waterside (Erho). My two hands are both of Okpara, the sub-clan of Agbon. It’s said that Okpara is slippery in the dry season, if you take the town for granted! I was born and raised in my maternal side; hence I begin from my mother’s village. I am an Okurunoh man (really Enemarho Village) but I am Ibada-born. My father who had lost all three boys from his earlier marriage and had only a daughter before marrying my mother asked her to go to her own mother’s for delivery. He was there at the right time and after I was delivered at Igberhe Village and he knew that I was a boy rode his rusty Raleigh bicycle to tell his people that I was a girl! This story I heard only when already grownup and credit my father for his strategy. He feared for my survival and did what he felt would save me. Unlike my maternal uncles, my paternal uncles were not on good terms with each other. I was already five before I visited Enemarho Village, my father’s home, for the first time. It was my grandmother, Amreghe, of the great Isaba family who raised me. She was the Mother Hen that covered me with her wings. There also were my grandfather and uncles Otota (Peter) and Onosigho. Grandfather Odjegba covered tedious miles on foot to Okpara Inland and other places to parties and wherever there was a ritual feast (iye) or free drinks. Many funny things popped out of his head when drunk but he was the spirit of the party. He was a great fisherman and farmer and remains a pride to us all. Onosigho, a cloth merchant, was a prosperous man who was thrifty despite his relative wealth. Otata, whose real name is Ofobrukueta, often acted as my father and today lives with my mother in Okurekpo.
I am the son of farmer-parents. My father had many rubber plantations. He tapped his own rubber trees and prepared Grade-A rubber sheets. He was also a palm nut collector and had a local palm oil press in which he prepared first-grade oil. He was a man who perfected the art of whatever he set out to do and took all the care and time required for the highest quality. He had a small cocoa plantation in which he also planted coffee trees and bananas. He was a great fisherman too. My mother was a farmer and planted yams and cassava. She did some fishing too, but later was more of a retail seller of meat. It is from this rural and humble origin that I came.
I went to school early, but the white priest would not allow me to be registered because my right hand could not cross over the head to touch my left ear. I still followed my cousin Okpoto (Samuel Onosigho) to school till the following year (1955) when I was no longer too small. St. Charles Catholic Primary School still stands there, but no longer the small “mission” that priests preferred to live in rather than in the bigger towns of Okpara Inland, Eku, and even Sapele. The old saying persists: “The reverend father knows what keeps him in Okurekpo.” The early converts there were overgenerous to their Irish guests! Of my primary school days, I remember with fondness the versatile HM James Emucha whose enthusiasm inspired me to be a teacher. Pius Orovwuje was also a great teacher. So were both Omonogbo and Samuel Eshigbe.
After my St. Charles, I attended St. George’s Grammar School at Obinomba. It was the first time that I left Urhoboland and was excited seeing Abraka (Bareki) and Obiaruku. I was scared at Obigbo, the village of coffin makers, before Obinomba. It appears I was always the smallest (perhaps the youngest) in my classes and Father Cunningham might have wanted to protect me from the bullying big boys by making me altar boy and bellboy. For four years, I was the cock that woke the school. I also served at daily Mass for years. Though I disliked the banning of local languages, then called vernaculars, St. George’s was a good education, education that included Latin and English grammar. It was while at St. George’s that I visited Sapele for the first time and saw the AT&P Sawmill, heard its programmed siren, saw television for the fist time, watched a movie, saw “boma” boys, and crossed the Ethiope River in a pontoon. During vacations we not only went to hook but also to tap rubber. On weekends we, “Grammarians,” eagerly went to “social gatherings.” We lived the adage of working and playing at the same time. We indulged in different dances and riddles and took “guy names” that have been shed in adulthood. I was small and innocent and wrote love letters for big girls to their boyfriends. The girls tried to give me gifts and were always around me to cover themselves from their real friends in public. After two girls died in a secret bid to abort conception, I started to refuse writing love letters.
Mine is a story of moving from a hole, so to say, into exposure; from the interior into the open. I was one of two students (the other Patrick Erhiye) from Obinomba admitted into the three newly created Federal Government Colleges in the country. I then went to Sokoto as a pioneer student of Federal Government College. But the ethnic disturbances of 1966 brought me back, first to King’s College, Lagos, and then to Federal Government College, Warri. I was there when the civil war broke out. I was on vacation at 10 Radio Road, Warri, when Biafran troops came to occupy Midwest. My guardian Charles Edemenaha moved us to Orerokpe during the occupation. The Federal troops soon came to flush out the Biafrans. Both armies were barbarous and sectional.
After the two-year program, I chose to attend University of Ibadan rather than University of Lagos that first sent me an admission letter. My father, Dafetanure, was non-literate (and illiterate) but knew the value of Western education. He had learned from the frequent land disputes and subsequent litigation the importance of having a lawyer in the family. Also when sick, he wanted me to become a doctor. He rode his bicycle to Warri in a delegation to see a lawyer and the good life he saw confirmed his faith in a good education. Like in the HSC with two scholarships (State and Federal), I had three scholarships for my university education.
I studied English, French, and German. The civil war was on and several times we had to sleep at roadblocks at the outskirts of Ibadan to be in class the first day of the term. Some of my colleagues had to take tortuous creek ways to reach Lagos before going to Ibadan. I took part in many demonstrations and about twice bussed to Lagos for demonstrations. It was in my final year in 1971 that the Apampa-Must-Go demonstration took place and a student was shot dead. I had started writing in Warri and continued in Ibadan, where I published in student magazines such as The Beacon and the Pelican. I wrote most of the poems in my first collection, Children of Iroko, while at U.I. (My first collection is titled after my nativity, Okurunoh). I had moved from Ibada Village to the real Ibadan! After I graduated from Ibadan, I became the first ex-student of Federal Government College, Warri, to go back to teach. I had had a stint at teaching during vacations at St. Kevin’s Grammar School, Kokori. I had briefly worked at the Federal Ministry of Education, Lagos, before asking to be posted to teach—an insane decision to many people. So was also my decision to turn down a scholarship to do M.Ed. and rather wait to do an M.A. in Creative Writing in Syracuse or M. Litt. at Leeds.
There was the lure of greener pastures at the newly opened Petroleum Training Institute, where I officially taught for two years—officially because we were bussed to Ughelli and after a subsidized lunch came back to Warri. It was not challenging enough for me teaching technical communication and writing. Professor Essien Udom who had been my Independence Hall Master at Ibadan invited me to Maiduguri where he was the VC. He later sent me for graduate studies at Syracuse University in the United States, where I got an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English. It was a great exposure and big boost to my writing career. After the Ph.D., I returned to Maiduguri on December 18, 1981 to teach there for nine years. At the time the Urhobo Social Club was very vibrant nationwide and I was involved in the Maiduguri Chapter. I immersed myself in my writing and it was the years in Maiduguri that I started winning literary prizes, which include the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Africa Region in 1987. I went to receive the prize in London and at the Commonwealth Center (in the company of Chinua Achebe) lunched with Queen Elizabeth II. I also won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry, BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Prize, and the All-Africa Okigbo Prize for Poetry. Those were glorious years for me despite the economic austerity.
I took sabbatical leave to Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, where I was the Visiting Johnston Professor in 1989/90. After that year, I took up an appointment at The University of North Carolina, where I still teach. While abroad, I try to visit my Delta home regularly to reconnect with my roots. I have written more collections of poetry, a memoir, short stories, and in recent times a novel. I have chosen the writing life and I am putting everything into it. In all my writing, my early upbringing in the Niger Delta continues to feed and fuel my imagination. Since being away from home, I have been drawn more to home than when there. My Urhobo is more fluent and stronger than what it was while I was living in Nigeria. I have opportunities here to go home and research on the Udje dance songs and published a book on it—Poetry, Art, and Performance: Udje Dance Songs of the Urhobo People. I have set many collections of poetry on the Niger Delta and they include Labyrinths of the Delta (1976), Delta Blues and Home Songs (1995), Invoking the Warrior Spirit (2001), and In the Kingdom of Songs (2002). I have used my Urhobo heritage to poetic advantage in many of these poems by exploring the Ivwri philosophy and using Urhobo folklore as a backdrop. Ours is a very rich heritage that gives confidence to one and propels one to the top of one’s profession. That is what Ivwri does. References to Urhobo historical, mythical, and legendary figures such as Mukoro Mowoe, Essi, Ogidigbo, and Arhuaran populate my poetic landscape. In recent years I have been writing some poems in Urhobo. One cannot be luckier than be enriched considerably by one’s own heritage
I must pay tribute to my wife, Anne, and children who have enhanced my writing life. I believe strongly in the family and Osonobrughwe has blessed me with a happy one.