Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Esiaba Irobi, the Intellectual terrorist

By Nnorom Azuonye/234 Next

I don’t really feel qualified to write about Esiaba Irobi. I have not met anyone quite qualified enough to write about Esiaba Irobi, The Minstrel. He represented something different to everyone he met. To many, he was the consummate artist and academic. To others, he was a benchmark for hard work and diligence. There were some who saw him as a spirit of anarchy. He was also a rude man who wrote many sexually-explicit poems with insane titles, my favourite being ‘A Short History of my Penis.’

I will attempt to write about the Esiaba Irobi I know. A good man. A laughter factory. A prophetic writer. A man who started out as my teacher, then became my friend, and ended up as my brother.

When I heard that Esiaba passed away via several messages, I stopped functioning. Everyone, all at once asking if I could confirm it, friends like Molara Wood and Toyin Adepoju, among others, wanted to be sure before calling the news by its name. I promised to find out from Esiaba’s wife, Uloaku.

The phone call to Berlin was the most frightening call I have ever made, and in the spirit of The Minstrel, I was optimistic that Uloaku would chuckle and tell me there had been a big mistake. It turned out to be wishful thinking. Esiaba was gone. At first I was very strong. I even tapped into my strong belief in reincarnation and shrugged, “Well, Esiaba, it has been a tough journey for you. Go on, sir, reset your life and start over.” Then I added, as we Igbo say when a person is going to our ancestors, “Esiaba, son of Irobi, your world, seven worlds, you will live your earthly life again. In your next life, you will not fall ill in mid life, you will marry young, and raise your family in joy and good health. Go in peace, my brother.”

It was really going well until I told my wife that Esiaba had died. Amaka had also grown close to Esiaba. When he called our home, they would laugh on the phone as he performed poetry and songs down the line on international phone calls. My wife broke down on me and cried. That’s when they gushed; my first tears for Esiaba. Yes, I am a poet too, and I am not afraid to have a good cry if it will stop my chest from exploding.


Esiaba Irobi was my lecturer in the Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from 1987 to 1989, when he left for the United Kingdom. Esiaba was more than a lecturer to me; he was an inspiration. Every course he taught me - Theatre History, Improvisation, Basic Acting Skills, and Introduction to Playwriting - opened my mind to the possibilities of the theatre.

Esiaba was not just a theorist, he showed us how to do what he taught. His performances were mesmerising, his energy was overwhelming. As an actor, he transformed even the lamest word in a play into a living entity inhabited by a spirit of dance. I had the privilege of understudying Esiaba as Elesin in Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and The King’s Horseman’, a role he carried with commensurate pomp and passion, under the out-of-this-world direction of Eni Jones Umuko. Esiaba connected, raised and sustained the ritual impetus of that play, helped along with the magnificence of Nwugo Uzoigwe’s Iyaloja. The air in the Arts Theatre at Nsukka was so taut through the performances that it could have strangled people.

The plays

As a playwright, Esiaba wrote some of the angriest, action-packed, issue plays that packed theatres full every night. ‘Nwokedi,’ ‘The Fronded Circle,’ and ‘Hangmen Also Die’ changed the theatre tradition at Nsukka forever. Those of us who dared pick up our pens to write plays were under the heavy influence of Esiaba Irobi. I had small parts in ‘Nwokedi’ as a politician and member of the Ekumeku, but in ‘Hangmen Also Die’, I played the role of Chief Isokipiri Erekosima, who embezzled three million naira compensation meant for ordinary citizens for the destruction of their livelihoods by oil spillage. Erekosima spent half a million of that money on his coronation alone, as the Amatemeso of Izon State, and some on expensive lifestyles and education for his children abroad - because the standards of education in Nigeria had fallen. He was to meet his ancestors when the unemployed graduates-turned-criminals kidnapped, tried, condemned, and hung him from a tree. ‘Hangmen Also Die’ was produced in 1989, directed by Esiaba Irobi himself. Even back then, he foresaw the current crisis that has ravaged Nigeria’s Niger Delta region.

In 2003, I interviewed him; and to the question ‘Who is Esiaba Irobi?’ he replied,

“He is from the Republic of Biafra and has lived all his life in exile in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Everything he wrote in ‘Hangmen Also Die’ has come to pass, including the hanging of the boys, the killing of the chiefs, the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in a prison in Port Harcourt. The recent revolt by riverine women against foreign oil companies in Nigeria reminds us strongly of Tamara in the play and also resonates with the reason for the iconoclastic philosophy of The Suicide Squad.

“‘Hangmen Also Die’ is the most prophetic of all of Esiaba works. It is a picture of the future. Our future as a country: Area Boys. Bakassi. Armed Robbery. Anarchy! The worst is yet to come. Nigeria will break apart like a loaf of bread in water, it will capsize like a leaking canoe on the River Niger!”

The poetry

I first encountered the power of Esiaba’s poetry at the Anthill, Nsukka, run back in the day by Gbubemi Amas, Big George, and co. He would sing his words and on occasions, break into powerful choruses and dance. He would break sweat performing a poem, and would ensure the poem was etched on the minds of members of the audience.

Following the publication of his seminal poetry collection, ‘Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin,’ it was my honour to host him in London on April 1, 2006. Other poets that read on the same night were Toni Kan, Obemata, and Molara Wood, their readings punctuated with mine. It was all very good, but when Esiaba, the masquerade of the night, stepped up to the stage, he turned the night on its head, with songs, with calls and responses, and with his lyrical pieces rendered with penetrating, seering conviction. Esiaba wrote about some of his characters as people who used words “like a loaded pistol”, but it was he, The Minstrel, a powerful wordsmith, who used words like a loaded pistol. When mixed together and shaken, his words would produce the effect of an atomic bomb, powerful enough to eradicate Nigeria’s terminal diseases, which populate the country’s past, ruling, or aspiring leadership.

Celebrating Esiaba

In 2009, Esiaba got married to the lovely Uloaku, who joined him in America in the summer. They moved together to Berlin, where he took up position as a Distinguished Research Fellow, Freie University, Berlin, Germany 2009-2010 in the “Interweaving Performance Cultures” programme at the University’s International Research Centre.

The painful thing about Esiaba’s life is that he was a man who had a habit of being happy always, no matter his situation. He worked very hard at his craft, and tried as much as he could to enjoy his life. Every time I was on the phone with Esiaba, or sat across the table for a bite or a drink, he had no idea how to be in somebody’s company and not have a funny story to tell, a poem to read, a song to sing, or a political or philosophical idea to banter over. I was quite aware that he was well-respected in literary and academic circles, and had won some awards here and there, but it always surprised me that somehow, Esiaba had never really been publicly celebrated for all his achievements and vision.

Therefore, I asked myself: should we wait for Esiaba to win at least one of the two Nobel Prizes for Literature he used to tell us he would win, before we celebrate him? Or should be celebrate him anyway? I chose the latter, and in the planning of the first Sentinel Literature Festival - December 1 to 4, 2009 - we set aside the final day as ‘Esiaba Irobi Day.’ The plan was simple: on that day, admirers and some of his former students would read their favourite Esiaba poems, then there would be a musical interval, and then the man himself would incinerate the place with a 60-minute performance.

I have never seen anyone as excited about an event as Esiaba was about the ‘Esiaba Irobi Day’ at our festival. I am sure he won’t mind my sharing some of his thoughts for the evening: “My sisters who live in London and my beautiful and lovely wife will cook/provide the food… I suggest very strongly that you change the picture of mine you have chosen. I will send another more exciting photograph which you can use to create a one-page advert in colour. You can then send it as an attachment - INDIVIDUALLY - to everybody who is interested in poetry in the UK…We can also target some Ngwa people who are not literary sensibilities, but who will be coming for the food and the wine and the photograph-taking and to see their rambunctious brother performing in London with a band called The Republic of Biafra!… A lot of Igbo people - if you can find a listserv containing their names-will also want to come…

“I also suggest that you push the event through Toyin Adepoju’s facebook. And the Wole Soyinka Society… Jackie Mackay knows a lot of people in the literary milieu of London. You should try and befriend her. She can help to swell the AUDIENCE on December 4, 2009. We should also think of special invitations to people like Peter Badejo, Osy Okagbue, Yvonne Brewster, Nigerian actors/ theatre directors, etc. The idea of Special Invitations and a kind of DISTINGUISHED high table and brief speeches about the poet will... make them come as well as bring other people… I am planning to have food - Igbo cuisine on December 4. In addition, we can also have some wine, bread, cheese and charge a sensible gate fee for this huge event. I am planning to put on a really powerful show complete with my band: The Republic of Biafra. My son, Nnamdi, will play his saxophone in the band.”

Published and forthcoming works

Esiaba also copied an e-mail he wrote to Jacqueline Mackay to me, and there, I thought we were about to celebrate Esiaba, only for me to learn he was dedicating the show to Ms Mackay. In this e-mail, he wrote, “I will not be “reading” but actually “performing” in the African oral tradition... excerpts from the following published and forthcoming collections: Frozen Music (1985), Handgrenades (1986), Infloresence (1987), Tenants of the Desert (1988), What is Tender about Ted Hughes? (1989), Is This a God I Smash? (1990), Tell Me I am Lying! (1991), The Kingdom of the Mad (1997), Why I Don’t Like Philip Larkin (2004), A Calendar of Love (forthcoming), A Short History of my Penis (forthcoming), ZEZE and other LOVE poems (forthcoming), The Tree that Weeps (forthcoming)… It will be a great day and I will make it clear to everybody - before I begin my performance - that this event is specially staged for a great woman who has a lot of love for everything African, including our literature, arts, cuisine, and young men with dysfunctional penises!”

He had it all planned in his head, but due to some unforeseen problems with his travel documents, he could not attend the festival and we had to cancel day 4.

In March 2010, I was delighted when Esiaba wrote me a heartwarming e-mail in which he said his health was on the mend, and he and his wife now had 5-year multiple visas in and out of Britain. Then the masterstroke: he informed me that his wedding ceremony had been fixed for the middle of June and that he would very much like me to organise a poetry event to serve as his bachelor’s eve party. Like the festival show, Esiaba had big plans for his wedding poetry event, and after our last exchange on Wednesday, April 28, I started making plans to realise his big show in London, only this time, he did not just pull out due to problems, he actually did a Michael Jackson on me.

The Sentinel Poetry Movement is a part of what has defined my life since 2002, and one thing I have said at every opportunity, is that Esiaba Irobi was the one that suggested that I grow the idea from the small exercise on my website. I am happy that in his lifetime, Sentinel published Esiaba’s own poetry, and essays; and essays on Irobi’s works by others such as Pius Adesanmi and Afam Akeh. I am also proud that although the big event never happened, there was at least that evening in 2006 when he sang and danced as part of a Sentinel Live Event.


On hearing of his death, many have said wonderful things about Esiaba. The poet, Remi Raji, describes him as “one of the finest, but rarely sung writers.” The truth is that we all wait for the West to adopt and celebrate our best. Esiaba was never going to be a darling of the western world. Our people are singing him now that he is dead. I, however, deeply appreciate some comments on my Facebook page from people I knew were genuine Esiaba friends. Osita Okagbue writes, “With Esiaba, some laughter has left; a joy for life and people has gone! I’ll miss your laughter, our friend, colleague, and my academic nephew.” Gbubemi Amas says, “This is very sad news for anyone who loves life.” And among other tributes, Abdul Mahmud, who writes as Obemata, remembers him this way; “Esiaba was such an engaging poet; memories of his performance at the maiden Sentinel Poetry Live years ago in London are as abiding as the fraternal love and respect he showed to some of us who interacted with him that night”. That was Esiaba, a respecter of kindred spirits. A lover of life.

I am as devastated by Esiaba Irobi’s passing as many of my colleagues, and Esiaba’s students are, but nothing we feel today can compare with what Uloaku, his wife of less than one year must feel, or what his Saxophone-playing son, Nnamdi, must feel. I also hope that Uloaku is well in the know about his unpublished works, and will work tirelessly to make sure they see the light of day. These include such books as ‘How to make love to a Negro all Night and Survive it’, ‘A White Man’s Guide to Black Woman’, ‘Theorizing African Cinema: Ontology, Teleology, Semiology and Narratology’ (Routledge, London), ‘Before They Danced in Chains: African Metalanguages in African-American Performance Aesthetics’, and his novel, too long in the making:‘The Intellectual Terrorist.’

Nnorom Azuonye is the Founder/Editor of ‘Sentinel Literary Quarterly’, and publisher of ‘Sentinel Nigeria’ magazines

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