The phone call was straight to the point: “I want you at my house this evening.”
Odia Ofeimun is of course “he who must be obeyed.”
When I got to the poet’s home I was handed an impossible task. Odia, as we all fondly call him, wanted to launch all of 14 books on his 60th birthday, March 16, 2010, which was then barely a week away, and he wanted me to proof-read, fact-check and somewhat edit the manuscripts.
In the world of Odia, nothing is impossibility.
He had contacted printers from nearby Shomolu and even faraway Dubai to be ready to print all the books to beat the tough deadline.
I spent nights wading through words. Unfortunately, Odia’s go-between who sent the first three books to the printers did not do a proper checking such that errors were made in the frontispiece of all three books.
Odia, who always insists on perfection, was left with no choice than to dump all the printed copies that consumed a huge amount of money.
Knowing that Odia’s 70th birthday comes on March 16, 2020, this article is my alarm bell to the master poet of Lagos, his beloved city by the lagoon, to start making early preparation as per the books he would definitely want to launch on the date!
Born on March 16, 1950, in Iruekpen, an Esan-speaking town in Ekpoma, in present-day Edo State, Odia missed an entire year at the start of his primary schooling because, as was the practice then, his right hand could not stretch across his head and touch his left ear!
He eventually benefitted from the Free Education policy which started in the old Western Region in 1955, under the auspices of the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo whom Odia would later in life serve as a Private Secretary.
Odia had to drop out of secondary school in Class Three due to his father’s business failure.
He had then discovered the joys of reading, and thus made the library of his uncle Odigie his true home.
The uncle happened to be studying in Germany then, and the daring Odia had the audacity to inform him that he planned to become a writer even without formal university education, not unlike Nigeria’s Amos Tutuola, South Africa’s Peter Abrahams, Ireland’s Bernard Shaw, England’s Charles Dickens and America’s Ernest Hemingway.
He sent some of his early poems to the newspaper, Midwest Echo, a sister title of the Ibadan-based Nigerian Tribune, and fortuitously got employed as a cub reporter.
He wrote poems that would later be published in the Chinua Achebe-edited Okike, and Nigeria Magazine edited by Frank Aig-Imoukhuede.
Leaving the newspaper where the salary was alwsys in arrears, Odia made to travel to Ghana to function as a writer but only ended up in Lagos where he found work as a petrol station attendant, and then as a factory labourer.
He made the rounds of the public libraries in Lagos and occupied his nights writing poetry.
Odia had the singular distinction of doing his A Levels in December and the O Levels in January.
Curiously, Odia failed literature at O Levels, only to get a B in the subject at A Levels the very next year.
According to Odia, “Thankfully, I did not need any GCE or any formal qualifications to write… I sent some of the poems to Chinua Achebe’s Okike and some to Nigeria magazine edited by Frank Aig-Imoukhuede. They were published while I was waiting for my A Level results. It got a personal boon when Wole Soyinka was released from three years of detention. I took a trip to Ibadan to meet him. He was driving out of his compound at the University of Ibadan in an open mini-mock when I flagged him down. He took one look at the poems, summed up my factory labourer’s dressing, my bathroom slippers, whitish nylon shirt tied up below my navel, and asked: ‘Are you sure you wrote them?’ From that moment, I knew I could call myself a poet.”
The poems were eventually published in the celebrated anthology, Poems of Black Africa edited by Wole Soyinka. The landmark book was published by the esteemed London publishing house Secker and Warburg, and later as a paperback in the popular African Writers Series (AWS).
It’s indeed striking that the poems Odia wrote at 18 are still being studied by 18-year-olds doing the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations.
Odia’s first collection of poems, The Poet Lied, was published by Longman in 1980 but had to be withdrawn from the market because JP Clark claimed he was the subject of the title poem.
Many critics complain that Odia is yet to publish the much-awaited biography of Awolowo whom he served as Private Secretary.
Odia was the chairman of our editorial board when we were practicing Guerrilla Journalism in the hard days of General Sani Abacha.
Over the years served as the Publicity Secretary, General Secretary and President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
For the ANA presidency post, I was one of the two candidates defeated by Odia, even though I did not vote for myself despite my overwhelming popularity!
Let’s end on the note that Odia’s 70th birthday is due for March 16, next year, and he needs to get the books ready now for launch on that watershed.