(For Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Boroja I, Obi of Ikate, on the occasion of his 60th birthday)
“NA poor I poor no bi craze I craze,” the oft-repeated phrase is a defining axiom in Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s text of street knowledge. My most inspiring times with him were when he installed himself — with of course widespread approval from numerous friends — as the Obi of Ikate, a decrepit neighbourhood in the Surulere area of Lagos. Maxim maintained an apartment in Ikate where he stationed himself nightly at one of the several bars and one eatery in particular, I think it was Mama Nnobi’s. At the eatery, Maxim would entertain his friends, particularly those who happened to be writers, poets and artists, with plans and tales about writing the Great Nigerian Novel. Dulue Mbachu, a journalist and novelist, Adewale Maja-Pearce, a well-known writer, and Maxim’s brother, Emeka were usually around, lacing Maxim’s off-beat anecdotes with injections of skepticism, outright disbelief and raucous laughter.
Those were the sunny, carefree days of the glorious reign of the Obi of Ikate. Bleak times arrived soon after when the 1993 June 12 presidential elections — presumed to be won by the redoubtable MKO Abiola — were annulled by the military. After a brief colourless interlude during which Ernest Shonekan presided over the country, General Sani Abacha and his cohort of heartless goons seized political power. The Obi, in those trying and uncertain times, managed to keep his cool and humour.
Indeed, Maxim’s humour is the most distinguishing quality about him. He is exceedingly serious without really being serious. He could dispel problematic knots of hostility by merely being present. It is almost impossible to remain angry in his luminous company which is invariably filled with light and laughter while he earnestly plots his next avalanche of literary and journalistic spates of activity.
At first, Maxim lived like the eternal bachelor, free as a bird and uncommitted as an elegantly wasted libertine. He simply glided wherever his muse guided him, offering sparkling couplets of street wisdom replete with Nietzschean rhapsodies and paradoxes within a city of unrepentant cynics and ruthless cut-throats. Ordinarily, anyone ought to be permanently scarred by such a traumatic experience. But not Maxim who went on to marry and have kids and still remained a perambulating street bard, blessing all and sundry with his bright spirits, infallible bonhomie and unflagging energy for life, laughter and the bitter-sweet ironies of fate.
Maxim welcomes everything and everyone because his heart is as expansive as the sea. But Maxim is also a magician, an alchemist of sorts, because he is able to penetrate sorrow and gloom with brightness. He is the undying sun-child who transmogrifies desolate horizons at the mere touch of his hands. But he will discourage you from harping on this marvelous gift. This gift of life, laughter and unspoken love.
His love shines through when he eulogises our numerous unsung heroes such as Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, the maverick motor-park economist and many others like him who have made enormous sacrifices to augment our cultural and intellectual lives without asking for anything in return, not even our respect and acknowledgement. Maxim squarely belongs in those seemingly anonymous circles, a rare gathering of self-disregarding warriors whose relentless voices and admonitions seem to reverberate louder when they flit out of nameless stretches of wilderness.
They are our ethical and secular John the Baptists calling for change, enlightenment and edification as we sink into greater abysses of degradation, depravity and amorality. As we increasingly become a nation without worthy heroes, with very little hope, our Maxims are proficient reminders of what we ought to have become, the hopes we cruelly crushed underfoot like roaches and crickets just so as to satisfy our desires for cruelty. We could never become completely free of our gluttonous appetites for philistinism and vileness.
And then comes Maxim, kicking against the pricks, fearlessly calling out our pomposity, myopia and inhumaneness. He is undoubtedly a transformative humanist who makes humanism all fun, laughter and gaiety. Again, this speaks to his alchemical spirit, snatching elusive light out of the jaws of darkness. He it is who finds triumph amid heart-breaking carnage and bloodshed. Maxim, he who perpetually haunts dark, dingy bars on blighted shores in broad daylight. Once again, the magic and mystique of Maxim.
Let us learn to honour and cherish our Maxims, those rare elemental beings whose blessings we are able to ignore only because we have become too drunk on them. Let us canonise them because they reflect the best within us and project eloquently the possibilities that lie before us. Perhaps more than his creative words, Maxim’s aura and presence are the most transformational elements about him. And in extending himself to us so unguardedly and so freely, he has blessed us in more ways than we could ever understand.
Neither would we fully appreciate the extent of Maxim’s fealty to his vocation as a poet. He has also written plays and novels mostly in the satirical vein. But how could he write without dipping his pen in the ink of satire? How was that even possible given his unique temperament and remarkable pair of eyes? Similarly, his journalism and prose pieces seek to educate us about what we easily forget, or better still, what we would rather not remember about ourselves. We prefer to forget that we are a big, blind, blundering country floundering in an unlit void.
And Maxim takes this work of informing us appropriately seriously which lends his writing a more complex turn. How was he supposed to warn us about impending gloom with a lightness of thought and touch? It would take more than a Swiftian genius to do so. And so he continues to admonish us like Christopher Okigbo’s town crier with his ever present iron bell.
At the edge of the hell, we have shoved ourselves, Maxim in turn, hollers out of the edge of his own solitary wilderness, the Baptist as the most gifted and most accomplished court jester, crying out of the wasteland of the doom and gloom that leers out right before us. The poet as prophet is speaking, take heed so as not to be slashed by the impartial scythe of death.
How come the supposed mad men in our midst are the ones blessed with startling mental clarity? Cowardice, hypocrisy and fear-mongering are the lot of those afraid of the truth. The gift of prophesy is both a curse and an almost unbearable responsibility. So, in order to endure this well-nigh terrible burden, you have to possess laughter in your heart and within the glowering warmth of your belly. Otherwise, you shall experience the unremittingly baleful side of insanity.
Maxim was born with his knowledge but he must now teach us how to use it. For we are blind, clueless and full of folly. Maxim, on the other hand, knows only too well that in order to attain longevity in the house of wisdom, you mustn’t be afraid to err, you mustn’t also be scared to wash and clean the sores of the homeless, the insane and the perverse. For wisdom lies amongst them like pearls glittering underneath the sun.
–Sanya Osha, a scholar and author, resides in Pretoria, South Africa.