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The Return to Idoto: When Pilgrims pay Homage to a Forlorn god

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The grasses were fresh with dew when we arrived; pilgrims in search of an abandoned god. We were nothing like the Maggi; so we made our journey at the best time of the year – when the countryside is redolent with the fragrance of blooming flowers. Before us, the plains of Ojoto spread out in their greenest splendor; heaving with life. Not knowing what to expect, Odili and I had set forth at dawn. We wended our way down the slope, tracing the contours of a low hill to the beckoning grove.

“And they scanned the forest of oilbean/Its approach; surveyed its high branches...”

My heart swirled like a whirlwind as we descended the slope. Trees waved a leafy welcome in the wind. Birds sang in nearby trees. Grasses parted before us and folded themselves perfectly back together after we walked past. It was all too clear that we were on a path less trodden; a pathway that would soon lose its place in memory if nothing was done. Goose bumps erupted all over my body as I recalled that we were on the same pathway that the great one routinely took to the river of his childhood. I momentarily shut my eyes to imagine how he must have felt when he walked this path. Did he walk alone? Did he walk with anticipation? Or was he just a little boy questing for a still brook to slake his thirst?

From flesh into phantom on the horizontal stone/I was the sole witness to my homecoming…

Beside us lay a deep gully dug by flood in angry protest over the obvious abandonment of the footpath. Our guide, Simon Fred, a spritely young man, told us that the gully was once the footpath. The flood claimed it when human traffic thinned out on it. Fred recalled that he hadn’t been on the footpath since he was boy. To him too, it was a journey into memory. His voice rose and fell as a gust of wind swept past us. Soon, we arrived a point where the footpath parted her legs. We stood still as Fred strove to juggle his memory for the choice that lay before us. In the darkness of his doubt, he suddenly found the conviction to turn right. Odili and I preserved his moment of indecision by standing on the nexus of the road with our hands pointing to different directions of the crossroads and asked Fred to photograph us.

O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong/hear us at crossroads at the great hinges

Soon, we walked past the shrubs and the poplars and arrived the bamboo grove. The leaves from the tall gangly trees drooped low to form something that looked like the eaves of a hut over the footpath. To continue our journey, we had to stoop almost to a crouch. In that moment, we cut the picture of pilgrims about to enter a temple of worship. We slid into an enchanting canopy intricately woven by the bamboo leaves. Above us, the sun struggled to peer down through the thick green foliage while all around us the bamboo trees curled up like pillars supporting the floral roof overhead.

Thundering drums and cannons in palm grove/the spirit is in ascent

Before us, the bamboo trees formed a curious archway with their illustrious stems that looked otherworldly. It dawned on me once again that we were on the trail of a goddess; a river goddess. The archway is the uncanny approach to her watery presence. Soon, the ground began to feel marshy underfoot as we approached her. A bird flapped its wings overhead in excitement as we chanced on what looked like domestic chickens astray in the forest. My curiosity heightened as we spotted a clearing indicating the absence of trees. I knew it when I saw her brown surface that we were finally before her – the great Idoto. I knew it when we stood before poetry’s most illustrious river. Before us, Idoto lay spread-eagled in the morning sun, its brown surface gleaming in timeless arrogance.

And the gods lie unsung/veiled only with mould/Behind the shrinehouse/Gods grow out/Abandoned; And so do they

Our feet sank in wet soil beneath. Suddenly, Odili screamed out in delirious excitement and walked to the lips of the river with infectious interest. He stooped low to scoop the water and splash across his face. Convulsing with more screams, he reached down and scooped some more to his lips. I blinked in total disbelief. How could he drink such water with its frowning surface? I became instantly alarmed. I feared for him. But turning towards me with a besotted smile he urged me to follow suit. “Don’t be afraid. The water is clean,” he said. I doubted my own courage for the first time in a long while. But it was a challenge and I love certain kinds of challenge. If he could drink Idoto in its angry state and live… I walked gingerly to the river; crouching, I looked for my mirrored face on its surface but it was too brown to reflect me. Plucking some Dutch courage, I scooped some quantity and splashed it on my face. It felt good. Then I went down again and scooped up more water onto my open lips. It tasted like natural spring water; peculiarly sweet. I swallowed it and it felt good. I pulled back from the brinks and turned to look at Odili. He beamed and gave me a high-five. “We made it!” he gushed. Then, goose bumps returned to my body as these immortal lines ran through my mind.

Before you, mother Idoto/naked I stand; before your watery presence, a prodigal…

I turned around, looking for an oilbean tree but then I realized that I was not on barefoot. I imagined how many times, young Christopher Okigbo must have stood within the perimeter of the spot I was standing to gaze into the rumpled brown face of the water before me. I recalled the opening paragraph of his Introduction to Labyrinths – Heavensgate was originally conceived as an Easter sequence. It later grew into a ceremony of innocence, something like a mass, an offering to Idoto, the village stream of which I drank, in which I washed, as a child. In my mind’s eye, I could picture the young poet taking a dip in that river and rising intermittently to feel the tang of a new cleansing. I scanned the surrounding verdant green foliage for oilbean trees, totems of Idoto, but I found none. Time has indeed moved on since young Christopher took his last deep in Idoto.

Elemental, united in vision/of present and future/the pure line, whose innocence denies inhibitions

We left the lips of Idoto for the bamboo grove. But we did not feel quite the same. We had drunk of a spell, stronger than the potent libations of the ages. We were now new personages, possessed of Christopher Okigbo’s restless spirit, his acuity of vision, his incandescent glow that has refused to go dim.

For we are listening in cornfields /among the windplayers/listening to the windplayers/listening to the wind leaning over its loveliest fragment…

From the Bamboo grove, we wended our way back to the Okigbo compound in Ojoto Uno. But we were never quite the same people. We were initiates of a new religion, looking for a rich soil to erect a monument. We met Uncle John Okigbo (Onwa Ojoto), who oversees the great Okigbo compound. At first, we were unsure of what to expect, we doubted whether we would be accepted or turned away. But Uncle John was warm in the way most avuncular uncles often are. Our anxieties soon ebbed away under his genteel touch. In a few words, we told Uncle John our plan and were stunned by his enthusiasm. He offered to show us the compound especially the grand old house where their patriarch raised Christopher and his high-achieving siblings.

Then we must sing, tongue-tied/Without name or audience/Making harmony among the branches

Just as we were recovering from his surprising pleasantness, Uncle John gave us another surprise; he told us that unknown to most people, Christopher Okigbo had a son. He also made sure that he introduced Onyebuchi Christopher Okigbo whose birth was conceived just before the heroic poet fell to the bullets of the federal troops in Opi Junction 48 years ago.

The flower weeps, unbruised/for him who was silenced/Whose advent dumb-bells celebrate in dim light with wine song

As we left Ojoto Uno that day, we knew we would soon return. The theme came to us without effort – The Return to Idoto; the eventual resolution of the quest for the planting of solid literary roots in the South East of Nigeria and the final return of artistic excellence to the source of its birth…

O Mother Idoto! Hear me from your aquatic bedchamber! Christopher Okigbo’s children are finally here! Open your arms wide for a liquid embrace!

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of James Eze and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by James Eze