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The poet and his friends shared in the joys of the day Photo: HYCINTH IYEREOSA

Following Mahmood Mamdani's lecture at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the party moved to the National Theatre for a banquet and a performance of 'A Feast of Return,' a dance drama written by the award-winning celebrant.

A round of tributes
Jahman Anikulapo was emcee and in 'stampede' fashion, called on unsuspecting friends and family to pay tribute to Ofeimun at 60. Anikulapo said, 'It is for the sterling character of Odia Ofeimun that we are all gathered this evening.' He said it was possible to celebrate Ofeimun's birthday in the National Theatre due to a miraculous change in administration. Writer and academic, Festus Iyayi, was first to speak on 'The Odia that I know.' The author of Violence said, 'Odia is a great intellectual. Life is about affecting others' lives in such a way that you continue in them. The Odia I know is the one who prefers to invest himself in the lives of others. Odia, is for me, Nigeria's greatest poet.'

Fellow poet, Ogaga Ifowodo said, 'I know no better way to pay tribute to Odia than to read a poem.' Informing the audience that Ofeimun believes that there are only two cities in the world, Lagos and London, he read a poem called 'Sixty lines by the Lagoon, for Odia Ofeimun.' According to Anikulapo, 'Odia has produced many rascally children and Ogaga is one of them.'

Thanks to Alfred Ilere, the audience got to know that Ofeimun is from a town in Edo State called 'the den of leopards.' Speaking as the celebrant's 'older brother', he was 70 two months ago, Ilere told of how the poet started writing the editorial of 'The Midwest Echo' in 1969 and his involvement with Obafemi Awolowo. 'Some people always twist stories; Odia never had the capacity to do that. He was always straight, saying it the way it is, right from when he was a young boy.' His advice to the young man on his foray into politics was that, 'Politics is not like academics where you say things as you see it.'

The Poet Danced
The Crown Troupe of Africa performed a medley of songs in 'classical' fashion. A string of contemporary hip-hop songs preceded the performance of 'Happy Birthday' to the celebrant. Joining Ofeimun with the cake-cutting were Biodun Jeyifo, Festus Iyayi, Kayode Fayemi, Toyin Akinoso, Mahmood Mamdani, amongst others. Theatre director, Ben Tomoloju, oversaw the ceremony and spiced it up with indigenous songs of blessing for the celebrant. 'Original, Distinguished, Indefatigable, Accomplished' was his definition of Ofeimun's first name. He rounded it off with a toast and three hearty cheers: 'To the health of our poet, public intellectual and all-round political motivator.' Jumoke Verissimo read a poem titled, 'To Poetry' which she said resulted from a discussion with Ofeimun that 'everything is poetry.' Abimbola Adunni Adelakun read from her 'Under the Brown Rusted Roofs.' She read a part that portrayed how society sometimes influenced husbands' relationships with their wives. Female drummer, Topsticks, and her band, however, managed to dispel any fear that women are to forever be subjugated to a docile life. Accompanied by a female saxophonist and a female keyboardist, Topsticks' performance was dancing time for the celebrant and well-wishers. Ofeimun's dance skills may not be as fluid as his poetry, but he did the music enough justice. He described the band, the coming together of which he influenced, as 'one of the most talented young people I have met in this country.' The performance was followed by more readings from Chike Ofili, Toyin Akinoso, and Remi Raji. Raji's poem 'Duty,' which highlighted the responsibilities of a poet, was dedicated to Ofeimun.

The poet's promise
Ofeimun, who was recently awarded the Fonlon-Nichols Award for his services to literature and humanity said, 'It has always been my ambition to bring people together. That I have not managed to do it as much as I've always wished to is one reason I am happy I have this microphone.' Taking the chance to respond to all that had been said of him during the day, he said, 'Don't mind Kayode Fayemi; the man owes me a duty he has to perform. If the other side in Ekiti decide that they are not on our side, our business is to take them out of business. The truth is that I am an Ekiti man. I am an Ekiti proper.' Tomoloju had earlier referred to Fayemi as 'Our governor.' 'I see him here and all I see is a promise. When I look around it is only great promises that I see,' Ofeimun said of Fayemi.

The poet himself did not leave without a promise. 'I'm happy to have so many people here and I just do hope that whatever I do hereafter, I will manage not to disappoint you. I will manage to fulfil the promises that I have also made to myself, that I won't die until we have changed Nigeria. I am sure I won't.

'Nigeria is perhaps the only country I know where young people are not central players in the business of their lives. We have had a situation where government deliberately went into institutions to destroy their student unions so that young people will not have the means to express themselves. When I see such situations, am I supposed to congratulate those who are in power?'

Describing the country as one with many traditional groups and so many nationalities, Ofeimun said, 'It is those differences that have contributed to making us creative.'

Nigeria on stage
To affirm the people's creativity, a spectacle-filled dance drama was next. Underlying the rich African culture of costume and songs, Ofeimun's 'A Feast of Return,' as directed by Felix Okolo and choreographed by Abel Utuedor, was the night's finale.

A story of African unity during colonialism, the performers' singing and dancing was a feast to the eyes. The liberation story of South Africa was woven into the Nigerian context: citizens are constantly harassed and discriminated against in a sense that evoked memories of Nigeria under military rule, the erosion of the people's cultures when the colonialists arrived, and the fear that remains in the hearts of many. Leaders have fumbled and promises are unfulfilled.

There is however, hope that the Nigerian experience will have a happy ending like it did in 'A Feast of Return.' Ombo Gogo Ombo, Efe Mayford Orhorha, Kayode Idris and Nissi George were the lead actors in the 75- minute performance.

Crown Troupe's act, 'Our Area', was another distress call to the problem of post-colonial Nigeria, what with poor governance and lack of basic amenities. In Ofeimun's words, 'In our own case, we've allowed government to swamp us. Our own business is to take over this government and make them our own. All Nigerians must be citizens; there must be no super-citizens.'

There was no mistaking his desire to have all the 'super-citizens' kicked out. That might just be a perfect gift for Ofeimun's next birthday.