EBEREONWU: THIS EARTH OUR BROTHER
IT was Okey Ndibe who, in great pain in his protest of the murder of Godwin Agbroko, his erstwhile colleague in the late 1980s at Nigeria's African Guardian, reminded his teeming readers that it is often very difficult to get good news from Nigeria, especially when one is living in the Diaspora.
This is the same level of sadness I experienced when almost on the trail of my recent return from the United States of America, Chuma Onwudiwe, friend and a classmate of mine during our undergraduate days, shattered my peace of mind by informing me on phone on Holy Saturday that “Ebereonwu died last night”.
Such horrid news was so overwhelming that, for the first time in a very long while, I found myself close to shedding tears. Perhaps, to shed the enormity of the impact of the tragic news, I became the purveyor of the same news to Ebereonwu's first publisher, Steve Shaba of Kraft Books, Ibadan.
Ebereonwu is, like my late friend and mentor, Ezenwa Ohaeto, one fellow one would not like to describe in the past. Although I have known Ebereonwu for only ten years, he has always appeared to me like someone one has always known from infancy. The periods I have spent with Ebereonwu were as exciting as they were challenging. The same can be said of the kind of life he lived and the career he pursued.
At the International Conference Centre, Abuja, venue of International Book Fair, in May 2002, Ebereonwu was at his usual best. “Amanze, why you dey buy books on film? Come make I teach you film.” Provocatively down to earth; that is what Ebereonwu was. He believed in his talent as a major screenwriter, producer and director.
Somehow, I refused to be drawn into Ebereonwu's arguments about his mastery of the film idiom and when I finally found myself sharing the same hotel room with him, in Abuja later in the night, I preferred our venturing into an x-ray of the literary culture in Nigeria.
It was one of those exceptional encounters where I moderated the exchanges involving Ebereonwu, Emeka Egwuda, Dr. Dul Johnson and myself. Among the issues Ebereonwu spoke about with passion are the problems of publishing and the critical reception of new Nigerian writing. Ebereonwu also lamented what he, like other members of his generation, saw as the insensitivity of Nigerian governments to matters of literary production.
Prior to the Soyinka colloquium at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in August, 2006, Ebereonwu had called me on phone and teasingly addressed me thus: “sir, this is one Mr. Ebereonwu.” He was enquiring about my postal address so that he can mail his last two drama texts to me, a rare privilege, if one considers the production context of these books.
Here is an Ebereonwu who has literally made sure that I was privileged to get, and relatively early enough, complimentary copies of virtually all his books starting from his first poetry collection, Suddenly God was Naked, which he gave me a properly autographed copy in Ilesha in 1999.
The same goes for Cobweb Seduction, his first play which he claimed was the greatest comedy of our time and which I introduced to my students for a drama and theatre course at the Abia State University, Uturu, in 2002. Next were his two other poetry collections, The Insomniac Dragon and Unpublishable Poems, relatively weird titles which ensured that Ebereonwu would remain in the public eye.
After pasting the massive photograph poster adverts that he gave me in Abuja in November, 1997, in my office, I was excitedly looking forward to inviting the self-made screenwriter, producer and director to my university base where my students had already taken a fancy to him, a fact they displayed when some of them met him in Asaba in 2002 during that year's ANA convention.
This is especially because, at least, twelve seminar questions were asked around Ebereonwu's Cobweb Seduction when I taught this text to my students. In retrospect, when I read through Ebereonwu's words in the books he autographed to me, I feel that here was an unusual character who, despite the tempestuous exterior, treasure the intimacy of an academic relationship.
As early in the day as our meeting in Ilesha, he wrote as follows in the copy of Suddenly God was Naked he signed for me on October 29, 1999, “to Austin Akpuda, compliment to one of us. Spread the gospel to the people of Abia State. Thanks”. When he signed the autograph of The Insomniac Dragon on November 2, 2001, he stated thus: “special compliment to a teacher of the next generation, Amanze Akpuda”. For Cobweb Seduction given me on May 18, 2002, Ebereonwu writes as follows: “To a friend and colleague. Austine Akpuda extra compliments”.
Additional to this was our dear Ebereonwu scribbling of his V-mobile phone number on the copy of the book he released to me. Similarly, when, on first August, 2006, he sent me two copies each of his last two published drama texts, Nero's Lodge and Bread of Parapos, both published in 2006 by Homemade Books, he wrote in Nero's Lodge “Akpuda Austine intellectual compatriot. Regards”. He had a way about him that would surprise and puzzle anyone who came around him.
One could see from some of the above statements that Ebereonwu merely put up an exterior posture to deliberate distance those who should be distanced. It was not until Ebereonwu wrote a scathing critique of the works of his generation of writers that I realized how much he rated my efforts, especially when he remarked that I never allow issues of convenience and money to stop my research. Here was a soulmate whose evaluations could be as serious as his outward show of an unbounded sense of gaiety.
While savouring Ebereonwu's seemingly bizarre but beautiful signature on Nollywood, starting from Beyond the Vow, my acquaintance with his ireverential poem on a bishop made it easy for me to appreciate the depth of Ebereonwu's iconoclasm.
At a time some people, holier than thou as usual, were asking for Ebereonwu's head for scripting the damning but humanly Beyond the Vow which appeared to scandalize the clergy, it took the intervention of a very highly placed and respectable then Archbishop Anthony Olubumi Okogie to assert that there was nothing criminal with a film that satirized some of the anomalies of some Reverend Fathers and Sisters.
Thus, contrary to the viewpoint of our Taliban-oriented censors, Ebereonwu's radical film showcased by the usually daring Gabosky got a proper clean bill of health. Today, Beyond the Vow can easily qualify as a teaching text that would make people appreciate what temptations come the way of Reverend Fathers who, by the way, are mortals. Ebereonwu was a passionate believer in the power of the screen to exposes the different aspects of our pretentious society.
He also accomplished this feat in his film King of the Jungle where he artistically immortalizes as never before the stunts of the notorious Jango of the Enyimba criminal Jungle. As a promotional move, he would tell his teeming admirers in interviews that there is something biographical about his approach to filmmaking. For him, his early exposure to the world of criminals has made him stigmatize in a Dickensian manner, such remnants of a better forgotten world.
As with his creative works, Ebereonwu's occasional ventures into debates about Nigerian literature and the movie industry were equally tempestuous but also deep-seated. For instance, in the heat of the revulsion about the supposed misnaming 'Nollywood', Ebereonwu wondered why any Nigerian intellectual who wanted to be taken seriously should contest a name given to a product he never showed interest in.
During an interactive session at the 2005 edition of the annual Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors in Kano, Ebereonwu, who earlier in the day was a keynote speaker at a major event in the programme, reasoned that without white journalists and culture activists projecting Nollywood, no serious Nigerian intellectual had as much as given Nollywood academic attention.
That is quintessential Ebereonwu. It is also instructive to note that at a time many people insist that Nollywood has nothing to offer, even when it was this denigrated industry that produced the prototype Blood Diamonds before some Hollywood fellow began to flaunt a version of same to the wider world, a Nigerian film scholar based in the United States of America and who, like Ebereonwu, believes in Nollywood, Prof. Frank N. Ukadike, has secured a Full-bright Fellowship to understudy and teach Nollywood. And, happily enough, he is coming down home to Nigeria to a University that has produced a good number of the key actors and actresses in the industry to conduct his research, the University of Port Harcourt.