ON Sunday, September 4, Isidore Okpewho, one of the most iconic masters of the written word and pillars of African literature, performed his last act. He bowed out few weeks before he could turn 75, at a hospital in Binghamton, New York. As the news filtered through that the author of the epochal The Last Duty had joined the ancestors, tributes poured in from around the world. The tributes are still playing their part in the rites of passage for the man who, for many dedicated years, affirmed the centrality of Africa’s stories, songs and dance in the business of the post-colonial existence. The consummate novelist, critic and scholar, born in Agbor, Delta State on November 9, 1941, obtained a first class honours in Classics from the University of Ibadan, the site where he perfected his art, achieving global acclaim as a thoroughbred scholar of oral literature. He composed the university’s anthem.
Before joining the academia, Okpewho had forayed into publishing, working with Longman Publishers. But he went on to obtain a PhD from the University of Denver in the US and a D.Litt in the Humanities from the University of London. His exceptional background in Classics and fecund mind obviously facilitated his transition from Classics to English Literature. He taught mythology and orature, and turned out generations of refined scholars, some of whom are now professors. Okpewho taught at the University at Buffalo and State University, New York from 1974 to 1976, University of Ibadan from 1976 to 1990, Harvard University from 1990 to 1991, and Binghamton University. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in 1982, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1982, Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences in 1988, the W.E.B Du Bois Institute in 1990 and the National Humanities Centre in 1997. He earned the Guggenheim fellowship in 2003. He won the National Order of Merit (NNOM) in Humanities for the year 2010.
His fictional works are few, but the nation will never forget them. Okpewho was no stranger to the rotten underbelly of modern Nigerian existence, and dramatised its poverty, oppression and deprivation with remarkable vision. It is indeed a rare student of African literature who has not read The Victims (1970) or The Last Duty (1976), but Okpewho added Tides (1993) and Call me by my rightful name (2004) to his canon. In the 1976 novel, Okpewho dramatized the psychological horrors and deprivations of the Nigerian civil war, and still inspires caution as the Nigerian nation echoes the drumbeats of war many decades after that tragedy. His scholarly output, including the The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity(1992), and Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony and Identity all paint the African story from a wide canvas. They engage the past, the present and the future, and nowhere does Africa’s orature take a back seat.
In the words of his former colleague at the University of Ibadan, Professor Abiola Irele, “To say that Professor Isidore Okpewho’s death, while still in his early 70s, is a terrible loss to the academic and cultural community in Nigeria, to African scholarship and to the world of letters generally, is to make a statement that barely indicates the wealth of his endowments and extent of his achievement. His fiction assumed a mythic resonance that seems to have drawn its quality from his sustained acquaintance with the imaginative heritage of the world, with specific reference to our own continent.There is a brilliance to his academic writing that is especially affecting; he wrote with the same sense of the allure of words that also informed his fiction. His scholarship rested on a solid foundation of learning, which gave to his work a remarkable depth and authority. It will be long before we can hope to produce another scholar of this calibre. In the meantime, let the memory of Isidore Okpewho remain with us as a valuable inspiration to those of us who have been his contemporaries and to the generations.”
In 1976, Okpewho won the African Arts Prize for Literature. In 1993, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book Africa came calling. As a professor of oral literature with such exceptional antecedents, Okpewho naturally had his conceits, but his colleagues in the academia have attested to his humaneness and decency. So have his many students. Adieu, great son of Africa. May your soul rest in sweet repose.