In the seventies, when Port Harcourt could rightly have claimed its title of Garden City, my late father, Justice P.O.E. Bassey, would take us to the theatre in the old township of the oil city to watch plays. There, one grew aware of, and enjoyed the city’s rich literary heritage to which writers like Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, Ola Rotimi and Ken Saro-Wiwa had contributed immensely. Their words were enacted on stage by the likes of Barbara Soky, Doye Agama and Comish Ekiye.
Over two decades later, when I returned to Port Harcourt, divided between study life, work life and marriage, I wanted to recreate the Port Harcourt I grew up in and that was one of the inspirations behind the ‘Get Nigerian Reading again!’ campaign which the Rainbow Book Club launched from this city in 2005. As we prepared to kick off I went in search of our Port Harcourt writers, to enlist their support and participation. I traced Elechi Amadi to his home town of Aluu, shared the vision with him and invited him as a Guest of honour. He was gracious enough to not just respond but to let me know that he appreciated the work we had embarked on and we could count on his help anytime. This was an invitation I would fully exploit and he would always oblige me.
Elechi Amadi was born in Aluu, near Port Harcourt, in 1934. He was a product of the famous Government College Umuahia (GCU) where other renowned Nigerian authors such as Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Chike Moma, INC Aniebo and Ken Saro-Wiwa also schooled.
In Achebe’s last book, Home and Abroad, he told of how two of their teachers at GCU, Reverend Robert Fisher and W.C. Simpson, introduced and encouraged, respectively, the ‘textbook act’ which was a period between 4 and 6pm daily where all the students had to drop their text books and read fiction books. Achebe and Amadi both agreed that this habit played a definitive role in the emergence of notable writers amongst the students from Government College Umuahia. Although he studied physics and mathematics, Amadi went on to become a prolific writer, publishing 15 books of various genre; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, play and essays.
Amadi, who attended the University College Ibadan, was an intriguing storyteller, whose colourful and detailed descriptions of the village life of his Ikwerre people (the setting of his early books), reflected the beliefs, customs and religions of Africans prior to Western influence. His renowned trilogy, The Concubine, The Great Ponds and The Slave are loved by readers the world over.
Even though he had attained global acclaim by the power of his pen, Amadi remained a ‘Port Harcourt boy’. When I interviewed him in 2014 he explained that the city had been the inspiration of much of his writing. He reminisced some of his fondest memories such as the yearly ‘Accra Dance’, described on page 75 of his 4th novel, Enstrangement, when several hundreds of youths, dressed in colourful clothing with frills, wearing masks and brandishing koboko whips danced wildly while the drums beat.
His plays Pepper Soup and Dancer of Johannesburg were both based in Port Harcourt. But Amadi also experienced the pain of some of the city’s most trying times such as when he was kidnapped in 2009 and the tragedy of the ‘Aluu 4’ (where four young men were bludgeoned and burnt to death in his home town of Aluu in 2012). Amadi used the platform of the Garden City Literary Festival 2012 to speak out against this hideous act.
An officer, he served in the 3rd Marine Commandos of the Nigerian army during the Civil war. This experience formed the content of one his biographical work; Sunset in Biafra.
A gentleman, he had the temperament of a diplomat. I recall a time when there was a misunderstanding between the state branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors and the Rainbow Book Club, I asked him to preside over a meeting of both parties to resolve the knotty issues. His towering moral standing, as well as his dispassionate and objective nature made him the perfect mediator.
For over 11 years I have had the privilege of relating personally with Elechi Amadi in the course of the work of the Rainbow Book Club including the ‘Get Nigeria Reading again!’ campaign (since 2005), the Garden City Literary Festival, now the Port Harcourt Book Festival, (since 2008) and the Port Harcourt World Book Capital project (2014/2015). Over the years I have been touched by his simplicity, his deep humanity and his encouragement for education, literature and the general wellbeing of his people.
When we were putting in the bid for Port Harcourt to be World Book Capital I informed him and he encouraged us to go ahead. Amadi expressed to a trustee of Rainbow that he had full confidence in Rainbow’s ability to deliver on the World Book Capital project but his only concern was the government. He was speaking prophetically!
Today we are proud we had the best of him through Port Harcourt’s tenure as UNESCO World Book Capital 2014.
We named each day of the week-long Port Harcourt World Book Capital (PHWBC) opening ceremony after a notable Nigerian writer, kicking off with Elechi Amadi Day on April 22nd 2014. On that day we had Amadi in conversation over his works. The discussion was moderated by Victor Ehikamenor and the panel who interviewed Amadi comprised of two much younger PH authors, Kaine Agary and Ifeanyi Ajeabo, as well as Eghosa Imasuen.
In May 2014 when he turned 80, his book, The Great Ponds, was the PHWBC book-of-the-month. As part of the effort to generate discussion over the book and make it popular for public consumption, we had it adapted for stage and performed (by students of the University of Port Harcourt, where Amadi was writer-in-residence). On this occasion he was interviewed (this time by Daniella Menezor) and the audience of almost 100 literary enthusiasts engaged him in robust interaction.
In his honour, the Rainbow Book Club is reading his last book, When God Came, as Book- of –the- Month for July 2016.
When we were approached by the organisers of the UK- based Hay Festival to collaborate with them on the ‘Africa 39’ project to commemorate the PHWBC year, we reached out to Elechi Amadi, yet again. The ‘Africa 39’ programme selected and celebrated 39 African writers under the age of 40, and published an anthology of their writing, under this title. We needed 3 judges to whittle down the 243 entries that came from around the continent to a longlist of 120 and the final 39. Elechi Amadi agreed to chair the panel of judges. He was ably assisted by Tess Onwueme and Margaret Busby.
I interviewed Elechi Amadi in 2014 for Port Harcourt By the Book, a publication Rainbow put together to commemorate the PHWBC year. My last question to him was ‘At 80 years, what do you know for sure?’ His answer came: “First that Shakespeare was right when he said: All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. Secondly, that the most satisfactory life is one spent largely in the service of one’s society. Thirdly, on the accumulation of wealth and material possession, I can declare with certainty in agreement with the preacher that: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Elechi Amadi has served his society, played his part and left the stage of life. His footprints, particularly in the area of the literary arts, would remain a treasure to Rivers State, Nigeria and Africa.
He was indeed an officer and a gentleman.