The spoken word and performance poet, Dike Chukwumerije, is a gifted wordsmith, whose words stir reflections and spark conversations as a way of framing narratives and shaping mindsets, writes Vanessa Obioha
By now, Dike Chukwumerije should need no introduction. Who has not heard of his father, the eloquent Senator Uche Chukwumerije from Abia State, who died three years ago? The late politician was one of the key information managers for Biafra during the Civil War and was known for his Afro centric world view.
Unlike his late father, Dike is better known in the arts and culture circles Exciting are the tales of his amazing successes in the literary world. One is how he has been able to clinch awards as the African Poet (Nigeria) Grand Slam Competition.
Another is how he has revolutionised performance poetry in Nigeria, hosting the Night of the Spoken Word and Open Mic events where wordsmiths gather to show their prowess
That’s not all. There are also his books. Of particular interest is the one titled Urichindere, which won the 2013 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Prose Fiction, which has been whispered among the literati to be an amazing work of art.
At his recent performance in Lagos, Dike held his motley audience at Terra Kulture spellbound for 120 minutes with his Made-in-Nigeria performance. Though that was not the first time he would be staging the show in Lagos, aficionados thronged to the venue– some of them first-timers, who simply wanted to relive the nostalgic moments Dike creates on stage.
Through art, music, drama and dance, Dike took his audience on a nostalgic journey through Nigeria’s 102 years of existence. He traipsed from the interesting intercourse that gave birth to a nation to the struggle for independence. He dredged up memories of the 1960s when tribal differences posed no threat to love until the Civil War. He also touched on the social life of the 1970s, which was spiced with good music and fashion, the military dictatorship in the 1980s, the sweet songs and games that shaped his childhood in the late 1980s/1990s and the rise of student unionism in the 2000s.
For Dike, the plan for a theatre production started eight years ago. He had just finished writing a book titled; One Nigeria: The Birth and Evolution of an Idea. “The book was based on rigorous research into the roots of Nigerian nationalism, and the motivations of our founding fathers,” he recalled. “After writing the book, I thought it was important to explore other ways of getting the ideas in the book into society. So, I decided to use the medium of performance poetry and entertainment. This stayed as an idea till 2016, the year after my father died.”
The writing took him just a month to complete. Divided into seven parts, the entire production consisted of about 20 poems. Ten of the poems were written at various times in the past while the rest were specifically written to fit into themes and/or progressions required by the show. He took the title for the production from a line in one of the poems, because it captures the essence of its message which is that identity is fluid and emerges out of our interactions and shared experiences.
That Nigerian identity, he argued, can be seen in the everyday life of citizens. “The peppery taste of suya. Surely, this is universal to the Nigerian. Or the frustration of a power cut in the middle of a football match. If I tell you that I went to a cyber café to type and send out countless CVs after I graduated from university, will you not understand this? Or that I walked the length and breadth of Abuja or Lagos or Port-Harcourt looking for a job, but in the end it was my mother’s friend’s uncle’s brother that put in a word for me to get me the job I have now? If I tell you that I feel medically dangerous levels of irritation when a big man passes me on the road with those demonic sounding sirens that expect me to drive into a ditch if I have to so he can pass, will you not understand this? Or that I don’t know how some people can exchange their vote for a bag of rice when they can be exchanging it for functional hospitals and schools and a Police Force that sees itself as a Public Service? If I tell you that I am tired of being a third-class citizen of the world, and of hearing our leaders complain about the insecurity and killings in the Middle Belt as if we did not elect them to stop it, will you not understand? You will. Because you are a Nigerian. Just like me.”
It is easy for Dike to relate to these stories having grown up in similar environment. He recalled with nostalgia some of the experiences that shaped his childhood.
“I grew up in Lagos in the ‘80s. Life was generally idyllic for me,” he recalled. “With the danfos (commercial buses) running past the front of our compound and the excitement of jumping out of molues (large decrepit commuter buses). I remember the cartoons that showed when the TV came on at 4, like Super Ted and Voltron and Speed Racer. And how we all crowded around for ‘Tales By Moonlight’ and then the soaps like ‘Village Headmaster’ and ‘New Masquerade’. I went to a Federal Government College, which was typical at the time. Not like now when you only go to a public school if you can’t afford a private one, which is sad, because it’s only going to widen the socio-cultural gap between the haves and the have nots in the future, which can only complicate things further. I did many silly things as a child and as a young adult, like using up my transport money on nonsense once and then having to trek from Pen Cinema to Gateway Hotel in Lagos (if you know, you know). My inspirations were all in my family. In that department, I count myself extremely blessed.”
Indeed, his family influenced his literary talents having grown in a home where stories are spun. His older brother Che, is famous for his gift of the gab, his mother is a storyteller. However, it was his father’s Pan-Africanist thoughts and ideology that influenced him most. He revealed that one of the poems in the show titled “Questions for the Young African”, is a direct result of his father’s philosophy. “I am also deeply influenced by his humanism, and the very important ways in which he was able to strike a balance between being an Igbo man, a Nigerian, an African and a human being. This nuanced attitude towards identity is evident through the entire production.”
It was also his father, who encouraged him to study law, although left to his mother, he disclosed, he would have studied anything he wished. But Dike took a step further by studying Development at post-graduate level. It turned out to be a wise decision as it supplied him the perspectives and issues he interrogates in his works. He revealed that his first collection of poems “The Revolution Has No Tribe: A Collection of Poems on African History, Culture and Society” was a sort of private post-graduate thesis. Since its debut in Abuja two years ago, Made in Nigeria has been on a high demand. It has held in many parts of the country and been touring the northern states since this year. The physical activity however takes its toll on the poet who sometimes has to perform more than thrice in a day. He has somehow managed to balance the joy that comes after each performance and the stress that follows by keep his body and soul fit as well as spending time with family and loved ones.
So far, there has been positive feedback. He recalled in different instances where he has been overwhelmed by his audience reactions.
“In Yola, a young man in his twenties walked up to me and said in a voice heavy with emotion, ‘For the first in my life, I feel patriotic towards this country’. In Enugu, an old woman came up to me after the show and said, ‘I wish it could start all over again.’ In Benin, a young lady said to me with longing in her eyes, ‘I wish more people thought like this.’ In Lagos, in Abuja, in Maiduguri, in Bonny, the audience hears me singing certain songs on stage and everyone joins in. Also the number of people who come back to watch it as well as the conversation it sparks. When I see and hear things like this, I know the show is having the impact it was written to have.”
However, it is the young generation that Dike hopes will get the message right due to the current conflict of identity.
“The system into which we were born has prepared simplistic labels for all of us – ‘North’, ‘South’, ‘Igbo’, ‘Hausa’, ‘Yoruba’ – based solely on the circumstances of our birth. However, through the process of growing up, playing with the neighbourhood children, going to school, entering bus, moving house, falling in love, going to university, doing NYSC, we have acquired more complex identities that are more nuanced and inclusive than the ones the system has slapped on us. Politics today is based on these systemic identities that are often not truly representative of our actual social identities. And it is important to get our formal political systems to acknowledge the existence of the more dynamic social identities that we have evolved over time. Acknowledging these socio-political realities will go a long way in re-shaping the way we frame discussions, particularly around ethno-religious flash points. Today’s generation of Nigerians, more than any generation before it, is in the best position to do this, because it has the advantage of having a much deeper pool of shared socio-cultural experiences to draw from than the generations that have gone before,” he said.
Dike would like to think of his show as an expression of an ideology that is being fleshed out emotively as well as intellectually, but believes it will be a movement eventually. While he has other plans in the pipelines, for now Made in Nigeria is at the centre of his mind.