My mother, Elizabeth Ofuchinyelu Ndibe (nee Odikpo), turned 88 years old last Thursday, April 18. The way she chose to mark her latest milestone was altogether in character. First, she took food to prisoners at the Nigerian Prisons at old Government Station, Amawbia. Then, later the same day, she gathered little children at her home and treated them to food and drinks.
Eight years ago, when Mother became 80, my siblings and I threw a party to celebrate the woman that’s popularly known as Ngala – a praise name that declares her worthy of pride. On the occasion, her family, friends and admirers – many of the latter men and women who, decades ago, were her students – came out to eat, drink, and reminisce. One man drew me aside and said, “Listen, your mother never spared the cane when she was my teacher. She flogged and flogged me, almost on a daily basis.” The man paused, his eyes searching mine.
I wondered where the confider was going next. At the time, he was himself a veritable elder, his face scarred by the wrinkles of age. In fact, I had a hard time picturing him as my mother’s pupil, much less as one Ngala could have caned. Then the man broke the silence. “I believe I became a responsible person because of what your mother taught me in class. And because she flogged indiscipline out of me.”
The man’s narrative was typical. At the reception for Ngala, many a former student of hers asked for the microphone and bore witness to how her stern form of discipline shaped or reshaped her or his life.
My four siblings and I as well as several cousins were rather familiar with Ngala’s unsparing school of discipline. She and our father fondly called each other E (for Elizabeth) and C (for Christopher) respectively. Out of their earshot, we, their children, called them C. na E.
Our father, C., was the “looker.” If any of us children disappointed him, we received that look of his that – in my experience, at least – stung more than one or two dozen strokes of the cane. Mother – or E. – was the flogger. When we fell short of my parents’ exacting standards of conduct, Ngala would sit us down and patiently explain the nature of our infraction. Then she’d say to our father, “C., give him/her twelve (or fewer) strokes.”
Of my siblings, I excelled at receiving punishment. I’d say I was a typical boy, eager to dabble in all the adventures, risky and often risqué, of youth. That predilection earned me incessant disapproving “looks” from C. and even more frequent dates with the cane – the number of strokes often decided by Ngala but administered by C., who died on May 28, 1995.
I’ve lived in America for more than twenty years. It’s a society that automatically views the caning of children as a form of abuse, bordering on torture. Make no mistake: I thoroughly enjoyed my youthful indiscretions, but didn’t find it funny when it came time to pay the price by being caned. From time to time, I even mustered the courage to ask my parents why I was being punished for doing the same things that many of my counterparts got away with. Their answer was always: “We want our children to stand out.”
At the time, the explanation hardly impressed me. I would have gladly traded places with my friends whose parents made few, if any, demands, or knew how to look the other way. I often wondered why I, of all my friends, was born to parents who were spoilsports.
In retrospect, I feel blessed to have had the formation I received from C. na E. Like that elderly man who sought me out at Ngala’s 80th birthday party, I now credit who I’ve become – my way of looking at the world, my moral posture – to the kind of upbringing my parents afforded me. I know that my siblings share this view, for we often talk about our parents’ particular impact on our ethical formation.
A quick anecdote should illustrate the point. A few years ago, a politician whose numerous inducements I had spurned sent a close friend of mine to go and talk to my mother. My friend told Ngala, “Okey has not built a house in Amawbia, yet he’s turning down good money that should enable him to build several houses.” My mother’s reply was instructive. He told my friend she’d like me to own a house in Nigeria, “but I don’t want him to build one with stolen money.” She then counseled my friend to tell the politician that she and her late husband had taught their children well. “My son will never accept stolen money,” she said.
I give a proud son’s salute to Ngala at 88. She has long ceased to use the cane, but her moral commitments remain ever strong. I pray that she may continue to bring light and succor to those menaced by a rapacious society, and that she may remain an inspiration to me, my siblings, and many whose lives she touches each day.
Ngala, Chukwu gozie gi; Chukwu dube gi!
Kakadu, A Compelling Musical
Uche Nwokedi, a Lagos-based Nigerian lawyer, has written a powerful musical called “Kakadu,” a moving dramatic portrayal of Nigeria’s promise shortly after Independence and an exploration of how that promise dimmed.
“Kakadu,” set in a night club of the same name, is brilliant on several levels. Its main characters are richly complex, and marvelously drawn. The richest, most captivating character may well be Kakadu itself, an amalgam of energies, dreams, peoples and narratives. The writer, Mr. Nwokedi – an attorney who is also a polyglot and true renaissance man – has managed to make this musical’s sociological space come to enthralling life.
Lord Lugard, the musician impresario who presides over Kakadu, is a larger-than-life, almost priestly personage who both embodies the hedonistic, idyllic spirit of Kakadu as well as personifies the tragedy of Nigeria.
I admire the flair with which Mr. Nwokedi evokes signal moments of Nigeria’s political biography in the musical. Equally impressive is the deft way he leavens his narrative with major moments in African history – including convulsive events in 1960s Congo and Togo. He does a superb job of dramatizing the Nigerian attitude that bad things – as happened in places like Togo – won’t happen in Nigeria. That attitude has since been chastened by experience.
I well remember when Nigerians used to boast that an Eyadema-like dictator could never emerge much less thrive in Nigeria. Then Abacha happened, “worsting” Eyadema in every department that mattered. And Olusegun Obasanjo soon followed, offering Nigerians another lesson in imperial excess.
One of the great achievements of this quintessential Nigerian musical is the incorporation of music and what I’d call different languages (Yoruba, Igbo, pidgin, and formal English) to unfurl the canvas of the play. In some ways, the music is constitutive of a broader narrative. As the musical enters the Biafran War period, the music becomes more elegiac, thoroughly imbued with dramatic/emotional power.
This musical, which premieres on May 9 and runs till May 19th at the Agip Recital Hall, Muson Center, deserves a wide audience, in Nigeria and beyond – for it captures something of the unfolding drama of a postcolonial space caught in the seemingly endless, often frustrating and perplexing, throes of realizing itself. Part of the power of Mr. Nwokedi’s artistic offering is that his musical speaks in a particular and direct fashion to Nigeria’s experience but also opens up, on closer examination, to illuminate the experience of any former colony – be it Kenya or Ghana – that continues to wrestle with the burden of forging a common identity out of a chaos of communities assembled by erstwhile European colonizers.
“Kakadu the Musical” is a courageous work that does not flinch from confronting the sad, tragic compulsions of our history. Yet, I like the overall accent of a stubborn hope that shoots through the performance – a refusal to yield to despair. I’m deeply impressed that, in the end, the musical surrenders neither to a bleak vision nor to a false optimism. It is a musical that keeps its head without compromising its heart.
The musical is a surpassing contribution to Nigeria’s cultural heritage and political history. Theatre lovers in Nigeria and beyond should be in Mr. Nwokedi’s debt for the considerable artistic powers he has brought to bear on this musical – ambitious in conception, and rousingly achieved.
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