Long Road To Kiagbodo: Reminiscence On Last Home Journey Of Prof John Pepper Clark

By Godknows B. Igali

In keeping with the last wishes of globally acclaimed literary giant, Professor John Pepper Clark who passed on during the night of Tuesday, 13th October, 2020, his remains were in a rather histrionic manner, belying his live-time calling of expressionism, taken to his ancestral home of Kiagbodo town in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State, Nigeria, after dusk on Thursday, 16th October, 2020. Witnessed by relatively few numbers for a person of such prompting and acclaim, not too far from midnight, a simple wooden casket, giving emphasis to his self-effacing lifestyle, , one of the greatest human minds of the 20th century was interred. Unbelievable, but true. Buried without any ceremonies, air or formalities. No big family meetings, no jittery government burial committees and protocols officers, no visiting dignitaries and delegations, no open air church services, nor big displays of boat regattas nor big aquatic masquerade displays which he himself had so well depicted in both drama and poetry, and not even cannon shots heralding the departure of a champion? None!

Typical of him and his ilk, this academic, known simply as “JP” by close circles, had publicly and privately entreated family, firmly to ensure that his remains be lowered not latter than three days after the unexpected. He had in his poem entitled LAST TESTAMENT which appeared on page 365 of his book FULL TIDE: COLLECTED POEMS” noted as follows:

“This is to my Family
Do not take me to a mortuary,
Do not take me to a church,
Whether I die in or out of town,
But take me home to my own
To line and tunes, tested on waves
Of time, let me lie in my place
On Kiagbodo River
If Moslems do it in a day
You certainly can do it in three,……….

From the above, a greater task from the disguised demand was the clear indication that he wanted to be allowed to rest in Kiagbodo, close to the river, indeed preferably in the pre-dug resting place which he had personally prepared few years earlier within his country home.

But then, many queries plagued the minds of all.

J P Clark

First, quite unexpected, for a man who had abandoned the modest comfort of his home in Lagos to return to Kiagbodo, a typical sub-rural African setting, and in particular, like the legendary Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, took habitation in a secluded island across the town. So, who could have thought that his final hours would be in faraway Nigeria’s former capital, even if that was where he was parachuted to the world from his University of Lagos base, where he became the first black Professor of English? Besides this is something he had not hoped for and was indeed at the vanguard of those coercing his large family of gerontocratic celebrities to all return home. Well, the good old scriptures have repeatedly reminded all who care to listen, that “no man knoweth the hour or the time” and indeed the place! Second, despite his instructions, death came knocking during the annual flood season; a time when much of the Niger Delta is submerged in perennial inundations. Although the people of the area, particularly the Ijaws, of which he was a part have lived with this for countless centuries and his ancestors had adapted well to their reality, occasional big flood are very disruptive. In one of his most appreciated narrative poems “Night Rain”, Uncle JP himself through a very lavish use of imageries and metaphors had alluded to this duel which the people of the Niger have with nature; including the endless overflow of water and the obvious hardness of life which it unleashes on all.

Like 2012, 2018, the annual flood of 2020 is mammoth and fall into the abnormal category, presently submerging entire communities. Although his lonely house on the one-man island was wisely built on high ground, that notwithstanding, this year, the entire compound had been under water for the past two weeks. How would such last wishes be carried out against the raging waters? Last, in these days of Covid 19 jitteriness, and with near home, Warri Airport, still shut down, would it be easy to transport his remains and the immediate family by air? Or embark on the journey by nearly 12 hours, either through water or the not too good road system? How about wading through the multi-thousands human condone mounted in nearly every city on the way by brave Nigerian youths, in pursuit of justice and public good?

As the third day beckoned, none could have believed that such miraculous feat could materialize. As depicted in his very popular post Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) poem “The Casualties” all concerned were pointed to tasting a bout of disappointment on this matter of last testament – the testator (JP) who at this time was no longer cognitive, the testate (widow and, son, Elaye and siblings) and the guarantors (the larger Clark family and associates). But then even the heavens did not want to be unsympathetic or grass over the wishes of such a fine human spirit. So just like JP Clark’s Broad-way epic drama OZIDDI, the shuffling and motion towards adverting emotional calamity from this matter were like theatricals. Interesting enough, the protagonist was a tireless Nigerian national elder statesman, Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark; the big brother of the deceased.

The time was 4:20 am and the phone echoed and reechoed repeatedly, creating fright and panic coming from the line of a 93 year old man. As the nephew and assistant, David said “good morning Sir!” the hasty natural response was “is Daddy Okay?” even before the young man could answer, hollered the very clear voice of Daada (Izon word for grand old man) “sorry my son to wake you up so early. I have not slept. Call any person you can reach. My younger brother’s body must leave Lagos this morning and no matter the time be buried in Kiagbodo before midnight today. Today is the third day, no matter what, we cannot fail him”. Since the old man’s bedroom was the best work station, all relocated there barely by 5 am.

Against the seeming nuisance of waking people from the sweet of early morning sleep, began the endless stream of calls, person by person, airline by airline. But the Baba himself will still not steal a nap, but continued his order: “Wake BA (the initials of his 90 year old immediate younger brother and celebrated Nigerian Diplomat, Ambassador BA Clark), wake College (first name of his 70 year old younger brother, medical Professor CC Clark)”, both in Lagos. The instructions were clear, for them to wake up Emeritus Professor Prof Mrs. Ebun Clark, son Elaye and sisters, Ema, Tamara and begin to prepare to move. Next: wake up, Coshari (his 81 year old younger sister and former General Manager of Delta Steel Company and Rebecca (his first daughter, a retired Director in the Civil Service), both based in Warri to proceed to Kiagbodo, get all and begin to clean the remote compound; if necessary get motorized pumps to drain water out of the prepared burial site.

At last, an air plane was secured to fly to Asaba, capital of Delta State, but another big wahala showed up. How do we get Prof Mrs Clark and her Children who had been woken up at dawn from the family home in Lekki to Ikeja Mortuary and onward to the airport to board the flight? These are days of #ENDSARS Protests. As a matter of fact, the valiant young men and women had woken much earlier and formed human condones at Lekki Bridge and several critical points around Lagos.

Then started new thinking and new arrangements. Let’s ferry the family by boat from Lekki to Victoria Island and from there transport them by helicopter to Ikeja. Then thundered the voice of the grand old man again “Pepper was my little brother and he cared so much for BA, Coschari and me. Last week when I spoke with him for the last time, he was worried for BA and I and our students at the university (Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo). He reminded me to make sure that we fumigate the compound and hostels very well before returning students come………whatever it costs me and the entire family, I will bury him today” At last, boat, helicopter and plane hired. Yet still, more orders: “get me my son, the Governor of Delta State (Dr Ifeanyi Okowa) let him please help us arrange reception and overland transportation from Asaba Airport to Kiagbodo”.

By 3:30pm, all set as family and the mortal remains of the great writer were safe and secure at Murtala Muhammad Airport (Local/Private Wing), to take off immediately. Alas, no. Paperwork upon paperwork, permissions of diverse sorts had to be properly secured. Even though all were brisk and courteous, the grinding wheel of bureaucracy had to take its toll. Then comes pilots worry: “Asaba Airport has a shutdown period so after sometime, it will be extremely difficult”. Question, will this still happen this third day or are we, despite all these efforts, now emotional “casualties”? Finally, finally, as they say locally, all clearances received, boarding completed and take off earlier scheduled for 2:30pm announced for 5pm. After a smooth flight, all arrived Asaba at 6pm.

A gold fish has no hiding place they say. Despite the top secrecy to please Prof Clark’s reserved manners as much as possible, the entire airport community was thrown into drab gloomy mood. Then veered off the hearse onward to Kiagbodo, even as the sun gradually shut its curtains and the moon in an almost show of territoriality dimly brightened the road; quite dusty in no few places.

The instructions of JP Clark were quite clear and unambiguous. No crowds, no gathering. But in an African setting, was anyone going to allow him go like that?

Not surprising, despite the late hour, there were loads of human beings. First and foremost were the members of the family. Great grandfather, Bekederemo (Ambekederemo), a 19th century commercial kingpin and strongman, and was one of the few Africans of his time who owned his own steam ship had about 50 wives and hundreds of children; grandfather, His Royal Highness Fuludu, had 30 wives and as many children; while father, Clark a great believer in western education had 7 wives and 32 children. The implications of the clearly immoderate demographic endowment and dividend together with the segmented kinship chains was obvious. Cutting across the three main ethnic groups of the area – Ijaw, Urhobo and Itsekiri it is better let to conjecture. The entire macro-family with cousins and in-laws was a clan of thousands of human beings. So who could have stopped them from coming, is it the great wrestler Oziddi?

Beyond that, was the fact that of all the prominent trio and rest from the family including few professors, military general, top journalist and so on, “Uncle JP” was the most popular. Even by his own admission, Daddy EK a silverback of sorts, is very strong and assertive. Some feel that he is the reincarnation of the warrior merchant Bekederemo! Uncle BA, a polished diplomat, is the opposite, extremely reticent and reserved. But Prof, a cultural icon, a folklorist, humanist, traditionalist and an addicted lover of education was a darling of the people and very close to their hearts. Leading literary critic, Biodun Jeyifo (BJ), in a published tribute described him thus “the good graces of kindness, considerateness and friendliness that surprisingly seemed natural to him defines his relationships and encounters, both public and private”

So no few, defied everything, the fishing, farming, night darkness which crept in, occasional showers and the ankle high flood water in not a few places to bid him farewell when the rumors of his eminent return filtered through the air. Finally the funeral train arrived Kiagbodo at 8:45 pm. Shockingly, the elite from the town formed a reception party at the entrance to the town, adjacent to the entrance of Edwin Clark University, insisting to open the casket to identify the remains and dance him in what the Ijaws call “Ogele” – heroic welcome – through the town. In such peculiar circumstances, son, Elaye, who was now the man in charge had no choice than to yield. The next stopping point from the standpoint of tradition was the huge 19th century compound left behind by Chief Bekederemo, the strong merchant trader of the Forcados River area. A colonial Officer, N A Classmark in his ‘Intelligence Report’ on Western Ijo Division’ dated 1930 at page 24 once described this relic of the family quarters and his epochal ancestor, thus:
“Bekederemo, a court member who died in 1926 was perhaps the largest trader and middleman for the Niger Company at Gana-Gana in this part of the River (Forcados). His compound, it is thought equals in size to that of the Oba of Benin and is surrounded by substantial brick wall. There are two long barracks, wives houses on either side of which is constructed in cement. The compound also contains Bekederemo’s house, a well built and lofty building, and a rest house for Europeans, Niger Company agents. His sons in a minor way carry on his trade. Kiagbodo is known later as the village which has the biggest market”

With Abuja front coordinating, Lagos having delivered and even aircraft retuned safety back to Murtala Muhammad Airport, it remained to see what the home crew, led by an 81 year old woman would deliver. Perfect. Motorized boats were ready to convey the party across, while a hand pulled dugout canoe, the favourite of the Prof Clark awaited the final passage of his body. Ever faithful housekeeper, Charles, the only other human companion on the island had mobilized all needed hands and kept everything set. The island itself was somewhat dainty and well-lit. So as wished, almost impossibly by the man, JP Clark, his remains crossed over and were committed to mother earth in good time at 11:30, after a final opening of casket for his beau, with whom they shared an amazing Romeo and Juliet type love story, Professor Ebun Clark and children to have their customary last glimpse. But she and children were in no hurry to depart from the solitude of the island. All quietly retired to their well allotted rooms on the first floor. After all “Daddy JP” himself had quietly retired to where he now belongs, on the ground floor, near the living room, which he had prepared for himself, close to the visible flood water from Kiagbodo River, which he so much visualized in poetry, drama and every known form of literary expression.

Then came the final order: “my son you have done very well, go and sleep. I have also told BA to try and sleep well”.

Day Seven: Daada again: “Ebun indicated that they will spend two days in the island in their house, so l bought their return tickets and made transport arrangements with Dr. Ominimini (a close associate) for them to return to Lagos through Port Harcourt yesterday. They since arrived safely. I still cry once in a while, but we never failed that boy (87 year old JP Clark). He was a good, a good younger brother” END

Igali, a Diplomat and author of the book “Perspectives on nation State Formation in Contemporary Africa” which won the US Books prize for Literary Excellence in 2015.

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