Remembering my time with Okot p’Bitek at Great Ife -Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Okot p’Bitek, the great Ugandan poet, author of Song of Lawino, always held court at the bar in the foyer of Oduduwa Hall, the big theatre of the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Anything could happen during those drinking sessions. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor accosted Okot one day and said: “This is wrong, Professor p’Bitek. How can you take your students out to drink?” 

Okot stared at the man for a good minute before saying: “You must have gone to a bush university! Otherwise you would have known that professors share drinks with their students. By the way, why do you part your hair?” The man fled!

The proprietress of the bar once remonstrated with Okot on not clearing the huge bill he had accumulated and the poet promptly told the woman: “I am sure your husband didn’t do you well last night. When you go home, tell him to do you thoroughly!” And the woman, too, fled! 

Even with the talk of unpaid bills, Okot would order a big bottle of White Horse whisky for the great actress Florence Toun Oni who had joined the table. Presenting the whisky with a flourish Okot blew a kiss to the smiling lady. Watching in a safe distance the proprietress simply shook her head. A friend of mine, Patrick Izobo-Agbebeaku who would later make history as the first university graduate bus conductor in Nigeria, demanded to see Okot’s debts. Patrick wondered aloud why the madam should be insulting “Prof Okot for a small amount of money”. Okot quickly shut up my friend with these words: “If you think it’s a small amount, then pay!” 

Okot would not use the urinary of the bar, stressing that the place was dirty. Motioning to me, Okot started out of the bar. I got the message. He only made use of the Vice-Chancellor’s toilet which he said was the only clean toilet in the entire campus. It was drizzling, and I pointed at the falling rain. 

“Come on, the rain makes you grow,” Okot said to me, walking in the rain. 

Walking with him up the staircase, we came into the office of the VC’s mixed race secretary. “Watch me do some beautiful things to this beautiful woman,” Okot said, grabbing at the lady who ducked and ran. 

Okot felt then that I was a fully-formed poet who had no business being a student. It was under his influence that I wrote the long poem “When I Shall Marry (Eater of my Wealth)” which was published in the university’s arts magazine Sokoti. 

“Sharpen your pen!” This was the unique piece of advice I got from Okot on the art of writing. He discussed everything but the nitty-gritty of creative writing. I once tried to discuss my Head of Department Prof Wole Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters with him. Picking up the book, he said: “Fine book by my friend Soyinka.” Then he tossed the book aside and said, “Let’s go and drink.” 

He told me he was working on a book on his experiences in Nigeria to be dedicated to me. To him, everybody in Nigeria was a lizard, starting from the country’s leader who was the big lizard then based in Lagos. He had actually written the first line of the book which goes thus: “The lizard says he is coming, but the lizard never comes.” Whatever became of the book is in the lap of the gods. There was also mention of a long poem entitled “Song of Soldier.” 

He would not discuss his fellow writers except to say, for instance, that Chinua Achebe is “a beautiful man.” He told the story of how Ugandans broke down and cried when Achebe was flying back to Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War after a visit to Kampala. The East Africans could not bear the thought of not seeing the author of Things Fall Apart ever again as had happened to Christopher Okigbo. 

Okot took ill towards the end of his stay at Ife. He discharged himself from the hospital on regaining consciousness. He got back to his house to discover that all the drinks and alcohol had been removed. He was dying to have a quick drink. Then he saw David Rubadiri’s houseboy learning to ride a motorcycle. Okot promptly ordered the learner to ferry him to the nearest watering-hole. Both of them fell down from the bike, and Okot had a big gash for his efforts. 

When Idi Amin was chased away from power Okot celebrated. He pointedly told me that I would follow him to Makerere University as he would not want me to continue my studies at Ife which he dismissed as a “University of Lizards”. He spoke glowingly of Yusuf Lule who was poised to take over from Idi Amin. He was so determined to take me to Makerere University that he chased me out of the examination hall of the GNS 1 “Use of English” course. I left the exam hall to help him buy meat at the Leventis Stores near the staff quarters. Then we retired to drinking beer and whisky while my mates were writing the exams! 

Okot was open to a fault. He showed me letters from universities like Iowa, Harvard, Texas, Makerere, etc. offering him professorships in diverse disciplines such as Creative Writing, African Studies, English and Divinity. In the end I could not summon up enough courage to abandon my studies at Ife for the journey with Okot to Uganda’s Makerere University. Schoolwork and passing exams may not have mattered to me, but damaging my parents and sundry loved ones through transnational rascality did. It was while writing my degree exams that the news was broken to me that my great friend Okot was dead on July 19, 1982. I dedicated my final year thesis to him. He deserved no less.

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