Tribute to Nnorom Azuonye, Mmiri Oha 1 of Nigerian Literature – Toni Kan

Nnorom Azuonye (July 12, 1967 – January 21, 2024)was a veritable jack of all trades and master of almost all.

He was a poet, a playwright, a publisher, an actor, an editor, a serial entrepreneur, an untiring connector and networker, and unknown to quite a few, an ordained minister of the Methodist persuasion.

Many of us Nigerians writing in the pre-internet era developed our nascent online footprints through Nnorom’s exertions, something Nduka Otiono, poet, journalist, prose stylist and academic alluded to when he spoke of “the profundity of Nnorom’s work and his indelible impact on our lives and our arts.”

This was clearly in keeping with the spirit and letter of his traditional chieftaincy title, Mmiri Oha 1 of Isuikwuato which loosely translated would approximate to “he who waters all” or “water for the masses.”

Nnorom, thus remains a seminal figure in the migration of Nigerian literary discourse to the internet. A member of the Krazitivity group on Yahoo, his online platform, Sentinel Poetry, provided a space for many of us to take our poetry online and the wider world beyond Nigeria.

He published everybody from Molara Wood to Afam Akeh, Pius Adesanmi to Victor Ehikhamenor, Obi Nwakanma to Esiaba Irobi, Ike Okonta to Wale Okediran, Chuma Nwokolo to Uche Peter Umez, Austin Njoku to Abdul Mahmud, and many more.

Image courtesy  Molara Wood

I also remember the prizes he gave out.

In a tribute shared in a WhatsApp group, poet and culture impresario, Lookman Sanusi highlighted that aspect of Nnorom’s industry.

“Nnorom affected the literary scene here in the UK especially with his online publication of Sentinel and the various literary competitions and book publications.”

Tall, hulking with a distinctive voice, he was a kind hearted gentle giant with a warm heart and genuine smile who lived to extend the boundaries of literature without seeking profit or self-aggrandizement. Nnorom was always reaching out, always welcoming, always hosting. Every visit to London was an opportunity to share and commune with Nnorom.

Nnorom Azuonye’s WhatsApp DP

When I had my reading to launch my novel, The Carnivorous City, Nnorom was round to felicitate with me and the tribe at Pitanga in London.

His friends and school mates have noted that Nnorom discovered his literary gifts quite early as a student of Government College Umuahia where he was, as poet, journalist and academic Obi Nwakanma noted “the editor, in his last year, of the Nile House Magazine, while I was the editor of “ The Dewar,” the Simpson House magazine. I was made Editor of the College magazine, The Red Star, and Nnorom was called into office the same day by the College Principal, the classicist, J.E. Nworgu (JP) as Assistant Editor.”

Nnorom Azuonye. Image courtesy Molara Wood

Though they ended up not producing the magazine on account of strikes, by being named editor and assistant editor, Obi and Nnorom were following in the footsteps of past and illustrious editors like “Sam Epelle, Chinua Achebe, Chris Okigbo, V.C Ike (who were joint editors in their year), Kelsey Harrison, Beredugo, Ken Saro- Wiwa, Nnorom’s own elder brother, Ike Azuonye, now based in London as a very renowned Psychiatrist…”

Nnorom took a degree in Drama from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Obi Nwakanma in continuing with his tribute and reminiscences, tells us that Nnorom gravitated to drama early on as a secondary school boy.

“At Umuahia, Nnorom was very active in the Dramatic Society and had acted on the College stage as a woman once, in one of Ene Henshaw’s Plays, staged during the famous “Umuahia Drama Week.”  It was no surprise to me that he went to Nsukka to study Drama, after his A Levels in London. Nnorom and I had plans to start a very serious publishing company with offices in London, Enugu, Owerri, Accra, Nairobi, New York and Cape Town. We had plans to meet in London this summer to put the dots on the Is of that plan. He called me in November when my younger brother died. That was my last conversation with him.”

I first met Nnorom on the Krazitivity forum which was a stomping ground, albeit virtually, for the cream of Nigerian writers writing at the turn of the millennium.  The transition from virtual acquaintances to real life buddies happened around 2005 – 2006  when, during a trip to London with my family, Nnorom who had published my poems a few times in his Sentinel Quarterly, invited me to reading at Waterloo Gallery, London. That was where, I believe, I met Molara Wood for the first time.

L-R: Nnorom Azuonye, Abdul Mahmud, Molara Wood, Toni Kan, and Chike Azuonye in London, 2006. Image courtesy Molara Wood

That reading remains one of the highlights of my literary career. It had Esiaba Irobi as guest and Irobi was a delight. He was funny, self-deprecating, knowing and knowledgeable and an all-round raconteur.

It was thanks to Esiaba Irobi that I became a Phillip Larkin fan and I was so affected by Esiaba Irobi’s reading and tale of a broken relationship with an old flame that when I got back to Nigeria I put on my journalistic cap and sought out that old flame of his.

Nnorom made that happen and Lookman Sanusi notes that upon Esiaba’s passing in 2010, “Nnorom played a significant role during the requiem we had for Esiaba Irobi.”

That was quintessential Mmiri Oha.

When I was planning to relocate to the UK, Nnorom was at the top of my list of people to seek out for references and he was obliging even though I ended up not needing it. It still hurts that our planned meetings were stymied by circumstances; an impromptu work appointment which he had to keep, a train strike and an illness, the complications of which would claim his young and accomplished life.

Molara Wood who was a close friend has articulated the significance of Nnorom Azuonye in Nigeria’s literary ecosystem with a poignant post on instagram:

Nnorom was there at the heart of all these endeavours. He supported the works of many writers, especially Nigerian writers, myself included….He was an active member of Krazitivity and was part of the conversations we were having at the time, conversations that helped shape us. Nnorom inspired and encouraged you to do the work, he built the platforms (websites, print publications, competitions etc) to promote our works, at a time when there were not many avenues open to us. Many were published for the first time in Sentinel; he interviewed many writers, reviewed many. Then he organised events to showcase our works. He did so much, with no funding. And I don’t think anyone, anywhere gave him an award or other accolades for his considerable contributions to Nigerian writing; no writers ever gathered to celebrate him in a soiree for what he did, no one ever declared him the Anything of Anything. I doubt it ever occurred to him that he ought to be celebrated. He never praised himself, he sought no praise.

In celebrating his passing, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in a statement signed by Dr. Usman Akanbi National President (ANA) announced that “the creative world has lost a great soul… Nnorom Azuonye was a lover and promoter of literature. He was an author, poet, playwright, editor, essayist, and Publishing Director, SPM Publications, London. He was as well a preacher in the Methodist Church. As a talented and enterprising soul, Nnorom gave his best towards the advancement of literary creativity and more. He provided Nigerian literature and writers enabling platforms to showcase their art, and the Sentinel was one of such.”

Nnorom’s publications : Images courtesy Molara Wood

Nnorom Azuonye, Mmiro Oha 1 of Isuikwuato transited this realm on Sunday January 21 2024 and in closing this tribute, I shall repair to lines from a tribute poem from Chiedu Ezeanah, who says Nnorom had humorously threatened to “sue me to court if I gave the manuscript of my debut collection to anyone else but you.”

Outside is darkness
Darkness is home
Dreams and fears flare between the two
Eyes toil between the two
It’s with the eyes the body shields its head
It’s with the eyes the heart betrays its longing
Your eyes full of light who blacken light, halt
the return of light, blacken rays of new eyes…
You do not ask for light anymore, you toil for blacker darkness…


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