KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
Saturday, July 8, 2006
Children of a Retired God
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
(ISBN: 09768354-3-6; Iroko Productions, Bayshore, NY; 2006, pp 213; Price, $15.99)
Available at: Amazon.com
“Okonkwo puts his punditry acumen to work in this collection of lovely essays, that piercingly X-rays the plight of the black race through their own fault and those of others.”
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo’s Children of A Retired God follows in the honored tradition of a specialized genre of books that explores the nexus between the wellbeing, fate, and faith of the Black race, and their God – or the “gods” they worship. This mix of theology with political and economic emancipation has been expansive since the 1933 publication of Benjamin E. May’s monumental work, “The Negro’s God.” Essentially, all such books try to address one critical question, even if couched in different forms: Is the God of the Black race lethargic? Or, as someone put it in the case of Okonkwo’s book, “Could the bane of Black people across the globe be that they are worshipping a retired God?” For many blacks like Okonkwo, such questions transcends the rhetorical.
Children of A Retired God is intrinsically introspective, yet retrospective. It is an excursion through the vicissitudes of the Black race and a “broad interrogation of contemporary values.” Consequently, it dovetails with a perennial question about the Black race, which was perhaps best encapsulated by Mercy Auba Odudoye, in her well regarded 1997 keynote address to the African Conference of Churches titled, “Troubled But Not Destroyed.” In the address, Odudoye asked bluntly of the African Diaspora, “Den Mmusuna Yanbu?” (What Has Happened to Us?) Okonkwo has posed exactly the same question, albeit, more broadly.
Overtime, African and Black leaders have generally made excuses for the state of affairs of the Black race. Justifiable to some extent, many still plead the inimical impact of colonial subjugation, racism, and apartheid, in some instances as culprits for their shortcomings and for shortchanging their people. Valid as some of these excuses may be, Okonkwo is loath to accept such excuses as justification for the prevailing Black disenfranchisement, be it in Nigeria, the UK, the US, or Jamaica. He sees the excuses as incongruous to the real cause and effect, which in one phrase, can be defined as bad governance.
Children of A Retired God delves into personal, political, national, historical and universal dimensions of the challenges facing the Black race. It also highlights in different forms and with clear validating examples, the seeming reluctance of the Black race to face up to these defining challenges, which though particular to them in some instances, are universal in essence. As if the confirm Karl Marx’s theory that religion is the opiate of the masses, Okonkwo alludes to the possibility that Black people conveniently engage in escapism of worshiping “a retired God”. This volume, however, is not a lectionary.
Divided into 6 chapters, Children of A Retired God is a collection of 52 lovely introspective essays, written between 2000 and date. The collection ends aptly with an epilogue titled, “Africa Needs You,”which is as much a plea as it is a clarion call for the African Diaspora to return and assist the mother continent. While exploring the emotional, social, and geo-political issues confronting the Black race, this book also delves into various facet of human endeavor and concerns – birth, romance, death, melancholy, superstition, politics, governance, other ethereal concerns and well as eschatology and even the revenant.
Any blogger or cyberspace sleuth would have encountered Okonkwo before now, given that he is one of those Internet pundits, who has shown tenacity, consistency, impartiality, courage, and verve in deciphering the challenges facing Africa. He has equally written for many print media outlets. As an attentive observer, Okonkwo deals admirably with vexatious issues of governance in his own country Nigeria, in Africa, and in the world without exacting any negative capacity. He adds value and legitimacy to his views by personifying them, and in various instances by narrating his personal experiences. For an African, he also recounts how he did the unthinkable – by marrying Edna, the lady he met on the Internet. This act, is not just an oddity and repudiation of his Africaness; it trumps all Igbo norms related to the process of betrothal and marriage. Conflicted, he addresses the same issue in another chapter, asking, “How do I learn burning gently until Mama is ready? What good is a road if it will not lead to happiness?” (p. 132)
In putting this volume together, Okonkwo proves that every keen and attentive observer has a view, and if sufficiently perceptive and dedicated, can indeed influence action and opinion by dispassionately deciphering and analyzing issues of concern on behalf of others that are equally affected but far less articulate or vocal. As Okonkwo notes, “this volume attempts to bring the past to the present. It does not try to rationalize the position of the sun. It gives a glimpse of fresh air, but leaves the big questions open. Its sharp sting is made mild by humor.” (p. 1)
In the above context, whilst concerned and piqued by what has happened to Africa and the African Diaspora, Okonkwo is not apologetic, but optimistic and open-minded. He seems to subscribe to the views by Aime Cesaire who once wrote, “You know that it is not from the hatred of other races that I seek to be a cultivator of this unique race….” Despite his core topics, Okonkwo smartly avoids reverse race bashing or baiting, which makes this book an easy and interesting reading. There are other reasons too. First, the book is contemporary. Second, it has relevancy. Third, it is revealing. The reader will, therefore, find some strands of one’s everyday fixations or personality addressed therein somehow. As the author confirms:
At some levels, this is my story. At other levels, it is yours. When it hides my reservations, I hope it shows a glimpse of your convictions. When it exposes my deductions, I hope it awakens your inquisitiveness.
True to the journalist in him, Okonkwo offers barbed criticisms of African leaders, individuals, and episodes, but stressing as it were the notion that any good leadership had to tolerate public criticism or lose its legitimacy. For instance, in the pieces titled, “Ivory Coast: Les Liaison Dangereuses” he lampoons African leaders for their collective preoccupation with banalities rather than priorities (p.49). “The President Lied” (p.44), published in 2001, was prescient in the context of what transpired eventually in Nigeria under President Obasanjo. As Okonkwo remarks, “Our present discontent with men, idols and the nation says a lot about our past embrace of illusion. An insane society has no relationship with courage or fortitude.”
Overall, Children of A Retired God demythologizes prejudices, egos, and inimitable excuses that do nothing but hobble the Black race as well as its lethargy, which frequently is self-induced. Okonkwo is most unforgiving of Nigerian leaders and tackle issues related to his motherland with an evident passionate attachment. But throughout the volume, there is no doubt that he places great emphasis on the significance of public dialogue. In his words, “My task is to further discussions…. With dialogue nobody loses. Without dialogue, everyone loses.”
Two of my favorite pieces in the volume are those in which he recreates the arrival of Idi Amin Dada of Uganda at the gates of hell (“Idi Amin Storms Hell” p. 46) and the dialogue between Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Angel Gabriel (p. 54). As a metaphor, they stand for the bad and the good out of Africa. His excursion into great African (black) lives saw him writing essays on the likes of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Thurgood Marshall. But the defining piece in the work was that which he titled “On the Contrary” (p. 138). The closing lines of the piece as it pertains to Nigeria and Nigerians, is eloquently self-fulfilling: “We are what we are. We teach what we are. We act what we are. We sit back and wonder. ‘How did it happen?’ We are Nigeria.” In “Songs of a Roadside Poet” (p.196) he offers succor and reasons for being to Nigerians, who tend to see their diversity as a weakness, rather than the strength, it is. Cleverly, he portrays how ethnicity translates to a diminution of our personalities in a broader context.
Republishing in book form, materials that are already in the public domain does not necessarily lend great credence to any work. Neither does it make them a best seller. But doing so does have its value. In this regard, the greatest strength and value of Children of A Retired God, is that it is not doggy and it does not engage in or adopt the Maudling Principles, by which “modern questions are answered not by consistently searching for answers, but by consistently expanding the questions”.
Another value worthy of note, is that Okonkwo puts his punditry acumen to work in this collection of lively essays that piercingly X-rays the plight of the black race, through their own fault and those of others. The volume is comprised of first hand commentaries, charismatically rendered in a dazzling and very delightful style. For this, Rudolph Okonkwo has cast himself undoubtedly, as a member-in-good-standing of the emerging school of African-grown pundits who are passionate about Africa, but deal with its foibles and tribulations dispassionately. He is right in noting, “that only those who have forgotten the paradox of every tragedy can write off Africa.” He could not have said it any better!
*Mr. Oseloka Obaze, an aspiring writer, is a member of the Kwenu.com Book Review Forum, which is dedicated to the promotion of books with Igbo and Afrocentric themes. He is also a supporting Member of the African Writers Endowment (AWE). From 1999 to 2005 he served on the editorial board of INYEAKA, the journal of Songhai Charities, Inc., a New Jersey community-based charity founded and run by Nigerians based in New York Tri-state area in the United States, first as its founding Publisher and later as the Editor-At-Large. He is also on the editorial board of The Amaka Gazette, the journal of the Christ the King College, Onitsha Alumni Association in America. His collection of poems, “Regarscent Past: A Collection of Poems” was among the top three finalists in the poetry category in the African Writers Endowment Publishing Grant Program for 2004. He reviews books and arts strictly as a hobby.
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