LONG READ: Buchi Emecheta, Eric Arubayi and how to remember our dead

by Wilfred Okiche

The evening of February 11, news began to filter in that thirty three year old gospel music live act and former Idols West Africa fan favourite Eric Arubayi had passed away suddenly. Anyone who has followed the social media determined news cycle knows by now, the way events like this play out, regardless of the societal status the person enjoyed while alive.

After the initial announcements, and the processing, the cell phones are whipped out and the tweets come pouring out, the Facebook messages and Instagram posts too. Close friends and those able to reach out physically do so but most just tweet. Some make videos. Pictures of the deceased suddenly turn up everywhere, on and offline.

The mourners go down memory lane, recant fond memories, rue missed opportunities to connect, and pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Many end with a promise of ‘’never to be forgotten’’ but who are we kidding? Life happens so fast and before we know it, we are on to the next.

Groups come together to share experiences, organise candlelight processions, plan farewell session, put out the most beautiful of tributes while desperately searching and failing to find any meaning to the fickleness of life. Those who haven’t kept in touch with the deceased for a while now are not left out. In fact their voices strive for fever pitch levels in the large echo space that the mourning process breeds.

Eric Arubayi made a respectable living as a gospel singer and devotees of Pastor Paul Adefarasin’s House on the Rock church recognise his soothing presence as a regular part of their Sunday worship services. R&B star Praiz, actress Adesua Etomi, comedienne Lepacious Bose, and Ouch’s Uche Nnaji were some of the big names to pay early tributes to the fallen worship leader across various social media handles. He trended for a while on Twitter and Instagram and his death was covered by all the important national dailies. This young man mattered it seemed.

But if we were to be honest with ourselves, the last time that Eric Arubayi mattered on a genuine mainstream level was ten years ago, as a contestant of the sole yet memorable season of Idols West Africa, the regional franchise of the American Idol juggernaut.

Idols West Africa was created to service the West African sub region but by the final line up of contestants,- nine out of ten of them were Nigerians,- it became clear that the Nigerians had taken ownership of the franchise through active fan participation.

Eric Arubayi did not have the vocal chops of eventual winner Timi Dakolo or runner up Omawumi, but his dashing good looks and silky smooth performances were enough to keep him in competition far longer than he was expected to last. The ladies loved him and voted regularly to save him from getting the axe.

Blessed with a smile that could light up the screen, Arubayi on occasion even had a calming effect on the sole female judge Abrewa Nana and his premium pop packaging drove him to a fourth place finish.

Post- Idol, Arubayi struggled a bit to retain interest of the audience who voted for him so enthusiastically while he was cloaked in the drapes and relative safety of being a contestant. He released a couple of singles and in 2011, put out his debut album, Redefined, comprising love songs and gospel themed music.

Arubayi would eventually find his footing, not as an R&B singer in the manner of his childhood icons, Boyz II Men, but as a working gospel minister, going round churches and religious themed gatherings, spreading the message and getting his praise on.

He never did get the national platform or cultural significance that the likes of pals Timi Dakolo, Praiz or Omawumi enjoyed but he appeared to be content with his space in the scheme of things. As a regular performer of the House on the Rock church, Arubayi’s worship sessions acquired numerous devotees and he built a satisfying family life with his wife, Chinonso. Until his death.

Underappreciated

If the events surrounding Eric Arubayi’s passing have been a bit unique due to its untimely nature, consider the case of literary icon, Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta, author of classic titles such as Second-Class Citizen and Joys of Motherhood who passed away in January at the age of 72.

Emecheta has a profile and body of work that looms as large as any of her peers- both living and dead and her name certainly rings a bell even beyond literary circles. There is Soyinka, Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and there is Buchi Emecheta, whose semi-autobiographical writing preceded,- and depending on whom you speak to,- pioneered the feminist narrative in African literature.

Multiple generations of Nigerians grew up on Emecheta’s work and anyone who passed through a Nigerian Secondary school has probably been encouraged to read her work at some time. Her status as a national treasure is pretty much defined but this was underlined even further at the time of death. The tributes came pouring in and it seemed for a spell that Emecheta had always been an ongoing part of the national conversation.

But the truth is something a bit more complex. Buchi Emecheta in her twilight years was not as active on the professional circuit, robbed of her mobility and complete mental abilities by a debilitating stroke which she suffered a few weeks to receiving her OBE from Her Majesty in 2005. She also never quite recovered emotionally from the loss of her two daughters.

Emecheta’s last published work, a novel titled The New Tribe, was published in the year 2000 and public sightings of the Ibusa born author became increasingly rare as she grew older. Countless theses and academic dissertations may have been written on Emechata’s prose and plays but for all intents and purposes, she had been forgotten by her compatriots, receiving lifetime honours only from her adopted country. It seemed that Nigeria didn’t quite know what to make of her. Tributes were published as always, but it seemed very few really knew Ms Emecheta at all.

Emecheta’s son Sylvester, with whom she founded and ran the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company for a spell, said this about his famous mother in a tribute published in the New Statesman after her demise. ‘’My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved and appreciated by her readership, not only in continental Africa but all over the world.’’ He was right, we may have loved her work and may have been inspired by her writing, but we never really took the time to appreciate her while she lived.

What History?

There probably exists somewhere, a long list of icons who went to their graves without knowing just how much they meant and the extent of their contribution to our way of life. One of the greatest tragedies of being Nigerian is our chronic inability or even refusal to tell our own stories. And this is a total, cumulative failure in which every facet is involved, from the arts to the humanities, government to the sciences.

At the basic education level, young generations do not even stand a chance as the system has been  set up to rob them of any kind of critical engagement. Pupils fail to benefit from history as that all-important of subjects is proscribed, sacrificed on the altar of keeping a suspicious union together at all costs. Thus students grow up not knowing their national heroes or even the place of certain names and events in the history books.

Query a Nigerian adult today and they are most likely unable to manage a lucid recall of some of the most important national milestones that have occurred. The adult may have heard at some point of Jaja of Opobo, but he doesn’t necessarily realise or appreciate Jaja’s role in fighting colonialism and the lessons to be drawn from it today. Neither does he appreciate the giant military strides of Queen Amina of Zaria, who built durable walls long before Donald Trump considered such an undertaking.

Because students aren’t necessarily exposed to these stories as children, the spark of curiosity that should naturally follow them fails to catch and they go through life unwilling to ask questions, to research or dive deeper into the legend of these stories.

Thus a whole generation of scholars, storytellers, filmmakers, historians fail to see merit in our cultural legacies and abandon the job of piecing together these narratives to interested foreigners who naturally come with their own bias. This is in the long run, responsible for young people coming together to help elect a so called repentant dictator over thirty years after he last held power.

If Buhari’s present incoherent economic policies are surprising anyone today, it is only because they failed to take proper account of the period of 1983 to 1985 when he last held power. Everything that is happening now is merely a rehash of those uncertain days. History merely repeating itself.

Tell your own stories

One of the biggest successes of Hollywood’s awards season this year has been Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about three female African-American mathematicians at NASA who played pivotal roles in America’s space program.

Till date, Hidden Figures has grossed in excess of $160million at the box office and has brought to light the stories, challenges and sacrifices of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson the three icons played by the formidable trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. By adapting Shetterly’s book for the big screen, a powerful, important story which so far had only enjoyed limited attention became accessible to a wider, diverse audience. That is the power of film.

On a more subdued but no less important scale, David Oyelowo is with his latest, A United Kingdom, spotlighting the very inspiring African love story of Botswana’s first indigenous President, Seretse Khama and his English wife Ruth, who braved diplomatic hostilities and exile to be together. And on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made history fun again with his colour bending musical adaptation of the life and times of American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The makers of these works of art understand the power of art to reach out to wider audiences and tell a story that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Nollywood has not been able to replicate these formula on a scale with which lasting difference can be made. Last year’s ’76 made a worthy attempt at historic accuracy and 93 Days offered an inside look at Nigeria’s Ebola defeating effort, putting the heroism of healthcare workers on the front burner but these attempts are few and far in between.

National honours that should ideally be above reproach in the business of identifying heroes have taken a huge battering over the years as the process has since lost credibility, what with the heavy presence of thieving politicians and not so illustrious elements with every list that is announced.

Little wonder that the late great Chinua Achebe, a national treasure if ever there was one, rejected the national honours twice, in 2004 and in 2011. He gave the following statement of fact in 2011, ‘’the reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me”.

A complicit press

The media is in many ways a direct reflection of the society. When media practitioners do their job well they inform, interprete and spark interest. As a result of the above listed factors, media practitioners this side of the world have not always done their jobs to the best of their ability.

It used to be that the media gatekeepers decided what story was worth following and which ones deserved to die a fast death. Advertisers soon began to weigh in on what direction the stories should go and then the politicians emerged as a powerful force. With plenty money to throw around, they soon decided what stories demanded coverage and many a journalist found themselves more or less working as paid hacks. Genuine, uplifting stories were shoved to the back burner for lack of the clout to attract the media’s full attention. The tide bagan to shift and then generations of kids grew up with the notion that the political class are the heroes, money is everything and success equals getting your hands dirty.

New media sort of liberalised the chokehold as now audiences can have a say in what stories they want to see. Some online media platforms are playing their part in offering diverse narratives and breathing new life into the content that they produce. In this regard, culture publications have proven to be as essential as the hard hitting investigative pieces as the spirit and soul of a society are not likely to be recorded in the headline news but on the commentaries and analysis pages. But even that hasn’t been the much sought after respite as controlled content has taken shape and the few influencers still determine what is consumed by the majority.

Incisive reviews of works of art, deeper introspection into hot button issues, engaging interviews with newsmakers all help to provide that healthy understanding of the times we live in and should be encouraged regardless of cost as the cost of not engaging is even more dear in the long run.

It is easy to pluck the low hanging fruits and blame the average Nigerian’s battered psyche as reasons for the seeming disregard of national icons while they are living. Easier still to point at the obvious fact, that a society in which a large proportion of its population still has to grapple with meeting basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter, has no time for hero worshipping persons not related directly to providing these needs. But that would be merely scratching the surface. The sensible answers as we have seen, cut a little bit deeper.

It isn’t enough to wait for the West to identify our icons for us and tell us how to think and this intellectual laziness should be allowed to fester no more. There should be deliberate attempts to build acceptable institutions and processes that are peer driven, relevant and can be seen to be striving for excellence.

There is no reason to wait for the Caine prize to tell us where to go to for the newest African literature for instance, or to have to resort to a viewers choice award to point to the ‘’best’’ in Nollywood. We can establish quality and define processes that can help us establish for ourselves our own cultural legacies. It is impossible to expect that everyone that is deserving will get their due, but many more will.

Lasting legacies

Since losing the 2016 US presidential elections, Hillary Clinton has set about creating and defining her lasting legacy. Not wanting to be defined ultimately as a loser, she has scored a new book deal with Simon & Schuster, reissued a previous title with proceeds going to charity, picked up her public speaking career and is rumoured to be considering a run for Mayor of New York city.

Everything she’s done since the election, including her appearance at Donald Trump’s January inauguration has been in service of that legacy, one of tenacity and grit and ambitious courage. Essentially, everything she’s spent her entire career fighting to prove.

It is a lesson we should all take to heart, more especially folks who find themselves in the public eye. To begin to take interest in how we would like to be remembered is not submitting to some weird morbid thrill. Rather, the sensible, pragmatic nature of this undertaking helps ensure better lives as effort is made to act in line with such ideals. That way when the inevitable happens, those left behind have a point of reference.

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