By Sam Omatseye
Sometimes a column such as In Touch takes a time off for self-reckoning. It is doing so today with permitted indulgence, or I daresay not permissive indulgence. One of its followers, a man not known to many, passed on. His name was Joseph Lucky Agbro.
He was until last week a fellow traveller with In Touch for about a decade. He was not just a reader. He kept date with me very Monday morning wherever I was. In London, In New York, In Denver, Paris, Abuja, Sokoto, Maiduguri, of course Lagos. He called in the morning. The first refrain often was, “I read you this morning.” My reply, “Thank you sir.”
He passed on at 75 precipitously. He was old, but not tottering. His voice, a slow, methodical poise, did not reflect a man grasping for ideas or elocution. His going was a blind side. He did not belong to my ideological jacket. He grew up what many would call a conservative. He was a player in the old National Party of Nigeria. If he was in the wily water of the Umaru Dikkos of that era, he might have earned himself a ministerial slot, in that twisted portfolio of prepositional ministers of Shagari. Minister of and minister for.
His contrarian worldview played a role in shaping my argument and poesy. I had to watch out for that polemical fine point, that phrase, that allusion. When he disagreed deeply, we could be on the phone for up to an hour, especially if it was the prickly issue of taking on Jonathan, or pushing an idea he thought was a bit radical.
When he agreed, his favorite phrase was “Sam, there is nothing to take away, You said it all.” Sometimes he accused me of bamboozling the readers with my fancy phrases and lofty allusions. Sometimes he took exception to my use of allusions, to references to histories, myths, literary texts, philosophers, et al. Sometimes he would say he loved them so much he had to do some research like a student. Since he started to call about a decade ago, he never missed a Monday. When he travelled or had an early morning appointment, he alerted me and called later. Uncle Joe, as I called him, had become part of my early Monday ritual.
As I mourn Uncle Joe, I also look back at some old men who were part of this column until death did them part. One of them was Chief Hope Harriman. A roly-poly of a man, bustling with humour and a great raconteur, I first met him in Denver during my American sojourn. He was attending the Itsekiri Convention, and he walked up to me and introduced himself. I had heard of him. He kept calling wherever he was. I was then writing a column for the Sun Newspaper, and he commented liberally on his thoughts.
When I returned home to start In Touch, so impressed was he that he invited me with his wife Roli to a party in Ghana. He was the father of the day at my 50th birthday. He was used to calling from around the world, whether from his Florida home, during a business trip to India, or Port Harcourt function. Few anticipated his end. He looked eternal in his bonhomie. His daughter Temi told me they were preparing his 80th birthday bash when his earthly story ended.
Tam David West, former oil minister and something of a cause celebre in this country, was another frequent caller. His voice declined over the years, from an argumentative brio to a wobbly blur. His first call came about 2007 when he expressed ecstasy over how I interpreted German philosopher Nietzsche’s phrase, “God is dead,” and he called often to assent, assert and encourage me. We met only once in Abuja at the Hilton. Towards the end of his life, I hardly heard what he said, except something that sounded like “fantastic.”
Another familiar oldie was Chief J.O.S. Ayomike. He was a man of great vitality, who called to spar. I never met him, but he was not only a repository of ideas but also of history. Anytime he called, I had to abandon whatever I was doing to pay my respect. At one time, so enamoured was he of In Touch that he mailed books from his precious library to me in Lagos. It was one of the treasures I feared when some hoodlums came to burn The Nation premises. Thank God they were intact. I was trying to surprise him with a visit when I was billed to deliver a keynote address to Government College Ughelli Old Boys, Warri Branch. But he had gone. I was in Benin a few months earlier, I might have peeped in. The other visitor outstepped me.
Pa Mosanya, a light-skinned man with a debonair air, who loved to quote the classics and was steeped in western region politics and history, walked into my office one afternoon. He was already in his 80’s. He had memories of some of my columns I could not readily recall, and he became a sort of father figure to me. When he called, he spoke like a lawyer, “Me Lord.” Once he brought copies of my old writings. When he visited, I did nothing else and he would spend hours dissecting the problems of the world.
I was amazed at his capacity to retain long poems in his head and he reeled them out with gusto and arresting flow, from Oliver Goldsmith to William Blake. The great thing about him was his sense of contentment. The last time I saw him he said he had outlived his father. He was about 87 years old.
When he passed on, like the others, it was hard to take. Columns are a lonely affair without treasured communities, especially of the old. I still have quite a few of them but will not mention them. I want them around. They abound across the country. Not only the old, but quite of few young who have adopted me as mentor, a role that I confess I have not played well. Too many things on the plate. There is a fellow, who like Uncle Joe, has sent me a text every Monday for more than 10 years. I will not say his name. Or the fellow, a prominent Nigerian I would also not name, who called me and sent me a big wallet to buy “more books.” The money could build a library. He wanted me to continue with my turns of phrases. Many more of such stories for another day.
But I mourn Uncle Joe, and I know there will be no phone call from him this Monday or ever again. May his soul rest in peace.
Is it an Icon?
It was not only an inspection. It was a moment in cultural dialectics. Full of energy, Transportation Minister Rotimi Amaechi showed me the façade of the new railway headquarters in Lagos and remarked, “Is there any place as iconic?” A boyish glee was suppressed in his voice. I looked at the impressive façade, and I said, “Iconic?” I said when I hear the word, I think of National Theatre, not the railway headquarters. He was driving and swerved into the large sprawling compound, and we undertook a tour. It is an impressive spectacle, and I said it drew my mind to my visit to New York’s Grand Central Station, and of course the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin. The place is complete with waiting area that can sit at least 2000 persons, and transport a million passengers a month, more than all of our airports in one year. It has a mall, a suite of offices, state-of-the-art electronic boards, steps and escalators.
It is such a cheer to see such an edifice in Nigeria in spite of the killings and fear in the land. When we were done, the minister returned to the word. I said it was not an icon. It had not even been launched. He asked me to look up the word in the dictionary, and searched Google, and it read, “An image, emblem, idol, or hero.” He insisted he was right, along with the Nigerian Railway Corporation’s managing director and few of his team. A building, no matter how impressive, did not make an icon, until human beings turn it into a cultural experience. Humans make icons, things don’t. But I understand where Amaechi was coming from. He was eager to institutionalize the edifice. Time will shape things. I conceded though, that it is potentially iconic.
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