By Patrick Naagbanton
Around noon on Sunday, 24th February, 2013, I was alone in my apartment in Port Harcourt, the oily capital of Rivers State. My small, cheap Samsung phone which age is no longer on its side rang severally. I couldn’t ignore its vibrations; I picked it, to hear what the caller wanted. “Hello! Hello!! Patrick, can you hear me?
The voice pierced through my phone more audibly. ‘This is Leo, your friend”. He said “Oh! It’s the Humanist Leo Igwe, how is Germany?” I chanted happily. “And how are you?” I added. “I am fine” he answered. “Have you heard? Leo questioned. “No! What is it? I asked intently. “Eze Ebisike, our good friend is dead. He will be buried coming Saturday.” He said as grief and compassion ran through his voice.”
Too bad, was he sick? I asked again. Yes! He had a mild stroke”. He replied. “Please, try and attend his funeral. He will be buried as a humanist” Leo advised. “I will be there, to pay my last respect to our departed friend” I assured him. Few seconds later the line went dead.
Leo Igwe, the 42-year-old Nigerian intellectual, is an irrepressible voice of secular humanism in an African continent ruined partly by religious chauvinism and superstition. He is, currently, a doctoral student at the famous Bayreuth International Graduate School for African Studies (BIGSAS), Germany.
He is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement (NHM) based in Ibadan, Oyo State, in the south-western part of Nigeria, to promote the secular humanist philosophy based on science and reason, and not belief either in the traditional or Christian or any religion.
Though I openly profess secular humanism as my attitude to life in a religious ghetto like Nigeria, I have never witnessed a humanist funeral before. I was keen to witness that of Eze Sylvester Ebisike, an ex-Roman Catholic priest who dropped his training and took to humanism, journalism and later business.
So around 4.30pm on Friday, 1st March 2013, though I was sick with a severe bout of malaria, I took a taxi to Rumuokoro, a traffic circle on the north-west of the state where vehicles and humans wrestle against one another in few jammed road paths. I boarded an 8-seater ash-coloured Nissan van from there bound for Owerri, the capital of Imo State.
We had barely taken off, heading north-west wards through the Rumuokoro – Airport Road along the Obio/Akpor Council Secretariat when the weather changed its face; unleashing furious thunderstorms and violent rain drops on the roads, on our car.
Its speed dropped suddenly. One of the car’s wipers was not functioning. We battled to pull through the stormy rain and diverted to a nearby filling station called Superject where the driver purchased fuel for the vehicle and we sped off as rain and storm reduced unexpectedly.
“Please, can we put on our seat belt? I pleaded with passengers.” Wetin be that” the driver asked harshly in Pidgin English. “Please, I am talking about us putting on our seat belts”. I repeated. The driver kept sealed lips while tossing the steering and flinging scornful looks at me.
“It is God who protect, don’t fear oga” a young, pretty lady seating closer to the driver, stole a look at me and said alluringly. “Before God protects us lets protect ourselves”, I responded in a somewhat piqued tone. “Can you protect yourself?” a male passenger behind me shouted loudly. Some put on their seat belts while others refused. Ominous silence sneaked into the car except brash Christian music coming from the driver’s car radio, one of the lines hymn. “Nobody can battle with the Lord”. I would doze off at intervals due to the effects of the anti-malaria drugs I had taken.
We arrived Imo State through the northern axis of Rivers State. What a disparity in weather pattern. We had heavy rain and storm in Rivers, whereas, in the Imo country, dusts from un-tarred road paths throw its blanket on the grasses, crops and trees and our vehicle and made us look dreadful. “God bless Imo State – OCDA” was one of the bold labels welcoming us to the state.
We drove past the Umuopu Secondary which overlooks the deplorable Ohaji- Umuopu Road linking the Igwuwo-Ohaji community where the Imo State Polytechnic is located. Ahead is the headquarters of the 34 Artillery Brigade of the Nigerian Army located at the Obinze community in the north-west.
The car later stopped at ‘Control’, our terminus, a traffic circle in the Owerri townships as chaotic as the Rivers’ Rumuokoro. Owerri is fondly called the ‘Las Vegas of Nigeria’ and also called ‘Enjoyment Town’. On weekends, people travel from their respective states in Nigeria and beyond to Owerri to have fun there. The Owerri enjoyment seekers don’t want to postpone their enjoyment times. They are in away expressing the humanist sentiments unconsciously.
I took a tri-cycle popularly called ‘Keke-Napep’, in Nigeria, and headed eastwards on Douglas Road to meet JimKelly Abegbe, the Edo State-born, treasure of the Nigerian Humanist Movement(NHM) who stood in front of the Fire Service Station with his bag stuck to his back like a highly trained marksman advancing towards an enemy territory.
He insisted that we should travel that night to the Mbaise town. I argued passionately against it with him. We later struck a compromise and went in search of a moderate hotel where we spent the night separately, but we didn’t participate in the usual Owerri night enjoyment
About 8.18am on Saturday morning, 2nd March, 2013, with the weather exceptionally sunny and pleasant, we jumped out of the hotel, and rented a Keke-Napep, moving south-west to the Fire Service Station intersection again. On the Keke-Napep’s back, was an inscription, “Guy Make Thing Happen. Avoid letting them happen – Determination Matters”.
We went there and hired a blue-coloured Passat executive car to take us to the funeral event. We spent 30 minutes travelling on the road to the Ahiara Motor Park where Marcel Iweajunwa, another leading Nigeria’s humanist who was waiting for us, joined us on the journey.
We drove through the popular Ofor Oru Road. That Saturday was Afor market day, and traders and their goods spilled to the Ofor Oru Road which has deep valleys where cars dance up and down uneasily. The road also runs through the Ahiara town on the north. Ahiara is celebrated for its strategic intellectual and military significance to the Biafran State.
We spent another twenty minutes travelling from Ahiara to Okponkwume- Mpam community in the Ekwerazu, Ahiazu- Mbaise, the home of the late Eze Sylvester Ebisike (1937-2013), the great philosopher, free thinker, secularist, atheist, feminist, journalist, writer and first chairman of the Nigerian Humanist Movement (NHM).
Okponkwume Mpam is tranquil rural scenery with tall raffia trees, oranges, palm trees and seductive vegetation adorning the village. Houses are built apart from one another. No major tarred road. The people are very friendly, receptive and hospitable. Around midday, in spite of the buffer provided by the flora, the tropical weather was hitting us hard. His corpse was brought to his family house in a beautiful brown coffin with a transparent cover in an ambulance and laid in state.
Villagers and others trooped out to watch the remains of the great man. His casket was later moved to the Unity Hall in the community where his virtues as an honest, fearless, courageous and hardworking man were well- spoken of. Enyeribe Onuoha, a Ph.D. holder, the traditional ruler of Umuchieze- Ihitteafoukwu, Mbaise and immediate past chairman of the NHM, and an ex-catholic priest too, read his four pages of dirge and eulogy of his humanist friend and colleague in his native Igbo language.
His treatise touches on science, creation and evolution, and then the audience grumbled in low tones as he read on, while others laughed in aloud.
The deceased family members actually respected his will to be buried as a humanist. After there, we moved to his farmland where his grave was dug. At the graveside, Dr. Onuoha led the session. He called on his son, his sister, his in-laws, including me to give speeches about Eze. Afterwards, he read an anonymous beautiful poem called “Something Beautiful Remains” .And in it we heard “The Tide recedes/But leave behind/bright shells on the seashore/the sun goes down/but gentle warmth/still lingers on the land…”
Onuoha dropped earthy sand into the grave and as the burial was concluded we departed to his family house again, where we had lunch, drinks and departed. The funeral was short, simple and emotive. There are many ways humanists want to be buried.
The way our Ebisike was buried was one of those. Some want cremation (burning of the corpse), some want their remains to be donated to science laboratories and institutions for the advancement of the study of science. A humanist funeral of this kind is a celebration of life. Goodbye, Eze Ebisike, death is the path we shall all tread.
Naagbanton lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.