By Chinyere G. Okafor
“Why did the beautiful one leave.” These words uttered by Mrs. Grace Iyayi in my conversation with her after the sudden departure of her loving husband make a befitting title for my tribute to this great being, Festus Ikhuoria Ojeaka Iyayi, whom I call “Osondi-Owendi”; a name taken from Osita Osadebe’s music that refers to somebody loved by many and disliked by some. Festus Iyayi was such a man whose dogged focus on principles and fight for human rights were not appreciated in some quarters.
At the height of his popularity for his activism in the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), he was arrested and interned because he refused to compromise and betray the struggle. On his return to the university he continued to fight and was thrown out of his job and his residence. Clearly, this man was hated by the powers but the love of the people sustained him. When I called him “Osondi-Owendi” he laughed in his characteristic buoyant manner like it was the best name. Humorous and friendly, he was good at telling anecdotes and jokes.
Principled and tough, cheerful and down-to-earth, Iyayi was a gentleman.
An avid writer who won national and international awards that include the Commonwealth African Regional Prize, the Commonwealth Prize, and the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) Prize for Literature, Iyayi was a supporter of the arts and he mentored young and struggling writers. I remember purchasing his novel, Violence (1979) from a Benin Airport book-stall and was so impressed by the unique expression of class disparity and struggle that I recommended it to my project students, not without some opposition from canonists who argued that he was “an unknown writer.”
Little did we know that another novel, Heroes(1986) based on the Nigeria-Biafra war would soon win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1988. This “unknown” drama led to my students’ “discovery” of the writer in our midst at Ugbowo campus of the University of Benin, the beginning of the rich appreciation of his works, and my association with this gifted colleague.
He was the first male colleague who called himself a feminist at a time that many did not understand its meaning as a promoter of women’s rights. He had a passion for defending the rights of men and women plagued by the system and he dared to say what many feared to say, wrote about them and engaged in collective struggle for a better Nigeria, which is best exemplified in his leadership of ASUU at local and national levels.
In my biographical entry on him inPostcolonial African Writers (Parekh and Jagne 1998), I emphasized that his concern for ordinary folks yielded classics that exposed neocolonial contradictions such as the brutalization and dehumanization of the masses, but his input went beyond writing to his determined and persistent war against oppressive forces.
The award for the “protection of welfare of academics and the common man” given to him in 1988 by the University of Nigeria (UNN) branch of AASU speaks volumes. His plight under local and national regimes is well-known so I will not go into all that here. I’ll just say that under the regime of the military junta, he perfected his “disappearing” and “appearing” acts as his armor against threats of his imminent arrests and “road clear” signals.
The harassment of this action man and his refusal to stop engaging the status-quo do not make for an easy life, but he was certainly fulfilled by his choice to keep fighting. We sometimes wondered why he never cracked. His wife, Grace, was his doppelganger (his double} and his channel of grace.
Armed with university degrees, enough theory to support progressive ideas, a load of faith and love, this resilient woman of passion and conviction never told Festus to stop. She once told me how she turned down the offer of a political position made to her husband even without consulting him since he was far away. She did not see any loss in the opportunity of becoming the wife of a political juggernaut with the promise of all the gold and chauffeur-driven cars. Festus was delighted by her action. He had the joy of a man married to his soul-mate and compatriot. Festus was a happy man.
While we abhor the rudeness and ruthlessness of death that took him, we also praise the Most High who blessed him with a rich legacy not only through his publications and a large constituency of compatriots, but also in his astounding family. All his children – in a phone conversation, Oria reminded me that they are no longer kids – are successful.
With degrees in different fields that had propelled each of them to higher grounds, they had washed their hands with clean water and made their father proud before he left them. What else does a man pray for? Festus Iyayi had it all in life.
No doubt he has joined the ancestors with full account of his contribution to society. Grace (wife), Omoye (daughter) Omole, Ehieianem and Oria (sons), I pray that God and the good memory of Festus, the hero of family and patriots, will be your strength.
Ojeaka, Festus Ikhuoria Iyayi,
Professor par excellence,
Prince of the arena of struggle,
Defender of the voiceless,
Mentor of struggling writers,
Distance and the heck of life kept me away for years and I have so many questions in store for you, but death has snatched the opportunity from me and all I can now say is: I pray that you rest with the Ultimate Spirit of God and as you like to say, “The struggle must continue for a better tomorrow.” Ise-e, Amen and So be it.
* Professor Chinyere G. Okafor wrote from Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, USA
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