Okigbo And The Makerere Conference

Christopher Okigbo


What happened at and after the Makerere Writers Conference held in June 1962? The significance of the Conference of Writers of English Expression held in Makerere College, Kampala, during June 1962, continues to be pondered, and rightly so. As I write, a conference to mark the sixtieth anniversary of that gathering is being organised by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA), Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) and Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), and is scheduled for June 23-26. It is to be hoped that questions raised by the original meeting will continue to be considered. There is certainly much about what happened 60 years ago that should be examined closely and, indeed, I note that, myth-making is still in progress. This was illustrated by the use of a photo-shopped picture to illustrate the article about the PAWA Conference by Akintayo Abodunrin carried in the Nigerian Tribune of June 19, 2022.(See ‘Ibadan hosts Pan-African Writers conference, 60 Years After Kampala’.) This is not the first time that this particular photograph has featured in relation to an event marking an anniversary of the 1962 Conference.

In London, during 2017, the same picture was used by the organisers of a London conference marking the 55th anniversary of the Makerere Conference. It is reproduced below, along with a ‘key’, and the full title that includes the words ‘artist impression.’ At the 2017 anniversary meeting, the picture filled the cyclorama behind the speakers who included Wole Soyinka. During an early session, I raised the question of the origin of the photograph, and went on to point out that whatever it showed it did not reveal the organisation that had funded the event. That is to say, it did not hint at the presence ‘behind the scenes’ at Makerere of the Central Intelligence Agency. As has since become common knowledge, the 1962 Makerere conference was financed by the CIA, then operating clandestinely through the Farfield Foundation and the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom. The betrayal of trust involved in this deception has been chronicled in detail by Frances Stoner Saunders in her exposé of ‘The CIA and the Cultural Cold War’ entitled Who Paid the Piper? (1999).

The ‘photo-shopped’ photograph used in London in 2017 that has now resurfaced was a shoddy piece of work on several levels. To ‘pick apart’ the photograph, we must start by saying that it shows the heads of some of the writers present at the conference ‘grafted’ onto to bodies in a fairly formal picture of a group that may be of members of a Makerere College Society. This is monstrous enough and to imagine all is explained or excused by the description ‘Artist impression’ is preposterous. The deception is compounded by the fact that the picture does not show all who were present. A full ‘gallery’ would include, for example, critics, publishers, and editors, at least one of whom was a long-serving agent of the CIA.

The objectionable photograph is, I understand, the work of Dada Khanyisa for a website called ‘Chimurenga Chronic’. It was irresponsible of the London 2017 conference organisers to have used it in 2017 without a clear ‘Warning’, and it is sad to see it being used again, once more, without warning. Incidentally, it may be of interest that when Soyinka was button-holed after the first session of the London conference, and asked what he made of the picture, it was apparent that he had not ‘recognised himself’ in the podgy, suited figure on the extreme left. In part explanation,he pointed out that he had stopped wearing ties and suits long before June 1962!…It is to be hoped that the 60th Anniversary gathering will get off to a better start than the 2017 event, and that there will be a determination to get to the bottom of what really happened at Makerere in 1962. Despite the presence of Soyinka – and it should be said of Cameron Duodu -at the 55th anniversary in London, the gathering did not by any means sort out all the issues raised by the 1962 conference. Many loose ends remain. Serious research into archives are among the steps required to discover who expected what from the gathering.

Over the years, details about individual experiences at Makerere 1962 have emerged but the conference is still surrounded by uncertainty. Perhaps fifty-five years was too strange an anniversary to celebrate. It smacked of organisers who had failed to mark the fiftieth anniversary sufficiently and feared that none of the original participants would be alive at the time the sixtieth celebration – that has now ‘come along’.Perhaps the 60th Anniversary Conference will fare better?

Christopher Okigbo and Makerere 1962

To shed light on the 1962 Conference and to gesture towards areas where work is still required, I am going to bring together some reports and thoughts about the experience of the poet Christopher Okigibo at Kampala. I am doing so in the hope that it will provide an insight into what was going on below the surface and behind the scenes. Okigbo presents himself as a suitable subject for this exercise because he has been the subject of a scrupulous biography, Thirsting for Sunlight by Obi Nwakanma (2010), and because a significant ‘industry’ has gown up around him his life and works. For example, during 2007, he and his works were considered at a four-day conference held in Boston. Okigbo was easy to find at the Makerere Conference: he put himself forward, contributed to discussions, delighted in shocking the more staid of his fellow delegates, and generally ‘made his mark’. He did this by, for example, declaring that he did ‘not read his poetry to non-poets’ and he also took a leading role in ensuring that the social side of the conference was ‘memorable’. First some background to his presence at the Conference:

Okigbo graduated in Classics from University College, Ibadan, and embarked on a career in the Civil Service. However, that did ‘not work out’ and he moved into teaching. In the meantime, he had begun to write poetry and had had some success, notably with verses published in the Ibadan-based Black Orpheus. That publication had been founded by Ulli Beier, and had been put on a fairly solid financial basis thanks to grants from the ‘Farfield Foundation’ – that Saunders and others have exposed as a CIA front. Okigbo’s writing has long intrigued and pleased. By 1962, he had already attracted the interest of Donatus Nwoga, who was a member of the Nigerian delegation at Makerere and who must be briefly introduced here. By the time he set off for Makerere, Nwoga had completed a Dublin PhD and secured a lectureship at the University of Nigeria. He was, in fact, one of the first Nigerian literary critics to establish a reputation and it was inevitable that he would engage with Okigbo’s work. The two men had much in common: they were near contemporaries, and both had been brought up in Igbo families that had been exposed to Catholic missionary influences.

The Makerere Conference has become known as a ‘Writers Conference’, but this has tended to obscure the presence of critics, such as Nwoga. The same, misleading ‘short-hand’ has tended to obscure the presence at the Conference of others who were not writers. The ‘delegates’ included, for example, broadcasters, editors, and publishers, and people who were ‘more than publishers’ – see below. Okigbo clearly made an impact on the deliberations of the Conference. He did this, first of all, by his contribution to a discussion at the heart of the conference: the answer to the question: What is African writing? To this Okigbo responded abruptly, ‘finally’, and, as many must have felt, frivolously, by saying: ‘There is no such thing as African writing. There is only good or bad writing.’ (Nwakanma: 182.) Of Okigbo’s other contributions, Nwakanma records that in the session on Language and African Literature the poet threw ‘many of the writers into guffaws when he wondered aloud about the kind of Pidgin English Nigerian prostitutes spoke in Lagos.’ This topic – The Language Issue – has, of course, been of consuming interest to many, including one of the younger writers at the conference, ‘James T Ngugi’. One can’t imagine Ngugi wa Thiong’o – as he was later known guffawing at Okigbo’s irreverent answer.

At one of the reading sessions, Okigbo, declared, as noted above: ‘I don’t read my poems to non-poets!’ Nwakanma describes this as an ‘impish’ moment, however delegates at Makerere might have categorised it in other terms, as, for example, aloof, pompous or elitist.

‘A cool place for a conference’

Whatever others made of him, Okigbo described Kampala in positive terms. He thought it was ‘a cool place for a conference’, and, ever alert to recreational opportunities, he said it offered ‘more than adequate outlets at Top Life and White Nile’. (Night clubs visited by delegates.) However, he went on to describe Makerere / Kampala as ‘a literary desert’ and he expressed the hope that the Conference would do ‘what irrigation does to the Sudan.’ (It being understood that the image was of a ‘literary desert’ in need of water.)

Nwakanma gives further insights into Okigbo at Makerere by writing: ‘During the conference Okigbo was always to be found in the company of the Ugandan playwright and journalist Robert Serumaga and he struck up an easy friendship with the South African writers and exiles, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi.’ (181)While in Uganda, Okigbo also got to know Langston Hughes and Otis Redding. Nwakanma offers that the latter’ shared many views, especially on the meaning of international blackness and against racial essentialism in cultural production.’ The lastsentence of the paragraph on these interactions reads: ‘Okigbo and Robie Macauley, Editor of the Kenyon Review, discussed the possibility of publishing Limits and the early version of “Laments to the Silent Sisters.” But nothing came of it.’ (181)

In sifting these pieces of information, it is interesting to note that Serumaga’s name is omitted from some lists of those present at the conference. The fact that Nwakanma’s book makes it clear that Serumaga was not only present but interacted with Okigbodraws attention to the need for fuller, more authoritative documentation of the conference, and who came and went during it. Perhaps Serumaga’s established contacts with the University and his interests in both journalism and playwriting made him ‘persona grata’. He certainly sems to have moved in and out of the conference easily, and to have mingled with the visitors.

I want to draw this article to a close with the image created by Nwakanma’s reference to Okigbo in conversation with that other delegate who is glossed as the editor of the Kenyon Review, Robie Macauley. Macauley was indeed an influential editor, but he was also a long-serving CIA agent.

Macauley’s commitment to espionage is alluded to in on-line sources and in exposés of the CIA. From these it is possible to get a sense of how Macauley might have attempted to manipulate the ’soft power’ the CIA leveraged through its links to publications, its budget of $900,000,000, and the support it received from disenchanted Communists. Macauley was an experienced operator, how did he engage with the impish, witty, Okigbo? Did he, for example, dangle the prospect of publication in the Kenyon Review before the poet? If so, it can be seen that Okigbo did not swallow the bait – since ‘Limits’ first appeared in Presence Africaine (1966).

More research must be undertaken into what happened at Makerere in 1962. In the meantime, we must insist that coverage of the 60thanniversary conference risesabove photo-shopped images that have been concocted, confected, contrived, compounded, and cooked up. As a first step in searching for the truth about what happened in Uganda sixty years ago, it must be recognised that Dada Khanyisa’s ‘artist’s impression’ cannot be taken at face-value.

Gibbs writes in from Bristol, United Kingdom.