Professor Chukwuma Azuonye
BY OBI NWAKANMA
Chukwuma Azuonye, poet and Professor of African Literature, died in Massachusetts, the United States, on May 8, and his final remains were interred June 10 at the Milton Cemetery in Massachusetts, the United States. He joins an increasing list of iconic Nigerian intellectuals including Abiola Irele, Isidore Okpewho, Oyekan Owomoyela, Akin Euba and Fela Sowande, among many, whose earthly remains now lie in alien lands far from the homeland, from where they strayed, some in search of meaning, some in search of the golden fleece, and all ultimately into exile.
In the case of Azuonye, he will now lie by his second son, Nnamdi, who perished in an automobile accident a decade ago, and whose death shook Chukwuma to his very timbers. Born in Isuikwuato, now in Abia state, Chukwuma Azuonye studied English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from 1965-1972. Quite early at Nsukka, his literary and intellectual gifts had come clearly to fore. He was editor of The Muse, the Literary Journal of the Nsukka English department, and Omabe, the Nsukka Poetry Monthly.
The civil war however interrupted his studies at Nsukka. Like other young men of his generation, on whom the holy task fell, to defend the shrines of their gods and the bones of their fathers, in a civil war that was brought to the East of Nigeria, Chukwuma Azuonye volunteered to serve the young republic of Biafra, not as a combatant, but as a publicist. He was deployed as a correspondent for the Biafran War Information Bureau. The work done by the Biafran War Information Bureau under the renowned poet and scholar, MJC Echeruo, who was also Azuonye’s teacher, has not been fully documented, but that bureau drew to it, some of the finest literary minds available to the republic.
It was certainly a nod to Chukwuma Azuonye’s gifts that he was shielded from combat, but tasked with documenting, archiving, and preserving the stories of the battlefront, and of the soldiers of the young republic. He was in a sense a war historian. But the effects of the war was to weigh on him psychologically too, for like most of his generation, he did not really, fully return from that war. There was something restless and unresolved in his mind – a quest for which even he did not have a name; but it drove him towards a full discovery of the Igbo world; its language and its lore.
At the end of the Civil war, when the dream of Biafra collapsed, Chukwuma Azuonye returned to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and earned his degree in English in the First-Class honours in 1972. In 1973, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to the School of African and Oriental Studies of the University of London, where he did graduate work, and completed his doctoral on African Oral Literature, with a dissertation on the Ohafia War Songs.
In 1976, Chukwuma Azuonye returned to Nigeria, to the department of Languages of the University of Ibadan as Lecturer. By this time, Professor MJC Echeruo had moved as Head of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to Ibadan, as the first African Head of the English department at the University of Ibadan, and subsequently, its first Dean of the College of Postgraduate Studies. Important work was going on at Ibadan, and the universities in Nigeria were still in their golden age. At Ibadan, in Languages with Azuonye were the likes of the famous literary critic Abiola Irele, and Isidore Okpewho who had also just returned from his studies in the United States, and was doing path breaking research in Oral literature, where he would earn his most significant plaudits. Echeruo was at the head of that pile, with his work, Victorian Lagos, just breaking into the scene, signifying one of the earliest works in the emerging methodologies of modern cultural studies.
Azuonye fitted naturally into the phalanx of stars in the Ibadan humanities, doing strategic work of recovery in the postcolonial era, with his own research primarily on Igbo Orality and African Diasporic cultures.
In 1981, he left the University of Ibadan and joined the faculty of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Department of Linguistics and African Languages. He would subsequently serve as the Head of the Department from 1986-1988. The Nsukka phase of his life might be legitimately described as the most exciting and productive period of his artistic and intellectual career. The literary scene of the so-called Nsukka School was at its nadir. Azuonye was quickly made editor of Uwa Ndi Igbo, the journal of Igbo life founded by the famous novelist, Chinua Achebe then at Nsukka, and he was also one of the editors of the Okike Literary journal.
In these endeavors, Chukwuma Azuonye helped to extend and enrich the cultural environment and output from Nsukka. It was in this period that he became a collaborator with the legendary critic, Professor Donatus Nwoga, on the project of the recovery of a lost tradition of the Igbo Script, which resulted in one of Azuonye’s most intriguing works: “The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Scripts: its origin, features and potentials as a medium for alternative literacy in African languages.” It was a most sophisticated and daring work, whose scope remains even now, overwhelming and complex. Unfortunately, it was work which he could not complete, owing to circumstances, which including the sudden death of his co-investigator, Professor Nwoga, and Azuonye’s slowly failing health, stymied the work.
in 2007, which had brought together one of the largest body of writers, scholars, and poets to celebrate the life of one of Africa’s greatest poets of the 20th century. It was a most impressive outing which had also led to Azuonye’s relentless and methodical work that led the UNESCO to adopt Okigbo’s papers as an important part of world heritage. It was also in a sense, Azuonye’s last hurrah. His rapidly declining health forced him increasingly to seclusion. He fought bravely but death undoes us all.
He was married to Dr. Chioma Azuonye, whom he met in London as a student, and they shared a devotion that was pagan and fierce. Chukwuma Azuonye’s death closes an important chapter on the life of one of those really remarkable figures of Nigeria’s modern intellectual tradition. He was an impressive intellectual: eloquent, and precise. He had the rare gift of subtlety which often came to light, for instance, in dissecting a poem like “Sophia,” that very difficult work by Echeruo, with its matrix of imagery, as no one else possibly could among his peers, with such elan and aplomb. A star indeed has departed.