Reconfiguring the Complexities of Omafume Onoge’s Life:
A Funeral Tribute
By Peter Ekeh
Omafume Onoge was a well-sized man. He was also a multifaceted person. The Urhobo, Onoge’s people, love to liken men of his stature and complexity to elephants. Elephants disappeared from the Urhobo countryside where they once freely roamed centuries ago – as did such other famed beasts as lions and hippopotamuses. Of those powerful animals that have become extinct from Urhoboland’s physical environment, none has dwelt in Urhobo folk imagination as forcefully as the elephant. Men of stature, grace, and wisdom easily offer themselves for comparison with the proverbial elephant in Urhobo rites.
So it is that when Omafume Friday Onoge is laid to rest on August 28, 2009, in his beloved native village of Ugborikoko in Uvwie, the youth will remember him by singing that ritually nuanced Urhobo refrain:
Onogę ke eni, eh he eni, eh he eni; Onogę ke eni. eh he eni, eh he eni. In English this verse renders roughly as follows: “Onoge is like the elephant, Onoge is like the elephant; yes indeed, Onoge is like the elephant.”
It is doubtful that any English translation will fully capture from this refrain connotations of wisdom and strength of Onoge’s accomplishments in the span of a dynamic life. It is more likely, though, that the elephantine metaphor will convey the sheer complexity of Omafume Onoge’s life story. That complexity is already reflected in the numerous tributes and comments that have surfaced since his death on July 12, 2009.
Most of the tributes to this remarkable man have been by people who knew Onoge as a graduate student of Anthropology at Harvard University in the 1960s; as a university teacher in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ibadan from 1969 until the late 1970s; and as a teacher at the University of Jos, as well as the Dean of that university’s Graduate School, from the early 1980s until the early 2000s. Others have touched on his rich contributions since his retirement from the academy and his resettlement to his native village of Ugborikoko. Most of his years in universities, both as a student and as a teacher, witnessed Omafume Onoge choosing the ideals of socialism in preference to the advertised barbarities of capitalism. Within the Marxist vocation, in which he pitched his camp with Ola Oni and Bade Onimode at Ibadan, Onoge was sometimes suspicious of Soviet Cold War advocacies and was far more attracted to China’s Maoist teachings of liberation from the torments and tortures of institutional oppression.
Those who saw in Onoge a passion for taking sides with the oppressed are right in their judgment. As one of those who paid glowing tributes to him so correctly phrased this point, Onoge attempted to be the voice of the voiceless. In this matter, he was wholly sincere. Onoge was often offended by rulers and scholars who professed to be Marxists but then pursued oppressive policies that took away the humanity of those who had no means of adequately responding to acts of domination and intimidation.
How would Omafume Onoge react to these tributes, if he were around to evaluate them? He would gladly accept them, with gratitude. But he would caution that they were only fractions of his complicated life. Perhaps phrasing his response in Marxist imagery, Omafume might say that such characterization touched on his mid-life and beyond it, but that it has left out the story of how he got there. As an anthropologist, Omafume Onoge might well say that these tributes have largely focused on his urban activities. There was a deep rural side that must not be left out of the picture of his complex life.
For this side of Omafume Onoge, I offer myself as a witness. Some nine months before his death, I phoned Omafume to ask him if he knew Chief L. U Ighomrore, an Uvwie chieftain who contributed enormously to the history of Urhobo College. He bellowed into a huge laughter, saying, “Without Pa Ighomrore, there would be no Omafume Onoge for you to make friends with.” Onoge then proceeded to tell an amazing story of how he gained admission into Urhobo College. He was a bright kid in a primary school in Uvwie, near Warri, that had given land to Urhobo Progress Union to build Urhobo’s national secondary school in the late 1940s. Ighomrore was one of the early employees of the College. In 1951, Omafume sat for the entrance examination to the College. In the midst of the examination, a bout of malarial fever, which he thought he could contain, broke loose, forcing him to leave the examination hall to vomit. He was taken home by relatives.
Thereafter, Omafume settled on rubber-tapping. Then one morning, a messenger came to him at the rubber plantation telling him to come home on his father’s orders. On getting home, his father asked him to change into his school uniform so that he could repeat the entrance examination with some other Uvwie boys on that day. He told his father that he did not have money to pay for the required examination fee. His father then informed Omafume that Mr. Ighomrore had already paid the fee. The rest is history. Omafume Onoge was admitted into Urhobo College where he performed brilliantly, enabling him to gain a Kennedy-era ASPAU scholarship to study in American Universities.
Omafume’s father and his native village were to play another critical role in Omafume’s life journey. He did return from the United States and was teaching with his Harvard Ph.D. in the Department of Sociology at the University of Ibadan. Academically, he was doing quite well. But he was also a Marxist, which offended certain chieftains of the Federal Government. When General Olusegun Obasanjo became Head of State, he could not tolerate these Marxists. And so Onoge and his comrades were sacked from the University of Ibadan for their beliefs. Onoge’s associates could rely on their spouses and relatives to survive in the city of Ibadan. Beyond a much-used Peugeot and stacks of books, Onoge had nothing else that would enable him to survive at Ibadan. He was forced to return back to his native village of Ugborikoko in Urhoboland. His father was already old and could not help him other than offering his son family lands for farming.
So, Omafume Onoge – with a Ph.D. from Harvard, famed for brilliantly winning debates against mighty opponents – sharpened his cutlass and went back to the farm for sheer survival. He developed a large cassava farm. He later got a part-time job at the State University at Abraka – although it was doubtful that the authorities in the Federal Government were aware of this little arrangement to help the refugee scholar to survive. It was in the course of his farm work in his native village that he came across a dark-complexioned beautiful girl from the neighbouring Uvwie town of Ekpan. She became the love of his life. When finally the Federal Government regained its senses and rescinded its brash dismissal of Onoge and other Marxists, he moved to the University of Jos with his young wife who studied Law at Jos and practiced Law in that city.
I am sure that my friend, Omi, would want these memories to be reflected in the story of survival and triumph that he lived. In the end he triumphed. He died a hero of his village of Ugborikoko and his sub-cultural unit of Uvwie. He is also a hero of the Urhobo people who regarded Omafume as a man who put the interests of his people before his own. Outside Urhoboland, Omafume Onoge is widely admired in a country in which the corruption of the elite has eaten deep into their reputation. Outside of Nigeria, his scholarly contributions are well celebrated.
Did Omafume have any regrets? That might be an unfair question to ask some who passed away. I am confident that it is a question that Omafume would want to answer. In the first place, in spite of the pain that they caused him, he never disavowed his socialist beliefs. He loved humanity and he believed that those socialist ideas enhanced our common humanity and were worth fighting for. So, what would he regret? First and foremost: that cancer took his wife away from him. In many ways, the premature death of his charming wife inflicted an unimaginable pain on Omafume. But he became even a better father to their four children after his wife’s untimely death. There is something else that it pained him to discuss. He once told me that he would want to repair the damage and unfairness that were done to his progeny from his first marriage. Illness barred him from exploring that dream.
At the end, Omafume Onoge was a man of struggles. He lived to overcome many odds. He must be a happy man at the end of a life that was a catalogue of triumphs over excruciating odds. He will be laid to rest by co-villagers with whom he grew up in Ugborikoko. I salute my good friend for a life so well lived.
Omafume, I wish You Good Night and Eternal Rest. Omi, gbe to odę o!
Peter P. Ekeh
Department of African and African-American Studies
University of New York, Buffalo.