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Celebrating a Literary lcon at 99

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OPINION

By Uboho Bassey

 

We assembled to celebrate someone who deserves to be celebrated—even in death. However, just in case you have sharpened your appetite to savour the best of journalistic prose, you may be disappointed. I’m gate-crashing. I have never been formally tutored in the art and craft of reporting.

By association, I have come to appreciate journalism. So, what you see here are mere observations of an event participant who chose to break bounds by thinking aloud in prose. Writing this piece is a self-inflicted choice. It feels like a precarious climb up a steep mountain.

This is a feeble attempt to capture the events of the posthumous 99th birthday celebration of the late Dr. James Ene Henshaw. I only hope that there would be few hands to hold me as I tumble down the mountainside, in temporary defeat.

Yes, temporarily, because if this is published, I would still attempt to write again, another day! Or what do you think? 

Let’s get started this way. James Ene Henshaw was born on August 29, 1924 in Calabar, Cross River State. He trained as a medical doctor but earned fame as an author. Henshaw qualified as a chest physician during his studies at the National University of Ireland and the University of Wales, Cardiff.

He is said to have had a great practice; rising to the top of his profession as Director of Medical Services in the then South Eastern State which today comprises Cross River and Akwa Ibom States. A grateful nation honoured him with OON—Order of the Niger.

However, history portrays Henshaw more, as a writer, than a medical doctor. In his words, he “strayed into writing” with his classic dramatic work entitled: This is Our Chance, while he was still a medical student. What a way to announce a historic arrival on the literary scene!

Before his death on August 16, 2007, he had written other unforgettable titles like the unbeatable Medicine for Love; Children of the Goddess; Dinner for Promotion; Enough Is Enough; among others. He left an uncompleted work while on death bed: the daring translation of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare into Efik—his mother tongue.

It was in remembrance of his life and times that Uyo Book Club—the intellectually-focused and Nigeria’s foremost book-reading hub—put together an event to mark his 99th birthday. It turned out to be a great gathering worth a coverage by an emergency reporter.

Can you imagine! How does someone present a paper without a paper? You needed to watch and listen to the erudite Professor Effiong Johnson of the Department of Theatre Arts, Film and Communication Studies, University of Uyo, to have a clue. This was a class act like no other. 

By the time he ended his discourse on “Magic in Blood” it was evident that he himself has magic in his tongue. Johnson broke down the play in the simplest of ways, leading the audience into growing with the characters, scenes and scenarios, delving into nuances of culture and traditional influences, the ethos and pathos of the literary work.

The Prof further wove an amazing tapestry of timeless essence such that a piece, written in the early 60’s, came back to life instantly. There’s certainly no question about his mastery of aesthetics! He demonstrated it to both the literary-minded and other observers.

You thought we were listening to the drama being retold? No! We were actually watching a drama being enacted right before our eyes. It was a drama complete with the elements: plot, character, tension, language, spectacle, audience, mood, atmosphere.

It consisted of actors on the stage; performer after another; speaker after speaker; perfect script delivery; seamless flow; flair and excellence captured in every scene, an audience activated! But let’s return to the beginning, when the curtain was drawn.

The evening actually started with the arrival of the academia, mainly professors, then arts patrons, students, members of Uyo Book Club; among others. The zoom link was actively connected with viewers online participating from within and outside Nigeria. 

Seated at the traditional high table were Dr. Udeme Nana, Founder of Uyo Book Club, Mr. EkanAbasi Ubong, who chaired the event; Professor Johnson, Professor Joseph Ushie, Dean Faculty of Arts, University of Uyo; and Mrs Ini-Ite Ubong Nelson. 

Other notable faces included the energetic Head of the Planning Committee, Dr. Bassey Ubong, who held the reins seamlessly from the opening protocols to the finale in admirable style; Abom Tony Esu; Dr. Martin Akpan, a medical doctor and former State Chairman, Association of Nigerians Authors (ANA), Professor Solomon Obot Etukudo; and Mrs. Alice Ugbe of NTA. 

Dr. Nana reiterated the mission of Uyo Book Club to include promoting, reawakening and countering culture of the reading habits of Nigerians. He observed that the book club has over the years developed and sustained the culture of celebrating literary legends like Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Wole Soyinka.

The event chairman, Mr. Ubong, expressed delight at being called to witness such a gathering. Several years back, he set for himself an almost impossible dream of reading all the literary works in the library of his Alma Mater, Etinan Institute, before graduation. As he said, everyone must do something worth remembering in their lifetime.

When Dr. Akpan took the stage, only a few people in the audience had a clue to what awaited them. He spoke about medical doctors in literature—an exhaustive and incisive commentary that had many other professionals wishing they were in that category.

Akpan almost made us believe that medical doctors have a symbiotic relationship with writing. He cited a curious connection between medicine and creativity and the mythological Apollo, on whose creed new medical doctors are made to swear their Hippocratic oath.

He declared that: “the involvement of doctors in literary activities dates back to antiquity.” Now we know that Dr. Henshaw, the man we gathered to celebrate, was not the first doctor-writer. There were many others before him. History is factual on this.

 Dr. Akpan had the audience in a standing ovation at the end of his speech. It was an incredible drama he wove on stage! How could he still recite impeccably, the words of Bambulu, a character in the play “This is our Chance,” a part he acted almost 60 years ago? 

When Professor Effiong Johnson took hold of the microphone, he began by calling to question, the striking resemblance between himself and Dr. Martin Akpan. On certain occasions, he said, he has been stopped by his ‘supposed patients’ to enquire of their diagnosis—encounters he waded through with finesse and effusiveness.

But, in the matter of “Magic in Blood,” he brought to light his in-depth knowledge and staggering dimensions of wisdom. He led the audience into appreciating arts and evolving terminologies like affective stylistics, literary devices: farce, melodrama, satire, tragedy, comedy, ironies, language, and transliteration that one might find in the play, “Magic in Blood.”

In his critique as the rapporteur, Prof. Ushie spoke of Dr. Henshaw as “the man who saw tomorrow” because his works are as relevant today as they were years back.

While marrying the thoughts of the speakers, he raised highlights about today’s leadership of the judicial, legislative and executive arms of government; standing them in comparison to the characters in Dr. Henshaw’s plays.

In her discourse, Mrs. Nelson hailed the lasting legacies of Dr. Henshaw and called on good-minded Nigerians not to confine themselves to sitting on the fence, jocularly saying the fence is not so strong again. 

What’s a birthday without a cake? The family may not have had a cake as Mr. James Henshaw (Junior) said in his remarks from his base in London, but trust Uyo Book Club to provide one. There was a cake to cut; supervised by Abom Tony Esu after a toast by Professor Etukudo.

Truly, the evening was a howling success, a fantastic trip into the mind of one of the finest breed of medical-doctor-writers as attested to by his son, Henshaw Junior, who joined the event through zoom, alongside other members of the family.

Uboho, a member of Uyo Book Club, is a published poet with four titles to her credit.

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