Kester Osahenye: My Fleeting Meeting With Angelou

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Like she also enthused “You can write me down in history with hateful, twisted lies. You can tread me in this very dirt, but still like dust I’ll rise”, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style”. She lived every word, punctuation and syntax of those statements gracefully.

In a twist of fate I finally met Maya Angelou in 2010 at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Conference. Prior to that eventful meeting, I have read voraciously her autobiographical note- “I Know Why Caged Bird Sings” and some of her award winning poems. The organisers availed me the rare opportunity to present her with a gift of Ankara (Nigeria’s fabric), she reciprocated with an autographed book. This I cherish till date. I was locked in a long embrace with this amiable wordsmith. Her eyes shone with joy and her smiles broad. Immediately I introduced myself as a Nigerian writer she said “how is Lagos?” She spoke with tangible nostalgia about her past odyssey in Egypt and Ghana. She named Nigerian writers whose works impacted her life: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Ben Okri, Flora Nwapa etc. She told me she listened to the songs of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade. She mentioned so many Ghanaian musicians she enjoyed their music also, although I am not familiar with some of them. Her laughter was genuine and her love for people was aplomb.

I have always prepared for my writing conferences with a sartorial precision: renowned writers to meet, books to buy, what to eat, what themes of writing to review, what to write and where to visit. I always want to extract concrete goals and objectives from such meetings. I invested so much time into seminal gathering for writers. My quest to meet, research and debate about African-American writers, their styles, their views and critiques started for a long time. My imagination was further enriched after reading the works of Amiri Baraka (who died on the 9th of January this year), Sonia Sanchez, Michael Eric Dyson, Ishmael Reed, Ellis Cose, Linda Addison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Gwendolyn Bennett.

I later pulled my chair closer to ask Maya lots of questions about her works and how she pulled through life’s challenges. We talked about contemporary literary topics that impinged on racism, cross-country modern day slavery, female genital mutilation, neo-terrorism, influence of Diaspora media on governance in Africa, religious pluralism, and the denominational composition of religious adherence. She believed that economic growth responds positively to the extent of some religious beliefs but negatively to church attendance. I mentioned how the dependent or endogenous variables derived from irrational human fears; kleptomaniac escapades of politicians and anxieties fuelled the issues of religious riots in Africa. She acquiesced that economic development typically encompasses an array of changes, which include increases in per capita income, education, life expectancy, and urbanisation. She believed that Nigeria’s democracy would thrive, that civil rule is better than benevolent and malevolent autocracy.

As a young lad, I was glued to my dad’s television in 1993 when I first watched Maya Angelou read her poem “The Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton as the 42nd President of the United States of America. It was the second time another President would do that after Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” in 1961 at the inauguration of President  JFK. By popular requests, she read “The Pulse of the Morning” at New Orleans that evening to the admiration of her vibrant audience.

When on the morning of Wednesday, 28th May 2014 she passed on peacefully at the age of 86, she left for her fans and admirers a treasure trove of exhilarating moments that took our breath away. She left over 31 titles, including several autobiographical notes spanning eventful decades. I would conclude this tribute with one of my favourite quotes from Maya “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by moments that take your breath away”.

*Dr. Osahenye is a creative writer.