John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Nigeria’s bard, playwright and activist
Written by Kendrick Lebron on November 6, 2020
Ahead of his death on October 13, 2020,the renowned Nigerian poet and playwright John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo had given instructions on his burial.
He wrote a poem, “My Last Testament”:
This is to my family
Do not take me to a mortuary,
Do not take me to a church,
Whether I die in or out of town,
But take me home to my own, and
To lines and tunes, tested on the waves
Of time, let me lie in my place
On the Kiagbodo River.
If Moslems do it in a day,
You certainly can do it in three,
Avoiding blood and waste,
And whatever you do after,
My three daughters and my son
By the only wife I have,
Do not fight over anything
I may be pleased to leave behind
(From Full Tide, collected poems, page 385)
At 11:30pm on October 15, the “Last Testament” was fulfilled when Clark’s body was interred after a brief ceremony attended by a few relations, including his wife, Professor Ebun Clark (née Odutola), and children. His remains had earlier arrived at Kiagbodo from Lagos in a wooden boat. The bard went into ancestry within three days of his transition.
Poems and plays
Professor J.P. Clark, as he was more widely known, was largely popular for his poems. These are still studied at secondary and tertiary levels in Nigeria and beyond. His rich repertoire includes The Casualties, A Reed in the Tide, A Decade of Tongues, State of the Union and Mandela and Other Poems.
These poems and others like Night Rain and Abiku relay pungent messages on diverse issues such as causes and effects of violence and protests, corruption in government, the beauty of nature, pride in African values and the evils of neo-colonialism. Many of his poems, particularly the early ones, celebrate musical beauty through repetitive use of sounds at strategic points. Some observers point to the way sounds at the end of his lines load the poems with meaning and feeling.
His plays – Song of a Goat (1961), The Masquerade (1964), The Raft (1964), Ozidi (1966), The Boat (1981), The Wives’ Revolt (1991) and All for Oil (2009) – all address salient socio-political, cultural and economic issues on the African continent. While some critics have accused him of presenting unrealistic stage devices in his plays, others have applauded him for his ingenuity in blending African and European imageries.
His other works include Ozidi Saga (1977), an oral literary epic that takes about seven days to perform; The Example of Shakespeare, which articulates Clark’s aesthetic views about poetry and drama; America, Their America, in which he compared Western values to his African values; and the African Writers Series, to which he contributed his literary and editorial works.
He was one of the four literary giants who pioneered modern African literature in Nigeria. He was a colleague and friend of the poet Christopher Okigbo, who died during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970; the novelist Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, and Wole Soyinka, the first black African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1986, Clark, Achebe and Soyinka visited Dodan Barracks, the then seat of the Nigerian government, in Lagos to appeal to the military president, Ibrahim Babangida, to pardon Major General Mamman Vatsa for his alleged involvement in the coup d’etat of that year. They went as representatives of the Association of Nigerian Authors, of which Vatsa was a member. Sadly, Babangida did not grant their plea – Vatsa was executed a few hours after their visit.
J.P. Clark was born in Kiagbodo on June 6, 1934 to an Ijaw father and Urhobo mother. He had his early education at the Native Authority School, Okrika in the then Western Ijaw province, now Burutu Local Government Area. He later attended the popular government college, Ughelli, for his secondary education before proceeding to the University College, Ibadan where he bagged his BA degree in English and edited various magazines such as Beacon and The Horn. After graduating, he worked as an information officer with the Ministry of Information in the then Western Region. He also served as Features Editor for the Daily Express as well as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.
He later moved to the University of Lagos, where he served for many years as Professor of English and co-editor of the Black Orpheus, a literary magazine, until he retired in 1980.
Life outside academia
In 1982, Clark and his wife, Ebun, a director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos, founded the PEC Repertory Theatre.
A recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award, Professor Clark was celebrated on December 6, 2011 with the publication of JP Clark: A Voyage, a creative biography by Femi Osofisan, another distinguished theatre professor and prolific playwright.
In 2007 I interviewed him on the set of one of his plays, All for Oil. He told me then that he wrote the play as a commentary on the undue reliance of Nigeria on crude oil for survival. He berated the government for neglecting agriculture, health, education, culture and tourism. Unfortunately his vision has become reality as the people of Nigeria continue to suffer from poverty and hunger.
Lecturer, Theatre and Media Arts, Federal University, Oye Ekiti