Review: Okpewho’s Blood on the Tides

This is the proof of my recent review of Isidore Okpewho’s Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (Rochester, NY: Rochester UP, 2014), published in the Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16).

In this formidable book, Isidore Okpewho, distinguished expert on African literature, offers a detailed account of the historical, social and geographical contexts of The Ozidi Saga. This is hardly an easy task, not least because of the scale and complexity of the Ozidi epic itself. If we add the difficulties of analysing and transcribing oral performance and the complex political context of post-independence Nigeria, the enormity of the task begins to become clear. Okpewho is perfectly positioned to take on these challenges: an accomplished scholar in the field who has published extensively on the epic in Africa and African oral literature. Okpewho has also had a long friendship with the renowned poet, playwright and essayist John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo who transcribed, translated and edited The Ozidi Saga, as presented by one master narrator – Okabou Oljobolo of Sama. The book analyses Clark-Bekederemo’s The Ozidi Saga, as one version of the story of Ozidi, performed in a specific setting (Ibadan, West Africa) by a specific narrator (Okabou) over seven nights.

The Ozidi Saga tells the story of a warrior, Ozidi (Junior), and his powerful sorceress grandmother, Okeame, who are duty-bound to destroy the assassins who killed Ozidi’s father, and to eliminate the forces that threaten the prominence of his father in the land.  It is arguably the best known story of the Ijo of Nigeria’s delta region and, as Okpewho explains, ‘in terms of scope and artistic excellence, The Ozidi Saga remains a monument unrivaled by any record of the African heroic epic that has come to our attention’ (84). Okpewho deftly weaves together analysis of the technical artistry of this important epic with a rigorous investigation into its many contexts, from its relation to the flora and fauna of the Niger Delta to the localised political challenges of the day. The final chapter is particularly original in the way it puts Okabou’s performance into dialogue with contemporary creative writers and the challenges facing Nigeria today.

Readers should not expect a simple appraisal of Clark-Bekederemo’s transcription and translation of The Ozidi Saga. Okpewho is always careful to acknowledge the objections that have been raised to Clark-Bekederemo’s published version, for instance, in relation to his translation of African ideophones (72). Despite this, Okpewho remains a steadfastly generous reader throughout, always careful to provide the wider perspective and to read such judgements in the context of the sheer scale of the task. As Okpewho rightly observes, the recording of The Ozidi Saga in 1963 and publication of this fourteen years later was a colossal project, and one which established Clark-Bekederemo as an eminent figure in African and world literary history.

This book will not only be of interest to readers of The Ozidi Saga itself. Okpewho also provides a series of rich social, political and geographical accounts of the Niger Delta, the Ijo and post-independence Nigeria. This said, Okepwho’s passion for establishing the epic with the proper recognition that it deserves remains at the heart of the book. This never becomes a purely historical matter for, as Okpewho emphasises throughout, however old the story, narrators can only re-create a tale from a mind-set rooted in the time and place in which they live. The book closes, then, with a timely reminder of the importance of The Ozidi Saga for imagining and creating alternative political realities for the present, leaving us with the striking conclusion that Okabou’s representation proposes a better end to the fortunes of this society than we find within current political structures.

 

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