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Capturing The Hyphen By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

(Text of a keynote speech delivered at the annual banquet of the Igbo Organization of New York on April 30, 2011 at Golden Terrace, New York)

(Text of a keynote speech delivered at the annual banquet of the Igbo Organization of New York on April 30, 2011 at Golden Terrace, New York)

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Thank you for that kind introduction, George. If half of what George said about me is not mere spicing up of a dull life, then why wasn’t I invited to yesterday’s wedding of Prince William?
You know what? Given the choice, I would rather be with wonderful people like you than with Queen Elizabeth and her folks. After all, you guys are better dressed, with better hairdos. I thank the Igbo Organization of New York for inviting me to be your keynote speaker. It is a privilege and an honor to address the finest group of Igbo people in the greatest city in the world, New York City.
Having said that, I know many of you must be wondering, “What is he doing here?” “He is just a reporter?” I wondered the same myself. Reporters always get a bad rap. The fate of the modern day journalist was sealed when George Bernard Shaw said that, “Journalists confuse a bicycle accident with the collapse of civilization.” But in actual fact, the confusion is that of the public which cannot separate the message from the messenger. If a tree fell in the forest and nobody was there, did the tree actually fall? Did it make noise? Did it crush anything on its path? If I wasn’t told, many weeks in advance that I would give the keynote speech, I would have thought that someone previously scheduled to speak cancelled.
You see, I lived in Boston for years. I witnessed how Red Sox’s plans to party after winning the World Series were cancelled by the Yankees’ winning year after year. So when it was time to get married, I came to New York to find my bride. Like Hakeem in Coming to America, I came to Queens. The queen I found is here with me tonight. Edna, could you please stand up and wave to this wonderful audience. Also here is my best man at our wedding, George Ezike. It was at his house that Edna and I met for the first time. Since the wedding, he has been looking younger while I have been growing older. What he hasn’t stopped doing is exaggerating stories about me. So please accept his introduction in that context.
This is the first time that my wife and my best man will be listening to me speak in public since our wedding reception some nine years ago. Time has gone by but Edna is as nervous as she was on our wedding night. That night, she was nervous at what she was getting herself into. No pun intended. This night, she is nervous about what I got myself into. So please, help her relax by cheering and laughing even when what I’m saying is not funny.
Many years ago, in the days of the Roman Empire, a Roman Emperor gathered a group of spectators at a stadium to watch as a Christian was thrown to a hungry lion. The Christian had annoyed the Emperor and the Emperor had sentenced him to death. The spectators cheered as the lion went after the Christian. When the lion came close, the Christian whispered something into the lion’s ear and the lion backed away with fear written all over it’s face. The spectators stomped their feet, chanted, and called on the lion to tear the Christian apart but the lion did not move. The Christian slowly walked out of the arena. The Emperor, who was watching, was so amazed by what happened that he offered the Christian his freedom if he would say what he did to subdue the lion. The Christian said, “I merely whispered in the lion’s ear that, after eating me for dinner, the spectators will require him to say a few words.”
Speaking to any audience after dinner is a tough job. It is especially tougher if the audience is itching to dance.
Because of that, I decided, for the first time in my speaking career, to consult books on public speaking. I wanted to do well for you all, even though I’ve got my hot drink. It was not just the regular Hennessey- it was Hennessey Privilege.
I have been asked to talk about the Igbo. The president suggested that I should address the issue of disunity in Igbo associations in America. The secretary wanted me to talk about how I interviewed Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Peter Obi, Andy Uba, Chris Ngige and Alex Ekwueme all at a sitting. Others wanted me to talk about the challenges the Igbo face in Nigeria. Some said I should talk about how to save our children in America. Another group said I should talk about the travails of Mama Udoka. The topics were broad.
But all the books I consulted agreed on a simple formula about public speaking. They said; 1.) Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them. 2. Tell them. 3. Then tell them what you told them.
It was that simple. So I went to work preparing a speech. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to make it short.
Fortunately for you all, we started late, as usual, and as such there is no time for me to get to my speech.  Well, that means only one thing: I have to give you all the abbreviated version of my speech. Using the simple three step formula- here it goes:
1.) I come to tell you that the Igbo are in trouble.
2.) My people, the Igbo are in trouble.
3.) In conclusion, the Igbo are in trouble.
What are you going to do about it?
Thank you and good night.
Wait a minute! Now that we have gotten the speech out of the way, let us have some fun.
Ebe ka unu si?
Where is Mr. President?
Mr. President, I thought you said I will be talking to Ndigbo?
Let me try again. Ebe ka unu si?

This is going to be a long night. I don’t know how we are going to find the solutions to our problems if we do not know who we are.
I must find out who you people are. Let me try a song.
Ha ha ha ha Angelina…
O ji ukwu onye ari mma
O ji aka onye ari mma
O ji ukwu onye ari mma
Umu Nwanyi
O ji aka one ari mma
O ji ukwu onye ari mma
O ji  aka onye ari mma
O ji ukwu onye ari mma
This girl
O ji aka onye ari mma
Angelina amaana nma alu alu,
Angelina amaana nma alu alu
Dorothy, amaana alu mma alu alu,
Dorothy amaana mma alu alu
Aunt Christina amaana mma alu alu
Christina amaana mma alu alu
Should in case a chowa onye ga-alu ya,
I am sorry, aka m a kwu ya
Agwa ojo ekweghi nwanyi lua di
I am sorry aka m adighi ya
Okwa agaracha ekweghi nwanyi lua di
I am sorry aka m adighi ya….
You don’t need to say it. I know how terrible I sound. But if you cheer hard enough, clap often enough, holler loud enough, at the end of this I may ask the DJ to play the real thing for you.
The song, This Girl, was composed many years before I was born. I have no idea of what the Peacocks band was saying. People tell me that it is about beautiful girls who were not married because of their personal flaws. I stand here today to tell you that the song is not really about girls. It is about us – about you and me. It is about today’s Ndigbo.
I see in this song a metaphor for our lives today.  Look at all you beautiful people – you and me – the chosen ones – the privileged – the lucky ones – ndi chukwu goziri.
We live in the greatest, the richest, the strongest and the freest country in the world. We are Angelina. We are Dorothy. We are Christiana. We are the beautiful.
No matter where we came from, how we got here, chances are that we are the best. Some of us came here because we are the best at schools. We won scholarships and came to America. Some of us came because a man left America to go home in search of a bride. He wanted the best and he picked us because we are the best. Some of us came because a woman left America to go home in search of a groom. She wanted the best and she picked us because we are the best. Some of us got to the top of our career and as part of the rite of passage, visited America on official assignment and never returned. Some of you won the green card lottery. There are no iti boribo amongst us. No egbeke. If there were, we won’t be producing the amount of nurses and advanced degree holders we produce in America.
No matter our peculiar circumstance, we are the best, the beautiful and the bride – the Angelina, the Dorothy and the Christiana.
Being privileged comes with great responsibilities. We owe responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our communities and our world. Are we fulfilling these responsibilities? If you ask me, I will say no. To put it in the Peacock Band’s words, “should in case a chowa onye ga alu ayi, I’m sorry aka m adighi ya.”
How do we verify if we are fulfilling these responsibilities? I verify it by looking at the society we left behind. If you take the best out of a place and the best fails to shine or if they shine abroad and fail to give back to the society that produced them, you see it by the deterioration of that society.
The society that we left behind is undergoing a massive decay. Posterity will judge us by the health and overall viability of that society. While posterity might just frown at us, our ancestors do strike back.
There is a price to be paid for this apparent failure on our part. The first is a discontinuation of our story.  For many of us, our link with our family tree will end with our generation. For instance, it will say in my case that Ezennu, (my great grandfather) begot Ezeobidi (my grandfather). Ezeobidi begot Onyenkuzi (my father). Onyenkuzi begot Rudolf. And Rudolf begot a dotted line.
And there it will end.
It does not matter how big a house I build in Nnobi. As long as Ogonna, my son, stays in these United States of America, so ends my story and my lineage.
So you can see why I said that I am Angelina who is beautiful but not a marriage material. And “should in case a chowa onye ga alu ya, I am sorry aka m adighi ya.”
When we are born, Posterity does something marvelous – He writes our names. Beside our name He opens a bracket in which He writes our year of birth. Then He puts a hyphen and waits. The next thing He will write is the year of our death. We have no control of when we are born and when we shall die. What we have control of is the hyphen. What that hyphen stands for.
What I want to talk about today is what the hyphen means and how to capture it.
Growing up, we heard a lot of stories – folklore. Most of our stories had the tortoise, Mbe, as the lead character. Yet, for some strange reasons we do not seem to have learned a thing from the tortoise. You would think that the Igbo with all their tortoise stories would be savvy, politically and otherwise; but no, we are not.
I am reminded of the story of a tortoise in Chinua Achebe’s novel, The Anthill of the Savannah. In the story, a tortoise was cornered by the lion that was poised to eat it. The tortoise asked the lion to give him a minute. The lion agreed thinking that the tortoise was going to pray. The lion watched in amazement as the tortoise dug up holes furiously, flipping the soil all over the ground. “Why are you doing that?” asked the Lion. “I am digging this hole so that when people come where I was killed, they would say that I did not just die but rather that I put up a real fight.”
Needless to say that the lion killed the tortoise.
In a way, the Obi Igbo you bought in New York was an attempt to do what the tortoise did in this story. – to leave a hole behind so that people who come where you lived your lives will say that you really put up a fight.
We will all die. The important question to ask is what will be our story afterwards. What will that hyphen between the day we were born and the day we died stand for?
When we are gone, when posterity closes the bracket, what will be left is the hyphen. The purpose of story telling is to capture that hyphen. If a slow animal like the tortoise can capture an enduring hyphen in the annals of folklore, so can we.
The story is important. The tortoise knows that. But do we know it? We have to tell our story. If we don’t, others will tell it for us. And when they do, we lose control of our narrative. In some cases, like in the case of the lion and the tortoise, we may not be able to recognize our story when we let others tell it for us.
One day, a villager in Russia saw a bird freezing to death by the roadside. The villager said to himself, “If only I had something to wrap this bird up, I might be able to save it’s life.” But the villager had nothing. He looked around and saw cow dung – nsi efi. He wrapped the bird up in cow dung and placed it on the road side and left. With the cow dung around it, the bird began to warm up. The bird felt so overjoyed at feeling warm again that it started to sing. They were weak notes. Just then, another villager walking along the same road heard the bird singing. “Poor bird,” the second villager said as he picked it up, “it’s being choked in this nsi efi.” The villager removed the nsi efi, certain that he had saved the bird’s life, left it on the ground and went his way. Shortly after, the bird died in the cold.
The moral of this Russian fable are three. 1.) It is not necessarily your enemies who will put you in shit. 2.) It is not necessarily your friends who will get you out of shit. 3.) When you have shit up to your neck, for God’s sake, stop singing.
It is not necessarily our enemies who will put the Igbo in shit. It is not necessarily our friends who will get the Igbo out of shit. And when we have shit up to our neck, for God’s sake, we should stop singing.
That is all that I have to say about the trouble with the Igbo. Prof. Chika Ifemesia used to say, “Ife ndi ozo mere Igbo erika, ife Igbo mere onwefa kari” – what others did to the Igbo are many, what the Igbo did to themselves are more.
You’ve been a great audience. Thank you and God bless.

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