All writers from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria are typically activists fighting for their communities.
The late poet John Pepper Clark was no different, with his lifelong dedication to improving the lives of people in the oil-rich region. Over decades of achievements, Clark amplified local culture in his works. He also highlighted the environmental degradation of the region, caused by oil production.
At 15, I was first thrilled by Clark’s Agbor Dancer in high school. Inspired by my birthplace Agbor, the piece conjured familiar images, painting them in words which felt increasingly animated with each new reading. As a lover of literature, I found it impossible to avoid Clark in my university course work. I went on to study him for years, unearthing many of his published works across genres.
Clark’s work was intriguing. His two plays – The Raft and The Wives Revolt – gave me fresh insight into the man, whom I thought was already familiar. In those plays, he expertly used humour to explore pressing concerns. Clark’s work was instrumental in the Niger Delta struggle against economic impotence and unequal distribution of the region’s crude oil.
Clark stopped short of predicting cracks in Nigerian society and a future revolution led by oppressed citizens. But his art did. Like a prophet with uncanny powers, he led the way for the reversal of the anticipated negative prediction – especially in the Niger Delta – by championing solutions to the region’s economic, social and environmental problems. I met Clark in 2018 while attending the International Conference on J.P. Clark, which was held in Lagos.
On the opening night, I sat with him in a hall watching old clips from his Opinion production of The Ozidi Saga – an epic folk tale from the Toru-Orua Ijaw area of the Niger Delta. At the conference, Clark and I were focused on ecological activism.
His poems, Night Rain and Home from Hiroshima, portrayed the possible effects of irresponsible environmental exploration on the people. The Ozidi Saga is one of Clark’s most famous works. Clark represented a class of writers who did not write for writing’s sake (art for art’s sake). Rather, he was committed to finding lasting solutions to contemporary problems.
You cannot read Clark’s works without learning about the swampy nature of his hometown, and the adverse environmental effects of oil exploration. When the Niger Delta struggle became militarised by militant groups, Clark vehemently rejected the use of arms. Instead, he championed art as an effective protest medium, with the power of influencing future generations.
According to his logic, bullets may run dry and bombs routinely detonate. But words live forever. Many years ago, Clark predicted that the world had a looming battle against multiple threats to the environment.
He drew attention to the destruction of the environment and the effects it would have on future generations. And he was right. I am a victim of that battle. I am writing this tribute from a flooded home in the Niger Delta because little was done to heed that call.
Now that the caller has passed on, are we going to jettison the message? Let the environmental activism continue in the honour of the legendary J.P. Clark.
Dr. Idegbekwe is a Lecturer at the Department of English, University of Africa, Toru-Orua, Bayelsa State. This article was first published in The Conversation.