Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme
Playwright   Novelist   Scholar   Cultural Activist   International Speaker   Performer

books

"Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Smith College, MA.

books

Exalted New Post / Fonlon Nichols Prize / My Work Is Larger Than Any Female Ideology 

Guardian news (The State Of My Art)

 

Latest NEWS 

 

My Mum was My Architect

By Monday Philips Ekpe

Mama
 If I had to do it all again
 If I had to choose
 I'd choose you, forever my mother. The One True Gift from God
 A precious gem for me to hold unto Mama
 God's own rare work of beauty Sparkling in both rain and sun
 Your chiseled words etched,
 Deep in my heart.
 You mother Rock
 Forged deep in my soul
 To stir to still to firm up
 My fumbling heart and faltering steps. Ah, Mama!
 You will be missed .
 Especially by us who loved you most. Rest...Rest...
 Now you're in the Lord's Hands... MamaRock, MamaLove...
 The one you made to stand with you words
 Your own...
 Osonye

Tess Onwueme, foremost Nigerian playwright and professor of cultural diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA, is 50 years old today. Ordinarily, considering her career, she should roll out drums and celebrate. But not so. Reason: Last month, she lost her mother and, perhaps, her most important source of inspiration, the late Mrs. Maria Ndidi Akaeke. She would probably use today to reflect on her eventful life and how to bid her mother, aged 72, a final farewell next week. The stem (Tess), through an attitude of adoration and gratitude, seems set to keep the root(mum) alive so that her entire system can continue to flourish:

  Titled, “Mamarock, Mamalove”, the poem above was written by Qsonye Tess Onwueme in honor of her late, mother who departed this world on .August 12, 2005. The mother and child relationship is an abiding metaphor, especially in African literature. A child is ever grateful to his mother for giving him life, for seeing him through the vicissitudes of early life. Many times, the continent itself is portrayed as having the attributes of motherhood.

But there is something that makes Tess Onwueme's case stand out: It's almost impossible for her to think of her fruitful life outside the impact of her mother’s care, admonition and' guidance. The bulk of her earliest memories centers around the cruelty and physical assault her mother was subjected to in a short-lived marriage. It got to a climax when she was six years.  Her mother had to make a hard choice: to leave her marital home to save her life.
  Arguably one of Nigeria's most accomplished literary giants, it is understandable if she narrates one of her most profound with i experiences in a language that is both emotive and figurative. It was in the night, she recalls. "Yes Baby! I'm ready now. Come see me off," her mother said. How was a child of that age expected to comprehend the full weight of her mother's decision?
  "But I stood still. She started to pull me gently. My feet followed her, fumbling. My heart raced into the night. She was on the her way, pushing the hut with the village behind her. And where was she going? She was going. Somewhere. She was making her way out there: to the unknown. I am guilty for being her accomplice. Her foot soldier.
  "Still holding on to, her load, with one hand, she picked me with the other. Held me tight and breathed hard into me. Her breath stuck in my face. Her scent, warm, held steady. Lingering, soothing for so long. I would carry that with me far into years to come, especially when I was afraid. Years later, when I would trip and fall, as I did fall so many times, and whenever I was losing myself, her soothing breath would guide me back into the way."
Moments later, it was time for mother and daughter to part ways. It was like digging a hole, a vacuum into her young life. It was like trying to separate the soul from the spirit. As she watched her mother leave her presence with her kid brother, her sense of loss took some metaphysical dimension with the aid of a cosmic configuration. As her mum moved further away, the little girl looked up. That day, the moon assumed a new meaning. She was to revisit, decades later, that encounter with a creative proclamation. "The Moon Is My Witness!".
  The next time she saw her mother again was during the Civil War in 1969 when the late Akaeke risked her life and traveled all the way from Lagos to Agbor where the daughter was schooling. The Nigeria Army had just reclaimed Agbor from the Biafrans and it was not the friendliest time. It was another proof that the umblicord between Tess and her mother wait only intact, symbolically, it was, read serve as the pipe through which inspiration would flow for a long time to come. The highest point of that "suicide" visit came, in the form of an advice. “This school (pointing to her school) is your mother, your father your brother, your sister. Education is a life long gift you can give yourself'. The 13 years old girl every word that was spoken at that critical moment of her life, And that has evidently molded the personality of the playwright. The academia holds for her not only a means of livelihood but a platform which she has found personal fulfillment.
  With a Master of Arts degree in literature from the University of lfe(now Obafemi Awolowo University) and a Ph. D Drama from the University of Benin, she lectured in some, Nigerian and American universities including Montclair State University in New Jersey and Vassar college. Most of her creative works have n awards: The Desert Enroaches, Tell It Women, The1'lShe Said It, The Missing Face, Why the Elephant Has no Butt, Shakara: Dance Hall Queen, Riot in tll1en, Legacies, The Reign of Wazobia, Broken Calabash, The Artist's Homecoming, The Scent of Onions, Some y Soon etc.
  Her stature in African and indeed world literature is enviable. Many postgraduate these and dissertations Rave been written her works. Flattering comments by senior colleagues have also put a stamp on integrity and versatility. According to Professor, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, "Onwueme has shown daring in her exploration of is even if they lead to subjects and themes which may seem taboo. Onwueme eminently political dramatist for power affects every aspect of society. She explores these themes with a dazzling array of images and proverbs. Her drama and theater are a feast of music, mine, proverbs and story-telling... (Thus) Onwueme consolidates her position among the leading dramatists from Africa. "
  Professor Eugene Redmond: "Onwueme's literary soul-mates are Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Albert Camus, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Antoin Chekov, Femi Osofisan, Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, G.B. Shaw, Gloria Naylor, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba and Sembene . Ousmane.
  Professor Emmanuel Obiechina: "Dr. Onwueme's greatest achievement is her body of plays. Her plays are rich in thought and meaning. Her themes and insights are numerous and profound. Her concerns span a wide spectrum of personal, social, and global issues."
  It is interesting to note that her acknowledgment of her mother's dominant role in nurturing her to prominence is total. Age 50 is a landmark in the life of everyone who has cause to count her blessings. But fate has uncanny ways of putting a knife between expectation and realization. Even with her mother's illness; Tess Onwueme had thought of the moment her mother would stand beside her to cut her birthday cake. That has since given way to when she will witness the lowering of her beautiful mother's casket into Mother Earth come Friday next week in Isah- Ogwashi-uku in Delta State.
  The late Mrs. Akaeke whose highest educational attainment was Standard Three would, no doubt, be proud and assured that her daughter would continue to climb up the stairs of success, to continue to live her dream.
  How does Onwueme feel about her beloved mother, taking a bow (she too was full of drama when she was alive) before her (Onwueme's) golden birthday? "I'm not too sure I'll be able to express what I feel about that," she explains carefully. "When she was alive, she was very dramatic. Let me say that she was the architect of my life, the DNA of my career. Oh, Mamarock, Mamalove. She meant every- thing to me. She laid a solid foundation for my life. That rock will purge my being forever. Even though I was very young, I was the only one who knew when she left our house. She told me to stay (behind) and learn to work hard, very hard, that I should not fail. Those words were etched deep in my soul. Anytime I suffered, her words would come up. in my mind."
  The theme she has chosen for the funeral of the "root" of her life is bridal. Tess Onwueme wants to give to her mother at death the marital bliss she was denied when she was alive. Maybe it is not too late. Life, they say, is a continuum. A simple act of affection could bring healing in many ways to many people, including the dead and the bereaved.

  ‘Still holding on to her load with one hand, she picked me up with the other. Held me tight and breathed hard into me. Her breath stuck in my face’


This Day, Vol 11, No 3791, pg. 20-21, September 8, 2005

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