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First Day Meeting Maxim

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I have never seen Maxim angry or drunk. And I have known him for a quarter century, from my very first day in journalism at The Post Express office on 7 Warehouse Road Apapa. It was a Monday in late January or early February 1997.

CV handy, a friend had sent me to Mary Kanu, Managing Editor of a promising newspaper hobbled by management challenges in its later years but was also the first mainstream media house to go online in Nigeria.

From her office on the first floor, Mrs. Kanu, in turn, sent me to Arts & Culture Editor, Nduka Otiono. In a spacious newsroom on the same floor overlooking Apapa Wharf, the hulls and masts of berthed ships and schooners visible from the windows facing the waterfront, I found Otiono somewhere around the Sports desk in conversation with late Dave Enechukwu and Harry Iwuala both on the same beat. There was a fourth guy. This was Uzor Maxim Uzoatu!

Though he would later become chairman of the Editorial Board at some point, Maxim was not a staff of the newspaper then. You couldn’t tell at the time, especially because he was always around not only to see his friends Otiono and Akin Adesokan, Otiono’s deputy, or Harry Garuba, a member of the Editorial Board, but he also contributed, perhaps, more than any other writer of his generation, to the weekly literary pages aptly named Post Express Literary Supplement – PELS for short.

Unlike now that you just spider-touch your lappy then knock out a readable piece in one hour or two of unblinking concentration, you had to write your reports, stories in long hand for days with the inevitable intermittent breaks, finished at last and then passed along to impatient editors who were sure to cross out unreadable or meaningless passages tending towards verbosity. To the best of my knowledge, Otiono never complained once about Maxim’s copies, which was why he was almost always at ease with whatever Maxim sent in for the week, a poem, literary essay or even a short story.

“Oh, I don’t have any problem with Maxim’s manuscripts,” Otiono would often say, as we pored over dozens of contributions from professors of English and Literature in Nigerian universities, writers and the literary smart set across the country every week, beginning from Thursdays. By Saturday morning, the four-page literary pull out would be on newsstands, waiting to be snapped up by students of those same professors who had written for PELS.

In many instances, Otiono would also show me badly written scripts by some other contributors, those writing to impress or just rambling on and on without ever taking into consideration the cardinal rule that “writers should be their own first editors.”

Of course Maxim was, one such meticulous writer which another editor, the great Sonala Olumhense, recognised from the get-go at Rutam House, Isolo birthplace and headquarters of The Guardian newspaper in the mid-eighties.

Fresh from youth service around that time, Maxim bee-lined it to the elite newspaper for a job placement. He knew no one there except through their bylines. He met SO in person. Around that time, too, a conference of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting CHOGM was taking place in Auckland New Zealand in 1985. It was in the papers, of which SO had a sheaf right on his table.

After browsing the papers in SO’s office downstairs, Maxim went upstairs to write a piece on the ongoing CHOGM meeting. He made short work of the assignment. While waiting for the result, Maxim heard a booming voice calling him out immediately. It was Andy Akporugo’s, Executive Editor of African Guardian, then: “Who do you think you are? Who are you to think that you can write so well?” Or something to that effect. Akporugo was clearly impressed with what he’d read but again wouldn’t want to admit so to a twenty-something year-old fresh from service.

Of course, Maxim did not set out to impress either SO or even Akporugo. At University of Ife where he studied Dramatic Arts under no less an influential and inspiring instructor than Soyinka himself, I recall Maxim telling me of some of his friends with common interest in reading and writing, friends like Owei Lakemfa, passing TIME, Newsweek and Readers Digest magazines from hand to hand. There were Spear and Drum magazines as well from South Africa.

By the time Maxim got to The Guardian for his unscheduled and impromptu test with SO whom he has become lifelong friends with since then, he was more than ready. Having gorged on essays and reports by the likes of George J Church, Otto Friedrich, Lance Morrow in TIME, George F. Will and Robert Jay Samuelson in Newsweek and, say, a real life drama story by Frederick Forsythe in Reader’s Digest, writing about a mere Commonwealth conference was like telling a riveting moonlight story to an appreciative audience – old and young – in his Umuchu community in Anambra state where he comes from.

Of course, Maxim got the job, and thus began his journey in journalism. He would later meet and become one of SO’s best reporters at This Week, where the former Rutam House editor went to work for Nduka Ogbaibena as pioneer editor of the magazine.

If you have it, so the saying goes, you flaunt it. If you don’t, you fake it. That may apply to those with an inclination for material possessions. But it just doesn’t work with writing. If you don’t have it as a writer, you can’t even fake it because discerning readers will see through you.

In a birthday tribute published last February as “The Mystique of Maxim” in Premium Times, another writer and poet teaching in Pretoria South Africa, Sanya Osha, captured the essential Maxim that most of his friends have become familiar with.

Recalling their time in Ikate, Surulere back then when Maxim was the self-proclaimed Obi of Ikate, Osha laid bare for readers what it was to spend some precious moments with the man aka Borojah.

“Maxim’s humour is the most distinguishing quality about him,” Osha wrote in the tribute. “He is exceedingly serious without really being serious. He could dispel problematic knots of hostility by merely being present. It is almost impossible to remain angry in his luminous company which is invariably filled with light and laughter while he earnestly plots his next avalanche of literary and journalistic spates of activity.”

I myself have been privy to “the most distinguishing quality about him” – Maxim’s humour and he was sure to get you in fits of laughter whether at a watering hole or even at work. He, it was who told us one day at one such spot off Toyin Street, Ikeja Divine Bar and Restaurant about one such incident.There was a GO in the person of Obed Awowede, a senior journalist and now a biographer.

In his undergraduate days at Ife, Maxim recounted once, he was at the table with the great Ugandan poet Okot p Bitek who was teaching in the university at the time. The poet made a habit of not paying his bills promptly. So, the impatient proprietress, a professor’s spouse, approached Bitek and reminded him of his unpaid bills. Anyone would reasonably expect an apology from the poet, perhaps wringing his hands in the process. Not Bitek!

Instead, according to Maxim, the poet looked at the woman straight in the face and told her thusly. “It does seem that your husband did not f***k you well yesterday. When you get home tonight, tell him to do so.”

The woman fled! Whether the Ugandan bard settled his bills or not in the end, Maxim did not say. But he had some more risible stories to tell us. Another was of a village bumpkin from one of the south eastern states who began having ideas about befriending a city woman in Lagos.

The chap in question used to frequent the woman’s restaurant and bar. Besotted with the woman like a teenager in love, the man timidly made his intentions known to the lady of the bar. Of course, the woman in question would have none of that and repulsed the ambitious fellow in the most humiliating manner. Unknown to the lover boy, the woman reminded him how he journeyed to Lagos from the village atop a truckload of onions – alubosa. He never stepped foot in the bar from that day on. From one rib-cracking tale to another, Maxim has them aplenty, as another journalist wrote to THEWILL last Friday.

Muyiwa Moyela also worked in The Post Express in the late nineties. “Egbon Uzor,” Moyela told the newspaper, “is essentially a good man with a kind heart filled with mirth and passion for the Arts, and clearly his talents and zest for life have been the defining features of his personal and professional life. My encounters with him have always left me smiling but I have come to realise that beneath the humour and laughter is a man whose capacity for absorbing the ups and downs of life with equanimity is the most unlimited. I therefore respect and admire him very deeply.”

Most of Maxim’s friends will say that about him, a man “they respect and admire deeply.”

Still on his tribute and sort of corroborating Moyela, the Nigerian teacher, Osha, in the South African university agrees. “Maxim welcomes everything and everyone because his heart is as expansive as the sea. But Maxim is also a magician, an alchemist of sorts, because he is able to penetrate sorrow and gloom with brightness. He is the undying sun-child who transmogrifies desolate horizons at the mere touch of his hands. But he will discourage you from harping on this marvelous gift. This gift of life, laughter and unspoken love.”

That life of laughter Maxim loved so much once eluded him. He was far away in the United States many years ago around this Yuletide period. He’d gone on a scholarship to the States. In his telling, his stay that winter period was a disaster. “I was alone in my room at home, no visits from anyone.”

Worse still, he had only peanuts to eat. To keep up his spirit, he retired to a library nearby. There, he began to think about his home in Anambra state, the festive ambience in his father’s compound that very moment in stark contrast to his solitude in a library under punishing arctic conditions. He left the US back to Nigeria.

Thankfully, as he was a year older on December 22, the writer/ journalist formerly known as Obi of Ikate didn’t have to spend the Yule in wintry conditions. He was surrounded by family and friends at his father’s compound in Umuchu to raise a toast and to also wish him well on his special day and in the coming years.