In May 2019, a final year student of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Chukwuemeka Akachi, died after drinking two bottles of insecticide.
Mr Akachi, before the incident, had adopted a poem written by a Ghanaian poet, Jo Nketiah, and put it on his Facebook page as his suicide note.
“Forgive me. In case you are the one who found the body, I am really sorry. It had to be someone, you know,” Mr Akachi wrote on the social media site. “I have chosen Jo Nketiah’s poem as my suicide note: “They said you came looking for me. I didn’t drown; I was the water.”
PREMIUM TIMES’ regional editor, South-South, Cletus Ukpong, interviewed Ms Nketiah about Mr Akachi’s death and the suicide note.
PT: This is probably not the first time you are hearing of Mr Akachi’s suicide?
JO NKETIAH: No, this isn’t the first time of hearing the sad incident about Akachi. I heard the news the same day it was released online. I was on my way to work early in the morning when a friend sent me a snapshot of the incident and I remember shaking in the car and feeling devastated not for the fact that my poem was seen as comfort or solace in death but the fact that a life was lost. I remember escaping to one of the rooms at work and weeping because I was broken by the news. And prior to the incident, I had very casual chats with him on my messenger. He never gave a hint of his struggles with depression.
PT: How do you (or how did you) feel about the late student using your poem for his suicide note?
JO NKETIAH: I felt what I will call a mixture of emotions. I felt broken and scared at the same time because at a point I knew that people could tag me in a way that suggested doom or a dark writer, and people had already started coming into my DM to interrogate me, without actually knowing who I was or associating the particular poem as a death-inspiring poem whereby ironically that poem came to me about two years ago before the incident as a victory poem when I was going through some depressing moments in my life.
And I do remember when I first posted it on Facebook, a lot of people resonated with it in the same way I did, so clearly it was a shock when it became another thing in the hands of a struggling person. I had massive support from people, some called and some left a message to let me know it was never my fault and then, of course, there were others who felt it was time to preach me how to use my gift and talent, I remember reading a long essay from one Nigerian writer on Facebook whose bottom line message was something that jeered towards the fact that my poem was a motivation or Akachi’s suicide.
But well, as a writer, I began to know that people were beginning to take me serious and I saw that critique review as a positive notification and not necessarily a threat.
PT: Can you tell us a little more about this particular poem of yours, when you wrote it, what it’s all about, and what motivated you to write it?
JO NKETIAH: So I have been writing on Facebook for close to 11 years now, when I signed up in my teen, all I did was consistent writing. I write how I feel, I write sentiments, I write hope, I write about my surrounding or a social issue trending. The poem was actually inspired by a photo on google I saw. In my depressing phase of life I felt like I was drowning so I took to the internet to look for pictures of people under the water with a posture of survival and then I saw one that caught my attention. A woman gracefully sinking at the bottom of the water, I think she also had in her hand a violin if I am not mistaken because I was surfing through quite a number of pictures. That was when the poem came to me. I didn’t think about it, I just wrote it and that is what I wrote.
looking for me
I didn’t drown
I was the water”
The poem basically speaks about having the faith that I could really survive even before my “rescuers” arrived and not that I couldn’t do with their help but I just felt like I was capable of handling that season of my life. All I needed to do was to have the same property of the challenges I was facing, it was hard and so I needed to be hard, it was tough and so I needed to be tough, I didn’t want to get drowned by the weight of the season, I wanted to be the season. And for me, I felt that was the best approach I could ever do at that moment, yeah.
PT: How old are you? What would you say are the biggest challenges young people are facing in West Africa, probably using Ghana as a yardstick?
JO NKETIAH: I am 28 years old; actually I am just a newbie in the 28 phase (Laughs). Hmmm, Challenges…. That sounds quite broad a perspective if I am to talk about it in relation to West Africa as a whole and so I will focus my lens to Ghana, my country, because that is where I strongly believe I can say much out of experience. One of the challenges I can talk about is unemployment issues, issues about housing. It is crazy that a young person has to pay a lot of money to rent a decent apartment especially in my city, Accra. And most of these property owners desire two years advance rent which is very challenging for a lot of us still trying to find our feet.
One other thing is that I think, and of course one can disagree, that there are few heroes to look up to and I think the issue isn’t that there are few heroes but there are significantly few of them telling their stories. I strongly say this unapologetically that Africans do not like storytelling. We don’t see a lot of memoirs, autobiography, or biography from African authors and that is a huge problem. Because stories make us, they make us dream and hope and believe that if others have done it then there is the possibility of us doing it too. But sadly we don’t get a lot and even our success stories are just single stories and we all know the dangers of single stories as profoundly explained by the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi (Adichie). And I think that’s a challenge, a great one, yeah.
PT: What’s your impression of Nigeria and Nigerians?
JO NKETIAH: I will say this and any other day, that regardless of some of the negative things people say about Nigerians you cannot take away the fact that they are self-inspired humans, go-getters, they are cheerleaders, Nigerians are truly supportive, very supportive, very diverse in their creativity and coupled with a great sense of humour. Nigerians are authentic, wherever they go, they unashamedly want to be known as Nigerians and they like to dominate too. For the negatives, I think it is more of a human thing but unfortunately, the negative masses often fall into negative stereotypes, and we know that Nigerians turn to have some bad attitudes like fraud, sexual abuse, crime, and these violent attacks but like I said these things are human things and not necessarily a country thing.
PT: Looking through your Facebook page, it appears you have a good number of Nigerians as your fan?
JO NKETIAH: I think a lot of them came to know me through Akachi’s incident and when they read about me, they got to know most of my works and they resonated with it. They are very supportive especially quite a good number of the followers I have. I mentor a few writers in Nigeria and I am proud of them, most importantly trusting and believing that I can and they thrive to be the best too. They are open to learn.
PT: You have an incredible dedication to poetry in a century when generations of young people appear to be distancing themselves from poetry and other literary work?
JO NKETIAH: I see poetry as a way of life. Poetry has a heart of evolution and so we must let it evolve. I am a medical sonographer by profession. I spend long hours in the hospital but everything around me is poetry. It’s all about being responsive to your inner self, once you do that all the rest will come to you, the literary devices you need to learn, the rhythms and rhymes when necessary as long as it is a desired style. Poetry in this contemporary time is not just an expression but a weapon. It is a voice, of hope and truth and a strong opinionated tool as well.
And I believe every one of us has the ability to use it in any of the said ways most importantly give ourselves the permission to humbly evolve, explore, and most importantly learn.