Blood and Water

9 May

Born in Nigeria, poet and vicar Catherine Okoronkwo has lived, studied and worked in many places around the globe. Just thirteen months ago, Catherine morphed into the Lockdown Swindon Vicar of All Saints and Saint Barnabas churches – serving some of our multi-cultural communities of our welcoming town.

Early in the session for Swindon Festival of Literature 2021, Catherine mentioned she is driven to tackle social injustices wherever she finds them – so she grabbed my attention straight away, I was hooked the whole forty-five enlightening and lightening-paced, minutes.

I was drawn in, then cast into the unknown when Catherine also opened with her unique perspective of being a “three culture child”, So what was all that? about I murmured to myself. The vicar poet simply and carefully explained that she was born in Nigeria and brought up by Nigerian parents but left the actual country early at three months to live with her father’s UN posting in Israel. Further Westernised influences followed throughout her life including in the USA. Umm a patchwork poet indeed I thought.

watch Catherine’s talk

And so it was to be; heart-wrenching exposes of worlds I have heard a bit about but never known. Catherine’s conversations with interviewer Matt Holland dealt boldly with life lived on some of the extreme edges that mankind has created. To be a young person in a car in Nigeria witnessing the driver, seemingly casually peeling a banana, as from the stationary car, amongst the crowded market stalls, a young man caught stealing was burned alive in public by the horror of ‘necklacing’. Catherine read with courage and emotion her short, clear poem on this life-marking, life-ending incident. Surely there was nowhere else to go in this session after that.

But on she soldiered, holding the hands of we listeners and watchers, as Catherine moved towards some of her own inner, personal struggles eg breaking new ground in staking out a relationship with her father’s culturally-driven authoritarian, matriarchal style of fatherhood. Later in the session, our dogged (but not dog-collared for this zoom), poet-vicar spoke of her concerns for the role of women in society, the global inequalities of Aids and Hiv treatments, and the role of witchcraft.

Would this never end I thought – to use a cliché – already, all human life is here; here once again, as it has been for me these last 28 years, at Swindon Festival of Literature. 

In Catherine’s voice I detected nothing of a Nigerian burr – not that I would have identified it as such anyway. I heard no Africa this evening in the voice (but plenty in the content) which in itself may reveal something of the ‘third culture kid’ syndrome our guest revealed during this event. We enjoyed direct language delivered at a steady pace in the circumstances of this zoom interview – as I might imagine Catherine delivers her Christian sermons in her two Swindon churches. I would like to meet Catherine in person and hear her relax and laugh.

Catherine lists some issues in which I too have for many years, had a personal interest eg AIDS and HIV, patriarchal African societies, mental well-being, and of course writing and sharing poetry. Naturally, I leaned forward towards my laptop so that I did not miss a word. Although these zoom Lit Fest sessions lose several aspects like the buzz of the crowd, the heartbeats and nervous brows of speakers, meeting with friends and making new ones before, at intervals and after the events (yes that is a great deal), what I am finding is that my concentration on what our invited guests are saying is raised perhaps by fifty percent. 

I found myself in this case, hanging on every Catherine Okoronkwo word. There is of course a secret bonus to the Swindon Festival of Literature YouTube Channel: one may reach for the pause and rewind button at any time to listen again to something not quite caught or to a verbal gem that struck a chord; the best of more than one world as it were! 

A poem of the grandfather she adored, (papa nnukwu) pictures him eating peanut butter on thick cut bread, a lolling tongue as he later naps, and contains the immortal, concise, self-revealing line:

I am all these things, plantain, pancakes and pulled down lips”

Powerfully illustrating her debilitating Nigerian, patriarchal culture, Catherine tells of an uncle, announcing when drunk: “I don’t have any children!”. Said uncle later took a younger 16 year old wife who delivered him his desired baby boy. 

The story told of another uncle with mental health challenges being tied to a post was, in an instant, saying so much about what some societies, and the individuals within them, have to endure. It made me grateful for what we do have in the UK even though I am still motivated to improve services to respond much better to mental health issues.

Such detailed cultural insights have indeed been delivered to us by Swindon Festival of Literature year after year. The pedigree of our Festival is at the highest level. Magic is delivered to those of us who live within the auspices of the most feared Magic Roundabout in the UK. Now, borne of a Covid bonus, Zoom and YouTube combine to carry this Swindon Magic to far flung corners of the world in perpetuity. I find it ironic and beautiful that we gather stories from the world and, like our Literature Festival Sorting Hat, scatter them across the globe for all (those with internet) to share!

I found particularly telling this vicar-poet’s remark: 

“As a third culture kid I had a difficult relationship with my parents as our wills and egos battled to see who would win between African and Western upbringings.” 

“Perhaps my parents were not equipped to have the conversations we children, who have been caught between cultures, needed to have.”

Aged only eleven, Catherine shares with us that she was unsure if she might be dying when her first period stained her new school skirt – what would she say to her mother was perhaps an even greater fear. 

Matt Holland read the page 48 poem “Repentance” where we learn that Catherine, ran out of time, did a PhD, pushed twelve hour days, pedalled at gym, salsa danced and yet her fertility eggs were in decline: 

“I wanted it all but … I wanted it all but …”

“I hope that for those who engage with these poems will resonate in different ways” Catherine concluded.

Stop the lesson when it is going well – is a maxim for newly qualified teachers – well it certainly fitted here too as I was left eager to know more about Catherine’s life and her views on the world today. I will have to leave the “Water” side of Catherine’s Life Story in her new book “Blood and Water” for you to find out how she also thrived in more Westernised society eg the USA and the UK amongst many other far flung fields. 

In addition, so inspiring was this session that I would love to hear Catherine’s unique first impressions of Swindon and her congregations in Ferndale and Gorse Hill.

Do you take sugar in your tea Catherine? I am tempted to seek you out soon! Old Town is not far from Gorse Hill ! Smiley.

Words by Tony Hillier

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