If he had died in penury, he was buried like a King. And if his friends and well-wishers had deserted him in his most trying moments, they came in their hundreds to bid him farewell.
But many of them didn’t just say good-bye without grieving and shading of tears. They wished he had lived for more than 69 years so they could continue to reap his talents. He was an accomplished actor, dramatist, comedian, chorister and active member of Bende War Dance Ensemble.
Their disposition is consistent with human nature. Of course, they seem to be disciplines of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German scientist and satirist, who says in one of his writings that:“I am always grieved when a man of real talent dies, the world needs such men more than Heaven does”.
Indeed, many Nigerians were grief-stricken when the news of the death of Chief James Udensi Akwari Iroha, a.k.a. Giringory, veteran actor and famous cast in the now rested soap opera – New Masquerade – broke out in February this year. “I was shocked when somebody called me on telephone to say that James was dead”, bemoaned Chief
Emmanuel Akwari Ukpabi, grand patron, Item Development Association, (IDA), and group managing director, Flour Mills, PLC.
Chief Ukpabi, who attended the same University of Ibadan, where the deceased read Mass Communications/Theatre Arts, was still traumatiSed on May 5, 2012, when the remains of the veteran actor were laid to rest in his country home, Amaokwe Item, in Bende LGA of Abia state.
“I thought that his ill-health was a problem of his age, and I was making arrangements for him to go back to India, for the doctors there to have a second look at his eyes, only for me to hear that he had died, and that was barely a week after I spoke with him on phone”, said Chief Ukpabi while delivering a tribute on behalf of Item community.
“The New Masquerade family is saddened over the death of James, but we cannot take our sadness to God”, said Chika Okpala, chief Zebrudiah, alias 4.30. who played the role of master of the house, while James acted the role of a house boy. He described late James as a renowned artist, and one who through his works, helped promote good moral values among Nigerians.
“When James created New Masquerade, he said to me, let’s us use this entertainment series to change the bad behavioural attitude of our people, and I am happy the federal government recognised his contribution to the entertainment industry by honouring him with the national honour of Order of the Niger, OON”, said Chika who came to the funeral alongside four surviving members of the cast.
It was a day when several individuals, groups and organisations patiently queued up at the Amaokwe Item mini-stadium where a funeral service for the late veteran actor was conducted by a team of clergymen from Methodist Church Nigeria, led by Bishop Sunday Onuoha, to deliver their tributes.
“James was a cherished member of the University of Ibadan, Alumni Association, Abia State branch – a rare gem as exemplified in the New Masquerade in which he was the originator, producer and actor”, said one of the former students of the country’s premier university.
Earlier Chief Theodore Orji, Abia State governor, who was represented at the event by Chief Ukpai Agwu Ukpai, had described the deceased as a worthy and eminent Nigerian; a consummate actor and comedian who brought smiles on the faces of Ndigbo at the end of the grisly Nigeria/Biafra war.
The governor announced that the state government had doled out N3 million to support the burial, and had also made an undisclosed sum of money available to James while he was alive to pick his hospital bill. He said the disclosure became necessary to douse the rumour making the rounds to the effect that the state government neglected the deceased actor.
Iroha was a former director of programmes, Abia state Broadcasting Service, and creator of the now- rested television drama, ‘The New Masquerade’. The drama series ruled the screen in the early ‘80’s on the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA Network.
The television play started as a 15-minute radio programme known as ‘In a Lighter Mood’ in the then East Central State Broadcasting Corporation, Enugu.
The masquerade was created because of the overriding need to assuage the grief that characterized Ndigbo at the end of the civil war. International organizations, including the World Health Organization estimate that about two million people of Igbo ethnic stock were killed during the war that lasted for 30 months. The drama series captured the national audience for about two decades after it was adapted for television.
The time was 2.30 p.m. Earlier in the morning, the rain had poured in torrents – leading to the late commencement of the funeral service, but the inclement weather later gave wave to scorching sun.
In a brief sermon, Bishop Onuoha called on the congregation to refrain from acts that could cause pain or harm to others. He rather urged them to tow the footsteps of James who brought laughter to millions of Nigerians; insisting that the “laughter must continue”, despite the passage of the veteran comedian.
Thereafter, the casket bearing the remains of James was transferred to a gleaming limousine that moved at a slow pace to his ‘Bush House’ residence which is a shouting distance from the mini-stadium.
But as the casket was lowered to the grave, by 2.40 p.m. members of the deceased family broke down in tears, and were joined by several other sympathizers. But Bishop Onuoha insisted that the “laughter must continue”.