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28 Feb Written by  Ladi Opaluwa

Bishop Kukah Gets His Audience Laughing

“To pass an anti-corruption law in Nigeria you have to bribe somebody,” said Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah, quoting Mr Segun Adeniyi.

He made the remark halfway through his keynote address at a fundraising event organised by the Parent Teachers Association of Loyola Jesuit College (LJC), Abuja, towards the building of a memorial staff residence in honour of 60 students of the college who died in the 2005 Sosoliso plane crash, and for the first time in many hours, the audience laughed.

This expression of mirth was a significant event, a vivid change of the pervasive mood. The audience had not been in a jolly mood, neither did they merely have the dispassionate, attentive countenance of listeners; they had been mourning. They had been ruffled by a series of depressing images. Pictures of 60 LJC victims of the crash had been shown on the projector, pictures of Kechi Okwuchi, then a student of LJC and one of two survivors of the crash, before and after the accident was shown, and later a video in which she addressed the gathering. And in the hall were people particularly affected by the event, relatives and friends of the victims and LJC staff; people who do not need a formal gathering to be reminded of the tragedy but had gathered all the same to be formally reminded of a tragedy.

The situation demanded that they be sober, but Bishop Kukah was not going to be just another sequence in a dark narrative. He came up stage and removed the cloak of melancholy covering the room, first with a joke about his unfulfilled desire to join the Jesuit order of priesthood. The hilarity was at this early stage tempered with self-control, as they were yet to recover from the poignancy of the preceding stories. Only sounds of chuckling could be heard. But in time there would be full-throated laughter.

He said that the organisers had more or less summoned him for the event, giving him no option to either reject or accept the invitation/command and confessed that he just finished editing his speech in the car on his way to the venue; a warning that he might be rambling a bit till his time was exhausted. But his speech was far from prattle.

He was speaking on the effects of air disasters on national development and had arrived at the Segun Adeniyi quote by way of digression and anecdotes, as is common among men of eloquence. Plane crashes he said, returning to the subject, were not greater than, but equal to seemingly common place tragedies that are paid no attention, for instance the death of an infant from malaria, the death of a rural woman in childbirth, the unnamed victims of numerous road accidents, fatalities from infernos, building collapses, etc. Considering the composition of the audience, it takes some measure of courage and being Bishop Kukah to make such a statement.

Returning to the trivial, he likened pilots to nurses in their use of deceit in calming clients in difficult, even hopeless situations; nurses, for instance, assuring patients just before giving them a jab that everything is fine and pilots telling passengers same in the most turbulent conditions.

Bishop Kukah loves to talk and he knows it. “I decided to take responsibility for speaking because I couldn’t find a speaker,” he said once in Abuja at a roundtable on the implications of freedom of expression. And people love to listen to him. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he said at the event.

Who wouldn’t listen in awe to a priest that references Leo Tolstoy in the same sentence as he mentions Schindler’s List? Shakespeare is cheap but to quote accurately the first line of Anna Karenina is jaw-dropping, eye-popping awesomeness.

His speech, as it progressed, provided many cues for laughter and it became increasingly difficult to hold back. The options were to join in the amusement or hold in the humour and burst out at an incongruous hour, jerking hysterically. In any case, there is nothing against laughing with eyes still moist with tears. After all, emotions are mutable.

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