Deyika Nzeribe (1966 -2017) Tribune of the People
The first visual memory I have of Deyika is from close to a couple of decades ago. It’s Summer. He’s coming towards me, crossing Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester’s city centre, a white bedsheet wrapped round him in the style of a Roman senator. He was celebrating a graduation – I can’t remember whether it was his own or his friends’. As you can guess, they were in high spirits. He stopped to chat with me a few seconds then they sailed on. There’s a good friend, I thought, and a guy who knew how to party!
It is little known that Deyika was a fine poet. He had a poet’s sensibility for emotional nuance, for divining people, a poet’s generosity of spirit. We ended up working together for what was then a small community writing project, Commonword. He had so many callers at Commonword that sometimes the reception room at Commonword filled up with people wanting to see Deyika. I doubt he ever ate lunch alone during those times.
Years sailed by and I got to know him. And it was from the cramped store-room / kitchen of the Commonword project that a second stingingly sweet memory comes. He called me in there to tell me something important. His hands came up, fingers spread in a gesture of openness yet uncharacteristic inarticulacy. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ he said to me. ‘You’re going to become a father,’ I completed for him. He burst out laughing, amazed that I’d guessed. ‘How did you…?’ ‘Lucky guess.’ Actually he’d been brimming with a barely containable happiness all week, and this made it easy for me. Afterwards, I thought maybe I should have let him squirm a bit longer trying to find the words. He took as naturally to fatherhood as he did to riding a bike.
You can run out of fingers and toes counting your fair-weather friends: there’s an endless supply of them ready to celebrate your lottery win, your prize, your financial or status-achieving victory, large or small. When the going is good, you never lack companions. Deyika was that rarity – a friend for all seasons. Life has a way of finding which part of you will hurt most and then kicking you there, repeatedly. Whenever I got kicked and I was at my lowest, Deyika was one who would roll up in that kinetically intriguing open walk of his and put an arm around me. Pick me back up. Simple as.
Only after he had attended to the human, to the humanity within a situation did he turn to the political, to the fight. And what a fighter. He was resolute. Uncrushable. Yet he didn’t believe in bombast. He had charm and he boxed his opponents in with the polite rigour of his arguments. He once floored me with a question that remains my favourite inquisitorial line: “Is there anything you know that I ought to know but which you have not told me?” How do you answer that question except with a full confession!
This acuity wrapped in charm – the fist in velvet glove -he used instinctively to help others. I’m sure he died poor because he gave everything: time, mind and money. To the rejected. The indigent. The outnumbered. The out-gunned. You were never alone if Deyika was with you. You were never beat if Deyika was by your side.
He was running for Mayor when he died. He would have made a fine Mayor, a great Senator for the people, a great Tribune – a real Voice of the People. I met him first in robes. It is in robes I see him ascend to the Ancestors.