A friend, Sabinus Okere (former manager with Nigeria Arab Bank), once told me an interesting story. In class three in secondary school, one of his classmates stole the sum of twenty pounds that the classmate’s father had hidden in the roof of their house. One afternoon in 1970 (soon after the Biafran War), the boy’s father and other townsmen from the neighboring Enyiogugu invaded their class at Comprehensive Secondary School, Emekuku, southeast Nigeria, looking for his son. The young man, however, had reportedly bought some new musical equipment and ran away with some playing partners to Lagos, in southwest Nigeria.
The old men went back home frustrated, knowing there was nothing they could do to recover their meeting’s contributions which had been kept in the care of the boy’s father. Soon afterwards an all-boys group released one of the first of its many platinum songs “Ihe Onye Eche,” with the lines: “Nga ogu madu no, ogu pound ekworo ihu” (“Where there were twenty persons, care was given to twenty pounds”). That was the story of the greatest post-Biafran highlife maestro late Dr. Sir “Warrior” and the founding narrative of the legendary Oriental Brothers International Band.
That was also, in a different light, the story of Ichie Njoku. Ichie believed that more than anything else education was the greatest driving force of every individual, community, and nation. He believed, like Warrior, that an informed mind inhabits twenty lives. In other words, an educated person is a reservoir of communal authority and light. He saw education as the foundation of vision and, as the great Book says, where there is no vision the people perish. Ichie believed that people without education were lost. In his own words, “Onye na gühü akwükwö, enwehü ihe öma” (“He who was not educated was ignorant”). Like Warrior, he came to believe that one could not reasonably save money and negate the primary purpose of money in human investment. “Anahü egwu ala eli ego,” he said (“You don’t dig the ground to bury money”).
Ichie was neither born with such a vision in the redeeming power of human investment, nor did he come to it by accident. Rather, he gained the insight through a series of eye-opening experiences in his own life. While in the Second Grade the Irish Catholic missionaries that taught at his elementary school had discovered his academic brilliance. They made a representation to his father for them to take Ichie to their regional base in Port Harcourt on the Atlantic coast. Nze Iwuanyanwu Nwachukwu Ehieze (AKA “Okebule”) instantly objected. He reasoned that as one of his more dutiful sons, he would rather have Ichie closer home than let him go with the white men and get lost in western education. Moreover, as the first son by his youngest wife, Ezinne Nwogiri, he reasoned that Ichie should be learning skills that would prepare him for early marriage and greater responsibility towards his younger siblings in such a large household. To forestall the schemes of the missionaries, Okebule quickly withdrew Ichie from school. He would rather have his more stubborn, older son Innocent (second son by his first wife Nwachi Ndukwe), go to school.
As a young man, his father sent Ichie to become a trade apprentice in Port Harcourt under his older half-brother, Obadiah, first son by Okebule’s first wife. The most memorable event of that first journey outside his immediate birthplace in Umueze II was a bizarre event he encountered while cutting raffia bamboo in the swamps of Ikwerre. In the middle of his work, he said, the sky suddenly went pitch dark. First, he thought a storm was coming and was scared that he might drown in an overrun swamp. Feeling somewhat safe with the machete in his hand, he quickly abandoned all the bamboos he had harvested and tried to make for safer and drier grounds. But no matter how he tried, he felt himself sucked deeper into the swamps. It took him sometime to realize that there was no thunder or lightning or rainfall. Yet he couldn’t see beyond his nose. He thought the world was coming to an end. The more assured he was that there would be no storm, the more afraid he became that he might be devoured by some wild animal. He noted that he had never felt as alone as he was that dark afternoon in the coastal swamps. He managed to feel his way to a tree and climbed up to its branch, where he waited for what seemed an eternity until the sun reappeared just as suddenly as it had disappeared behind a wall of darkness. There but for the guardian of the road went I, he swore under his breath as he finally made it home to find the entire neighborhood excitedly talking about the total eclipse of the sun of 1947.
Ichie had a difficult relationship with Obadiah. To prove it, he always pointed to an indelible laceration on his back which he gained from one of the corporal punishments that his half sibling gave him. In addition, his experience of the eclipse of the sun somehow rekindled his desire for western education. He left the trade apprenticeship under his brother and was hired as a chef to a white man in Port Harcourt. He found the new job exhilarating, because he had the constant opportunity to listen to oyibo people speak English and keep notes on almost everything under the sun. He learned, more importantly, how the eclipse happened and that it was neither magic nor end-time sign, as the folk believed. Surviving alone in the dangerous swamps and leaving the tutelage of his family for the first time reassured him that he could face the strange big world he was discovering alone. It was at that time that almost everyone started talking about the new craze for the rubber plantations in Benin, Midwestern Nigeria. He felt a strong pull to explore the odds of the enchanting road farther afield. He resigned his job as chef and, in the company of our townsman Sylvanus Nwosu, joined the Benin rubber rush.
The rubber camp was a different kind of jungle. Hundreds of young black men like him worked all day to tap rubber. Ichie felt up to the task. If he could swim the swamps of Ikwerre seas, he could beat the beasts of Benin bush. He and his co-workers were paid according to how many rubber trees they tapped. His mother had had his youngest sibling, Jude, in the year of the eclipse. His responsibility was growing. He worked harder and tapped more trees.
Then he made an elaborate preparation when he decided to visit home during his sojourn in Benin, the highlight of which was the wrappers he bought for his mother. Few men, like his father, could afford to buy the expensive wrappers for their wives. Ichie was the first of his peers to buy wrappers for his mother. He was widely hailed and his father called him “Ome na mbu” (“First among equals”). But his mother worried that Benin was too far away and that it was difficult to reach him when the family wanted. She pleaded with him to move closer home. (Ichie was always his mother’s confidante. Early in her marriage – as story had it – the schemes and inhospitality of senior co-wife, Nwachi Ndukwe, had forced Ndaa Nwogiri to run back to her maiden home in Umuebo, Umuezeala. But when Ichie disappeared one morning and was traced all the way back to his mother’s house in the Iwuanyanwu compound, Ndaa Nwogiri had no other reasonable option than to pack up and move back to her husband!)
Ichie left Benin to settle in Umuahia, just across the Imo River. With some friends, including Joseph Ehieze from Umueleke, he initially engaged in odds-and-ends trade runs. At some point he and his friends worried that they spent too much money on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, since they did not cook. Knowing his pedigree as a master chef, the others nudged Ichie into starting a restaurant where they hoped to spend less. They were all willing to chip into his seed capital. That was the beginning of Ichie’s dream business as one of the longest lasting and notable restaurateurs and hoteliers in the history of the city of Umuahia for fifty years.
It was soon after he had set up his hotel business in Umuahia that his father invited him home to take his betrothal, our mother Ezinne Igbeaku. Okebule had initially wanted Igbeaku for Innocent, his second son by his first wife. He changed his mind, as reports had it, because Innocent had remained recalcitrant even though he had completed his schooling and became one of the first elementary school teachers in Umueze II, Ehime Mbano. That was how Igbeaku became the bride of the younger and more responsible first son of Iwuanyanwu’s last wife. Thus, Ichie was not only the first of his peers to buy wrappers for his mother he was also the first of his peers to get married. Like his mother, who had eight children (five males and three females), Ichie also became the father of eight children (five males and three females): Emeka, Rosanna, Emma Bukar, Catherine, Obiwu, Ndubuisi, Ebere (late), and Scholastica.
When our kindred community of Umudike declined to impose the palm fruit tax for the schooling of his younger brother Daniel, as neighboring communities had done in similar situations (and when even his own siblings unanimously voted against the further education of one of their own), Ichie and his wife stepped up and paid for the schooling of Daniel all by themselves. Daniel went on to become one of the first two sons of Umueze II- the other being Obiji of Umuokwe – to graduate high school. Ichie’s first son, Father Emeka, would equally become the first Catholic priest of Umueze II. To this day, Ichie was the only man in our town who trained four out of his eight children to the doctoral degree level.
On arriving in the United States for the first time on May 28, 2005, Ichie wryly stated that he came to America purposely to seek confirmation of the first thing his father taught him as a child, that the sky was the same across the ‘Osimiri’ Atlantic. He then announced, to his children’s protestations, that he had seen everything he needed to see and was ready to go back home. He would later become a permanent resident.
Though his father was a traditionalist, Ichie was a devout Christian Catholic. He was chairman of the Umueze II Catholic Parish in the Okigwe Diocese of Imo State, and the only man to serve as chairman, first, of St. Christopher Catholic Church, Umueze II, before he became the founding chairman of St. Jude Catholic Church, Umueze II. He was a lifetime member of the Umuahia Catholic Diocese’s Legion of Mary and a lifetime Church Warden at the St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Umuahia, in Abia State. He was revered as “Ezinna” (“Good Father”) of the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II, and he received Papal blessing with the seal and stamp of Pope Benedict XVI. Ichie was variously chairman of Umueze II and Ehime Mbano community meetings in Umuahia. He was also a founding member of the defunct Oganiru Ichie Social Club of Nigeria.
Born on November 5, 1926, it would go on record that it was in the year of Ichie’s transition (January 19, 2013), that Pope Benedict XVI resigned (first Pontiff to vacate the Papacy in five hundred years, since Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415); and two “geo-synchronic” lightning bolts struck the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica on the same day (February 11). It was the year that a historic meteorite exploded through the Russian Ural Mountains, injuring over a thousand people (February 15); the year that Africa’s foremost novelist Chinua Achebe died (March 22); and the year that the British “Iron Lady” and erstwhile Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died (April 8). In other words, it was expected and proper that my father, our father, Ichie Ezinna Cyril Njoku Iwuanyanwu, “Oyiri Nna Ya” (“His Father’s Image”), should go out with a bang!
Ichie’s famous prayer to every one of his children in all their travels across the world was always: “Uzo chewe gi” (“May the road guard you”). It is now our turn to pray for his Journey Mercies until the ultimate meeting of all kindred spirits. I conclude here too with a poetic rendering of his final vision:
What My Father Said
Do not ride into the night
Without light in your eyes;
Drink life in measured cups.
Blind bulls, like crashing falls
Rush bulwark into dark alleys
Until they come too late to the
Flying shot of the archer’s bow.
Obiwu is the author of the Amazon poetry bestseller (February 2012), Tigress at Full Moon. He is on Twitter @Obiwu; Email: Obiwu1@gmail.com
Source: SAHARA REPORTERS.