My Father: An Obituary, a Tribute & a Poem
By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
During the First World War, his father, Ezeobidi, was drafted to fight for the British crown as a militia in the Cameroon. Ezeobidi was conscripted because he had nobody to protect him. At the war front, he was unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers because he could not speak English and could neither read nor write. After the war, he received no compensation from the British government. His identity was used by those who could read and write to obtain government job. Ezeobidi was disillusioned.
The first thing he did when he returned from the war was to buy slates and lead pencils for his three brothers to use when they went to school. But his brothers died mysteriously in quick succession. He later got married and had two sons. He placed his hope of getting his family educated on his two sons. But they, too, died early deaths.
When he was born by Ezeobidi's second wife, Jemimah Iheremeonu Ogbuagu, Ezeobidi named him, Ifeanyichukwu ÔÇô with God nothing is impossible.
He was five years old when one day, Ezeobidi called him into his obi. "I am blind," Ezeobidi said to him. "I will not be alive and see my sons and relatives go blind, too." He did not understand the riddle.
Another day, Ezeobidi called him into the inner room again. This time he showed him a large wooden box beside his bamboo bed. Ezeobidi wanted to open the box but hesitated. On three more occasions, Ezeobidi called him into the room, went close to the box but was reluctant to open it. The content of the box became an object of fascination for him.
On the fourth time, Ezeobidi opened the box. Inside it were three large slates and some lead pencils. "One day you will go to school and learn to read and write the white man's magic," Ezeobidi said.
The little Ifeanychukwu nodded.
In 1940, the seven-year-old Ifeanyichukwu attempted to enroll at the informal evening kindergarten, but his right hand placed over his head could not touch his left ear. While the Roman Catholic Church and the Church Missionary Society were reluctant to accept children of heathens and "Ndiozo" -- titled men, the Salvation Army was welcoming. In 1940, he was baptized at the Salvation Army and given the name, Jonathan.
He joined the Salvation Army school infant class the same year. In 1945, he failed standard two. In spite of his father's objection, he quit school to be a houseboy of his uncle, Alexander Agu, who just returned from the Second World War and was beginning his trade in Onitsha. At Onitsha, haunted by his father's expectations that he should not be blind and flashes of school boys whose uniform he admired, he returned to Nnobi by the end of the year. He repeated standard two in 1946 and was at the top of the class. He remained at the top for the next three classes. In 1950, he graduated with his First School Leaving Certificate.
After passing his standard six and with no money for secondary school education, he attended the famous teachers' preliminary school, P. T. C. Obosi, from January 1951 to December 1951. He began his teaching career in 1952. He taught at various towns including, Ekwulu/Unubi, Ndikelionwu, Okija, and Nnewi. While training his sibling, he managed to save enough money to attend St Paul's Teachers Training School, Awka. He graduated in 1961 with a Teacher's Grade 2 certificate and continued to teach.
In 1966, he gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he studied History and Literature. His education was interrupted by the Nigeria-Biafra War. He fought the war and survived. He returned to Nsukka and completed his education. He graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1972 with BA Hons.
He taught at Women's Teachers Training College, Ogbunike from 1972 - 1976. He became the Vice-Principal of Metro Grammar School, Onitsha from 1976 -1977. In 1977, he returned to his home town, Nnobi. He became the Vice -Principal of Nnobi High School from 1978-1984.
In 1984, he became the Principal of Girls Secondary School, Umuogboagu in Nsukka. In 1986, he was transferred to Girl's Secondary School, Oraukwu. He was the principal of the school until 1992 when he reached the 35 year of service and was retired from civil service.
Still busting with life and a desire to impart his knowledge to the young, he taught in several private schools in Nnobi and Nnewi before moving on to Christ the King Seminary, Nnobi, where he concluded his illustrious teaching career in 1997.
He was a community leader: Chairman of Umuezeme Brothers Association between 1991 and 1994; Chairman of Umudunumoo Brothers Association for about 5 years. He was the Chairman of National Republican Convention (Nnobi Ward II) during the Third Republic.
In 1998, at the onset of the Fourth Republic, he yanked off his critic hat and ran for local government councilor position. He won the election to the Idemili South Local government seat. He served as councilor from 1999 ÔÇô 2002.
He retired from politics and spent his days tending to his poultry farm and attending to the needs of the community.
Jonathan Clement Ifeanyichukwu Okonkwo died on Sunday, June 21, 2009 at his home in Nnobi following a brief illness.
He leaves behind his wife of 41 years, Comfort Chinwa Okonkwo, nee Agudosi; six sons, Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo, Dr. Webster Emeka Okonkwo, Churchill Obinna Okonkwo, Davidson Anayo Okonkwo, Benjamin Chidozie Okonkwo and Christian Chibueze Okonkwo; a daughter, Vivian Uzoamaka Okeakpu, seven grandchildren, Ijeamaka Okonkwo, Ogonna Okonkwo, Kenechukwu Okeakpu, Chiamaka Okeakpu, Chidimma Okeakpu, Amala Okeakpu, and Chiamaka Okonkwo; two brothers, Festus Odezue, Ichie Joel Odezue (Ichie Ogbebulu); three sisters, Odunwa Emenari, Theresa Ogbuaholu, and Catherine Ezeume; three daughters-in-law, Edna Okonkwo, Chidilim Okonkwo, and Chioma Okonkwo; a son-in-law, Chukwuma Okeakpu.
His other siblings were late Alexander Odezue and late Beatrice Ogalue.
The title of "Teacher" does no justice to the scope of his public service. A lifetime champion for education, his personal story of struggles and hardship helped shape his love for the less privileged. He was affable, witty, and tranquil.
He will be buried at his home in Nnobi on Friday, August 21, 2009.
Tribute to Hon. J. C.
I lost my father two weeks ago. But it won't stay that way for long. I have vowed to get him back and secure his place here on earth forever.
For more than sixty years, my father was a teacher, an educator, and a community leader. Some of you here know him as "Adelabu." Some of you know him as "Nzekwube." Those of you who know him recently know him as "Honorable." But all of you know him as Onyenkuzi, the teacher.
Today I speak to you, and about you, Onyenkuzi. I feel a great sense of ease because nothing I say here, no matter how beautiful, will add any more decoration to the life you have lived.
Though I live in New York, The New York Times did not print your obituary. But in the hearts of many that your life touched is splashed an obituary worthy of a king.
For those of us who called you Daddy, you set us on a sound path. You handed us a shell that contains our history, our heritage, and our home. What else do we need?
I can think of no greater acknowledgment of your greatness than the simplicity of your life. The world will turn over thousands of times but the footprint you left will remain indelible because it was not written on sands but in the hearts of many who knew you.
Onyenkuzi, you were an educator who transcended the classroom. In life, you were a poet in deed, a philosopher in transition, and a leader in motion. You had a bucket of integrity that never dried. You made all those who knew you feel less alone. You connected with everyone. Those who fenced you out, you fenced in.
Every morning, as early as 5 am, you were up. You tuned your radio to VOA and BBC. The news filtered into my room. I had about Washington D.C. before I heard about Lagos. I heard about Johannesburg before I heard about Kano. I listened to the Making of a Nation on VOA before I observed the unmaking of a nation in Nigeria. At the age of twelve, I had followed your shortwave radio waves to travel across the world.
You had a great intuition for analysis. Though you did not write it down, you were the first columnist I knew. You proved that the critic could transform into a leader. You were the conscience of your generation. You were a phenomenal man. All men set out on this earthly journey aiming high. Very few end theirs a legend.
A society that trains a doctor, trains a healer. A society that trains a merchant, trains a financier. But a society that trains a teacher, trains a merchant of light. There is no trade more worthwhile than the business of promoting education.
We are grateful for all you gave, all you shared, and all you left behind. Your memory is like a sea. We shall swim in it, fish in it, sail on it, irrigate our dry soul with its water, and retain it as a frontier protecting us from the elements. The light you illuminated around all those who came near you shall shine forever. The hearts that caught its rays shall preserve it from generation to generation.
You showed us that things that are important in life are not inordinate gold, not stimulated applauses and not undue titles. What was important to you was honesty of purpose pursued for the greater good.
We shall treasure the light your inner compass shined at the often forgotten end of the moral spectrum.
We are the civilization you scribbled on many black boards across six decades, the heritage you proclaimed from every podium you climbed, and the magic you performed on several stages you played. We are you, in continuation. The curtain of your life will never fall.
In no one have I seen so much grace and goodness as I saw in you. You were a good man, my good man. You did great things in little portions. Because you did the right things, great things happened. I have received so much blessings, so much goodwill, from so many people, because of the goodness, the goodwill and the blessings you had given. I am a beneficiary of your service to mankind.
I know that. I appreciate that. And I will forever honor that.
You wrestled with history. Several times, you slammed its back to the ground. And by doing so, you busted the door for me and for so many others to emerge and to soar.
Your courage inspires me. Your strength wipes away my doubts. Your conviction is the shrine where I worship. I thank you for that - and for so many other things.
You worked very hard for an enduring legacy, choosing the hard and honorable path. The result is out. You can accept our three hearty cheers for you have been elevated to an icon of our time and all times. Just like your father was, Ezeobidi. And your grandfather, Ezennu. And your great-grandfather, Ezenwanebe. And your great-great-grandfather, Aholugo. And your great-great-great-grandfather, Nnemelu. And your great-great-great-great-
For us, children of Dunumo, children of Ezeme, children of Nnobi, and all God's children who passed through your classroom, your example is our torch. We shall keep it shining. And we shall follow it to that house up in the hills where morning always breaks and sunset is banished.
You gave credence to that profound truth - that despite all odds, we have in us the power to make for ourselves what we want to be.
You fought the good fight. Your purple heart hangs on the mantle of many who were privileged to know you as a son, a husband, a father, a brother, family, friend, teacher, and councilor.
A lot of regular people make good living. Only a few extraordinary people make a difference. Teachers belong to that revered few because teachers are angels who sing with their chalk.
You invested yourself in many, waking up the wisdom inherent in them. Our appreciation may not have been visible. But it is surely infinite. You opened the school hall for many and thereby saved them from confinement at the basement of life.
As a teacher, you did not stuff our gong, rather you polished it until it became a magnet. There is no good translation of the thirst for knowledge you put in so many tongues.
You did it all, progressively. You told the stories. You explained the mysteries. You dramatized the theatrics. You gave birth to the wonder. What else did the world want from you?
The bell rang and you left the classroom. But your lectures hiked a ride with posterity.
Teachers are expensive. Good teachers, like you, are priceless.
You discharged your office of life with utmost dignity. You accomplished all you dreamt of. Your reputation is sealed. You have reached the end of education. You are finally educated beyond any of us alive today.
Onyenkuzi, old teachers never die, they only go to heaven to receive their reward.
I am so proud to call you my father. And that is the easy part. The difficult part is to live up to its meaning, to do justice to your mandate, and to make my little title, nwa onyenkuzi, teacher's son, sound as sweet as yours. Adieu, Onyenkuzi.
Death as a Metamorphosis
[For Hon. J. C. Okonkwo (1932 -2009)]