Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (3 page)

A Primary Exposure

I began my formal education at St. Philip’s Central School, in 1936 or thereabout.
The school had pupils from Ogidi and the surrounding towns. Most who attended classes
there had to walk alone several miles every day to get to school. But things were
simpler and safer in those days, and there was never a story of child abductions or
any unsavory incidents that I can recall.

I enjoyed school a great deal and was a hardworking pupil. I remember looking forward
excitedly to new lessons and information from our teachers. Occasionally we received
instruction from individuals who were not on the staff of St. Philip’s. One particular,
humorous event stands out: On a hot and humid day during the wet season our geography
teacher decided to move our entire class outside to the cool shade of a large mango
tree. After setting up the blackboard he proceeded to give the class a lesson on the
geography of Great Britain. The village “madman” came by, and after standing and listening
to the teacher’s lesson for a short while, walked up to him, snatched the chalk from
his hand, wiped the blackboard, and proceeded to give us an extended lesson on Ogidi,
my hometown.

Amazingly, the teacher let all this take place without incident. Looking back, it
is instructive, in my estimation, that it was a so-called madman whose “clarity of
perspective” first identified the incongruity of our situation: that the pupils would
benefit not only from a colonial education but also by instruction about their own
history and civilization.

The headmaster of St. Philip’s Central School was a colorful, extraordinary Igbo man—Jonathan
Obimdike Okongwu. He was also known as:
Ara eme ya eme na uno akwukwo Okongwu
Ara eme ya eme
, for short.
He was one of a handful of Nigerians who had attained the distinction of headmaster
of an elementary school. His reputation as a disciplinarian sent chills down the spines
of all pupils throughout the Eastern Region. St. Philip’s school lore holds that he
once spanked every pupil in every class in each form of the entire school in one day—and
continued the very next day where he left off!
Okongwu’s unorthodox methods produced top scores on exams, which placed his students
in the best boarding schools throughout West Africa, and made him one of the most
sought after headmasters in the entire region.

Okongwu was transferred to St. Michael’s School, Aba, a well-regarded school in one
of the largest commercial cities in eastern Nigeria. Chike Momah and Dr. Francis Egbuonu,
who later became students at Government College, Umuahia, completed their elementary
school education there. My wife, Christie Okoli, for a brief period, also attended
that school. Christie recalls being the only one in her class to evade Mr. Okongwu’s
cane during a spelling lesson. The word that produced a score of sore bottoms was
“because.” For every word missed the pupil was “rewarded” with a spanking. The majority
of the pupils came up with “becos, becus, or becoz.” They never forgot how to spell
because ever again.

Okongwu was a pillar of the Igbo community for his time. He was extensively admired
for his achievements in education. It is difficult to convey just how important teachers
like Okongwu, who were seriously committed to their work, were to the Igbo community,
particularly as that is no longer the case today. Education, the white man’s knowledge,
was a collective aspiration of the entire community. It was the path to individual
and family success, and headmaster Okongwu and others like him held the proverbial
keys to the kingdom.

Okongwu was a generous man and sponsored a number of children in various schools in
Nigeria and abroad. There is a well-known story of how he sent one of his nephews
to America to study. He clearly had great expectations for his nephew. In those days,
men like Okongwu, who had the means, sent family members abroad to advance their education
with the hope that they would return and improve the standard of living of their family
and community. Apparently this nephew did quite well and earned his PhD. Sadly, just
before he returned to Nigeria, he became quite ill and died. Okongwu was devastated.

The last time I saw Okongwu was at the train station in Enugu, the capital of the
Eastern Region. He came there to see his son Sonny Chu Okongwu off to Government College,
Umuahia. He was standing, leaning on the railing with his right hand holding on to
the bars. He spotted me from a distance and called me over, introduced me to his son,
and asked me to “take care of Sonny at Government College.” It struck me that the
senior Okongwu appeared unhappy. The loss of his nephew clearly had taken a lot out
of him.

Leaving Home

For a brief period I spent some time living with my older brother John, who was working
at Central School, Nekede, as a teacher. My father had wanted John to follow in his
footsteps and become a teacher too. John was a gifted student and successfully fulfilled
that dream.

It was John who, quite wisely, thought my own education would be enhanced if I lived
with him in a school environment. So I packed up my few belongings and set out with
my older brother to Nekede, near the present capital of Imo state, Owerri, about forty-three
miles from my ancestral home of Ogidi. That was the first year I spent away from my
parents, and at the time Nekede seemed like a distant country.

John enrolled me in Central School, where I prepared for my entrance examination into
Government College. The regional center for the exam was St. Michael’s School, and
John helped me make the trip from Nekede to Aba. Before I arrived Okongwu apparently
announced to the students of St. Michael’s, in Igbo: “
Onwe nwa onye Ogidi ana akpo Albert Achebe, na akwadobe inene akwukwo-a; oga ama unu
.” (The loose translation is: “There is a young man called Albert Achebe from Ogidi,
who is coming to take the entrance examination with the students in this school. . . .
[H]e will beat all of you in all subjects in the examination.”
) This, clearly, did not endear me to my fellow pupils at St. Michael’s but piqued
the interest of future longtime friends, like the brilliant Chike Momah.

Afterward I returned to Nekede for the remainder of the school year. Nekede was a
treasure trove of Igbo culture. Our ancient traditions continued to fascinate me,
and I sought an alternative education outside the classroom, from the local villagers.
The old men in Nekede spoke respectfully about the Otamiri River and the chief deity
for which it is named. The Otamiri deity is a female who, according to legend, purified
the land of evil and would claim the lives of interlopers who wandered into the area
for mischief. It was said that no one had ever drowned in her waters unless they had
committed evil deeds or contemplated diabolical acts.

It was in Nekede that I was introduced to
and the sophistication of Igbo phenomenological thought. The Owerri Igbo, who lived
near Owerri township, saw
as art engaged in the process and celebration of life. A mud house was often built
with decorated walls and crowned with either corrugated metal or a thatch roof made
of intricately woven palm leaves and spines. Inside, center stage on an elevated mud
platform, an observer would find life-size sculptures of the constituent parts of
the Owerri Igbo world: Alusi—deities—such as Otamiri and Ani, the earth goddess; and
men, women, children, soldiers, animals, crops, and foreigners (mainly Europeans),
all seated. The inclusion of the Europeans, a great tribute to the virtues of African
tolerance and accommodation, was an example of the positive acknowledgment of strangers
who had ventured into their midst. There would also be depictions from ancient mythology,
as well as scourges, diseases, and other unpleasant things. The purpose of this art
form was to invoke protection from the gods for the people through the celebration
of the world these villagers lived in—in other words, through art as celebration.

The Formative Years at Umuahia and Ibadan

It was not long after my foray into the metaphysical world of the Owerri Igbo that
I was to leave my traditional classroom in the forests of Nekede for the second stage
of my formal education, secondary school. There is a certain sense of mystery that
I feel when I look back to those times, because things we encounter in life that leave
the greatest impressions on us are usually not clear.

My elder brother John was a very brilliant man. I still say he was the most brilliant
of all of us. He was very eloquent, and he would correct my spoken English. I often
wondered about John. . . . How did he gain such control of the English language? John
had not been to university but had received a secondary school education at Dennis
Memorial Grammar School (DMGS) in Onitsha. All my brothers attended this legendary
school, which had been built by the Church Mission Society—Frank had attended, John
went there, and it was where Augustine was to go. The school was very imposing, with
its red earth–brick, limestone-and-wood colonial architecture accentuated by Doric
columns, and cathedral-height roofs. And their uniform—the dark red shirt, pants,
and cap—was very impressive. DMGS was the place.

In 1944, I took a national entrance examination for the British public schools of
the day, and I also was admitted to Dennis Memorial Grammar School and Government
College, Umuahia. Now when John was told that I had been admitted to both Umuahia
and his alma mater, with full scholarships to both, he suggested I go to Umuahia.
Though Umuahia’s location was very remote, its status as a “government college,” set
up by the colonial government, reassured my parents. Following a period of deliberation
and debate, the consensus in my family was that I go to this fairly new school in
faraway Umuahia, even though we had no relatives there.

I also privately wished to go to Government College, Umuahia, because I wanted to
do something different from my brothers. Umuahia, a new elite boarding school established
in 1929, was rapidly developing a reputation as the Eton of the East, and I fancied
receiving an education akin to the royals of England!

The Anglican Protestants of the Church Mission Society, as well as the Methodists,
Baptists, and Roman Catholics, had built missionary schools throughout the South and
Middle Belt of Nigeria. These new government colleges—exemplified by Government College,
Umuahia, and Government College, Ibadan—were built to continue the tradition of educational
excellence established by even older secondary schools, King’s College and Queen’s
College, both in Lagos. Between these four schools—King’s, Queen’s, Umuahia, and Ibadan—we
had some of the very best secondary schools in the British Empire. As a group, these
schools were better endowed financially, had excellent amenities, and were staffed
with first-rate teachers, custodians, instructors, cooks, and librarians. Of course
today, under Nigerian control, these schools have fallen into disrepair, and are nothing
like they were in their heyday.

Shortly after taking the national entrance examination I received a letter in the
mail addressed to me explaining that I was under consideration for admission to Umuahia.
That had to be the first letter I had ever received in my life.

I traveled to Umuahia to be interviewed by a former principal, a very tall and large
man—I believe his name was Mr. Thorp. My interviewer first asked why I did not reply
to the letter he wrote me offering me admission. I said I did not know that I was
supposed to reply, and he picked up a copy of the letter and read, “Please acknowledge
receipt.” I did not know the meaning of that phrase, and I said to myself, “Well,
I am not getting in at this point.” But after a little more conversation he gave me
admission to his school.

As the first day of school approached I was overtaken by a sense of excitement and
trepidation. I had never been to Umuahia before my interview; in fact, I did not know
of anyone who had been to Umuahia. I was to travel first by lorry to Enugu, and then
by train to Umuahia.

I arrived at Umuahia railway station alone. A man and his son approached me. The man
asked me whether I was going to Umudike, the village where the secondary school was
located, and I replied “Yes, sah.” He was going there too, with his son. They had
hired two bicycles, and he suggested I ride with them. I carried his son, who was
considerably smaller than I, on the handlebars of the bicycle to Umudike, which was
about three and a half miles from the railway station.

As we sped off, I kept thanking this man for the help. I was completely surprised
at the hospitality and warmth that greeted me on my first day in school. His son became
a friend, naturally, because he was the first “Umuahian” I had met. Later that semester
I would discover that this lad, who would become a renowned physician, Dr. Francis
Egbuonu, had come to Umuahia from St. Michael’s School, Aba. It was, coincidentally,
the very same school that another very close friend of mine, Chike Momah, had attended.


Government College, Umuahia, was built on a sprawling, parklike campus at the fringes
of a tropical forest. The grounds were dotted with large evergreen trees on well-maintained
lawns and crisscrossed by hand-crafted stone pathways that were bordered by manicured
hedges. The buildings—wood-framed brick-and-stucco bungalows surrounded by wide verandas—were
adorned with shuttered windows and crowned with large metal roofs. The vaulted-ceiling
design also enhanced ventilation and tempered the tropical heat. Most of the structures
rested on elevated foundations or stilts—to protect them from floods and to keep termites,
wild animals, serpents, and rodents out.

There were three dormitories at Umuahia—the Niger, Nile, and School houses. I was
assigned to Niger house and once there unpacked my few belongings in my dormitory
locker. In my time the school had about two hundred students, and our lives were strictly
regimented, with literally every hour slated for an activity.

One of the most thrilling peculiarities of the Umuahia experience was the culture
of playing cricket. Not all secondary schools in the area played the game; soccer
was far more commonplace. Cricket matches were often organized between: Government
College, Umuahia; King’s College, Lagos; Government College, Ibadan; and a few other
elite secondary schools.

Umuahia had a huge cricket field, which had a beautiful grass lawn and a clear sand
pitch area with wooden wickets. It was cared for almost more carefully than grass
anywhere else in the school. In the afternoons, cricket matches were packed, and the
bleachers and grandstands had scarcely an empty spot.

Cricket was not a game that I knew anything about before coming to Umuahia. Over time
I began to appreciate that this was a very important global sport, and that it was
very popular in literally every part of the British Empire. The schoolmasters referred
to the game as one for “gentlemen” and made sure Umuahia athletes played it “properly”—dressed
in immaculate white shirts and trousers, gloves, knee-high pads, and helmets. I was
not known for my athletic ability, but Chike Momah and Christopher Okigbo were particularly
good batsmen and bowlers of the sport.

Christopher Okigbo was a very extraordinary person. He was two years below me, but
Christopher was not one to allow two years to get in his way. He quickly became one
of my closest friends.

He was born in Ojoto, in Anambra state, and came from a highly talented family, part
of the so-called Okigbo trio of intellectual giants that included his older brother,
the late legendary economist Dr. Pius Okigbo, and their cousin Professor Bede Okigbo,
the renowned agronomist.

Christopher was just somebody you could not ignore or suppress. He struck people because
he was so energetic, and so fearless. He was somebody who would walk into a room,
sit down, and start learning to play the school piano without any prior exposure.
He had an innate understanding of what was required to play the instrument without
the regimented, torturous, orthodox lessons. Christopher was a talented artist and
a sports hero, and he had a keen mind that won him the admiration of many of the British
schoolmasters. He quickly became very popular throughout Umuahia.

His reputation for mischievous exploits preceded him. I think the first time he got
the attention of the entire school was when the principal, William Simpson, decided
that there was a lot of food waste coming from the kitchen; in other words, it seemed
we were being given too much food to eat! Simpson decided to give food not according
to one’s academic year—the pupils in the higher classes were given more food than
those in the junior classes. Simpson felt that this practice was not a very good idea,
and that it led to a waste of food. A better arrangement, he thought, was for people
to be given food according to their weight. Before we knew what was happening, Christopher,
who was slightly built, had talked with the dining prefect, and we noticed that he
was now in the food equivalent of heavyweights, receiving more food than his classmates!

There was a strong culture of meritocracy and a very high quality of instruction at
Umuahia. I quickly noticed that there were very bright boys in my class, yet there
was a sense of friendly competition that pervaded our academic life. I made friends
gradually at school, at first mainly with pupils I met in the dormitory, then with
a number of others in the classroom, through partnerships that the class master set
up for assignments and projects. Benjamin Uzochukwu became one of my closest friends
at the beginning of the first semester; he later qualified as an engineer, after studying
in Great Britain, and became the director of the Federal Department of Public Works
in Lagos.

Ekpo Etien Inyang was another close friend. He was one of my most brilliant classmates—he
became a physician—but unfortunately he later committed suicide. We had very different
backgrounds, especially in terms of religion. When he arrived at Umuahia, the school
officials discovered that he had not been baptized. Most of us did not ask fellow
pupils whether they were baptized or not; one just assumed that if you were a Christian
you would have been. But Inyang’s father was not a particularly religious person.
So when he became an upperclassman Inyang decided to be baptized, and after subjecting
himself to the religion classes and preparation that were required, he asked me to
be his godfather. So I had a godson who was the same age as me. That was quite an
extraordinarily moving gesture on his part, to ask me to step in on his behalf in
this capacity.

Six of us, including Inyang and me, were promoted to the second-year from the first-year
class during our second term at Umuahia. Students with a record of excellent work
and who were the best performers in their respective years were combined into a larger
second-year class. It was an honor, but it also meant that I began to see a large
majority of my contemporaries from my first-year class less often, including my close
friends Ben Uzochukwu and Chike Momah.

English was the language of instruction at Government College, Umuahia. It was at
Umuahia that I first truly understood the power and importance of that unifying language.
The schoolmasters, well aware that Nigeria had over 250 ethnic groups, had very carefully
enrolled students from every nook and cranny of the nation, where possible. While
African languages and writing should be developed, nurtured, and preserved, how else,
I would wonder later, would I have been able to communicate with so many boys from
different parts of the country and ethnic groups, speaking different languages, had
we not been taught one language?

Many of our teachers at the time were alumni from Cambridge, the University of London,
and other major British institutions of higher learning. They included A. P. L. Slater,
who was fondly called “Apples” by his close associates and a few of us who were his
former students. Shortly after I left Umuahia, the duo R. H. Stone, a biology instructor,
and A. B. Cozens, a onetime principal of the college, arrived. Together Stone and
Cozens published a very famous biology textbook called
Biology for Tropical Schools
that was used throughout Africa and beyond.

It was at Umuahia that I continued the introduction to the work of William Shakespeare
that my father had first made possible, as well as to Booker T. Washington’s
Up from Slavery
, Swift’s
Gulliver’s Travels
, Dickens’s
David Copperfield
, and Stevenson’s
Treasure Island
. We were blessed to have had energetic, egalitarian principals such as the Reverend
Robert Fisher and W. C. Simpson, who created and encouraged, respectively, the “textbook
act”—a time between 4:00
and 6:00
when all textbooks had to be put away and novels picked up and read.

Reading these books was a transforming experience, and I have written elsewhere about
the influence Umuahia had in educating many of the pioneers of modern African literature—Vincent
Chukwuemeka Ike, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, I. N. C Aniebo, Chike Momah, Gabriel
Okara, and later Ken Saro-Wiwa. Less often stated is the role the school played in
producing leaders in the fine arts, such as Ben Enwonwu, and politics, such as Jaja
Wachukwu, Nigeria’s first speaker of the House of Representatives and later ambassador
to the United Nations. Umuahia turned out other stars, such as Okoi Arikpo, Dr. E.
M. L. Endeley, and N. U. Akpan. The school also produced respected African intellectuals
such as: the agronomist Professor Bede Okigbo; the physician and First Republic Minister
of Health J. O. J. Okezie; Chu Okongwu, a former minister of finance; Kelsey Harrison,
a renowned professor of obstetrics; and musician and professor Laz Ekwueme, among

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