In the wee hours of Sunday, January 31, 2021, my father, Maazị Julius Gịnịkandụ Ọnwụka, died at 90 years, one month and one day, having been born on December 30, 1930. In spite of the long years he spent on earth, his departure, though not unexpected, was still a sad event. However, rather than eulogize him as is traditional, I will draw out some traits he inculcated in me, which may be useful to those who are raising children today.
The most memorable experience of him that I remember was how he subtly turned me from an unserious pupil to a serious one. Between my primary one and three, I assumed that the first position in class was reserved for children with two heads as well as children whose parents were teachers, pastors, civil servants and the like.
In our class of about 30 children, I ensured that at the end of each term, I stood firm somewhere in the middle of the class – between the 10th and 20th position. You can see that I was not a greedy child. I was a centrist to the core, avoiding both extreme left and extreme right. As far as I was concerned, those who took the top five or last five positions were not normal children. I was fully convinced that extremism of any type was not good in life!
I was so non-academic in orientation that it was hard for me as a Sunday School child to know if Adam was male or female. The confusion was too much for me that I decided to find a code for it. My cousin, Adaobi Onwuka (now Mrs Edoka), was female. There was “Ada” in her name; and there was “Ada” in Adam. Therefore, I concluded that Adam was a woman while Eve was a man. Problem solved. I could not wait for the next Sunday School. Indeed at the next Sunday School, the teacher asked in Igbo: “Onye bụ Adam?” (Who is Adam?) My hand flew up. The teacher chose another child to answer it. She answered: “Adam bụ nwoke mbụ Chineke kere. Ya bụ nna anyị niile.” (Adam was the first man God created. He is the father to us all.)
The teacher asked: Did she get it? The class chorused “yes”, and the teacher asked us to clap for her. I had said no but luckily my answer was drowned by the noise of the class. I thanked God for sparing me the ridicule I would have received from the teacher and my mates.
From when I was little (as young as I could recall), I desired to own a bicycle. Most of my playmates rode their parents’ bicycle. My father had a car and my mother had a motorcycle, popularly called “machine” in Nnewi, as if other engine-powered devices were not machines. At my age both vehicles were out of my league. Almost every Nnewi family had a motorcycle. Even those who had cars used their motorcycle all through the week and only used the car at weekends to attend events. The men had their male motorcycle while the women had theirs popularly called ladies’ motorcycle or simply “ladies'”.
Before I was ten years old, I had learnt how to ride my mother’s motorcycle. But I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle, because all the bicycles my age mates rode were adult bicycles which we known as Long John. They were too high for me. But I always tried to ride them. I remember that one day, a schoolmate, Kenneth Osakwe (who later was known as Guy Man Okongwu in our secondary school), came with an adult bicycle to our house on an errand, and I took his bicycle, struggled to ride it up our street and returned. I didn’t know that the brake was bad and that Kenneth had a tricky way of stopping the bicycle. When I got to our gate and applied the brake by the two handles, there was no response. The bicycle continued until I rammed into the pillar in front of our house, hit my teeth on the handlebar stem and landed on the ground with a thud, buying myself a broken tooth in the process.
Seeing my desire to own a bicycle, my father promised to buy a bicycle for me if I came first in class. I sneered to myself: “Instead of telling me that he did not want to buy a bicycle for me, Papa added the condition of coming first in class, something he knew that I would never achieve and was not even interested in achieving.” I continued maintaining my centrist position in class.
Then in my primary 4, I came eighth in the first term. I clapped for myself that I had pulled off a strand of hair from the beards of a leopard. In the second term, I broke the Guinness Book of World Records: I came third in class! When my name was called, and those around me touched me to step forward, I looked back to know if there was someone else that bore my name. When I came out and got the handshake of the headmistress, the feeling was surreal.
The top three positions in our class were reserved for Regina Onwuka, Onyekaozulu Ajibo and Nnaeto Mmaduezim, in no particular order. By coming into the top three positions, I had displaced one of them. Nnaeto, who never hid his feelings nor feared anybody, said that the reason I came third was because our teacher, Miss Victoria (I can’t recall her surname), lived in our house. That stung me. Indeed our class teacher was our tenant. That actually made me uncomfortable, as I was within her control in the class and at home. What others would do and go free, I would not dare to do, because there was no hiding place for me.
For the first time in my life, I began to read my books after school, having come into the top three positions. Before then, wherever I dropped my schoolbag upon my return from school was where it would remain until the next school day, except in some cases where I had to do some homework out of fear of punishment by the teachers.
I recall how reading my books ahead of the topic to be taught in class made me define the meaning of “stranger” strangely. I had gone ahead to read the story in our Day by Day English book titled “The Stranger in the Village.” A man had come into a village where goods were kept in the market with some pebbles beside them to signify their prices but with nobody to sell them. He felt the villagers were foolish and then took some of the goods without leaving any money for the owners. The villagers laid in wait for him and caught him the third time he came. When it was time to read this exercise in class, Miss Victoria asked: “Who is a stranger?” My hand shot up. “A stranger is a thief,” I blurted out proudly, expecting her to tell the class to shower me with my well-deserved round of applause.
The teacher responded to me harshly. I sat down in shock, wondering what my crime was. It was later that I realized the import of my ignorant answer to our class teacher. Miss Victoria was not from Nnewi; so she was a stranger!
When the third term came, I took the second position in class. That was surprising. But it meant that the first position was possible.
In the first term of our primary 5, the unbelievable happened: I came first! Luckily, our teacher was not living in our house; so there was no snide remark from anyone. That was December 1980. Just before Christmas, my father bought a brand new bicycle suitable for my age. It looked classy and stylish, different from all the other bicycles meant for adults in my neighbourhood. What was written on the bicycle was Avon Cycles. I was on top of the world. I decorated my bicycle with all kinds of ribbons and stickers and rode it with glee.
My father didn’t stop there. He also handed over to me a children’s pistol with a packet of 100 rounds of “ammunition” for my Christmas celebration. The pistol fired like a real gun. I would stick the nozzle of the gun into the packet of bullets to take one of the bullets, then raise the pistol facing the sky and pull the trigger. “Boom!” responded the gun. And the children would exclaim. No child had a gun like that. The best they had was the dangerous firecrackers called Knockout or Banger. Those who could not afford that used a motorcycle spoke, a nail and matchstick heads to create a local gun that was hit on a stone to get a tiny explosive sound. We called that “Oji kobo akwa nne ya.” (He who conducted his mother’s funeral with only a kobo.)
Sometimes after much pleading from a child, I would allow the child, depending on my mood, to hold my gun and fire. But the unwritten code was that before you could touch my gun or fire it, I had to like you and bestow that honour on you.
Having made me a king among my mates and other children, my father had made it hard for me to return to my centrist ideology. Coming first in class became an ambition. I realized that schoolbooks were meant to be read. Nobody needed to tell me to read my books anymore. I read them and even books not used in school. I became an inquisitive child that sought knowledge from everywhere. For example, in 1982 when I was in primary 6, our class teacher, Mr Ojukwu, told us one day that the United Kingdom and Argentina were involved in a war. He asked us what was the cause of the war. I answered: “Falkland Islands.” He was shocked. Ours was a village school. TV and radio were not common in most families. Any time my elder brother, Bro Sam Onwuka, and his friends were discussing and arguing over issues, I listened. That was where I heard that it was the misunderstanding over the ownership of Falkland Islands that was the cause of the war. It was through their discussions that I first heard of “guerilla warfare” and wondered how gorillas could be trained to fight wars!
From my report card, my father realized that mathematics was my weak point. He got Mrs Akabueze (a schoolteacher in another school) to teach me only mathematics. I would go to her house some metres away about three times a week just to be taught mathematics. That helped me a lot.
Subsequently, I decided to maintain that first position. That meant paying extra attention to my studies. It paid off. From not being reckoned with as a pupil, I became reckoned with from my primary school to this day. For example, in my primary 6, the governor of Anambra State, Chief Jim Nwobodo, wanted to mark his 42nd birthday with schoolchildren across the state. Some schools were chosen from Nnewi LGA which had 14 towns. It was my position in class that made my school to choose me as its representative to be driven to Enugu for the first time in my life to visit Government House, Enugu and be with the governor and his other guests at the then prestigious Presidential Hotel, Enugu for the celebration.
This was because my father, who stopped his education mid way into primary school, challenged me and fulfilled his promise the moment I met the target he set. Despite his educational lack, he never joked with my education.