“I Have many regrets. My main regret, of course, is feeling completely disappointed and disenchanted with our country, Nigeria.”
Geoffrey Anyanwu, Awka
Emeritus professor of Obstetrics and Genealogy, East Tennessee State University, and founding professor and chairman of Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Uchenna Nwosu, is 80 years old today.
Looking back on his life and times, he said, although he has recorded some achievements, including establishing the famous Apex Medical Centre, he is disappointed and disenchanted that Nigeria is where it is today.
In this interview, he speaks about his life.
Could you tell us about your upbringing?
I was born in Akama Village, Anambra State. I had my primary education in the Anglican primary school there, called Holy Trinity Central School, from where I gained entrance to Government Secondary School, Afikpo, in 1953. I finished in 1958 and moved down to Kings College in Lagos for higher school. I finished in 1960, having started in 1958. Then I won a scholarship, the African Scholarship Programme for American Universities (ASPAU). I won a scholarship to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I majored in Biochemistry, graduating in 1968 and I took a break because of the Biafran war.
I actually visited Biafra and landed at Uli Airport at the time the capital was at Umuahia. I went back and took some time off after the war, to help some people get to the United States for their university education before going back into residency to become a specialist in ob-gyn. I came back to Nigeria in 1977, recruited to University of Ife as a senior lecturer in 1977, and rose to the rank of professor in 1980, though it was backdated to 1978. I resigned from that position to found a hospital in my hometown, Igbo Ukwu, where there was no minimal health care of the Western type and that hospital is Apex Medical Centre, Igbo Ukwu. It was founded in 1981 and since then I have got it developed to a certain point.
In 1990, I left again for US to become a professor in various universities and I finally retired in 2012 from East Tennessee State University College of Medicine. So, I’m now an emeritus professor and I’m back to Igbo Ukwu to continue working with the Apex Hospital system, which is now more than one hospital.
In specific terms, what was your growing up in the village like?
Definitely, I was not born with a silver or golden spoon, but I was lucky that my father was one of the people who received early education in the colonial days and could read and write. He kept his diary and everything. My father joined the Nigerian Police Force in 1919 but by 1938 when I was born, he had been retired. He was retired because of political reasons. All of a sudden because of land dispute with a town’s fellow who had as much clout and he was a financier for his section, he was retired suddenly. So, he went from being a middle class person of his time to being a pauper in the village. You know, somebody who use to wear tuxedo and things like that, all of a sudden, he was wearing loincloth. When I was born, I looked at our house; it was one of the best houses of the time, built in 1930, zinc of 1930. “Built in 1930” was written on it; very distinctive house, but we were living at lower level than the neighbours who were living in mud houses because he had fallen from the stars to the pits.
So, it was at that level during my childhood. We were seen to be elite on the surface but we were that poor and my school fees were very difficult to raise in primary school. It was very difficult to meet my school fees in primary school. My secondary school was a different story because, somehow, after the first year, I won a scholarship – Eastern Region Scholarship. From then, through the rest of my education, I was on scholarship, at Afikpo, Kings College, Harvard and Boston University Medical School. I took a free ride. I regard myself as a ward of the state, and this, of course, is part of the reasons I think I do some things that I do. I think it was Kennedy who said, ‘Ask not what the country can do for you but ask what you can do for the country.’ So that’s it.
What are the things that make you proud?
What makes me proud is having a dream and being able to accomplish that dream, with the support of my family. It is one thing to have a dream and another thing to be able to accomplish it. My dream began in 1954 when I had just finished one year in Afikpo Government College. I was on a long vacation at the time when my father took ill and died of what, as medical doctor now, I know was pneumonia, simple pneumonia. That illness that killed my father at that time could have been treated and cured with one injection of Penicillin, but there was no hospital. There was no nearby hospital. He died needlessly at the age of probably his sixties and it was at that time, 1954, as I was going back to Afikpo, that I said to myself that if I ever have the opportunity of being a medical doctor, I will build a hospital in Igbo Ukwu so that what happened to my father does not happen to other people.
That dream was in 1954 and, as God would have it, I had aptitude in Biological Sciences, which, in fact, led to medical school. When I got to medical school, finished and went into specialty training, I found I had aptitude in research. So, all of a sudden, I was diverted into research, which is completely different from clinical medicine and that research led me to being a professor because research puts you on the academic route. I became a professor before I was 40 years at Ife. Now, I could have stayed a professor; the next thing would have been to continue there and then maybe one day I would be made a vice chancellor somewhere, but I was full of life. I was looking for challenges.
The only challenge I could see at Ife was when I was promised a sheep colony for my research. My research area was with pregnant sheep, fetuses, how the lungs mature in the womb. I was operating on fetuses in the womb and giving them medications to mature their lungs and that sort of thing – that I would have a pregnant sheep colony to continue my work at Ife. I got there, not only did they not have a pregnant sheep, they had no sheep at all. So, I found out that the only thing that was actually happening was to go to the senate and argue on trifles. So, I said to myself, is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?
I was looking for challenges. It was then that my initial reason for going to medical school kept coming back and, incidentally enough, you know at that time, when only very few people were going abroad, my send-off to the United State was remarkable; it was Igbo Ukwu thing. I didn’t need money because I had the American scholarship, but they insisted on giving me some money. A man who didn’t have the money to give me went out and collected soil and wrapped it in Ogilisi leaf and gave me and told me that I should take this soil that he wrapped to America, and that I should keep it with me wherever I went; all he wanted was for me to bring it back to Igbo Ukwu and drop it. I accepted the wrapped soil.
Of course I didn’t take it with me but I knew what he was saying, the symbolism. So, the idea of the wrapped soil came to me when I was at Ife, doing no research and that was when I then told my wife. Fortunately, she was an American who was also looking for more meaning in life. My wife went to one of the best universities in the US, the same university that Hillary Clinton attended. My wife was a senior in Wesley College when Hillary Clinton entered the same college. She wasn’t looking for money. She had gone to Ghana when she was in the university to work in a place that looked very much like Igbo Ukwu when I met her. The place had no electricity, no water supply. She had gone for a summer exchange programme. When I met her in her final year of university, I asked her what she was planning to do after graduation. She told me she was going back to Ghana, to Axim, that’s the name of the village. She told me she was going go back to Axim to continue the project and I said to myself, you know what, you are not going to Axim, you are going to Igbo Ukwu. So, the very day she told me she was going back to Ghana, to a village, I knew that I had found a wife who was in tune with what I wanted to do.
When I told her at Ife that we were going to the village to start a hospital, she wasn’t surprised and she came along. I won’t tell you about the difficulties of starting a hospital where no doctor wanted to come with me, no nurse wanted to come with me. I had to train everybody. Eventually, I had to go to Ghana to recruit the first doctors because I couldn’t find a Nigerian doctor who wanted to come to work in Igbo Ukwu, where there was no electricity or water supply, and yet I wanted to give American-type healthcare in the village. So, anyway, nothing great really but setting a target, meeting it; I had many obstacles, of course, but the fact that Apex is well and alive today with four units, with a board of directors that is excellent, people whom I trust, makes me happy. Maybe, I haven’t done as well as I could have but, at least, I am doing something that has benefitted people and I am living the dream that I had when I was in secondary school.
Have you ever had a close shave with death?
Well, to tell you the truth, providence, God has been so kind to me that I don’t know what it is to be ill up till this point. The nearest I have come to death was in elementary school, back in 1949 or so, when I nearly drowned in a pond. When I say a pond, you know that catchment where floodwater is collected. It was a huge pond, probably about 20 feet in diameter, full of floodwater.
So, other than that, nothing; that is the closest I can really say that I have come to death. I thank God for giving me what I would say is almost a charmed life. I’m grateful to God. Even though this happened in my childhood, I can still feel all the feelings I had when I thought I was dying. They are described in this book, in my autobiography, Wrapped Soil. I have a chapter on it.
Could you tell us your regrets?
Oh yes, I have many regrets. My main regret, of course, is feeling completely disappointed and disenchanted with our country, Nigeria, especially someone like me that has spent half of my life abroad and seen what other countries have done with themselves. Personally, I feel I could have done more. I don’t know that I have accomplished up to my capabilities if the conditions had been favourable. I could have developed a medical school by myself, if the conditions were right, but I didn’t. I was struggling with electricity. I could have done more if the conditions were right. I haven’t done enough in the medical field.
Are your children in the medical field?
None. That is why I said that when you want to do this sort of thing, sometimes, you think about succession because you don’t want you name to die, but, fortunately for me, the succession for Apex is not; you don’t challenge God. God makes His plans and, if you think you know better, He will show you that you don’t. So, for all these extra kids that I have, none of them is a medical doctor; that is number one. Number two, when I was in the US, I brought a number of qualified family members to the States, four of whom are doctors now, medical doctors. None of them is practicing in Nigeria. My plan had been that we would all come and do and unwrap the wrapped soil.
Apex was in my dream to become a hospital where all the four highly trained doctors that I brought to the US would be practicing, but it didn’t turn out that way. However, the way God wanted it was that Apex should be a community hospital, not only for Igbo Ukwu people, but a hospital in which people would participate. So, we now have a board of directors of Apex, which, to me, is probably one of the finest in Nigeria in terms of the kind of people there. We are talking about people like Dr. Ikechi Eze, the chairman of John Holt, Dr. Emeka Ezeife, Okwadike Igbo Ukwu. We are talking about people like Chief Eric Nwobi, who is the owner of Tranex, and so many others. There is Chief A.O. Umeh, Ochikota Igbo Ukwu, who had been a managing director of a bank in his time. I am just naming a few.
There are 10 directors. I named the old ones. The new ones, the younger one have just been recruited; four of them: Architect Egbudom, Sir. Ben Chika Uzoagu, Barr. Eze and Engr. Dom Okafor, we call him Jokaru.
We have people like Dr. Ifediora. He was one of my students. He is practising in the US. Incidentally, I introduced a number of things in medical care, in Anambra State and the East.
How do you feel clocking 80?
I feel great. I mean, for myself, I am healthy, but I feel disappointed. I feel healthy and great for my health but I feel totally disappointed. I didn’t know that when I’m 80 Nigeria would be what it is today. I thought Nigeria would have been a better country. At the time we were in primary school, we were having pity for India because of the starving children there. Now, India is laughing at us. One of my colleagues now who has a disease, some form of leukemia, is about to go to India for treatment. When he went for the visa, the visa officers at Lagos or wherever it is he went to were laughing at him, saying, you are going to India for the treatment of this kind of diseases? You can’t treat it in Nigeria? He was just telling us that two days ago. So, he is preparing to leave for India to get a medical treatment that I should be able to give in Apex. Where is Nigeria? Where are we? So, at 80, I am happy that I’ve had good health, but I feel totally disappointed at what I had, at 20, thought was going to be a paradise is a laughing stock.
What is the secret of staying young, energetic and strong at 80?
I have nothing to do with it. It’s God’s will. Now, however, I’m mindful of certain things, like diet and so on, but that’s it. Basically, you live according to your genes, according to how God created you. I don’t know what the secret is. I can’t tell you that I fast. I drink alcohol, I can drink a bottle of beer a day or something like that. So, I’m not doing anything different, but I try to do everything in moderation.