BY CHIKA ABANOBI
His story reads like a book. With many interesting chapters! Call it the book of James. With regard to the other Book of James, the one you know, authors of the New Living Translation (NLT) version of the Bible observe that it was written to “provide some practical instructions for living.” Prof. James Nwoye Adichie’s life seems tailored by his Creator to do just that.
You got introduced to him, when, on his 81st birthday, you sought and obtained the kind permission of his daughter, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the world-acclaimed novelist whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and, turned into major motion pictures, to talk to him. Without her approval, you doubt whether he would have been willing to do that. One-on-one.
So you were elated when, in obliging your request, she sent you a phone number with which you could contact him. And, that was how you travelled from Lagos to Nsukka, where he and his wife, Lady Grace Ifeoma Adichie, Nigeria’s first female Registrar, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, both retirees, then lived, somewhere off Aku Road, to meet and interview him.
You met again during their 50th wedding anniversary, held on December 26, 2013. Attended by many dignitaries, foremost among them, Mr. Peter Obi, the then governor of Anambra State, and many members of his Executive Council, the church service and family reception took place in his hometown.
But it soon became clear that life, indeed, is like “a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears” (James 4:14, Catholic Online Bible). That truth about the brevity of life pointed out by James was later paraphrased by William Shakespeare as “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” On Sunday, June 10, 2020, Prof. Adichie who, some days earlier reportedly spoke, joked and laughed with his children, overseas and at home, on their regular weekly Zoom talk, “disappeared,” left life’s stage, as it were. Unexpectedly! But peacefully!
He was born in Abba, in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, on March 1, 1932, a year before Pita Nwana published his widely-acknowledged first Igbo novel, Omenuko, and 34 years before Leopold Bell-Gam published, Ije Odumodu Jere. Those who know him say that he is something of a rare breed, omenuko. And the stories told about him by his children, his sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and other acquaintances, during the wedding anniversary, about his exemplary life and the ones he told this reporter make his journey through life reads like that of Ije Odumodu Jere (Odumodu’s Travels/Expedition/Travelogue).
His birth and education
According to him, that journey began formally in his hometown, in 1936 or thereabout. That was the year he made his first appearance as a primary school pupil at the Roman Catholic Mission School located in his village. Yemi Ambrose Akinkuotu and Rev. Sam-Ade Falodun in their “Introduction to History of Education” (in the Akinkuotu-edited Introduction to Educational Foundations) tagged the era ‘The Period of Local Community Efforts’. “The main characteristic of this period was the great interest shown by the various local communities in opening and running of schools,” they observed. ”The so-called Christian missionary schools were largely local community schools.”
Then four-years-old, James was accompanied by his father, David Nwoye Adichie. He was determined to give his first child, the best education that his meagre income as a farmer could afford. “In those days, you didn’t have many schools as we have now,” he said. “I was not the only child. We were three. I am the oldest, followed by my sister and then my younger brother. But you see, my parents understood the importance of education. And, so they sent me to school. My father went to school. He passed Standard 2. He was a big man. In those days, you were admitted if, by stretching your hand from one side, the right side actually, you were able to reach your left ear on the other side of your head. At four, my own did not. But my father insisted and the teachers admitted me.
“Because of my age, I was kept separate. I wasn’t allowed to be in Infant Class 1. I was the only one; others were old enough to be in Infant 1. In my own time, there was nothing like ota-akara (kindergarten class). The building then was the church building. It was made up of a thatched house with mud wall. And, inside, you had raised mud structure as seat. From Monday to Friday, the schoolchildren would sit on it. But, on Sunday, worshippers would.”
In the second year, he was promoted and allowed to be in Infant 1 and 2 before being promoted to Standard 1. He finished at the age of seven. He was supposed to go to Standard 2 but the class was moved to Awkuzu (today in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State; Abba shares a common boundary with the town). The pupils who passed Standard 1 were expected to go to the place to do their Standard 2.
“That was the first problem my parents had,” he said. “It was a long distance, a journey of about six miles (about 10 kilometres), to and fro, on foot. It was practically impossible for a little boy like me. But because of my father’s zeal that I must go to school, he knew somebody from our town, much older than me who was going to school at Awkuzu. He went to his place and asked his father to plead with his son to be leading me to school. They agreed. So, each morning, we would leave very early and go to the man’s house to wait for him. When he was ready, we would all go together to Awkuzu.
“Unfortunately for me, the man had very long legs. And, so I was put under serious stress in my bid to catch up with his strides. After walking for some time, he would call out to me and say: ‘hey, walk fast!’ But to say the truth, the man was very kind to me. Minus him, perhaps I wouldn’t have been to school. I was at Awkuzu for four years. It was there that I did my Standard 2, 3, 4 and 5. Throughout my years of schooling, I liked Arithmetic. I later finished Standard Six.
“Then the question was: what do you do after Standard Six? My parents would want me to continue with my education, but they were poor. They were basically farmers, although my father was also into some form of carpentry. But his was at home; it wasn’t the fashionable type we now have, with a big shop or showroom. He was mainly into palm plantation. While they were thinking of what to do to make me further my studies, I couldn’t go to school. They had no money to send me to college. That was in 1944.”
But by dint of strong determination, focus and hard work, James was able not only to attend secondary school where he met with Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), as classmate, but also to go to university here in Nigeria (University of Ibadan, then University College, Ibadan where he obtained his first degree in mathematics) and overseas (University of California in Berkeley, USA) where he did his doctorate in statistics). Whereas he achieved the first feat, first degree in math under the Federal government scholarship, he achieved the second on a platter of education training partnership between University of Nigeria, Nsukka (where he worked then as assistant lecturer) and USAID. After the Nigerian Civil War, he would later rise to become not only the Head, Department of Statistics, but also the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the university. His wife, Lady Grace Ifeoma Adichie who read Sociology at the university and some professional administrative courses would also become the first female Registrar of the university. All on merit.
Experiences on the field of educational pursuits
On his sojourn in the two universities, Prof. Adichie shared with this reporter, some interesting experiences. First, at the UNN. “When I finished at Ibadan with a good honours degree in mathematics, I saw an advertisement in the journal of Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu. They were looking for lecturers in mathematics. I applied and got the job. A year later, the Nigerian College was disbanded. I lost my job. This was in 1961. Fortunately, I heard that the UNN which started a year before was looking for assistant lecturers in mathematics. I applied. They sent somebody to Enugu to interview me. Two or three days after, I received their letter of employment. I was appointed an assistant lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. The Head of Department, one Prof. P.C. Chadri, an elderly Indian man told me when I went to report that he wanted me to be part of the department so that I could teach statistics.
“I said: ‘Sir, but I didn’t read statistics; I read mathematics.’ And, he said: ‘if you will not teach statistics, then you have no job.’ I said I would teach. I was imagining myself being out of job again. He said that’s better. This old man gave me his old books which he used in 1920s. The man had a PhD from London. But he read astronomy. So I collected these books. I had a time-table. That was how I started.
“I would read his books, make notes although I didn’t quite understand what was written there. The symbols, I didn’t know what they meant. I would write them as I saw them written in the textbooks. I didn’t know any of those things. But I had to teach them to retain my job. The people I used as guinea pigs were the late Chief Peter Onuoha from Mbaise (Imo State), one Gregory Emembolu, he’s also late, and one Obe, a Yoruba boy. By way of retrospection, I pity them now because they were taught by somebody who did not know much about statistics. All I did was to write out those symbols. I couldn’t explain them because I didn’t know them either. I did so to retain my job.
“But I taught other forms of mathematics to those who were reading physics, chemistry, etc. We were located in what is now called the Social Science Building. I did that for two years before I went for my graduate studies under the sponsorship of USAID. They had an arrangement with the University of Nigeria to help train the teachers to teach in the school. That was how I found myself in California. I spent three years there and got PhD in Statistics.”
“Dad would always teach and guide the students to achieve their goals in life which is his pride” Mrs. Ijeoma Maduka, her first daughter, a medical doctor based in United States, observed during the golden jubilee anniversary. “He would say that helping other children to be their best, he knows the good Lord will help his own children to be their best too.”
His experience at University of California, Berkeley (established: 1868), reflects his tenacity of purpose and triumph of can-do spirit. As the Igbo would say, it is the glow-worm who wants to be seen that is seen. “When I got to Berkeley, I was in a class. Over here, we call it post-graduate; they call it graduate class. In that class were Chinese, Japanese, Israelis, Americans, South Americans but most of them had read M.A. Statistics or M.A. Mathematics in their respective universities in their countries before coming to Berkeley, one of the best, if not the best university in statistics in the whole of United States.
“They were coming to do their PhD there. I was with them. Then lectures started. I didn’t understand anything. First, I was British-trained. I had the British orientation of taking exams. I went to a professor and said: ‘I know that I have just come but I want to go. I am not finding things easy here.’ The man laughed and took me to his office and told me what to do to be able to fit into the system. I had a good degree in mathematics but the emphasis was different. Our own learning was more of rote memory. With the understanding of what he taught me, I was now able to read statistics and understand it. But it meant a lot of hard work. It meant all the summer I was at school attending summer lectures, doing this, doing that, running around.
“By the second semester I was no longer a dunce. I applied to be examined for readiness to do PhD. By the beginning of the third year, I had gotten my thesis and I was the second in that big class to finish. The first was an Israeli woman. And, that’s how I got my PhD in statistics. And, my friends and classmates said: ‘Adich’, because that’s how they call me, some would say, ‘James, I hope you are not going back to Africa.’ I said why not? They said what are you returning to Africa to do? You can stay here and get a job. I said thank you. I said the day I graduate, the following morning I would take a flight home. They said, why? I said I was sent here to get this degree. I have got it and I am going home. Your place is good, no doubt, but for me, home is home.”
Friends remember times with Adichie
During the ceremony held to mark their 50th wedding anniversary (they married on April 15, 1963), Ichie Pius N. A. Okeke, Assistant Commissioner of Police (rtd), former commandant, Police College, Enugu, called Prof. Adichie “a monument.” He remembered his short stay with his family at the Police College, Ikeja, shortly after his first degree at the University of Ibadan. He also remembered the wonderful reception that was accorded to him and his wife at Enugu International Airport on his return from the United States after grabbing the doctorate. The tortoise said that the joy of a journey is in going and returning.
Dr. Sylvester Ugoh, who later became the Governor, Central Bank of Biafra (1967-1970), Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology (1979-81), Education (1982-83), the Acting Director, Economics Development Institute (1965-57; 1972-79), in the Faculty of Social Sciences, U.N.N and a good friend of Prof. Adichie, recalled their weekend car rides.
The man who served as the master of ceremony at their wedding said the journey would usually take them from Nsukka, through Awka, to the village of Nise where he would drop off Adichie to visit Grace while he would continue the journey to his then wife-to-be teaching at Girls Secondary School, Ihioma, Orlu. “Later, as dusk was approaching, I would set off again in the opposite direction, picking up James in Nise and both of us would return to Nsukka invariably in the dark of the night.”
Despite the bad roads, the danger constituted by the long trailers which plied the narrow roads at night, often with only one light on, the inclement weather of strong winds and heavy rains during the rainy reason, Ugoh said they always looked forward to the weekly long and risky rides to Nise and Ihioma. They never deterred us nor dampened their enthusiasm for the visits, he said. Think about it. The dog’s nose has been cold before the arrival of Harmattan.
He recalled: “Whenever Grace came to spend the weekend in Enugu, we would go there to the man who was both her uncle and caretaker as well as her timekeeper. To take her out of his house would always involve a negotiation with him, not only on where we were taking her to, but also, on when we would bring her back. As the agreed time approached, he would be continually and impatiently eyeing his wristwatch while on our part, we would be rushing from wherever we were, to beat the time so that the next time we would not face utter refusal to our request to take Grace out…In retrospect, all those risks we took in the early 1960s and the frustrations from Grace’s time-keeping uncle were indeed more than worth it.”
Talking about how the journey started, Grace would later declare in an interview with this reporter that, out of the many suitors, some of them stupendously rich, that came to ask for her hand in marriage in those days, she agreed to marry James because of his humility, among other qualities, again, confirming another truth enshrined in the Book of James: “God…giveth grace (Grace?) unto the humble”(James 4:6, King James Version, KJV). .
Children, daughters-in-law, grandchildren relive his memories
“He was a man of immense integrity,” Prof. Adichie’s second daughter, Mrs. Uchenna Sunny Eduputa, a Director in the Drug Compliance Unit of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), noted. “Anyone can easily learn what integrity means by watching our father. He was a man of his words. Daddy is a man not merely with a good mind, but one who was filled with wisdom. Our family benefitted from his sage words, delivered humbly from a heart of love and genuine concern. He was a truth teller. His mind had always been keen and analytical. He was an example of love, particularly in the way we saw him interact with mum. He modeled love in the way he spoke and lived.”
Chukwunwike, known as Chuks, or “Chu the Boy,” in his teenage years, is his third child. The ICT engineer based in United Kingdom remembers how his father was understanding and guided him with love through the complex and sometimes difficult phase of teenage self-discovery while at the same time instilling the discipline that has helped him in his adult life as “Chu the man.” He remembered the first day that he let him drive his car. “I just declared that I could drive and asked him to let me drive him. He had never seen me drive before. He did not ask around to confirm whether I could drive. He simply said, Ngwa, bia ka I nyaa moto (come and drive). To this day, I see that as a demonstration of complete faith in me.”
His wife, Atinuke, remarked that although “we don’t choose where we are born into, we sure choose where we are married into.” On that note, she expressed her happiness at being married into Adichie’s family as well as her gratefulness to his father-in-law for all his words of wisdom, his advice and love, his support and for “allowing me to be me.”
Like Chinua Achebe would say, when a she-goat chews the cud, her children watch. Okechukwu, his fourth child, hinted at this truth when he said: “Some people have a hard time finding something to be thankful for when it comes to their parents. I am definitely not in that category. I have everything to be thankful for.” Talking about his father, the Programme Director of the Lagos-based Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), in charge of Chimamanda’s creative writing workshops, said he had set a very good example for him to follow. He talked about his perseverance through the years being an example, not only to him, but also to everyone who knows him. He has left a legacy not only to him but also to all his children, grandchildren and more generations to follow, he noted. Oluchi, his wife, said that right from the first time he met her father-in-law and his wife, she became a passionate admirer of all they represent. She said sometimes she gets shy but they always put her mind at ease.
In her tribute, his granddaughter, Kamsiyonna Adichie, a musical prodigy when she was at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Gloucestershire, England, thanked him for teaching her the Igbo language. As a matter of fact, all his children and almost all his grandchildren speak fluent Igbo. “I love it when we go for walks and when he speaks languages that I don’t understand. I have started learning Igbo,” she wrote. “I know Kedu and O di mma. He is the most intelligent Grandpa. He is so clever and simply the best.”
Chisom Sunny Eduputa, another of his grandchildren, then an SS3 student at Louisville Girls High School, Ijebu-Itele, Ogun State, recalled how coming back home in her primary schooldays, she would be barely done with her lunch when grandpa “would saunter out, newspaper and pen in hand, and say to her “I mesigo homework?” (Have you finished your homework). “My sister and I would sit at the table cracking word problems in math and filling in words in English while grandpa sat contentedly working on his Sudoku behind the newspaper while occasionally glancing up to make sure we were concentrating.
Chisom who is likely to take after Chimamanda in the field of creative writing, added: “One of those days, I needed help knotting my school tie. Grandpa offered to do it, casually joking that he wasn’t too old to have forgotten how to knot a tie. I never loosened that tie all through the six weeks I was at school. My friends would say to me: ‘how come you never unknot your tie?’ and I would smilingly tell them that my grandpa had knotted it for me and I wanted his knowledge to seep into me particularly as I took my year 11 science final exams. So when someone accidentally did unknot that tie, I went crazy, nearly shouting my large dormitory down. The good thing though was that I had finished my exams when it happened. I wonder if I would have faced my exams with as much passion as I did without my ‘good luck’ tie.”
A forest that has both bees and wasps cannot be threatened by anything that stings, so goes an Igbo adage. One area that this saying holds true for James’s family is mathematical problems. His granddaughter, Amaka, and twin-sister to Chisom confirmed this when she said: “My grandfather is venerated by all. He is a man of extra-ordinary wisdom and character. I remember one seemingly depressing Thursday night when my sister and I were left clueless on our mathematics homework. It seemed as though the question couldn’t possibly have a solution. Although we had given it several trials, neither of us, including my parents, could come up with an answer. I decided then to call “the walking calculator”, my grandpa. Not only did he get the question right in less than five minutes, he did it while he was in the bathroom. I adore the times he would slightly bend me over and pat my back with his palm while saying “Hey-Hey-Hey.”
“I remember Daddy helping me with my math homework, patiently, quietly certain that I was more capable than I thought I was, which made me believe more in myself,” Chimamanda wrote in her recent article, a tribute to her father, published in The New Yorker. She said that as a child, his bedroom in Nsukka was the safest place for her. “There, I knew I would always be listened to and encouraged – and reprimanded if I needed to be! – and I knew there was laughter and fun conversations and jokes and prayers but mostly it was because that room represented unconditional love.”