An unusual crowd, including former Anambra State Governor, Sir Peter Obi, poured into Enugwu-Agidi, a ten-minute drive from the Anambra State capital, Awka, last Friday. One of the most prominent figures in the community, Ichie Raphael Udeozo, the Onyenweaku of Enugu-Agidi, was being laid to rest.
The 97-year old author, orator, World War II veteran and community leader was only educated to Standard 6, but, through self-education, he became proficient in English language and became a published author. He was reckoned in the community as one of the most intelligent men ever seen, as he served as secretaries of many associations, read voraciously (both books and newspapers). His proficiency in English was so remarkable that he was even correcting the mistakes of professors. Above all, he wrote his biography unaided at 92! Such was his genius.
Young Nweke Udeozo had his primary education in his home town, Enugwu-Agidi, and the neighbouring towns of Abagana and Amawbia, as dictated by the curriculum and circumstances of those years. He was to complete his Standard 6 education in Jos and enlisted into the West African Frontiers Force as part of the Anglican contingent of servicemen who joined the British Empire campaign against Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan during the Second Word War.
As a soldier, he distinguished himself meritoriously and earned the second position as a marksman while serving in Burma. He also served as a military nurse. At the end of the 2nd World War, he returned to Nigeria. He was to join the Federal Veterinary Research Institute, Vom, Plateau State, where he worked as a vaccine inoculator. He was among the pioneer team that provided the map and statistics of tsetse fly infestation against cattle across Nigeria. He grew through the ranks and rose to the Head of the Veterinary Stores Division, Vom.
During the Nigerian Civil War, he fled Vom. Unlike many Biafrans, who were summarily dismissed or retired from civil service after the war, he was recalled to Vom by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Having escaped being killed in Vom in the pogrom, it was not easy for him to make up his mind to head for Plateau again. Eventually, he did. But the Veterinary Research Institute he met was in shambles. A man of integrity, he put in his best to restore the lost efficiency and retired in glory years after.
Late Nweke Udeozo was not only proficient in Igbo and English languages but also in Hausa. In Jos, he even served as an interpreter of Bible sermons in Hausa. A lover of books, he bought and gifted his children and friends books on regular basis. At 95, he was still reading books and newspapers. Robert Green’s Mastery was one of the last books he read from cover to cover.
Besides, the villagers knew him as a man of truth, who would not shy away from calling a spade a spade. He saw himself as an opinion molder with a responsibility to guide society through positive values. The sage was survived by two sons –Hon. Onyeibo Udeozo and Sir Obu Udeozo –and two daughters –Professor Oby Nnodu and Barrister Nwogo Nkechi Udeozo.
Soon after the body of the late icon was laid to rest in his compound at Enugwu-Agidi, The Sun Literary Review spoke to his children on their father’s life, especially his reading and writing habits.
Hon. Onyeibo, the first son of the family, said his father had a distinguished civil service career spanning over 30 years. Besides, “Like our ancestors, Ichie Nweke Odeozo embraced and laboured to uphold the point that ideas are the ruling forces in life. He was an opinion leader of repute.
“Though he lived most of his life in Jos, Plateau State, Ichie did not forget his roots. He fully and wholeheartedly discharged his responsibilities, at various periods, as National Vice President of Enugu-Agidi Brotherly Union, as well as a member of the Igwe-in-Council, under the late HRN, Igew D.O. Ikeanyi of Enugwu-Agidi.”
Hon Onyeibo, who described his father as a rare masquerade, “the kind that appears once in a generation among a people”, said he was a man of letters. Hence, “I thank God for giving Ichie the strength to write his autobiography at 92 years, and his memoir made a good historical document.
“Furthermore, he sustained himself in old age through readings, church activities, writing cultural/traditional papers. He was knowledgeable about the history of Nigeria, Enugwu-Agidi and Umuni clan. Ichie preferred to have leisure with newspapers, magazines, television and books, picking up useful lessons for mankind. He was a reference point and he personified excellence,” he said.
Doctor Oby Udeozo is the first daughter of Ichie R.N. Udeozo. She told The Sun Literary Review, “My father was a very loving dad. The best thing I liked about him was his discipline and his attitude to work, for we grew up seeing him go to work and working till the early hours of the morning, just doing his official work. That discipline and the sense of commitment towards his children and his family were very remarkable. He loved to share with others and was very extravagant in spending. He was a very brilliant man with a sharp memory.
“He loved reading. I remember, as a child, in Enugu, I would go to the library and bring books back to read for two weeks before returning them. So we read all the classics, the African Writers Series. Everybody who grew up in our family must be into reading. We read newspapers, magazines, serious literature and, sometimes, unserious ones. I read hundreds of books as a teenager. My parents allowed me to do all the readings I wanted.”
Obu Udeozo, prolific poet, artist and scholar, regretted that his father couldn’t live to see the end of his own dream, seeing him become a celebrated literary and art genius. “There is no human being in this world, white or black, that could have sacrificed what he did in terms of patience and tolerance for a very radical writer that knew nothing than the pursuit of excellence.
“He supported me for ten years when I was without job seeking employment with a masters degree. I was in the house eating food and tying wrapper, reading more books and doing more paintings. If he had told me to leave the house, that creativity would have stopped.
“So when Prof Nnolim would say ‘Obu Udeozo’s knowledge of contemporary art is intimidating’, they didn’t know what I did. I had many degrees in many disciplines because of my father’s cultivation and understanding of the purpose of academic quest. My father was not God, but he was sent by God to tolerate me for me to be able to achieve what I did.
“He laid the foundation of the English language that I have today. He was the secretary of the Veterinary Research Council in the midst of white men. He supported me as a writer by ensuring that I had plenty of books. He gave me the first copy of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man as my 20th year present. Imagine a man giving a mad man at that age, in 1976, when I was in lower 6! James Joyce launched me into the final ultimate aspiration as far as literature was concerned.
“He has kept every copy of The Sun newspaper in his archive, because he said I appreciated The Sun. My father was even pointing to people things that will happen to me in future, and I believe that, one day, where both of us were pointing will happen for us. It is the crown of academics, the highest glory.”
Barrister Nwogo Udeozo, the lastborn of the late icon, recalled that, by the time she knew his late dad, he was a workaholic civil servant and a voracious reader. “He would go to work, come back and spread about five newspapers in his front and be reading them, while my mum would sit quietly beside him. My earliest impression of him started in 1972 when we returned to Vom after the civil war. It was when I started knowing my parents closely. My dad was a good man, very firm, not like the modern-day dads who are all over their children. But you would see he had love for his children and took time to buy books like Alice in Wonderland, etcetera, for me.
“That made me realise he had a loving heart. When I turned 18, he bought me a book. He had a command of English language. Also, he had a perfectionistic attitude. If he spotted an error in my brother’s article in the newspaper, he would get so angry. He only did Standard 6, but you might think he had a university degree. He loved writing and reading newspapers. He started writing his biography and finished it at 92, an interesting biography that is hard to put down.
“He was a very articulate man. The power of his narration is that he remembered dates. If you read his tributes, you will see everybody talking about his faultless memory. He remembered almost everything,” she said.