Had things worked out differently, the handsome choirmaster would have married one of his beautiful choristers and fathered several sons and daughters, including probably a Jerome Jr. his namesake. However, God had a different plan.
Notwithstanding, the teenaged choirmaster who later became a priest knew enough at age 16 to be a provider, husband and father. Raised in a traditional Igbo society, his father Lewis Okonkwo had taught him well and passed on all the necessary survival skills.
“My oldest brother was in the army – he was one of the first Ojukwu called for the war. The second son joined him and my father saw me as the only child left and drilled me in all the domestic business of a household. There is nothing in the local existence that I do not know- m ga ekeregi ji na oba, nma akparagi otani, the roofing mat…” he added in vernacular, proudly recounting his traditional skills .
A consummate rice farmer as a young man, he had over two acres of the crop ready for harvest in 1970, in a community, state and region just coming out of a devastating civil war. His rice fields were estimated to yield over 83 bags and any parent would have been too proud and happy to call him son-in-law. But then, the Creator had other things in mind for him.
Arondizogu-born, the amiable Father Jerome Okonkwo, better known as Okosis, spoke to Face2Face from his Owerri-home, shortly before leaving for Austria to celebrate with one of his mentors. Clad in grey and sitting in his living room, the philosopher passionately looked back on his life, and concluded that God wanted him to become a priest.
“I see the hand of God now I can look back,” he noted.
But the journey to that destination wasn’t a smooth one. From a bicycle accident on his first day at a regular school to a mysterious rice plague as marriage was being planned for him, he reasoned that it was all God working out his plan.
“My sister and my aunt planned to get a wife for me at that tender age. What happened then was strange. Our area is swampy so I made a very large rice field, which when inspected and valued, was projected to yield about 83 bags of rice when finally processed. So I continued to work and work. Only two basins of rice would have fetched me the most beautiful girl in the city at that time,” the priest said with laughter.
“Now what happened? The harvest was ripe and I was planning for people to come for the harvest. Even now, as I am talking to you, it’s still something I cannot explain. We slept and in the morning we came to that field, everything was on the ground and not a grain of rice came to the house. A type of plague came and destroyed the whole field. Till today, nobody knows what happened. That was the beginning. I would have gotten married earlier than my brothers who were older than me.”
The rice plague ended the quest for a wife and the search for something more spiritual began. Young Jerome was full of admiration for his parish priest, now Monsignor John Anyanwu of the Umuahia Diocese and wanted to be like him.
“I was observing him. I went to him and said ‘I want to go to seminary’, ” he recalled, while also sharing an earlier experience he had at age nine when he went for a seminary interview, under his big sister’s influence.
“When I came in, I saw three priests and one of them was so large that I got so frightened and he was the spokesman. After the chat, the last question was, ‘You want to become a priest?’ I said, ‘yes sir’. Again, he said, ‘do you know what it means to become a priest?’ I said, ‘no sir!’ He said, ‘to become a priest means you have to leave your family, your sisters, brothers, mother, your father and follow Christ.’ I said ‘nooooo!’”
For a nine year old, still sleeping in his mum’s bed, his reaction is understood.
“I cried and tried to run away but they held me,” he added, gesticulating.
His interviewers knew he wasn’t ready for the call just yet and sent him back home with a letter to his father. The letter said the seminary would take him in two years without an interview, and he was happy to have been rejected.
Five years down the road, young Jerome was searching again. The war had come and gone, so did his marriage ambition. What was left was a spiritual hunger he was willing to satisfy at all cost.
“I want to go to seminary,” he recalled telling his parish priest. “That’s great! But how do you go to Ahiaeke Umuahia? There are no roads, how do you go?” His surprised priest demanded but gave his blessings, nevertheless.
The war had swallowed up most of the roads and safety couldn’t be guaranteed. Yet the priest gave him a letter to the rector of the seminary and bid him, “find your way!”
Without breathing a word to any friend or family member, the ambitious youngster, now hungry for priesthood, set out on a dangerous trip to Umuahia, on foot – a two-day journey.
“I told no one. I went off on foot from Arondizogu – two days journey – at that time. Almost all the roads were dangerous – mines and bombs! The first day, I could trek up to Orieagu. At the market place, it was dark so I slept in the market place and had the scare of my life,” he reminisced.
“Early in the morning, I left, got to Imo-Bridge and it was already broken because it was bombed during the war. But it was no problem for me. Every child in my village could swim and the person who taught me was Peter Nwanna who wrote Omenuko – my uncle! All I did, was to pull down my shorts; pull the shirt, tie the letter inside the cloth, tie it on my head, wooosh! I took a plunge and crossed over. I arrived the next day on a Saturday.”
Some senior seminarians received him, fed him and helped deliver his all – important letter to the rector. The next day, he was on the return journey, bearing a reply for his parish priest and a prospectus for himself.
Another two days on foot! When he got home, they were looking for him all over. But his real journey to priesthood had begun. From Iheme Grammar School, he became a seminarian. Okosisi shared more stories about his life at the seminary and the various people who made an impact.
He was one of seven seminarians chosen by Monsignor Ochiagha to attempt the London GCE.
“Seven candidates from class three were selected for London GCE – all passed. In class four, after we took ‘A’ levels, five left, leaving Reginald Nnamdi and myself,” he said.
Both he and Reginald are priests and the only two who survived from the original seven picked by Bishop Ochiagha.
“At Senior Seminary, Bishop Nwaedo our father in faith got scholarship from Austria – two seminarians to go and study. Who was the person to select? Ochiagha and he selected the two of us,” Okosisi recalled, beaming.
The two Austrian-trained Ochiagha’s men are also Professors – Reginald Nnamdi teaches at Madona University and Okonkwo at Imo State University.
Both were ordained in 1981 at Austria, with Okonkwo’s mum proudly witnessing her son marriage, not to a chorister but to God and His church.