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.
Brightening up ALVAN with a Blessing
Getting the top job was a surprise to Dr (Mrs) Blessing Ijioma, despite a revelation she had earlier.
“It never crossed my wildest imagination that I’d ever be the provost. I am not from Imo State, and Alvan was still an Imo-State institution. I thought it was one of those revelations. But as years went bye, things started unfolding, with the Federal government taking over Alvan,” said the Abia-born, mother of five, beautifully attired in a traditional outfit and pouring over files.
It was a surprise to the Methodist preacher, a doctor of food science and technology because she was chasing purpose rather than position. But when the opportunity came for her to seek the exalted office of Provost, she boldly stepped forward.
Three years ago, the Assistant Provost became Provost and last November, she led the college to its 50 years anniversary, a milestone she’s proud of.
“I t makes me feel very happy. I think it’s also divine that by the time the first female provost is on seat Alvan also reaches 50 years. I feel fulfilled. I am really happy,” the soft-spoken woman said, barely looking up.
Dr Ijioma had just returned from a meeting and preparing for another. She had visitors waiting and an important courtesy call to attend.
The Provost didn’t look at all flustered and her office was nice and cool. But the same can’t be said about the seat she’s occupying as the first female boss.
“It is hot but not so hot by the grace of God. If you’re anchored on God and you are self confident and know what you’re supposed to do, and do it, there’s no reason to want to prove yourself. In fact Jesus said, ‘if you don’t believe in me, believe the work that I do. It’s the work that testify of me’,” wife of Sir Chukwuemeka Ijioma, added.
A former HOD and Dean, Dr (Mrs) Ijioma is mindful that she is setting a precedent at the college, as the first woman to hold the big job. She knows that her performance could open the door wider or shut it for future female aspirants. She’s therefore careful not to give detractors a chance to say – a ‘woman can’t do it!’
“As Dean, I didn’t encounter any opposition because there had been other female deans in other schools of the college, so there was nothing significant. Also, being a deputy provost didn’t quite raise an eye brow, people didn’t bother too much. But when I became the provost- it was unexpected that a female will emerge,” she explained, calmly.
“The first reaction was ‘could she perform? Can she do it? Can she meet with the challenges?’ But then, I settled down with my management team and we have been able to prove that a woman can do it by the Grace of God and the support of those around. So those who said, ‘a woman can’t do it’ are gradually changing their mind and attitude’.
Additionally, she adopted an all-inclusive management style, where she tries to draw everyone who has a contribution to make towards the growth development of ALVAN.
“I consult with my management team. My deputy is male, my registrar is female – incidentally the first female. We consult and deliberate. I am not afraid of my team because I have nothing to hide. I try to operate an open door. I go beyond the management team to bring in all those who have something to offer, who have ideas and are willing to join,” she also said.
Those who insist that women can’t work together and don’t support each other may have a chat with the ALVAN boss.
“I have never had my women not supporting me. In fact, they are excited because it’s when the first female succeeds that others will have the desire and confidence that they can do it,” she added.
Support may not be 100 per cent, and never is, but Dr Ijioma has enough goodwill and experience to enable her to do her job well. On the flip side, ALVAN is happy unlike Aso Rock, where President Jonathan has been told recently to ‘watch his back’. Mrs Ijioma has received no such warning and has nothing to watch except the upheaval in the country’s education system. The Nsukka alumnus, a strong scripture union member in her day, admitted that all is not well in the nation’s classrooms, including her own. Many students have thrown in the towel, preferring to buy certificates instead of study for it, while some lecturers choose to sell books to students rather than teach them.
“It makes us feel very bad when we think of how we burnt the midnight oil, and then to see what is happening now. Students are not even ready to work hard again and society has not done them well. Merit, honesty, hard work have been thrown overboard because people can get certificates without going to school. Those who sell in the market can go to miracle centres and get their certificates,“ she said, sadly.
“Before the war, facilities were not wonderful but the teachers were dedicated and students were ready to work … I can only do my best by insisting that the lecturers do their work – that they no longer come into the classrooms, introduce their book, give one or two lectures and disappear to wait for examination. We also make sure the students attend lectures and do their exams and if there’s exam malpractice, they are punished,” she added, promising expulsion to any student caught cheating.
Dr Ijioma is gradually changing the landscape of the college with the construction of new classroom and administration blocks. The provost is also trying to strengthen the college academically, clean up teaching and learning as well as motivate students to earn their certificates. Imo’s number one teacher training college still trains the trainer, runs its traditional NCE programmes and offers degrees from the University of Nigeria.
“You can see what is happening – we are trying to increase the number of classrooms, labs and equipment that both students and lecturers can use. This will make learning easier and many students are trying to learn. The Nigerian youth is not totally bad. The problem is society. There’s a proverb which says, brighten the corner where you are, that’s what we’re trying to do,” she concluded – a true blessing in disguise.
Beating racism with biology – Ghanaian Teacher floors racist
In the 50s and 60s, many black people living in the West UK and US met with serious, bold-faced racism. Nowadays, colour prejudice is no longer as strong or “in-your-face” as before although it’s not entirely dead, as a Ghanaian teacher found out.
Most times, the persons at the receiving end of racism or racial attack are powerless and unable to fight back. Those who can, especially if it’s a case of verbal attack or name calling, usually return the abusive language, name or, better still, invent their own equally derogatory term. For example, a white man calls you a “monkey” and you call him a “pig” and the story ends there – no winner no loser!
But Ghanaian-born John Ampofo had a different mindset and understanding of racism. Therefore, he responded to racism on a London underground train in an unusual way. Face2Face chatted with Ampofo at a restaurant in east London. Here is his story.
It was a cold Winter morning and Ampofo was going home from work. Black and White was the last thing on his mind as he got on the Jubilee Line with dozens of other commuters and night workers, most of them struggling with sleep. A professional biology teacher, Ampofo had migrated to the UK as most Africans in search of a better life, and had just closed from his daunting night job as a security guard and heading home.
Shivering with cold even in a sweater, Jacket and coat, Ampofo located an empty seat at the far end of the train and, hurriedly, went for it. Just as he was about to sit, a white man next to him, jumped up from his own seat and muttered angrily, “you monkey!” and literally fled.
Surprised but not embarrassed, the tired Ampofo, a tall personable science tutor, looked the racist squarely in the face and replied: “For the first time, you’re seeing a monkey speaking laconic English and one without a prehensile tail.”
Unknown to Ampofo, another white man, a potential employer, was watching keenly. His intelligent remark caught him and he exclaimed, “oh, you’re learned!” The impressed observer requested for Ampofo’s telephone number and followed it up with a call and later, a job-offer.
“That was how I got my first teaching appointment,” Ampofo, who has been in the UK for over 15 years, told Face2 Face.
That experience ended Ampofo’s ordeal as a security guard and brought him back into the classroom as a science teacher. He taught in the college for several years and later founded his own school. He shared his experiences as a teacher in a foreign land, and compared it with his challenges back home.
“The school system here is very good compared to home but the point is they give students so much room and freedom. You end up as a teacher doing classroom management. In fact, I spent a good 80 per cent of my time in doing classroom management – getting students to settle down and listen in class. They’re on their I Pads, I Phones and BBs – pinging, blinging and blogging. It takes time to get them to settle down,” he explained, shaking his head.
“It is a multi-cultural society where you have Indians, Chinese and others, and everybody is talking at the same time. It means that in the classroom, the Indians are talking, the Chinese are talking, and everybody is talking and doing their own thing. You live in a diverse environment and the school system is diverse. You need to understand everybody’s culture. What you consider a taboo in Africa may be an accepted way of life elsewhere so you have to understand that. As a black African teacher, you need to learn the culture of the average person in order to adapt,” said Ampofo, who has now left teaching.
In Ghana, Nigeria, and most of Africa, for example, the use of the left hand is derogatory. A student may not raise the left hand to answer a question. But put that to an Indian or Chinese student in Ampofo’s multi-cultural school and the teacher would have to answer a barrage of questions to explain the ‘why?’ and ‘why not’. Racial discrimination is also not strange in such classrooms, although the school system has laws against it.
“One day an Indian student referred to me as, ‘you black African,’ Ampofo recalled, “I didn’t want to do anything because he was my student but he later came back to apologise. We have a procedure in the school system – if you are treated unfairly or abused by teacher or student, you should report to your head of department. But sometimes you don’t want to go through all that – But you have to have a big heart to stomach all that nonsense,” he added.
Notwithstanding, the school system is properly run and managed by experts and teachers earn their keep.
“There is a quality department that monitors your scheme of work, your delivery and can come for inspection unannounced. So, you have to be prepared. You don’t come to class and rattle and go home,” Ampofo said.
Every child matters, no matter the background. The teacher must teach both the smart and the slow, even if they are put in different classrooms for easier teaching and learning.
“Some of the children are serious and some are notorious. Classes are set in one, two and three. The lower ones, that is, the three are the ones who cause a lot of trouble but everybody has to be taught and teachers must prepare their lesson plans to suit the different intellectual levels.
“For example, I cannot ask those in the lower class to evaluate anything. “No,” they cannot ‘evaluate’ anything, ‘compare’ or ‘contrast,’ all they can do is ‘define’. You have to go at a slow pace but that doesn’t mean the children are mentally challenged. The work is not ended when you leave the classroom, it follows you home,” he further explained.
Teachers can be recruited overseas but additional training is required to qualify them to teach locally.
Ampofo who admitted leaving the school system in Ghana because of a self –esteem issue emphasized that teachers in the west are trained and encouraged to apply knowledge not just to possess it.
“I will say I have learnt a lot and seen different ways of doing things from the ways they’re done in Africa. At home, when you go for a training programme, you come back with your certificate and begin to show off. Here if you go for a training programme, you’re expected to come back to apply the knowledge. People are taught to always be in the mood to apply knowledge and that’s what you try to do,” Ampofo maintained.
The biology teacher, a husband, father and pastor said he has achieved 90 per cent of his objectives in the UK and is ready to return to Ghana. The question is, will he find an enabling environment to apply the knowledge he has acquired?
Dreams of a New Nigeria – Father Agbagwa
It is one thing to want to do something for your country and another to find an enabling environment to do it, especially if that country is Nigeria.
Where good things are easily corrupted or allowed to rot from neglect, carelessness and disorder, only the very patient and chronically optimistic will continue to try. Father Godswill Agbagwa is one of them.
He’s among the people who believe that a new Nigeria is still possible – a Nigeria where good leadership, hard work and merit will be the norm. A visionary, organizer and compassionate youth priest, the Amaimo-born cleric has a dream that one day, a new breed of honest and dedicated leaders will emerge in Nigeria. But he knows it won’t happen in a hurry. Yet such a dream is like madness to some Nigerians who have been forced by circumstances to give up hope. To such people, trying to clean up the country is like attempting to climb a mountain on high hill shoes- a waste of time and energy! Notwithstanding, Father Godswill and his team are willing to try.
The United States resident has assembled some like-minded people to help him in that herculean task and they have commenced a mentorship programme, embracing about 30 first year university students from across the country. One of those partnering with Father Godswill in his ambitious project is Father Vincent Arisukwu, a compassionate young, dynamic priest and seasoned journalist, among other reputable and well-meaning people.
Face2Face spoke to Father Godswill at the “Emerging Nigerian Leaders Conference” organized in November for the participants, at the Star Arrivals Hotel, in New Owerri, Imo-State. Calm and optimistic, Father Godswill explained his vision and chances of success with the youth.
“In 2008, I had a dream that if we want to reawaken the Nigerian social conscience, revive the spirit of entrepreneurship and nurture morally responsible leaders of social change, Nigeria will become one of the greatest countries in the world. Having been born in this country, having had my education in this country- primary, secondary and tertiary, I know we have a lot of potentials. Having travelled across the globe, I have noticed that there’s no secret to success except through hard work, responsibility and vision.
“So I started worrying and thinking about how things have gone wrong in our country, then I realized there’s got to be a missing link – that at some point we lost our social conscience, entrepreneurship and sense of morality and it’s because of this lack that things have gone really very bad in this country,” he said, sadly.
Father Godswill is convinced that no quick-fixes will work. Real and lasting change can only come if “we go back to the roots”, retrain minds and inculcate new morals.
“The dream kept on coming over and over until I could no longer ignore it. So I started to think seriously about how to realize the vision. In 2010, I started sharing the dream, feeling the pulse of people so I won’t be in a fool’s paradise. Everyone said, ‘father this is it, it’s a good idea but who will bell cat?”
Father Godswill doesn’t claim to have all the answers but he is willing to try. Having assembled a team and done all the paper work, he registered a Non-Governmental organization (NGO) called Centre for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics, in Abuja and ran with his dream. The next major step was choosing the pioneers of the programme – a big challenge in a country where merit is only a word.
“Since the bottom line is how to reawaken the social conscience of the people, shun corruption and institute morals and ethics, the initial challenge was how to select the participants for the programme. We decided on an essay competition. We asked the students to write what they will do if they become the Nigerian president. We gave the essays to different people to evaluate and from there we were able to come up with the first 30 people who are participating in this conference today,” he explained, adding that the programme had been strictly sponsored by the board members – all Nigerians!
“The selection process was very tough and completely by merit. I don’t have any brother or sister among them. All was interviewed one- on-one and we spoke to their parents and guardians. Even their heads of departments (HODs) were contacted to ascertain their identity. We checked and rechecked information to ensure the candidates are who they say they are. It’s been a thorough process and we are completely satisfied that these 30 deserve to be here,” he added.
Some of the participants spoken to said they got to the programme on their own, confirming that the selection process was free of the usual bribes and “godfatherism.” Some had travelled five to six hours by road to be at the venue. But all had their transport, accommodation and feeding fully paid for by the organizers.
The three-day event was no holiday for the students, though. Instead, it was a time to think, learn and interact with themselves, sponsors and superiors in different fields of endeavour, including university vice chancellors, directors of banks, leaders of private and public enterprises and various intellectuals from across the globe.
The seminar began with a documentary film on Nigeria, the real Nigeria you may say, an eye-opener for the youngsters who also got tips on leadership, education, training opportunities, financial responsibility /entrepreneurship, ethics, Human Dignity, Law and order, from overseas and local speakers, specially drawn for the mentorship programme.
Although there was no monetary reward to the pioneers or any promise of such in the future, participants were still upbeat and enthusiastic about the initiative. Those interviewed scored the programme highly and committed themselves to its goals and aspirations.
“I have learnt so much from the programme and I’m anxiously going back to the university to share with my friends. For a start, I will let everyone know that the new Nigeria we are talking about begins with ‘you’ – each and every one of us. I sincerely thank the organizers for making it possible for me to attend,” said one of the female members, summing it up for her group.
Participants are expected to stick with the programme for at least three years and, more so, to put their best foot forward all through. Father Godswill did not mince words when he explained what lay ahead of the students – hard work!
“Participants are students and will go back to school. We will continue to work with them, every step of the way. Mentors will be communicating with them online, via the Internet. We have a website where members of this group and those who are interested can get resources. Members have been drawn strategically from all countries of the world so they will be able to provide resources that young people need,” he said.
“Every month, our team of mentors will come up with a book to be read by the group and discussed. We have gathered all their details and contact information. Our searchlights are all over them – no helping to rig elections, no joining of cults or secret societies at school. If any of them is moving out of the goal of this Organization, we will kick him or her out of the programme”.
That’s enough warning for any youngster who wants to be to an agent of change in Nigeria.
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