Chief B.U. Onyenokwe: A teacher of all time
The last time I saw Chief Bernard Uwadinisu Onyenokwe was several years ago. I had driven from Port Harcourt straight to his house in Effurun, near Warri.
He was expecting me because we had spoken earlier on the phone. We shook hands warmly, exchanged pleasantries and it was clear that though he was already in his 80s, he was still the ramrod of yore.
As he and his wife entertained me, we went down memory lane. A period that went back more than 30 years.
We reminisced on his strict regimen for us students. How “lights out” is “lights out”; how going late to the cafeteria means no food for you; how Prefects were put under great scrutiny and were not allowed to abuse their positions; how he routinely suspended students who came late from holidays, who unduly punished junior students, who generally disobeyed many of the school rules.
We remembered one particular student who almost always was serving suspension.
There was the case of one of our classmates, Gordon, who acted as a banker, actually a usurer, to many distressed students.
He will, for example, lend you five naira, for a four-day period (mid-term break) and you are expected to return the money with 100 per cent interest.
A longer period invariably attracted more much interest. Gordon, tall and huge, lived like a king. Students (his customers) lived in fear of him.
The day the Principal knew of this scheme, the racket ended. And Gordon paid a steep price for taking undue advantage of his fellow students.
He remembered clearly when he summoned Austin Olomu and I (both of us were Prefects) to his office and flogged us.
Our offence? One of us had flogged a junior student while the other “aided and abetted” in violating his standing rule that no student must be flogged in the school.
Nobody but the three of us knew what happened. Obviously, he didn’t want the junior students to start misbehaving, disobeying their seniors.
From 1973 to 1980, he was Principal of Ekakpamre Grammar School in the then Bendel State. And that was the time I was in secondary school. For all us who attended that school during that period, Chief Onyenokwe’s impact on our lives has been enduring.
Ekakpamre Grammar School may have been a “village school” in the 1970s but it was cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. Students came from different parts of Nigeria. Some came from Lagos, Warri, Akure, Benin, Sapele, Ughelli, Ondo and other towns.
There were also teachers from diverse places, including India, who taught us. I remember Mr. Saddique with his white Volkswagen. And his fellow Indian (I have forgotten his name). They taught Biology and Chemistry and Physics.
Our Vice Principal, the late Mr. Prosper Emoefe, who taught us History, was the opposite of the Principal.
While Emoefe roared like a lion and was quick to use the cane, (then Mr.) Onyenokwe was always as calm as cucumber. He carried a stick but hardly used it. But we feared him most.
When he moved around the classrooms during school hours, everywhere turned to a graveyard; all was quiet.
Even the most noisy of students knew their limits. The path to suspension, even expulsion, is paved with infractions noticed by the Principal. He usually came to the hostels in the dead of the night when everybody was expected to be sleeping, but when in actual fact the place is like a market. Woe betide you if the Principal catches you outside your hostel.
Chief Onyenokwe was, for many of us, a father. He was very strict but he instilled in us the discipline and values which we pride ourselves with, even till today.
His was tough love. As teenagers, he was, to many of us, next to God. He was in the mould of the late Mr. Demas Akpore, who was during the same period, Principal of Government College, Ughelli. (He later become Deputy Governor to the late Professor Ambrose Alli during the Second Republic).
A few things stood out in Chief Onyenokwe’s approach to school administration: academic excellence; punctuality; cleanliness and community service.
He didn’t hide his disdain for less than average students. On the few occasions such students came near him, he advised them to learn from their more intelligent classmates.
He sent you back to the hostel or home (if you are a day student) if your school uniform is dirty. If you are not in the assembly ground when he arrived, consider yourself as absent from school on that day.
If your infraction is so much that you have to go on suspension, you must bring your parents/guardian to vouch for your good behaviour before you are allowed to resume classes. If you are in the boarding house and you failed to attend church on any particular Sunday, be ready with a solid explanation, otherwise there will be plenty of grass for you to cut.
For Chief Onyenokwe, teaching was his life. He was headmaster, Tutor, Principal of various secondary schools and Supervisor of Education.
From 1952 to 1984 when he retired from the classroom, he impacted significantly on the lives of numerous young Nigerians, many of whom have become men and women of substance in their various callings in life.
He was Principal of: St. Mary Magdalene Grammar School, Ashaka, 1968 -1973; Ekakpamre Grammar School, 1973 -1980; Obiaruku Grammar, 1980 – 1981; T.T.C. Obiaruku, 1981 – 1982; Okpameri Grammar School, Ibillo, 1983 -1984.
He later worked in the local government council and also with the National Electoral Commission (NEC). From 1992 to 1993, he was a member of the House of Representatives during the short-lived Third Republic under the Babangida regime. But it his life as a teacher and Principal that made him an outstanding personality.
Chief Onyenokwe was by all means a great community leader. From 1983 to 1984, he was Chairman of Ndosimili Development Association. And for 12 years, (from 1984 to 1996) he was Vice Chairman of Onyah Development Union.
Conferred with the title “Arikeze , Aaku nna’aya of Onyah” in 1987, he was highly respected by all and sundry. He was generally regarded as a man of peace.
As he takes his final farewell to the world on Saturday February 9, 2019, his family and kinsmen in Onyah in Ndokwa East Local government area of Delta State can take consolation from the fact that Chief Onyenokwe lived a good and impactful life.
• Mr. Ohwahwa, a former Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, wrote from Lagos.