Ndenyi Ngozi Nena Uche (1960-2017) journalist per excellence
Our families had always been close. I remember playing in the garden of their house in Enugu, when I was about four years old. Led by Ndenyi, the eldest of our group, I remember running round the guava tree, laughing as we begged their father, Papa Ndenyi to perform one of his magic tricks and conjure up sweets from somewhere about his person that we could not quite work out. That is probably my first memory of her.
We met often, through the years at Christmas in Abiriba, where their home was always open to us. Years later, tall, beautiful and impossibly elegant Uche arrived Nsukka to study Mass Communication at the famous Jackson Building, home of Nigeria’s first university journalism department.
During her time in Nsukka, she made our house on Marguerite Cartwright Avenue a home away from her hostel room. We always looked forward to her visits when our house would be filled with laughter of many friends that she brought with her-that was how I first met the artists-Chinwe Uwatse and Ndidi Dike, who were her contemporaries as students at the University of Nigeria. She always had a network of interesting friends; many made during her time at Federal Government College in Warri, many of whom knew her as Ngozi, her middle name.
As she progressed through the course, we looked forward to buying the student newspaper; The Record sold by vendors outside the University Bookshop. Seeing her by-line under articles that she had written and showing them off to our friends was a high point. Whenever she visited us, I particularly looked forward to raiding her ever expanding stash of books and magazines, and she often bought me new books, feeding and encouraging my then growing appetite for reading.
I remember her coming to visit us in Nsukka from Kaduna, where she was doing her national service, telling us about all that she was doing there. She had thrown herself in characteristically into life in Northern Nigeria, making new friends and engaging in a whirl of activities, in and out of work.
When I arrived King’s College in Lagos in 1982, she had just started her dream job as a pioneer science correspondent at the then newly established cutting edge paper of the moment-The Guardian. Using the by-line Nena Uche, working with colleagues like Jullyette Ukabiala, Folake Doherty, Stanley Macebuh, Nduka Irabor, Sunmi Smart-Cole and Nduka Irabor, she revelled in the fast-paced innovation that marked the early days of the newspaper.
With her sisters, Aruodo (Chinwe), Kalaria and their cousin Ndy Egbunike, she welcomed me wholeheartedly into their flat in Crescent C of the 1004 Housing Estate in Victoria Island. The flat became a haven for me, where I would sometimes go during mid-term breaks.
She would diligently attend some of the College events like our Christmas Carol service and our speech and prize-giving days when my parents and guardians could not attend. I remember lighting up each time I saw her in the audience. On some Saturdays, when we had an exeat, she would take me out, often taking me along to her interviews with top scientists. Watching as they discussed issues from desertification to astronomy, to marine biology, as she pushed them to explain complex phenomena in ways that she could understand, I was inspired.
As a reporter at the Guardian, and with her wide social network, she had access to a wide range of cultural activities in Lagos. Whenever I was free, she encouraged me to go with her to poetry readings; music concerts and art exhibitions and we would discuss current affairs, world news and a broad range of subjects with me, expanding my horizons. She took me on some Sundays to Tunde Joda’s then new Christ Chapel church, where she was a joyful worshipper. And I continued to raid her ever-expanding library.
I remember when the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere visited Lagos, sometime in the 80s and how she managed to arrange an invitation for her father to a cocktail party in his honour. Her father and Nyerere had many years before been contemporaries at Edinburgh University in Scotland. I remember them both glowing and elegant in their evening finery as they returned to the 1004 flat, that evening, clutching a photograph that they had taken with the beaming Tanzanian president.
I didn’t see her often after I finished secondary school in Lagos and went back to Nsukka and Enugu for medical school. In any case, she herself left Lagos not long after for MIT, where she had been awarded a Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism. She went on to do a Master’s degree at Harvard, specialising in health education.
Later, she became project manager for the Journalist-to-Journalist Project, working closely with the National Press Foundation and was Director of HIV/Substance Abuse, Mental Health, Primary Care Services Integration Project at the Baltimore City Health Department.
We re-established contact in 2002 when I was a student doing my Masters at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She excitedly got in touch, convinced that I had begun my journey into a career of achievement, which she had always unwaveringly believed that I would have.
She encouraged me to apply for a student scholarship to attend the AIDS Conference in Barcelona in 2002, which was a turning point in my career. It was there that I reconnected with my brother, Chikwe Ihekweazu igniting our many subsequent shared projects. It was there that my passion for public health was given a huge boost, listening to inspiring speakers like Justice Edwin Cameron and Bill Clinton.
Most importantly, she encouraged me to volunteer for the pre-conference workshop that the National Press Foundation had organised for journalists reporting on health and HIV. It was an exhausting and exhilarating five days, interacting with some of the leading names in science journalism from all over the world, meeting the pioneer HIV activist, Omololu Falobi and senior health journalists like Laurie Garrett and Jon Cohen.
In Barcelona Ndenyi and I reconnected, spending lots of time together and I was glad to see that her eclectic passions and interests and verve for life were undimmed.
In 2004, largely as a result of the relationship Ndenyi had helped me establish with her boss, the veteran journalist, Bob Meyers, he invited me to teach a session on Epidemiology 101 for journalists at the AIDS Conference in Toronto.
Outside my immediate family, she was probably my longest and most consistent cheerleader, with an unwavering belief in what I could achieve.I heard she was ill, a while back and I asked for her number, but never rang until a couple of months ago. Even then I was struck by her unwavering Christian faith, which imbued her with a resilience and brightness even in very challenging circumstances.
I woke up one morning to see a post on Facebook by her brother, Okey Uche, announcing that she was gone. I was filled with sadness. Reflecting on my memories of her, who was in many ways, the big sister I never had, I am thankful for her life and the many ways in which she touched and brightened so many lives.