Book: Conscience and History - My Story
Author: Peter Odili
Year of Publication: Not Stated
Publishers: Not Stated
Reviewer: Chigachi Eke
"The next few months (after the Biafra/Nigeria war ended January 1970) were most testing and trying. Linking up with the rest of the family, not knowing who survived and who did not, finding old friends on both divides. Ekeing out a living was a day to day affair. It was survival of the fittest and for me the dignity of labour was the key. I was ready mentally to work with my hands to survive, my pedigree was of no issue now. The reality was that I was an orphan, my family fortune had been destroyed by the war, no member of the family was in a position to carry anyone else's burden. So "you must take your destiny in your hand"- I told myself….An old school friend met me at Onitsha, having come Agbor, and gave me one pound. That started me up. I bought and sold bread, garri and toilet soaps from Agbor to Onitsha. In a few weeks I made a few pounds. I changed my clothing and now started thinking of a more appropriate engagement. Through some old friends and using my CKC (Onitsha) background, I got a school teaching job as a science teacher in a Catholic school in Afuze, in now Edo State, through a Rev. Fr. Nolan (Irish, now late) whom I met through auntie Helen Bokolo and her cousin Opene. This teaching job now repositioned me to pursue my interrupted academic ambition of becoming a medical doctor.
"In 1966 as a lower 6 student in CKC I had secretly sat and passed the entrance exam to University College Ibadan but by September 1966 the Nigerian crisis had reached a point where people were beginning to head home. I therefore aborted the resumption at Ibadan….(After the war) I secured admission to study medicine starting with the premedical year at the main campus at Nsukka. From my savings from my teaching job at Afuze and a little support from late Rev. Nolan, I managed to pay my deposit tuition of 20 pounds but could not pay for the hostel accommodation. Luckily I met some students who were luckier and so I squatted in room 101 Awolowo hall with Innocent Masi with whom I shared old family ties from Omoku….I bought a 6 spring mattress which I would fold in the morning and tuck under one of the beds and pull out at night for sleep. Not being an official boarder, dining in the refectory was out of the question unless I got a meal ticket from one of my friends. So I made do with snacks and soft drinks bought from kiosks most of the time. I focused on my mission-studying to qualify to the medical school at Enugu campus. Nothing else mattered. This was my situation, I had 2 sets of 2nd hand shirts and trousers and a pair of snickers rubber soled shoes all through that year, washing and changing them alternately. This was the situation until Gen. Yakubu Gowon visited Nsukka and declared free tuition and feeding for 'indigent students'. I was a beneficiary and life became more comfortable.
"….I passed my premed year exams and moved over to the medical school at Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I left Nsukka with one firm resolve "to kill indigence for good in the subsequent years." As soon as I settled down to the 1st medical year in October 1971 I started planning how to kill 'poverty'. Luckily I was fairly sociable and so interactively I picked up information that one could earn as much as 40 pounds per week working as a labourer in a factory abroad during long vacation. And so I started working towards a vacation trip early in my first year at Enugu campus. I secured my first international passport as a first step. The session ended and I was still hanging around on campus when fortune came knocking. One hitch hiking Swiss student got stranded in Enugu and came to the hostel to seek shelter. The hostel security men brought him to my room for assistance. After chatting with him for a few minutes I was satisfied he was genuine though he looked disheveled and dirty-stenchy indeed. I took him in, he had a bath, I gave him a change of T-shirt and took him to eat at the bukka. We got friendly and got talking and knowing ourselves. He turned out to be the son of a Swiss professor with a mother who was a PhD Psychologist, intellectual and practitioner and had a step brother who was a young medical doctor, all resident in Zurich. He was a student of history but was 'rebelliously' touring Africa.
"Through this contact I secured a letter of invitation to Switzerland with which I got an 8 week visa to Switzerland. With my little saving and loan of 15 pounds from my eldest sister Regina (Osademe, nee Odili), I made up the 30 pounds for the return ticket to Zurich and had $10 balance. I set out for Zurich by Swissair flight from Lagos. I was met by my Swiss friend's brother Mathew, he took me to a penthouse apartment he was sharing with his girlfriend and gave me a little room to stay. Within a few minutes I had told him what my mission was- to find a job to earn money and go back to school and put an end to indigence.
"By the end of the next day I secured a job at a construction site, the pay was 9 SFr per hour for 8 hrs/day and 150% for overtime. Yours truly jumped at the offer and worked like hell. At the end of the vacation I came back home a 'rich' student. I paid off the loan, paid off my fees for the next session, had a brand new wardrobe, one of the best on campus and set aside money for the next vacation. Life had taken a turn for the better. The next session was now more comfortable, I faced my studies, I became popular amongst my mates….Next vacation I made it to London and secured two vacation jobs, a day job in a brewery as a labour hand and the other a lift cleaning job at a hotel at night. Both jobs netted about 80 pound/week for me. At the end of the vacation I was able to buy a used Fiat car and shipped it home. I put the car into use as a taxi in Enugu. It made an average of N15/day. Level had changed, I was now easily one of the rich students on campus out of sheer will and determination stimulated by 'indigence'. My exposure on these trips showed me that it could also pay to buy and sell goods. And so with subsequent vacations I bought clothes and shoes for sale to students. I had become a source of support to my family and friends.
"My academics did not suffer as a result of these extracurricular exploits, rather the exposures matured me beyond my peers….I graduated in June 1977 as a medical Doctor- a dream come true. Life on campus was quite unique, the medical curriculum was structured so intensively that it left the conscientious student little or no room for socialisation. It took extra effort to relate and interact with non-medics who appeared to have more time on their hands. However, destiny had programmed me to meet my wife Mary on campus and that for me was all the socialization that mattered. It's a story for another page."
How did He do it?
In "Capitalist Nigger" Chika Onyeani, a leading black thinker of the 21st century, asks the humiliating question of why black people are always the victim and never the victimizer. Black people's lack-luster performance has not escaped the attention of concerned blacks beginning to question why things are not working in Africa. Is the problem in us or in the African environment with its hot climate? Perhaps we are undeveloped because for four hundred years whites people enslaved us. Looking around there is nothing showing we were here for thousands of years. What were our ancestors doing when whites and Asians were developing?
Onyeani himself, in his polemic manner, holds up the mirror before the black world, "You are the culprit."He says that black people have a "herd mentality" that tends to gravitate around conformity and contentment, as opposed to white people's "killer instincts" that drive them to discontent and creativity. He rests his argument on black people's proclivity as faithful consumers that reduces them to slaves before producers in the global economic war. We are complicit in the way we make our everyday decisions, decisions affecting where we spend our money. What does the Asian buy from you in relation to the thousands you spend in his shop? Onyeani concludes by calling on blacks to patronise black-owned businesses as only an economically self-reliant black person/community can be politically free.
I would have proceeded to what I have to say about Peter Odili's autobiography if not that I must verify Onyeani's argument with an independent source. I admit the white scholar, Ian Morris, who handles the same question beautifully well though from the victor's perspective. Coming from the vanquished camp Onyeani is angry and judgmental but victorious Morris has the calmness to be analytical.
In "Why the West Rules-For Now" Morris asks: Why did the industrial revolution take place in Western Europe rather than China (or Africa)? Morris answers his own question by asserting that in the critical centuries preceding the revolution the social condition in fragmented and disunited Europe made it possible for one to be a free thinker. Living under different monarchs with different idiosyncrasies meant that one European could tinker with theories and practices outlawed in another city state where his contemporary lived. The amount of creative space enjoyed by the individual varied from kingdom to kingdom. Across the board, however, it was Europe that gained as every successful experiment was replicated.
But in China the situation was different. Silted and fossilised for centuries under a centralized authority, China had no room whatsoever for alternatives. The Chinese did not therefore enjoy the freedom at the disposal of their European counterparts. The implication was that individual Chinese could not think outside the box beyond the official discourse. In other words, the Chinese suffered "herd mentality," like the black people of today, at a time when they should be free thinkers.
To buttress his point, Morris points out that the voyages embarked by Christopher Columbus, decisive voyages that helped the West to overtake leading China, would not have been possible in centralized China if the emperor did not approve. The corrupt system would have frustrated Columbus from even getting close to the emperor to press his prayers, anyway. But in diverse and multi-state Europe, though Columbus was turned down by one monarch he still had the second opportunity of standing before another who sponsored him. Morris' conclusion? The West rules for now because the revolution took place there rather than in China. The revolution took place in the West because those who inhabited the versatile Western Hemisphere had choices denied those living in monologist China.
So how did Peter Odili make it at a time and place where survival was hardest? We must know his magic formula to be able to help young blacks from Juba (South Sudan) to Nqutu (South Africa). Did the hero succeed because of his natural ability to think through a difficult situation or as a result of the rigorous but brief training he received from his mother; or both?
Nature or Nurture
There is a didactic dimension in "Conscience and History" that supersedes its overt politics. In reviewing this book I have prioritised what I consider as its dual mandate in the reformation of the black youth and family, all in the bid to decode the hero's success story. How does the black youth help himself given a sudden hiccup in the family? Reshuffle the cards, how does the black family bring out the best in the youth without stifling his natural abilities?
"Conscience and History," in this instance the first 54 pages, has something to say to the black child orphaned by war, disease or migration. The protagonist's odyssey eloquently argues that personal efforts can correct and remedy any accident of birth. The hero satisfies the basic tenets of "Capitalist Nigger" becoming economically self-reliant as an undergraduate. Fifteen years after graduation he attains political self-reliance 1992 as deputy governor of old Rivers State and 1999 as governor of new Rivers State in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Never mind that he emerged 1970 from the Nigeria/Biafra war a penniless orphan of 22.
Secondly, for the black family the book cautions against excessive parental control. Herd mentality decried by Onyeani may not be unconnected with the manner the black mind is shaped early in life. This anomy is foreign to the hero who exhibits independent mindedness. He attributes his incredible feats to the rigorous training he got from home. But it is also instructive that this training was minimal and terminated by his eleventh birthday following the unfortunate death of his beloved mother Janet Odili.
The question then is: were his mother alive and influencing him would the hero emerge the free thinker he is? Is it not reasonable to conclude that it was the lack, rather than the presence, of parental influence that sparked the go-getter in him? Misfortune failed to break him because he was an intrepid at heart, so he saw opportunity and grabbed it where his peers saw death and fled. His diction in the heat of the war seems to confirm this position, "…take the manly stand, 'be a man and stop hiding.'" Enlisting for the officer training programme he excels in the Biafran School of Infantry, Orlu; eventually rising to the post of a senior instructor.
After the war his young life is consumed by raw determination; a weaker species would have succumbed to religion and self-pity. You never heard him say, "The God of miracle will do it for me." What we hear is "survival of the fittest," "dignity of labour was the key," "ready mentally to work with my hands to survive," "put an end to indigence," "sheer will and determination," "my academics did not suffer," "the exposures matured me beyond my peers," and ultimately "I graduated in June 1977 as a medical Doctor." These are declarations no amount of upbringing can inspire. The hero has a natural toughness which parental upbringing only complemented.
Remove the protagonist from post-civil war Nigeria to present day war-torn Somalia, my argument remains that he would still emerge a medical doctor before turning 30. Odili could have flown the kite of so-called ancestral curse as excuse for a poor outing- his only brother Nnamdi died in infancy, his beloved mother killed in car crash and the war claimed his old father reducing him to an orphan at twenty. His inward looking soul, ever discontented and restless, searches for ways and means to transcend his existential challenges. With such can-do attitude any youth will make it at home here in Africa.
So you must read this book and also encourage your young too. In as much as humans are not equally endowed, emulating great minds could make all the difference. Odili admits, "From my experience it has (be)come clear that children pick up a lot from parents and observing elders around them speak or do things. That's why adults should be mindful of what they say or do in the presence of young people." That is mentoring; including reading great biographies.
Odili's political legacy on pages 55 to 502 is a story for another page.