Remembering a quintessential teacher

As a young man in the 1980s, I regarded Tai Solarin as my role model because of his unconventional approach to education, which was reflected on his school Mayflower in Ikenne, Ogun State. When I eventually met Solarin in Lagos early in 1994, the year of his death, I still admired his green pair of shorts and was about to confess my liking for his ways. The ceremony we attended on Victoria Island dragged on until nightfall, however, and there was no opportunity for us journalists to have a brief chat with him.

At the turn of the 20th century, I discovered another educationist who had the moral credentials of a truly educated man: not for him the mad rush for material wealth; not for him any act of corruption or indiscipline; and not for him any false life. He was to fill the void left by Solarin’s death, and I quickly established a relationship with him!   I’m describing Mr Matthew Eze Ugwuoke who died a year ago at age 78.

I should have paid a tribute to him earlier [he’s my father-in-law] but I’ve been too shocked to talk about him until this first anniversary. And I’m not alone. The suddenness of his departure has left everyone who knew or associated with him dumbfounded.  I’ll relate how he died later.

First, a history:  Mr Ugwuoke started teaching as a teenager in the 1950s, after enduring all sorts of humiliation on account of poverty as he struggled through school in those days. Although he was naturally tall, his height at the time fell short of what the missionaries required. But because he was brilliant, they hired him. I learned that many of his pupils were older than him, and he had to climb onto a chair or stool before his hand could reach the black board. His education at a teacher’s college was interrupted by the Nigeria/Biafra war and he had to graduate only at the end of the war. Next: the ambitious man enrolled into a correspondence college that enabled him to get his advanced teacher’s certificate, which further enabled him to gain admission into the University of Lagos in 1978.

On his return from UNILAG, he continued teaching, this time in secondary schools. By the late ‘80s he went for a Master’s degree at the University of Nigeria. After obtaining his M.Ed., a professor at UNN persuaded him to remain as a lecturer in his department. But Mr Ugwuoke said no. He had a responsibility to his students, he said, and he treasured his job of not just teaching school subjects but also instilling morality in his students. From 1991 until his retirement in 2005, he was the principal of three schools.

By then, I had become a member of his family for six years. We took to each other, for we thought alike. We had equal interest in literature and philosophy. We quoted the Bible, Socrates and Shakespeare. We loved simplicity both in writing and in dressing. We were conservative about moral values.

When it came to Christian life, however, he had an edge: he prayed more often than I did. One of the original benefactors of the Christian Pilgrimage Centre, Elele, Rivers State, dad rarely failed to make the monthly trip to Elele. All members of his family were regular pilgrims too. Early on, he made it clear to me: prayers were the family’s source of strength. It was not long after that his daughter led me to Elele for my first pilgrimage in 2001.

My association with him and my liking for Solarin’s unorthodox method – and what common sense tells me should constitute education curricula – inspired one of my eBooks published this year: Schools and Jobs of the Future: Some Thoughts on Career-Focused Education. In it I state that an education that can’t ensure good governance in a nation, prevent crimes, guarantee world peace or contribute to technological progress is worthless. Besides, I argue, the present education system prepares children for academia that too few are interested in, and I propose a new education system that will be trusted to lead to jobs and morally solvent citizens.

Those of us that are still conservative about education are afraid of the doom the current trends spell for everyone. Others who insist on running with the crowd have been licking their wounds in a failing state like Nigeria. Like Mr Ugwuoke, I vote for original thinking any day. Consider, for instance, what his nephew, Chijioke Nnaji, stated as the three things he learned from him: “He encouraged us to avoid drinking because it would give us the Dutch courage that would make us behave negatively and do what we could not ordinarily do… One day we were peeling cassava to process for our local food in the village; he called one of us that was not cutting his own to appropriate size and said, ‘You need to have a sense of beauty in everything you do.’ He encouraged us to pursue our academics with all seriousness because, he said, there is a big difference between acquiring wealth and having a sound and quality education.”

His childhood friend, who was a commissioner in Enugu State after retiring from public service, Chief Albert C. Edoga, testified he was “a true friend and a true compatriot”. He noted: “We shared a lost vision of how to make our place a model rural area and worked hard with other patriots until darkness fell in the afternoon… My dear Matthew, you lived a life of the righteous. You remained yourself in all situations. You conquered your humble beginnings and rose to the peak of your career.  Yes, you had challenges in life but you were a hero of impeachable character. You were very dependable, you had integrity, and you were benevolent.”

HOW HE DEPARTED

About 4pm on Wednesday, August 30, 2017, he was about to complete a bout of exercise, as prescribed by his doctors for good health. As an elderly man, he preferred to do brisk walking or a milder form of exercise inside his walled compound: No. 5 Azebo-Ozalla Street, Ezimo-Uno, Udenu LGA, Enugu State.

On a regular basis, he exercised for 30 minutes each day. Seven years before, he almost had a stroke at a time he was managing his blood pressure. But he soon regained his health after receiving treatment at a highbrow hospital in Enugu.

Exercise over, he called his wife Augustina and she responded. The next trip to Elele for the monthly Christian pilgrimage was to begin in two days, and he wanted “Mama Stan” to go and get an update on preparations for the journey including transportation arrangements. A few minutes later, she was walking out of the compound while “Papa Stan” was relaxing in a double-seater sofa at the veranda.

Someone came to a store by the gate to buy something, but no one was there. Papa Stan called his ward Nkechi, who was at the backyard then, and drew her attention to the customer in front of the gate. Nkechi passed him by on her way to the store.

A few minutes later, after attending to the customer, she returned and saw him still sitting in the double-seater cushion at the veranda and seemed to be taking a nap. Nkechi called him “Papa”. She called again and said, “Papa, you have to go inside. It’s getting cold outside.” He didn’t respond. She went closer, lifted his arm, but he did not move it or wake up. Nkechi picked her phone and called his last son Ifeanyi who had gone to a playground nearby. She didn’t understand how Papa was behaving anymore, she told Ifeanyi.

Nkechi stood watching him still “sleeping”. Two or three minutes later, Ifeanyi walked in.  He and Nkechi attempted to persuade him to get inside because of the cold weather. No response. They called neighbours, and many soon gathered. And they decided to do the expected: rush him to a hospital.

A nurse at a community hospital just opposite the compound was called in. She examined him and recommended that he be taken to another hospital. Ifeanyi was not emotionally stable enough to drive the Peugeot 504 SR car his father had bought in 1987, so his cousin Chika brought his own car. They rushed to a private hospital at Orba. The doctor on duty used the stethoscope on him, and recommended that he should be taken to Bishop Shanahan Hospital in Nsukka.

At Shanahan hospital, doctors and nurses were on hand to welcome their new patient. But they had no treatment to give him: he was brought in dead! Both the nurse at Ezimo and the doctor at Orba knew also but just didn’t want to shock the family – they wanted him to be taken to a hospital that had a mortuary.

And so that’s how the end came for our mentor, our pillar, our spiritual guardian. He quietly left the stage in his sleep to be with his Maker – no sickness, no anguish, and no goodbyes. The curtain fell. The prayers ceased. But he’s forever in our hearts.

All  the mourners were to meet on Friday, Orie, September 29, 2017, at St. Theresa’s Station, All Saints’ Parish, Ezimo-Uno, for a funeral Mass. During the Mass, encomiums continued to pour in, as even the officiating priests had testimonies to give: one explained how Matthew and his spouse had helped to train him in school.

By 1:30pm his body was lowered into a grave in his compound. The funeral continued with songs and dances, eating and drinking, prayers and blessings.  It was the end of an eventful life.

The family later heard from a reverend father at nearby town Imilike, where he used to go for confession and Mass at times, that he had accosted him after confession a day or two before that fateful August 30. He was said to have told the priest to tell his [Matthew’s] blood sister who lived at Imilike that he had completed his mission on earth and that no one should weep for him when he’s gone. The way of a saint-to-be?

DESTINED FOR SAINTHOOD

Dad was a candidate for sainthood. And I say so not because he’s my dad. He led a life totally dedicated to the service of God and humanity. He served his community. He served the church. He served the needy. He gave freely without expecting any returns. Throughout his life, he believed that honesty was always the best policy. He valued friendship and tried to reciprocate every kind gesture. He never spoke ill of anyone. He loved and prayed for even his detractors.

He dedicated the last years of his life wholly to philanthropic activities. He always went the extra mile to make people around him happy, even if it meant overstretching himself financially. He showed great care for the poor: he never felt comfortable seeing someone living in penury without lending a hand.

If such a person failed to make heaven, who else would? He’s not yet Saint Matthew, but I believe he lived, worked and prayed like one who could be.