Celebrating the Odenigbo Generation: Igboukwu Community Fetes One of Its Highly Accomplished Icons on His 80th Birthday
by Dr. Okenwa Nwosu
Human history is replete with epochs that are distinguished by the impact of ideas and visions that emanated from an individual or group. Our ancestral hometown, Igboukwu, has witnessed a radical transformation in the past half-century. This period corresponds to the attainment of self-rule for our people after decades of British colonial rule. This era also corresponds to the systematic replacement of the old ways of doing things with the trappings of modernity. There are practical and visible changes that have transformed the locale from the “Igbo” city-state of our ancestors into the Igbo –“ukwu” community in which we live and thrive today.
Igboukwu is poised to celebrate an era of its epochal transformation from a bucolic agricultural setting into a boisterous modern community that is full of hope for the future of the totality of Ndi Igboukwu, in particular, and our immediate environs, in general. This change has not happened in a vacuum devoid of human interventions. It is the acknowledgment of this fact that a broad cross-section of the Igboukwu elite corps spontaneously resolved to jointly celebrate one of our sons whose life, vision and handiwork have resulted in an unprecedented transformation of our historical hometown in the past half-century or so.
The past 50 years is deemed to be the “Odenigbo” generation or epoch to recognize the person of Professor Uchenna C. Nwosu who was formally crowned the Odenigbo Igboukwu by Igwe Z. E. Umeokoli (Idu I of Igboukwu) in December 1985. The honor was accorded to Prof. Nwosu for the evident and spectacular accomplishments and contributions witnessed decades ago. One can now boldly assert that the recognition and high honor were spot-on and predictive of the largesse that has come Igboukwu’s way through the auspices of Odenigbo Igboukwu.
The Parent Generation
Just like many of us, Odenigbo is the quintessential Igboukwu born and reared. The personal trauma of losing his father as a teenager thrust the young Odenigbo into playing the role of head of household as a youngster. All his uncles, with the exception of only Uncle Alfred, died within five years of his father’s death. Apart from death, the parent generation was incapacitated by illiteracy and lack of means which were commonplace in the 1950’s Igboukwu. Watching helplessly as his loving dad slipped away due to an ailment that would hardly result in death today inspired the young Odenigbo to pursue the study of the art of healing. Perhaps, it was back then that he also resolved to practice his chosen profession in Igboukwu so that he can prevent the premature deaths of middle-aged fathers and uncles like his.
It was as early as the primary school days that the already traumatized Odenigbo resolved, within himself, to play the role of an adult in his father’s homestead and within the Umunwilo extended family. He gives credit to his primary-school headmaster, Mr. Echeta of Ezinifite, Aguata LGA and the late Bishop Nwosu of Oko, Orumba North LGA, as the earliest sources of inspiration for a life’s career that made him the accomplished icon we celebrate today. Suffice it to say that his early inspiration by his primary-school mentors and teachers played a critical role in enabling his admission into the newly established Federal Government College, Afikpo. These dedicated teachers saw in Odenigbo what many never had the slightest clue that existed in him. They believed in him, and he reciprocated by meticulously following the footpath offered by education to its logical conclusion. From this point onward, he never looked back.
Brilliant Educational Career
Federal Government College, Afikpo prepped and offered Odenigbo the essential tools and building blocks that set his subsequent brilliant educational career in motion in the late 1950s. Being one of the top performers in his class, he got accepted into the two-year Higher School (HSC) program at Kings College, Lagos. He aced the Higher-School Certificate exam just like the preceding Cambridge Examination at his secondary-school alma mater. His graduation from Kings College corresponded with the establishment of African Scholarship Program of American Universities (ASPAU) by the newly elected John F. Kennedy as president of the USA. Odenigbo was among the first students selected to study in the US on a special scholarship program established to assist manpower development in the newly independent African countries of the time.
This was a bittersweet development in the life of young Odenigbo. Traveling to study in faraway America was a blessing. But that entailed leaving the family and home to which he was well-bonded to venture into the unknown at that point in time. Odenigbo first resolved within himself to address the evolving conflict by swearing to himself that he would RETURN. This promise was dramatized by the story surrounding the “wrapped soil” which was presented as a parting gift to the US-bound Odenigbo in 1961. I recollect one late afternoon in August 1961 when he suddenly appeared on the premises of DMGS, Onitsha requesting to see me. He took the time to update me about his plans to travel overseas for further education. My elation and excitement were only superseded by the thrill of the one shilling coin that he gave me when I escorted him as far as the Awka Road Main Entrance Gate.
Being His Brothers’ Keeper While in the US
News filtered back about Odenigbo’s wedding, graduation from Harvard University and admission into the Medical School in what appears now to be in a rapid sequence. But then the sun set in the middle of the day by the pogroms, refugee crises and the Nigeria/Biafra War which unleashed unprecedented mayhem on the very soil that Odenigbo had left behind only six years earlier. Communications infrastructure was one of the first casualties of war. The family split by the Atlantic Ocean had no other choice than to hope and believe that everyone was alive and okay since no information could be exchanged.
The war wreaked havoc on the good life we knew in the immediate post-Independence period. We saw the mounting casualty figures and mass starvation at home. But little did we know that Odenigbo was monitoring each heartbeat of the war with rapt interest and attention. Unknown to us at the time, Odenigbo was part of the leadership team that worked overtime in the US to mobilize public sympathy and support for the famished populace entrapped in the embattled Biafran enclave.
Odenigbo Enters War-torn Biafra Unexpectedly
Volunteering to raise funds and mobilize support for Biafra as a foreign student in the US was hardly enough to satiate Odenigbo’s curiosity and anxiety. He felt obligated to do more with his new knowledge and skills proactively to ameliorate the misery of his kith and kin entrapped in what was then characterized as the most-deadly genocidal war that Africa had seen till date. As a young medical doctor, Odenigbo enlisted to serve in Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), a newly formed multinational team of medical experts committed to charity work among starving, and sick Biafran children evacuated to Cote d’Ivoire and the Republic of Gabon. While on this mission, Odenigbo made up his mind to take the ultimate risk to rendezvous with his completely blockaded hometown. He requested and was granted the permission to fly as a stowaway in an aircraft that brought arms and relief materials into Uli Airport which served as the only link between Biafra and the outside world. The nighttime flight touched down at the Uli Airport, and Odenigbo’s next move was to make his way to Igboukwu in the morning.
It first appeared to be a mirage, but it was indeed very real. He looked well – definitely much better than the rest of us who must have seemed to the august “visitor” to be hanging on barely by the skin of our teeth. That encounter went rather fast. Before departure on his return trip, he had virtually emptied his luggage containing personal belongings which were distributed to many who thronged to see him. I was a beneficiary of American-style pants and shirt which instantly became the newest wears in my skimpy wardrobe till the war’s end the following year. In retrospect, this audacious entry of Biafra at the heat of combat must have provided Odenigbo with the final clue of what to do for his next of kin in the immediate aftermath of the 30-month bloodbath.
Invitations to Study in America in Early 1970
Just as it started 30 months earlier, the Nigeria/Biafra war suddenly came to an end on January 10, 1970 after the Biafran head of state, General Ojukwu, was reported to have traveled overseas in search of peace. The youthful combatants of the Biafra resistance army dispersed and returned to their respective hometowns. The sense of desperation and hopelessness filled the air. With the aid of my elder brother, Ichie Ezenwa F. C. Nwosu, I started to hawk plastic materials produced by Pfizer by the roadside at Nkwo Igbo Market. There were talks about reopening the schools, but nothing much was happening in real time. Then came a hand-delivered mail from the US-based Odenigbo that changed everything. Letters had been written inviting six of us, who had completed the WASC (WAEC) at the time, to come over to the US to continue our education. This important letter included directives on the ways and means of obtaining the Nigerian passport and of course, the US students visa in Lagos.
Odenigbo as the Anchor for US Bridgehead
His younger sister, Mrs. Ngozika Igwegbe, a long-term bosom friend, Chief Chudi Umeojiako and yours truly landed JFK International Airport, New York on November 23, 1970, and then made our way immediately to Philadelphia to rendezvous with Odenigbo, his wife, Linda and their young daughter, Ulioma, in their two-bedroom apartment. My cousin, Dr. Sunday Nwosu and Ebele Umenwagbo, had arrived two months ahead of us and have already been enrolled for the Fall Semester at Swarthmore College in the vicinity of the Philly metropolis.
As has been characteristic of Odenigbo’s modus operandi, he had a plan for every one of us. I am especially lucky that his parents-in-law, the Sultons, lived in Washington, DC where I was granted a provisional admission into Howard University undergraduate program. Throughout my student years at the historical institution and later, I had a home away from home at the Sultons who fondly regarded me as an acceptable space holder for their only daughter’s spouse living in faraway Philadelphia. Until Odenigbo opted to return to Nigeria in the late 1970s, his residence in Philadelphia functioned as our nest and his spouse, Linda, remained ever so welcoming and receptive to our presence year-round.
The Design to Reside Permanently in Igboukwu Was Premeditated
Within a few weeks of our arrival in the US, Odenigbo had preached the virtues of the medical profession to me during the drive to Washington, DC to celebrate the 1971 New Year with the Sultons. I wonder why he bothered since he was aware that I was focused on the pursuit of Chemical Engineering career since my higher-school days at DMGS. But his casual prodding, somehow, stuck with me as I navigated the options available for my career development in the following years. With this premonition, it was no tough task to refocus my academic pursuit to medicine as soon as the opportunity presented itself. As my career in medicine advanced, he severally shared his vision for a multispecialty medical practice with an Igboukwu hub. My resolve to return to Nigeria in early 1982, shortly after my surgical specialty certification by the American Board of Surgery, was informed by the quest to fulfill the dream envisioned by Odenigbo.
Return to Nigeria & Establishment of Apex
After completion of OB/Gyn residency in the US, Odenigbo did a fellowship in perinatology. He once invited me to his research lab in Pennsylvania Hospital where he showed me a pregnant lamb whose fetus was brought out, operated upon and returned to the womb to await delivery at term. Many quality publications were made out of this phenomenal research. His invitation to join the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife as a professor was no fluke. He earned it the hard way. In a few short years, he was asked to become Head of the Department because of the quality of research and credibility that his presence brought to the institution. But the master plan was not designed with an academic medicine career in mind. Despite the rapid sequence of promotions, he still called it quits at Ife to return to Igboukwu and establish the Apex Specialist Hospital – the first of its kind east of the Niger River.
Within the first year of private hospital practice, it became evident that creating supplementary income sources was an absolute necessity because of the irrevocable decision to make the Apex undertaking to be rural-based. Developing mortuary services as an adjunct service to routine medical practice helped in mitigating cash-flow challenges that provision of specialist medical care entails in a rural economy of Igboukwu and environs who form the main clientele of Apex at its early stages of development. Even a Western-style restaurant (Limarko) was opened in the vicinity of the Apex Hospital temporary site at Ohia-Obi, close to Nkwo Igbo Market. With the success of the mortuary service at the temporary site, other branches were later opened in Aba (Enyimba City) in Abia state and Nkwerre Ezunaka.
The permanent site for Apex Specialist Hospital, Igboukwu was painstakingly built to embody what a modern specialist medical facility in our part of the world must aspire to look and function like. Hospital centers have also now been established in Nkwerre Ezunaka and the Anambra state capital, Awka. As a hard-nosed entrepreneur, Odenigbo set up a fish farm at Omogho, in Orumba-North LGA. Part of the available land space has now been devoted to the establishment of a water-bottling plant for making the “Coolax” brand, potable water sachets and ice blocks. With decades of experience in his pocket, Odenigbo has since become an expert in practical adaptation to mitigate the many daunting challenges that stand in the path of business development in our part of the world.
Odenigbo as a Leader for His Kinsfolk & Community
What remains unquantifiable is the worth of leadership role played by Odenigbo as de-facto head of the Umunwilo extended family in past decades. The much we can do is to pray that God shall keep him forever so that he shall continue to play the role of family leadership and to care that come to him like second nature. Over the decades, he has created multiple employment opportunities which have increased the net worth of our kinsfolk residing within Igboukwu and elsewhere. In times of crises and acute need, he has been the ready ears to talk to. He routinely gives what one can afford to help in strategic ways.
Odenigbo & the SICA
Perhaps, the best object to illustrate the legacy of Odenigbo Generation inside Igboukwu is the Shaw Institute for Cultural Art (SICA). As many already know, Prof. Uchenna Nwosu is the Chairman of the SICA Planning Committee which is tasked with completing the SICA House that is under construction within the premises of the Igboukwu Museum. In the near future, his leadership tasks shall be expanded to facilitate the takeoff of all essential components of the SICA project as designed. SICA, as the engine with which to drive the much-anticipated Igbo Renaissance, shall become the icing on the cake and the quintessential legacy for the Odenigbo Generation. The focus and intensity with which Prof. Nwosu handles the SICA project, the institution’s deliverables and anticipated kickoff should provide peace of mind to all and sundry that the best Ndi Igboukwu are capable of in this era are being given to this transformative agenda.
The SICA is created to immortalize the name of a Cambridge University Professor of Anthropology who, in the early 1960s, led the archeological excavations that unearthed an 8th-9th Century AD bronze culture which thrived in the same location that the Igboukwu community exists today. The SICA House shall be used as a cultural center, modern library and exhibit halls for presentation and display of artistic creations inspired by the rich legacies of our Igbo remote ancestors who inhabited and thrived on the same soil which we inherit today. The initiative for SICA came from the Igboukwu Development Union in North America (IDU USA), but the highly desirable project has since been embraced by Ndi Igboukwu and Anambra State Government – the latter also manages the Igboukwu Museum that shares the same premises with the SICA House. When fully operational in a few years, the SICA project shall surely become the eternal legacy of the Odenigbo Generation.
The Odenigbo Generation is epitomized by the life history and spectacular accomplishments of Prof. Uchenna Nwosu (Odenigbo Igboukwu). Starting life as a village upstart when the metaphorical footpath traversed close to the breadfruit tree (mgbe ezi di n’ukwu ukwa), Prof. Nwosu has blazed a trail that many of our folks have benefitted from in the past several decades. At the ripe age of 80, the erudite and indefatigable professor has also demonstrated that he is indeed a survivor. He is the embodiment of the aging generation of Ndi Igboukwu who have not only witnessed our community’s transformation from the old into new ways of doing things but also have played the roles and fulfilled the functions of visioners, designers and builders of the tomorrow that our progeny can step into, inherit and build upon.
This cursory overview of Prof. Nwosu’s consequential life is never intended to be comprehensive, especially for a man whose career accomplishments and other attributes are so vast and multifaceted. It is, however, essential to note that he has not lived a lifetime of all work and no play. As early as his secondary school days, Odenigbo had taught himself photography and how to play the musical keyboard with proficiency in the harmonic organ and piano. He played the organ at Holy Trinity Church, Igboukwu during the school holidays in his late teens. He even figured out how to make additional pocket money while at Kings College from the income he earned from providing photo shoots to fellow students and staff for a fee. As a young resident physician in America, he found time out of a rather tight work schedule to take a private tutorial in fine arts. Now in semi-retirement, he has opted to deploy his artistic skills by putting many creative and imaginative concepts in oil on canvas. He has written three novels one of which is an autobiography – “The Wrapped Soil”. He then went further to adapt his latest book into a movie in which he, his spouse and friends played lead acting roles.
November 23, 2018 marked the 80th birthday of Professor Uchenna Nwosu (Odenigbo Igboukwu). A big celebratory occasion is being planned for December 27, 2018 at his residence, Villa Tropicana, Akama, Ngo-Igboukwu to hail the Renaissance man of our time. The who is who of Igboukwu, as well as friends from near and far, are anticipated to attend. Odenigbo has lived for the wellbeing of our folks and we would like rest of the world to join us in thanking God and celebrating the icon of our Odenigbo Generation in grand style.