LESSONS FROM DANIEL OKUMAGBA'S
MATHEMATICS AND GAMES
By David Okpako
CHIEF Daniel Okumagba, who died two months ago [on Thursday, July 27, 2000], aged 78, was a founding tutor at Urhobo College, Effurun. Established in 1948, UCE must arguably be one of the best known community-inspired secondary schools of the pre-independence era in Nigeria. Two things were unique about UCE: It was entirely home grown, inspired by the great Mukoro Mowoe -- no missionaries, no governments, no expatriates. And, true to its motto, aut optimum aut nihil --either the best or nothing -- UCE recruited the best staff and students available, irrespective of ethnicity, despite its name. My classmates and life-long friends, Benjamin Maku, Ejebba Esisi, Julius Ifidon Ola, to name a few, are non-Urhobos. The longest serving president of UCE Old Students Association, Dr. Salami of blessed memory, was Ishan. It was under Salami's leadership that the old students were able to contribute their small quota to the growth of the college. Nor did ethnicity did not count when UCE's Governing Board awarded Urhobo College scholarships to young secondary school leavers to go and study at the University College, Ibadan, so that they would return to teach at the College. Some returned to serve their bonds to further strengthen the quality of teaching staff; others did not, preferring to pursue higher academic goals. Urhobo College's reputation today as a good secondary school owes as much to this foresight of its founding fathers, as to the sterling qualities of its founding tutors.
One of them was Daniel Okumagba and it is about his lessons in mathematics and games that I want to write a few words in tribute. With Okumagba, the mathematics master, a reasoned step-by-step approach to a mathematical problem was more important than the final answer itself; for him, no working back from the answer! He marked every line of the work. If he just marked the answer, my career in mathematics would have been a complete disaster. That brilliant Oji was different; he seemed to see the solution to the problem laid out before him, as soon as he set eyes on the problem. Me, I frequently managed to get the final step to the answer wrong! I found this frustrating, but it was apparently even more irritating to Mr. Okumagba; "Okpako, what is the matter with you? You have done everything, now only to substitute values for a, b, c, and multiply. Can you not do simple multiplication?" The number of times I have reflected on this experience and reminded myself that the closer you are to your final objective, the greater is the care you need to take. It is not over until it is over!
Okumagba was a great teacher of arithmetic. His specialty in my memory was relative motion represented by those "Lacombe" problems where train A and train B of different lengths are travelling on adjacent tracks at different speeds, either in the same or in opposite directions. The usual problem was to calculate how long it would take for the trains to pass each other or for the faster train to overtake the slower one if they were going in the same direction. I have to say this about Okumagba's train problems. Many of us in the class of 1954 had never set eyes on a train or a rail track! We could visualise the scenario because he was patient and fantastic with diagrams, etc. It was many years later, travelling frequently by train in the United Kingdom, that Okumagba's lessons on relative motion became a reality to me. If you concentrate on those fast trains, you can get the impression that it is the buildings that are moving, not the train. Albert Einstein might have felt like this while travelling by tram to his job in the patent office in Zurich, and noticing the passing buildings when, we are told, the seed of relativity was sown: "What would the world look like if I travelled on a beam of light?"
If older schools like Government College, Ughelli; Edo College, Benin; and schools as far afield as Government College, Ibadan; and King's College, Lagos, took Urhobo College seriously in the 1950s, it was because Okumagba was its Games Master. Sport was only a game then. Now sport is such big business that it is no longer just a game! I was not big enough or strong enough to come under Okumagba's tough games lessons, but the 1950s were the heydays of secondary school sports. In secondary schools like UCE, participating in "Grier Cup's" competitions in field and track athletics, no boy was untouched by sports enthusiasm, and I was no exception. Names like A. K. Amu from King's College (440 yards) and Ifeajuna from University College Ibadan, who jumped more than a foot higher than himself to win a Commonwealth Games gold, were on the lips of every school boy. At UCE, we had our own heroes -- Scott-Emuakpor and Okoro in the jumps (high, long and triple); and Jackson Adjogri, Benjamin Okumagba, Agbamu, the late Peter Ibi, etc., in football. Chief Benjamin Okumagba, a younger brother of the master, is currently President-General of the Urhobo Progress Union, founders of UCE. Scott-Emuakpor became the first school boy to beat the six-feet mark in high jump in Nigeria in 1954 and then went on to a brilliant career in genetics and academia as professor of Botany at the University of Ibadan. Jackson Adjogri carved out a distinguished career in the civil service, becoming the first Secretary to the Delta State Government. Okumagba, as games master, treated his sportsmen well; he put them on a punishing training schedule, but they also received a diet that was the envy of the rest of us -- eggs for breakfast, Ovaltine drinks, beans and dodo for the boys were of special quality! In 1954, Okumagba and others in the sports hierarchy brought the Grier Cup competition to Warri; it broke his heart and all our hearts that UCE lost the cup that year by a hair's breath to King's College, Lagos. Ah! we should have won it.
Football was particularly important to us at UCE in the 1950s because that was where we came in close competitive contact with our nearest neighbours -- Edo College, Government College, Ughelli and Hussey College, Warri. Against these colleges we must win, otherwise you would have no face in Warri! Of course, we did not always win. Win or lose, Okumagba's attitude was a lesson in sportsmanship. Honesty and integrity were his hallmarks in sports and everything else he did. I am sure it was the same when he became a national figure in Nigerian politics.
It is a Monday morning at the Assembly Hall. Urhobo College had beaten Government College, Ughelli, the previous Saturday by a one-goal margin. The school is jubilant. The erudite Principal, M. G. Ejaife opens with a short prayer. As usual on days like this, it is Okumagba who addresses the assembly on the events of Saturday. "You did not deserve to win," he begins, to the amazement of those who do not yet know the games master. "Adjogri, you could have saved that goal if you did not lapse in concentration. And Ibi, Ibi! how many times have I drilled it into you, to keep your cool in the goal area. How many times? You had all the time in the world to square that ball before netting it. Instead you hurriedly shot wide off an open goal, why, why, why?" In spite of this tongue lashing, we older boys knew that deep down the Master too was happy that his team had won. But he was a perfectionist; just winning was not enough, everyone must do their very best. On other occasions when UCE lost, he would surprise the assembly by praising the team for its good efforts, conceding that we lost because the other team played better on that day. Aut optimum aut nihil, always put in your best; then if you lose, you would have satisfied yourself. Don't backslide! You did not have to be a sportsman to learn Okumagba's games lessons. What I can conclude, when I look around among the class of 1954 and other old students, is that many took Chief Daniel Okumagba's lessons in mathematics and games to heart.
I salute the passing of a great teacher, a great sportsman, a great Nigerian.