AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STATEMENT
By D. A. Obiomah
Mr. Daniel Obiomah will be the Special Guest of Honour at the Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society holding at Goldsmiths College of London University, November 1-3, 2002. He deserves such honour because many Urhobos have grown to respect him as a man who has fought battles for his own people without expecting anything in return. We know him as a pioneer. I heard of Daniel Obiomah in my Okpara corner of Urhobo culture because his name was mentioned by ordinary people as Urhobo's first D. O. (District Officer), a lofty position that many Urhobo elders in the 1950s and 1960s never expected that an Urhobo man would occupy in their life time.
Yet, it occurred to me that there must be a powerful human story behind such achievements. Despite total family support for their children, for which Urhobos have become famous in Nigerian cultural history, few Urhobo families in the 1940s and 1950s had the ample means to sponsor their children for higher education, which in the times of Daniel Obiomah included secondary school education. In preparing for the London Conference, I asked Daniel Obiomah to tell his own story with emphasis on the road leading to his achievements and his remarkable dedication to the study and propagation of Urhobo history and culture. It is my hope to ask other Urhobos of his generation to narrate their unique Urhobo experiences to their Urhobo compatriots, especially a younger generation of our people, as well as to the rest of humankind.
I am fully delighted that in the following account of the early portion of his distinguished life experience, Mr. Daniel Obiomah has set an example that will help others to understand what we will be demanding from them. In doing so, Daniel Obiomah is a pioneer in an area in which our web site seeks growth: authentic biographical and autobiographical profiles of Urhobos who have achieved heights, mostly by fighting the difficult odds that history dealt their generation.
Peter P. Ekeh
Urhobo Historical Society
I was born in Agbarha (Agbassa) Warri on 25th December, 1927, to Urhobo parents of Agbarha and Uvwie. Until I was about to enroll for the Common Entrance Examination for admission into secondary school my age was never in issue. Now, Mr. James Egbo, a cousin within the extended family, good naturedly undertook the formality of swearing to a statutory Declaration of Age to give me the age of thirteen years, the maximum for admission to secondary school. So, from 1946 when I was admitted to Government Middle School, Warri (later known as Government College, Warri, and later still as Warri College, Warri; Warri College, Ughelli; and now Government College, Ughelli) my year of birth was 1933. As time went on I was keen to know my real age. Then my mother told me that I was born on Christmas Day some three months after Chief Ofiaigbe was arrested at Egborode over the tax riots in the year that capitation tax was paid. The tax riots were in 1927 and payment began in 1928. But Chief Ofiaigbe was arrested about September, 1927. I have, accordingly, since established my date of birth as 25th December, 1927, superseding the official date of 25th December, 1933, obviously a convenience.
When I was a baby my Christian father had a serious religious disagreement with the Agbarha Community during which his elder brother of full blood took sides with the Community. In the result my father took his wife and children to safety at Egborode, in Okpe Clan of Urhobo, his mother's place. So my first awareness of names and people was at Egborode. In those back days the test to determine if a child was ripe to go to school was to let him touch his left ear with his right hand over his head. I could not reach my ear yet but my father wanted me in primary school. He requested the erstwhile offending brother who was visiting Egborode to bring me back to Agbarha, Warri. My uncle came alone in a dugout canoe paddled by him from Warri River through the many tributaries of the Niger Delta. My uncle, since resting in peace, treated me most tenderly. He laid for me in the canoe a bed-seater where I had my hands resting on either edge of the craft, watching the weeds slide by fascinatingly on the serene water. Dusk soon came and night. I lay down and slept for the rest of the journey, woke up at dawn, watching the canoe being pulled upon the sand by my uncle. We had arrived. My uncle lifted me to shore, and without knowing it I was due to start a new chapter of my life. I joined several cousins and servants among whom I earned the reputation of a naughty boy who refused to do errands. I often defended myself by querying why I was the only one sent on errands.
My fathers' compound abutted on the Roman Catholic Mission School. Here I was enrolled. The school uniform was a white shirt over white shorts. But my father did me proud giving me such memory to treasure. I was rigged in a white pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a coat made out of prestige drill known as a T-20. The new boy was enrolled into small ABC class. I did not know what was meant by passing to another class so I tried to demonstrate it by walking across, swinging my hands, and caused laughter. Then the day soon came when most of my classmates moved on to Big ABC class leaving me and a few others behind, nor was I allowed to follow them. I was miserable. What was it, why should I not join them? But my day did come to move to Big ABC which was then merged with Infant One thus catching up with my classmates in Small ABC. We were later promoted to Infant Two which then merged with Infant Three. All told it was eight years of primary school, with two years of junior primary and six years in Senior Primary consisting of Standards One to six, one grade per year.
I was some thing of a prodigy in primary school. It was those days when men euphemistically known as Big Boys, some already fathers, went to school, but I led them at the examinations. They too called me naughty. But at exam time they were very friendly and urged me to defend the honour of our class by beating the other arm of our class to second position. For there were two other bright small boys there. In 1942 the year I left school in December, the Catholic Mission introduced a tougher school leaving examination for their schools in Warri Province. Only six of us from Warri passed the examination. I placed second overall. Once I acted as Puck in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and drew much applause. Before then I had a reputation in recitation. For example, before an audience of the whole school of teachers, pupils, of Std I to VI and the Reverend Father, I recited by heart the entire "The Deserted Village" by Oliver Goldsmith. This streak also featured in my secondary school where I was a member and head of the Dramatic Society, making and staging my own plays now and again.
But not so fast. Despite my performance in primary school I was not to enter secondary school for three years until January 1946. I had for reasons neither here nor there not sat for the Common Entrance Examination for admission into the few Government Secondary Schools. My two other classmates mentioned above passed the examination and were admitted one to King's College, Lagos, and the other to Government College, Ibadan. When my Headmaster, Mr Augustine Egbuwe of blessed memory learned that I was stranded at home he promptly sent for me and offered me a place at St. Thomas' Teacher Training College, Ibusa (Igbuzor). Here the Catholic Mission trained at their own expense teachers who contracted to serve the Mission as teachers for four years. I refused the offer for my own reasons: I did not like teaching; I was not a Catholic, Mr. Egbue had been unable to convert me to Catholicism and the present circumstance meant that I would be tied o the Catholic Mission for eight long years. I was brought before my father by an indignant elder sister. My father's cousin, Ikomi Eghagha, who came calling advised, "Why don't you leave the child alone You never know. Children are clairvoyant." So I went scot free to do domestic chores for three years. Being of small stature and stunted growth I had not become a Big Boy, and armed with Declaration of Age I qualified for admission into my famous school headed by disciplinarian and sports enthusiast Mr. V. B. V. Powel and, later, by Mr. C. Carter.
At Warri College, Ughelli, I was also known as Cicero. In my second year -- and the third for my new school -- Government scholarships were introduced and I won one. We all became boarders. In Class Four I took part in an essay competition organised for secondary schools in West Africa by certain Africans in England under the leadership of a Mr. K. A. B. Jones Quartey. I won second prize of £4.00 which was good money in 1949. Albeit I was always poor financially. My Common Entrance examination essay was, by order of the Education Officer, read to standard Six classes in all the schools in Warri. I contributed poems and stories to the College Magazine, of which I was editor under the English Master, Mr. C. Carter. I was also the Librarian for the well stocked school library. I was a School Prefect, Head of my House, and missed being Head of School because a School Perfect in the foundation class next above ours had to remain a year longer in school. I made First Grade at the Senior Cambridge Examination, in 1951 and obtained the requisite credits to sit for admission to University College, Ibadan. I passed the examination and won a Western Region Government Bursary award for 1952 entrants.
My days at U.C.I were quiet and emotionally trying financially, mostly due to my loving mother's constant ill health. I won first place in Radio play for NBC in the Nigerian festival of the Arts. I was published in U.C.I house magazines and two of my short stories were aired by BBC, informing me that they had been translated into seven languages. But mostly I benefited from the rich Library in my third year which I considered a free year without examinations and literally roamed the range. I had occasion to play a role in Oedipus Tyrranus by Sophocles and received loud ovation for my short appearance. I remember the day in 1956 when the Arts Theatre was packed to capacity to debate the motion that Nigeria was "Ripe for Independence." Moving the motion was Mr. Agunbiade Bamishe, Action Group Party Manager, supported by a student, Mr. Ifemesia, later Professor of History. Opposing the motion was Dr. Chike Obi, now Emeritus Professor of Mathematics. Supporting Dr. Chike Obi was another student, D. A. Obiomah. Dr. Chike Obi went to town. I contributed what I could. At this stage we seemed to have won maybe 80% majority. The motion was thrown open to the floor. Immediately, one quiet and unseemly student, threw a spanner into the works by raising an apparently foolish point, to the effect that the opposers of the motion had spoken out of point by making Nigeria's inability to as yet govern itself properly our plank. He pointed out that the question was one of right. Ripeness did not come into it. Did we have the right to govern ourselves or had we lost it to the uninvited imperialist? What we made of our independence was our business whether we ruled ourselves horribly or well. This at once split the house sharply so that we won he debate by a narrow margin after all. Looking back down the years, and judging our kind of rulership today, that was the day that was. Was the student, Iborigi, right or was he wrong? An intriguing question.
I entered U.C.I to earn a degree and earn a social status above that of Chief Clerk, granted just before his retirement a loan to buy an old car which lasted less than a year after, because, he lacked money to maintain it. So the car remained jacked up on blocks as a symbol of high status attempted. Unfortunately, I should say, I all but missed the degree, but was determined that I could not stand yet another year. U.C.I, did not award aegrotat degrees [degrees awarded on account of the candidates' ill-health --ed.]. I used to do all my reading during the day up to about 10 p.m. after which I enjoyed my sleep till six o'clock in the morning. Now, I was sick of what I did not know. Two other students had the same problem as I. Ogedegbe, from Isoko, went home for treatment and did not return. He died. The other failed his final examination but was to show his mettle later by becoming the chairman and managing director of a reputable company. I adjusted my reading time-table since I felt so hot in my head that from 11 a.m. I could no longer read. My thinking was lazy, not concretising. Notwithstanding, I was confident enough to aim for Second Division. I made Third Division instead.
Thereafter I avoided, as much as I could, taking up a job before I felt physically fit enough. I abhorred to be called incompetent. As it happened, I was not rejected at the interview for employment as Class A Administrative Officer (Oyibo job) under the Western Region of Nigeria Government. Together with my Nigerian colleagues, I was determined to do the job as efficiently, even better, than the whites we were replacing. Happily some of the older people who still remember call me complimentarily D. O. (District Officer), the first for Urhobo. I ran for six years. When it was getting less and less possible to be efficient under the new political atmosphere I resigned my prestigious job and walked the next day into selling cigarettes, into Nigerian Tobacco Company. At the onset I was morally troubled and worried because I was highly paid while I seemed to do nothing worthwhile, in sharp contrast to my previous job in which I was boss, and in which I promoted rural welfare, adjucated on appeals from native courts, developed local government councils, and now and again had to talk agitators out of brewing disturbances and riots. I knew better later when I began to earn much money for the company and demonstrated originality in sales management and promotion. Again after six years I called it a day with Nigerian Tobacco. I had been due to join the board but events seemed more than just coincidences. I decided to leave before it would be impossible to decide. I made up my mind then never again to work for anybody but to serve myself. Through thick and thin that is how it has been, ending up as a small real estate player.
But something happened unnoticed as I was leaving the Government. It is the kind of probability that Religionists often interpret as divine intervention. The government gazette for the week reported the proceedings of the first of Agbarha legal challenges to Chief Dore Numa in the suit Ogegede vs Dore Numa, 1925, presided over by T. D. Maxwell, Puisne Judge. Somehow, I swallowed this falsehood and deplored how Agbarha seemed to have spoilt their own case allegedly drunk in court. I came home to Warri from Lagos to set myself up in business. This gave me the opportunity which I never had before to interact with my own people. As I listened and picked up one document after another I had a haunch that my father might be right when he told me as a boy that the whites had done the Agbarha people in over Warri lands. I became involved in research, was converted and became the moving spirit of the Agbarha struggle to correct the distorted history of Warri and to claim our political rights from the Itsekiris. Was it divine command that I should join the struggle hence I left one job and then another and came home? To this question, another question is a corollary, that is, whether the conflict which necessitated the struggle was also divine conduct.
Concerning games it was a slogan from Mr. Carter, to wit, that "P.T. (Physical Training) is a lesson." Hence nobody could be excused from it. Everybody, the best and worst performers were duty bound to participate. Everyone must enter for at least three sports at interhouse competitions. The untalented performers were allowed a score of one point if they reached a set level called standard. Knowing my prowess I always reached, heart and soul, for my three standard points only. My School Leaving Testimonial says it all: "Obiomah enjoys his games but he is without natural talent."
I have experience of urban and rural life and have enjoyed it tremendously. Thus, I am proud that I was not only known as Koso Town Boy but also as a frolicking bush boy, hopping from peak to peak of galloping swamp, catching fish in the streams and birds with bird lime, and making cages and cane baskets, harvesting yams and watching them strung up in the barn. I witnessed palm oil making at the camp, Okô in Urhobo. There is a lot more to remember. There was the happiness at festivals when communal animals, such as pigs, were slaughtered and shared, the coming of guests, the drums and the masquerades.
In retrospect it can be solemn. Once pucky faces have furrowed. Since yesterday many, some the best of friends, have quit into eternal silence. If I can recapture it correctly without acknowledgement (I do not know the author now):
The harp that once in Tara's Hall
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara's wall,
As if those souls were fled.
So stills the pride of former days,
So glory's thrill is o'er,
And hearts that once beat high for praise
Now feel that pulse no more.
You asked me to tell about "the dark backward and abysm of time." That I have done. You know about more current times. You can pick and choose.
D. A. Obiomah
September 22, 2002
URHOBO STUDENTS AT U. C. I. (UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, IBADAN) IN MY TIME, 1952 TO 1956
* Akpofure, Rex (now Dr Akpofure)+* Akpore, D.O.+* Obiomah, D.A.* Onosode, G.O* Akpomudiare, M.O.+* Aggreh, G.A.T +* Umukoro, G.U.* Martins, Edward (Ambassador)* Egube, Solomon+*