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Footprints of A Statesman: The Life And Times Of Chief Daniel Okumagba

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Yesterday, the  first part of this serial  showcased the birth of a Daniel, the teacher and Gamesmaster, Chief Daniel Okumagba.


This second part of his biography, written by his son, Bernard, will take a look at his love for music and and passion for mathematics. More importantly, we will kickstart the next serial by bringing out the political fire in the late statesman- Kindling The Fire!

In all, he displayed a confident personality, perhaps because he was as good in the subject of mathematics, his students recall, as he was effective as a disciplinarian.

His routine at Urhobo College Effurun was folklore among his students for several years and even those who never met him at school were regaled with the stories of the man. Professor David Okpako was one of those who studied under my father, a few years after the school was founded. Professor Okpako recalls in an article published in the Urhobo Historical Society’s

“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 visualize the scenario because he was patient and fantastic with diagrams. 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 train 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?’

My father’s lessons were not delivered at the speed of light, though; they were methodical, building from the teaching skills of colonial education. He preferred to build blocks, taking the students through the motions of the logic of mathematics. It showed a grounding that was telling of the education of that era, when even Standard Six graduates exhibited tremendous knowledge of their subject, work, values and social etiquette. Okpako says my father’s teaching focused on getting the principles right, stressing:

“For him, 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.”

My father’s passion for mathematics was indeed strong that you felt he had figures in his bones. And, after trying all he could to make the student get the message, the weak student may turn tremulous. This drive to see his students excel in mathematics led my father to develop interest in Joseph Ayomike, a Class One pupil at the time, who was very good at playing the piano.

To those who knew him in his days at Urhobo College Effurun in the 1950s, Mr Joseph Ayomike was a music prodigy of sorts, who my father expected to also be an excellent student in mathematics. To my father, mathematics was a logical subject – “follow the formula and you are never wrong!” he would tell his students – and so he found it difficult to understand how a subject so logical would be difficult for a brilliant student to excel in.

In the 1950s, the piano was still something of a mystery, not its physical look, perhaps, but the melody it produced; people knew the drums and beat them; the traditional instruments were easy to fathom but not so the piano. It had a special place at the Cathedrals where the missionaries spared nothing in projecting its power to ride the hymns, the solemnity of the delivery, the ultimate mystery of Faith and worship.

This centrepiece of the mystery was what young Ayomike knew how to play and it baffled many, especially when at Urhobo College he gradually took on the role of the organist, relieving the pioneer principal of the school, Ejaife, perhaps the only person who could play the piano then.

So every morning, before the student population of about 300 pupils then, and the staff, young Ayomike tapped away at the keys as they sang the devotional hymns. The population was awed and intrigued. Here was a young student commanding silence and admiration from all. So my father drew Ayomike closer to him. Ayomike recalls:

“It is the organ (piano) that brought me and the late Chief Daniel Okumagba closer. He would stand behind my back because I had the old Hymnal Companion written in music and also the old Baptist Broadman Hymnal. As I played from the book, he would come and stand behind me and saw how I played without looking at the keys and how my hands moved and was surprised that somebody could exhibit such dexterity on the organ. Given how difficult for many people it was to play the organ, it stood to reason that such a person should be excellent in mathematics, a subject generally accepted to be difficult.”

The towering figure of the teacher behind him, always dapper in whatever dress he wore, was Ayomike’s first real encounter with the man who became his friend. What amazed the young student then was how my father developed interest in him, determined to find an additional vocation in mathematics for his intelligence. According to Ayomike,

“He expected that someone who could play the organ should be very good in mathematics. We were using ‘c.v. durell’ and I found some aspects of mathematics not interesting, for instance, questions on innings and runs and figures from cricket and all that, I never heard such things in my life. I was not into games; I was an indoor person, just the organ.

He was games master and handled everything from cricket to handball to football. I was not interested in mathematics but I never failed mathematics. What Chief Okumagba found surprising was how a young man could understand staff notation and not be excellent in mathematics; he felt it was incomprehensible because reading Music looks difficult. So he would say to me after assembly, ‘you should be very good in mathematics’, but I replied that I normally get pass grades in mathematics without stress; still, he felt I should be very good and that brought us together.”

My father was very demanding and seeing such a meticulous student, as Mr Ayomike was, he expected him to be as excellent in mathematics as he was dexterous on the piano. That push to excel was a major theme in my father’s lessons.

There was something about his style in teaching mathematics that emphasized order. Most people who teach mathematics emphasize order; it is critical that the steps are followed and, when done, the result is almost always predictable. Mathematics is an interesting subject; its abstractions can intimidate even the most logical of thinkers, and would always put off the uninterested.

The French warrior-nationalist Napoleon Bonaparte says of mathematics: “There cannot be a great nation without great mathematics.”

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia says of teachers of the subject, “Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity.” This capacity to record, order and logically structure phenomena is at the heart of the lifework of my father, a learning, perhaps, that kept him ahead of the pack. And, perhaps, because of this immersion in order and logic, the inability to follow logic rankled him. Professor Okpako recalls that while he was a good mathematics student following the logic, he sometimes failed to get the final step and there he felt the sharp tongue of the teacher:

“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?’, Okumagba always queried me. ‘You have done everything, now only to substitute values for a, b, c, and multiply. Can you not do simple multiplication?’

My father”s passion for mathematics, pushing his students to surpass themselves, was only matched by a passion for sports. My father was the Games Master at Urhobo College and he lived it to the fullest. Beginning from the 1950s, sporting competitions among the schools of the day were almost like warfare; so much was at stake – pride, honour and laurels.

The way my father handled it, you would think he was an alumnus of Urhobo College Effurun. This was however impossible, since the school was established when he had already come of age. However, his dedication and attention to the pride of the school was remarkable, often bordering on self-pride. So, he taught his sports men to work extra hard, leaving little room for errors.

You would be making a terrible mistake if you took his admonition with a pinch of salt, because the reward was almost certain to come – on Assembly morning! Yet, as a good sports man, he could surprise his students when, having given a game their all, their team ended up the loser; he was keen on standards. Professor Okpako gives an indication of how demanding his task was:

“It is a Monday morning at the Assembly Hall. Urhobo College had beaten Government College, Ughelli, the previous Saturday. 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 his 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 the day. Aut optimum aut nihil (the best or nothing – Urhobo College’s motto), 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.”

This regime of hard work and discipline was one that transcended every facet of his life, and his life displayed the lessons he learnt early enough.

In the colonial era, the teacher was a most valuable professional, not simply by accident of history but because teachers were in short supply. The teacher was leader, instructor and disciplinarian in every community. The discipline of the teacher and the humble life of the early Christians produced in my father an ascetic mix. As a devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church in Warri, he kept a strict regimen of attending Mass and various Church programmes, while going about his regular tasks.

The relationship between my father and Urhobo College Effurun, the first institution that gave him fame, is a romantic one; my father took the school as his own. Urhobo College Effurun was the product of community effort, as were most schools of that era. The Urhobos were determined as far back as the period when Chief Mukoro Mowoe led the Urhobo Progress Union to set up a secondary school.

The UPU was to midwife the project, raising funds through levies and donations from Urhobos. At the time the school was founded, there was still a lot to do. Given the difficulties in raising money, the school was always in need, turning to raise money from committed people. My father was one willing supporter.

In the 1950s, as the challenges of developing the unfolding Nigerian nation beckoned, my father, like other compatriots, took interest in providing political leadership for the emerging nation. Nigeria was on its way to political independence after about a hundred years of foreign intervention: The Portuguese, and then the British, had first established trading posts and then full colonial rule.

Now, following the many constitutional conferences, the country was on its way to independence and there was a transition to self-rule, autonomy and full independence. My father had lived through much of the colonial period and had been excited at the political opportunities that opened up as the British took their leave. For one, Nigerians can now live the dreams they had collectively and individually dreamt through years of bottled-up frustration.

Through my grandfather’s extensive interaction with the British colonial rulers, my father had seen, first-hand, the efficiency of the colonial administration. But, he had also witnessed the limitations and evil of White minority government, including its capacity for blind justice and blanket rules. For many of his generation, the pain of awareness that came with education provided insights that the British colonialists for their own convenience had ceded away the homelands and freedoms of indigenous communities.

Like most young men of his time, the anti-colonial movement held more than a fascination for my father, and men like Herbert Macaulay and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe were more than statistics in the struggle.

Dr Azikiwe embodied the selflessness in the fight for independence. Popularly called Zik of Africa, the leader of the NCNC – the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons, later addressed as National Council for Nigerian Citizens, was an inspiring speaker and commanded values that connected with my father – he was selfless, visionary and determined.

Zik’s story tells of a commitment to the struggle for, and defence of, human rights that my father displayed throughout his life. Growing up in the immediate post-colonial period, my father observed the structures of government that were laid by the British. The new local rulers succeeding the British were also developing unwholesome tendencies bordering on tribalism and graft; he was worried. He had watched the nature of politics in the fight for independence and was determined to play a major role in the process.

He was also keen on an effective government based on competence, equity and justice. My father’s decision to enter politics and seek power in the late 1950s was thus defined. He joined the NCNC at its formation in 1944 and soon rose to prominence as one of the leading members in the early 1950s. He always had an interest in national politics and so he contested and won election to represent Warri East Constituency at the Western Region House of Assembly in Ibadan in the 1959/60 General Elections.

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