A TRIBUTE TO CHIEF (MRS). EDITH CHINYERE ASIKA
By Chimdi Maduagwu
Christopher Okigbo, one of the founding fathers of Modern African Poetry, and indeed, sometimes regarded as the father of Modern African Poetry, made this statement in the poem “Elegy to the Slit Drum,” in his last collection, Paths of Thunder. It is all about the concept of fall and an enquiry into our notions and perception of the same concept. By the way, I make bold to ask, why do humans also fall or why are we in a fallen state? Since there is no doubt that humanity is in a fallen state; then the serious question is why so? I wish I could proffer answers to that question now, and an answer devoid of emotions.
The news came as a shocking surprise, the news caster took time to pronounce the names and underneath the television, the sound bits rolled through to support the voice … Death has been announced of Mrs. Edith Chinyere Asika. The question is why the surprise? Isn’t death, as Shakespeare would intone a necessary end that would come when it would … and if so, why is humanity ever and always taken unawares?
Again, I do not have answers to these questions but all I want to say is that there is always a sense of loss and loss is painful. Mrs. Chinyere Asika’s fall stirs up this sense of loss. Now that I want to remember her, I ask myself, where do I start? Do I begin at the local, state, regional, national or global levels? It is difficult for anyone, who is not experienced in hardship to understand what it means to suffer, so also it is, as Demis Rousos, the songwriter said, it is hard “to sing a love song when you are not in love.”
May be I should attempt clarifications of some of these statements I have made, which appear hanging. And I should begin, from the local level because they say, Charity begins at home. I and my elder sister were introduced to Mrs. Chinyere Asika through her photo image in my parents’ wedding photographs, where she was in my mother’s bridal train. My mother was, and has always been extremely proud of her. She referred to her as “Baby,” “an oversea graduate with Masters.” This meant that she had a Master’s degree.
I got to learn later that she has two higher degrees, a Master of Science degree and a Master of Library Studies, and she told me she got her second Master’s degree in 1965 (hope I am correct). Nda Chinyere, as the younger ones from her home, Egbu Owerri, Imo State called her, was the first child of Late Nathan Okoma Ejiogu, the noble educationist, and former Chairman of the Public/Civil Service Commission of the defunct East Central State of Nigeria.
Her father invested in the education of her daughters being an educationist, who knows the benefits of education. Mrs. Chinyere Asika, who has joined the Saints triumphant, returned to Nigeria, after her studies abroad to become Librarian at the University of Ibadan, where her husband, Ajie Ukpabi Asika was a lecturer. Soon, her husband was going to be the Administrator of the defunct East Central State, at the creation of the twelve States by Gen. Yakubu Gowon. That automatically made her “the first lady … her excellency.”
I recall that this was immediately after the civil war and she had to face a people brutalized, humiliated and dehumanized by the war. Nda Chinyere was compassionate and made several visits to her people. She saw their condition and like Esther, the legendary Hebrew girl who saved her people from the harsh and tyrannical hands of King Xerxes of Medes and Persia, she came to salvage what was left of her people.
I may have the opportunity to say more on this later but right now, all I want to lay bare is that in Igboland, it is said that if one person cooks for the public, it is easy for the public to devour the food, but if the public cooks for one person, it is obviously impossible for one to finish the food.
Mrs. Asika, let me say, Chinyere Ejiogu, provided food for the public; provided clothing, provided other rehabilitation items like farming implements and seedlings for the public, and that effort, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, served very well in restoring the stability of her people. That carved her name in the annals of the history of her people and the announcement that she is dead should have actually been that “the elephant has fallen.” We have to quickly remember that she is “Ochendom” … protector of the married women of Owerri, so the protector is not vulnerable to death.
Going beyond the local level to the state, regional and national levels, Chnyere Asika was the first lady of East Central State, and for record purposes, that included entire southeast of today’s cardinal adjustment. As the first lady, she had glamour, she had poise, she had dignity, she had intelligence and she had energy. She became the first public figure in Modern Africa, (to the best of my knowledge) to embark on Mass Mobilization of women in her pet-project “Otu Olu Obodo.” This programme was launched in 1975, and shortly after, the military government of Gen. Yakubu Gowon was ousted. Although the project did not last long, it, however, made a strong impact because of the excellent organization.
I started a research into this pioneer work of engagement of women sometime in the late 1990s but I had to relocate to the USA in the early 2000s for an unbroken period of six years so the project suffered a setback. I still remember her zeal and I will quickly make it known that it was that pet project that inspired the very successful “Better Life Programme for Rural Dwellers” of Late Mrs. Marriam Babangida. The spiral effect of the “Otu Olu Obodo” project can be felt everywhere in Nigeria and beyond today. Virtually all wives of Heads of States and Governors have subsequently been effectively engaged in human and community developments.
Nda Chinyere, or Sister, as some of us called her, is indeed a typical expression of what my people tagged “Enyi” the elephant. Her matrimonial home, the ancient Onitsha Kingdom, has bestowed on her the coveted title of Enyi di bu Eze, which I understand is the highest traditional position for women.
She was a noiseless achiever, steadfast, forthright, diligent and highly enterprising. She would make a joke out of her love for arts and arts collection that journalist refer to her as a “juju” woman. She will be leaving a big vacuum in the community of women that her sister, Dr. Kema honoured as women of her era.