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“Our father died younger than he should have because he went into politics”

By Dennis Agbo

Chief (Mrs.) Grace Obayi was born into the Nwodo family and her siblings include a former Governor of Enugu State, Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo, and President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo. Mrs. Obayi, an educationist, just turned 80 years. In this interview, she shares the experience of Nigeria’s ‘classical age’ and the events now, advising government to place emphasis on agriculture to create employment and wealth for the younger generation.

Grace Obayi
Grace Obayi

What was your growing up like coming from an influential family at that period?

I grew up like every other child in a very simple home. My father was the late Igwe Dr J.U Nwodo and my mother Chief (Mrs.) Josephine Nwodo. I was born into a civil servant family but, after some time, my father took to politics. I did my elementary school in Holy Rosary Nsukka and later went to Onitsha to do my secondary at Queen of the Rosary College. These two schools were run by Holy Rosary Sisters and both of them complimented the training my parents gave me. My father was loving and my mother was most loving but they would not joke with the discipline of their children. After schooling at Onitsha, I passed the entrance examination to attend Nigeria College of Arts and Technology, then established by the federal government in Ibadan, where I did my A level. From there, I gained admission into the University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria Nsukka. That was the year the University of Nigeria was established; my father was a Minister in the Regional Government and was among those who had fought very had to establish the university and so it was his joy that I should come in and be one of the foundation students. So I had to give up my admission at UI and went to do my degree at UNN. I read English, finished and took up an appointment in the civil service of the Eastern Region as an education officer.

At that time, was there class disparity between the rich and the poor as it is now?   

There was nothing like that. I went to a primary school run by missionaries, attended a secondary school run also by missionaries. In my days, government was not involved directly in the running of schools. It was long after I left the university that government decided to take over schools from missions and individuals. At the time I finished from the university in 1963, government had established only one girls’ secondary school in the whole of Eastern Region and that was Queens School Enugu, which is still a state school now, with a very high standard and the entire country as its catchment area. What qualified you to attend Queens School was your brain and nothing else. If you were able to pass the entrance examination, no matter whom your father was, whether he was a labourer, a peasant farmer or a Minister, you will get into the school. The primary school that I attended, my father’s driver’s children were there; even my brothers attended the same school with my father’s domestic assistants’ children. There was no disparity whatsoever. The only one was Government College Umuahia for Boys and it was your ability that qualified you for admission and not your background.

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I went into the civil service passing through the interview like any other candidate and I was posted to Queens School Enugu. At the time, if you took to education, after a few years on the job and you were adjudged a successful classroom teacher, you will be converted into an Inspector. That happened to me and I became an Inspector of Education but, before then, I had taught at Queens School and the then Nigeria College of Technology which later transited, in fact I was part of the Okongwu Committee that worked out the transition to IMT (Institute of Management and Technology Enugu). I had taught there too before I finally moved to the Inspectorate Division where I grew like every other officer and, through what I was able to do, I became the Head of the Examination Development Centre. From there, I became a chief and government considered me an outstanding civil servant and gave me a merit award in the service to level 16, and later appointed me a Permanent Secretary and Commissioner for Education in 1986. I later became DG and served two military governors. It was a rich experience working for the public in the civil service.

At 80, are you worried that times have changed and are these changes for the good or for the bad? 

Life is not static. I think that life, by nature, is dynamic. So you expect the changes and many of the changes are for good. But, certainly, there are areas where the past is better than the present and we keep praying that the future will be better than the past and the present. In our days, we studied with tears but learning is easier now like the present children refer to us that we were the digital age but they are computer age and this is global. So, in terms of reaching out for knowledge, they have better access to knowledge now, but whether the children have the same commitment as we have, no, they don’t and this is my worry. If only they have the commitment, the sky will be their limit; because many of the Nigeria children are endowed but they are not bringing out their best. You need to force them to read. Getting the children to concentrate to read is a problem, they are more interested in television and parents have to regulate their children properly; let hours for studies be devoted to studies, hours for recreation be devoted to recreation and then regulate according to their ages what they should watch and what they shouldn’t watch, and that is where decadence in the society begins. Parents are busy because of hard times.

How did you meet your husband?

I married a man from Nguru quarters in Nsukka, luckily from a very well known home. He belonged to the famous Obayi family and one of the best gentlemen I came across in my life. I was lucky to be married to him, a lawyer by profession; the first from Nsukka cultural zone to be appointed the judge of a High Court. The whole of Eastern Region knew him and I kept wondering if I could cope when he died. I had so many suitors before we got married so much so that I was confused on whom to choose. His mother was from my place and that was a plus for him. My parents had known him but I think it was more of his personal qualities that attracted me to him. We got on very well together and God blessed us with four children though two are gone. In my next life, I would like to come back into my (Nwodo) family. There is a difference between the new age and our age. The things of competition in our time, you hardly see them now. But in our own days, my father, for instance, if you should ever take the second position in your class, you will get some lashes and explain why you degenerated to the second position and, when you remember those lashes, you won’t like to take second position again.

Your brothers are known in the society as politicians but one hardly hears about you. Why do you keep a low profile?

Well, I love politics but I do not want to be an active politician. I don’t like it to the extent of being an active politician. Yes, my brothers are in politics because we have a political background and anybody watching our father develop will develop an interest in politics but, honestly, my father died younger than he should have because he went into politics. The stress in politics is too much and also there is insincerity among politicians. It’s not what they tell you in the morning that they will talk in the afternoon and I can hardly stand that. So, it’s better to leave it for those who can cope in that aspect of politics. I am interested in what goes on in the world and I listen to news and do my own analysis and discuss with friends; that is the extent of my interest, not to go vying for political offices. I can still fight for society without doing that and I did that, even in the civil service where I became a very strong fighter for women rights. I did same thing with the National Council for Women Societies from eastern states. In Anambra State, I became the President of Women Council, Vice President at the national level and, at the international level, I became a consultant to the International Council for Women. And also through radio programmes, newspapers and interviews, I contribute to women involvement, the merits of women and their ingenuity to hold public offices. When you give girls equal rights as you give to boys, you will be amazed at what they can do.

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