By Pakribo Telema-Daregoe
It is not a common happenstance for me to write a tribute in honour of somebody. I am usually compelled to do so when I am fully involved either by consanguinity or a long-standing friendship.
In my travail in life, fate has been fair to me to some extent, I have encountered countless persons who have made positive impressions on my life, these people cut across ethnic boundaries, religious proclivity, socio-political frontiers, creed and race, and one of which is USIFO MICHAEL ATAGA. How did I meet Usifo? I will say it was serendipity and not coincidence or strategy that brought us together.
The first time our paths crossed was in 1982 in Federal Government College, Warri. On that fateful day, I was in my element playing football in a keenly contested match between form 1 and form 2, venue was the patch of grass behind the handball and volleyball courts, adjacent to the dining hall. I miscalculated an aerial ball when I went for the bicycle kick, “the shagalo” (corruption of Mario Zagalo, the Brazilian legend who made the kick very popular in his playing days for Brazil) in local parlance. I landed awkwardly on my hand and broke my radius bone ( the bone on the thumb side). I was writhing in pain, what I got from the spectators was the perfunctory “sorry” in situations like that. A kind-hearted fair-complexioned boy in form 1 D, wearing the light blue check shirt and shorts boarding house wear, with a bunch of keys fastened to his belt hole knelt down by my side, and asked me empathetically, “hope you are not hurt”, my response was in the affirmative. He took me, in the company of other junior students, to the college dispensary. There I was given some analgesics to relieve the pain. The nurse on duty said, ” I will be referred to the general hospital Warri the next day.
On the morrow, this same junior boy came to room 3 School House to hasten me up in readiness for the trip to hospital in Warri township. He brought my breakfast to the hotel and when I was done eating we left for the school’s works department, for Mr. Bala to convey us to the general hospital Warri. He missed his lessons for that day for my sake. When I came out of the theatre it was his disarming infectious smile that depicted I was in good hands. This kind-hearted young lad and another junior boy( my memory has not booted properly to bring the name to the fore) arranged for my transportation back to school. This thankless sacrifice from a classmate who was not even related to me endeared me to this good-spirited boy. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship. The name of this kind-hearted soul who put himself through a lot of discomfort for another person to be comfortable was USIFO MICHAEL ATAGA.
As we grew older we found recreation in sports. I concentrated my energies in contact sports like football and the gentleman”s game, cricket. Usifo first love was track and field, where he became a maestro and icon. All who knew Usifo will quickly reminisce his exploits in 100 metres, 4*100metres relay and the triple jump, an event he made his birthright from day one. His well-toned muscles in his arms and legs, proportionately well-shaped anatomy added more grace and beauty to his athletic physique. He represented his noble house, the great school house, which was the “primus inter pares”- first among equals, in the annual interhouse sports festival, and became one of the pillars of Federal Government College Warri athletic team during athletic invitationals from far-flung schools in Warri, Benin and its environs.
With encouragement from Usifo and Omotolu Ogun (an effervescent and vibrant classmate whose presence usually radiates so much laughter and release of stress and tense) I broke into the school house relay team in SS2. Luckily, I made few appearances for the FGCW relay team 2 with David Eyitene, who had strides like a young cheetah. Whenever Usifo is not running he was either actively cheering others to victory or mentoring others in athletics and other games. “Memories are always special. Sometimes we laugh by remembering the days we cried, and we cry by remembering the days we laughed”. How can I ever forget how Usifo used to coach me on arm and leg movements upon leaving the starting block, baton exchange and switch of baton after exchange and our mischievous banters for and against chosen subject matter. It was he who became my comic and novel exchange partner in school. Usifo always had the latest comic books-Whoopee, Beano, Asterisk and Obelisk, Tintin, war- for exchange. He had an inexhaustible supply of novels, most especially, titles from the renowned novelist, Robert Ludlum, whose works majored in espionage and crime. An attribute he carried into his adult life.
He was soft-spoken and gentle, a man of talent, intelligence and ingenuity, unassumingly humble, dignified, courteous man of discreetly aristocratic bearing who typified simplicity and appearance. He displayed enormous erudition and impressive nimbleness of mind, his cutting-edge business savvy was exemplary. In one of his rare moments with friends and associates, he shared that, “for a society to grow and advance, it must invest prodigiously in its economics, industries science and improved agriculture”. Mr. Ataga chose to invest in the entertainment industry and science. He was a successful businessman of action, who was a creator of opportunities, who raised the standard of living and added to the comforts of life. Over one hundred or more young entrepreneurs have benefitted immensely from his business brand and benevolence. thanks, He elevated the lives of many from the lowest ebb to the highest flow. People who have either lost hope of going to higher institution or continuing their education got back on track with the support these indigent demographics got from the philanthropy of Usifo Michael Ataga. What is more! His reticent warmth in caring for the needy, comforting the distressed, befriending the rejected was the hallmark of his humility and service to humankind. A man of singular dexterity and patriotic ambition, who found wealth through honest labour and fame through wisdom and kindness and integrity. Equality and tolerance, justice and moral, compassion and humility, are values that transcend religions, ethnicities, and all kinds of moral codes. Usifo engraved these values on the inner recesses of his heart.
He had this wry, infectious and delightful sense of humour that will make one reel over with laughter when he was in the mood for wisecracks and jokes, that was Usifo Ataga in his element. If you were lucky enough, he will crack your ribs with his ingenious mimicry of teachers, seniors, classmates, juniors, actors and animals.
The last time I saw him was in 1995 at the Ekpoma campus of Ambrose Alli University, he was in the company of the gregarious and cheerful Onus Akere(RIP), another charming and perfect gentleman bred and nurtured in Federal Government College Warri. This was during the West African University games zonal qualifiers in the game of cricket. A game where DELSU cricket team performed magic to walk over UNN cricket team even when the players were physically present on the pitch. That is story for another day.
However, technology reconnected us and we rekindled old ties after decades. The last time we chatted on WhatsApp, he was full of life and was optimistic of greater tomorrow, the tomorrow that he never saw.
Here was an amazingly remarkable practicable inventive genius of a man, good without pretence, blessed with an eidetic memory. His range of interests was perhaps the most impressive. He was virtually a walking encyclopaedia in his business. His remarkable zest for the accumulation of data extended to a great number of different fields, whose indefatigable perseverance and irresistible combination of wry detachment: resolute commitment and unflappable equipoise kept him ahead of his contemporaries in all ramifications.
It is painful and it is with a heavy heart, that I am writing these lines in honour of a quintessential perfect gentleman, who was snatched away from us in broad daylight. His name will always be spoken in hushed whispers of respect, honour, and awe whenever class of “88 of FGCW is being mentioned and the country as a whole.
My joy and consolation would be the day the perpetrators of this heinous crime will be summarily punished according to the extant laws of the land.
May his gentle soul and those of other faithful departed rest in power.