Saturday, February 26, 2011

Encounters with a grand old man called Pa Aye

‘Your report cost me my peace’
Says 92-yr-old Pa Aye, who can’t cope with celebrity status foisted on him by Travels

“Look here, my friend; what do you want again? Since you published that report on me, I have known no peace. I have not had a moment’s rest, you’ve robbed me of my peace”, he charged. 

I was about letting off a thousand apologies; shaken by the realisation that my report had left a beloved elder distraught, when; suddenly, a smile broke out on the old man’s face; and, he whispered; somewhat conspiratorially, “I got my pension for the first time in many years after your report. It’s like the whole world has been visiting; even, Pensions’ Office people, too”. 

Truly, Pa Effiong Ukpong Aye is now a celebrity of some sort. Pa Aye, author of 10 books and retired lecturer; who has not tasted meat for 40 years and does not celebrate his birthday; because, according to him, he has not found a place in the Bible, where Christ ate meat or marked his day of birth; will clock 93 years old on 15 June, this year.

“Churches, journalists, film-makers, TV crews and so on have been visiting me non-stop”, he remarked. In deed, some filmmakers claiming affiliation to “Nollywood” as well as others purportedly linked to foreign producers have visited the revered senior citizen. At some age, something as ordinary or reflexive as walking takes up the role of elixir and Pa Aye enjoys a dose of sauntering down some avenue in the evening. 

In the past, Pa Aye could walk the streets incognito, and he didn’t mind the anonymity; but, now; all that has changed. After our story, Pa Aye has been featured on Cross River TV, NTA International and several other media. Consequence: he has to respond to salutations from people on both sides of some streets, every time he sets out for the so-called constitutional. 

Swaying his right hand back and forth, Pa Aye drew an arc in the air, thus drawing our attention to a collection of victuals; packs of bottled water, provisions, geriatric drugs and other items on the floor; and, added; “See all these? They are all presents; people, including many of my former students, bring to me nowadays”. 

Pa Aye was however quick to point out that unlike the anonymity he enjoyed before my story was published; these days, he often has to stop to respond to greetings from many people, some of them complete strangers, in the street. “Before, I could take my walk unnoticed and stroll as long as I wished. When I felt I had had enough exercise, I simply started walking back to my house, or if I felt the need, I boarded a bus. But, nowadays that privacy is no more; people visit me at home and I enjoy affectionate greetings in the street, inside a bus and everywhere”, he remarked.

Returning to the issue of his regular constitutionals, Pa Aye lamented that now he had to be more concerned about what he wore because you never know who you might run into in the street. As he intoned; there seems to be TV people, journalists and all sorts of researchers everywhere nowadays as far as Pa Aye was concerned. But then, celebrity like talent has its price; and, for Pa Aye; now endowed with all, he has to take it in his strides; we mused.

“Yes, I got my pension after your report came out, Pension Office workers came here, and; interestingly, one of their Verification Officers was once my student. He knelt down to greet me, he was so delighted; and, I was very happy, too. And I told him to get up; for, he was now a middle-aged man already”. Yes, some peace you can afford to sacrifice, if that’s what it takes to get paid your pension; we mused.

A graduate of Latin/Classical History, Pa Aye is Fellow of Historical Society of Nigeria; and, during our latest encounter in his Calabar home, Pa Aye turned his neck some angles and looking at the book-laden shelves behind him, muttered ruefully; I fear I am the only one in this country who can read them now. His archive includes books written in not only Greek, which is still extant; but, also Latin, which like its original speakers, the ancient Romans of the Caesar era has virtually gone the way of the dinosaur. 

Author of 10 books, Pa Aye is still writing on the verge of 93. In deed, his latest book, King Eyo Honesty II, though not yet formally launched, has already been printed. Aye’s other books include Akpabuyo in Transition (Glad Tidings Press, Calabar; 1994), dedicated to Akpabuyo Development Union; Old Calabar through the centuries (Hope Waddell Press, Calabar; 1967), Hope Waddell Training Institution: Life and Work, 1894-1978 (Paico Limited Press and Books; 1986), Presbyterianism in Calabar (Wusen Press, Calabar; 1987) and Efik Origin: A refutation" Glad Tidings Press, Calabar; 2006).

Although he spends most of his time reading and writing, Pa Aye confided that unlike many years ago, when he could practically read or write all day and all night, if he wished; these days, he often needs to take a break intermittently. 

An outstanding personality by every noble parameter, Pa Aye is an alumnus of Hope Waddell Training Institution (HWTI). Hope Waddell or Howad as this elite secondary school is also fondly called was founded in 1895; and, like Pa Aye; one of the many distinguished citizens it has helped to groom since it was established by the Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) Mission; is an uncommon school. 

Expectedly, Pa Aye would take us on an excursion through his alma mater during our visit to his home. Although Howad is the third oldest college in Nigeria, after CMS Grammar School and Methodist Boys High School, both in Lagos; the Diamond Hill, Calabar-based Howad was the first of its kind in the entire area that made up the now defunct Eastern Region. 

The late Rt. Hon Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president; Eze Akanu Ibiam, physician and one-time premier of then Eastern Region; Otunba Adeniran Ogunsanya, a former Commissioner of Education, Lagos State; Vice Admiral Edet Akinwale Wey, a former Chief of Naval Staff and later Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters; Dr. Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe, late political juggernaut and Chief Torch Taire, art collector extraordinaire and MD of Stanley Torch Limited are among Hope Waddell Training Institution (HWTI) alumni.

Traditionally, appointment to the office of Hope Waddell Principal was an exclusive preserve for an old boy of this prestigious institution. However, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, this age-old custom was apparently infringed with the appointment of Mr. Ukpong Ekefre, who had his secondary school education at Igbobi College, Lagos. When we sought Aye’s explanation of this apparent breach of tradition, the venerable old man said Mr. Ekefre’s appointment was permissible because the man’s father was an alumnus of Howad. Apart from having his secondary school education at Hope Waddell, Ekefre’s dad had also served as a teacher at this school and later held the office of national President of Old Boys’ Association of Howad, we were told.  

Aye’s sojourn in Hope Waddell began in 1939, when he was admitted to that institution’s teachers’ training college. After successful completion of his studies in four academic sessions, he was engaged as a junior teacher. When asked to compare Howad of his student days with what obtains there currently, this is what Chief Aye had to say; “What an interesting question. Well, when I was there, it was a very different place. From Reverend Thompson, the founding Principal, to his immediate successor; Reverend Luke, the man; who brought the game of football to Nigeria; almost the entire teaching staffs were either Europeans or non-Nigerians”.

The historian in Chief Aye surged to the fore at the recall of Reverend Luke. Hear this retired educator; “Although most of you may not know this, the first game of football to be played in Nigeria took place on Hope Waddell grounds in Calabar. In fact, until the 1930s, football was commonly referred to as ‘Calabar Game’ by Nigerians in other parts of this country”. 

But, when asked to tell us the year that soccer premiered in Nigeria, Chief Aye, who could not immediately recall that historic year, referred us to one of his books, “Hope Waddell Training Institution: Life and work”, for details. However, in the course of our interview, the face of this elder again lit up as he remembered, “Football came to Nigeria in 1902, a year after Mr. F.A. Foster, a West Indian, brought the game of cricket to Calabar in 1903”. Expatiating, Aye added, “Mr. Foster was at that time, head of the secondary school section of Hope Waddell; and it was from Calabar that these two games spread to other parts of Nigeria”.   

In the beginning, Hope Waddell Training Institution had an infant (Kindergarten?), a primary school and teacher’s training college, alongside a printing press, a bakery, block-making and haberdashery et cetera. The haberdashery section had a tailoring unit, the block-making section produced building components for the Public Works Department (PWD), the printing press published The Calabar Observer, the bakery made bread and other pastry sold in Calabar; while the teacher’s training college groomed prospective educators. Evidently, unlike today’s Nigerian universities, whose faculties of agriculture rely of food crops from petty farmers, and civil and electrical engineering departments fall back on barely trained technicians for basic jobs; Howad, in its original form, met its fundamental responsibility to its host community. 

Sadly, by the time Aye was leaving Nigeria for Britain in 1950, Howad had whittled drastically: The teacher’s training college that was established in 1911 had been relocated to Afikpo (in today’s Ebonyi State); the infant and elementary schools had been phased out; while the vocational sections had been completely scrapped. 

Consequence: Hope Waddell, probably Nigeria’s first polytechnic in the practical sense, had been reduced to another “Grammar” school, where students were groomed to come out confused, and the community groping for trained tradesmen.

Pa Aye again: “I served Hope Waddell as Principal two times, from 1974 to 1979 and, again, from 1985 to 86”. An “Award of Honour” hanging on one of the walls of the room that doubles as his study and tea-room is testimonial of appreciation and gratitude from the countless students, whose lives Aye helped to mould.


No part of this report or any item on may be reproduced by any means without the expressed consent of the Author, MAURICE ARCHIBONG

 * Below is Part 1 of my report on Pa Aye; originally published in my column, Travels, in Daily Sun, 17 June, 2010:

 ‘Christ neither ate meat nor celebrated birthday’
 …‘My pension is not paid because corruption is all over the place’
…‘Wait till I die before you write my biography’
- Says 92-yr-old author of 10 books and retired lecturer

Pa Effiong Ukpong Aye is one of perceived few Nigerian academics, whose teaching career traversed all tiers of education, having taught primary, secondary and university students; some of whose doctoral theses he supervised. Interestingly, 92-year-old Chief Aye is author of 10 books; holds the National Honour MFR (Member of the FederalRepublic) and twice served as Principal of Hope Waddell Training Institution, one of the most famous high schools in Nigeria
Despite his decades-long sojourn in the academia, the 10 published books he has written and his uncommon age; which also makes Pa Aye an embodiment of history, this grand old man remains relatively obscure because of his self-effacing propensities. Though known among scholars, especially students of history, whose forte is or involves the study of Old Calabar; Effiong Ukpong Aye is still not a famous name in the popular sense of the word. 

While Pa Aye, who clocked the ripe old age of 92 years on 15 June, 2010 has written copiously on countless issues and subjects; comparatively little has been written about him. The reasons are not far-fetched; it is akin to the experience of pre time-setting-camera era photographers, whose pictures are very rare or even non-existent because they were forever busy documenting other objects. 

Furthermore, Aye’s dislike for fefe-riti, a slang probably coined by Lagos Yoruba speakers, which roughly translates as elaborate fanfare; must have also taken its toll on this author’s fame. Moreover, Chief Aye is Efik; he said the people of his ethnic nationality are not given to attention craving, Uwut idem, which the Yoruba describe as Ka ri mi. Also, the man is forever writing; at 92, even with 10 books in the kitty, Aye is still writing. Truly, old authors never die; they just scribble away. These and more mean that Pa Aye does not grant interviews often. He, in deed, warned us that he prefers to be left alone; he would rather stay out of public glare. 

Hear him: “Someone is writing my biography, even against warnings from me. I’ve told this person, a former student of mine, whose doctoral thesis I supervised, while I taught at University of Calabar that she should wait until I die before writing my biography; but she won’t listen. I strongly suspect that you people prefer to disturb me because it makes your work easier. Even after my death, if you conduct good research, which is the essence of scholarship; you will have enough materials to write on me”.

We, however, countered this view of the revered elder by submitting that getting first-hand information, would guide one as we went about verifications for accuracy. Thanks goodness, our plea and perseverance paid off, and when Chief Aye opened up, it was an uncommon harvest, the kind that only a man of his age, experience and scholastic inclinations could yield; and more. But, for starters, let’s celebrate Pa Aye’s uncommon age and attempt an insight into the secret of such longevity.

Key to longevity
It is in deed interesting that in Africa, a continent, where some studies have put the average life-span at roughly 45 years, Pa Aye has lived more than double this projected figure. But, what is the secret of this man’s longevity? Pa Aye’s reply to this question was; “I have no idea, I have no idea”. After a brief pause, he added, “God alone is behind it; so, I thank God”. 

Perhaps, aspects of his lifestyle may help clue one in. Chief Aye told us that he eats sparingly. Moreover, he has not tasted meat for 40 years! Is meat poison then? “I have no idea, no idea”, he re-echoed. Does vegetarianism prolong one’s life, then? “I’m not a vegetarian because I eat fish. I eat fish as well as various sea foods, and a lot of vegetables”, he explained. Then, teasingly, Pa Aye remarked; “I eat fish because I never learnt of Christ eating meat”.

Want to live into 90 years and above? All things remaining the same, blotting out meat from the menu, eating fish and various sea foods as well as plenty vegetables could help. Interestingly, however, you also probably want to know that Chief Aye does not celebrate his birthday. In fact, he took offence, when members of his native Creek Town, Calabar community sought to mark his 90th birthday in 2008. 

Although he eventually buckled under pressure, or “surrendered”, as he put it, following pleas from countless well-wishers that he should consider the fanfare as Thanksgiving to God, after all only a negligible percentage of the world population live to reach 90 years old; Pa Aye still cannot understand what the fuss and hoopla about birthday is all about. Like his aversion for meat, because he cannot find a place in the scriptures, where Christ ate meat; Chief Aye said he is still searching for that part of the Bible, where Christ celebrated his birthday.

“Celebrating birthday is un-Christian; it was common among Egyptian Pharaohs and later Roman Emperors but Christ did not celebrate his birthday; it is humans that started doing it for him”, Aye reasoned.

At 50, Nigeria is dashed hopes
Born in Adakuko, Creek Town, Effiong Ukpong Aye was the younger of the two sons of the now late Madam Nsa Essien Eyo. The elder brother, Asuquo Essien Eyo died in 1996. It is worth noting that Asuquo Essien, who had earlier worked with the UAC (United African Company), later went into politics and was elected Member, House of Representatives, for Calabar. Despite the involvement of his brother in politics, Pa Effiong Aye detests the supposed statesman’s engagement because of the prevailing survival of the fittest or wildest (Ike kite orie, as our Igbo brothers say) mould; which politics has morphed into in Nigeria

We had hardly finished asking him, if it ever crossed his mind to venture into politics; when Pa Effiong Aye interjected, and exploded: “Never! Never”! When asked to explain this apparent revulsion for politics, the senior citizen declared: “I don’t like it; I don’t like it. Now, Nigerians cannot rely on their politicians because these characters are very slippery”.

A glimpse of Pa Aye’s curriculum vitae would help shed light on this man’s disdain for Nigeria’s pseudo-statesmen. A scholarship from the Church of Scotland Mission aka Presbyterian Church, founders of Hope Waddell Training Institution, where Effiong Aye studied and eventually was employed, first as ancillary teacher; enabled him live in the United Kingdom for 13 years shared between England and Wales. He did post-graduate studies in Swansea, after taking a bachelor’s degree at Cambridge University

Having lived in both UK and Nigeria Aye should have cognate experiences to draw upon. Hear him: “Less than two weeks after my arrival in Britain for the first time, somebody came knocking on my door. When I opened the door, I met a man greeting me; ‘Welcome to England Mr. Aye. I am the Member of Parliament (MP) in charge of this constituency; that is why I want to know you’. After I told him my mission in his country, which is that I was here to further my education; the man said, ‘Please, any time you have any problem, let me know. And, looking around, if you see anything suspicious in this neighbourhood, just tell me, and I’ll take the issue to Parliament’”.

When asked to juxtapose this experience with the one in Nigeria, Aye remarked; “I don’t even know the person representing this area of Calabar, whether at ward, state or federal level. I want to let you know that in UK, the politician works for the public, and they are eager for the public to appreciate their efforts. Although I can’t say what obtains in Britain today; while I was there, there was all-round orderliness. I was very happy in Britain because of this orderliness and control. There was total enforcement of the law in every facet of life. But, here in Nigeria; it’s ‘do what you like’, as if there is no law. I have never seen any nation so completely stripped of discipline as this”!

We visited Pa Aye thrice in four days during our visit to Calabar. On each occasion, the ambience of his book-studded study could have been better. Although the space was already over-crowded with books, the study-cum-library also serves as tearoom. With windows and doors offering cross ventilation, the study should have been comfy enough but owing to Nigeria’s never-ending power crisis, and given the number of people in the room, we all wished the ceiling fan were working. However, Pa Aye and I as well as others were more frustrated by the inability to read some documents and books due to the darkness than by the far from vernal ambient temperature. 

The trying situation apparently prompted this rue; “You see your country”, from the old man, who went on to add that “In Nigeria, nothing is sacred. The rulers and the led respect neither themselves nor each other; that is why they don’t pay my pension. Yet, in 2000, I was honoured with MFR”. Asked, if the National Honour yields some honourarium or other form of welfare support, Pa Effiong Aye muttered, “I don’t want anything from them; all I want is payment of my pension. After serving my country diligently for many decades; at 92, I’m still working to survive because my pension is not paid regularly. So, I have to keep working. I don’t get my pensions because there’s corruption everywhere”.

As to what his pension was worth, Pa Aye expatiated: “The federal government is supposed to pay me N37,000 each month, while Cross River government owes me N13,000 monthly. Put together, that will give me N50,000, and I could manage with that. Unfortunately, I don’t see the money because only Cross River state manages to pay me from time to time. But, how far can N13,000 take me? At my age, I have drugs to buy. With this perennial power outage, N13,000, even N50,000 cannot buy fuel to run a small generator for seven days; and, then there’s food to buy because I have six mouths to feed, and water bill to pay. That is why any time you come here; you’ll meet me at work.
“When the Europeans were here, you enjoyed electricity round the clock. Now, 50 years after Independence, won’t you prefer that the colonial government was still in charge? I wish they were here, because pensions were always paid, when we had responsible leadership. Fifty years after Independence, something as fundamental as discipline, we don’t have. Uninterrupted electricity, which is necessary for the survival and growth of industries, and by extension, more jobs; remains a mirage. The educational sector is in a shambles…What have we achieved?

“Your shameless politicians have turned Nigeria into an embarrassment for the black race. Money that should have been used to develop the country and its teeming able-bodied and intelligent youth has been looted for decades. To me, the only thing these so-called politicians are interested in, is grabbing; and, they have been looting as if there’ll be no tomorrow because, given a free and fair election they will not win. So, they want to steal as much as they can, while they can.

“These bloody characters that are always scrambling for power have no commonsense! If Nigeria is fixed, and the people taken care of, and brought together in unity; this country could be very great. Nigeria has a huge population, and her people are very intelligent but useless politicians continue to abuse religion by using it and sectionalism as well as tribalism to keep Nigerians divided, so that they can continue to steal what ought to be used for the benefit of all”, Pa Aye charged bitterly.

For one, who was over 43 years old by the time Nigeria attained independence, couldn’t Aye have stayed back in the UK? Now, 47 years, since his return to Nigeria; does he regret his homecoming?
“I had to return because I went to the UK through scholarship. In fact, I got two scholarships; one for Cambridge, and the other for Harvard University. My professor, who specialized in the Civilization of the Hittites, got me these scholarships”.  

After successful completion of his studies, Aye had returned home in October 1963. He had been away for 13 years, and a lot had changed in that period. When Effiong Aye left his beloved mother to travel to England by sea in 1950, he couldn’t have imagined that it was the last time he would see his mom. The lady had passed on in 1961, while Aye was preparing for his final degree exams, but the people he left behind chose not to inform him for fear the news could break his heart and consequently affect his studies.

On getting home, in October 1963, Aye was in high spirit and eagerly looked forward to reuniting with family and friends again. Sadly, no one needed to tell him something terrible had happened, while he was away: Upon sighting Aye entering the family compound, everyone burst into tears. That’s how Aye eventually learnt of his personal tragedy. 

It is worth noting that Aye’s 13-year sojourn in the UK was not bereft of pains. Before his ancient Greece specialist professor got Aye a scholarship, this Efik-born Nigerian practically lived from hand-to-mouth. The young man had left Nigeria with a scholarship from the Presbyterian Mission, but due to his refusal to sign an agreement that bound him to serve his sponsors for 20 years after graduation; the bursary was withdrawn. Aye said he decided not to sign the agreement, following a meeting with Dr. Alvan Ikoku on board the maritime vessel on which he was sailing abroad. 

“I never knew that Alvan Ikoku was also on the ship; it was his greeting, Da, aka mmong (buddy, where are you going) that drew my attention to his presence on that vessel. You probably didn’t know Alvan spoke Efik language fluently. He was some years older than I, and his mother was the daughter of a royal Efik house; so, Alvan had eloquent grasp of his mother-tongue.

“After I told him I had a scholarship to study abroad, he had asked on what terms and I had shown him the agreement that the then Hope Waddell principal gave me to sign. Alvan Ikoku was shocked, and advised me against signing it, because such scholarships only tied the recipient to five years service to his sponsors upon return. So, I refused to sign the document”.

The result was non-remittance of funds, which left Effiong Aye unable to pay his hostel fees. Interestingly, Aye recalled with nostalgia that he found a friend in a Ghanaian, Mr. Kofi Tatsie (could also be spelt Takye, depending on which area of the Old Gold Coast the fellow hailed from) during his hour of tribulation. Takye, who was a student of dentistry those days, offered to pay Aye’s hostel fees until when the Nigerian could find his feet again. However, aside lack of money for accommodation at the hostel, Aye also had no money to buy books and frequently went to bed on an empty stomach.

The long and short of this is that he failed that session’s examination.  “My friend, I failed flat”, he lamented. For someone, who scholastic aptitude made him the toast of various teachers and his high school principal culminating in Aye getting a scholarship in the first place; the fellow was expectedly devastated. “My friend, I cried for many nights”, he recalled with a wry smile.

As to how his friendship with Kofi eventually evolved, Aye’s facial expression mirrored the pain in his heart, when he muttered, “Kofi died, while doing his internship, I learnt. I was a very sad development for me”.  

Owing to the difficulties he faced after the stoppage of his bursary’s remittances, Aye was forced to take a job in order to pay his way through university. The stress of working and coping with studies cost Aye his social life. Yes, the girls, pretty babes were all over the place; but he had to stay focussed. Thus, by the time he satisfied his quest for education, Aye was well over 40 years old. 

With his mom gone, and all his mates already married, no sooner had Aye returned to Calabar, when pressures from relatives mounted on him to get married. Pa Aye finally joined the family circle after he found a wife in the person of then Miss Miranda Ekpenyong, now Mrs. Miranda Ekpenyong Aye. The couple’s union was fruitful, and there’s no doubt that, with virtually all his age-mates gone; Pa Aye values the companionship of members of his nuclear family and the grandchildren.


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