What nobody ever told you about him
By Shola Oshunkeye
Their love story spans a whole life time-five scores and three. Fifty-tree solid years. Yet, both Dr. Alex Ekwueme, and his first wife, Mrs. Beatrice Chigozili Ekwueme, nee Beatrice Nwajagu, still remember the day so vividly, they tell you the exact time cupid’s arrow struck them.
As Dr. Ekwueme recalled in a tribute he wrote to his jewel when she clocked 70 on July 3, 2004, the place was 3, Bathurst Lane, Railway Quarters, Port Harcourt, in the then Rivers Province. The season was the summer of 1946, precisely during that year’s long vacation, which enabled the young Alex to travel down from his school, King’s College, Lagos, and, by providence, met his missing rib that sunny day. The time, as Ekwueme penned romantically in the tribute, was “11 o’clock in the forenoon”.
Since that moment till date, the lovebirds have stuck together like Siamese twins, or better still like some love-struck god and goddess, smashing all obstacles together, beautifying as they journey through life. Like all great love stories, the Ekwuemes’, though made from heaven, as they openly demonstrate, is not without its own fair share of challenges; difficult situations that try the hearts of the bravest of men. Like the bible says, many are the afflictions of the righteous but the Lord sees him through them all.
A day after her husband fielded questions from me in their home in Oko, Anambra State, Beatrice, 78, who holds a Masters Degree in Accountancy from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and a Bachelors in the same discipline from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, poured out her heart on varied issues.
She eulogized her man at 80, and spoke on those issues that made their marriage blissful even in the face of heart-rending difficulties. Please, read on.
It’s been 53 years ago that your journey with Dr. Alex Ekwueme, your husband, began. When and how did it start?
I think it was in 1944. My late father used to work in the Railways Corporation. His late uncle-in-law worked in the Nigeria Railways as well; and his aunt and my mother were friends. His uncle-in-law and my
father were also friends. We all lived in the railway quarters in Port
Harcourt. He (Alex Ekwueme) was in Kings College, Lagos, and he used to spend his long period of holiday, which sometimes lasted three months, with his aunt.
On this occasion, he came on holiday and he saw me. Three of us were walking along the road and he beckoned on us. We went to him and he asked us questions. He noticed that I was the boldest of the three. That was where it started. I was in St Cyprians Secondary School, Port Harcourt. When he got back to school, and when it got to filling for a secondary school, he asked me to fill Queens College, Lagos. I tried. I passed the exams, and I also passed that of Crowther Memorial Girls’ Secondary School, Elelewon, one station from Port Harcourt. But my uncle, who lived in Lagos, would not hear of a girl coming to school in Lagos.
Why did he object?
I think in those days, he felt the life in Lagos was too fast for girls.
Was it more ‘notorious’ as than what we have today?
Well, maybe more notorious than what it would be in the village. Maybe
‘notorious’ is not the right word; maybe something like they were too open-eyed. Ours was a missionary school. So, I went to Elelewan. And then, there was this teacher, who was a friend to his uncle-in-law and aunt. So, on another holiday, he came to Elelewan to visit with this teacher who was my teacher. And he saw me again. I don’t know whether he planned to come there because I was there or it was an accident but he saw me again. This teacher happened to be my guardian. If she had some food, she would call me to come and eat. You know that boarding house food never really satisfied boarders.
After that, again, he went back to Lagos. That was when we started writing letters seriously. After Elelewan, I was at UMC Ibadan, I would spend my holiday with that uncle should he say I should come. Again, he would visit my uncle’s place. Later, he left while I was at UMC for America. And there was a break in transmission, as you young people would say, these days. While he was in America, we lost touch. He came about five years later while I was teaching at Elelewan and came to visit. And we rekindled our relationship. When he came back, this time around, there was no stopping us. Finally, in December 1956, we got married at the All Saints Church, Onitsha.
What was courtship like in those days?
The cultural and religious influence was very high. In UMC and Elelewan, we had people who could write or visit you and particularly at the UMC. They would go out in the afternoon and announce those who had letters to go to the principal’s office and claim them. But you would also explain to the principal who had written the letter to you. Do, we would just go and say ‘from somebody on my list,’ knowing that it would be difficult to get all the lists and check whether your name was there. But there was this incidence whereby he sent me a telegram, wishing me a happy birthday and I didn’t get it. The telegram was sent to my father and my father asked: who is this man that sent a telegram to my daughter? I told him it was the young man who used to live with Mama Osula, Alex Ekwueme. Then, he remembered, because he had seen him before. In fact, my father, unknown to me, used to give him some pocket money when going to school. But it’s amazing that I had a telegram on my birthday and it was sent to my father in Port Harcourt. I did not know until his query came. So, we were not that bold and he did not take me out.
So, how did you enjoy courtship?
Through letters. All the grammar and put inside a Capri-blue envelope was enough to show love. I also replied with Capri-blue writing pad and put it inside a Capri-blue envelope.
What about the expression of love?
We were religious. I was in a missionary school, the United Missionary College. So, we were not that bold. It was pure and innocent type of relationship.
Finally, a day came that he proposed to you. How did he do it?
He wrote a letter. He said we had drifted too much. He came to see me, not with a bouquet of flowers, and all the drama of kneeling down and popping the question.
When you got that ultimate letter, were you convinced that this was the man you really wanted to spend the rest of your life with or did it take you time to decide?
I had known him for years. And if I didn’t get married during the period that he was away, it wasn’t that I didn’t get suitors. I had many. But like one man told my uncle, he said he knows why I did not want to accept his brother. He said they had heard that I was waiting for one Alex who was America. And that was another trouble for me because when the man left, I was on holiday and was sleeping. My uncle woke me up, and asked: ‘who is this Ekwueme?’ And when you talk about tradition, those of us who are Aruji look down on people from this area (Oko and environ). So, we don’t marry that way. But if you come to my town, which was what I didn’t understand, you would have so many Oko people there. My people used to say they were bush people.
I discover that you also have some foreign degrees and scholarship like your husband. That must be very brilliant. How did that happen?
From my secondary school in Elelewan, I was on mission scholarship. For the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I had a federal government scholarship. But before then, I had an Eastern Nigeria government scholarship and that one had to do with education.
Your initial degree was in…?
Business Administration. So, the other scholarship from Eastern Nigerian government was for education in Portsmouth. Even though he didn’t want me to accept the scholarship so we could get married, I didn’t buy the idea.
Why would he not want you to get your own degree abroad since he had most degrees abroad?
He wanted to get married and he was not sure that I would come back to
him. But then tragedy struck. His elder brother, who was studying abroad, took ill, he was flown home and then, he died. And this was two months before I was due to leave. Then, he came to me and asked if I was still travelling abroad. I couldn’t answer that question. That was the moment I decided that I would not go. And we got married.
You will notice that I went to Nsukka after we got married. It was to compensate me for stopping me from going abroad to study. So, my parents insisted that I must finish my education. Eventually, I went to Glasgow for my Masters. I didn’t want to stop at first degree.
Why were you competing with him because he had a chain of degrees?
Not really. I did want to stop at first degree. You see what degrees
have turned to now. A first degree is like school cert of old now. So, I
said I must do something more. When I finished, I would have gone on,
but I had to come back. I had a family to cater for.
What were the qualities you saw in him apart from the fact that he was, and is still, a handsome man?
He was handsome. I was beautiful too.
His handsomeness swept you off your feet…
We both swept ourselves off our feet. (General laughter).
But seriously, like you said, he was a handsome man, quiet and humble.
He was very introspective, bold and courageous. And that was why he
even tried to come and see my father at a point. And they liked him. He
was just coming to visit because was a relation of his friend.
On your wedding day, how did you feel?
Excited. When he was making his speech, he told them when he met me
and my father said he didn’t know anything was going on all those years.
The reason I asked that question is that for some people, their wedding day would be a mixture of fear of the unknown and excitement about the present. Did you have any such fear?
No. I’ve had time to study him and it would have been most
disappointing if he didn’t leave up to my expectation. And during the
period, I met his other brothers. His elder brother, I knew, and then
Laz, who also used to come on holiday in Port Harcourt. And we got on well. It was like the two families were merged into one.
In your 53 years of marriage, were there moments of disappointments that you wanted to opt out of the marriage?
(Frowns…, pauses…)We are human beings and no human is perfect. So if I tell you that there were no moments that I was disappointed, I would be telling a lie.
Can you tell me one instance?
You would find out. When we got married, I vowed before God and man
that I would not stray from that relationship; that I would have no other man but him. And he made the same vow but he broke the vow. He broke it so many years after. He got another wife, brought her home.
You felt devastated?
Not really. I was very happy, I had a child. I wasn’t around; I was in England when it happened.
What reason did he give in explaining his actions?
I didn’t ask.
Would that mean that you keep malice?
No. You see, if it was so clear, then, why do you have to ask why he did it? The problem was that there was no issue between us for six years, and when they started coming they were not staying. They were dying.
What step did you take medically?
When they discovered the reason, they did something and I left. They took care of what was wrong.
What was wrong?
My cervix. It turned out that I had an incompetent cervix. The thing would start dilating whenever I got pregnant, and so, by eight months, I was ready to have the baby. But that was how I had the one that stayed eventually. I joined my brother-in-law in England and I had no problem after that stitch was put on and I carried that pregnancy to the end. She was the one that hosted my 70th birthday (on July 3, 2004). She is married with children now.
On your 70th birthday, did you share this testimony?
That (70th birthday) celebration was meant to be a surprise package. My daughter and her husband were still in America but they had arranged with friends here to send some photographs to them. Now, I had gone to the Bishop and told him that I would turn 70 on July 3. I told him I didn’t want any noise but I would come to him and he would pray for me and then do a thanksgiving. Not a special one. He agreed. Unknown to me, he and his wife were working for my daughter. Even his wife joined in the aso ebi. I was so shocked and I didn’t see the brochure until I got to the church that day. They hid it well from me.
He was surprised, how did he get to know?
Yes, he was saying so many things about me; but I didn’t know Bishop Chukwuma long enough to know all these things. And I was wondering how he had this information. They were all here. It was when I got the close shot, I opened it, that I saw where he took it from, what he was saying…
Were you angry?
No, I wasn’t. I was really surprised as the wife because when we were getting married, my sisters, my brothers, my family, and I saw everybody including the Bishop’s wife. That was the one that really bowled me over. So, that was it.
You have come a long way, ma. You are 78, and Baba (Dr. Alex Ekwueme) is 80; almost the same age. In those days, people preferred that you are much older than your wife. How did you manage? Did you have any issue over that?
No, we didn’t have any. The Bishop made me feel you will obey your husband, you must submit. And you should fear God. You don’t know what the repercussion will be, if not now, maybe later. So, you try. It’s not easy, but you try.
When he was going into politics, did you nurse any fear?
Actually, I did not support him. When they came, he said he was going into politics. I said ‘no, no, no’. I told him. His friends came, when they came to convince me, I said I like my life as free as it is. I don’t like policemen following me about wherever I go. I said ‘I beg you,’ but when I couldn’t convince you, I joined him. I did. And they said I was the politician, that he was the technocrat because I was leading his campaign all over the place. I was a powerful campaigner during the NPN days.
The day he won the election with President Shehu Shagari, where were you, and how was it like?
I was here in Oko.
Where was he?
He was in Lagos. When the final result was announced, I jumped into the bus with my fellow women and we went round Oko.
In your days too, First Lady was not too active. What were the things that you did as Second Lady? Did you have any programme, and budget?
I did not have any budget.
Not really. My office was where we lived at 17, Ikoyi Crescent. I put a table there. I didn’t have an office. I didn’t have a budget.
And no official role?
I had. With all due respect, President Shagari’s wives were not seen in the public, so I had to perform some of the functions of the First Lady. If we had any visitors at the international desk, I was the one receiving them. Like when I went to Bulgaria to represent the Federal Government, taking the women and children for the International Year of the Child, I did that for the country. So, I acted as the First Lady. But I was not the First Lady, that should be clear.
And you enjoyed that?
Well, it wasn’t easy. I had no salary, I had no allowance.
When you toured on behalf of government, who paid the bills?
They would pay the bill. When I went abroad, they wouldn’t expect me to pay my bill, and that included my transportation money from Lagos to Sofia, Bulgaria, hotel accommodation, and all that. And remember, I went there with some women. So, they paid the bills but that was where it ended.
What about the perks that come naturally with that position?
What type of perks? I tell you this: No 2 position is not really much.
What do you mean by ‘it’s not really much’?
The No 2 position-
To be a vice president of a country like Nigeria-
Vice president of Nigeria, what perks are you telling about?
Favours from contractors, favours from all kinds of groups, favours from everywhere?
I don’t know whether he gave out contracts, or jobs, but I didn’t have any favour.
Are you saying there is not much being the vice president of Nigeria?
Well, in terms of material gains, yes. Like you said, I don’t think so.
But we have seen vice presidents who live like kings after office?
You have seen his house?
We got this house before he went into politics. You saw our house in Enugu, we had it before he went into politics. It is still there. Actually, he designed this building before we got married, when it was just a room where mama lived when we were there. And this was newer and then all we had done was to renovate this, change that. As you can see, renovation works continue. Somebody came the other day and said: what are you doing here? My husband is an architect, and there is no end to redesigning, because you dream of one thing today, you put it up. The following day, you look at it, you want this one somewhere else. Then, you start breaking up again. So, we are sued to it.
What manner of man was your husband as vice president?
I think you people should answer that question because it did not change him.
It didn’t change him from being the Alex you used to know before office?
How did it affect his role as husband to you?
I was busy, he was busy. I hardly saw him, but then when campaign came, he was in the north, I was in the east. Or, sometimes, we went either to the north. It was not easy.
He was very handsome and still very handsome and I know one of the problems of handsome people is especially from girls. What did you do to keep them away?
I didn’t do anything.
Did you see anybody making passes at your husband?
In the house?
Not in the house, outside, maybe you are at a function and somebody is eyeing him-
Excuse me, so, if you are in a public function and you see somebody making passes at your husband, you expect me to go and fight that person. No. You have to respect yourself.
What are the lessons that life has taught you, as individual?
Tolerance. You have to tolerate. As wife of a public man, you no longer own him. The public owns him. This was what I initially did not like about politics, that you do not have any privacy; that you don’t have a life of your own. But if you understand that this is what the office offers, then, you should be able to take care of yourself. Tolerate it, and be patient.
Any regret marrying him?
Despite all that happened?
I wouldn’t be here if I regretted it. In December, it will be 53 years since we got married.
What word do you want to give out to young people out there who see you as role model, lessons that they must learn about life and marriage?
Marriage is not a bed of roses; even roses have thorns. So, when you see the beautiful roses there, you go near it and the thorns will prick you, it’s a combination of pleasure and pain. So, if you understand this, you won’t have much problem coping, tolerating your man’s excesses. You have two people from two different backgrounds, two different constitutions, different cultures, coming together to live together for the rest of their lives; it will take some sacrifice. You have to give something because if you think it’s going to be the way it was. The man has to make sacrifice, the wife has to make sacrifice for them to be able to live together, otherwise, there is bound to be problem all the time. You have to be patient. You have to be tolerant. We have a saying in Igbo: ‘Agaracha must come back’. You go away, finally, you come back. It is easily said than done, but for somebody who’s made up his mind that “come with me, this thing must work.” That is what you say to your daughter: try as much as possible to make this marriage work. And some of them do it. So, it takes a lot of patience; it takes a lot of tolerance for me to gradually understand this man. If you know that you have a husband who hardly apologizes if he does something and he cannot bring himself to say ‘I’m sorry,’ how do you expect him to say ‘I’m sorry’? He can say ‘I’m,’ sorry’ in some other different ways without spelling it out. It is from his character, the way he handles things thereafter that will make you to know if he is truly sorry. Why would you expect him to say ‘sorry’ when you know that it is not in his nature to say it?
How does Daddy say ‘I’m sorry’?
By saying ‘I’m sorry’
You told me that he could say it in different ways. Now, does he say it in bed? Does he say it buying you gifts? Does he say it moments later, cuddling you, trying to make you see things in a better light?
All of them. All combined. If he says I’m sorry, I take it. If he doesn’t say it, that’s okay.
In the beginning, was that a source of friction between you two?
For people like you, who are beautiful, bold, educated, you would not like to take things like that lying low because you would be wondering what kind of man is this that can’t even say ‘I’m sorry’?
I haven’t said that he doesn’t say sorry when he is wrong. But there are people who before they finish doing their wrong, they say ‘I’m sorry’, the following day, they say it again. Such people are ready to offend you ten times and say they are sorry ten times. To, that doesn’t mean anything. But if he offends you and shows that he is truly sorry without saying that ‘I’m sorry’, then, it’s okay. His attitude can show you that he is really sorry and you take it.
What are the lessons that life has taught you, life before marriage and life in marriage?
First, life in marriage. And when I talk about life in marriage, I’m talking to the younger generation. They should understand that marriage between two people from different backgrounds, and sometimes cultures, everything is different. They come together and want to live together for life, it’s not easy. It requires sacrifice on both sides. The man has to do some shifting from what he is used to; the lady has to do the same for them to make it because if you are expecting that life would be the same as it was when you were single, it may not be so.
In Igbo land, when you talk about marriage, you are not talking about two people; you are talking about two families, sometimes two towns. So, you have to make some sacrifices, you have to be tolerant; you have to be patient, you have to be able to endure. There is a lot of endurance required in marriage; otherwise there would be problems.
(To be continued next week)