In the dead of night, when the crickets were chirping the loudest and the rays of midnight stars were struggling to penetrate the canopy made by leaves of cashew and palm trees, he marched along the dusty road connecting Nnobi to Alor.
The weight of his feet hitting the red soil rattled wild rabbits in their holes. In the vast Nnobi-Alor forest, encroaching both sides of the road were valleys made by gully erosion. He chanted songs of soldiers on cross country race, pausing to hear the echoes of his voice married in a remix with the chattering of forest monkeys. Smell of decaying leaves mixed with the latest deposits by flood water along the gullies crawled through his nose. Old women who knew him when he was just a student at Dennis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS), Onitsha, cracked open their family compound hardwood doors to peep out. One woman who was bold enough to walk outside at that time of the night asked him, “Nna a, don’t you fear the night?” His answer was as crisp as the creases of his shirt. “There’s no fear.”
That was before he joined the then Lt. Col. T. J. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s 5 Queens Nigeria Regiment (5QNR) to Congo on the 1960 United Nations’ peace mission.
I became aware of him when I got admitted into Nnobi High School. I discovered that one of the school hostels was named after him. Others were named after people like former Governor General of Nigeria, Patterson and former Premier of Eastern region, M.I. Okpara. So, I felt he must have done something to deserve that honor. But I hardly asked. And we didn’t read about him in history books. The second time him name came up was when my brother applied for admission into the Nigerian Defense Academy. The trepidation that followed his interest in joining the army was attributed to the fate that befell Lt. Ezeugbana.
On Saturday February 4, 1961, Lt. Ezeugbana died in a gun battle with soldiers loyal to Patrice Lumumba in the Kivu province in Eastern Congo. His platoon was defending the UN barrack in the city. The circumstance of his death was not disclosed, at least not to his folks. His body was not brought back home. The young ones who remembered his funeral always noted that a stem of banana plant was laid inside a coffin in place of his body. The consensus was that if he had not died in the Congo, he would have died in the crises surrounding the 1966 coup and the war that followed. He was that kind of a soldier, they said, the Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu type.
The one who did not go to the Congo or die in the 1966 crisis is Major Humphrey Chukwuka, one of the famous Five Majors that planned the infamous January 14, 1966 coup. I don’t remember when I first found out that he was from Nnobi. But the first reporting assignment I went to as a new reporter for May Ellen Ezekiel’s Classique magazine was to visit the Sandhurst-trained soldier in Enugu for an interview. For a while, the time I spent with him at his home in Enugu was the biggest thrill of my life. I was not just in the midst of a historical individual, this one was a son of Nnobi. Lt. Col. Humphrey Chukwuka, as he insisted I must address him, didn’t discuss on record anything about the 1966 coup with me. Despite all my efforts, he insisted that he had moved on beyond that. But he spoke for hours on Nigeria.
As a student at Nnobi, I watched in amazement as thousands of pilgrims descend on my home town to mark Passover. Marching barefooted along the major streets of Nnobi, these pilgrims from across the world feted Rev. Michael Amakeze, popularly known as Prophet Musa. He was the General Overseer of the Holy Sabbath Christ the King Mission, now called Community of Yahweh Worldwide. Long before anyone heard about Prophet T. B. Joshua, he saw tomorrow, for those who believed. His followers referred to Nnobi as a holy land. Since a prophet is not recognized in his home town, most of us paid no mind to Musa. Then at Chinua Achebe’s 70th birthday at Bard College in upstate New York, I was introduced as a son of Nnobi to a professor who came to the celebration from Germany. Immediately, the professor, a follower of Rev. Amakeze prostrated. “You are from a holy land,” the professor said.
At the very least, everybody’s hometown should be a holy land.
After years of keeping a date with Dr. Eddie Madunagu’s column on Thursdays at the Guardian newspaper, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the mathematician, scholar, polemist, Marxist theorist and the last socialist in Nigeria is from Nnobi. Those days that I spent at the Guardian with Eddie (as he is popularly known), I learned something about how the environment surrounding one’s formative years influences the dialectics of his souls.
Even during the pre-colonial era, Nnobi played a role in the advancement of the Igbo cosmology, including the science of the dibia Igbo and the culture surrounding the Igbo worldview. Professor Ifi Amadiume, celebrated anthropologist, essayist and a daughter of Nnobi captured an aspect of that in her seminal work, "Male Daughter, Female Husband: Gender and Sex in an African Society."
In show business, Chika Okpala, Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo, alias 4: 30, of the famed New Masquerade, comedian extraordinaire leads a roll call that includes Gospel Musician, Gozie Okeke, of the Akanchawa fame.
At one point in the 1990s, there were three Nnobi-born Vice Chancellors/Deputy Vice Chancellors of Nigerian universities. Leading the pack was Prof. O.G. Oba, Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Owerri (1992-1999). In religious arena, Most Reverend Owen Nwokolo, is the Bishop on the Niger, the Anglican Bishop of Onitsha Diocese. Ret. Rev. Samuel C. Chukwuka was the recent retired Anglican Bishop of Isuikwuato/Umunnochi Diocese.
In medicine, Dr. Ferdinand Ofodile is a world renowned plastic surgeon and inventor with patents right to some of the most innovative fixtures for plastic surgery, the most popular of which is the nasal implant for rhinoplasty named Ofodile Implant. He is also a retired professor of Medicine at Columbia University
The first time I saw myself as a conscious being was at Ogbunike where my father was a teacher. We were strangers in Ogbunike but whenever we visited Nnobi, my siblings and I were expatriate children. We were pampered and adored but it was the lure of Nnobi that engrossed me. Before I knew a thing about Nigeria, Nnobi was the place that earned my allegiance. For a while it was the only government I knew. Its values became my values and its politics and heroes mine.
Nnobi in so many ways is like Nigeria- a mini-Nigeria. It’s essentially divided into three villages, Ngo, Awuda and Ebenesi. During the colonial era and the few years after, Nnobi was rising and thriving under the guardianship of the Great Igwe Ezeokoli, a traditional surgeon, educationist, celebrated King and the man who brought Christianity to Idemili. In those years of yonder, Nnobi was like Singapore or Malaysia, projecting confidence and inspiring the neighbors. In the last few years, it has dealt with tussle over kingship, an attempted breakaway village, denominational divisions and charges of marginalization of one section or another in developmental projects. In the cause of the crises, it has seen its neighbors leave it in the dust. While Innoson Motors is producing cars in Nnewi and Ojoto is the headquarters of Idemili South, Nnobi is still searching for its place.
Across the globe there are moves to reawaken the true meaning of the Abalukwu Nnobi symbol - a man carrying an elephant on his head and crushing a lion with his feet. This generation of Nnobi people, like other great generations before it, is poised to confront the challenges of their time and triumph. Usually, it begins with a gathering.
On June 20, the people of Nnobi in North America will gather in Atlanta to again begin to contribute their quota in the ongoing renaissance at Nnobi, a rebirth that will restore Nnobi’s status as a holy land.