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by Izu Nnaji
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A tribute to Valentine Obiefula Nnaji (Jan. 13, 1933 – Aug. 25, 2007)

My father was fondly known as Daddy to me and to all. For some, you called them Daddy because you were constrained by society to do so, but for Daddy, it flowed freely out from the depths of the soul of everyone who knew him, to that epitome of gentleness, humility, and love; that great soul whom distant lands never came to know.

Indeed Daddy stood a paragon of what the human soul ought to be for the much-awaited global peace. He was a man who exhibited great love and care to everyone who came across him. Instances abound, but I particularly recall a certain incident that occurred way back in my school days.

In October 1992, there came a University of Port Harcourt in-house publication stating that the senate of the university had summoned all the students indicted in the last upheaval that occurred in the campus to a crucial meeting. The meeting was slated for the morning hours of Saturday the 10th of October, and the affected students were required to attend in the company of at least one parent or guardian, a condition which decided whether the student would continue as part of the institution or not. Once I saw the publication, I went as directed to the students’ affairs department and collected my copy of the official letters addressed to the parents or guardians of the affected students. With the letter, I immediately set out to Owerri where I acquainted my parents with the information.

However, I did not want to inconvenience my Daddy with the responsibility of going for the meeting, which was to be held in just one week. Moreover, I felt I’d be better represented by my uncle who has a salesman’s ease with words than by Daddy who was a core technocrat. We had then jointly agreed in Owerri that I should proceed to Benin to apprise Uncle Peace about what had happened, and to solicit his representation.

In Benin, it turned out that Uncle Peace, who was very busy with his Benin Club presidential candidature, would be occupied that weekend. He had then suggested that I go to one of his friends in Port Harcourt. He did not need to introduce me, for I had become somewhat familiar with Chief Ferdinand Tamunor (not his real name), a very prominent Ijaw chief and one of my uncle’s closest pals.

It was 7.00 pm on Thursday when I arrived at the Gothic-style home of Chief Tamunor in Port Harcourt. He welcomed me in his usual phlegmatic manner and went straight to the point, asking what had brought me to his house. I gave a rundown of the whole events, ending on the note that Uncle had pleaded that he accompany me to the University to represent him at the meeting on Saturday morning. He gave a brief thought to it and then accepted. I could not hide my joy.

By eight o’clock on Saturday morning I was already at the conference hall at the Delta Park of the University where a handful of the other students and their parents had also gathered. By nine o’clock, more parents and their wards arrived. The conference hall was opened and everybody was ushered in. The rest entered but I stood despondently outside. There was none to stand by me. The rules had been spelt out. Woe betide any student with no parent or guardian by his side. Restlessly I scrutinized every incoming vehicle hoping to find in it the lanky figure of Chief Tamunor, but woe indeed was me.

The first pair of tears dribbled down my cheeks. The second brimmed in my eyes threatening to drop. And that was when it happened. Through the glistening blur of the brewing tears I saw a familiar figure negotiate the corner at a distance away and begin to walk towards the hall. Daddy’s greying, glossy hair and gentle gait was unmistakable. How pleasantly surprising it was to see him at such a moment of my greatest need for his presence?

But I was not all too surprised that Daddy should come. Yes, not all too surprised that he should come all the way from Owerri, a distance of 100 kilometres, to stand by me at this hour, despite the earlier arrangement made. Indeed Daddy had felt grief-stricken all through my trying period. And although words were not spoken, I knew he had secretly blamed himself for what happened to me: for not meeting all the demands I made on him. I knew how he felt. I also knew he was determined to give anything, if only to make up for what he thought he had brought upon me. It was always on his face; on the crease in his brows. Oh, how I hated to see him look that way. But I was never given to open expression of emotional feelings. I was never too expressive of my deepest feelings. Never could I bring myself to tell Daddy that he had really done the best he could. That he had really been the best father anyone could ever hope for. That he had really given his best and his all to his family: The greatest father and hero to his children, the greatest husband and lover to his wife. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he could not do beyond his God’s given strength; especially in a country where honesty and diligence were the greatest foibles any man or woman might possess; a country where rectitude had become synonymous with ineptitude. Yes, never was I able to tell Daddy that I too was to blame; that, perhaps, I might have conquered if only I had persevered just a little longer.

Running up to him, I threw my arms around him and embraced him. It was good to see him after all: good to have someone as trusted as Daddy around. After everything said and done, I now had someone on my side. All these happened a long time ago.

But on Saturday, the 25th of August 2007, while working in my office, I got a call from the Federal Medical Centre in Owerri that Daddy had passed on. For a moment tears flowed freely from my eyes. But then I recalled that Daddy had lived a great life. What more can be said of a man whom both heaven and earth testify to have lived worthily before God and man, a man who left peace as a legacy to a troubled world, a man born alone into this world but who left an army of intellectuals in his stead. I shall therefore stay my tears. There should be no lachrymatories for Daddy, but only joy as we celebrate the glorious exit of an icon. Like Mark Anthony, I can only say that Daddy’s life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up, and say to all the world “This was a man!”

Izu Nnaji

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