By Mercy Hill
‘’My background was that of poverty and I took a decision that whosoever comes from my lineage will never be poor again”. These were the words of a man who through perseverance, hard work and resilience conquered stark poverty, reached the peak of his academic career and pushed through life with his family. In his words, he noted that he conquered his challenges through his trust in God, sleepless nights and his loving wife who looked beyond his seeming despicable background and accepted to toe the rough path to success with him.
In this week’s edition of Inspirational Personality, we present to you, Professor Patrick Anthony Chudi Okoye who in an interview with Fides reporter, Mercy Hill, shared some of his life’s struggles, battles and victories.
May we please know you Sir?
I am Prof. Patricks Anthony Chudi Okoye, a Professor of Environmental Analytical Chemistry, Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka.
Can you let us into your background and your early days?
Yes, I was born in Nnokwa, Idemili South L.G.A, specifically on 28 October, 1954. At least that was what I was told. After two years I was brought down to the village to stay with my step mother because,she was the elder sister to my own mother. She was then childless, so I became her child and then I did my primary school while staying with her. Incidentally, I kept jumping classes because I was far intelligent than my class mates.
My step mother kept teaching me addition and subtraction at home with goat droppings, you know the way it was. By the age of ten, I had finished primary school and in those days, people wouldn’t go into secondary school at that early age. I was the smallest in my class at St. John Secondary School, Alor, now St. John’s Science and Technical School, Alor, the same school that has made a mark in Anambra state.So, I am an old boy of that very school and incidentally, I am officiating also as an old boy.
I was still schooling there when the Nigerian Civil War broke out and caught up with us and everyone went home. In 1970, we came back, wrote West African Examination Council Exams,WAEC, but unfortunately, that very year, WAEC cancelled the whole result owning to some abnormally high rate of examination malpractices. But the next year, I wrote the exams again and I came out with distinctions. I took the entrance examination to University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN, and I was granted admission to study Pharmacy. I was also admitted to All Hallows Seminary because I passed with distinctions too. My elder brother tried to talk me into going to the seminary, but it looked like my life wasn’t designed for that. Not that I knew anything, but at that time, I knew what priesthood was because I was an altar server then. I simply felt I wouldn’t meet up with the regulations associated with priesthood. Later, the seminary found out I was the best among all who sat for the entrance exams and came to talk me into joining them in the seminary, but I ran away. So it all ended.
Then to go for the Pharmacy was so difficult, as I had no money and no sponsor. I then took entrance exam to Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Imo state, because I heard that over there, the government ‘pays your fees, gives you accommodation and pocket money’. This was in the year 1973. So, I had to go to Alvan Ikoku College of Education to study Mathematics Education.
At the end, then, NCE holders went for National Youth Service. I did mine in Delta State at St. Pius the tenth Grammar School; made my mark in teaching and then I was retained by the Delta State Government. But my eyes were still on the University, so I made plans of going back to the University. That was how I secured admission to study Chemistry at the University of Benin.
Having known my background, the money I got in 1976- 1979 I saved them up. God so wonderful, there was this humble and loving girl, from my village, who was schooling at the Institute of Management Technology, Enugu. She didn’t know I liked her. I was then the President of Nnokwa Student Union, I organized extra moral classes for students in my village tuition free. I knew I was from a very poor background and I needed someone that would understand and support me and my lifestyle, and luckily this lady agreed to marry me.
Well, I had to marry her while in the University, in fact when I dropped my biro as a graduate, I wedded in the University of Benin, in 1982. From there it seemed my luck opened, because she had this innate character that could propel one to succeed. One day, her father called me and said ‘it seems you are intelligent, keep my daughter and your child with me, go back to school and I will take care of them’. I went back for my MSc in Analytical Chemistry in Benin.
As at then also, I was teaching at Agulu Boys Secondary School. I had to take permission, went back to school and completed my MSc in nine months. It was not easy, but when you know you have a problem, you must have to face your problem. I was practically sleeping in the laboratory while others were enjoying; I would do the Lab work at night; afterwards I would go for academic work in the day. After classes, I would go back to the laboratory. By the time we were writing exams, I was already finished with my project. My supervisor said ‘you can now go, when it’s time for your defence, come back’.
I left, went back to the State Education Commission and took back my job. But I didn’t stay there up to three months. There was a job advert for the College of Education, Awka. I went for the interview and I was appointed a lecturer. As they were creating Anambra state, I moved to Nsugbe with them and in 1992 I applied to Nnamdi Azikwe University and was employed as a lecturer and then the journey to Professorship started. It was not a simple issue but I made it. By 2005 I became a professor, having achieved all the promotions every three years out of hard work and sleepless nights; because you either publish or you perish.
Another thing is that I have five children,two boys and three girls and it was not easy raising them up with my meagre salary as a teacher. It was when I was a teacher in a Secondary school that I bought my first car, a 504. I used that car for twenty five years and at a point I became so conversant with the likely faults and problems of a 504 car that I could easily diagnose its problems as if I was a mechanic. Sometimes, the car would break down on the road and I would pull my shirt and begin to work on it.But, the lucky thing is that, God blessed me with a good family, lovely wife and children. In fact, I fry garri (cassava flakes). We cultivate cassava, harvest and process it. Everyone in my family knows how to fry garri.
My background was that of poverty and I took a decision that whosoever was in my own background will never be poor again. For all my siblings, I gave two each out of their children University education and they all graduated from here.
I can say now that I am accomplished because there is nothing, I had asked God for that he didn’t give me.When I talk about my wife you may think I am exaggerating but not all women can actually withstand the level of struggles we passed through together. The hustles never allowed her to get to the peak of her academics because we realised that if she continued, the people we were training would not be trained, so she stopped and continued to rise in the cadre and retired as a vice principal. She could have been a principal because she went for the interview but the then administration cancelled the interview that period. So, when she recalls that sometimes, she gets very sad because she was supposed to be principal before retirement. However in 2009, she went back to school and did her PhD in Public Administration after retiring from service. She is Dr. Mrs Josephine Okoye, my loving wife.
So, Prof, what major factors led to your success?
One good thing is humility, straightforwardness, peace of God, anyone with these will always rise to any height. If you don’t have peace and humility, you may be looking at things you may not even get. I personally was not interested in materialism. One thing I advise young people is to work hard, bend down and be focused in whatever thing you think you are doing. Hard work does not kill, it only requires more work and the achievement from it is enormous.
All my kids are now grown up. In fact one of my kids just called to take my measurements to sew more clothes for me, but I declined. There are still some they have sewn I have not worn.
So you see how life is, the same person that wasn’t wearing good clothes before?
Like I said before, I drove a 504 for 25 years and by the time I started driving two cars it was a miracle.
What is your greatest achievement?
I have been able to touch people. Helping people is one thing you do and find happiness in it.Even in the university here, I have supervised over forty PhD students and over fifty M.Sc students. At least, I have contributed my own quota to their success. If I leave the academics now, I won’t say I have done badly. Supervision means taking the person to be your own child
Recently, my wife and I registered a foundation called TonyJoe Foundation, aimed at getting young people off the streets, teaching them skills and setting up in business
What about your failures?
Yes, you are very correct. Mine was a natural failure and the insensitivity of the government. I got a piece of land, because of my love for agriculture, but recently flood destroyed the land and I cried to the government and nothing was done. The flood is still increasing the erosion site and it is about destroying not only mine now but the whole place. Occasionally, I visit the place, but I know I personally cannot solve the problem myself. Aside that, I have no other regrets. These days, when I pray, I have no other request but to ask God to help those whose case are similar with what I passed through and send them helpers.
If you were to be born in present day Nigeria, do you think you would be able to succeed just the way you did?
That is where the problem is, one person will carry money for almost a hundred citizens, take it and dump it in a bank abroad and those people use the money to boost their own economy. So, I pity this generation of democracy. Though democracy is good but that of Nigeria is terrible. In Nigeria these days we have no middle class just the rich and poor. Even at that, I encourage young people to acquire skills, with hardwork and good behaviours. At intervals look for people who can help you propel you to your destiny.
How many books have you written?
Over here we don’t talk about books because I am a research fellow. Like I told you, I have supervised several PhD and MSc students, so by the time each is graduating, we do publications locally and internationally. If I should count my publications, I have up to one hundred and eighty publications.
Any message to young people out there?
The youth must be humble, work hard and don’t wait for manna to fall from heaven. If you continue and you are choked up, look for good means to solve it. Do not solve your problem by doing the wrong thing.
Finally, put your hope in God because he knows all things.
Thank you so much Prof. for your time.