You sailed off when the angels slept –
Sole sister, nwa Uzorchikwai,
My fragmented heart, sewn with cyclones,
Lies as patchwork hewn on soapstone.
Now, I trudge life’s grievous paths, masked
Against a virus marauding with spiky crowns,
The heart, weary with grief, gasps for ventilators
To aerate your choking absence.
—Excerpt from Nduka Otiono, “In Memoriam: Sole Sister”
When my precious only sister died on this day eight years ago, she unwittingly sealed an unusual bond with the number “3.” She was born on the 3rd of November, died on the 3rd of July, buried on the 3rd of August. In actuality, she did not choose any of those dates; the dates chose her. In the number 3, her fundamental rites of passage aggregated—from birth to death to interment. In the number 3, she archived her life in my memory, returning and disappearing like a halo around that very “first odd numbered prime number which gives it the power of indivisibility, and forms the trinity of magical numbers,” to borrow the words of Wenkai Ma.
This memorial is special for me as it has come with it, a special poem in her honour which I recently completed, and an excerpt from it is the epigraph to this piece. It has taken eight years of Phil’s tragic departure to write this poem. The triad of loss, time, and memory inspired the poem rather unexpectedly. The trinity is divine, cohering with that idea sublimity associated with sudden afflatus which seizes a poet like a wind of madness. And so, this anniversary of Sister Phil’s passing, I choose to revisit her life’s paths.
Four days before her final and fatal trip, Sister Phil spoke with me while I was on a visit to the U.K. from my base then in Providence, U.S.A. I was attending two conferences in the U.K. and was in the process of relocating back to Canada after a one-year stint as a postdoctoral fellowship and senior research assistant to the venerable Professor Chinua Achebe at Brown University.
My conversation with Phil was as heart-warming as one would hope for with a close sibling—I was glad sharing my spectacular favour of winning Canada’s most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, and with it the opportunity to return to Canada. For her part, Phil was very buoyed up by her supervisor’s renewed keenness in her progress with her doctoral research and was confident that she would be done by December 2012—just six months away. She was doing the doctoral research at Delta State University, Abraka, and had regularly shuttled from Asaba where she was a Principal Lecturer and a two-time Head of Department of Home Economics at Federal College of Education (Technical), Asaba. We discussed her doctoral project, the working titles of which she had shared with me on a piece of paper during my previous trip to Nigeria (see image attached). We also covered her plans after graduating her PhD. She told me of her plans for international publishing and asked me to assist her with research materials and with identifying appropriate international peer-reviewed journals to which she could submit articles. She brimmed with excitement for her next promotion to a Chief Lecturer and hoped that she would be appointed the Provost of the institution where she had taught for years.
But the trip of July 3rd, 2012 cut short her dreams. Sister Phil died in a dreadful automobile accident at Umutu in Delta State on her way to meet with her supervisor at Delta State University, Abraka. She was 49 years old. Our ever-smiling cousin notable for his uncanny wisdom, Ndubisi Onwuka, also died in the car crash. He was 26, a student of Delta State Polytechnic in our hometown Ogwashi-Uku and the driver of Phil’s Toyota Camry on that fateful trip. She was survived by her husband, four children (Ikechukwu, Ndubisi, Awele and Uche), her mother and four brothers.
Short of words to describe the tragedy, Mum told me at the time: “There was no sign” at all that, that casual trip to Abraka to see her supervisor would be her very last. But death baited her, laid in ambush on the same road that she had plied countless times, and tragically cut her short in her prime. There couldn’t be a better way to describe the tragedy than in the words of condolence to me by the award-winning Nigerian poet and Professor of English, Niyi Osundare: “Yet another priceless victim of Nigeria’s death-trap roads—and the abominable corruption of the criminals who parade themselves as her rulers…”
Beloved by many, Sister Phil was a lightening rod, a catalyst for progress, a dependable confidant and ally. She blended her first love, cooking, baking and homemaking, with her research specialization in Home Economics and her maternal instincts at the homefront and the ivory tower. Expectedly, then, her demise sparked emotional reactions across Delta State and beyond. The Deputy Governor of Delta State at the time, Professor Amos Agbe Utuama, described it as “shocking”. Scores of sympathizers who streamed into the residences of the Okafors, off Okpanam Road, Asaba, and that of the Otionos in Ogwashi-Uku respectively paid glowing tributes to the amazon with a golden heart. Early visitors included Her Excellency, Dr. (Mrs) Tuwere Utuama, wife of the Deputy Governor; Ambassador Ralph Uwaechue, President, Ohaneze Ndigbo; Evangelist Simeon Ebonka, and Chief Benjamin Elue, both former Deputy Governors; Chief Peter Nwaoboshi, PDP Chairman, Delta State; His Majesty, the Ovie of Abraka; Comrade Ovouzoure Macaulay, Secretary to the State Government; Sir Okey Ofili, Head of Service, Delta State; representatives of the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku led by the Onihe; Chairman and members of the State Civil Service Commission.
Prior to her death, Phil was the Director of Part-time and Sandwich programme Federal College of Education (Technical), Asaba, as well as a Member of the Governing Board of Demonstration Secondary School, Asaba. She attended Marymount College, Agbor for her O’Level certificate and Federal College of Education, Pankshi, Plateau State for her National Certificate of Education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, Abraka, and a Masters in Human Nutrition from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As an academic, she attended several workshops/seminars at home and abroad, presenting insightful academic papers. She published scholarly articles in professional journals and books, her last typescript delivered to her home only a few days after her demise. Her publications include Fundamental Concepts of Nutrition (Chembus Communication, Enugu, 2011).
Lady Phil was also active in the social sphere where she often stood out for her sartorial sophistication. She held membership of several professional associations and social clubs including Ani Nshi Wives’ Association; Secretary, Ladies of Excellence Club, which she served as President; and the Association of Wives of Permanent Secretaries of which she was a Secretary. Her tall frame, toothy smiles that reveal her gap teeth, amiable disposition and long, bold strides often underscored her commanding presence in any crowd. As her husband Emma would tell me, “Phil dressed and carried herself like a celebrity, and touched more hearts than I ever imagined while she was with us, given the tributes and deluge of sympathizers who knew her.”
A devout Catholic who performed pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Mrs. Phil Okafor was a Lady of Knights of St. Mulumba to which her husband, Sir Emma O. Okafor belongs. She was also an active member of the Society of Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a humanitarian who loved doing charity work and assisting the less privileged. Her exemplary life is reflected in her being chosen (with her husband) as “sponsors” of couples in 27 weddings! The bride for their 28th wedding sponsorship reportedly wept uncontrollably at the Okafors’ residence in Asaba upon visiting the family home in Asaba only to learn of the fatal accident. “Aunty, why now?” she was quoted as bitterly gushing repeatedly, “who will be my god mother now at the wedding?”
Such is the gap Sister Phil’s sudden and permanent exit left. As I conclude this memorial piece, I recall the haunting final To Do List note she forgot on her bed as she left for Abraka on the morning of July 3, 2012. She had written in her unmistakable bold handwriting: “Things to Do Today by God’s grace.” As it turned out, she never returned and never completed the tasks for that day, thereby prompting one to ponder that eternal question: Why do bad things happen to good people who trust the Lord?
In my reflections on the answer(s) to the question, I was recently struck by two quotes from the Facebook wall of Emevwo Biakolo, my professor at Ibadan and Retired Professor of Communication at the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University: “Suffering is a double-edged sword. It leads to joy or tragedy, redemption or suicide” and “God speaks a different language from us and we have very poor translation skills.” As people of faith, understanding our relationship with God and coming to terms with the somewhat illogical and inscrutable nature of human experience and existence infuse hope into our everyday lives. It also enables us to triangulate the inevitable rites of passage which Philomena Ozoemena Okafor (nee Otiono) aggregated around the 3rd day of her most significant months on earth— birthday, death day and burial day. May her soul continue to rest in peace.
Nduka Otiono is a writer, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Supervisor, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada.