James Nwoye Adichie, a native of Abba in Anambra State, is a retired professor of Statistics and Mathematics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). The renowned teacher, who said he was born in 1932, started his profession from primary school and moved to secondary and later to tertiary institutions. Among other things, he narrated how he failed Statistics but became an authority in the field, and his experience during the civil war. He retired from the UNN in 1997.
How would you describe your childhood days in your community, Abba, Anambra State?
I attended primary school in Abba, Awkuzzu and ended in Nimo Primary School. During my days as a young man, life was good. My parents were poor, really poor, but they were able to pay my primary school fees. I started primary school in Abba but moved to Awkuzzu and ended up in Nimo. The reason being that we started Standard One in Abba and when we were due for Standard Two, they cut that category off in Abba, so we had to go to Awkuzzu. From Abba to Awkuzzu is like three miles. I did standards two, three, four and five at Awkuzzu. They also took away Standard Six, so I had to go to Nimo.
During these periods, things were good, and we were not afraid of anything. I was at Nimo at the age of 12, and we were not afraid of anybody. If you were good at school, your teachers would like you. My teachers liked me because I was good at Arithmetic.
After my primary school at Nimo, something happened and I came third in the whole of Adazi Catholic Parish; we were in a Catholic school. They told my father that I came third and should be sent to Saint Anthony Teachers’ College, Onitsha. I was happy that I was going to college. The Rev Father there asked my father to come so that they would give him the list of things to buy. He went, but they told him that they could no longer send me because they found out that Abba was not under Adazi Catholic Parish but Dunukofia.
I lost that opportunity and my father said I should go and teach with Standard Six qualification. I reported for teaching at our parish in Dunukofia. On the day of selection, they called all the names but my name was not there. I was 13 years old then. I did my Standard Six at the age of 12. I was disturbed. Somebody saw me crying and asked why, and I told him that my name was not called. He took me to Rev Father Tanshi, who told me that I was underage, so I would not teach. He said I needed to be at least 14 years. He asked me to call my father and I did. My father was told that I was underage to teach and there was nothing they could do. He suggested I should join the “nw” class; that was pre-nursery class. I was not among the staff the government would pay. The locals were supposed to pay me, but they never did.
The following year, I was 14 and I started teaching. When the year ended, my father told me that I shouldn’t be doing that kind of work, instead, I should continue with my studies.
I got admission into the African College, Onitsha. We started the school. It was just opposite Christ the King College. I spent two years and couldn’t continue because there was no money to pay for my school fees. But I had taken my Junior Cambridge examination. Junior Cambridge was an examination you took before your Senior Cambridge. Some people would do it in class four or five, but I took the Junior Cambridge after two years and I passed it and started teaching with it.
After that year, the mission heard about me and looked for me. They gave me a scholarship to Yaba Technical Institute in 1949. I spent two years there. At Yaba Technical Institute we had engineering and technical courses and I was admitted into manual technical courses.
We did teaching courses, where we were trained to teach technical subjects, such as woodwork and metalwork. I could build a table without a nail. And we were able to do some metal works. I finished and did very well. Remember that my educational qualification was only Junior Cambridge, so I said to myself that I must take Senior Cambridge. I started studying on my own and took the Senior Cambridge in 1952 and passed. I was satisfied that I had gotten at least a Senior Cambridge certificate. My friends had gotten their Senior Cambridge because their parents were able to pay.
Remember that I was sponsored to Yaba by the mission so that when I came out I would teach for them for one year. I did that, and after serving my bond, I left them and went into civil service. In health services, I was a sanitary inspector and I worked in Aba.
Before then, they sent us to the School of Hygiene in Aba. I spent two years there. We were moved to the streets to inspect the sanitary condition of the town. We would go into places and buildings to find out if there were clean. I did that for over a year. While doing all these I was studying through correspondences. They taught us English and Mathematics. I did my advanced level, called Advanced GCE and passed.
With that, I got admission into the University College, Ibadan in 1957 to read Mathematics. I graduated in 1960 and got a B.A (Hons), University of London. I was happy that I could fly because I had gotten what I had always dreamt of in life.
After that, I started thinking about marriage. In those days, if you were in the final year at the University College, Ibadan, companies and government establishments would be coming to interview you for jobs. In those days, if you went to school and graduated, within two weeks people would be coming to interview you for jobs, even before your result came out.
My first job after graduation was in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 1960. We finished in June, and by July we were already working, even when our results were not yet out. I was recruited into the research section of the CBN. We would come in the morning and start looking for information. We would go to the bookshops, gather information and write about them. We were asked to write on anything about banking, and I did not know what banking or economics was. In Ibadan, we did purely Mathematics for a degree. Then, there was nothing like General Studies. This time around, when you are doing Mathematics you do English, General Studies and History, which is okay. But in our time, we did not do any of these.
Sometimes, in the course of doing the job, I would find a word, which meaning I did not know, but I would just ask somebody to explain to me, and I would write the word down in my book. That was what we were doing until our results came out around August and I passed very well.
After the release of our results, I wanted to resign because I did not do anything like Economics and Banking. I went to the man in charge of the CBN and told him that I wanted to resign. He asked if I were mad, but I told him I was not mad. He asked if I did not like the job and I replied that since I did not do Economics or a related course if any person with the knowledge came in, I would be relegated. He showed me a publication of the CBN, and behold, it was what I wrote that led it. He tried to persuade me to stay, but I had already made up my mind to resign. Finally, I left the CBN to the Office of Federal Statistics.
While I was working there, I bought a blue Opel car with four doors. In those days, immediately you graduated and started working, car dealers would be looking for you. They would know you were working and ask you to pick any car of your choice.
After the car, I told myself that I had gotten somewhere in life. While still working there, I saw an advert on the Nigeria College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu. During that time, the Nigerian government built special institutions called Nigeria colleges of arts, science and technology. The first one was built in Zaria, the second one in either Ife or Ibadan and the third one was in Enugu. The one in Enugu is the present University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus.
I applied to teach Mathematics at the institution. I got the job and left the Office of Statistics.
One year after, the Federal Government shut down the entire institutes and I had no job. Then, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka put up an advert for positions of Mathematics lecturers and I applied. I got a job as an assistant lecturer in what was known as the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Astronomy.
When I got there, they asked me to teach Statistics, but I told them that I did not study the course. They gave me four books, including one used in 1920. I was expected to read those books, even when I could not understand statistics symbols and didn’t even know how to pronounce them.
The following Monday, I started teaching the people. I thought I used them as guinea pigs because something you don’t know you don’t know it. But some of the bright students would know I did not know it. I did it for one year, and the second year, the university asked us to look for universities for our postgraduate studies. I got the University of California, United States of America and the school sponsored us.
That was one of the best Statistics schools all over the world. I got into the school in 1963, and after two weeks they gave us an examination and I got zero because I did not understand what Statistics was all about. That was a postgraduate course in Statistics, which I did not do in the undergraduate class. My colleagues from Japan, India and Britain did well because they knew Statistics, and some had done their master’s. Although I had a good degree in Mathematics from the University of London, it did not include Statistics.
After the examination, I knew I could not make it, so I went to my teacher and complained to him, saying I wanted to go back to Nigeria. He said I would not go back to Nigeria. He said, “If there is anything you do not understand in my class, come to me, I will teach you.’’ That meant I would be sleeping in his office because I did not understand anything. He told me that he was the person who gave me admission to the university because he had been to the University of London and knew the quality of their degrees. He told me that when he saw my degree from that school, he knew I was fit to take up the courses. He advised me to take classes in some subjects in Statistics, which I may not sit for during examinations. They called it audit classes. Throughout that year, I attended Statistics classes that I did not take during examinations.
That paid many dividends for me. I would leave in the morning and come back at around 8 pm. And I went with my wife. When the next semester started, I was not empty again. The lecturer would talk and I would understand, they would give assignments and I would do it without scoring zero again. In my third year, I was qualified for PhD and I started writing my thesis. I finished in the third year and got my PhD. I was the second person to obtain a PhD in Statistics from my school; the first person was an Israeli woman.
I came back to Nigeria in1966 to continue with my teaching at the UNN.
The head of the department asked me to develop coursework for students from year one to year four and I did it. I taught for just one year and the civil war broke out and we ran away. The UNN convocation in 1967 was done at night due to the civil war. I was happy that I got away from the university. We knew there was a war, but never knew it was close. You know, Nsukka is bordered by the North and the Biafran Government never wanted us to panic. If you wanted to go home with your family they would not allow you.
The Biafran government formed what was called the Civil Defence Group as part of its military outfit to fight the war. Some of us joined the group, but I did not. During that period I had dropped my family here in Abba and went back to UNN. Honestly, we did not know that the enemies were close to us. One day, our registrar, one Mr Ike, drove to my house with his Morris Minor car at 8 pm, shouting and calling on me to leave immediately. I left my house with the boy with us in my car. Honestly, I was lucky that I left university. As we got to the road, that was the first time I saw what refugees were all about. I saw men, women and children carrying goats, boxes and other loads on their heads and running along the roads.
We drove out of Nsukka to Enugu road and Ninth Mile without any problem. While we were in Enugu we met our colleagues, including a veteran physicist who had just gone to drop his family and was coming back. We told him that there was nobody on campus, but he went on. He got there and joined the Civil Defence and was killed in the war.
The war raged for three years. The way it impacted on individuals varied, but I thank God that we were saved.
After the war, I went back to university. Remember that I left in a hurry and did not collect anything when Ike was calling me to leave immediately.
I had only my car and the boy with us since my family had been moved to Abba. When I came back, all my books had disappeared. It was terrible.
We started all over again. Happily enough, my colleagues in the California University knew about the civil war. They were writing to me during the war and I didn’t know how they were able to get me. When we came back, some of them in the USA contributed books and sent to me. Before I knew it, they had sent a container-load of books. That was how I started life over again. I become the deputy vice-chancellor of the UNN between 1980 and 1984. In 1997, I retired from service in the same university as a professor of Statistics and Mathematics.
How would you describe the standard of education during your time and what obtains today?
We no longer graduate students in character and learning. In my time, things were good. Our government has consistently failed to see how this country can grow in everything, including education. The Nigerian system has crumbled. When we were in school everything was okay. Before I became a senior lecturer, I had seen that things were no more moving in the right direction. Some students with first-class and good second class had no jobs, so some of them would like to go back to the university to do postgraduate studies to see if they could get any job. We had an upsurge of those who wanted to do postgraduate studies, not because they needed it but due lack of jobs. They would tell you that they were doing the programme instead of staying idle. They would prefer to have a master’s or PhD to get good jobs. Honestly, something is wrong with our education system today.
When these children see what legislators earn and how they live, they lose interest in education and become angry with the system.
The truth is that even if you don’t hear, you are seeing what is happening in the system. There is no basis for comparing the standard of education in my days in the university and today. It is not the same. Unfortunately, the standard of education in the country is continuously going down every day.
There was a time you must have a first-class or a good degree before you became an assistant lecturer. During my time, we were first degree holders, but good ones and the system pushed us to get up. We went overseas and came back to continue.
During our time, there was nothing like teachers going on strike. Today, teachers go on strike because they feel something is wrong in the system. You don’t go on strike and remain serious about education pursuit. The zeal for the younger ones to study is no longer there. The competition in the university is no longer there. Teachers and students are not happy about the system. There is no reward system in the country. People who excel are not rewarded, but those who are fraudulent are being honoured.
Nigeria celebrated 59 years of independence recently; what is your advice?
Nigeria is wobbling, there’s no doubt about that. It was not like that in our time.
When the military men were ruling the country, we thought they were the problem, but now we know they were not the problem. Today, everybody is talking about corruption. During my time, the country wasn’t that corrupt. We had a system where, if you were good you got it. This time, you cannot get anything unless you have connections. Those things bring the system down. People are being compelled to do the wrong things.
There is a high level of injustice in the country; people no longer get what they deserve. People are suppressing others because they believe they are better connected in the system. We must have a system where good people are rewarded and the bad ones punished. If I am innocent I should not be punished. Let there be justice in the land. We should stop oppressing the poor in our communities. Let us encourage hard work, consistency and love for one another. If we have all this, the country will rise again.