My uncle would hide in the bush with horsewhip to keep me in school —Eweje
Professor Simon Eweje, chairman, Courier and Logistics Management Institute (CLMI), is a good story-teller. SEGUN KASALI and SYLVESTER OKORUWA engaged him in an interview in which he told memorable stories about his life and background.
IS it correct to say you had a humble beginning?
I grew up in the village. I used to go to farm with my parents and also started my primary school in the village. We trekked for kilometers to farm, even though I was very small. They said I was underage. Those days, if your right hand did not touch your ears from above your head, you were deemed not old enough to start going to school. Mine did not touch my ear. I covered my face, on the assumption that it would help in making my hand touch my ear. The headmaster saw the zeal in me to want to go to school because my mates, who were already in schools, brought their school assignments home. They would write ABC and I would start writing ABC, 123. That fascinated my uncle and others. They all felt that I would be a wasted talent if I was not sent to school. That was how my elder brother came home from the city and spoke to my father that I must go to school.
How were your fees paid?
From the proceeds from farm. The amount was very meagre. I think it was one pence. I can’t remember. All I did was to wake up in the morning, put on my dress, take either roasted yam that I would eat in the school or roasted corn, carry my slate, and chalk.
You must have felt bad seeing others go to school.
Yes. We were eight in the family. The first child was a female and the rest were males and I was the only one remaining in the family. My father said if I should go to school, he would not have anyone to follow him to the farm. So, the reason for not wanting me to go to school was because he wanted me to go to the farm with him.
Your early days in primary one must be exciting.
Yeah, it was quite exciting because it was like my dream had come to pass. Of course, God was helping me brilliantly. I started from primary one and I was the best in the class, though very small in stature. I was to be promoted at the end of the third term to primary three but I was too too small. In class, I would just sit down and catch whatever they wrote on the board. They would ask me questions, which I answered. At the end of the third term, they promoted those who came second, third and fourth to primary three, but left me because of my age. I was five years. There were people who were 6, 7 and 8 in the class, but I caught up with them in primary three. I even overtook some of them at the end of the day. They would call me in the midst of everyone that I should come and take my prize. Somebody would have to touch me to say, “don’t you hear that they are calling your name to come and take something?” They would tell me to tell my mother and father that I took first, but it didn’t mean anything to me. All I was interested in was that I was in school and I was learning something. Whether I came first or not did not mean anything to me.
Were there other unforgettable memories?
I think there was an attempt to truncate my destiny, I now got to school, what I had desired so much, after some weeks. I became disenchanted with the school after few weeks and I started avoiding classes. I feigned having stomach ache beside my mother who I was sleeping beside then. When day broke, others would dress up and asked after me. My mum would tell them I was ill. Once they heard that, they would turn back. As soon as they left, I would run out and start playing. I didn’t know that an uncle was watching until the day he came to our compound and asked my mother where I was. She said I was on the bed sick, but he said I was not sick. He entered the room and pulled me out of the bed. He called me a liar and ordered me to dress up or he would flog me. He would escort me to a point, then he would go back. When he escorted me to the school gate, he would go into the bush nearby to hide. I waited for some minutes and headed back home, thinking he had gone. As I was walking back, someone jumped out from the bush and grabbed me. He shouted at me and asked what was wrong with me. He flogged me a lot. His persistence got me to make up my mind to start going to school again.
Any other experience?
I used to be fearful of a girl in primary two. It was two pupils to a bench. The girl and I were on the same bench, but she used to bully me. Any little thing, she would tell me, “I will beat you.” I was afraid of her because of my size. Anything she asked for, I gave her. She would say, “bring this,” and I would give her. There was a day she asked me to bring my ruler and I gave her but she did not return it. I then said to myself, “Today, I will either die or someone else will.” I made up my mind to fight her after school. I told her to give me my ruler, she refused. I then told her I would fight her. It shocked her. Before I knew it, I slapped her and we started to fight. I held her and started to rain blows on her face, especially her nose and eyes. Blood started gushing out. When I saw that she was almost unconscious, I jumped out and ran to the house with my chalk and ruler. When I got to the house, I locked myself in. Later, I saw her father coming on a bicycle. The man reported what had happened to my father. I came out of the house after the man left. My father asked why I did it and I narrated what transpired.
Was your secondary school that interesting too?
My secondary school was equally interesting. I spent four and a half years instead of five years in the secondary school in Kwara State. You must meet some requirements before you would be promoted to the next class. If you didn’t meet the mark, you were demoted to a school lower in status than that of the Government Secondary School. It was challenging because my set was quite tough. Somebody who scored 80 per cent might be on the 8th position. If you must excel, your score must be in the range of almost 100 per cent. When you have 70 something, you would be crying. So, that was kind of secondary school I went. In those days, in your final year, they would select the best. Kings College used to be the talk of the town then. I was one of them, but something happened. I later got to understand the society. I shared same position, 4th, with a boy and only four of us would write that exam that year. I was sure that I would be one of the four, but the principal chose someone else. I was surprised because I expected him to look at our past records, but I later discovered that it was tribalism that played out because the boy was from the same area, with the principal. I didn’t feel good that time, but I accepted my fate. Unfortunately, he didn’t pass the exam and he didn’t go to Kings College. So, none of us went.
Any striking experience in secondary school?
When I was in junior class, I almost killed somebody. I was punished for doing nothing. You know, in those days, senior students were looked at as babas of the school. We used to call them college brothers. You would fetch water for them, wash their clothes and so on. In form one, I had a college brother and we were in the dormitory with senior students. The problem actually was not with my college brother, but with one of my senior students in the same dormitory. I would fetch water and he would spill it on the ground and order me to go back and fetch another bucket of water. He did that repeatedly. I asked myself, “What is happening here?” One night, he woke me up and he was trying to punish me when everyone was asleep. He said I should sweep the floor and that if I did not do it, he would flog me hard. Like I did in primary school, I said, “Somebody must die today.” After some minutes, this senior student called my name and I became very angry. I was saying in my mind, “You are punishing me, I have not done anything. Everybody is sleeping and I am not sleeping and you are still calling me. To do what?” I changed my mind. I went under my bed and brought out my cutlass and I said, “This night, you either die or I die. I didn’t do anything to you. I don’t know you. I am just in form one and you are making life difficult for me.” Furiously, with my cutlass held up high, I ran after him. While he was running, he was shouting. That was how he left me alone.
How much of these experiences did you take to the university?
I went to Ahmadu Bello University. While I was in the university, it was like God was allowing those experiences to come my way. But nothing special happened there. I was able to focus on my academics and thank God I came out successfully. Although I had some hitches, God in His infinite mercies made me overcome them successfully.
When did you start dreaming of becoming a professor?
Oh, that’s interesting. I think from the time I had the consciousness of education. In primary school, I didn’t know much about Doctorate, Ph.D. All I knew was go to school. I think it was somewhere along the line in secondary school, I said there are some people who are called doctors, professors. There are some people who had gone to a place they called university. They came with degree and so, I must go to a university first thing and I must seek education to the peak. I was determined to earn highest qualification as far as academics was concerned, so, I developed the interest from there. When I got to the university, it was in my mind. I saw some people and my friend was studying up to the Masters level. It was an inspiration for me and I decided to complete my own Master’s too and also my Ph.D. That was in my heart. I finished and I was to fly to the United States after my NYSC for my postgraduate programme when God stopped me. It was divine that I would remain in Nigeria for my postgraduate programme, Master’s and Ph.D. So, I sat back, took a job, went to the University of Benin for my Master’s. As I was finishing, I got a job with Nigerian Postal Service and enrolled for my Ph.D. As soon as I got that job, it dawned on me more to work hard and become a professor.
How did you meet your wife?
I met her when I was at the University of Benin for my Master’s. She’s a pharmacist. She was doing her internship that time. I met her in the Christian Fellowship. I never knew her in anyway, but when I went to Benin, it was like, apart from my Master’s degree, it looked as if I was going to get some value. I didn’t know what that was until I set my eyes on her. I entered that fellowship that day, lowered my head and prayed. Immediately I lifted my head up, my eyes went straight to where she was sitting. Something came into my heart and told me that the person I was looking at was my wife. I almost ran out. I said, “I didn’t come here to look for a wife.” I never knew her name, but that voice kept on telling me that “this is your wife” until I eventually proposed to her. Initially, she didn’t agree to have anything with me. But after a while, she became convinced that I was truly interested in a relationship and she agreed because there was nothing to really desire about me then. I was actually suffering on campus. My father was long dead while my brother, who was sponsoring me, lost his job. I was all alone. I became very lean because I wasn’t eating well. I lived on biscuits for weeks until I had no money to even feed myself again. At a point, I could not even drink water again because my system changed. In the class, I couldn’t hear the lecturer anymore because I had not eaten for days and it was affecting my brain. When I told her that I was fair complexioned she didn’t believe my skin turned black because of malnutrition until I finished the Master’s programme and she gave me a yes answer when I was about leaving. I told her to let us meet again.