Why I’m still single at 76 – Nigeria-based British professor David Jowitt
Since he migrated to Nigeria in 1963, David Jowitt, a professor of English, has been fascinated with the people and their culture. Having spent about 54 years teaching in Nigerian schools, he now speaks many Nigerian languages. He spoke with OKORIE UGURU about his experience in Nigeria and why he remains single as a septuagenarian.
By September, it will be 54 years since you came to Nigeria. What made you to embark on this life-long adventure?
In 1963, I was a young graduate in Britain. I just graduated in history and I wanted to do something with my life that would yield an income, and also be something worthwhile. A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you go and teach in Africa?’ Because at that time, there were so many newly independent African countries. I asked the friend, ‘Okay, which country?’ He suggested Nigeria partly because there was somebody we knew who was already there who would be able to fix a job for me quite quickly.
It is a long story, but that is the central reason. I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life. And for the past 50 years, I have found teaching in Nigeria to be very fulfilling. I found it interesting and exciting.
Was there any kind of misgiving back home when you decided to come to Nigeria?
In our world today, there is this very fashionable word: challenge. I will simply say that then, it was the prospect of the challenge of the job that interested me. The people who offered me the job said, ‘Oh, this school has no running water. There is no electricity except light by a generator. The boys have just gone on strike because they didn’t like the teacher teaching English.’ They even said, ‘If you don’t like the sound of this school, we can offer you a different one.’ But you know what? I responded to the challenge of going to teach in the school. It was just what I wanted at that age when we often do adventurous things.
Which school was that and how old were you at that time?
The school was Anglican Grammar School, Ubulu Ukwu. It was in the then Mid-West Region, now Delta State. I was twenty-two and half years when I arrived. I stayed there for two years.
Arriving in Nigeria then, what was your first impression?
I actually flew from Lagos to Benin. Then I was met at Benin by the principal of the school. Well, before I arrived in the country, I had been apprehensive, maybe because I had some inherited assumptions about Africa that people grow up with in the western world. You know what I mean. But I assure you that I just found myself surrounded by warmth, friendliness, good humour and courtesy from the boys in the school, teachers and everybody.
I just felt that I had come into something very fine and good that I was not expecting. Those were my first impressions and I assure you that the first impressions have remained with me all through the years, through thick and thin. Obviously life generally is always smooth but that is what I have felt and continued to feel.
Obviously it had not been easy. What was it that kept you going?
Probably what kept me going in addition to what I had just described, those initial impressions, is the fact that I discovered here in Nigeria that I really love being a teacher. That is to say I love acquiring knowledge and imparting it to other people, especially younger people, especially people who are interested in acquiring it. That is what I found in Ubulu Ukwu, in a secondary school. That also has remained with me all through the years.
Throughout that period you traversed different parts of Nigeria, you imbibed the languages, culture and so on. At what stage did you decide that you no longer wished to teach in secondary schools?
Initially, I was teaching at secondary schools, first at Ubulu Ukwu and then at Onitsha. I was in a very good school at Onitsha, the Dennis Memorial Grammar School, popularly known (DMGS Onitsha). I was there when the war began. I had to go back to the United Kingdom (UK). Some years later, I still had the itch to come back to Nigeria. By that time, it wasn’t so easy to teach in secondary schools and it was the era of the oil boom of the 1970s, and there were a lot of colleges of education. They were called advanced teachers college. The opportunity came for me to join the Federal Civil Service and go to teach in one of those places. I was first at FSTC Okene, now FCE Okene, later at a similar college in Pankshin in Plateau State. So, I was in teacher’s education for so many years.
I would say that one thing I began to feel being at a teachers college, especially in the rural area, is that intellectually, the place was not as challenging as you might like it to be in the long run. Well, just to cut a long story short, towards the end of the 1980s, the opportunity came to get a lectureship at Bayero University, Kano. So, I was in Kano for many years, from 1987 to 2006, teaching exclusively English, because at university level, you have to specialise in a particular subject. Earlier in the first schools I taught at, I was teaching History, English and Latin, French, many subjects. But when I took up that first university post in 1987, I specialised in English language.
I discovered that you didn’t just stay in each of these places, you also immersed yourself in their cultures and languages. I know you speak Ebira and I have discussed with you in Igbo. You are likely going to speak Hausa. Could you talk about how you acquired this knowledge?
I will ascribe this interest to the fact that when I was a boy in Britain, I had an intense desire to learn another language. For children in Britain, especially in those days, the language that you would next learn would be the language of our neigbours; that is French. So, I had a longing to learn French, and I wasn’t satisfied until I started going to secondary school where French was compulsory. A few years later, I had the opportunity to go and live with a French family for a few weeks. I just loved the experience of being in a different culture, being obliged to speak a different language and I am certain that was what served me so well when I first came to Nigeria.
But as soon as I arrived here, I wanted to learn the language of the people there at Ubulu Ukwu and at Onitsha, which was Igbo. Later on in different places, I wanted to learn the language, whatever it was. At Okene, it was Ebira. At Pankshin, the common language was Hausa. In Kano, of course, it was Hausa.
But as we know, Nigeria is a country, they say, of over 500 languages. It is a tremendously interesting place for anybody who is generally interested in languages, so I have tried to acquire, let me say, bits and pieces of different languages in different parts of the country.
Coming to Nigeria, you were faced with a different culture. How did you react to this and some of the intriguing things about the Nigerian culture that you had to experience?
There are all kinds of things that can be said here. One of the things is that over the years, I have become very used to Nigeria to know that titles are very important to Nigerians. I often say humorously that when I became a professor in 2002 in BUK, friends of mine who previously had called me David or even Dave now began to call me Prof or Professor. I really didn’t like that because the fact that they called me David showed friendship for me. But now that they call me Professor, it showed they wanted to show respect rather than friendship.
Of course I am speaking ironically because I know the importance attached to titles. And some friends of mine had said in Britain, you love titles with all the dukes and lords and so on. The fact is that Britain has moved more and more in democratic direction. Certainly, people don’t attach so much importance to title there. We don’t attach the same importance as they used to.
You must have had some interesting experience, especially in the 1960s. Can you share one that got you ruffled?
That is true. There have been several less pleasant, even unpleasant experiences, and some of them that many Nigerians have had. One of them is that my house here in Jos was invaded by robbers back in the year 2010. When it happened, I just felt very sorry because this hadn’t happened to me before. I think it is a measure of the fact since the 1960s, those happy days, I say happy in retrospect, I think generally security in the country has not been what it should be. I mean it is difficult to produce statistics but maybe there is more common robberies going on than they used to be in those days. So, that is what happened to me. It was very traumatic for me at that time. There were some comic aspects of it. I will have to relate it if I ever happen to write my memoir.
Having been in Nigeria, did you get to become familiar with Nigerian foods?
I laughed because I have been eating Nigerian foods for years. I don’t know if you have time for me to tell you a little story which I think summed all that. When I was at Ubulu Ukwu Grammar School, I very much wanted to eat some Nigerian food in the house, but I was living with another English man who didn’t want to eat Nigerian foods. So, one day when he travelled, I asked the cook to prepare me something. What he prepared was pounded yam and bitter leaf soup. When I was eating it and I found out it was too much for me, what I did was to call the school prefect to come and eat it which he happily did. So, the answer is yes, I have been eating all kinds of Nigerian food for years and years.
What other foods are you familiar with?
Well, I have to confess that these days, I don’t eat so much pounded yam because I found it harder at my age to digest. I regularly eat Semo or Amala. Yes, I am fond of Amala because it is lighter on the stomach with all kinds of soup, whatever they may be. When I was in Kano, I discovered what the Hausa call Miyan Taushe which is made from groundnut. It is very tasty. Many years ago, I discovered Edikang Ikong from the South South. I have to tell you and say this with some irony also, as a student and lover of language, I just love the sound of the soup. I said if those words are so melodious, surely the food that goes with the word must also be good.
Many students must have passed through you. Could you remember some of them?
I was very happy some years back when one of the boys I had taught in Ubulu Ukwu contacted me out of the blues through email. We thank God for things like the email today. There was nothing like that in 1963, of course. He contacted me and we have corresponded since then. He is a distinguished lawyer, a SAN. I’m aware that another former student there became the speaker of the Delta State House of Assembly a few years ago. I tried a few years ago to contact him with success. When I contacted him, I reminded him what he said when he was in Ubulu Ukwu Grammar School. He had asked me a very strange question; he said to me, ‘Please sir, why are black men stronger than white men?’
And what was your answer?
I didn’t know what to say, honestly. So, those are two examples. I must also mention great friends of mine; really great, treasured friends. One of them is Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo who was formerly Vice Chancellor at the University of Ibadan. Another great friend is Professor Emeritus Munzali Jubril who was once the secretary of the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) and who was my colleague at BUK. He is not in the university system now, but we do see each other from time to time.
What would you describe as the high point of your stay here in Nigeria?
Undoubtedly something we have not talked about, which if I were asked what has been your great ambition in life? Well, clearly when I was a boy or a teenager, it was not to come out to Nigeria to teach. Rather, my great ambition was to write books, to see my name in prints. It is in Nigeria that this ambition has been realised, because in the past 30 years, I have written and seen in prints books chiefly to do with English language matters. Not entirely but a great number of books. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction, and the satisfaction chiefly lies not in the money you make out of it, because authors rarely make much money from books unless you write a best seller. The satisfaction lies in the fact that you meet people who say, ‘Oh, look, I had just read your book or I am reading your book, I so much enjoy reading it.
Nigeria is not the easiest country to live in even for those that are born here, yet you have stayed in Nigeria for so long. What is it about Nigeria that has kept you going in spite of the challenges?
It is a very good question and I have thought about it quite a lot, perhaps recently more than before. I would say to a great extent the answer lies in what I told you earlier about the first impressions that I had: the warmth, the friendliness, the good humour of people. It is something I continue to thrive on here in Jos where I am. The sense of belonging to a community, that is very important. In Nigeria, we are very community-minded. We want to interact with other people constantly. In the western world in contrast, there is a high premium on individual and therefore individualism. And as you know, a huge number of people, especially older people live alone.
I have friends in Britain who have told me that for one whole weekend, they didn’t see anybody. This is when a particular friend was working and I think she finished on a Friday and then started her job on a Monday, and throughout the weekend, she didn’t see anybody. Well, I think that is out of the question in Nigeria. So, here we have a community sense. It goes with this enormous capacity in Nigeria to, let me call it, see the funny side of things. Sometimes I think we are in danger of making a joke of everything. But if you value humour, which as human beings we all do, you get a lot of it in Nigeria. Nigerians are very good in drawing humour for all kinds of situation.
Are you married?
No, I have never been married. Not in the biological sense. I have sometimes been tempted to do so. In Britain where I grew up, the idea is that you would fall in love with somebody and then as a consequence, you get married and start having children. I think in Nigeria, you marry because you are expected to do so really in order to, if you are a male, carry on the family line. I will say that in my 20s and 30s I was so preoccupied with just finding my way in life and later start fulfilling my ambition of writing books. But it really maybe it sounds terrible. I just found no time for the immensely challenging job of finding a suitable partner, getting married and having children. I know many Nigerians do precisely that. An old friend of mine, the late Chinua Achebe, was a writer of world famous books, but he was also a very good husband and family man. But I think circumstances differ from one individual to another.
Maybe you did not feel like…
Well, often I did feel like. I would say I have not felt that so much in recent years, but I certainly felt like it in my 20s and 30s. Opportunities were there, but for one reason or another, it just wasn’t going to work out.
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