If you meet him on the street, you can hardly imagine that the man standing straight before you is anything close to 70 years, but indeed Mr Paul Nweze is actually 83 years old. In this chat with JOSEPH CHIBUEZE, he shares his life story
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Forcados, present day Delta State in 1936. I grew up there, did part of my primary school there, it was a Catholic school. I only did primary one there and my father sent me to one of our relations at Burutu, a nearby town, about five miles from Forcados. I lived with them for a short period before my father took me to Sapele, where I lived with one Mr. Egbuniwe, an Onitsha man. It was in his house I completed my primary school education at St Patrick’s Catholic School Sapele in the year 1951.
Then they were seating the first school leaving certificate examination, I think we were under Benin, or Sapele Province, the examination was for all the schools in the Province and I came out third in the whole Province.
I then moved to Onitsha, took entrance examinations in two secondary schools, I got admitted in the two of them, but I opted for Our Lady’s High School, Onitsha for my secondary education. I finished in 1957.
Leaving secondary school, because of financial challenges, my parents could not send me to the university for further studies. So I started looking for jobs, I wasn’t so lucky, the jobs I was getting were not stable jobs. So I moved from one job to another until when the civil war broke out. That forced me to return home to take care of my parents because my younger brother had joined the Biafran Navy.
After the war, I came down to Lagos in 1972 and worked with my in-law who was then an importer, he imported Elmer Sewing machines from Switzerland. I worked with him for eight years before I left him and joined Ashaye Fareast Line, a shipping company at Apapa. I worked there till 1987 when the company folded up.
Then I decided not to look for paid employment again, I went into business of selling second hand clothing. I did that until I retired.
How did you know you were born in 1936?
My father though was an illiterate had that knack for keeping records. He worked with the Old Marine, which we now call the Nigerian Ports Authority. He kept the records of the days each of us were born, we were seven in number, I am the second child, but the first male child, I have an elder sister who is still alive. She was two years older than me. My father kept the records and when I grew up I saw it.
What was it like growing up as a young man in those days?
As a young man, it wasn’t rosy for me basically because I didn’t have anyone to lean unto. So I had to at an early age learn how to fend for myself by doing odd jobs. Though it wasn’t easy then, you cannot compare life then and what you have now. At that time there was sanity in the society, everybody knew his limit, there was respect for elders, there was genuine desire to make an honest living unlike what you have today, every young man wants to make it big even without working. That is why you have yahoo boys, you have all sorts of crime in the society. At the time I was a youth, you can leave your door without locking it and nobody will break into your house. Yes one can say that many of the young people who are educated and want to work have no jobs because of the economy, but that is not an excuse to get involved in criminal activities.
There are so many things they can do to help themselves, things like handwork, they can learn some handwork and from there they can earn something to keep themselves going until they are able to secure a better job. I am always happy when I see our young men from the North, with their sewing machines on their shoulder, or their shoe repairing kits moving from one street to another. That is because they do not want to sit idle expecting manna to fall from heaven. That is what it was when we were growing up, you weren’t waiting for anybody, in fact you were only looking at your age mates, that they were doing something, you too should engage yourself.
But it is no longer the same today, even parents are not helping matters. Many of them are not bothered about what their children are doing, all they are after is that ‘my son has bought a car, my daughter has sent me big money.’ How they are getting the money, they don’t know. That is what is destroying our society today.
Those days, who are you to come home with something your parents knew you could not afford? They would disown you and report you to the community.
At our own time, I can say that life was good. Because then money had value. They weren’t paying fat salaries then but with the meagre salary one was paid, we were able to provide our basic needs. There was nothing like this high house rents or high transportation costs or shortage of food stuff, there was enough food and with little money you could feed your family.
When did you get married?
I wouldn’t say I got married early, I got married in 1975.
How did you meet her?
(Grinning all over) As was the custom in those days, I had to go back to my town and look for a suitable girl. Many were suggested to me, but I rejected them, but when I saw the one I eventually married, she smiled and I smiled back and I said that’s the lady I was going to marry and I married her.
So the smile was just what caught you?
Yes. I saw that smile and I saw that openness in her, I got married to her. I have never regretted it. And because her mother was an industrious woman, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and together we were able to build up the family. We were blessed with eight children, but we lost five, three are still alive, two girls and a boy.
What was your experience at work like?
I enjoyed every bit of the work. Remember I told you I moved from one odd job to another, but where I actually had a stable employment was at Ashaye Fareast Line, the shipping company. It was there I had the best of my working career. I rose to become the assistant import manager. You know shipping is a career of its own. I only feel bad because at the point I was to enter into shipping fully, the company folded up. It wasn’t just ours that collapsed, many other indigenous shipping lines were also affected. In fact it was a bad period for shipping in Nigeria, especially the local ones. At that time the economy did not favour local shipping lines, it was the foreign shipping lines that were dominating the industry.
It was just unfortunate that the business collapsed when it did, I was really enjoying myself. I made many good friends, some of them are still close till today. I remember my import manager then, Mr Dapo, he has remained very close.
Where were you at Nigeria’s independence?
I was in Makurdi when Nigeria got independence. The event was a joyous one. We were all happy that our nation has gained its independence. I am an avid reader, I read newspapers, especially the West African Pilot and the Daily Times, and I was very current on national issues, I was following the trend of events. I was always eager to know what our nationalist leaders like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Herbert Macaulay, the Sadauna of Sokoto and others will say. So when finally Nigeria got her independence, we were all happy.
Did you have any expectations at independence, have they been met?
Of course we all had expectations of good things to come. I wouldn’t say we have met all of them, but the basic thing is that Nigeria is free.
What major challenges did you face as a young man?
The major challenge I had was the misfortune of not having a stable job, so when I got married it was not easy for me at all. I had to go the extra mile, doing many jobs at the same time just to provide for the family. At that period I even had to take a course in purchasing and supply, I got the certificate and just when I was trying to proceed further, our business went down and we struggled because we needed funds.
But the experience that jolted me and made me reflect and say ‘look enough is enough’ was the collapse of our shipping company in 1987. Ordinarily I would have gone to look for job somewhere else, but it jolted me because it happened at a time I was preparing to get into shipping fully. At the level I was then, assistant import manager, it wasn’t a small position because I was responsible for thousands of ship load of goods coming into the country. I thought of it and asked myself, ‘come how long would you continue to work for other people?’ I said no, I’ve had enough. That was how I went into business with my wife and we have been together at it until I retired.
What have been your experience in retirement?
I thank God for life, which is most important. I must say that but for the fire that gutted my house in 2007/2008, the fire that rendered me homeless destroying everything I worked for, life in retirement has been good. I am very grateful to God who has spared my life, properties had gone, but there is still life and God has been in control.
Do you think the society, government are doing enough for old people to make them happy in their old age?
As far as I am concerned, I do not think the government is doing enough for the older people. The society has also failed in protecting the old. In other countries where they value life, provisions are made for the old, for their medicals, their feeding, their accommodation and everything that will make them enjoy their old age.
Here it is like old age is a curse. Nobody remembers you, not the government, even children run away from old people. Gone are the days when you have youths fetch water or firewood for old people in their village, some even go to cook for them, sweep their homes. You don’t have that anymore, the old ones are left to take care of themselves.
I strongly suggest that government must come up with some measures and plans that will take into consideration the lives of the older generation. You don’t neglect them entirely. Here in Lagos how many old people’s homes do we have? Yes people may argue that in our culture, we are not used to taking our old ones to an old people’s home because it is expected that the children and other family members will look after them, but that was in the past. If one can do a simple research, you will find out that many young people who have old parents in the village hardly visit them, not to talk of providing for them. They will tell you the economy is bad, they are struggling to survive in the city, they don’t have enough to be sending home.
If you go to the villages and even in the cities, you find many old people dying of loneliness and lack of care. Many of them die in penury, no one to look after them. The most painful are those who spent their youthful energy serving their country, they are retired and their pension, even though very small, is also denied them. I hear stories of some of them dying standing on the queue to be verified to know if they should be paid or not. That is inhuman. I just hope those who are making policies today know that one day, they too will be old and they also will receive a similar treatment.
What can the young ones do now to prepare for their old age?
There is this saying that what you sow when you are young is what you will reap when you are old. But essentially, government should build an enabling environment that will help the youths to realize their full potential so that they can plan for themselves. But when there is no enabling environment, when one graduates, he has no job, he cannot start business because he does not have capital, how can he plan for the future, when he has not taken care of today?
No, I don’t have any regrets.
Are there things you would have done differently?
Yes, if not for the ups and downs, there are many things I would have done differently, I would have gone all the way to the university after my secondary school if I had the means and again I would have loved to see that my children receive good education, though they succeeded in getting university education. However, it was with a lot of struggle. I am proud of them today because despite the challenges, they didn’t drop out, they persevered because they listened to my advice that they should be content with what they had; that they should focus on the benefits that would come to them if they endured the pains of today. They listened to me and today they are happy for it.
What lessons have you learnt in the course of your life?
The first lesson I learnt in life was from my father, he taught us to be contented with what we have. It is because people do not have contentment that they are jumping from here to there, putting their hands in so many dirty things. Lack of contentment breeds envy, jealousy and leads people to steal what is not theirs. But when you are contented with the little you have, you will always be happy and even healthy.
These days, this virtue of contentment is lacking in our youths, they have no focus in life. They are not thinking, what will I do to make life better for me, my parents, my family and my society? They are not thinking that way. They want to be millionaires and billionaires over night because they are not contented.
My father worked with Old Marine, his salary was so small, but he was contented with it and he served the government for 35 years before he retired and lived with his meagre pension for another 35 years before he died at over a hundred years. He was drumming it into our heads that we must be contented with what we have and see what we can do to move on. Up till now I am contented with what I have because that was the foundation my parents laid for me. In all the places I worked, nobody had ever accused me of stealing one naira.
Another lesson which my father also taught me is to always keep my hand straight anywhere I go. That is to be honest no matter what. If you are not honest, nobody will trust you. Again this is lacking in our society today. There is dishonesty everywhere, you don’t even know whom to trust. That is why you want to help somebody you think is in need, you end up becoming a victim of kidnap or armed robbery or you would be accused of one criminal act or the other, just because you wanted to help.
If you are honest and contented, you will go places.
What was your favourite meal as a young man?
I love starch with banga soup and fresh fish. I don’t joke with it.
Now as an old man, I love amala and ewedu soup. I still love my starch and banga soup, but amala and ewedu is what is readily available because of where I am living.
How do you relax when you are not working?
When I am not working, I engage myself in reading, I read a lot. I read both religious and secular books and of course newspapers. I also listen to news.
Do you listen to music, what type?
Of course I do listen to music especially highlife which is quite distinct from what the youths are up to now. When you listen to musicians like Stephen Osadebe, Rex Lawson, Eddy Okonta, Victor Uwaifo, Bobby Benson and many others like them, you get inspirations. They have messages, their songs make meaning. Their songs are evergreen and they are songs that will make you reflect deeply about life.
What would be your advice to the youths?
My advice for the youths is the advice my father gave me. One must be contented with what they have. When you have that contentment in life, you will be able to move ahead. If you are not contented with one naira and you are hoping that when you have one million you will be contented, it is a lie. Lack of contentment makes one a rolling stone and getting involved in all sorts of immorality and crime. The person will not have good character.
Another thing I will advise them is to get themselves engaged in a positive means of earning a livelihood. There is nothing like menial job, if it pays your bill. Those who will not do menial jobs are those who will stand at the bus stops working as agberos, chasing after drivers and asking them to give them money, money you did not work for. Idleness is not good, they should get busy with their hands, learn something. You don’t have to wait for government. Government will recognise you when you start doing something extraordinary, it may just be shoe shining or barbing. Life is not a bed of roses. Those who have made it made by dint of hard work and perseverance.
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