The Making Of A Timeless History Book - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Friday, May 27, 2022

The Making Of A Timeless History Book

An encounter with Kelechi, son of KBC Onwubiko, the famous author of History of West Africa, brings fresh perspectives on his father’s extraordinary teaching and writing careers

The Daily Cubicle | Friday, May 27, 2022

By Sylvester Asoya

For many years, his books were standard texts in different secondary schools and higher institutions across West Africa. Those iconic and unforgettable history books were designed essentially to expand the knowledge base of history students; but it was also the ultimate teacher’s guide book. So, KBC Onwubiko was not only a teacher-writer, he was also a master teacher who left his mark on the world. His exploits in the field of education were numerous, but he will always be remembered for his achievements as an outstanding teacher and writer of great history books.

SCHOOL CERTIFICATE HISTORY OF WEST AFRICA BOOK ONE: AD 1000-1800 and SCHOOL CERTIFICATE HISTORY OF WEST AFRICA BOOK TWO: 1800-PRESENT DAY, came at the right time. The books were published in an era of renewed attention to African culture and civilization. It was also a period of great yearning for cultural rebirth and African nationalism. So, a complete African history book like the ones under review, became at the time, a counterforce to a plethora of falsehood brought about by slavery and colonialism. Therefore, the two books, published in 1967 and 1973 respectively, could not have come at a better time.

The author’s son, Kelechi Onwubiko, a lawyer, bears witness to his father’s extraordinary life of teaching, writing and service to humanity. According to him, his father started out wanting to be a Catholic priest but tragedy struck the family when the writer lost his father shortly after entering Christ the King College, CKC Onitsha in the then Eastern Region, for his priesthood. That death changed his father’s life forever.  

But young KBC Onwubiko desperately wanted to live again, so he took up the challenge and moved on. He obtained admission into St. Charles Teacher Training College, Onitsha where he completed his teacher training education that started even before he came to CKC. By 1950, he was already a certified teacher, having obtained the highly regarded Teacher Training Certificate. Naturally, his good grades and teaching experience offered him automatic employment at St. Mary’s School, Uvuru, Imo State. He later taught at other reputable schools like Sacred Heart College, Oguta and Bishop Shanahan Teacher Training College, Orlu.   

However, Onwubiko’s life and career took a new turn in 1960 when he secured admission to the University College, Ibadan as a Federal Scholar. He eventually graduated in 1963 with a B.A. Honours degree of the University of London. Upon graduation, he returned to the classroom but later left teaching for a new career in editing and publishing. He joined Longman Publishing and served as the company’s editor, an experience that may have inspired and energized his writing career

 Nonetheless, leaving teaching completely became very hard for him at a point, probably for reasons of convenience, fulfilment or the exciting daily engagement with students and other teachers. So, he left Longman for Stella Maris College, Port Harcourt where he worked as Dean of Studies and Senior History Master. He was at Stella Maris when the Civil War broke out. He left Port Harcourt for Uvuru, Mbaise, his home town with members of his family for a completely new life of fear, anxiety, uncertainties and expectations. He was at home for the duration of the war, an agonizing time for the Igbo and people of the defunct Eastern Nigeria. However, in 1970, he started life afresh, first as a teacher and later as Superintendent of Schools, under the Imo State Schools Management Board. But before his appointment as Superintendent of Schools, he had served as principal of Presentation High School, Ogbaku, Owerri and Enyiogugu Secondary School, Mbaise. He was in service until 1981 when he voluntarily retired.   

Kelechi says it feels great being associated with his father, KBC Onwubiko. Part of that good came with the opportunity of reading as a teenager, nearly all the collections of writings, including poems, short stories and autobiographies published by Heinemann, a pioneer publishing company in Britain’s colonies and beyond. He was also able to read every title of James Hadly Chase, the well-known king of thriller and one of the world’s best-selling authors because of his father’s rich and robust library. According to him, his father made their home a storehouse of knowledge with an imposing array of books and journals on practically every subject under the sun. He remembers how being his father’s son, also gave him advantage in a literature class even as an undergraduate law student in his days at the University of Calabar. “I was very active in class during General Studies, a compulsory course that offered students the opportunity of knowing a little of everything. And our literature lecturer, Professor Ebele Eko would wonder why a law student had answers to almost all the literature questions. But she did not know I was the son of Onwubiko”.

Kelechi also remembers how his father, a voracious reader, would use every opportunity to speak on the benefits of cultivating a healthy reading habit. Reading, mattered so much to this history teacher and writer that he never missed the chance of harping on the fact that reading improves memory and mental ability. “My father wrote a lot, particularly at night. As a matter of fact, he had a library full of books that I did not get enough of. That library I must say, was like a sanctuary, no one entered without an excuse. And his books were so organized; I believe he understood deeply, the art of organizing books. It is clear that I developed my reading and writing habits because of his library and the books I had access to”.

In many ways, reading was a way of life for the children, including Kelechi. As the editorial director of a fledgling but promising publishing company, KBC Onwubiko captured and embodied the face of the new literary elite everywhere he lived. And the Onwubikos had unlimited access to books cutting across subjects from history, literature, anthropology and civics to physiology, sociology, art, science, cookery, drawing, music and children’s books. Onwubiko’s children also had the good fortune of being surrounded by nearly all the newspapers and magazines in Nigeria.

“I remember reading newspapers from different parts of Nigeria right inside my father’s library. His vendors supplied Tide, Sketch, Tribune, New Nigerian, Observer, Statesman and Daily Times. There were magazines also like Drum, Newbreed and foreign journals like Time and Newsweek. My father was a very resourceful and versatile man who had influence on many people. For instance, in secondary school, I offered history, not only to show good example to my friends but also because I respected my father and his views. So, I read his history books and passed all the examinations; it was such an interesting time. Again, during history periods, teachers and students would ask me very difficult questions for obvious reasons. The assumption then was that I must know all history questions, after all “you are the son of KBC Onwubiko”, Kelechi recalls.

Like the other children, Kelechi is very proud of his father for leaving an enduring legacy of good memories and love. “Sometimes when I introduce myself, they would ask: “are you related to the author of History of West Africa? Even on social media, people still ask of him. Many of them want to know where he is and how he is faring. When I tell them he is no more, they would pray for him and recount the usual story of how his books assisted them”.

Today, it will be extremely difficult to measure or evaluate in real terms, how much assistance history offers as a subject. Unlike before, history is no longer providing knowledge about the past to help understand the present and shape the future. Those who removed the subject from the school curriculum said they did so because “students avoided the subject; they also claimed that graduates didn’t have job prospects and that teachers were scarce”. What a fallacy! 

Now that the distasteful decision has been reversed, Onwubiko and other great historians and supporters of history can heave a sigh of relief wherever they are.

Born on June 6, 1925, Onwubiko started his early education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School, Emekuku, Imo State where he trained under the legendary Reverend Father D. Carron, an Irish missionary who changed the face of education in the old Owerri Province.

In retirement, he co-founded Africana-Educational Publishers Limited with his friend and Kelechi’s godfather, Sir Patrick Omabu who wanted his godson to be an engineer. “My godfather wanted me to study engineering; he must have been disappointed when he discovered I had no inclination towards engineering and sciences generally. Evidently, I would have been a miserable engineer because I had fallen in love with reading and writing at a very young age as a result of my early influences”, Kelechi reveals.

However, Africana-Educational Publishers Limited eventually metamorphosed into Africana First Publishers Plc, now under the headship of Austin Onwubiko, one of the author’s children. Africana First Publishers Plc is a leading publishing company well-known for publishing educational books like Understanding Mathematics by Marie-David Osuagwu; Modern Biology for Senior Secondary Schools by Sarojini T. Ramalingam; Intensive English for Senior Secondary Schools by Benson O. Oluikpe; New School Physics by M. W. Anyakoha, New School Chemistry by Osei Yaw Ababio and other publications.

Onwubiko was also a community leader, a politician and a great family man who loved his children and students. “To my children and students, past and present”, reads his book’s dedication section. The author who died on June 18, 1985 was a member of the Knights of St. Mulumba. He was also in the committee that wrote the Centenary History of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria.


This article was first published in alice, the in-flight journal of Air Peace.

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