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Dad warned me: Never join any secret cult

BY MIKE AWOYINFA [ This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ]
Saturday, January 27, 2007

 Felix Ohiwerei
 Mr Felix-Ohiwerei

Felix Ohiwerei, the Nigerian marketing guru was 70 on January 18, 2007.  It was one occasion that brought together in Lagos, Nigeria’s captains of industry.  They came to celebrate the quiet, humble, marketing colossus who built great brands like Star and Gulder in his long, memorable tenure as the chief executive of Nigerian Breweries.

As he responded to the toast, amidst smiles, not many people knew Ohiwerei secretly shed a tear — or felt like shedding one.

“I was laughing all the time but once I felt like shedding tears,” Ohiwerei confessed to me in an interview.

“I was responding to the toast and I thought about my eldest brother.  Somehow I managed to control the tears.  I am not sure people were aware.  I don’t even know if they noticed from my voice.  But I had a break.

“He is not just a brother.  He is a father.  I knew what he denied himself of to send me to school.  He gave up so much at the time to make sure that I was well educated.  He is Justice J. W. Ohiwerei, a retired judge.” 

As for his real dad, this is how Ohiwerei remembers him:

My father was a very, very great man.  He was a Catechist in the Anglican church.  His name was Samuel I. Ohiwerei.  And Catechists in those days were paid next to nothing.  But in his own days and in his own way, he held the Bible.  He was close to the word of God as best as he could.  In those days, we didn’t know what it was to be born again.  So I don’t think he was born again.  But he lived a pious life.  He was a strict disciplinarian.  And he brought us up the right way.  He put the fear of God right into us when we were very young.

He frightened us about what would happen if you lied or you stole or you did anything that you shouldn’t do.  And of course, if you lied you were well punished.  You were well flogged.  If you disobeyed of course, you had it.  He was very strict.  My mother on the other hand was very soft.  My father was a very strong man.  Physically very strong.  And so in addition to his being a Catechist, he also had his farm.  That was the only way he could ensure that the family was well fed.  He was a man in many ways out of his time.  Because he loved my mother in a way that I try to understand even now.  And I just can’t understand how at that time he did what he did.

For instance, my mother never went to the farm.  My father never allowed her to go to the farm.  At the time when everybody around was farming with his wife, my mother never went to farm one day and she never split wood.  My father did all that for her.  Because my mother was averse to blood and all the rest of it, my father would help her to cut the meat.  These are things you would never think of a man doing at that time.  He did all that.  I tell you another thing too: While my father was alive, all the years he was alive, my mother never ate eba.

She always ate pounded yam.  And if we run out of pounded yam, my father would say whatever is left is for your mother.  All of us would eat eba.  My mother never ate eba.  Because she didn’t like eba.  It was after the old man died and we started taking care of our mother that she knew what it was to eat eba.  It was a pity.  It wasn’t because we couldn’t afford to give her the pounded yam all the time, but with people working and don’t have enough hands to help and that type of thing, the convenient food became the order of the day.  She did not eat eba while my father was alive—as far as I can remember.

So you can see that he was a man that did things that were not consistent with the happenings and attitudes of his time.  He was very well respected.  Absolutely frank.  Absolutely forthright.  He was a fearless man.  And so people brought matters to him for decision.  Although he was not the chief of the place, most matters came to him for settlement.  And our home became, as it were, a local court.  He was a wise man of the village.  And indeed the whole area.  And so everything he did rubbed off on us.

He told us very, very clearly, he said to us: “Money is important but name is far more important than money.”  And then when at the ripe old age of 96, he was going away, we were all around him at home, he said to us: “I am going a rich man.”  We were wondering what he meant by rich because he had no money.  He said: “You won’t find any money in the house when I am gone, but I am going away as a very rich man.”  He then looked and pointed at all of us and said: “You are my wealth.  I am leaving with a good name.  Keep up that good name.

That name is far more important than money.”  He also said one other thing.  He said: “Never you join any secret cult.  What you cannot do in the day, don’t do at night.”  He had a tremendous influence on us.  I left home at the age of nine.  I remember then that when other children are playing in the moonlight, right in front of our house, my father never allowed his children to join them.  He would ask us to stay indoors.

He would say: “Go and read your books.”  And we used to get so upset that he would not allow us to join the other children.  I remember one day he said to us: “I don’t like you children going out at night.  Do what you want to do in the day and at night stay in your house.  When you are here, I can account for you.  When you are out there, I can’t account for you.”  He put us on the straight and narrow path right from the beginning, as best as he could, using his knowledge of the Bible.

Father’s death

I was in Lagos working for Nigerian Breweries as Star product manager.  I had just come back from England in 1967 where I went on training.  And they phoned to say that my father was ill.  And I asked: Is he in bed?  They say yes.  And I said that must be serious.  Because I have never known my father to be ill in bed.  You hardly hear the man is ill.  Hearing that he was in bed, I knew it was serious.  So we all went home.  It was painful seeing him dying.  Because over the years, one had developed a special rapport with him.  We were very, very close.  As a kid he would put his hand round me as a loving father would.

When I saw him in bed, I knew the end had come.  All of us had been home for two days.  Then on the evening of the second day, he said to my brother: “This boy has to go back to his work in Lagos.”  He instructed that the following day my eldest brother should drive me to Benin, so that I can go by air to Lagos.  That morning I sat by his bed and started crying.

He asked: “Why are you crying?  Your crying makes it difficult for me.”  So he ordered my brother to take me back to Lagos.  We left and I knew that was the last time I would see him alive.  As we got to Benin, the telephone rang to say the old man had passed on.  He wanted me out of the way, so that the passage would be easier for him.  So we turned the car and drove back home.  We buried him in the churchyard.