By Francis Ewherido
Last Thursday was a very special day for me. My eldest brother, mentor, benefactor and father-figure, Rev. Fr. Anthony Ovayero Ewherido, Ph.D., turned 60.
My earliest memories of Fr. Tony, though blurred, were in the late 60s. By 1970, however, I became very conscious of him and his role as a big brother.
Then the Nigerian Civil War had just ended. There was this powdered milk, packaged in cartons, that was distributed to children. We called it “asaimilik.” I never got to know the correct name. A carton was usually shared among many children then, but Dr. Stevenson, the British doctor at the General Hospital, Ughelli, Delta State, always gave Fr. Tony a full carton and that enabled us to have a feast.
How we loved that milk! It would stick to the palate (roof of our mouths) and we would use our fingers to pull it off and chew/lick again.
When I started primary school in 1971, he was in primary six and he protected me. Then, if you did not have an elder brother in the school, you were bullied and sometimes beaten up. Later he left to continue his studies at the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary, Effurun, Delta State. Thereafter, I did not see much of him except during holidays.
He played a critical role in my life during my adolescent years. Those were emotionally turbulent years. I wanted to be a real bad boy and be with the bad boys. I wanted to join some of my contemporaries to smoke cigarettes and Indian hemp.
Somehow, I was not too worried about the repercussions from my parents, but I dreaded Fr. Tony. I knew he would skin me alive if he found out I was smoking or mixing with bad boys. It is to his credit that cigarettes never touched my lips to date, except for the cigarette stubs adult smokers forgot to put out after throwing them on the floor.
As children, we picked them up when nobody was watching and took a few “drags” before discarding them. I never went near hemp partly for fear of Fr. Tony. The other reason was the sight of some lunatics in those days.
The stories were that they were brilliant young men, who became insane because they took Indian hemp. Those were numbing, sobering and deterring stories.
By 1981, I had overcome the vagaries of adolescence and stabilised. My passion for politics and current affairs had also been entrenched, thanks to my late brother, Sen. Akpo Pius Ewherido.
It was at that time too, that I made up my mind to study Mass Communications. During my time at the University Of Nigeria, Nsukka, Fr. Tony gave me clothes, shoes and a wristwatch.
He was in SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Bodija, Ibadan, then. He had always looked after his siblings and given from the little he had.
By 1986, he was ordained a Catholic priest and became a father to us all. My father was in the trenches then. He joined the family battles. Like Moses in the battle with the Amalekites, my father’s arms had become heavy, but these were battles the family needed to win because life would have been fundamentally different today without those victories.
Like Aaron and Hur (Exodus 17:10-12), my mother held up one of my father’s arms, while Fr. Tony held the other. We triumphed, but the battles took a toll on my father; his health deteriorated and we lost him in 1988. Those were very delicate times and life would have been totally different without Fr. Tony.
When my father died in 1988, I was writing my degree exams. I finished writing International Communications exam, went home for the funeral and came back to continue writing my exams. My father was a very loving and selfless man and we loved him immensely. Life became meaningless after his death.
Fr. Tony brought back some meaning to my life with spiritual, emotional and financial support. When I was going back to school after the burial, he gave me about N945 to take to school. That was the highest amount I took to school throughout my four years in Nsukka, except for the first term in my first year when I went to school with about N1,100 to cover registration and other bills for fresh students.
I saw the N945 upkeep money for barely six weeks before graduation as a “bribe” to ease the pains of my father’s death. My usual upkeep per term was between N500 and N700 (for mostly first term).
Fr. Tony continues to be there for me till date. When I was to get married, he flew down from New York, where he was doing the doctorate degree, to Nigeria to officiate. The first time I wanted to publish a book, I sent the drafts to him. After going through them, he replied that it is a lazy man’s work….and that was the end of that book project.
When I finished the manuscript for my book, Life Lessons from Mudipapa, I sent the manuscript to him. Serious efforts to publish only commenced after I got his affirmation.
When I was to start this column in 2013, he was the first person, who looked at my drafts and told me they were good enough. Till date I still send him my weekly Family and Marriage articles to look at and proofread before publication and he obliges in spite of his busy schedule.
In the last seven years, there are not more than 25 articles he did not look at before publishing. This is one of them, but you can guess why. I did not feel it was right and I also did not to want risk his saying no to its publication. I need to tell my story.
Fr. Tony prefers to live his life quietly, but he is a man with intimidating credentials. He would have made a success of his life in any endeavour. I say this with all humility. I grew up to meet him as hard working, intelligent, focussed and creative; from an early age he exhibited good networking skills and made friends effortlessly across all social strata. He had an academic life of distinctions from primary school to his Ph.D. level.
He is one of most intelligent persons I have interacted with. Though we all benefitted from my father’s background as an English graduate, Fr. Tony’s level of English is something else. His command of spoken and written English will make you think he got his degrees in English.
But his first two degrees are in philosophy and theology; while his masters and Ph.D. are in theology (biblical studies). At present, he is the rector of his alma mater, SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, where Catholic priests are trained. Before he travelled abroad for further studies in 1994, he had also been rector of his other alma mater, Holy Martyrs of Uganda Minor Seminary.
Fr. Tony, as you celebrate your 60th birthday, I want the whole world to know a little of the role you played and continue to play in my life. I am infinitely indebted to you. You occupy a special space, not only in my heart, but in the hearts of all your siblings, mama, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces for your love, sacrifices, care and prayers. May God continue to guide, protect and be with you. We love and cherish you tremendously. Happy 60th birthday once more.