Mrs. Victoria Oti Akpobome [née Ighoyivvwi] (1942-2012),
Heroine of Education and Development, Dies in Quiet Dignity
By Professor Peter Ekeh
Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society
A major casualty of the current cultural crisis in Nigeria is the shrinking space that we have devoted to the work of heroes and heroines among us. (Henceforth, I will not separate, grammatically, good men from good women, heroes from heroines.) By heroes I refer to men and women whose life works have lifted others from disadvantaged circumstances in their own lives. Heroes go out of wonted and customary paths of self-preservation and self-interest to help others. Heroes make a difference in the welfare of their communities.
By these standards, Mrs. Victoria Oti Akpobome, who died in quiet dignity at Delta State University Teaching Hospital at Oghara on Saturday, June 2, 2012, is fully entitled to wear the badge of a hero. I knew Oti well because we were first cousins who were close to each other for most of her life-time. Teeming thousands of people from her hometown of Uhwokori in the Urhobo heartland respected this woman who worked hard to improve their community. Her former students and colleagues, who encountered this lady of many gifts, admired Oti’s extraordinary achievements. On my part, I am in awe of her accomplishments, first, because she overcame great odds to attain them and, second, because she helped others to reach higher than their limited circumstances would allow them to dream.
Mrs. Akpobome’s achievements are remarkable because they had improbable little beginnings. Oti herself told the story of how she accidentally began school. It is a story whose genre belongs to colonial times; it is worth retelling it to a younger generation of post-colonial Nigerians. Although her father, Ighoyivwi Eriomala, was literate and was well schooled in the ways of colonial education, he was nonetheless a traditionalist. He had no plans to send his first daughter to school. On the other hand, even before his first son came of school age, he pushed him to be enrolled at the Catholic School, Kokori Inland. The problem was that little Henry was often beaten up by some troublesome boys on the way to and from school. Oti was therefore assigned the responsibility of protecting her kid brother by escorting him to and back from school.
One day, the school Headmaster, Mr. Obi, an imposing Ukwuani man, saw Oti playing in the schoolyard. He asked her why she was not in class. Oti told Mr. Obi that she was only there to take care of her little brother. The Headmaster narrated this incident to his wife, also an Ukwuani woman. It so happened that Oti’s mother too was an Ukwuani woman. Mrs. Obi then paid a visit to her fellow Ukwuani woman in order to prevail on her to try to persuade her husband to let Oti enroll in school. As it turned out, Oti’s father had no objection. And so she began attending classes in her own right. Then, to her father’s amazement, Oti was brilliant beyond comparison in her school work – beating her classmates in school exams.
Thereafter, Chief Philip Ighoyivwi Eriomala, Oti’s father and my uncle, became his daughter’s greatest supporter in her pursuit of education. Fearing that the school environment at Kokori might not fully support his daughter’s abilities, he brought Oti to me at Ibadan in March 1957. She enrolled in an elementary school in Mokola, Ibadan. Despite being a new girl in her school, she again excelled. In late 1958, Oti followed me to Irrua in Ishan Division where she had the balance of her elementary school education. It was from Irrua that she entered St. Maria Gorreti Catholic Girls’ Secondary School in Benin City in January 1960. Eventually, she transferred to Owerri Girls’ Secondary School, moving to Eastern Nigeria with our uncle, Samuel Awhinawhi, who was the pioneering Managing Director of Kwa River Rubber Station in Calabar Province of Colonial Nigeria.
This complex series of relocation for a young girl is worth recalling because it demonstrates an abiding aspect of Mrs. Akpobome’s character. For many, such frequent movement across the sub-cultures of colonial Nigeria might have been a source of instability, leading to crushing failures. Instead, for Oti, each new challenge was an opportunity to compete and excel.
Mrs. Oti Akpobome carried that element of character to her adult work experiences. Following a stint of post-secondary school education at Adeyemi College of Education in Ondo and a teaching spell in Bendel State, Oti left for the US with her husband in 1972. Characteristically, she took full opportunity of her five years in the US to attain a good amount of education, acquiring an excellent first degree in English and a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Kansas.
Mrs. Akpobome’s gifts and talents blossomed into the public domain when she joined Bendel State Teaching Service on her return from the United States in 1977. Her administrative prowess was fully recognized by the Ministries of Education in Bendel State and, later, in Delta State. There are probably very few teachers who ever attained Mrs. Akpobome’s standards of serving as Principal of so many secondary schools with such enviable results. In doing so, she touched the lives of many young women. The list of secondary schools where Mrs. Akpobome was Principal is impressive: Okpara Girls’ Grammar School, Okpara Inland, Delta State (1983-86); St. Ita’s Girls Grammar School, Sapele (1986-1993); Our Lady’s High School, Effurun (1994-97); St. Theresa’s Grammar School, Ughelli (1997-2001); and Girls’ Model Secondary School, Evwreni (2002-2004). Remarkably, in the last two instances at Ughelli and Evwreni, Mrs. Akpobome served at the highest rank of “Principal Merit Grade.”
Without doubt, Mrs. Akpobome’s record in the field of education was rare and praiseworthy. However, in her hometown of Uhwokori and in significant areas of Urhoboland and Western Niger Delta, Mrs. Akpobome is much better known for her other services. First, the history of this region will correctly record that Oti introduced modern fish farming industry to Uhwokori and neighbouring towns in northeastern Urhoboland.
Mrs. Akpobome narrated with great delight the story of how it all came to pass. In her capacity as Principal, Mrs. Akpobome attended an advertised seminar on “Fish Farming.” She came back from that seminar convinced that this new industry would benefit the Delta areas, certainly her own home community of Uhwokori. But what she did afterwards to achieve that goal was not the stuff of academic seminars. Until the 1980s, the northern outskirts of Uhwokori had rubber plantations that were water-logged for much of the year. Their rubber trees were no longer as valuable as they were in the 1950s when rubber products were economically profitable. Thus, the value of these rubber plantations had become badly depressed. In a move that initially baffled the townsfolk, Oti purchased these water-logged terrains. Then, to the curiosity and amusement of many in the town – and, truthfully, to the initial agony of her immediate family – Oti brought tractors and bull-dozers to clear away the aging rubber trees and to prepare fish ponds in their stead. The rest was history for the entire town to see. Fish was plentiful and Oti’s venture was a financial success.
Significantly, others now joined this new modernized fish industry. Hundreds of townsfolk were employed in the new industry. Oti named her enterprise VOTIA: an acronym coined from Victoria Oti Akpobome. VOTIA remains one of the largest fish farms in the Niger Delta. For her ingenuity and spectacular achievements, the Fisheries Society of Nigeria (FISON) awarded Mrs. Akpobome and VOTIA its prestigious “Corporate Award of Excellence, 2001.” FISON characterized its 2001 award as follows: This Certificate of Merit is awarded to Votia Fish Farm for First Female Commercial and Promising Fish Farm [in Nigeria]. More importantly, VOTIA brought good economy and great pride to Uhwokori. It made Oti a hero of her people.
The people of Uhwokori will remember Oti for another achievement that has benefitted them enormously. Although Uhwokori could boast of many accomplished and educated people – Rex Akpofure, the first African Principal of Kings College, Lagos, is readily and often cited as an example – the town itself lacked great educational institutions, especially ones that the townsfolk can afford. Many patriotic Uhwokori people are aware of this deficiency, especially in respect of the education of women. Oti decided to use her good fortunes to do something to remedy this handicap.
Providing an affordable private education in a rural environment is difficult, especially in view of the high cost of infrastructure that would be involved. Oti saw a solution. The late Chief Justice Ayo Irikefe, who hailed from Uhwokori, had in his native town a sprawling house that was largely unused. Mrs. Akpobome rented Irikefe’s massive building and turned it into a flourishing private secondary school. She named it: All Saints College, Kokori. Today, All Saints College has matured into a credible secondary school with a number of its early alumni already enrolled in Nigerian universities.
Mrs. Victoria Oti Akpobome’s other projects and charities, big and small, are legion. For her efforts, achievements, compassion, and patriotism, Oti received numerous awards in her lifetime. These diverse tokens of recognition came from a wide range. To cite two notable examples: Mrs. Akpobome received from Abuja, “Development in Nigeria Merit Award, 2008.” In 2009, she received from Urhobo Historical Society its prestigious 10th Anniversary Service Award, particularly for Mrs. Akpobome’s passionate campaign for the preservation of Urhobo language.
By modern standards, Mrs. Victoria Oti Akpobome died young. But her life was one of great fulfillment. Especially after retirement from public service, Oti spent an inordinate amount of time promoting causes that benefitted the Catholic Church, her beloved hometown of Uhwokori, Urhoboland, and indeed the Western Niger Delta. She came to this earth and made her corner of our planet a better place for others. For that she will be remembered by many as a hero. It is only fair and truthful to add that Mrs. Akpobome disdained the villainy that has besmirched Nigeria’s political affairs in recent decades. That was perhaps why she chose not to seek political office, despite several attempts to push her into doing so. She preferred to serve the people’s interests in ways that would not demean their lives.
Chief Samson Akpobome, Oti’s husband, died less than a year ago. It was a painful loss for Oti. Now, their daughter, Miss Okiemute Akpobome, will once again grieve the loss of a beloved parent. She should be assured that she will have a throng of mourners who will grieve with her. The people of Uhwokori loved her parents as a couple devoted to the welfare of their common hometown. Okiemute should be proud that her mother was a hero for so many. Oti was certainly my hero.
MAY HER SOUL REST IN PERFECT PEACE
June 8, 2012