My personal odyssey in public writing

Emmanuel Ojeifo

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“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write” – Martin Luther.

In the last couple of months, some of my young friends and colleagues have asked me to mentor them in the art of writing. The touching plea, “Father Emmanuel, can you teach me how to write?” has been heard over and over again, whether it is on my social media messaging platforms or in my daily contact with young people. Those young people who ask me to teach them how to write think I am a good writer, but I keep telling them that I am still learning. That is the truth. I am far from being a good writer. There are moments when I read a piece of superb writing, especially in the newspapers, and I am totally at a loss as to which planet the writer came from. I watch the TV and I get the same impression about many excellent public speakers. I read some books and it is like every word and every sentence should be underlined because the writers hold me in deep suspense. So I am a student of writing myself. Every passing day is an opportunity for me to learn something new in the art of writing.

You’d notice that I have referred to writing as an art. That is essentially what it is. Writing is about the expression of human creative skill and imagination. It is about producing literary works that are appreciated for their inner beauty, style, sense and emotional power. Since writing is an expression of human creativity, it is right to see it as a gift of God. God is the author of all creative acts. It is by his gift that humans are able to express ideas and imaginations in a sequence of coherent letters, words, and symbols. That is what makes writing an art. But it is also a learned art. Like every other form of artistic expression, writing brings fulfilment to the artist because it is a potent means of self-expression. An artist who writes well can sit back and admire his piece of writing, with the same depth of fulfilment that God had when he created the world: “God saw all that he had made, and found everything very good” (Genesis 1:31). This is what writing has been for me – a vehicle of personal and creative self-expression. It is also a testament to the power of the human mind.

This is how the journey began for me. I started preparing myself for public writing at an early age. My father, Stephen Ojeifo, while working as a civil servant with the Abuja Airport authority, studied English and Literary Studies at the University of Abuja on the distance learning programme. He graduated in 1998. He was 39 years old at the time. Before you start asking questions, let me explain. My father came from a polygamous Muslim home. He wanted to be educated but the circumstances of his polygamous upbringing didn’t quite permit him. Even as a young child, I noticed his passion for knowledge. So while he was working and studying, his five children were also in school. My mother, Justina Ojeifo, was also running her programme at the National Teachers Institute in Igarra. She would come back to Abuja, trade in her wares and return to Igarra for her studies. She too combined business and study.

Practically all seven of us – parents and children – were in school at the time. Our house was a home of books of all sorts. My father loved to buy newspapers and books, and many of my schoolmates often came to our house to borrow some of my textbooks. When one of our granduncles died, among the few possessions of his that my father inherited were a collection of classical books on Nigerian history and politics. It was from that collection that I first laid my hands on Major General Alexander A. Madiebo’s book, The Nigerian Revolution and the Civil War, which I read at the age of 14. When my father was away at work, I would sneak into his study room to read some of his books. I remember laying my hands on his GST resource materials and other authoritative English texts. It was from those books that I first came in contact with terms such as Lexis and Structure, Syntax, Semantics, and Creolinguistics. This early contact with advanced English literature was the preparatory ground for my literary explorations. I was still in primary school at the time. We lived at the airport quarters and our nursery, primary and secondary schools were not far from our home. We trekked to school and back every day.

In secondary school, I excelled in both spoken and written English language, as well as other subjects. My termly report card bears eloquent testimony to this. There is an experience I had in JSS 1 that I never forget. This was in 1996. Our first English lesson upon resumption in secondary school was a dictation test. Our English teacher, who happened to be the wife of the principal, Mrs Hannah Isah Harri, administered the test. She dictated ten words and asked us to write them down. When she finished marking the scripts I was the only student who scored 10/10 in the test. I guess she was taken aback. She sent a student to call me to her office. When I went she brought out my script and asked if it was mine. I answered in the affirmative. “You mean you wrote this yourself?” I replied, “Yes Ma.” She then tore out a new sheet of paper, handed it to me and started dictating the words again. I wrote them down as she dictated and I got all of them correctly. She looked at me with eyes of surprise and affection. From that day, I became one of her cherished students. This experience has never left me. Looking back, I see clearly that my early progress in diction and spelling could not have been possible without my daily romance with the Oxford Advanced Learners’ English Dictionary in our home.

As I graduated from one class to the next, I kept seeing noticeable improvements in my academic records. In my first term result in JSS 1, I came fifth in class. I cannot now remember how many students there were in that class, but we should be over 40. In second term I came fourth. At the end of third term I came third in class. For the three terms in JSS 2, I consistently took first position in class. In JSS 3, I dropped again to fifth position after the first term exams. I guess I was a bit playful. Second term I came fifth. In the JSCE, I did very well in my subjects. My father was impressed. He picked subjects in arts for me as I was preparing to go into SSS 1, but was surprised when I opted for the science class. Looking back, I can say that I had no specific aim for going into the science class. I only noticed that science students performed better academically in my school, and that was how I found myself there. I thank God that I did my best and came out with a good result in my SSCE.

Apart from the core academic pursuits, I excelled in extracurricular activities. I wasn’t particularly good in sports, but I represented my school at several literary and debating competitions. In my senior classes, I became the first editor of the Young Readers’ Club founded by one of our respected English teachers, Mr Wilson Olowode (of blessed memory). I served in this office for two consecutive years before handing over to a junior student. This responsibility required that I source for weekly news, articles, and cartoons for the school board. I had to read the newspapers that my father bought everyday to sieve out interesting pieces of news. I was also glued to the television everyday after school for breaking news. After writing my news, I gave them to my father who helped me to edit them.

In my SSS 2, I was appointed the school’s library prefect. This position gave me privileged access to books and other educational materials that helped me in my quest to be a good writer. For two consecutive years – 2000 and 2001 – I won the second and third positions for FCT in a national essay competition organised by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF). I received the prizes for these competition at an event organised by the Ministry of FCT. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity of shaking hands with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of FCT, Alhaji Muazu Babangida Aliyu, who went on to become Governor of Niger State. This was in 2001 and I was 16 years old. That experience made a huge impact on me.

When I received my merit award in school, my principal, Mr I.K. Abdullahi, said something to the effect that I have commendably used my position as school student librarian to develop myself. He advised other students to borrow a leaf from me. This commendation took place at the school assembly; and it made me very proud to hear my principal telling other students, in the presence of members of staff, to learn from me. For the three years of my senior secondary school, I received many prizes during the annual valedictory ceremony and prize-giving day. It was this same Muslim principal that gave me a recommendation letter when I decided to apply for admission into the Catholic major seminary in 2002.

When I went to the major seminary in Ibadan in 2004, I continued to nurture and hone my writing skill. From my first year, I began to contribute articles to the seminary intellectual forums. With time I rose to become editor of one of the intellectual boards. In my penultimate year in the seminary, I was elected editor-in-chief of The Voice, the seminary’s official annual magazine. In this capacity I successfully organised a colloquium on media and communications in a digital age to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the magazine (1961–2011). This event attracted eminent Catholic communicators such as Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah (then Monsignor) and Father George Ehusani. The previous year, I received the seminary award for the best journalist of the year. In 2011, my seminary rector, Father Michael Sasa appointed me to assist him as editorial secretary of the West African Journal of Ecclesial Studies (WAJES). Working with him to edit and prepare articles for publication in the journal was a good learning experience.

All of these extracurricular activities were second to my main academic programme in the seminary. My study of philosophy greatly enhanced and sharpened my aptitude for critical thinking. I also profited immensely from my reading of ancient and contemporary philosophical texts. There you see Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Hegel and Kant at their very best. I also noticed that reading other general interest books helped my understanding of crosscutting social, political and cultural issues. Much of the knowledge that I acquired through personal reading proved useful especially during seminars, examinations, tests and other academic assessments. To the glory of God, my painstaking effort in my study was rewarded with a first class degree in Philosophy in 2008. When I began my BA Divinity programme in 2009, it was this same exactitude and punctiliousness that I applied to my academic itinerary. At the end of my theological studies in 2012, I bagged another first class degree in Divinity. With the benefit of hindsight, I can confidently say that these modest academic achievements could not have been possible without consistency, focus, persistence and prayer.

I must confess that many of my teachers and contemporaries in the seminary greatly inspired me and encouraged me in my quest for excellence. Here I remember with profound affection and gratitude Father Francis Adedara, my spiritual year rector in Eruku between 2003 and 2004, who commended so highly the first article I ever wrote on a religious subject, and told me I could do better. In the major seminary in Ibadan, my rector, Father Benedict Etafo, was a great man of letters and oratory. I secretly admired his style, elegance, and finesse. His homilies were often laden with prose, poetry and drama all rolled into one. He was evidently a great communicator. Father Emmanuel Ogundele who was my head of department in philosophy made a huge impact on my intellectual life in the seminary.

Father Anthony Ewherido, my head of department in theology, also played a key role in the unfolding of my intellectual quest. As his principal secretary for two years, I cannot quantify all I learned from him. Father Ewherido is an exceptionally gifted priest. He had a friendly way of challenging me to do better. I cannot forget to mention Father Damian Ilodigwe, the Louvain-trained philosopher who never ceased to amaze me with the breadth of his intellectual achievements. I must not forget to also mention that I learnt so much from reading the Dominican professor of theology, Father Anthony Akinwale’s writings in the newspapers, long before I established personal contact with him. He taught me two courses in the seminary, and I have always admired his systematic manner of communicating complex ideas in simple ways. He is an epitome of a good educator that I admire so much. I consider him one of my highly respected mentors. At a point, I had to go and meet him with a direct request to mentor me.

If I am asked to name three contemporaries who have been quite instrumental to my intellectual quest, I will tick out Father Matthew Dajo (of Abuja Archdiocese), Father Tony Nwosu (of Lagos Archdiocese) and Father Paul Irikefe (of Warri Diocese). During our seminary days, they were all voracious readers and had deep insights into the nature of things. They also had gripping writing styles. Father Dajo had a condensed and esoteric style of expressing his thoughts. We had a joke in those days that no one ever reads what he writes. You’ve got to study it to peel off the several layers of meaning. With Father Nwosu you cannot beat the pulsating and gripping literary forms of expression, which made him an often sought-after writer and public speaker in the seminary. Father Irikefe has intellectual depth. He is quiet, soft-spoken, but a dynamite of combustible ideas. His mastery of the English language is superb. Looking back, I can only feel a deep sense of nostalgia regarding these friendships. As often, my good friends have always been my seniors, in age, class and experience.

During my seminary days, I discovered that to be an excellent writer one had to first be a voracious reader. So I tried to buy books regularly. Most of my open free days were spent at The Booksellers in Jericho. Jericho was a sort of supermarket of books. I also regularly visited Bookcraft, a publishing outfit in Kongi, not far from the seminary. Whenever and wherever I saw a book I loved, I bought it. I can’t count the number of books I bought on transit to Ibadan from Abuja, especially at the Lokoja bus stop. At a time I acquired over 60 books from just one author, my inimitable theological mentor, Pope Benedict XVI. I can proudly say that I had one of the best student personal libraries in the seminary. My collections of books were fascinating, ranging from philosophy and religion to politics, science, and culture. In those days, I also contributed articles on religious matters to the Abuja Catholic weekly, The Good Shepherd on a regular basis. At this time I was reading a hundred pages per day.

After my priestly ordination in 2013, I continued to develop myself. Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I bought during my seminary days, helped me to discover that reading and writing are two of the most crucial avenues for mental renewal. In his book, Covey calls these two ancient human engagements “sharpening the saw.” To excel in writing, one has to keep writing always. To learn to read, one just has to read. There is no manual to learn how to read. The best way to read is to start reading. Covey’s The 7 Habits is one of the few books that have transformed my life. Apart from Covey’s, there are two other books that have made significant impact on my life. They are Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. These are books that have impacted millions upon millions of lives. They can help you in the quest for finding meaning and purpose in life.

From Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers I learned that there is a magic number for success. Drawing from the experiences of great achievers in history, like Dale Carnegie, Bill Gates, Mozart, the Beatles, etc, Gladwell teaches that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of constant practice. That critical minimum, he says, is 10,000hrs. This number of hours, he says, is what is required by the brain to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. That is why I am still trudging on. The journey is still far.

In the course of my personal studies, I have come to the conclusion that success has ecology. There is a direct link between the pursuit of excellence and the achievement of result. Successful people, I discovered, do not view their poverty, race, gender, religious, or lack of connections as handicaps that condemn them to a life of misery and quiet desperation or compels them to resign themselves to entertaining low ambitions because they know that their talent alone, cultivated of perfection, will shatter all the barriers and carry them to the highest rungs of society where they will meet presidents and ministers, queens and princes, and build friendships with celebrities, Nobel Laureates and business moguls. The acute sense of certainty that our efforts and sacrifices will lead us to the highest level to which we aspire is one of the most potent motivations that drive me to keep pushing forward, to not give up, even when the pain and the challenges become almost unbearable and the sacrifices more and more taxing.

We are capable of truly achieving a lot if we pour our hearts and souls into what we do. This is one of the extremely effective principles that I use to break the barriers that stand between me and the lofty goals that I set for myself. I invest my time and put in the necessary effort to do everything important that I undertake to perfection. I also pray. I never try to underestimate the power of divine grace. I also often remind myself that there is only one form of excellence, and it is accepted all over the world with the same enthusiasm, just as mediocrity is rejected with the same feeling of disgust everywhere, regardless of the shape in which it manifests. There is no such thing as an Asian, European, African or American excellence. Excellence is one and the same everywhere.

This means that whatever I do that is worth doing, I try to give it my very best. The famed 19th century American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” What Emerson said two centuries ago applies today, in virtually every department of life, especially in sports. In soccer, basketball and baseball, for instance, the world’s wealthiest and most famous teams compete fiercely against each other for the right to acquire the most talented players and they would go to the remotest places on earth to find them. Once those athletes are signed, no matter their place of origin, their race, their social status, their family’s financial situation or any other characteristic that defines them, their salary and all the perks they enjoy are essentially based on their performance and on their role within the team.

For the past four years since I became a priest, I have taken the task of public writing on contemporary social, political and religious issues within the Nigerian space as a personal spiritual mission. I have published countless articles and essays in Thisday, The Guardian, Daily Trust and Leadership newspapers. Sometimes my friends ask me if I am paid for my writings in the newspapers. They are rudely shocked when I tell them that, in fact, the newspaper publishers believe they are doing you a favour when they accept to publish your article. So no one pays me a dime. Some others ask me if I pay to get my articles published. I tell them that I do not pay. All that the editors want is a well-written article. But I also tell them that sometimes you need to know an editor or someone who knows an editor or someone who knows someone who knows an editor to get your article published. But once you acquire name recognition you can stand on your own. If you write very well, the editors might even come looking for you.

In 2014, I registered for a PGD programme in Journalism at the Institute of Journalism in Abuja. My aim was to acquire more knowledge that would help to improve my writing and journalistic skills. I am glad that the programme paid off. It was at this time that I discovered the difficulty of studying and working simultaneously. I used to tease my colleagues at the School of Journalism about how difficult it is to start adult education. Only then did I really appreciate what my father went through working to earn a pay to take care of his family and studying at the same time to improve his lots in his place of work. There were times when his meagre salary was not enough to cater to the family needs. He would go to his bank and ask for an overdraft. Although I was very young, I was keenly aware of his predicaments. This was partly why I tried to impress him, and make him happy. Disappointing my father in my studies was never one of my cherished ideals. I tried to make him know that he wasn’t wasting his money sending me to school and providing all my needs. I think that my siblings felt that same way too.

I have learned a lot from Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, one of my very highly respected mentors. It was he who once said that, “It is impossible to be a Catholic priest and not be concerned about the social issues of the moment.” This statement has been a high motivating factor for me in my quest to make sense of my priesthood within the ambit of prophetic social responsibility. That is also why I feel proud of the modest contribution that I have made to intelligent public conversations. I know I still have a long way to go, and so I try to stay focused and to keep on doing what I love best. I have also received countless pieces of encouragement from friends, mentors, teachers, and colleagues, and from many other people I have not met, who have come in contact with my writings. I really appreciate them for their kind words of encouragement, which spur me on to strive to be better.

Apart from Bishop Kukah, three other mentors on whose shoulders I have stood to aim for excellence are Cardinal John Onaiyekan, my Archbishop, Most Reverend Anselm Umoren, my Auxiliary Bishop, and Father George Ehusani. They are great Nigerian churchmen of towering reputation. Almost everybody knows them. Since I developed personal friendship with four of them, I have witnessed tremendous growth in virtually all aspects of my life. Their kind words of encouragement have been legendary. But they are not the only ones. There are many others, too numerous to mention, whose kind words and actions have inspired me. I must not forget to include in this list the editors of the four national newspapers I have contributed articles over the years. I know a few of them, but the vast majority are unknown to me. Yet they have been very instrumental in helping to publish my writings in their newspapers.

Some of my friends have asked me how I am able to combine the tedious responsibilities of my priestly calling with the flair for writing. I tell them that I make out time. You cannot achieve great things in life if you do not consciously create ample time to work. Judicious use of time is very crucial to all life’s endeavours. There are moments when I have to sit down for upward of four hours just to produce a clean copy of a 1000-word article. You need focus and commitment to be able to do this. You must have a passion for it. It must be something you love doing. At the end of the day, time management is very important. Anyone who cannot effectively manage 24 hours in a day will still be unable to make profitable use of his time if he had 48 hours in a day. The mistake many young people make is that they waste precious quality time on frivolous activities. Everything comes down to setting the right priorities and setting priorities right.

I am writing this not to boast about my modest achievements (really I don’t think I have even started), but to encourage many other young people who look for models and guides in the way of excellence and perfection. I write this to tell them that they too can achieve greatness. Cultivate profitable friendships with the right kinds of people. Choose your mentors carefully. Read and read and read. There is no antidote to reading. Be open to learn new things everyday. No knowledge acquired is a waste. All knowledge fits into the grand design and scheme of the Divine. According to the 19th century English educator and theologian, John Cardinal Henry Newman, “The subject matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator.” There is a single, divine intelligence behind all knowledge.

As I have said, I am not yet where I want to be. Life is work in progress. We have to keep at it until we reach there. I know that with persistence, grit, perseverance, focus and prayer, I can get there. I just want to touch lives. I just want to make my own little contribution to better the world, especially the little community in which I live. I just want to live a life of happiness, joy, contentment and fulfilment. I want to put my gifts and talents at the service of God and others. I just want to know that when life’s work is ended, this could be the epitaph on my tombstone: “Father Emmanuel did his best.” I want no medals or laurels. These words are enough for me.

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