Dr Umelobi Ihekweazu, Physician and gentleman – 1932-2007

My earliest memories of him are of a gentle, warm soothing presence, with a slightly distracted air. He would peer at me through his spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, providing some warmth and security in what was to my then six year old self, a very scary appointment at the local medical centre. Getting up from his swivel chair, he would come over to where I was perched, scared on my mother’s knee and remove his stethoscope to listen to my chest. All the while I would be praying that he would not recommend any injections and my young eyes would search his face and my mother’s for any mention of the dreaded I word, which meant that I would have to repair to the small nurses room along the corridor from his office to keep an appointment with the dreaded needle. Sometimes my fears were misplaced and we would be sent home with a clutch of syrups, some pleasant like the golden vitamin syrups, other less so like the sickly smelling and tasting Phernegan syrup.

I also knew him in a different context. Sometimes in the afternoon, if we had been good, we were allowed to accompany my father to the University Senior Staff Club where he played tennis almost every day. After several sweaty games of tennis, we would repair to the clubhouse where my father and his partners would quench their thirst with ice-cold bottles of beer. Sometimes I would see the doctor there engrossed in a game of draughts, again peering over his spectacles, sometimes whistling as he worked out the next move. He always gave us a cheerful if somewhat distracted greeting, and in many ways was the archetype of the trusted family doctor.

Last week, the news came of the death of Dr Umelobi Ihekweazu, retired physician and former Deputy Director of Medical Services at the University of Nigeria where I had grown up. The news came as a shock particularly as I had not known that he had been unwell. I received the news in the form of a text message from his eldest son, my friend and colleague, Chikwe and I immediately rung him to find out more. Apparently he had been unwell for a while with back problems and various age-related ailments and had succumbed earlier the previous day.

At the service of songs pulled together by Chikwe’s friends in London, at very short notice to celebrate his father’s life, there were many tributes and testimonies. There were tributes from people from Amaigbo, his ancestral home, who testified to the great love that he bore for his people and for his uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth, no matter whose ox was gored. I particularly liked the story of how one Christmas he was observed at a local Amaigbo shop making some purchases. Another man walked up to him and said “Good evening doctor” He continued to look straight ahead. The man persisted “Good evening doctor”. Dr Ihekweazu continued to ignore him. The third time, the man said “Good evening doctor” adding “Don’t you remember me?” According to the gentleman recounting the story, Dr Ihekweazu looked up, and I imagine, fixed the man with a stare, peering characteristically through his glasses and then said in a loud voice “Of course I know who you are. I hear you are still beating your wife, my sister. If you don’t change your ways….”

There were other stories, other tributes- of how he had excelled in his academic work at Christ the King College in Onitsha; of how he had helped many people from Amaigbo to acquire a university education; of how he had taken an active interest in the welfare of his people; of how he had left the University of Nigeria to set up the medical service at first the Federal University of Technology in Owerri, and later as a consultant, the medical service at the Imo State University.

It was however Chikwe’s tribute that was perhaps, unsurprisingly most moving. Chikwe said that he had tried to examine his father’s life and to pick out what he felt were key lessons that could be of relevance to us today. He spoke of how as a young man, his father left Aba to Port Harcourt to board a ship on his way to Canada for a university education. Chikwe asked us to imagine what it must have been like to leave the warm climes of south eastern Nigeria for the cold of Manitoba where the average winter temperature is -12 degrees Celsius. He asked us to imagine who his father’s friends were, in a much more hostile environment, when prejudice was still common place. He contrasted his father’s situation in Canada with his, gesturing at the hall full of mostly Nigerian friends in London who had come to commiserate with him. In spite of whatever difficulties the senior Dr Ihekweazu faced in Canada, he was able to acquire a degree in Biochemistry after three years in Canada and then headed to medical school in West Germany.

His stay in Germany coincided with the beginning of the Nigerian civil war and Chikwe spoke of how his father, in spite of being far away from home, remained connected to the struggles of his people and became involved in a student campaign group advocating for humanitarian assistance for the people of Biafra. It was during this period that he met a young German woman, Edith Otremba who was also actively involved in the campaign and who was later to become his wife and companion until her tragic death in a road traffic accident in Nigeria in 1992. For Chikwe, the lesson from this phase of his father’s life was that distance from home was no reason to forget the challenges at home.

As soon as the war was over, in 1971, nineteen years after he first left Nigeria, Dr Ihekweazu headed home to Nigeria with his young German wife and five-month old Chikwe and began to help his people in the task of reconstructing and rebuilding their shattered lives. Chikwe highlighted that for many present who claimed that the reason why they did not go home to Nigeria more was the inability of their young children to cope there were lessons to be learned. Similarly for people who felt that they had lived abroad too long to return home, his father’s nineteen year sojourn abroad held lessons as well.

Chikwe then spoke of his father’s relationship with his mother- of how he always put her first; delighting in her academic successes especially after she became one of the first female professors at the University of Nigeria and the first female Dean of a faculty there. He also spoke more humorously of how his father always insisted that his mother drove whenever they were going out together, and of how this earned the young Chikwe taunts from his fellow youngsters who asked “How your Papa go dey allow your mama make e drive am? But, Chikwe highlighted that it was typical of the man who on arrival back in Nigeria had made it clear to his family and people that he had chosen his wife and that he expected them all to welcome her and accept her. Chikwe said that he had learnt a lot from his father’s respect for his mother and for women in general.

The final lesson that Chikwe said he had learned drew not from his father’s life, but from his mother’s tragic death. Recalling how his mother, who had renounced her German citizenship for a Nigerian passport had died in a tragic accident, soon after having organized Eagle on Iroko the internationally acclaimed festival to celebrate Chinua Achebe’s 60th birthday, he spoke of how at the time he had thought that he would never be able to speak in public about his mother. But he said he had learnt that time was a healer and so he drew strength from that. His mention of that sad time reminded me of one of the enduring memories of his father that I have- of him standing grief-stricken in the casualty department of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, receiving condolences from a Swiss woman who was married to a Nigerian and saying to her in a soft voice “When people like you make the sacrifice of following us back home, things like this shouldn’t happen”

Chikwe’s final lesson from his father’s life, he said was of the importance of balance. He spoke of how growing up, his father was always the tough one, the disciplinarian, contrasting with his mother’s much softer approach. Following his mother’s death, he said, his father showed them a new, much softer side of himself. It was then that they realized that he had wittingly taken on the role of the hard man to complement their mother and that once she was no longer there; he adjusted his parenting style accordingly. In spite of his “hardness” Chikwe said, that unlike many of his generation, Dr Ihekweazu was always able to express his love for his children physically and verbally, always ending his telephone conversations with the words “Your Papa loves you, okay”

Other speakers at the service of songs praised Chikwe for his fortitude and said that he and his siblings were in themselves a living tribute to their parents. Citing their respect for and knowledge of the Igbo language and culture and Chikwe’s active engagement with Nigerian health issues, speaker after speaker paid tribute to their parents for their achievements. As one of the speakers said in conclusion, even though Dr Ihekweazu is no more, he lives in Chikwe, Adaoha and Edozie.

As he is laid to rest in Amaigbo on the 27th of July, my thoughts and prayers are with them.

Written by
Ike Anya
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6 comments
  • I graduated from the University if Nigeria, Nsukka in 1987, from Animal Science Dept. I came across Prof Mrs Edith Ihekweazu through the course on general studies(humanities) which I took in my second year. She was one of the contributors to the text on humanities which we used at that time. We were told that the University of Nigeria pioneered general studies programme in Nigerian Universities and I’m sure she contributed immensely to this. As a science student we did social science and humanities. Social science students did humanities and natural science while arts students did natural science and social science.
    I didn’t hear about the husband of Prof. Edith Ihekwazu when I was in UNN but it’s it’s great to hear from this text by Ike Anya that he was a physician who rose to become the Deputy Director, Medical Services UNN before he left to serve at Federal University of Technology, Owerri and the. Imo State University after they were founded.
    With the outbreak of coronavirus in the world, the name Chikwe Ihekwazu as DG of Nigerian Centre of Disease Control became well known. I made conscious effort to search the internet to see if there is any connection between Prof Edith Ihekwazu and Dr Chikwe Ihekwazu and I’m happy to hear that he was the son. I’m also elated to see that Dr Chikwe studied medicine at UNN and he is making fantastic progress in his career.

    My condolences to him for the death of his parents more so as his mother died in a tragic motor accident way back in 1992.
    I also congratulate him for his present position and wish him well as he serves the nation in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic

  • In one of the articles above, Okwudili Ezeike stated that he almost cried reading the article. Well, I must say that I actually cried! It was quite touching, moving and inspiring… I also recall memories of Dr. & Prof. (Mrs) Ihekweazu mainly due to the fact that their home was only a street away from my family residence at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Campus. Mrs. Ihekweazu always had a smile and a warmth about her and I was privileged to partake of that whenever I visited my dad at his office because they happened to work in the same department. Dr. Ihekweazu had a peaceful nature about him and I pray that both their souls rest in perfect peace! To Chikwe, Ada & Edozie; I send my sincere sympathy. May God continue to strengthen you and give you the grace to carry on the legacy.

  • It was a wonderful article. Coincidentally, Dr. Umelobi Ihekwazu was my father's best friend – Alphonsus Anyiam from Amaigbo too. Keep it up.

  • I almost cried reading this article. I knew Prof. Mrs Ihekweazu personally. I remember knocking at her office in Nsukka in December 1987, and pleaded that she help me secure admission to the University. Prior to this, I had neither met nor heard of her. I simply went to the faculty of arts office building and asked if anyone knew who could help me.

    I was directed to her. Nobody warned me that she was white. As she answered my knock on her door, I almost froze to death. But her reassuring smile made me relax. She did not promise me anything. She simply looked at my JAMB result and my SSC result, and asked me if I was intelligent. I replied in the affirmative.

    Couple of weeks later, I learnt that I had been admitted to my second choice (first choice was at UNICAL) at UNN.

    My encounter with her changed my life. I wanted to learn German and study in Germany. Immediately after my NYSC, I enrolled at the Goethe Institut Lagos. I spent a year there, and later went to University of Heidelberg in Germany.

    Today I speak fluent German, and an attorney in the United States. I owe all these to this wonderful woman who opened her door to a village boy who no sense to know that no one goes to the dean's office asking to be admitted to the university. I have always wonderd what my life would have been had I not gone to Prof. Edith Ihekwazu.

    To the children, you had the most wonderful parents anyone can dream of. Like your mum always said " the dead are not dead, they are only relatives who have travelled and refused to call"

    Dr. and Prof. Mrs. Ihekweazu are not dead, I just don't know why they are refusing to call home.

  • Ike nwanna! This is a rather touching tribute and am glad there're still men whose lives speak long after they are gone. I see that Dr. Ihekweazu had lived an exemplary life that was focussed on community development and enhancement of the lives of our People.May he rest in peace, and may his lineage be one to be remembered always for good. But bros, where you dey since and when you go come Naija again? ALS dey wax strong oooo…we don get Book Club in addition…and abeg send me e-mail now abi na only on the net I go dey feel you…lol!