Martin, Olisemeke Samuel Wadei
Olisemeke was born in Ogboli village, Issele-Uku in the present day Delta State in 1875. According to tradition, a name given at birth can continue to determine the destiny of the person. When he was born, his parents named him Olisemeke, which mean “God has done great,” thereby showing that they were grateful to God for doing good work in the family. By choosing such a name the parents were compelled to remember God’s favor towards the family in terms of protection, preservation of life, favorable weather, abundant harvest, and good health. Indeed one could say the name pushed young Olisemeke towards success because God favors those who are always grateful to him.
Nwadei loved his son Olisemeke and took him to town and village meetings and taught him the customs of the people. Olisemeke followed in his father’s footsteps and became a good farmer. He was the first among his mates to climb palm trees with a rope to harvest palm nut bunches. His father died at a very old age and gave him his blessing.
One day Olisemeke felt compelled to leave his town. So he got up very early one morning while the moon was still up, journeyed to Asaba, now the capital of Delta State, and crossed the Niger river by canoe to Onitsha, the commercial town of present Anambra State. There, as he going up a hill along the bank of the river he met a woman called Umeadi who was struggling to carry her pot of water up the hill. Filled with pity, he helped her carry the pot to her house. When Umeadi noticed that Olisemeke was not heading in any definite direction, she decided to help him, out of gratitude. She let him to stay in her house and enrolled him in a Catholic primary school. Later Olisemeke left school and ran away from her house because his teacher beat him for fighting with his classmates all the time. So, for a short period, he took a job with a palm kernel dealer who was also a carpenter.
Afterwards Olisemeke worked for a river boatman named Tom Lewis. They first journeyed to Lokoja, the capital of present day Kogi State. Using Onitsha as their base, they traveled to many distant places along the Niger river. One day, Tom Lewis pushed Olisemeke into the river for disobeying his wife. God saved Olisemeke from drowning because his hand caught onto a rope. After that ordeal Olisemeke sought the first opportunity to quit. He hid in a cave in Lokoja so that Tom Lewis would leave without him. Later he was told that the cave was a hiding place for hyenas.
Once free of Tom Lewis, he decided to stay with a Nupe woman (a tribe from northern Nigeria). One day, in the streets of Lokoja, Olisemeke helped a steward carry a heavy load. The steward’s master was a white man and a major in the colonial army. At this point, Olisemeke became friends with the white man who later took him on as his “boy” (helper/servant).
A short time later in the streets of Lokoja, Olisemeke approached another white man, a missionary stationed along the banks of the Benue river and asked to be appointed his steward. The missionary agreed because Olisemeke said that he had once served a white man who was a major. The journey to the mission house lasted four days. There, boys freed by the government from the Kakanda slave ship lived with the missionary.
At the mission house, Olisemeke was told that his master’s name was Rev. A. E. Martin. The freed slaves taught Olisemeke the Hausa language, as well as how to swim and paddle a canoe. Rev. Martin, Olisemeke, and an interpreter embarked on missionary journeys that lasted for months.
At the mission station, Olisemeke formed the habit of praying just like the prophet Daniel, except that he prayed under a tree. Olisemeke’s most earnest request was that God enable him to return so he might help his people.
One day as Olisemeke was praying he had a vision. He accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior and the Holy Spirit came upon him. Rev. Martin heard the good news. The interpreter advised Olisemeke to be patient because he thought that the reverend had something in store for him.
Rev. Martin decided to take Olisemeke to America. So he, his wife, and Olisemeke took a boat to Onitsha and down to Burutu, on the coast. There they took a steamship to Liverpool-a three month trip-and then a better and faster steamship to New York in America. They stayed in New York for four days and then took a train to Aberline, Rev. Martin’s hometown in the state of Kansas.
In Kansas Rev. Martin paid Olisemeke’s boarding and tuition fees so he could attend school. After six months Rev. Martin left to continue his evangelistic work in East Africa. When the school year ended, Olisemeke took summer jobs and worked as a janitor to save money for college. Thanks to his hard work he was able to attend Washburn College in Kansas State where he majored in cabinet making. He was also a good soccer player.
Olisemeke then studied at a military academy and rose to the rank of captain. Afterwards he attended the University of Chicago and later transferred to Moody Bible Institute to study theology.
In 1910, Rev. Fishbank baptized Olisemeke at Topeka Baptist Church giving him the name Samuel Wadei Martin. His father’s name (Nwadei) was pronounced Wadei because Americans were unable to pronounce the “nwa” sound. As a result, Olisemeke’s last name was changed to Martin because it was understood that he had been adopted by Rev. Martin.
Olisemeke was ordained in 1918. In 1919 he was called to be the associate pastor at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. But in 1921 many in the church wept when Olisemeke announced his intention to return to Nigeria.
Olisemeke boarded a steamship in New York which made a stop in Liverpool before reaching Lagos on December 21, 1921. Since there were no roads between Lagos and Issele-Uku, his hometown in the present day Delta State, Olisemeke traveled by steamship to Port Harcourt in what is today Rivers State. He took the train to Aba in Abia State where he hired a car to take him to Onitsha. He crossed the Niger river by boat to get to Asaba where he hired a car for his trip to Issele-Uku.
When he arrived, Olisemeke stayed at the Native Court because it was the best building in town. People who came to the courthouse did not recognize him. One elderly man who did recognize him had to pour sand on him to confirm that he was not a ghost because everyone thought he had died.
At his request, the Issele Uku elders in the council showed Olisemeke the place where the mission had first been established. They gave him the land because it had been set apart as a forbidden part of the bush where the Obi’s disobedient wives were killed, offenders were beheaded, and people suffering from bad sicknesses were left to die. The elders thought it would be hard for Olisemeke to penetrate because the jungle was filled with evil spirits, dead men’s bones, gigantic trees, and wild beasts.
In 1922 work started on the parcel of land. First Olisemeke’s hut was built, with a parlor and a living room measuring fourteen by twelve feet, walls of elephant grass stems, and a thatched roof. Red mud was used to construct the platform which served as seats. Olisemeke’s bed was made of bamboo with banana leaves and bahama grass spread on top and covered with a mat to form the mattress.
Olisemeke used his gun to protect the compound from the wild animals which often came in from the surrounding jungle. His water came from a pond dug in the compound. In order to purify the water from the pond, it was mixed with red earth and stirred to make the dirt settle at the bottom of the container.
The first school was built with materials similar to those used for Olisemeke’s hut. The school admitted boys of all sizes and ages. The grown up boys tied a native loincloth round their waists, whereas the younger ones were naked. Some wore necklaces, beads, armlets, charms, and many odd decorations for protection against harmful spirits and diseases like chicken pox and measles
The school staff included Akpdo, Nwdibei and Nwaobi Ezianshi of Agwachime, and Ogbeofu. Diokpa Chukwuedo Nwashunne was usually sent to Benin City to buy slates and pencils. Initially, every teaching demonstration was done on the ground until Olisemeke was able to buy a blackboard and chalk at Onitsha across the Niger river. The school officially opened on April 22, 1922.
Olisemeke faced a lot of opposition in the course of his mission work. For instance, Rev. Father Burr of the Roman Catholic Church banned his members from participating in the reception after Olisemeke’s wedding, saying that anyone who flouted his orders would surely go to hell. He made many attempts to undermine Olisemeke’s efforts to establish the Baptist Mission at Issele Uku but as the local people considered Olisemeke a son of the soil, they refused to collaborate.
When the people agreed to donate an annual sum of fifty pounds to the Baptist mission established by Olisemeke, Father Burr announced that Catholics would not take part. He also pressured the District Officer to approve the establishment of the mission on the sole condition that the payment of school fees and school attendance be voluntary. For him, the establishment of the mission was a threat to the growth of catholicism at Issele-Uku.
When Olisemeke married Miss Leticia at C.M.S. Onicha Olona in 1924, Rev. Nweje led the ceremony. Leticia was source of joy and comfort, as well as a good companion for Olisemeke. She formed the Women’s Missionary Union in 1924. In addition to teaching the women choruses, music, and dances, Leticia also taught them how to read the Bible in Ibo. Under her leadership they built commercial buildings so that the proceeds could be utilized for evangelization and growth.
Olisemeke expanded the mission by establishing other primary schools outside Issele-Uke. The other towns where he founded schools–going from the earliest to the most recent ones–were Aba/Adonte, Issele-Mkpitimr, Agbor town, Ekpon, Oligie, Ogwashi-Uku, Umuede, Illah, Ute Alohen, Obir, Idumujie Ugboko, Obamkpa, Ubulu-Uku, Asaba, Aninwalo, Idumuogwokhae, Idumuogo, Boji Biji Agbor, Ake, Ottah Ozarre, Alisimie, Owa Alegwe, Owa Oyibu, Issele-Azagba, and Ewohimi. Students who graduated from Issele-Uku were sent out as pioneer teachers to these new schools. They combined teaching with evangelism. School fees were the major source of the revenue for each school.
As a result of the success of the first school, Olisemeke saw the need for an institution where the high school graduates could have access to higher education. Consequently, Olisemeke started a program which he named “extension classes.” After that, Olisemeke traveled to the U.S.A and spent six months there renewing acquaintances and collecting donations for the work of the mission. While he was gone, Leticia gathered the students from the extension classes to clear the site for the future Teachers’ Training College.
Olisemeke returned with a Jeep and gifts from the foreign mission board of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago, and his friends in the U.S.A. The same year, one two-story building was set up. In 1948 the students of the extension class were transferred there to form the first year class of the Teachers’ Training College.
In 1950, the college was officially opened. Dr. C. C. Adams, the secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention sent Rev. J. A. Washington, his former assistant secretant, to be the college’s first president. Dr. Adams paid a personal visit to Issele-Uku in 1947 and returned to the States with a good report on Rev. Washington’s work at the mission. This was, of course, essential to the continued support of the undertaking. Indeed, money and materials for expansion of the work started to pour in from every corner of the U.S.A.
Olisemeke was a man of vision and foresight. In his vision, high school graduates were not all obligated to become teachers. In 1955 a class in the Teachers’ Training College was used to start the grammar school at Issele-Uku. In 1957, the school was approved and the students moved to their permanent site, with Mr. E. O. Ojuma as the first principal. In 1959, another grammar school was opened at Ewohimi with Olisemeke as the first principal. Olisemeke also established a technical college at Issele-Uku, Ofagbe.
The Pilgrim Baptist Cathedral was built between 1954 and 1958. Measuring three hundred feet long, forty feet wide, and fifty feet high, it could hold five thousand worshippers. The total cost–about thirty thousand pounds-was contributed by local church members.
In 1963, Olisemeke and Leticia left for the United States to raise funds for a hospital building project. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the former governor general of Nigeria, and Chief Fetus Okotie Ebih, a former federal minister of finance in the 1960s, gave Olisemeke and his wife letters of recommendation to stress the need for the hospital. Olisemeke and Leticia returned with a handsome amount of money and materials. Dr. Adams sent one hundred beds, one hundred mattresses, medicine, and instruments.
On October 3, 1964, the cornerstone of the hospital was laid by Chief Dennis Osadebe, the former premier of the mid-western region of Nigeria (present day Edo and Delta States). Dr. Yates became the first medical doctor in charge before Dr. Charles Adams returned from U.S.A. to take over from him.
Over the course of his life, Olisemeke had to confront many disappointments. Olisemeke was repeatedly taken to court and forced to surrender all the land he had acquired from the community for the establishment of schools, hospitals, and other endeavors meant to serve humanity.
Olisemeke sent many people to be educated in America so that they could return and use their training at the mission. They returned with enviable qualifications but later surprised him by leaving the mission. Many people who benefited from Olisemeke’s university scholarships in Nigeria also showed the same attitudes of ingratitude.
In 1972, after the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970) and after the government forcefully took over the schools in the country, Olisemeke handed over the schools and colleges he had founded without asking for compensation.
Queen Elizabeth of England awarded Olisemeke the Order of the British Empire (OBE) The Federal Republic of Nigeria awarded him the Order of the Niger (OON). A hall has been named after him at the University of Ibadan. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, awarded Olisemeke an honorary doctorate degree.
Olisemeke died on February 22, 1976 at the age of 101, having enjoyed God’s promise which says, “With long life, I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:16)
Kemdirim O. Protus
Martin, S. W. Autobiography of the Rev. Samuel Wadei Martin. Founder and President of the Pilgrim Baptist Mission of Nigeria, Inc. Mid-Western Nigeria: Hendrickson Publishers, 1966.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Kemdirim O. Protus, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt, a DACB Participating Institution. Dr. Kemdirim Protus is also the DACB Regional Coordinator for Nigeria.