Okeriaka, Godwin Ikwuasum
Godwin Ikwuasum Okeriaka was both a statesman and a prophet among his people. Called the Onye Uka (churchman), he refused the title of Okpara Uku, the highest honour in any Ukwuani clan.
Okeriaka poured his heart and soul into furthering the growth of the Anglican Church. Nevertheless, he shuddered at the idea of propagating a cheap Christianity. He was not interested in simply giving people new religious forms and swelling church membership. He strove to build disciplined and committed parishioners.
Much of Okeriaka’s early life is unknown except for the fact that he divorced his wife because of childlessness and, like Paul of the New Testament, refused to remarry. Prior to his conversion, he was a civil servant at Burutu. On his return to Emu Uno in the late 1900s he picked up a new vocation as a trader and a farmer.
Okeriaka became interested in the preaching of Onu Adanu and, as a result, he decided to abandon his traditional beliefs and practices for the Christian faith. He became a dedicated Christian and Anglican. In fact, much of the history of St. Peter’s Anglican Church Emu revolves around him.
Following the death of Mr. Onu, Godwin Okeriaka devoted himself to evangelism, doing a wonderful work of his own, neither sparing himself nor his wallet if, through his money and efforts, the kingdom of Christ could be extended and souls saved. There is scarcely a street or a compound in Emu Uno in which he did not preach Christ.
Mr. Godwin was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church. In preparation he had to memorize the catechism and the Ten Commandments, and to pass an oral examination on these subjects in a foreign language, the Urhobo language. As a convert he was expected to observe certain high moral standards of behaviour. Andrew Osabiuku reported that Mr. Godwin was a man of courage and truth. He was held in very high esteem, a man of quiet disposition, thoughtful, strong and yet tenderhearted. He possessed a considerable self-confidence which non-Christians saw as imperiousness. His critics also considered him stubborn. He made decisions rapidly and had an outstanding capacity for work.
He grasped the importance of the school approach to evangelism. He often woke up earlier than the head teachers to ring the church/school bell. He did not mind trekking to Abraka to report on the teachers’ behavior and to ask for the dismissal of any teacher or head teacher guilty of the slightest act of misconduct, such as coming to school late. The pupils dreaded him more than they did the teachers.
Such was his love for his people that he was willing to be accursed that they might receive the gospel. This was his paramount duty. He often went from house to house waking converts for the early morning prayers and praying for them himself. Mr. Okoligwe Enuekwu remarked that Godwin and Abraham Osale evangelized in words, deeds, and action.
Godwin Okeriaka was, in some ways, immensely practical and his advice on communal affairs was valued in high places. The community looked to him for the effectual day-to-day running of the mission school. Furthermore, his personal integrity was beyond suspicion. His tactful and gracious character was evident in his immediate appeal to the people. He was a sincere and forceful statesman devoted to the welfare of his community. However, his strong faith and activities as a Christian provoked the displeasure of non-Christians. His rejection of the Okpara Uku title only acerbated the anger of his critics.
At one point he became the oldest man not only in Emu Uno, but of the whole Emu clan. As a result, he was next in line for the priest-king position as the Okpara Uku. As long as Okeriaka lived, no other man could occupy this position without invoking the wrath of the ndichie (ancestors) upon himself. Hence the community pressured Okeriaka to occupy this post and uphold the Ofo ndichie of Emu.
But as a condition to becoming the Okpara Uku, Okeriaka requested that the Ofo ndichie (the ancestral symbol) be brought to his compound to be burned and buried and that a copy of the Holy Bible be given to him in place of the Ofo ndichie. But the community was not ready to exchange the symbol of their traditional beliefs and practices for anything else. So, to strike a compromise, Okeriaka devolved the title to another man next in age. This he did five times before his death. However, homage was still paid to him as the Okpara Uku de jure. The Christian community in the Emu clan built a zinc house for him in 1966 and gave him the honorary title of “Okpara Jesu” (the eldest son of Jesus in Emu). Okeriaka was the indisputable “bishop” of the Christian faith in Emu.
From the day of his conversion Okeriaka could not remember a time when shepherding the flock or ensuring the growth of the church was not part of his life. His commitment to the Christian faith was an act of filial piety and personal conviction. He felt duty bound to pass on this faith to the succeeding generation whole and untarnished. Godwin Ikwasum Okeriaka exerted a tremendous influence on Christianity in Emu. Chief Osamezu Maledo followed in his footsteps by refusing to accept the title of Onotu of Ibilijie, a title attained solely by seniority.
Godwin Okeriaka was said to have lived for 137 years. Before his death, he was often known to say, “My time has come.” Mr. Johnson Agwaturuma claimed to have had a dream in which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe alighted from a plane at the present site of St. Peter’s Anglican Church Emu Uno, pointing at Godwin and saying that he had lived for 130 years plus “another seven years.” It was within a period of seven years that Okeriaka devolved the Okpara Uku position to five different Okpara Ukus.
Before his death, he suffered from swollen legs. His family members, claiming that he was too old, confiscated his bicycle. But even the loss of his bicycle did not deter him from his evangelistic work. He evangelized on foot. But it was less efficacious.
Okeriaka died in Nkwo on the evening of January 17, 1994. The day he died he was found lying peacefully on his bed having bathed and dressed in white shorts and a singlet, an outfit for which he was known. He was a saint even at death because his corpse was left for two days unembalmed without decomposing. His remains were finally laid to rest in his house on January 19, 1994. Commenting on his death, Mr. Peter Okwegbue stated, “I honour especially in him the dedication of life to a noble course with an uncompromising entireness of devotion which had in it all the elements of true Christian heroism.” This was echoed by almost all those interviewed on the life of Godwin Ikwuazum Okeriaka. One person remarked, “Somehow his life was so bold, so complete, and so successful that we did not feel the least as if his death was a thing to be sad about.”
One must look on his life as an epic poem which ended in victory and rest. He was a great and good man whose name has become a household word for the Emu people. His name never failed to kindle in their hearts a feeling of enthusiasm. Mr. Godwin Ikwuazum Okeriaka was a man who laid his time, his talents, and all his worldly possessions upon the altar as a sacrifice. He laboured with uncommon energy and zeal and died thinking and praying for Emu Uno.
The progress made in Emu in education and in church growth is due largely to his efforts. To his sagacious and powerful mind, quick to grasp a situation and find solutions to perplexing problems, the school and the church in Emu Uno are indebted for much of what they are today. Godwin Okeriaka was a man of genuine and profound sympathy, a giant as a thinker but with feelings as tender as those of a child.
Jones Ugochukwu Odili
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This story, received in 2003, was reprinted with permission from “The Role of Indigenous Agents in the Advent and Growth of the Anglican Church in Emu Clan of Delta State 1911 - 2002,” a Masters thesis (Department of Religious and Cultural Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Choba, Rivers State, Nigeria) by Mr. Jones Ugochukwu Odili.