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Ekhaguosa Aisien: Standing tall at 90

Ekhaguosa Aisien is a British-trained Surgeon, and has demonstrated over 30 years’ experience in medical practice. He is one of the old Bendel State’s oldest living medical doctors and has authored several books on Edo culture. Aisien, in this interview with Churchill Okoro in Benin City, shares his exemplary life story, written records of Edo history and rewarding career. Excerpt:

Can you give a brief account of your personal background?

My name is Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien. I was born on August 31, 1930. In less than a month I would have clocked 90 years (this interview was conducted August 5). I was born in my grandmother’s village in Ovia territory but my father is a Benin man, even though our village is Oben. My dad was a court clerk in the colonial Benin native administration judiciary. So, I grew up here in Benin City and our family house is along Sapele Road, exactly opposite the secretariat building, which is commonly known as Palm House.

I started school in 1936 at the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Anglican School in Urhonigbe and later moved to the St. Matthews CMS School in the premises of St. Matthews Cathedral along Sokponba Road in 1937. I spent two years at UNA School at Oza between 1938 and 1939. In 1940, my dad farmed me out to one of his friends, an Ika man who was the headmaster of the CMS School at Oza.

From Oza, he was transferred to another place after Issele-Uku, Delta State. In 1942 my dad came for me and then I got into St. Peters CMS School where I finished my elementary education in 1945. During that year, I passed the entrance examination to the CMS Grammar School in Lagos, the oldest Grammar School in Nigeria. By the time I started in January 1946, the school was more than 86 years old. It was that school many prominent Nigerians passed through such as judges and doctors.

In fact, the school was founded by the father of Herbert Macaulay who was the father of Nigerian Nationalism. Herbert was also an old boy of that school. I left school in 1951 and got admission to University College Ibadan in October 1952. The University College was only three years old and it was the only university in Nigeria in those days.

I was to study Agriculture at the university. I only spent two years and collected what they call the Inter B.Sc in those days. Thereafter, I left Ibadan University because I didn’t want to do agriculture anymore, and the Federal Government refused to change the scholarship to a medical scholarship. I had no choice than to throw away the scholarship and left for Lagos.

I began to teach Sciences in my old school, CMS Grammar School in Lagos, and then in 1957 I got another scholarship from the new Western Region headed by Obafemi Awolowo. The scholarship took me to England where I got admission to the medical school of Kings College in London. In London, I qualified as a medical doctor, did my houseman-ship in England, and came back as a young medical doctor to Nigeria in September 1963.

As a surgeon, what prompted you to study medicine?

We were in class six in 1951, and then a career officer came from one of the ministries in Lagos. And he gave a pep talk to the senior students in all the secondary schools in Nigeria. When he got to our school, he gathered our class, which was the outgoing class, and told us to adopt agriculture in higher studies because Nigeria was an agrarian society and the future rested on Nigeria developing her agriculture. Most of the money that came in with which to run the government of Nigeria came from agricultural produce such as groundnuts and oil palm.

So, this career officer went round the schools in Lagos telling us to adopt agriculture as our future course of study because he knew many of the boys wanted to study law and medicine. So, I was impressed by the lecture of that career officer, and said I would do agriculture.

We did the entrance examination to Ibadan University and I was among the 10 scholars in the whole of Nigeria to be awarded scholarship to study agriculture. When I got admitted I noticed that my fellow agricultural students were not happy with themselves and the course they were studying, probably if they had been good enough they would have been doing medicine not agriculture; and I was in their midst and couldn’t withstand it. I regarded myself not inferior to any other students in the university. Some of my classmates that year, the most famous was Wole Soyinka, Guobadia, among others.

So, I wrote to the Central Government, now Federal Government, to change the scholarship to medicine that I do not want to continue with agriculture anymore. Unfortunately, they replied that they would not change it.

Your career has taken you to many places. How was your professional journey like?

I became a civil servant as a medical officer in Central Hospital Benin City, and Asaba, as well as the General Hospital in Forcados where I looked after the Western Ijaw people. Thereafter, I was transferred to Uromi in Esanland, and I was the only doctor looking after the whole of Esanland from my hospital in Uromi. The Nigerian Civil War met me there and as the war went on, I became a doctor to the Biafra soldiers who were wounded in the Midwest.

When the federal troops were driving Biafra out of the Midwest, those who were wounded at Sabongida Ora, Iruekpen, Irrua were brought to my hospital at Uromi, and I looked after them. When it was time for the federal troops to capture Uromi, the Biafrans came with a big lorry, put all my patients in that lorry, and then drove them to Agbor.

Subsequently, the federal troops came in, took over Uromi, the whole of Esan, and within two days I started receiving federal soldiers; I placed them in the same bed I put Biafran soldiers. Thereafter, I was given a field commission and I became a Major in the Nigerian Army, and was made commander of the Base Hospital in Uromi, looking after the rear of the Second Division of the Nigerian Army. In 1969, before the civil war ended, I went back to Edinburgh, Scotland, to specialise in surgery. I worked all over England and Scotland before I finally returned to Nigeria with my wife and children.

When I got home, I was posted to Warri General Hospital as the consultant surgeon in charge. I worked there for two years before I was transferred to Benin City as the most senior surgeon in the whole of Bendel State. My base was at the Central Hospital Benin City, and I retired in 1978 with two of my colleagues, Dr. Igbinovia and Dr. Idehen. Afterwards, we established a private hospital called Azuwa Hospital; I was the surgeon there, Igbinovia was the physician while Idehen was the eye surgeon. We ran the hospital for many years until we became too old to practice medicine and then stopped practice.

What have you been doing since you retired from practice?

I started writing before I retired from practice. I am well known in Benin City as a writer and specialist in Benin History.

What are those memories of your early age you would like to talk about?

I remember very well in 1942, my dad backed me on his bicycle and we rode all the way from Benin City to today’s Aniocha after Issele-Uku. When we got there he also backed me up on his bicycle accompanied by his younger cousin who had his own bicycle, and we rode back to Benin City. In those days, there was no much tarred road. That journey took us about a day and half because we slept in a village close to Okhuahe stream.

In those days, journey between Benin City and Lagos took two days; you will leave in the morning, get to Osogbo at dusk, and sleep at a railway station. The following morning a train will stop at Osogbo and it will travel to Ibadan, Abeokuta and then arrive in Lagos at dusk.

The second experience was my school days at St. Peters. We had a great teacher in Standard Six who made us who we are today. He was such a great teacher that produced excellent students. The Primary Five School Leaving Certificate in the whole of Benin Province (that included Edo State and Anioma), there were 12 distinctions to be won by all primary schools. St. Peters got six of the 12 distinctions, and I think that demonstrates the quality of our school teacher. The teacher was a Yoruba man. He later left the Anglican Mission, and he was the one who started the Western Boy High School.

As an accomplished physician, what more would you like to achieve?

I regard myself as self-sufficient. One of the things I wanted to do after I became a doctor was to give exposure to the history of Benin. My dad knew a lot about the history of old Benin Empire and he told us interesting stories of the Benin Kingdom. And I felt that these stories should not get lost.

When I got to England in 1957, I went to the London Museum just as any tourists would do; I was surprised to see Benin artefacts such as the Benin bronze works. I was amazed at the attention the British people give to the Benin Culture in their capital city, London. It struck me that there must be something important about the history of Benin, and I decided to delve deeply in Benin History.

I came back home, in addition to practicing medicine and surgery, I began to put pen to paper only on history of Benin people. So far, I have put out about 13 publications.

What influenced your decision to write your first book titled IWU?

The most important book that gives me plenty of pleasure is the “IWU,” meaning the body markings of the Edo people. I was the one who conceptualise the Iwu dress that the Benin people are now wearing, particularly during marriages. I designed it and took it to the Palace in 1986 during the reign of Oba Erediauwa.

The Omo N’Oba after his coronation in 1979, he paid thank you visits to the different rulers in Nigeria who came to grace his occasion. When he arrived back home, I was with him one evening, the Oba told us a story that wherever he went to all the Edo people in that area will come to pay homage to him. He said one of the questions that they never failed to ask him was that the Benin people do not have anything that they can wear to tell other people looking on that they are Edo people.

After he finished the story, I thought about how the Edo man look like years ago. We know the Yoruba have their different tribal marks on their faces, while the Edo people had the Iwu on our bodies. Many years ago, a man who doesn’t have the Iwu on his body is not an Edo person. Then I thought we can no longer put the Iwu on our bodies, why don’t we put it on the dress we wear. Later, I designed it and took it to the palace, and the Omo N’Oba accepted it and we celebrated it in a form of a ceremony. Oba Erediauwa who sewed his own dress declared that the Edo man will be known by the dress.

Since 1986, we the Edo people now have our own dress. I saw that the people were now forgetting what the Iwu was to the Edo of old so I decided to write on it so the Edo people will not forget. The book is titled, Iwu, the body markings of Edo people. Some of the other published books are, Erediauwa: Prince of Benin; Benin City: The Edo State capital; the Benin City pilgrimage stations; Christianity and Edo State; The Edo man of the 20th Century; Elegbe: The Prince of Benin; Ughoton; Benin Traditional Marriage Ceremony, and Ewuare II: The Oba of Benin.

Are you fulfilled at 90?

I am really fulfilled. I had a good professional life as a doctor and as a surgeon, and that is the ordinary type of life a professional would like to have. But the thing that has given me plenty of pleasure is the fact that I became a writer and historian. So, I became more than what I learnt in university because I didn’t learn how to be a writer or historian in the university. I came back and then people now know me as a writer and historian; this was something over and above what I was trained for.

I have had many joyful moments. After I left Ibadan University, I started teaching sciences. One of the most prestigious students I thought in CMS Grammar School in Lagos is Ernest Shonekan, former head of state.

The most joyful moment was when I was given a scholarship because my parents didn’t have the means to send me abroad to study. As God would have it, I got a scholarship to study medicine. I never thought I would get the opportunity of travelling to England for studies because my parents wouldn’t have been able to send me there. So, it was the refusal of University of Ibadan to give me second admission that sent me off to England to study medicine, and then I became a British medical doctor.

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