The name, Raymond Amos Ekpu, was first mentioned to yours sincerely when my head was at my present knee level by a man called Idongesit Sandy Ekanem, my first and best teacher ever. They were classmate at Qua Iboe Church Group School, Ikot Akpa Idem, the second primary school attended by the former, where they passed out with First School Leaving Certificate after examination conducted by the then Eastern Region of Nigeria on December 4, 1959. I learnt, even in his primary school days, he preferred shortening his name to Ray, which is what almost everyone, even in his native community in Akwa Ibom, calls him till date.
From the beginning, there was something inherently rare in Ray that could make him, like anything rare, stand out among array of others. His surname, Ekpu, is rarely given to humans in his nativity. Ekpu in Akwa Ibom, literally means rat. In fact, in Annang dialect, the connotative meaning of ekpu, is as it is in English language. It is not complimentary but insulting to refer one, whether directly or indirectly, to ekpu.
Ray stood out in his classes right from the first primary school he attended, Qua Iboe Church Group School, Ikot Akpan Afaha, not because of his unique surname but on account of his exceptional brilliancy. His classmates have been testifying to his superlative performances in writing of composition. Then in school, he was comparatively poor in Mathematics but not poor on average assessment of the subject. At his higher school days at Holy Family College, Abak, he took his prowess in prose composition to reporting football matches played in the school on the school’s notice board.
It could not be established whether an older classmate of his at the last primary school he attended, who was addressed “Sir” even by his fellow classmates, was cashing-in on Ray’s surname or his being one of the smallest in the class to giving him slave-like treatment by asking him to fetch water for him again and again from a trekking distance of an hour. But even after Ray had graduated from the University of Lagos and began a rousing career in journalism in the Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar, he had, at least once, been at receiving end of prejudice action because of his surname. A young lady, even when Ray was a young man full of accoutrement of boyishness and brighter future, turned down his advances only on account of his surname. Today, notwithstanding that the family name remains what it was, the same woman, would want her daughter to marry a great grandson of Ekpu, born by a woman who loves Ray and all about him, condone and coddle him from cradle of their love life, bears brunt of his trials and reaps from his triumphs in journalism.
Long before he clocked 70, and from his days in the Nigerian Chronicle in the ’70s to his sojourn in Daily Times and National Concord in the ‘80s, to the trailblazing of Newswatch in the mid ‘80s, the name Ekpu has undoubtedly become a brand because of Ray’s excellent exploit in his journalism journey, that has, so far, spanned 45 years. Outside Akwa Ibom, Ekpu is often pronounced with English-nisation. Recently, a 27-year old female journalist, who is bubbling with passion for excellence in journalism, enquired from me of Ray’s nationality. She was shocked on hearing that the iconic journalist is not only a Nigerian but from Annang part of Akwa Ibom, where she also hails from.
There are a number of persons named Ekpu. This writer only knows of two popular Ekpus – septuagenarian Ray Ekpu and octogenarian Patrick Ebosele Ekpu, an Archbishop emeritus of Catholic Archdiocese of Benin City. The two popular Ekpus are from different tribes and cultures, hence the likelihood of different meanings of their names. However, Ray has abused the minds of those superstitiously attaching fortune to names. A number of people in Akwa Ibom have changed their first names and surnames from the native language to English, particularly where such names seem not so complimentary or not in sync with Anglo-mania modernization. They do not mind that the Bushes had been in the White House as Presidents just as they have also been governors in the United States.
Ray’s father, Chief Amos Ekpu, had already given the name a niche, albeit around his locality. Apart from marrying five wives, having massive farm lands and palm fruits, he was a member of Customary Court of Appeal in his locality. It was the newspapers he bought that Ray read and fell in love with written words. Ray never leverage on his father’s name. In fact, he went against his father’s wish to study Law, choosing Mass Communication instead. Unfortunately, his father could not lived long enough to savour Ray’s sterling strides that blossom from his teething to twilight trip in journalism; he would have been a Queen’s Counsel or Nigeria’s equivalent of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, where he a lawyer and replicated his exploits in journalism.
My first teacher, who had the memory of elephant and knack for telling stories, even though he said he was better in subjects that had to do with figures than words, was always mentioning their days in school with Ray with nostalgia. He was exemplifying Ray to buttress that once upon a time – when they were growing up – there was a country, apologies to Chinua Achebe. His stories were pointers that had many of them proceeded in education there would have been many rare gems in diverse areas of life from that era. Indeed, had Ray had his growing up days when there are appears to be no country it is doubtful whether the rare gem in him would not had been rotten by systemic failures bedeviling the Nigerian society in every sector.
Ray believes that “the leader changes everything …” That belief might have accounted for why he dedicated event marking his 70 years in life and 45 years in journalism to a colloquium on Nigeria’s leadership question. At the well attended event last week in Lagos, chaired by Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria’s former minister of External Affairs, and moderated by Dan Agbese, Ray’s age-long colleague, Emmanuel Ekuwem, the Secretary to Akwa Ibom State government, had in his contribution traced what he described as “cumulative deteriorating level of leadership in all ramifications” in Nigeria to failure of leadership from the lowest rung in our society. He therefore, called for fixing of the leadership quest from the lowest to the highest levels in Nigeria.
Arising from Ekuwem’s remark and the need for continual sustenance of the theme of the colloquium, what this writer put in a tribute to Don Etiebet’s 71st birthday, posted by Daily Independent on October 26, 2015, is worth repeating here: “In the reckoning of this writer, Chief Don Etiebet and Mr. Ray Ekpu are, in a number of ways, the most prominent figures in the federal constituency called Ukanafun-Oruk Anam. At least, both of them have names known in every informed household in Nigeria. Sadly, successive representatives of the constituency since 1999 in Abuja have no ilk of the duo and have failed woefully in their doings at the lower chamber of Nigeria’s federal parliament to let Nigerians of elsewhere recognize the constituency even in Nigeria’s map.”
If Ekuwem’s suggestion is worth working on, as considered by yours truly, Mr. Ekpu, has a challenge to further the narratives on Nigeria’s leadership quagmire from his geo-political constituency by joining forces with other activists in the constituency to let the political class and the electorate see reasons in sending a person with prosperous pedigree and potency for effective and efficient representation to the parliament in 2019. After all, though not a politician, Ekpu is well respected even among the political class!
. Ekanem, a journalist, sent this from Lagos through [email protected].