STAMFORD — Joseph Okogun, a native of Nigeria and parishioner at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, has written an account of his late father’s life, which explores the African cultures and traditions that influenced him.
“The Life of an Enigma,” which is available on Amazon, is a biographical account of the life and times of John Okogun Omovuon of Ewohimi, who died in 1993 at 88 and witnessed many historical events during the transition from the British colonial era into independence. The Federal Republic of Nigeria, situated in West Africa is the most populous country on the continent with more than 250 ethnic groups that speak some 500 different languages.
Joseph Okogun, who has a doctorate in chemistry and has had a distinguished career teaching in universities worldwide, began work on the biography in 1971 while he was a professor of chemistry at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
“At that time we had our second child, and my father decided to visit us and during his stay, he started to tell his life story, and I put it on cassette,” Okogun recalled.
Okogun, who teaches chemistry at Westchester Community College, worked for more than four years on the project, which is based on considerable research that he did with written records, tapes and lectures.
“‘The Life of an Enigma’ reveals interesting and unusual experiences for anyone interested in anthropology and African studies,” he said. It recounts the life and culture of John Okogun who was an herbalist, seer and respected fetish priest.
Joseph Okogun was excited by the amount of material his father left behind in his native language Esan, which included his philosophy on life, social mobility, spirituality and political systems.
“I knew that it would be a challenge, but I decided that I had to write it,” he recalled. “I just kept the recording and thought about it over the years. I also made copies and sent them to his children. When I came to the United States, I said, ‘OK, I must do something about this.’”
He and his wife Justina, who have six children, belong to St. John the Evangelist.
John Okogun was a polygamist and his first wife was Joseph’s mother. He was born circa 1905 before the country of Nigeria existed. It was not until 1914 that the British created the country in West Africa.
“This is not a catalogue of what Okogun did or did not do,” Joseph said. “It is a story of the structure of the society, its values, cultures and traditions during his life, and his efforts to navigate the changing times over the period of his over 80 years on Earth to rise from being an early orphan to becoming a legend in his community.”
Among the cultural traditions that Joseph explores in the book are the creation of the stay-at-home female child who functioned as a man in the family. In addition, he discusses the traditional Ewohimi society’s strong taboo against teenage pregnancies, which were exceptionally rare. The parents of the bride were considered responsible for raising a “pure and chaste virgin.” And the daughter was applauded for being faithful to the guidance of her mother and father.
If a daughter became pregnant while with her parents, the newborn child was considered that of the parents until the biological father married her. Abortion was unheard of.
John Okogun was the only son of his mother, and his family dissuaded him from pursuing a formal education so he would stay at home.
His sisters effectively stopped him from getting a Western education because they feared he would pursue a profession and no one would be there to run the family estate.
This unfulfilled desire for education motivated him later in life to sacrifice so that his more than 20 children would have a formal education. It also inspired him to found a primary school for children.
Joseph, who was very quiet as a child, recalls the love his father had for him.
“He loved me very much and was very anxious that I succeed in life,” he said. “He was a good man, but he didn’t go to school and was very keen that all his children went to school. He made sure we grew up to be people of integrity who worked hard.”
Okogun, himself, excelled in his education and in his profession as a chemist and educator.
He is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, a consultant at Paxherbal Clinics and Research Laboratories, Benedictine Monastery in Nigeria; and a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
He was also a Commonwealth Academic Research Fellow at Imperial College in London and the Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Darmstadt and Hannover, Germany.
He holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
In addition to telling the story of his father’s life, “The Life of an Enigma” is “an anthropological, sociological and religious inquiry into the cultures and traditions of the Edo and Delta States of Nigeria during the lifetime of John Okogun.”
Joseph says that it offers a glimpse into “British colonialism and African culture, Nigerian history, Christianity in Africa, African spiritualism and indigenous studies. The dance culture of the people, including the Esan acrobatic dance, is described, and Joseph, with his expertise as a natural products chemist, offers insights into the herbalism that his father practiced.
“He was a very strict man,” Joseph said. “He loved his children and gave them attention and guided them.”
He was also “Christian in mind,” Joseph says. And he told his family, “If I am holy enough, I will go to God.”