She turned 80 years old yesterday, May 27. Mrs. Arit Bassey Ukpong is a blessed mother of 7 children, among whom is a renowned lawyer cum commentator on contemporary issues, EdoAbasi Ukpong, as well as grandmother of 22. Her husband, a retired soldier and educationist, Bassey Ukpong Udo of blessed memory, was Chairman of Ikono local government area.
In this interview with IME SILAS of THE PROFILE NEWSPAPER, Mrs. Arit, a retired teacher relieves her experiences in life, one of which being the inspiring story of her educational pursuit

Congratulations, Ma. To the glory of God, you are 80 years old and still very strong. May we meet you?

My maiden name is Arit Udo Bassey from Ikot Eshiet in Ibiono Ibom local government area of Akwa Ibom state. My father was the Clan Head. My mother was Nkoyo Udo Bassey from Utit Obio in the same Ibiono local government. 

We would love to hear more about your early life.

I happen to come from a very large family and my mother was the third wife. I was the first daughter but the second child of the family. It happened that in that local area, western education then was not very common. What were in vogue then were going to farm, taking  care of the young ones, and so on.

My father was a Christian and he brought Lutheran Church to the area. He established a school from infant One to Standard Four.Some of my brothers went to school but I, initially, was not allowed to go to school just like other female children. I was supposed to stay home and take care of the babies that my mother would be having. So one day, I went to a nearby village and one elderly man saw me and asked ‘Arit, why are you not going to school, after all, your father has money?’ I couldn’t answer, so I kept quiet. That was in December. In January, the next year, when school resumed, I just got up one day, dressed up and went to school. And nobody questioned me.
So when it was time to pay school fees, I did not have anybody to go and ask for the money, because nobody asked me to go to school. So one day, one of my cousins, Ime Udousoro Inyang, who is now the Okuku (Paramout Ruler) of Ibiono Ibom, saw me sweeping the compound while they were going to school.

So he asked me: “Arit, are you not going to school?”  And I replied no; they drove me from school because of school fees’. So they just said: ‘OK’, and passed to school. Then, my father who had heard the conversation called me and asked how much my school fees was and I told him 9 Pence (then). He quietly went into the house and brought out the money and gave to me. That was how I returned to school confidently from that time, although my mother was not in support.

So how were you able to continue especially that your mother was not in support?

It was my teachers’ consistent report of my brilliance to my parents that really moved them to encourage me in school. So at the end of Standard Four, there was no where for me to go to because that was where our school stopped. It happened that one man, Okon Archibong, the founder and owner of Archibong Memorial Grammar School, one day came and told my father that there was one Lutheran School at Nung Oku Ibesikpo, with just two classes: Primary 5 and 6 for girls only.

So my father took me there. And at the end, I was the overall second best. Luckily, I was my father’s favourite. Whatever they told him to do for me, he did. When I finished that level, I was taken to the Church of Scotland Mission School, Ikot Obong, Ibiono.
But the school then did not want to admit anyone who was not from their Mission and I was of the Lutheran Church. I was to do a one year PTC course there to qualify me as a Pupil Teacher. So for me to qualify, I had to go and do another one year standard 6. Upon completion, my father requested that I should be posted to my village which they obliged. That was how I became  a pupil teacher.

And I guess you got married immediately?

Yes, you know, incidentally, while I was in that school in Ikot Obong, I had written a letter because of that situation of going back to school as a condition before being admitted. So when Mr. Okon Archibong received the letter, he was so impressed after reading its contents. After reading the letter, he showed it to a family friend who had been my future husband’s schoolmate in Afikpo. So when he got the letter, he showed it to his friends and said ‘do you see what a Primary school pupil can write; have you seen this type of English?’. So my husband happened to be one of those he showed the letter to. So without knowing or seeing me, he concluded that ‘this is the wife I am going to marry’.

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 So when he finished his Teachers’ Training Grade two and came back to where he was teaching in Itam, as providence would have it, he was incidentally transferred to the school in my village where I was teaching. That was how we met for the first time and he told me of the letter episode, saying that he had made up his mind to marry me from the moment he saw the letter I wrote. 

By the special grace of God, I was very good at mathematics, English, Home economics, etc. So he encouraged me to further my education.

Your husband was also a Soldier?

Yes. But after our marriage, he was still teaching in Primary school. But  there was strong  opposition when he wanted to marry me given that as the daughter of a prominent man, as my father was, coupled with my outstanding brilliance, my husband was seen as a commoner. I remember when that Okon Archibong asked me ‘do you know that if you were in London, you would have been a child of a Lord. So would you be a child of a Lord and be married to a commoner?’ But in all of these, my husband was not deterred. He focused on self development.

He took GCE; had his papers and went to Ife (University). When he graduated, he was posted to Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar to teach higher school.So, it was towards the end of the civil war and things were gradually returning to normal that someone brought to him a newspaper advert that graduate teachers were needed in the Army Education Corps. That’s how he joined the army and his first posting was Zaria.

Tell us a little about the life of a Soldier’s wife?

You know, my husband, just like you have the Medical Corps, joined as a professional. He wasn’t an infantry soldier. He was together with Major-General Edet Akpan that has just passed on. They were about five colleagues from this area, including the the then former Military Governor of Cross River state, the Late Dan Archibong.

It was when my husband was posted to Ibadan as Assistant Director of Army Education, that we started mingling with the infantry officers and families. That was when we met the current President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who was then the General Officer Commanding that Division. The wife very amiable and used to organize games for officers wives. Otherwise there wasn’t much interaction among us women per se. 

We hear you are a very religious woman, leading other women in Church. How did you cope with your teaching career and family?

Fantastic! The best thing that happened to me in life is when I met Christ. That was when we were in Lagos in 1986 and my life started having meaning. Although I didn’t really know, because as someone who was so good at quoting the Bible, I thought it was just about knowing the Bible. We used to have Bible competitions. 

At one occasion, I came second. The next one in Ika Annang, I came first. So probably, I was only priding myself as knowing everything in the Bible, whereas I didn’t know much about God. At a point, I started reading the Bible and so many scriptural journals by renowned men of God. Gradually, I started hearing God speaking to me. How did I know this? If I had problems, I will go to God in serious prayers, asking Him to show me the answer.In most cases, God would just tell me the bible portion to go to and once I read that portion, I will feel relieved because that problem would be solved.

There was a time I had a problem and when I prayed, God told me: ‘go to Romans Chapter 8’. So when I heard it I asked, ‘if you are the one, tell me the verse’. Behold, God just said ‘Verse 8’. When I read that passage, it was exactly what I wanted. So that’s how my problems were solved. And that has been my lifestyle and anywhere I go, people know me for that. 

So, how were you able to achieve your enviable academic heights?

When you set your mind to do anything, with God on your side, you will achieve it. In fact your planning doesn’t even matter much. It is God that directs you. When I went to further my education at the Technical College of Education, Akoka, I was going from my house at Ikeja. It’s a long story. All my children were in school. So I will run from home to school throughout the first year after which I got an accommodation in the hostel. It wasn’t easy. My husband was posted to the Ibadan 2nd Division.
Once I didn’t have lectures, I had to run from school to the market to buy food stuff to prepare for my family, and so on. I coped well. For the spiritual angle, it was okay. I was normally engaged for some spiritual works in the church.

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I used to organize fellowships for different classes of people like women who were looking for the fruit of the womb. I tried to encourage them, using my experience as a case study. I told them that just as God did it for me, He will do it for them. Thank God, the programs were effective and people had testimonies.I remember  a certain woman who was having the problem of childlessness. It wasn’t long after we prayed, God answered us and she took in. Yet, there were still spiritual attacks but with the power of God through effectual prayers, the woman successfully put to birth and after that encounter, she had other children. So God has been using me effectively to solve people’s problems. 

Madam, you’re a retired teacher and am sure you could still recall your days. Do you think teachers have anything to do to improve the standard of our education? 

Yes! It starts with the teachers and ends with the teachers, although there is also the environmental factor.

In our days when we were teachers, our pupils and students used to do well. For instance, my husband was teaching the final year of Higher School; his field was History. All his students passed their final examinations. In our days, we used to have continuous assessment records to assess the students. You see the teachers who didn’t have cars carrying those voluminous continuous assessment booklets on their heads. That was commitment. But those kinds of commitments are lacking today with our teachers.

Unfortunately, you see some teachers today who would not even read the students’ scripts before they mark them. In my days, I used to teach Economics. I will read the students’ scripts line-by-line and correct spellings and grammar. A teacher who is committed will be able to spot areas where students are lacking. 

Where it needs involving the parents or guardians, the teacher would do so. The teacher has to encourage the students, tell them about a better future and how to achieve success in life. These are ways to encourage and motivate the students.The use of the cane does not help. It was when I went to college that I was taught that teachers have to deal with students according to their temperaments. Some of them are stubborn while some are obedient. You counsel them according to their temperament and characters.

Well Ma, you may not have been a politician. But is there any area you think our politicians could improve to better our society?

Of course every human is a political animal; but it depends on your level of involvement. I am remotely a politician. But unfortunately the way politics is played in Nigeria justifies the adage that politics is a dirty game. A lot of people who are close to me always appreciate my contributions on political issues. 

Like when my my son’s (EdoAbasi) mother in-law, who once contested for Presidency in the country under the so called option A4, heard me contribute politically she was encouraging me to come out and register in a political party. I told her that politics is too dirty in Nigeria. Without sounding immodest, I am a very honest person. I have sworn to my God never to tell any lie no matter how small it is. You see people go for campaigns; they talk and talk but when they are voted into power, they do some other thing. That’s why I didn’t join politics actively. (cuts)

But you can still advise…

You see, even if I mount the podium to speak, I will tell our politicians that our politics is dirty. When you look at the way politics is played in saner climes you will appreciate it.

Look at what happened during the last presidential election in the US. You saw how the table was turned honestly against the other presidential candidate who was leading. But here, people do all sort of diabolical things, rig, and kill; all in the name of elections.Talking about improvement, that can only be made possible by God. Like the Bible has stated “If my people that are called by name humble themselves, and pray and turn away from their wicked ways; I will hear them and I will heal their land”.

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 If our leaders pray earnestly to God, He can improve our governance. Those of us who have conscience find it difficult to join what they are doing in the name of electioneering. You see people collect monies from people and promise to vote for them only for them go and do some other thing.If our people can be God-fearing, having the interest of the masses at heart, and not thinking only of themselves, then we can have some improvements. Then you would see people of substance and conscience coming out. For now, we can only pray that God would take us there, although it may take a long time.

You have been a widow for some time now, yet, still very strong. Is there any secret you may wish to share with other widows?

As I said earlier that my type of widow is different, there are women whose husbands died when they were still very young, still needing their husbands to play the father figure. I also said earlier that everything about me starts and ends with God. So such women should look up to God and depend solely on Him.

Just like it is recorded in the Bible that when your mother and father forsake you, the Lord would help and keep you. Especially in a situation where their husbands’ families would not want to help, they should depend on God and be honest. They should not go to hang around dubious people who would want to take undue advantage of them.They should always be content with what they have believing that whatever remains, God would provide at appropriate time.

Mommy, at 80, you are still very healthy and happy. Is there any secret?

Materially, none! However, my secret is God. I remember in those days in Lagos when my first son, EdoAbasi came home from school, Kings College and I would drive him around. So any little thing on the road I would say ‘God!!!’ , and my son would ask, ‘Mommy, how does God come in here?’. So I would tell him in everything, acknowledge and  depend on God!

Although, as someone who is exposed, having travelled to many places around the world, there are certain kinds of food I may not take at this age. At times you hear nutritionists emphasize on fiber and all of that. I take a lot of liquid and beverages and, in fact I didn’t use to be selective about food. It’s just at this old age that they may say ‘take this’, ‘avoid that’. But I think ultimately, the secret is God. I try to depend solely on God, not allowing many things to bother me.That is not to say that I have no challenges. But when you know that there is nothing you can do, except God, you will automatically have the peace of mind.

Any regrets?

I don’t have any regrets. Although there are times I have certain unpleasant occurrences, but most times I realized that God was using them to teach me something better.

Ma, tell us about your children and grandchildren  

By the grace of God I am blessed with seven children and they are all highly accomplished in different fields. I have a lawyer, an engineer, medical doctors, Ph.D holders and other technocrats. I am very proud of all of them. All of them are also blessed with their own children and so I have 22 grandchildren all healthy and doing well. I really thank God for his love and faithfulness.

What are those beautiful memories you would love to share?

There are lots of them. You know, all the travelling is very educating. For instance, when we were in the North, we enjoyed our time there very much. In fact my children used to say that when they finish school, they would love to work and stay in the North. That was because we enjoyed our stay. And most importantly, when I see my children achieving so much, by the special grace of God, it gives me joy. So I would say, I have good memories of life. God has been faithful to me and my family.

Thank you very much, Ma, for your time.

The pleasure is mine.