A light shone brightly on November 22, 1925 as Francis S. Obioha was born to parents, Mazi Nna Obioha and Udenwa of the Obioha Mgboli family of Ndi Akeme. His mother was the last wife of Nna Obioha, a man of great respect and candor. Little Francis took his place in the large family as one of 22 surviving children of Nna Obioha and the only surviving son of his mother with three sisters.
Francis (more fondly called Sunday at this time) quickly distinguished himself from his peers as his love for learning blossomed at St. Philips Grammar School. His pursuit of education was not deterred by the lack of options; consequently, he attended the only available school program at Hope Waddell School (in Cross River State, Nigeria). When it came time to choose a career, Francis sought the counsel of his unschooled father, who was yet very willing to support him in his pursuit of excellence in education. Asked to present his options, young Sunday described to his father that engineering would afford him an opportunity to be involved in the design and building of the nation, Nigeria. However, law was another option that would give him the opportunity to try cases and bring justice to people, while medicine would afford him an opportunity to treat and see that people are well. His father suggested to Sunday that he should choose medicine as his career. Because Hope Waddell offered only Art courses, Sunday sought and gained admission into a school in Lagos that offered him courses in Science and thus prepared him for Medical School.
With his father’s blessing, Francis set off to Yaba College of Medicine (Lagos State) and University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan in Western Nigeria. Graduating at the very young age of 25, Dr. Francis Obioha was one of the first set of medical doctors to be graduated from Univ. of Ibadan. Indeed, they were the first set of doctors graduated from a Nigerian University because prior to that, UCH was a subsidiary of the University of London. Many of his colleagues would frequently recall to his children who followed his calling the type of person and physician and just what an honorable person Dr. Francis Obioha was.
In hindsight, it appears quite significant that Dr. Francis would change his middle name at this time. To honor his parents’ spiritual intent in naming him and preserve the initial “S”, Sunday would become Sochukwumaodinivu (meaning “Only God knows what lies ahead”). So for his graduation and thereafter, Francis Obioha became known as Dr. Francis Sochukwuma Obioha; by friends, family and colleagues, as Dr. F.S.; and by the whole town as just “Doctor.”
In addition to being one of the first doctors that Nigeria could call her own, Dr. Francis Obioha was the first medical doctor in his hometown Arondizuogu. He subsequently pursued further studies at the London School of Public Health.
Career and Service
From the onset, Dr. Francis Obioha was very dedicated to his profession of Medicine and launched into what he thought would be a promisingly long career of healing the ailing. It turned out, as God would have it, that he would have a rather short career but one that was imbued with expertise, compassion, and godliness.
With one of his first postings, working for the government of Nigeria, he took up an assignment to the Regional Hospital in Kuumba, Cameroun, at a time when Cameroon was zoned with the Eastern part of Nigeria. Twenty or so years later, Stella ran into a Camerounian classmate at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife Medical School whose mother could not stop talking about the handsome doctor who touched so many lives in Cameroun.
Marriage, Family, and Love
His mentors, Dede Onyima Obioha and Alvin Ikoku, did not let him stay too busy at work and encouraged him to get married. Needless to say, there was no shortage of eligible ladies, but God had selected one special lady for him.
Papa met the love of his life, Cecilia, at Mount Carmel Teachers Training College, Emekuku where she was studying to become a teacher. In this search for a suitable wife, he was more than strongly encouraged to seek out Cecilia’s hand in marriage. It is said that Mama was not to be quickly swept away and did give Papa a hard time. She had always insisted it was not love at first sight but it wouldn’t take long for her to realize that she had landed herself the most eligible bachelor in Arondizuogu.
After a brief, adventurous, yet very romantic courtship, they were wedded on Easter Monday 1955 at St. Philips Church, Ndi-Akeme and what a wedding it was. Many years after, the maids of honor would retell the story of a magical, love-filled event.
The young couple settled down at Eke, Udi Local Government in the old Eastern Region of Nigeria where Dr. F.S. worked as the Medical Officer. Francis and Cecilia were blessed with their first child, Lillian, on March 12, 1956. From Udi, the young family moved to Port Harcourt where Frank Obi was born November 15, 1957. Cecilia would discover that Francis was the perfect father. Despite his work schedule, he would have her sleep through the night sometimes and stay up with the babies, a chore he continued to perform even as the family was blessed with more children.
Their blissful union was interspersed with work and family relocations but also with romantic get a-ways. Dr. F.S took his wife on a tour of Europe and then they settled in Calabar for a short time. Thereafter, he was transferred to Port Harcourt again where the family grew to include Stella, Philip, and Charles. Balancing work and family was a big thing for Dr. F.S. and he was known for his hunting pastime, many times with little Charles in tow. Dr. F.S. was the softy, while Cecilia was the disciplinarian– a perfect recipe for the upbringing of these new additions to a young family that rooted itself in its Christian faith and immense love.
It was during these early years, after having been in General medical practice, that Dr. Obioha was admitted into the University of London where he specialized in Preventive Medicine and Tropical Diseases. He participated integrally in research to eliminate YAWS, a disease similar to leprosy that has now been eradicated.
A relocation to Onitsha occurred when Dr. Obioha was promoted to Senior Medical Officer. Rosaire joined the clan. Onitsha turned out to be most eventful and witnessed the acquaintance of many endearing family friendships. Mama had begun teaching and so it was also a very busy but fulfilling time in their lives.
During his tenure in Onitsha as the Senior Medical Officer, Dr. F. S. Obioha organized and immunized all school children against common communicable diseases, the greatest cause of infant and children’s mortality. Dr. Obioha was known widely in the Eastern Region of Nigeria for his relentless efforts to keep children healthy. He also supervised the inspection of food imported into Eastern Nigeria from overseas, ensuring that they were free from damage and disease and fit for consumption by the public.
By 1966, Nigeria’s political woes took a turn for the worse with a political coup. The young family moved to Enugu, capital of Eastern Nigeria. The reality of war dawned on the young family in 1967 even as Ogundu joined the family as the baby of the family. During the civil war, Dr. F.S. again moved his family to Arondizuogu.
It was a period of untold hardships. Yet, with the support of his wife, Cecilia, who had imbibed his heart for humanity, Dr. F.S. Obioha devoted his time to the sick, wounded, and ailing whether at home or on the battle field. As the civil war raged on and with the assistance of the Catholic Caritas Organization, Dr. F. S. set up a sick bay at the National Secondary School, Arondizuogu. The center provided training to nurses and assistants and treated the sick, but it also offered a distribution center where food items like rice, salt and egg yolk were given to the people — all to prevent the menace of starvation or Kwashiorkor. He was a physician to the core and was persistent in his efforts to treat the whole person and bring people back to life and hope.
Dr. F.S. Obioha served the community medically and in all other areas he deemed fit. He held free clinics out of the home garage in Arondizuogu and went to his sister-in law’s nearby needs.
In spite of the hardships, he continued to run his family with perfect love. Dr. F.S. was deeply involved in village activities. He held a very prominent presence at the Church, and also championed the building of St. Philip’s Catholic Church . Even though he had to work far away from home, he headed the choir in the Church by having all his children in the choir. He started the Red Cross also in Arondizuogu during the civil war, making all his children members of the Red Cross.
Extremely devout in his faith, Papa instilled the fear and love of God in his family. The family had a routine of praying together every night. The daily family devotions were taken extremely seriously in the Obioha home and Papa loved having his able assistant, Stella, send out the call for prayer time with “Prayers, Ekpele” at the designated times. More interestingly, in 1967, Dr. Obioha, as the brainchild behind the building of the St. James Diocese, Akokwa, single- handedly set up the initial planning meetings and fundraising. Bishop Unegbu gladly signed on thereafter and work continued in establishing the parish even after Dr. F.S. was gone. Dr. Francis was knighted in the Order of St. Lumumba.
Humanitarian Service: The Doctor Who Loved to Serve
Dr. Francis Obioha’s service to the people was legendary and space and time would not permit to tell it all. Angela recounts stories that even in these times seem implausible. Dr. F.S. Obioha was known to treat the whole person, so the first question a patient would be presented with was “Have you eaten? “ to which a negative response would necessitate the patient getting physically nourished before consult. In a similar manner, Papa was known to treat first, get paid or send the patients home with money in their pockets!
Another story out of the numerous accounts of his resolute kindness is of meeting an injured couple on the road, victims of an apparent motorcycle accident. Papa turned his car around, picked them up and drove them to the hospital. A Good Samaritan act like that which would typically engender suspicion and fear was normal in his worldview. Upon arriving at the hospital, a nurse was said to have responded matter-of -fact, “Oh, Only Dr. Obioha [would do such a thing].”
Godfrey grew up with the family but it wouldn’t have been news except this was a boy lost on the streets. When Papa and Mama found this orphaned child, they took him home and got him in school the next day. The Obioha children were accustomed to such occasional additions to the big family and were taught to make room at the table for strangers and friends alike. Papa loved having everybody over to the house and would invite all to eat from the same pot.
Everywhere Francis worked, he left an indelible mark that his colleagues, co-workers and friends would never forget and they all spoke very highly of him. Honor and integrity followed him everywhere he went. Indeed even at a young age, Dr. F.S. extended his generosity, resources and good wishes well beyond his immediate family. He had a very philanthropic spirit, assisting everyone who came his way and needed some kind of help. So as his children growing up, we thought naturally that he belonged to everyone as some kind of parent, friend and or mentor. We readily accepted relatives, guests and others into our family. We had to share Papa, no questions asked. Dr. F.S. was a most inclusive person. His brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and even distant relatives were welcome at Doctor’s home at all times with no prior notice.
It was on one of Dr. Francis Obioha’s call to duty, taking care of the wounded at war, that he took ill. After a very brief illness, while doing the very thing he was born to do, Dr. Francis S. Obioha passed into glory on Oct 15th 1969 at the age of 43.
It is said that when the women of Arondizuogu heard of the news of his passing, they abandoned their baskets and goods at the market place in disbelief and shock. They had to find out for themselves if such an impossible thing could have happened. And sure enough, Papa had been called home leaving his beloved 35 year-old Cecilia to raise the children.
Dr. Obioha had enjoyed a very close and intimate relationship and friendship with his wife Cecilia. They complemented each other to near perfection, and it’s remained hard to tell one’s story without the other. They shared common interests like listening to classical and various types of music and they both loved dancing. They raised their children with so much love and godliness. Life for Cecilia, as she would frequently tell the children, was bliss with their father. They made GOD the center of the family life, — and GOD never forgot His covenant with Francis and Cecilia. Cecilia would often tell the children that she asked God for a good husband, and He granted her wish! When Dr. F.S. would pass on at a tender age, one of their friends would say to Cecilia, “So this is where your own trials lie. That life was too perfect!” Their love for each other was so strong that Cecilia herself almost succumbed to death at Papa’s passing were it not for the prayers of many saints. The Lord would give her another 34 years to raise their children, calling her home in 2003 at age 69.
Dr. F.S. Obioha’s love for the Lord, for education and for humanity culminates in an enduring legacy that is not only evident in the children he raised with Cecilia, but also in all the many lives he touched. It is not surprising that long after he had passed on, 14-15 years later, his young assistant and 10-year old daughter Stella would go on to become a doctor herself. Charles, Ogundu and many grandchildren would follow in his footsteps to become physicians in Maryland, and Angela a Nurse Practitioner in New Orleans. Doctor and Cecilia’s legacy spans public service with Lillian Nnennia serving as Permanent Secretary in Imo State; in business and industry with Obi and Philip as Engineers in Enugu and Lagos respectively; and in education with Rosaire as a Professor of Education in Ohio.
Dr. Francis S. Obioha’s spirit of philanthropy and service has inspired careers, service, and love in not just his immediate family but also in NdiAkeme, Arondizuogu, Eastern Nigeria, and beyond. His light still shines.
Written by Frank Obi Obioha 2011
“And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” (Gen. 17:7)