WHY I STILL WEAR MY ARMY UNIFORM 40 YEARS AFTER THE CIVIL WAR - OKEKE
Mr Pius Ogbonnia Okeke a.k.a Old Soldier, who is partially physically challenged, has ostensibly overcome selfishness as he is no longer thinking about himself, but how to help others.
Thus for more than a decade, he has always been spotted along the busy Eme-Court junction, along Owerri road in the commercial city of Nnewi trying to serve humanity.
For him, ferrying little school children, adults and motorists across the busy Eme-Court junction in Nnewi, is a personal vow he must fulfill on a daily basis, though he is poor and physically challenged. Okeke, who hails from Umuofo, a little village in Okija, Ihala Local Government Area of Anambra State, has dedicated his life to protecting the lives of visitors and other people that travel across Anambra South secretarial zone.
He would defy the scorching sun and the rain to make sure that road accidents were avoided and lives saved.
'I have done several traffic jobs for as long as I know. There was this I.T.T security company that I worked for, which was owned by white men (expatriates) that built most roads around this Nnewi. Also, before the onset of the war, I worked at the PZ junction and at Ziks roundabout, all in Onitsha,' Okeke recalled.
Joining the army
Before the outbreak of the civil war, Okeke, the old soldier, reportedly was a licensed herbalist, handing out herbal drugs for malaria and other tropical illnesses. He would have gone on to become a great traditional medical practitioner, he claimed, if he was not conscripted into the army.
According to him, at the outbreak of the civil war in 1967, he joined other young men of his age to fight on the Biafran side.
He belonged to the 54th Brigade, stationed at Otuocha, in the northern part of Anambra State and had risen to the rank of a staff sergeant. In those days, he recalled that they would be sent as part of a team to scout for the army, and that was probably where he honed his ferrying skills.
'The war made me sharp. You are trained to sense danger a kilometer away. Even though many of my skills are now rusty, it has helped me save countless lives, a countless time on this road,' he said.
Asked why he still dons army fatigues 40 years after the war, he retorted: 'Can't you see I enjoy this uniform, because of it, those who would not ordinarily stop when I want to cross children, will do so out of curiosity'. Of course, it was this uniform that stamped his nickname, Old soldier.
Two natives of Nnewi, Nnanyelu Dike and Bro Edwin Okekenwa, said they have seen Okeke as long as they can remember at that Eme-Court road junction even as there are some who claimed that he has been rendering the service for over 20 years.
Chidinma, a Primary Four pupil, believed that Okeke lives on the road.
'Oh! They've been too numerous to mention'. He recalled several incidents that happened that made the police want to see him back at his security post at Model Primary School. However, some policemen reportedly tried to edge him out of his post in order to enjoy juicy tips from motorists, who admired the way he worked and were sympathetic to his plight.
Sadly, Okeke about three years ago had an accident as a car whose driver could not control his brakes, hit him, thus disfiguring him. If not for the assistance of passersby and other motorists, he would have bled to death, some people said.
Although Okeke has denied himself several pleasures to ensure that his family of 13 feed properly and go to school, life has not been kind to this humanitarian.
And with two of his children dying some years back, he was left with nine, ranging from 10 to 25 years.
'My eldest son decided to learn how to sell shoes after his secondary school because there was no money to train him. So, did his two immediate younger ones, who felt they will help out their younger siblings, if they went into business,' he said.
Okeke who also claimed to be kerosene merchant not so long ago had to reluctantly pass on the business to his wife after the business consistently showed signs of dying.
Now, he is appealing to good spirited Nigerians to come to his aid as the paltry N3,000 the Parents Teachers Association of the school he is helping pays him and the meager salary he gets from the same school as a security man can hardly carry him for one week.
His words: 'I sincerely appeal to well meaning Nigerians to come and help me out. Six of my children are still in primary and secondary schools. I find it very difficult to pay their school fees and feed them properly. If I can revive my kerosene business, it will help me a lot. The P.T.A. of the school that I am attached to are wonderful people, so are many motorists that help me. I even want to appreciate those that came to my aid when a car that failed brake hit me and left me with a limp.'
Asked if he would retire from his voluntary service of ferrying children across the road, he said: 'No way, I can't do without seeing those children for a day. Seeing them daily gives me hope that one day, they will think kindly of me, as they ride past in their big Jeeps.'