My friend Professor Austin Okwu, age 97, reveals the secrets of longevity

By: Anselm Anyoha MD
Prof. Austin Okwu, Anselm, Sandra, Madam, Alinos'
Prof. Austin Okwu, Anselm, Sandra, Madam, Alinos'
NEW HAVEN, Conn. - July 21, 2021 - PRLog -- First of all, I want to start by acknowledging that no 60-year-old person of Nigerian descent, let alone one from the Igbo tribe, uses "friendship" to describe their relationship with a 97-year--old Professor, ex-Nigerian diplomat, and ambassador. Only if you know the Igbo culture would you understand how irreverent the title of this article seems. Yet, as it will be evident after reading this article, reverence and passion decided the choice of the title.

So, moving beyond the title, on the 5th of May, 2021, the Professor invited Chuks, Patrick, Tony, and me to celebrate his 97th birthday. Of the many reasons I was excited to see him, finding out the secrets of his longevity was utmost on my mind. My concern, however, was whether or not he would open up and talk about the secrets of longevity. A man this old ought to be giving lectures on the dos and don'ts of longevity. Instead, he loves to spend hours retelling stories of his youth, especially about his sacrifices for the Igbos during the Civil War (1967-1970) and how he saved the Organization of African Unity, OAU. That very night he did not fail. By 7:30 P.M., he managed to skirt the general discussions into the parts he played during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War and the OAU.

"My children," he called out as a preamble. We all sat still like ice blocks. "You do not know what it feels for a human body to be tucked between bazookas and hand grenades while flying in rickety planes from the Ivory Coast to Enugu. That was me in the '60s, making sure the Igbos had arms to defend themselves. When I remember what I did, the risks I took for the Igbos (Ndi-Igbo), I say, 'My God, why did I do this?'" No matter how many times he retells this story, it always sends chills through my spine. Chuck and Tony held their dropping jaws in the cups of their hands.

Next, starting about 9 P.M. and with skills only known to diplomats, he pivoted to the OAU story, which he had told thousands of times to the extent that the other guests and I had memorized all the lines. One thing you must not do is interrupt the Professor when he is talking or telling a story. "Could the fish pies and the chicken drum sticks wait until I finish my conversation?" He indicated with body movement to the aid who was about to set up trays containing snacks, bottled water, and glassware on the thick brown center wooden table. Reading his mind, the attendant apologized, saying she would come back. "Come back in a few minutes, my dear," replied the Professor.

While he was distracted by the aid, I hatched a plan to stop him and possibly steer him to talk about longevity. To achieve my aim, I struck a tangent conversation with Patrick about the ongoing instability in Eastern Nigeria. Before Patrick could respond, I got the reprimand, "Anselm, my son, did I say I am done talking? You forget some of the manners I taught you."  "But Prof''---I began to object but stopped when I saw him reaching out for his walking cane that carries his lean frame. "My apologies, Professor. I am listening." He let go of his cane, cleared his throat a little, and, looking at me, said, "You had asked me this question, ---why I wrote in my book that I saved OAU."

I knew where this question was going because the Professor and I had a dialogue on it several times. The caption "Saving the Addis Ababa conference and the OAU'' on page 136 of his book, In Truth, for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigerian-Biafran Ambassador, gave the impression there wouldn't have been an OAU without him. Back in 1963, as a diplomat representing Nigeria, he persuaded Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to drop his demands and allow an upcoming meeting organized by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

"Nyerere," said the Professor, explicitly thanked him (Austin) for making him (Nyerere) drop his demand, which allowed a reconciliation meeting of the two divided African factions, ultimately resulting in the formation of the Organization of African Unity.

Over the years, the more I thought about the Professor's claim, the more I believe that he was indeed instrumental in the OAU formation. Had he not persuaded Nyerere, the reconciliation meeting might not have been held and there would never have been an OAU. But then again, who knows. If that particular meeting had fallen through, maybe another meeting would have occurred shortly. We may never know. It is an interesting past event that instigates continual debate. However, what occupied my mind that evening was not to talk about the OAU or the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, but to let him talk about the secrets of longevity. I know he had alluded to that in the past when he said, "I am blessed. I was born with good genes."

With the OAU story over, I wondered what other of his favorite topics we would listen to. Only the unexpected would make him change course, and it came shortly. The doorbell was buzzing nonstop as if the finger pressing it was trigger happy. "See who is coming," the Professor said to Tony, who was sitting in a chair closest to the living room foyer. The visitor was a woman in her middle 40s. She held a single gift box. "Happy birthday, Professor, "she began saying once she entered the sitting and approached the birthday boy. Stabilizing his trunk with his elbows placed on the armrests, the Professor moved a little closer to the edge of the sofa. His right hand stretched to summon the brown cane. In no time, he was in a full-length standing position.

Once upright, he kissed off the cane so that he could bow his arms for a hug. "Come on, my dear, come and embrace me, sweetheart," he repeatedly beckoned the visitor. Temporarily, the woman set aside her gift box on an empty compartment of a sidewall shelf. She too bowed her arms, and they hugged for several minutes before he let go to resume sitting. After a few more exchanges of pleasantries, the woman walked inside an adjoining room looking for "Madam," who had signaled her to come over and to let the boys be boys.

What else, I wondered. We were not expecting that, but there and then he decided to talk about longevity. "If you want to live long, keep a clean heart, keep a pure soul, let love fill your days but do not overindulge in sweet taboos." Of course, being grown-ups, we exactly knew what he was saying, and everyone, including the Professor himself, began to laugh. "Is Madam here?" the Professor asked while looking around the room. Chuck, Tony, and Patrick began to laugh out loud again. When the laughter subsided, the Professor asked, "Did Anselm hear what I said about longevity?" "No," I answered, "Repeat what you said again." Then we all laughed for a good three minutes.

When it was time to go, he prayed for us. "May you live long just like me, and may you get home safely." In return, we told him that we would be back to celebrate him next year.

Now, you see why I used "friendship" to discuss my relationship with the Professor. How else could you describe a relationship where no topic is barred? A fatherly figure, the Professor is easy to get along with, yet demands sincere respect. I love him immensely for standing up for what he believes and calling it how he sees it.

Here is how to purchase a copy of Professor Okwu's book:

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