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Why Nnamdi Azikiwe attempted suicide in 1927

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe would have been 116 years old on Monday, 16 November, 2020. He was born on 16 November, 1904, in Zungeru in today’s Niger State. However, he died at the ripe old age 91 on 11 May 1996. In recognition of his contributions to Nigeria, the Anambra State Government has declared Monday, 16 November, a work-free day in his honour.

Indeed, Zik was a great man. He was an orator. He was educated in the United States. He established a media empire, West African Pilot. At the peak of his political career, he became Nigeria’s first indigenous Governor General and, when the country became a Republic, its President. Smooth life journey? Yes, you would think.

However, despite his lofty achievements, he did not find life easy in the beginning. Things were so bad that he attempted suicide!

Are you tired of life so much that you have decided to give it up or end it all? Here is an inspiring story of how Azikiwe was so pushed to the wall that he attempted suicide.

The year 1927 is an important landmark in my biography for three reasons: first, I was practically alone in the world; secondly my plan to commit felo-de-se ended abortively; thirdly, I discovered myself as a self-reliant man. Having spent eighteen months in the United States and attained physical maturity, I now understood what it meant to rely upon one’s individual efforts, instead of depending upon others, when it came to the solution of the practical day-to-day problems of life.

I had made a good academic record at Storer College during my two years of study there. My first year was spent in finishing preparatory studies in the high school or secondary department. This was equivalent to university entrance or matriculation examination. In May 1926, I passed the examinations in the following papers with good grades: Botany ‘A’, Zoology ‘A’, Advanced Algebra, ‘A,’ Latin Language and Literature (Caesar and Cicero) ‘A’, French Language and Literature (Le voyage de M. perrichon and La tulipe noire) ‘B’, and American Literature ‘B.

The following year I enrolled in the Junior College department and passed examinations in the Freshman class as follows: Astronomy ‘A’, Geology ‘B’, Trigonometry ‘A’, Latin Language and Literature (Ovid and Livy) ‘A’, Philosophy (Ethics) ‘A’, and Sociology ‘A’. Other things being equal, the two semesters’ work should have enabled me have sophomore classification at Howard University and save me time and money. which was precisely what happened.

As soon as Storer College ended the 1926-27 session in June 1927, President MacDonald conferred with me in his office and informed me that the college had done its part in my educational career. He commended me for making enviable grades in my studies and wished for me a successful career in the university of my choice. He would be happy to give me a testimonial certifying that my character was excellent and that I worked in the college conscientiously as a person with a sense of responsibility.

Then he remarked that my alma mater now wished me to go forth into the world and discover myself. It was true that Storer College offered two years of Junior college work, but he thought that no useful purpose would be served by my continuing another year, thus wasting time that should be concentrated in the important subjects of my specialization for a university degree. With a pat on the back, he bade me farewell and hoped that when I made my mark in the world I would not forget Storer College. I kept faith with this college, for in 1947, I donated a cheque of one thousand dollars to it in appreciation of the opportunity it gave me in life.

When I entered the ‘Pittsburgh Express’, at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station, bound for the smoky city of Pittsburgh, so described because of the many steel mills and collieries established there or near it, I felt that I was embarking upon a great adventure. As soon as we left the four tables besides the monument of John Brown, my thoughts were transferred to my new life.

I reached Pittsburgh the next morning and started to seek for employment. I tried to secure a job as a labourer in connection with the streetcars (trams) or as a porter, but I was unsuccessful. After four day’s effort, I was lucky enough to be employed by the Duquesne Electric Company. This Corporation held the franchise for supplying electricity to a certain section of this smoky city of three-quarters-of-a-million souls. I was placed on the ditch-digging gang.

The foreman asked my name and for my previous experience, I told him that I was called ‘Ben Zik’. He wrote down ‘Benzene’ on the pay-roll. I was given a pick and shovel and directed to follow the other labourers. There were over two hundred of us engaged in this type of work – Poles, Italians, some Hungarians, Americans, West Indians, Canadians and Negroes. The pay scale was fifty cents per hour, a total ten hours daily.

A surveyor would come with a theodolite and, after performing his trigonometric ‘tricks,’ the foreman would direct us to dig the ditches two feet wide and three feet deep. The experience was simply thrilling. I first swung the pick and then used the shovel. After digging the ditches we were shifted any-and-every-where, depending upon the exigencies of the work.

After I had been working for two weeks, the foreman told me that he noticed that my energy was flagging and that I had no pep. Therefore, I should regard myself as ‘fired’. The same excuse was given in the case of many others who shared the same fate. It gave me food for thought that an uncultured tobacco-chewing and vociferous Yankee foreman could speak to me, a university undergraduate, in such vein.

I asked one of my Italian comrades for a possible explanation and he revealed the secret to me. Behold, the foremen were instructed to recruit unskilled labourers every two weeks or every month, so as to inject fresh blood in the labour supply. This idea enabled the company to employ and dismiss hundreds of unskilled labourers at will. It also enabled contractors, who were responsible for the supply of labour, to be busily engaged.

When it is remembered that these contractors were paid commission for the number of labourers supplied, and that some of these labour agencies might be subsidiaries of the employing companies, one could easily see how the speculators profited on both sides of the bargain, to the detriment of the human factors in industry. That was how this Italian explained our anomalous situation.

I was shocked that an economic system upon which human lives depended could condone such inhumanity, and I refused to believe it. But he confessed that he had been employed and ‘fired’ on that job over six times! He used to change his name, his countenance, his dress, his language; in fact he had to use his wits in order to get a job. He would wear a moustache of a varying shapes, or represent himself as an Italian, a Pole, or a Hungarian, or what not. He once blackened his face to look like Negro!

Incidentally, I met Dr. Max Yergan at this time in Pittsburgh, when he visited the YMCA, and I had the privilege to be one of the speakers at a testimonial meeting held in honour of his return from South Africa. Among the other speakers on this occasion were two African students from Freetown, Sierra Leone: Constance and Samuel Tuboku-Metzger, who studied respectively chemical and electrical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Early on the morning following my sacking by the Duquesne Electric company, after worrisome night, I was asleep when I heard a voice say: ‘Wake up, Mr. Zikiwacki or whatever is your monicker.’ I opened my eyes and behold a fat woman was sitting by my beside, shaking me out of my slumber with her ham-like hand. ‘Look a yere, boy, I ain’t no money-making tree. I’s got five children to care for. I’s got a husband to care for. I’s got myself to care for. If you ain’t gonna pay your rent and board, how do you ‘spect us to live? That was my landlady’s greeting.

Although she knew that I was a student who was fighting his way in the world and it was her husband’s younger brother who had brought me to stay with them because we were pals at Storer College, yet she demanded that the rent and board be paid promptly. I pleaded that since I had been ‘fired’ she should be patient with me. As soon as I got another job I would pay regularly. Besides, I begged her to have mercy on me because the little money that I earned was to be used by me to enroll at a university.

‘Boy,’ she replied, I’ain’t playing no Santana Claus to nobody. I’s got to eat and I’s got to feed my sweet daddy, and I’s got to feed the li’l children. So let me have some dough if you know what’s good for you.’ At that time, I had about 80 dollars (16 pounds). So I braced up and asked her to let me have the bill. She replied that I owed her 30 dollars for three weeks and explained that I had to pay for everything: ‘Even the water you drink and your enjoyment of the sitting room cost us money; and you’ve got to pay your share. Bisness is business, you see?’

I got up from my bed and put on my bath robe, opened my suitcase and handed her 30 dollars. She smiled and remarked: ‘Lawdy, damn if I did not think that you were broke. Thirty green back! Where did you get dem money from, you rascal? I thought you got canned. You hardly go to the movies or dances, and you don’t seem to like the broads (girls). I thought you were broke, boy. Now, you are forty with me. You can stay as long as you like and pay your bills when you are employed.’

By now I was disillusioned, I gave this semi-literate-Alabama-corn-fed-lady the length of my tongue. I told her that I would move that very day, and if the garbage she fed me twice daily and the ‘hen coop’ in which I slept at night were worth 10 dollars (two pounds) a week, then she was a real gold-digger.

Of course she retaliated and told me about my African origin, and asked who ever heard of a cannibal going to college, much more coming to Pittsburgh. ‘You can go, brother, because you may get hungry one day and I may miss one of my babies, while you’ll be getting as fat as I is, she added. She was now wild as the Bay of Biscay and I had to pacify her by apologizing that I was to blame for the imbroglio. Later, I moved to the YMCA Hostel at 2620 Centre Avenue.

For days and weeks I wandered from place to place seeking for employment, but it was in vain; and my funds were depleting. One evening, as I returned from job-hunting, I saw an old cleric sleeping on the other bed in my room; it was a large room usually rented to two bed roomers. He was dignified in appearance and his portmanteau showed that he was an experienced traveler. From the way he slept, it was evident that he was very tired. I decided to wait till the next morning before speaking to him.

When we finally spoke to each other, he introduced himself as the Reverend Mark C. Hayford, of the African Baptist Mission, Cape Coast. He told me that he had just returned from a trip to Canada where he had gone to collect funds for his missionary endeavours on the Gold Coast. I explained my plight to him and he gave me words of comfort. When he left me the next day, he wrote in my autograph book a quotation which became my spiritual rock of strength: ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy path.’

Four weeks had passed since I lost my job and no new job was in sight. By now I was worth one dime in all the world. I had rationed my funds so frugally that I went on diet for a long time, and at times had one meal a day. When no job was forth coming. I reduced this to a cup of coffee and two thick slices of breads. But it was in vain.

Then I began to live on lemonade and bread. I bought three lemons for a dime, and a loaf of bread and a pound of sugar. I would squeeze one lemon into a pitcher filled with water, and add sugar into it so as to have lemonade. Then with the bread I would have a good meal. A few hours later I would feel as if I had eaten nothing. After all attempts at frugality, I was still unemployed and was worth onleone dime, which later shrank to a nickel, and then to nothing. I bore the humiliation of starvation for two days in silence, and could not convince myself of the necessity of begging anybody for money or for food.

I wrote a letter to the Secretary of the YMCA, my good friend, Rev. Samuel R. Morsell, a graduate of Yale, asking him to forgive me for my delinquency in the rents and begging that he should inform my people of my fate. Thoughts of death filled my mind. I could not see any way out of my dilemma. Two days without food, two days of anxieties, and then came the final resolution. I took my pen and composed some lines, four stanzas of which are as follows:

Friendless, dejected,
Sorrow fills my mind,

All hope is gone, and now:
I want to die.

No one to cheer me
In this wilderness,
That is my fate, and now:
I want to die.

Farewell, my loved ones,
Far across the sea;
Whate’er I have, I gave:
I want to die.

Oh God, who mad eme,
Watch this feeble frame;
And let it rest in peace:
I want to die

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe
Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

By 11 p.m, I decided that the best way out was to lie down across the rail so that when the tram came by at midnight it would run over me and cut matter shot. This plan was well devised because the track of the tram was a descent of the hill, and it would be difficult for the tram to stop, and by the time it stopped I would have been ground like a sausage. I packed my few belongings and enclosed three letter in my portmanteau: one was addressed to my father, another to my mother, and the third to Dr MacDonald.

It was now 12:45 am and Centre Avenue was practically deserted. I thought that was the opportunity to execute my designs. At 12:50 am I heard the tram about 300 yards away at the top of the top of the hill. I prayed to God to accept my soul, and, bracing up, I reclined across the track. Anxiously waiting the approach of the speeding tram.

Nearer and nearer it came, and faster and faster it moved. My heart throbbed and almost leapt out of my mouth as the mental strain became too much for me. I did not waver, I prayed harder and harder for the tram to grind me to pieces and let me have peace of mind. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, a good Samaritan dragged me away from the track. As soon as the tram was about twenty yards or so from where I lay, I heard the screeching of steel.

The conductor had seen what he thought was a struggle between two persons and he applied the emergency break. Because it was downhill the break did not respond immediately, hence the screeching; and by the time it came to a dead stop, the tram was about ten yards from us. There was confusion inside it, because the emergency stop had caused some of the passengers to become frantic, thinking that some accident had happened. Some women shrieked.

Meanwhile, I opened my eyes. Then I said to this unknown friend: ‘Why didn’t you let me die?’ He answered: “Because life is full of the glory of God. Why must you die, so young and so full of promise?’

‘Oh, you have messed up everything. You should have left me die,’ I replied disappointedly.

The conductor having satisfied himself that it was only ‘Nigger’ who wanted to die, continued his journey as the passengers gossiped about the incident.

“Look here, my boy,’ said the kind friend, ‘why did you do this? Your life belongs to God. You have no right to take it away.’

‘Yes. Sir.’ I remarked, ‘but God must have known that I must live, before he made me. Why, then did he allow me to become friendless and dejected so as to starve when I live in a world where there is plenty of foods?’

The gentleman took me to the YMCA and explained to the desk clerk on night duty what had happened. One pint of milk was given to me for nourishment. I was guided upstairs to my room by the desk clerk and the unknown friend. Then I went to bed. When I woke up the next day, I found an envelope addressed to me. It contained five dollars. There was also an unsigned note which assured me that I would be introduced to a friend, to realize that the world was not a wilderness after all.

I had a hearty meal that day. I went to my usual restaurant and the waiter brought the regular fare one cup of coffee and two slice of bread. I told him that I wanted something else. He was flabbergasted because he knew that for some time that had been my regular order. Oh yes, Italian restaurateurs are usually mindful of their patrons, and this fellow was no exception! I placed an order for beef steak, and when I got through with the meal I felt much better.

As soon as I returned to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), I was told that a reverend gentleman was there to see me. In a note that he left me, the Rev. Dr A.M. Lamb, a white Presbyterian minister, introduced himself as a friend and requested that I should have lunch with him at one of Pittsburgh’s leading hotels that day. I kept this appointment and cultivated his acquaintance. He assured me of his deep interest in me and my future.

Placing his aged hand on my head, he said to me, “it is the unseen hand of Providence that saved you early this morning and brought me here, my son.’ Then he announced that he had a job for me at a restaurant which belonged to one of his friends. The job would last for two weeks. It was dish-washing. If I cared for it, I could have it, and in two weeks’ time, the Lord would provide another opening. The pay was 15 dollars weekly, and the hours of work were from 7 am to 7 pm and one day off every two weeks.

I accepted the job. He gave me a note to the manager of this branch of ‘Gammon’s Restaurant and Cafeteria’. There were some branches in Pittsburgh. I left him and went to my mew job. He returned to his manse, at Cheswick, and thus began a friendship which was destined to be lifelong. As soon as I gave the manager the letter of introduction, he shook my hand and spoke to me familiarly: ‘I am glad to know you Mr. Azikiwe; go to the head dish-washer and he will give you an apron. You can start on the job right away.’

For two weeks I learned the art of dish-washing. It was fascinating. At times, from fifty to one hundred used plates would be piled on the sinks. I and another colleague, a student of Mechanical Dentistry, would then stack them in the machine and ‘let go’. In a jiffy, hot water jets would saturate the front and backs of the plates in an elliptical manner washing away the dirt on the dishes. We would then remove them and all we had to do was to wipe he dishes dry with clean towels.

When the man whose position I filled returned, the manager was not disposed to give him back his job. According to the workers he had a bad record. He swore at the waitresses, handled the dishes carelessly, and at times he was drunk; but he was very industrious; he would work for hours without rest and that was his saving grace. The manager told me that I need not leave. He would remove the fellow to another branch of the establishment. When I noticed that this fellow did not take kindly to the idea of being transferred, I begged the manager to reinstate him, telling him I had prospects for another temporary job. He agreed and promised to engage me whenever I returned for the winter, it then being the fall. I took leave of my co-workers and went to the cashier for my pay.

Once more I was unemployed; but I had better prospects since I now had friends who cared and were willing to help, it is became necessary.

Credit: My Odyssey, An Authobiography by Nnamdi Azikiwe

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