Home Uncategorized Uncle Ray Is 75 (1)

Uncle Ray Is 75 (1)

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OPINION

By Sam Akpe

Sylvanus Ukafia, a medical doctor and a pastor, has fun memories of his first encounter with Ray Ekpu. His father, the late Owen Ukafia, an accomplished journalist in his own right, worked at the once bubbling Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar, where Ekpu started his journalism career.

The senior Ukafia kept feeding his son daily with juicy stories of excellent journalism exemplified by the man we love to call Uncle Ray. Meanwhile, Sylvanus took to reading Ray’s stories and weekly column in the Nigerian Chronicle with avidity, hoping to, one day, meet him in the flesh.

Then it happened, unexpectedly. Although he told me the full story years back, I cannot recall the exact circumstances, except that Sylvanus attended an event, as a student, and Uncle Ray was there. When Sylvanus introduced himself, Ray took interest, because the surname sounded familiar. He stretched his arm and Sylvanus eagerly grabbed the hands. It was a historic handshake.

On reaching home, Sylvanus kept his right hand in his pocket. He refused to either shake anybody, wash the hand or engage in any domestic chores. Concerned about the strange behavior, his father asked what happened. The answer stunned the old man: “I met Ray Ekpu today. We had a handshake, and I’m not washing this hand” Well, he couldn’t keep it that way forever.

That’s the kind of magnetic impact Uncle Ray and his journalism have had on people. William Michael, in his book: Secrets of Personal Magnetism, states that potential charm or magnetism is the heritage of every human. Through it, people can accomplish missions which would otherwise be impossible. However, only a few know about it.

You just cannot encounter Uncle Ray—either physically or through his writings—and walk away non-confiscated by the aura of his persona. Something will either turn you on towards him or make you feel like saying: who the heck does he think he is! Whichever way your impression goes; you must notice him.

On meeting Uncle Ray, even for the first time, you will either get mesmerized by his uncommon baritone, be captivated by his unhindered, gripping friendly and mentoring smile, or be stupefied by his unblemished blunt responses to issues. I find him to be simple and humble. He demonstrated this towards me twice—in 2014 and 2022.

In 2014, he was a delegate to the National Conference called by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. I was a part of the administrative structure of the Conference, courtesy of my boss, Akpandem James, who was a principal officer. After being drafted in as rapporteur and later given a glorified title of media advisor to James, I met Uncle Ray just after the inauguration of the Conference.

I boldly walked up to him and introduced myself. Suddenly, he turned on his trademark charisma. It still remains difficult to know whether he recalled my previous casual encounters with him or he was just his usual friendly self towards a total stranger. With a hand on my shoulder, he pulled me aside with a fatherly smile and a conversation started.

Both of us sat in James’ office for over an hour. The Conference was yet to kick-off fully, so he had all the time for this curious small boy. I mentioned to him my internship at the Nigerian Chronicle in 1985—a place he cut his journalism teeth. I told him how I loved to read his weekly column; and reminded him of an article he wrote entitled: Enter Col. Ahmadu Adah Ali. This ignited a big laughter from him. He opened up.

I asked questions about his exploits in journalism. He responded. He talked about his brotherhood with Dele Giwa and the impact of Dele’s death on him personally; his (Ray’s) journalism exploits at the Nigerian Chronicle, the Sunday Times, Business Times and how he joined and left the Concord.

Then he spoke about an idea that became Newswatch. All along, I kept asking myself: is this the fire-spitting legend himself, so humble, so accommodating, talking to an ordinary me? It was a dream privilege. Then someone far above my level came and dragged him away.

In June 2022, I had another privileged opportunity of sitting down with Uncle Ray for a brief chat. James and I had just completed a book: The National Conversation: Intrigues and Interests that Shaped the 2014 National Conference. Before its public presentation, I was in Lagos to deliver a copy of the book to two people. Uncle Ray was one of them.

On arriving his apartment, he was at the gate to receive me personally. I felt humbled by this gesture. He ushered me into his modest dwelling place with such eagerness and undisguised attention that renewed my positive impression of him. For the next 40 minutes or so, we chatted like old friends. He created such an atmosphere that made me long for a repeated visit.

Uncle Ray has a way with words. I have dreamt of being his remote journalism student. Several decades later, I am yet to secure admission into his exclusive journalism school of bold expressions; smooth language full of metaphors and euphemisms; impeccable, factual presentations and audacious short sentences and punchy words, pulled from his inexhaustible store-house of rich vocabulary.

As I write this tribute, I am again looking at that article on Ahmadu Ali; published in the Nigerian Chronicle style book as an example of what a feature story should look like—full of lucid, seasoned, non-abusive, authoritative, non-libelous and instructive language. At that time, Col. Ali, a medical doctor, was Education Minister. As early as then (1978), Uncle Ray had developed a writing style that has remained everlasting—witty and bold.

This is one of the paragraphs with a description of Ali: “A short stumpy man, always spotting a full-stop moustache, pipe-puffing, Col Ali has a round boyish face that tells a lie about his age. Col. A. A. A. was 42 last March 1.”

Another paragraph: “I do not know whether Ali is a soldier or a physician, a soldier-physician or a physician-soldier. His ambivalence is that of a man whose vocation teaches the preservation of life, but whose occupation teaches how to destroy it. It’s the ambivalence of a man who is trying to make his psyche obey two sets of laws, two sets of ethics, two sets of behavioural norms, and to foster two images in one person. It cannot be easy.”

Talk about style, here is the first paragraph of a column he wrote in Newswatch magazine on February 4, 1985, entitled: Snorters, Swiggers, Shooters. He stated: Oil boom. The big contracts. Billions. Billions. Then millions. Then a burst. And the contracts vanished. Since Nigeria abhors a vacuum in the money-making business, the coke man came along. At first slowly, imperceptibly, then furiously. A new life had happened, a style of drugs’ smuggling and sniffing.”

Uncle Ray could be quite picturesque in his writing. Recalling the death of Giwa in a column published Newswatch of November 17, 1986, he captured in prose the picture of a shirt that was ironed for Giwa to wear that day, but which would never be worn because the bomber arrived just before noon when Giwa would have put on the shirt: “The shirt hangs there, doing a gentle dance whenever the breeze blows its little flute. The shirt hangs there, mute and isolated like an orphan…”

Ray Ekpu undoubtedly remains one of the revered high priests of journalism practice both within and outside Africa. He practices the profession with a consistent touch of excellence. Most of the times, it is not what he writes that thrills; but how he writes. Sometimes, both. Unfortunately, it is the same cherished, bold style that has put him in and out of jail several times—without a conviction.

It was unquestionably based on these bold strides in journalism that an award on investigative reporting was instituted for Akwa Ibom-based journalists in July 2021, by Udom Inoyo, a former Executive Vice Chairman of ExxonMobile, in honour of Uncle Ray.

The award which comes with a princely N500, 000 prize has already been won twice. It is administered by an independent body of tested journalists, headed by Nsikak Essien, former editor of the defunct National Concord.

The body also has as members Kayode Komolafe (KK), a columnist and deputy managing director of Thisday newspaper; Akpandem James, an old boy of Concord, Punch and Daily Independent; Professor Ini Uko of the University of Uyo; Amos Etuk, the NUJ Chairman and Mrs Emem Nkereuwem, from Inoyo Toro Foundation.

My mission today is simply to say happy birthday to Uncle Ray. Pardon me for taking you on a mental journey. It is difficult to say anything about Uncle Ray without a little x-ray on his writing style.

Ray Ekpu is journalism and journalism is him. Happy Birthday, Sir.

(To be continued)

Akpe is a Journalist based in Abuja

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