Throwback: Why I Attempted Suicide-Zik

Throwback: Why I Attempted Suicide-Zik

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 12:15 pm



Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

My Odyssey by Nnamdi Azikiwe

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 a former Nigerian President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (16 November 1904 – 11 May 1996), whose death anniversary was 11 May, was so pushed to the wall that he attempted suicide.

By Nnamdi Azikiwe

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!

Source: My Odyssey

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