It began in 1959, in a dense and fertile farmland. A cluster of people from different villages were in the agu, weeding and tilling the land. As they worked, they gossiped. Nwafor, a man from Abba, was boasting about his relative James Adichie, who was brilliant, had won various scholarships, and was just finishing university at Ibadan. “He is looking for a wife,” Nwafor said. “But it is difficult because he wants an educated woman. Nobody in these parts has read books like James.”The other farmers were silent, impressed. But Ekemma, a woman from Umunnachi, was not cowed. She had a relative, Grace Odigwe, who was so educated and intelligent that she was called ‘Miss,’ and even more, she was very beautiful. “Grace na-enwu ka ugbana,” Ekemma said. Grace was fair as an egret. Nwafor was intrigued. Back in Abba, he told his cousin David Adichie, James’ father, about his conversation with Ekemma.
David, well-loved and prominent in Abba, was proud of his first son; only the best woman, in David’s opinion, was worthy of James. David decided to jua ase about this educated young woman and her family. He was told that the Odigwes were well-regarded in Umunnachi, that Grace’s father, Felix Odigwe, was a successful businessman who lived in the Cameroons, that Grace had just graduated from Queen of the Rosary College, Onitsha. And many echoed Ekemma: Grace was intelligent and beautiful. Many young men in and around Umunnachi wanted to marry her.
When James returned from Ibadan, David told him about this possibility in Umunnachi. “Go there and see for yourself,” David said.
James had already been to a few homes, and had met a few young women, some of whom were educated enough. But each time, he knew it just wasn’t right. He drove to Umunnachi, parked his car a distance from the Odigwe compound, and walked in. The Odigwe parents were civil but unenthusiastic. Young men had, after all, been trooping into their compound for months. The rich trader. The son of a traditional ruler. The sleek man with the big white car who came dressed in white.
None of them, however, interested Grace. To avoid talking to her suitors, she would often slip through the back gate to her grandmother’s house and stay there until they left. That afternoon in 1960, when she saw James Adichie sitting in the living room of her father’s house, she did not want to sneak off to her grandmother’s. There was something different about him, this quiet, gentle man. A mix of humility and confidence. He had a car but had not, as other suitors did, parked it right in front of her father’s house. That impressed her. James was struck by the slight and cinnamon-skinned beauty whose eyes were unusually light. They talked. Grace was looking for a teaching job but also wanted to go to university. Other women James knew were content with Teacher Training Colleges. He admired Grace’s rare ambition, her intelligent spark, her humor and warmth. Back in Abba, he told David that he had met the woman he wanted to marry.
James had received his BA (Hon) London in Mathematics and just been employed as an assistant lecturer at the university of Nigeria, Nsukka. But the Odigwe parents were not impressed. A university teacher? There were other better prospects, like the man with the big white car. Grace had made up her mind. “If you don’t let me marry him, then I will just face my work and I will not marry,” she told them.
David told his son to give up, since the Odigwe family was so resistant. There were other suitable women out there. But James could not. Grace was now in Awgu, miles away from home, teaching at the Rosary High School. James had got a job as a mathematics instructor at the new University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From Nsukka, James would visit her in Awgu. Sometimes, she would visit him in Nsukka. Finally, her family realized she was determined. They gave in. Many years later, her mother Ochiora Regina Nwabuodu Odigwe would laugh and say, “I cannot believe I nearly chased this wonderful son-in-law away!”
They married on April 15 1963, in a beautiful ceremony in Nsukka, surrounded by their family and closest friends. Grace was dressed by her friend Maria Chukwuma, who would later be the beloved headmistress of her
children at the university staff school. A few months later, they left for the United States, where James was to study for his PhD at the top postgraduate program in statistics, the University of California, Berkeley. Grace was pregnant with their first child. While James spent long days at the library, Grace studied part time at Merrit College.
On January 1, 1964, at the Kaiser Foundation hospital in Oakland, Grace gave birth to a baby girl. Ijeoma. ‘A beautiful journey,’ in honour of Grace’s good journey to her husband’s home. Ijeoma was as beautiful as her name, and people stopped Grace on the streets to coo at the baby. Some months later, Ijeoma won a baby show and Grace treasured the prize, an elegant trophy. In 1966, Grace gave birth to their second child, a beautiful and spirited girl, at the same hospital. They named her Uchenna, God’s will had been done.
James and Grace spoke only Igbo to their children, sang baby songs to them in Igbo, to make sure they learned their native language. James excelled in his program and received his PhD in 1966. He was urged to stay on and work in the United States, but he was keen to go home. They returned to Nsukka. James continued his job as a lecturer while Grace registered as an undergraduate in sociology, with her accumulated credits from Merrit college. Their life was happy. They lived in a house on Odim Street, with a steward who made wonderful french toast, roses by the front door, and their children’s toys in the verandah.
Their idyll was soon shattered, when the Nigeria-Biafra war broke out. They left Nsukka in a rush, at the sound of federal guns, unprepared, uncertain about how long they would be away. They would return three years later to find their books burnt, their house ransacked, and all their property gone. The war was a time of pain. They ran from town to town, as each fell, and their hearts and possessions shrank. But there were a few moments of joy, the greatest in July 1968 when Grace gave birth to their third child, a boy, at Albatross hospital in Aba. Chukwunwike. ‘God is all powerful.’ A wiry and lovely baby, he was determined to live through the deprivations of war. Five weeks after he was born, Aba fell. Grace wrapped her baby in a blanket as they fled. They drove slowly, behind them they could hear bombs falling, and in front of them was a trail of tired people on foot, in cars, on bicycles. They planned to go to Orlu, to the home of their dear friend Emmanuel Ezike, but were stopped at a checkpoint and forced to spend the night in their car. While there, Grace nursed her baby and prayed.
David, James’ father, named his grandson Udeozo, in honour of the ozo title he had taken shortly before the war. He saw his grandson only once. In 1969, David died in a refugee camp. Felix Odigwe, Grace’s father, also died in a refugee camp. James and Grace were deeply scarred by the war, and when it ended in January 1970, they tried to pick up their lives again in Nsukka. Grace went back to school. James returned to teaching. In 1971, Grace gave birth to their fourth child, Nnaemeka, a bright-eyed and cheerful boy. He was already beginning to teeth and crawl when Grace went away for a few days on a field trip with the sociology department. She came back home to devastating news: Nnaemeka had died. Nnaemeka had not been feeling too well, there was a cholera epidemic, and some other babies had passed away but Nnaemeka had been given all his vaccines and Grace had not been too worried. James and Grace quietly mourned their son. Their dear friends supported them, especially the Ezedinmas. Many years later, Chuks would dedicate his final year engineering project to the memory of his brother Nnaemeka.
Grace graduated with a Second Class Upper degree in 1972. She took the exam into the administrative cadre of the civil service, passed, and was employed as the assistant divisional officer, Nsukka Urban. In 1973, at Bishop Shanahan hospital, she gave birth to a son, Okechukwu, a curly-haired baby who looked very much like his sister Ijeoma. They also named him Chiedozie. ‘God has comforted us, God has made it right.’ That same year, she was appointed an administrative officer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 1976, James made history as the first Nigerian to became a full professor of statistics. A year later, Grace gave birth to a daughter, at the University of Nigeria Teaching hospital. Grace had wanted a girl, and was pleased to see that the baby had a head full of hair. Ngozichukwuka. ‘Gods blessing is the greatest.’ (That baby, years later, would be known around the world as the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Because James and Grace had planned to have six children, their last was born in November of 1980, at Akulue hospital in Nsukka. A boy. He was a marvel to behold, his head bald and shining, his skin lighter than an egret’s. Visitors flocked to the house to see the new baby, the onye ocha, the white baby who was not an albino. Kenechukwu. “Thanks to God.” He was light-skinned like his mother’s people and gentle-mannered like his father’s. Their family was complete. James and Grace raised the family with openness. Their home was filled with laughter. Their door was always open to their children.
Their careers flourished. James was appointed the deputy vice chancellor of the university in 1980 and the family moved from Sir Loius Mbanefo street to Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, where they would live until they retired. Grace rose by promotion to Deputy Registrar in 1985. In October of 1995, Grace was appointed Acting Registrar of the University of Nigeria. She became the substantive Registrar in 2000, and made history as the first woman to hold this post at the university. James retired in 1997, but continued to teach for some years as an adjunct professor. To his students, many of whom he mentored in their postgraduate work in statistics, James is an icon, a straightforward and upright man, a teacher truly dedicated to teaching.
But James and Graces’ greatest collective achievement is their family. They raised six close-knit children. Their children’s marriages gave them more children: they have three sons-in-law, Obi Maduka, Sunny Eduputa and Ivara Esege, and two daughters-in-law, Tinuke Adichie and Oluchi Adichie.
They have nine wonderful grandchildren: Toks, Chisom, Amaka, Chinedum, Kamsiyonna, Arinze, Chimkasi, Munachino and Obidike.
For many years, James and Grace gathered their children every Christmas and Easter, everyone laughing at James’s wry jokes at the dinner table. Grace would laugh and hover and fuss, eager to over-feed everyone – much like her own mother, the wonderful and formidable Ochiora who was always called Osilora.
James and Grace have always supported each other. When they both worked at the university, they always ate lunch together, each would wait for the other to come home. They were not merely husband and wife, not merely father and mother, they were also friends. They talked about everything. When James was deputy vice chancellor, Grace knew about his administration. When Grace was Registrar, she discussed her decisions with James. Once, after Grace spoke at a senate meeting, James came home still clapping for her. He proudly told his children, “Nne unu di egwu.” Your mother is amazing.
James is so protective of Grace that it earned him the teasingly-delivered title “Defender of Spouse” or “DOS” from his cheeky last daughter. Once, while visiting the United States, and without the ingredients she needed, Grace valiantly attempted to make okpa, a favorite of her children. The resulting taste was unfamiliar. When Grace’s children teased her about this, James, who had not even tasted the okpa, promptly declared that it was excellent!
James passed away on June 10 2020 but he lives on, forever beloved, in the hearts of
Grace and the children