A Story of Our Times: An Autobiography. Sylvanus A Ekwelie (2018),
Enugu: Rhyce Kerex Publishers. 428 pages
Reviewed by Chido B. Nwakanma, School of Media and
Communication, Pan Atlantic University.
A constitutional through eight decades
Biographies are recommended reading for persons at every stage of life,
but more so for young ones because “biographies explore the events in
a person’s life and find meaning within them.” Meaning within a person’s
life is even more apparent in autobiographies.
Sylvanus Ekwelie brings to this story of his life and times the skill of the
journalist, the authenticity of the autobiographer and sociological
imagination. Renowned sociologist C. Wright Mills takes credit for
coining the term “sociological imagination” to refer to an awareness of
how the part fits into the whole or “the awareness of the relationship
between personal experience and the wider society”.
With a fitting title, A Story of Our Times: An Autobiography, takes the
reader on an exciting walk (a constitutional, as he taught our class)
through eight decades of development in South-East Nigeria, Nigeria
and Africa. Ekwelie tells the story of Nigeria in the 1930s up to the
2000s. It is one of struggle through the years of living almost in a state of
nature, battling and overcoming diseases and poverty, yet contented
with the leisurely pace of life in rural Nigeria and its many splendours
such as hunting for rodents. Then the journey through education; he ran
away initially, but soon became an exemplar of the values and benefits
of the new Western Education.
Sylvanus Ajana Ekwelie is an emeritus professor of mass
communication. He was a pioneer student of Journalism at the
University of Nigeria, Nsukka, part of those in the successful experiment
of UNN founder Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe to add academic rigour to the
training of journalists in West Africa. After that, most of his life and fame
revolved around his alma mater. The very brilliant Ekwelie excelled in his
studies and earned a scholarship to America. Hard work, brilliance and
grace enabled him to get an additional grant to pursue a doctorate. He
thus became the first graduate of the department of mass
communication, UNN to earn a PhD.
This rich narrative tells of a life of many firsts, a true pioneer in several
areas. It chronicles his journey as a pupil, primary school teacher,
undergraduate, a post-graduate student in America and earning the
diadem of a PhD. Many themes resonate through A Story of Our Times:
An Autobiography. They include the role and influence of the
missionaries in education, the virtue and benefits of friendship and
integrity, hard work and grace. There are lessons on being African and
black in the United States, rebuilding of the department of mass
communication after the civil war, intrigues and games in the ivory tower,
the battle to maintain standards and more.
The felicity of the writing makes this book an engaging read. Ekwelie,
the style teacher, is evident in this his second book. His first work drew
on many years of teaching the subject as a foundation course in MC
- Sylvanus Ekwelie (2005), A Master Style Guide gets high praises
for teaching the principles and critical issues in style, from names and
titles, through diction and spelling, choice of words, abbreviations,
capitalisation and punctuation and usage as it affects gender.
A Story Of Our Times expectedly conveys Ekwelie’s thoughts on
journalism and the transition to communication studies as well as
various developments in integrated marketing communication such as
the creation of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON).
The then Dr Charles Okigbo, a lecturer under Ekwelie’s supervision at
UNN, was the first Registrar. Ekwelie served on the first Council.
He offers a concise summary of the history and developments of media
in pages 209-210. He distinguishes between journalism and mass
communication, tracing the journey from print through advertising and
public relations as well as broadcast journalism. He notes, “In the 20 th
century, journalism became critical in daily life. Anything with such an
appeal and reach is worth studying to determine what it does or does not
The appendix to this work is a must-read as it contains the Ekwelie
manifesto or what he calls “My media philosophy”. The author comments
on general issues in the public life of Nigeria in “The Author’s World”,
chapter ten, pages 297-342. He laments the decline of values. A Story
of Our Times is recommended reading.
As his students noted while honouring him in 2010, “Every student of
mass communication in the University of Nigeria from the years 1973 to
2006 has an Ekwelie story to tell. Students recount these stories to
celebrate the joy of learning and the thrill of discovery. The stories are
often humorous or witty, sarcastic or even comical, but each class tells
its story in appreciation of lessons learnt in the use of English, in writing
or the broad field of communication.
“Many students remember Ekwelie for the introductory journalism
classes in the use of English and Introduction to Mass Communication.
Pumped up and exultant at scoring very high grades in JAMB and
English and Literature in the West African Examinations Council School
Certificate examination, students come with a swagger. Ekwelie would
first deflate the balloon of self-importance and then redirect. After the
first few classes, you knew you do not know much, but you are
energised to learn proper usage, pronunciation and writing.”
Ekwelie earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University
of Wisconsin. He served as head of the department of journalism at
Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas, before returning to Nigeria.
He was the Head of Mass Communication from 1977 to 1985, and again
from 2001 to 2002, Director of African Studies Institute, UNN from 1988-
1989, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1998 -2000.
Upon retirement from the University of Nigeria, Prof Ekwelie spent seven
years imparting knowledge at the University of Port Harcourt on contract.
A Story Of Our Times reads well and digests quickly despite its
pagination. The criticism of the book is the fact of not having a central
focus around which the narrative revolves, as all the authorities advise
on writing biographies and autobiographies. The smooth flow of the
account here, however, precludes this seeming deficiency.
Ekwelie deploys vivid language to illustrate events. He sought and got
permission from most of the persons mentioned in the book for itself as
well as to confirm the accuracy of facts and circumstances long past. We
see places and people of significance in the life of this journalism
educator and can relate to his trials and triumphs.