Eighty-year-old twin brothers from Edo State, David and Joshua Ukponmwan, who studied the same course and both became professors, speak to GODFREY GEORGE about their growing up, career and families
When were you born?
My name is Prof. David Ukponmwan. I was born on August 10, 1942. I am a twin. I have a twin brother, Joshua. He is a professor just like me. I was born in Benin City, Edo State. I am from Oredo Local Government Area of the state.
Did you grow up in the village?
I grew up in the city right from my time as a child till I had to travel out for studies and came back. I wouldn’t say I grew up in a village setting. We (twins) are the last born of my mother. My mum had seven children. Four were females and three were boys. Since my mother kept giving birth to only girls, my dad got married to a second wife. But as God would have it, my mother was still the one who produced the first son in the family before we came. After us, she told us that my father and she decided that it was enough.
Growing up, what was the most interesting part of being a twin?
Being a twin in itself is so interesting. When we were growing up, we were always quarrelling with each other over minor issues. If they gave something to one and the other wasn’t given, there would be a struggle over the thing. The funny thing, however, was that we were as quick to settle our quarrels and become best friends again as we were quick to get into quarrels. We used to wear matching outfits. Even when we went abroad, we maintained that unwritten rule. At some point we were separated abroad because of our studies. And I remember that we had a wedding to attend in Manchester and when we met at the train station in Manchester, we both appeared in the same outfit. Mind you, we didn’t have a previous discussion about the kind of attire to wear to the wedding. The surprising thing was that we wore matching ties, shoes, shirts, everything. It was such a thing of pride. We were so in love with each other.
One other funny thing about being identical twins was that people couldn’t tell us apart. So, we used to make fun of them. Some of my elder sisters couldn’t really differentiate us. When they saw me in the parlour, for instance, they would ask me, “Have you greeted me?” And I would say, “Of course, I greeted you when you were coming from the gate.” They would say, “I thought it was Joshua.” (Laughs) Since we knew they couldn’t tell us apart, we used it to our advantage. Even when we grew up and started having girlfriends after our secondary school, our girlfriends used to mix us up. They would have to look at us very hard before they would know who was who.
In school then, it was a huge problem. The prefects used to ask us to wear different shirts so that they would know who was who. I would wear a white shirt while my brother, Joshua, would wear a khaki shirt. But we were very stubborn, so we would do the opposite of what we were told, so we could confuse them the more (laughs). If we committed an offence, they would say, “I asked one of you to come and see me today but he didn’t come. For that, both of you should see me.” It was so frustrating for the teachers as well.
Did you ever get into trouble for something your twin brother did?
Yes, of course. We both got into trouble for each other. Sometimes, he would take the blame for something I did; at other times, I did the same for him and at other times, both of us got punished for something one of us did. It got to the point where they wanted to put a mark on our faces to differentiate us but we resisted it sternly.
There is a myth that if a twin falls sick, the other would follow suit, perhaps in sympathy. Was that true in your case?
Yes. When we were growing up, we both noticed that we had hearing difficulties. The two of us suffered the same ailments. If Joshua was not feeling well, I would automatically not feel well too. But now that we are grown up, we don’t really experience that sort of thing again.
What schools did you attend?
We both attended St. Matthew Anglican Primary School, Benin-City, from 1950 to 1956. Then, we moved on to Holy Trinity Grammar School, Sabongida from 1958 to 1962. Thereafter, we whiled away some time at home before going to England to study. We studied Textile Technology at Nottingham Regional College of Technology, UK from 1968 to 1971.
Did both of you study the same course?
Yes, exactly. We studied the same course although we specialised in different aspects. For the first two years, we were together.
Was studying the same course a deliberate decision the two of you made?
It had always been our plan. Originally, we had the plan to study Agricultural Science together, because as kids, we were deeply interested in farming. We used to farm behind our house. Unfortunately, that dream didn’t materialise due to some academic setbacks. So, we decided to go for a technology-based course since it was the fad at that time when we were growing up. This was in the 50s and 60s. Technology was a big deal in Nigeria. You know Nigeria was willing to train technical people that would man their industries.
Then, secondly, my mother was a great dealer in textile materials. We used to be fascinated watching her selling the materials. We would be engrossed with the design. I remember that one day, we asked our mother, “How do they do this material? We are interested.” That was the beginning of our passion. We grew interested and followed it up.
What area did you specialise in?
I specialised in Colour Chemistry and Colour Technology. My brother specialised in Textile Science and Technology. We are both professors now. You know that the textile industry is made up of dry and wet processings. Dry processing is the conversion of raw materials to yarn, which is then made into fabric or knitted. That is my brother’s area of specialisation. My own begins from there. I would bleach the yarn, add colour, finish it and package it for sale. We were really close. But after our diploma, we separated and went to different institutions.
What places did you work when you graduated?
I worked in the Edo Textile Mill. I was one of the pioneer technologists at the mill in Benin City. If you come to Benin City, you will hear of the textile mirror. That was part of my creation. It was owned by an indigenous family. I was the only trained technologist who worked with the technical experts. I was there from 1975 to 1978. I spent three and a half years as a technologist and as Deputy Technical Assistant. I then returned to England to do my PhD. This was in 1981. I spent about three years to get my PhD.
When did you start lecturing?
When I returned to Nigeria, I decided to lecture. My first teaching experience was at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State). That was in the Department of Chemistry.
Why Chemistry and not Art?
When you talk of colour, it is pure chemistry. So, I had to be in the Department of Chemistry for another three and a half years before I transferred to the University of Benin, Edo State, to set up undergraduate and postgraduate courses in colour chemistry. I was the pioneer lecturer of colour chemistry at UNIBEN. I was the first Nigerian to get a fellowship in colour chemistry.
What was your experience like as the first indigenous colour chemist?
I had a very wide range of technical experience abroad. I worked with Imperial Chemical Industry, UK; Shandour Limited and others. I worked in the three major chemical industries in the UK. That gave me a very good background. When I joined the academic, I had no difficulties in facing the challenges in the course. I was the one who single-handedly set up the colour chemistry at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in UNIBEN. I have trained so many students. Even with the difficulties in research in this country, I have been able to produce about three PhDs holders. In fact, one of my PhD students is now a professor. He is the current Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Anambra State University, Awka (now Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu University, Anambra). I am so proud of him. I have more than 15 students that I have trained at the master’s level.
What do you do now that you are retired?
I still conduct exams as an external examiner at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; Bayero University, Kano; Ladoke Akintola University of Science and Technology, Ogbomosho. I also examine PhD students in those schools. I also assess people for leadership and professorship positions. I have also served as a National University Commission panel Chair to assess the universities that have this colour chemistry department. Being able to train students that would take over from me and replicate my profession so it would not die has been the highest highlight of my career. I have won a post-doctorate award from a first-class American university, North Carolina State University. It is one of the top American universities that do textile technology. I did a lot of research there. I have more than 30 published articles in local and international journals.
Colour chemistry doesn’t appear to be a popular course. Besides lecturing, what career opportunities are available to those who study the course?
I wouldn’t say it is not popular; it is just really technical. In layman’s parlance, it is known as tie and dye or clothing and textile. It is the scientific name that is known as colour chemistry.
When did you get married?
My twin brother and I had planned to marry on the same day but marriage happened at different times. The funny thing was that there was a set of twin girls that we grew up together with and we had thought we would get married to them on the same day. We were about four years older than them. We had the idea that when it was time for marriage, we would marry them on the same day. But as God would have it, we travelled abroad for our studies and before we came back, they had been ‘snatched’ away from us. So, our plans didn’t materialise.
How did you meet your wife?
When we finished our first studies around 1981/82, we said it was time for us to settle down and have our own families. I met my wife through social interactions and we went to parties together and danced with each other. From there, I developed an interest and we started to date. That was how we decided to get married.
How old were you when you got married?
I got married around 1985. I was over 40 years old then. Our firstborn should be about 36 years old now. I know you are wondering why my children are not older. They did not come immediately after we got married. We waited for a long time before God blessed us with the fruit of the womb. It was a really difficult time. It was a period when we kept our faith. We knew there was nothing impossible with God. We (my wife and I) prayed together till God heard our prayers. At the right time, the children came. Once the first one came, others followed in quick succession. Once I had four kids, I decided to stop childbearing.
Are any of your kids into textile?
None of them has such interest. I have four children; two boys and two girls.
Do you feel disappointed about this?
Not at all. As parents, we gave our kids the chance to choose a career for themselves. My first son is an engineer. My second, child, a female, is an accountant. The other girl is a medical doctor. The last boy is a geologist. The last one should be 28 years old or so. He married two years ago.
How will you compare the Nigeria of your younger days and the Nigeria of today?
When we were born and growing up, Nigeria was superb, not as it is now. The naira value to a dollar was N1:$1. When we used to travel abroad to do research then, there was no reason to stay behind because Nigeria was just as good. Around the 80s or so, the naira fell and things started becoming difficult for the country. There were two things responsible for the downturn. First, Nigerians have lost their value system. Back then when you went abroad to study, everyone would be asking you when you would finish and return to Nigeria to contribute to the country’s development. But today, people do all manner of things to leave the country and remain abroad. Now, everybody has become too money-conscious; people are no longer interested in education. During our time, this lingering strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities would not have been on. We would have shut down the whole country in protest.
The second thing is that the people leading Nigeria are too old. We need younger persons to galvanise the Nigerian people and the economy and make it big again.