By Tahav Agerzua
Levi O’bem Yakubu, proprietor of Dajo Pottery, also a Bristow Secondary School Gboko product, in 2010 requested American guests to take a look at his factory located along Makurdi-Gboko road.
He received the group with open hands into his house and after serving light refreshments brought out pictures and an old album which contained some shots he took with Miss Geraldine Vandenberg, legendary Bristow principal, for the guests to go through. Then he narrated a fascinating story.
Miss Vandenberg had been present at his birth and indeed had given him the name Orbem in Tiv, meaning man of peace, he said.
The practice in those days was for new missionaries to first learn Tiv language in Zaki-Biam before commencing their work and the Atese, the female teacher, as she came to be known, was also subjected to this procedure.
His father, Pastor Yakubu, was one of her teachers. One Sunday while the Pastor was delivering a sermon, word came to him that his wife had put to bed. The baby was a bouncing baby boy. This he announced in church.
After the service Atese was one of those who went to the house, just a stone throw, to see the baby. At the cradle she was asked to give a name to the child in Tiv as a test of her mastery of the language. She called him Orbem, saying the child would grow up to be a man of peace, just like his father.
Years later, the same Atese admitted O’bem into Bristow where he exhibited a talent in Fine Arts as a subject although the school did not offer it in the graduating exams because of lack of teachers. But the students utilized O’bem’s talent.
If they had a score to settle, they would enlist his services and he would make cartoons about the issue. He would do this on the blackboard and the whole class would be excited. Yet it was forbidden for students to write on the board except they did so with the permission of the teachers who sometimes gave them notes to copy.
One day there was no teacher around and the artist was contracted to make cartoons on the board as usual. As he did the drawings, the whole class was in uproar and everybody clustered around the board. This was the state of affairs when Miss Vandenberg tiptoed into the class and caught O’bem red-handed, as it was.
Then she suddenly shouted ‘shame on you,’ and the class stood still. It was better if the heavens had come down. “Follow me to the office,” she ordered.
In her office she told him how he had brought shame on Christ, on his family, on her and the school. She threatened to suspend him from school so that his family too would know what he had done.
According to the master potter, as she said all these things, he was enveloped in sweat from the crown of his head to the toes of his feet. He thought the very end of life itself had come.
Then suddenly she calmed down and told him how talented he was and how he was wasting his talent. She opened a drawer on her desk and handed him a sketch pad and packet of crayons. “Henceforth no more cartoons on the board; whatever you want to draw do inside this sketch pad. Bring it to me to see on Friday.” The encounter had taken place on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the entire class was awaiting the outcome of the visit to the office. When he got back he brandished his sketch pad and crayons and announced “no more cartoons on the board, whatever I’m going to draw got to be done inside this book,” much to everyone’s relief.
Throughout the remaining part of the day he spent his time making sketches in the pad such that before day break it was filled. He couldn’t wait for Friday. The very next day he was in Atese’s office where he presented the pad to her.
While going through it she would exclaim “Wow, excellent, marvellous, great,” and things like that.
O’bem Yakubu stated that it was under her tutelage that he registered for Fine Art as an independent candidate and obtained a distinction at the West African School Certificate level.
According to him, he went on to Gindiri for the Higher School Certificate in Fine Art and surpassed both the lower and upper six standards such that the school had to recommend him to the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, for admission which the institution offered him after series of examinations which he all passed.
At ABU, he emerged with one of the best results and was asked to specialize in ceramics which was reserved for the best. This conflicted with the Tiv tradition which believed that ceramics was the exlusive of women. Again when he consulted Atese, she counselled that he accept it, after all, God himself was the potter and referred him to Jeremiah, chapter 18.
According to O’bem, it was that spark from Miss Vandenberg that has given Benue State, Nigeria, Africa, and the world one of the greatest in the field of ceramics as numerous awards have testified.
This has also made Dajo Pottery one of the Tourist Sites in Benue State.
Principal Special Assistant on Culture and Tourism to Benue State Governor.