Tribute to Professor David T. Okpako

In Appreciation of a Life Well-Lived
By Urhobo Historical Society


1.       The news of the sudden death of Professor David Ǫkpako came as a shock to many of the members of Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) in the Diaspora when it was broken to them in the United States. Professor Ǫkpako was a valuable and active member of the organization. He had attended many of UHS conferences both in Nigeria and the United Kingdom. He participated in these conferences in various capacities from giving a keynote speech at UHS third annual conference held on November 1-3 at the Goldsmith College, University of London, to serving as a moderator in a number of roundtable discussions on issues pertaining to the economic and social well-being of the Urhobo Nation. He delivered a remarkable paper titled Emuerinvwin: An Urhobo belief that links serious illness to bad behavior in May 12, 2016. In recognition of his contributions to humanity and service to Urhobo people, the Urhobo Historical Society presented a Life-Time Service Award to him at Okpare-Olomu on November 15, 2014.  Our hearts go to his family, and may his soul rest in peace. He will be missed. 

Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, President,
Urhobo Historical Society

2.       The devastating news of the passing of my senior colleague and friend, Professor David T.  Ǫkpako (DTO) was a shock to me, having just spoken to him, full of life, only a few weeks earlier. He passed on, I am told, after a very relaxing day playing golf, came home and had a meal, relaxed on his couch, and left us for the world beyond. It is amazing because if DTO had been asked about how he would want to depart from this earth, he would have scripted it exactly the way it happened.

Professor Ǫkpako was an outstanding pharmaceutical scientist whose body of work was very consequential to our understanding of drugs, be they synthetic or natural. His work was impactful in a variety of ways, reaching across several disciplines. From the social sciences to religion and anthropology, his work made every one better in his or her profession. In medicine, he was even more substantial making us more comfortable in our prescription habits and use of medications. He thus made everyone better physicians.

On a personal note, Professor Ǫkpako maintained a close and lasting friendship with my late older brother, Professor Matthew Scott-Emuakpor, making him feel a very sustaining sense of kinship in the last days of his life at Ibadan. At the passing of my brother, he counseled me with uncommon wisdom. Professor Ǫkpako led a life of utmost simplicity and a life of service to humanity. He was always a voice of reason, and he was a man whose only ambition is to be a person of value rather than a person of success. A man of value indeed he was.

May we all be comforted in the realization that he has completed his work on earth, and he has transitioned into being an ancestor. If the way he lived on earth indicates his after-life mission, he will definitely be a super dependable ancestor. May his beautiful soul Rest in Peace.

Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, Member
Editorial and Management Committee
Urhobo Historical Society


No. 3 Ekeh Street (Opposite Catholic Church)
Okpara Inland, Ethiope East LGA, Delta State, Nigeria
P. O. Box 652 Effurun, Delta State, Nigeria
Telephone Enquiries: 07060647530, 09069379071


A Tribute to the Memory of Professor David Tinakpọevwan Ǫkpako

Professor David Ǫkpako who passed away on September 7, 2020 at the age of 83, has left behind a legacy that reminds one of the virtues of hard work in the face of adversity, and a dedicated service to the cause of humanity. The professor started life in the middle of the British colonial rule of Nigeria and had to navigate his way through the difficult times of the era to become an accomplished scientist, educator, historian and a folklorist. The Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) has cause to honor him not only for being a valuable member of the Society but also for his contributions to the field of pharmacology and medicine in ways that helped to advance the work of physicians and other health care providers. Professor Ǫkpako was also able to leverage his deep knowledge of Urhobo traditions and culture to improve the understanding of emotional distress as a fundamental cause of various illnesses, a belief that predates psychosomatic theory in modern medicine. Rather than dismiss the traditional belief of Urhobo people as an irrational metaphysical superstition, Professor Ǫkpako viewed the belief as a theory of illness, which states that bad behavior can elicit emotional distress and lead to serious illness. Besides his contribution to traditional African medicine, he also helped others to recognize and celebrate the rich cultural history of his people of Urhobo. He took upon himself the singular responsibility for retrieving and recording for prosperity a number of songs for a musical genre known as Udje for which his people of Ughievwen-Urhobo are famously known.

In essence, we can easily see why Professor Ǫkpako have been identified as belonging to a circle of eminent Urhobo professors including Joseph Akpọkodje, Peter Ekeh, Ǫnigu Otitȩ, Frank Ukọli, Isidore Okpȩwhọ, and Matthew Scott-Emuakpor who had distinguished themselves as great scholars and made Urhobo proud during their tenure at the University of Ibadan. The contributions provided to scholarship and society by Professor Ǫkpako and his Urhobo colleagues at Ibadan were possible only because they persevered and made sacrifices in their struggle for survival during the very trying times in Urhobo history. If they had stumbled in the struggle, they would have gone the way of thousands of Urhobo youth who became impoverished, succumbed to failures, and were ultimately unable to sustain life meaningfully enough for the stability of the society.

The deep attachment to Urhobo culture and ability to overcome hardship, and rise in academia seem to have much to do with the circumstances of his early life. David Ǫkpako grew up in the rural Owahwa community in Ughiȩvwen sub-cultural unit of Urhobo, and was well disposed to assimilate many elements of Urhobo cultural practices including those of Udje songs and dance that he cherished. Living in an environment of limited opportunities, he learnt early in life how to improvise for what one lacks in the belief that the ability to make the most of limited resources is by itself an essential part of the educational process. Professor Ǫkpako also credited his success in life to two individuals, Reverend Paul Ebhomielen and Mr. MacNeil Ejaife, both of whom spotted the intellectual bubbling in him, and kindly took him under their care, nourishing him to grow and develop his capability. Reverend Ebhomelen was the Headmaster of the Baptist School, Oginibo that Ǫkpako attended from his near-by home in Owahwa. The School came into existence in the later parts of the 1930s through the evangelical activities of a Baptist Minister, Reverend Preston Onosode who worked in the Urhobo creek areas of Nigeria’s western Niger Delta. Mr. Ejaife was the pioneer principal of Urhobo College, Effurun, a community school founded by Urhobo people in 1949 to address the urgent need of post-primary education for Urhobo youth of Ǫkpako’s generation. Ǫkpako would probably have had no opportunity to attend school but for Mr. Ifaka who established the Ifaka Providence School Owahwa among others in the area. Mr. Ifaka, the proprietor travelled on a Raleigh bicycle from one school to another and as the only teacher, held classes once or twice a week in each of his schools. The students were left alone to take care of themselves for the rest of the week, and the brighter ones like Ǫkpako were just as happy to provide instruction in the absence of the teacher. Ǫkpako was in fact luckier than many of the students as he had access to informal instruction from two of his cousins who were in school at Utughievwen. By 1946 when Ǫkpako had advanced to standard one, he became an assistant to the proprietor filling in for him whenever he did not show up. The meager school fee of three pence per month was hardly sufficient to run a school, and even then, not many students could afford to pay regularly. After two years at Ifaka, Ǫkpako transferred in 1946 to a better equipped and staffed Baptist School, Oginibo. He graduated from Oginibo in 1948 and felt proud and excited to work as a pupil teacher at an ‘Imole Village School’ in 1949.  Nevertheless, Ǫkpako was looking ahead and was able to gain admission to attend Baptist Boys High School in far away Port Harcourt, in Eastern Nigeria in 1950. It was said that Mr. Ejaife, during many of his trips to recruit students was able to persuade Ǫkpako to come nearer home to attend Urhobo College in 1951.

Life at Urhobo College at the time of Ǫkpako’s enrollment was also exciting even though the school like many of its kind during the early parts of colonial rule was understaffed and ill-equipped. The school for example offered classes in Biology and Chemistry without science laboratories for experimental work, and no Physics at all. Among Ǫkpako’s teachers who struggled to mold him and other students were a crop of dedicated Urhobo men including Messrs. MacNeil Ejaife, G. Diejomaoh, Isaac Ikime, Ezekiel Igho, and Daniel Okumagba with whom he was said to have lived while attending Urhobo College. Although one could speculate that the quality of early education for many of David Ǫkpako’s generation was not substantive, it seemed enough to instill in some students the spirit of reliance and motivation to succeed in life. David Ǫkpako who had no Physics at Urhobo College for instance, was able to do well in the subject when he secured a Nigerian Federal Government scholarship in 1956 to study at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology at Ibadan for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations at the Advanced (A) Level, and to train for a diploma in Pharmacy. The GCE examinations were conducted by the University of London.  Ǫkpako’s interests at Urhobo College were in the arts, Latin and English. He developed his interest in the study of science and an aptitude for scientific research during his employment as a Laboratory technician-in-training in Professor J. C. Edozien’s laboratories at the University College, Ibadan. Ǫkpako also worked after becoming a registered Nigerian pharmacist in 1960 as a junior pharmacist at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. The Physics teacher at the Nigerian College was concerned about Ǫkpako’s lack of a background in Physics and doubted his ability to handle the subject at the GCE A level. David Ǫkpako often joked that he had proof that he passed all his subjects including Physics at A level in the General Certificate Examinations held in 1958, thus paving the way for greater achievement in the field of Science. In fact, many members of Ǫkpako’s class of 1954 also excelled in spite of inadequate instruction in science subjects to become great men of science notably in genetics, medicine and pharmacology. For example, Matthew Scott-Emuakpor made it in Genetics as the first Urhobo College alumnus to earn a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge in 1964, followed by David Ǫkpako in Pharmacology in 1967, from Bradford University. Another notable member of the Urhobo College class of 1954 was Sunday Mebitaghan who graduated in Medicine and became a distinguished Public Health Specialist in Nigeria. Many others have also attained distinction in Law, politics, academia, and the literary world to name a few areas of accomplishments. They were not only influenced by the nurturing efforts of their School Principal, Mr. M. G. Ejaife but also guided by the enduring philosophy/motto of the school: aut optimum aut nihil, either the best or nothing.

In 1961, David Ǫkpako with the help of another scholarship award from the Nigeria’s Federal Government moved to earn a diploma and a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from the University of London in 1964 with the best prize in Pharmacology. Ǫkpako moved on to study at the University of Bradford where he became the first person to be awarded a Ph.D in a newly created Department of Pharmacology at the University. Soon after he returned to the University of London on a MRC fellowship during the 1967-1968 academic session to study under the distinguished scholar, Heinz Otto Schild, FRS. Heinz Schild was then the Professor and Chair of Pharmacology and was widely known for his contributions to studies on the role of receptor pharmacology for understanding the mechanism of histamine release and bioassay. Ǫkpako returned to Nigeria in 1968 with his wife Kathleen; both had met at the University of Bradford while she was working in the University Information Office. His first employment was with the College of Medicine of the University of Lagos, Nigeria as a lecturer in Pharmacology, during which he and his wife had their first child, Branwen Kiemute on February 25, 1969. Later in the year in October 1969, the family moved to the University of Ibadan where Ǫkpako began a 20 year-long career in teaching and research in Pharmacology. At Ibadan, Ǫkpako was exceptionally active in his research and had published in various reputable international academic journals. He rose to become a professor in 1977 and a year later in 1978 he was made the Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University College of Medicine. He worked tirelessly from 1970 through 1983 as the founding coordinator of the B.Pharm program which became the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan. He was in great demand internationally for lectures, seminars and workshops just as when he accepted an invitation from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia in 1996. The invitation gave him the opportunity to deliver a ground-breaking paper on Placebos and Poisons in Healing: Theory and Pharmacology in Traditional African Medicine. On retirement from the University of Ibadan, he accepted an appointment at the Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria where he served as the pioneer Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy that he helped to build.

Taken together, many who knew him noted that a common thread that runs through David Ǫkpako’s research and publications was his deep concern for the need of a credible statement on the role of African traditional medicine in public health. Some of his earlier works dealt with the problems of inflammation in various organ systems. He investigated for example the effect of the prostaglandins on the autonomic nervous system, their occurrence in cholera and Burkitt’s lymphoma, and platelet activity in a malaria infection. A more recent study of the traditional herbal treatment of malaria fever as inflammatory disease was based on field investigation of a community of traditional medicine healers and their clients in his native area of Ughievwen in Urhoboland. He observed that in traditional medicine in Urhoboland and other African communities, ancestor spirit anger has come to be understood as a metaphor for describing emotional stress, and that psychoneuroimmunology is nothing other than a study of the pathways that link emotion to bodily response. The study thus offers a new interpretation of African medicine from the perspectives of Urhobo traditional practitioners of the ancient art. David Ǫkpako presented his findings in a paper, Emuerinvwi: An Urhobo belief that links serious illness to bad behavior, which he delivered in a seminar at UHS Headquarters in Okpara inland in May 12, 2016. The efficacy of the belief in Emuerinvwin as an immoral act for which a descendant can be punished with death by a dead ancestor as Ǫkpako argued, rests on two strands of thought: (i) the belief that ancestors control the morality of their descendants by their ability to inflict illness as punishment for sin, (ii) experiential knowledge that an acculturated descendant who commits a sin comparable to the magnitude of emuerinvwen may endure emotional distress and become seriously ill. He concluded that the belief in emuerinvwen is an ancestor anger theory of illness.

David Ǫkpako is probably best known for his books especially the 1991 Cambridge University Press book, the Principle of Pharmacology: A Tropical Approach. The book provides a framework for the consideration of cultural, environmental, nutritional and genetic factors that affect drug action among people in the tropics.  It also describes the basic underlying principles of the drug action especially those used in the treatment of tropical diseases. The last publication, Science Interrogating Belief: Bridging the Old and the New Traditional Medicine in Africa (2015) is of the same genre.  Professor Ǫkpako used this publication to present his interpretation of beliefs that constitute the theoretical basis for the practice of traditional African medicine (TAM) which seems to share many common characteristics with modern medical science. For example, he noted that the treatment of fever using traditional plant remedies is based on the understanding of the role of the biological phenomenon of inflammation in the causation of certain diseases. The treatment is successful as Ǫkpako argued, because the remedies have the capability to suppress malaria-induced inflammation in humans who had significant immunity against the disease. The immunity provides protection by pushing the causative plasmodium parasite to be resisted or eliminated by the host’s body. He took time to outline how the indigenous active-fever plant remedies can be used in an Africa-centered approach to control malaria, taking into account the African’s intrinsic protective immunity against the disease. While Ǫkpako agreed that use of herbal treatment is based on TAM, he took exception to claims by herbal traditional healers that they have modernized the practice by doing away with various forms of fetishes that surrounded its use in the past. He likened the claims of modernization to accepting drug use but not the pharmaceutical theories involved. He seemed to believe that the use of “esoteric methods e.g. incantation, confessions, sacrifices, etc are procedures that defuse tension. They are not superstitious”, he declared. He therefore concluded that the solution to some of Africa’s problems of development can be found not in the Euro-American models frequently adopted by Africa’s educated elites, but in knowledge and experience embedded in traditional African institutions.

David Ǫkpako in the course of his scholarship held membership in many professional bodies. A few examples will suffice. He was a former Vice-President, and President and Chairman of the Nigerian Field Society, an organization founded by Frank Bridges in 1930 for the study of the fauna and flora of West Africa. He had been since 2001, the Chairman of the Bassir-Thomas Biomedical Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Professor Oritsȩjọlọmi Thomas, the former Provost of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos and Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan in 1974, for the purpose of seeking indigenous funding for medical research in Nigeria.  In recognition of his contribution to the profession of pharmacy, he was also awarded the fellowship of many professional bodies including the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Chartered Biologists, Society of Biology UK., Nigerian Academy of Science and the African Academy of Science. Ǫkpako is particularly pleased and proud of the awards of excellence given to him by the University of Ibadan and the Delta State University for his role in helping to establish faculties of Pharmacy in both institutions. He saw the role of promoting education as a significant contribution to the development of his country of Nigeria.

Aside from his professional engagements and research interests, David Ǫkpako has found time to investigate some aspects of cultural attributes of his Urhobo people. In 1974 he initiated a project with the recording of a number of Udje songs, most of which were composed by his older brother Kepha in the 1930s. The project has resulted in the publication of a book: Kpeha’s song: Ethics and Culture in Urhobo Udje Poetry. The book chronicles the life of Kepha based on oral information gathered from people who knew and sometimes shared in the life of his brother. According to Gerald Chouin who reviewed the book, the life of Kepha as artist is actually a pretext to draw a well-informed portrait of a domestic and social life as well as norms and values in an Urhobo community by the mid-twentieth century before it was radically impacted by modernity. Udje itself, as Chouin further noted, belonged to a tradition that might have started several centuries ago, and there is still a wealth of oral literature to be collected. One could therefore appreciate David Ǫkpako’s efforts as not only being timely but also in the right direction.

Before we can conclude this account of the stewardship of David Ǫkpako to humanity and the Urhobo people, we must say something about his family. Ǫkpako and Kathleen, his wife met on the campus of the University of Bradford and they stayed married for 53 years. They had their children, Branwen Kiemute and Edorȩ in Nigeria, raising them in the healthy environment of the University of Ibadan. One can understand why the children have become so successful. Both Kiemute and Edorȩ attended the Staff School University of Ibadan for their elementary education, and the International School for the post-primary education. Kiemute continued her education overseas at the United World College of the Atlantic, Wales, and the University of Bristol in England. After marriage to Johannes Brandrup, the actor in 1991, she moved with her husband to Germany. They now have two children, Ilan and Xaver. Kiemute also studied at the German Film and Television Academy to become a film maker like her husband. She has written and directed several stories, one of which is a 2011 documentary Die Geschichte der Auma Obama that has won several awards. Kiemute is currently an Associate Professor of Television and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis. After leaving the International school, Edorȩ took a degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Lagos. Like his sister, Edorȩ went overseas to attend Technical University, Berlin for a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and later an MBA from ESCP Europe Business School, Paris Campus. He is married and with his wife, Almaz Wanjiri Yohannes, has a son, Taiga. Edorȩ now runs the Ǫkpako IT Consulting, a company which he established at Duesseldorf, Germany in 2007. The company provides consulting services in telecommunication and investment banking to companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and has begun to extend its services outside Europe into African markets.   Their mother, Kathleen G. Ǫkpako had studied library Science at the University of Ibadan, and has worked as a librarian at the University for the past 30 years. To her belongs the credit for keeping a home where her husband and children found the necessary comfort for growth and enrichment. David Okpako himself was very fond of his family: the wife, children and the three grandchildren whom he regarded as his jewels and delight in an old age.

So you, David Tinakpọevwan Ǫkpako as a successful Urhobo College alumnus, a scientist, an educator and a folklorist, you have inspired others with your energy and vision that you applied to your scholarship. The Urhobo people and the Urhobo Historical Society applaud your numerous contributions to medicine, education and research through which you have enhanced our understanding of African traditional medicine including drug use and action. The Society also recognizes and celebrates the many ways you had used, to enrich the cultural history of Urhobo people. Urhobo Historical salutes you and wishes you well in your journey home to the ancestors. May the good Lord bless your soul and grant you a perfect rest in peace. Akpọ kȩ dȩ fa.

Engr. Onoawarie Andrew Edevbie
Secretary, Urhobo Historical Society

Editorial and Management Committee: Onoawarie Edevbie, M.A., M.Sc.; Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D.; Edirin Erhiaganoma, M.Sc.;  Joseph E. Inikori, Ph.D.;  John Ejaife, M.D.; Isaac James Mowoe, Ph.D., J.D.; Peter Obukowho Essi, BS.; Francis Odemerho, Ph.D.; Emmanuel Ojameruaye, Ph.D.;  Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, Ed.D.; and  Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, M.D., Ph.D.  Executive: Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, President; Isaac James Mowoe, Vice President; Onoawarie Edevbie, Secretary; and Emmanuel Ojameruaye Treasurer.

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