Reminiscences : I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Priest – Fr. Hickey

Fr. Raymond Hickey, with some of his students during the early days in the North East. Image via Daily Trust

Reverend Father Raymond Hickey is Irish and has been in Nigeria since the 60s. The octogenarian speaks with JULIET KUYET BULUS on his sojourn in Nigeria, priesthood and other matters 


When and where were you born? 

I am from Dublin, Ireland and I was born there in April 1936. 

 What was it like growing up?

 I grew up in a happy home and I had a happy childhood. Good parents who were liberal in the sense that they allowed us lots of freedom. I also had good friends. My parents were both Irish. I have an elder brother and a younger sister. I had a very strong religious background at my country at the time. I am a Catholic priest and the schools I attended and society in general was supportive of Catholic belief, so it was easy for me to have an enthusiasm for the gospel.

Which institutions and or schools did you attend? 

I attended the School of Philosophy in Dublin and later Gregorian University in Rome and I graduated with a Doctorate in Theology.

Why did you study Theology?

I wanted to be a priest all my life to study the scripture, its history and these are essential for ordination. So, I went through a seven-year course and was ordained in Rome in February 1960.

How has it been since 1960?

 I came to Nigeria same year and was in Maiduguri in October 1960. To be precise, two weeks after independence and I have been in Nigeria ever since. I was sent to Maiduguri as a missionary and the first 28 years was in Borno and Yobe states.

What was your experience when you arrived Nigeria? 

Very happy memories with good people and learning a lot from fellow missionary priests and the people as well as being very careful not to offend anyone in any way by respecting their culture, background and religious values because we were trained for that specifically. So, we did and had good relationship even with traditional rulers and I still have a very close relationship with quite a number of the indigenes.

Since you arrived the country, have you been opportune to visit your family in Ireland? 

I travel every year but at the beginning it wasn’t so because I stayed for three and a half years as I was in Borno and Yobe. I lived through the crisis of the Biafra war and all military regimes, and I have seen everything since independence.

When last did you travel home to Ireland? 

In June/July 2018 and I hope to visit this year. I am able to travel every year because it is much easier now because at the beginning we had to go by sea using boats and there were no direct flights.

Did you have an idea of what the Biafra war meant?

 It was very sad and I was there during the massacre of the Igbo people in the North, especially in 1966 during the build up to the war in 1967.

Can you recollect anything about independence in 1960? 

No, because I arrived two weeks after independence. Things were just beginning and Sir Tafawa Balewa was the Prime Minister and the Premier in the north was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and other leaders like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano, Chief Michael Okpara and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. There were only three regions at the time, North, West and East. Maiduguri was very close to the United Nation Trust Territory of Northern Cameroon, it was 40 miles away and at the time Bama had been part of the German Colony of Cameroon until 1918 and these territories were not part of Nigeria at Independence. But for a United Nations clemency asking the people if they wished to join Cameroon or Nigeria and that was very close, because Bama, Michika, Mubi were all part of the United Nations Trust Territory.

You are well grounded in the history of Nigeria, is it okay to refer to you as a Nigerian? 

Well, I have lived in Nigeria for 59 years and may be more Nigerian than some Nigerians (he laughs) next year I will be 60 years living in Nigeria and I have been to the 36 states of the federation.

Did you face any challenge when you arrived the country? 

No, because I wanted to be a missionary here and we are all of human nature, so there was no big difference. We still have to struggle to live up to expectation because if we don’t our conscience will quickly let us know and this human nature is shared by people all over the world as we have the same tendencies towards sins like pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, giving up courage, sloth and hypocrisy and these we struggle with. So it doesn’t matter whether we come from America, Europe, Asia or Africa because it is the same nature as we are all descendants of Adam.

How would you compare Nigeria then with what we have today? 

In general, it is hard to say but in something, I would say that progress has been made. In education, health and certainly in the area of infrastructure when it comes to roads and bridges. It is a huge improvement but I see one thing and that is when I came in 1960, everybody used to say Nigeria is a country with huge potential and almost 60 years later, I still hear the same thing ‘Nigeria is a country with great potential’. It means that potential at independence has not been fully realized and I regret that.

How would you rate security during your early years in Nigeria, with what obtains today? 

It was completely safe in the North. I could go out and leave the mission house open and come back eight hours later and nothing would be touched. People were trustworthy so security was never an issue.

Before being a priest, did you work in any other place? 

I was ordained at the age of 24 and immediately after that I came down to Nigeria and did not have any other job experience. I am presently 83 years old. You joined the priesthood as a youth and you are still active. How is life in service? It has been a wonderful life, fulfilling and it was what I wanted as a young man, to be able to serve God and his people. I would say that it is being fulfilled here in Nigeria. I thank God for so many blessings and gifts. I spent 28 years in Yobe and Borno, some years in Adamawa, Plateau, Abuja and also spent seven years in Lagos but that’s an interlude. I was on the office staff of the Papal Nunciature during the years in Lagos and Abuja, until 2017. 

 The first time you came to Nigeria, what was your opinion of the food? 

There was no problem as I ate what I got. And if one is hungry, every food is good and I ate a lot of cocoyam known as Gwaza in Hausa language when I was in Bono because the cocoyam would always grow at the riverside. 

 As a Nigerian, what is your favourite food now and then?

 I eat everything but the food I used to eat more in Borno is called Tuwo and it was made out Gero, dawa and I don’t see it now, all I see is semovita and for me it is an artificial concoction. I also like pounded yam and Kosai (Bean cake). I live in Jos, Plateau State and I eat Tuwon Dawa and Miyan Yakwa, Gwote,Ganyen Yakwa and not Taushe and Irish potatoes. I also prefer Kunun Tsamiyya because it is bitter rather than sweet. 

 Hearing you speak the Hausa Language is quite impressive, who taught you? 

The priority of the Catholic in the north was to promote Hausa and make it essential because otherwise, we’ve got about 200 ethnic groups and in Plateau it is about 20 ethnic groups. We cannot have women from various ethnic languages minister to us in Zumunta Mata Katolika, a separate branch for each ethnic group. Impossible and divisive! There is not a single English or true Hausa person present in the parish in which I serve in Jos. I am Irish, but English and Hausa are the languages widely used and understood. But it can be promoted in English and Hausa because they are widely used and understood. These two languages overcome ethnic divisions, which could be a threat to the unity, the inclusive nature of the Catholic Church. There are very few people who are Hausa’s in my Church but the language is international. I learnt how to speak in order to be able to communicate and understand one another. 

 Nigerian culture you admire?

 I like all and when each group dances it is quite entertaining. Their attires also. 

 How did you unwind during your younger days? 

Of course, recreation, I have been playing sports all my life, especially lawn tennis which is my favourite. I played golf until I clocked 81 years of age. However, presently, I am much more Nigerian now, but to relax I take a beer every evening. I used to be able to take a bottle of beer but now I can only manage half a bottle and at night I watch the television, do a lot of reading classical books. Hobbies I like classical music and highlife because it is relaxing. In the old days I listened to Victor Olaiya. 

 Do you have any regrets in life? 

Everybody has regrets and one of mine is that I was never able to sing but it is also because I didn’t have the gift of singing, a good voice. If I had more experience starting off as a missionary, I would have taken things easier, with diplomacy and better understanding. But fundamentally about vocation and relationships, it’s a no. 

 What would you have done differently?

 I would have been void of misconception and prejudices if I was starting all over again as a youth. But there are certain things you only learn once in a life time and that is experience. There is an expression that says if only the young people had the experience of life and the older people have the energy of youth. 

 Do you think the elderly are treated far better in the West than what we have here in Nigeria? 

I don’t think so because it is much better here. Nigeria is precious, there is respect for the elderly, keeping them within the family and listening to them, being kind to them is enviable. In the West, you may have homes where they put away the elderly and family bond is not that strong. So, I think the West has a lot to learn from Africa, especially Nigeria. Out of respect they keep them within the system by being patient. Maybe materially the West is better but money is not everything in life. It is very different from the negative values such as witchcraft, curses, the difference between a medicine man Boka in Hausa and witchcraft which is maita in Hausa. 

 What can government do to assist the aged in the society? 

We expect too much from the government here in Nigeria. We blame them for everything. We must depend on the society, each community and people coming together to undertake in community care instead of expecting and blaming the government. The government is also limited and cannot possibly give individual care to over 200 million people. Unless we stop expecting from the government what should be provided at the local level. I know the 36 states and you see local governments, community and I would say it is up to the people to put an end to blaming the government on what is done or not done. 

 What positions or role have you played in the Church? 

I don’t worry about position, I just want to be a good priest and missionary. I thank God for where I am today, I would love to continue being active. Presently I work in the parish in Jos and the people are very supportive, I am happy here. It is a contradiction of the gospel to look for position just like the sons of Zebedee who wanted to sit at Jesus’s left and right hand. They were asking for the impossible as they were asked if they could drink of his chalice, which represented his suffering and death. So, I am contented where I am because I am able to preach the gospel. 

 In a few years from now, where do you see Nigeria? 

For 20 years of democracy rule, there were actions that reflected the will of the people in this election despite irregularities and in which case the person declared winner would still have won if there were no irregularities as I see it. I lived through Sani Abacha and still they speak of Abacha loot and I remember the unexplained killings of prominent people like Kudirat Abiola and Chief Rewane of Warri. Those were terrible times. Nigeria was suspended from membership of the Common Wealth of Nations. When one remembers all that went down, they would be grateful to God for democracy. Fight against corruption by the Buhari Administration Of course, he should fight corruption. When you have a rich country like Nigeria with oil money and no efficient income tax system but when everything is put in place, things will move well. No matter the goodwill on the fight against corruption, President Muhammadu Buhari, Goodluck Jonathan, Umaru Yar’adua and Olusegun Obasanjo, despite efforts made, it would still be difficult to wipe out corruption. 

 Do you think it would be won eventually? 

No, I am not optimistic because of the greed which has been there since the beginning and I do not think it would be won but nevertheless they must continue fighting for what is right Advice for the younger generation In general, I am impressed by the youth and though they have special problems, they do their best despite the challenges of unemployment, family problems especially for those whose parents are in the village, the non-traditional non-Christian values. The non-exclusion of others by giving them respect irrespective of ethnic differences. They should try not to get influenced by the negative features of tradition and also keep doing their best to avoid Western excesses in the society. Things like race for money, position, promotion and the scars of drugs, slavery to addiction in terms of drugs, codeine, alcoholic, sex and other vices. I am glad they do their best from what I see In Jos. I thank God for my years in Nigeria and the very many good people I have met. It has been a privilege to try to serve them, for the sake of Jesus the Christ, our Saviour.