The birth of Lady Martha Onyachowe Attah (nee Ikpa), MON on 25th July 1934 was joyously celebrated by her parents, Ikpa and Oya Ogbole. Their celebrations were to the consternation of their relatives and friends, who could not understand their happiness when they were yet to have a baby boy, typical of attitudes abound in early 20th century Idoma Land.
Ikpa, who at about this time was a recent convert to Christianity and was also known as Lazarus, paid his community no mind as he was more than grateful to God for the safe delivery of a another beautiful baby girl by his wife, Oya. Little did any of those who made mockery of the Ogboles joy at the birth of Martha, would know that this baby girl would become a source of pride not just to Ikpa but to the whole of Idoma Land.
Characteristic of the Ogboles, they showered little Martha with so much love and at same time instilled discipline and culture of hard work in her. It was no surprise she became the darling of her father; Ikpa and Martha became so close that she was always by his side, such that by the time she was a toddler, people would jokingly refer to her as Ikpa’s mum hence her pet name “Enikpa”. The name Enikpa, would stick to Martha for the rest of her life like white on rice.
At the age of 6, Enikpa started school at St. Mary’s Primary School, Otukpo before moving to Holy Rosary Primary School, Enugu for her Class 6 and 7. She then gained admission into the famous Holy Rosary College, Enugu, a Catholic all girls boarding school in 1947, where she successfully passed her Cambridge School Certificate Examination (equivalent of present day O’ Levels) with Division 2 in 1951, making her the first Idoma girl to complete secondary education. Despite having the option of staying on at college for the Higher School Certificate, HSC (equivalent of present day A’ Levels) with a view to attending University College Ibadan (present day University of Ibadan), Enikpa chose to pursue a career in midwifery.
Enikpa’s love of midwifery was influenced by Sister Agnes Ryan, an Irish nun of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, who was also a midwife at Holy Rosary Maternity, Onitsha. This nun usually visited Holy Rosary College, Enugu to offer career guidance and counselling; and regaled the college girls with beautiful stories of childbirth. These stories so impressed Enikpa that she sought and gained admission into the School of Midwifery, Enugu upon leaving Holy Rosary College in 1951.
After one year at the school of midwifery, Enikpa had another year of internship at the Holy Rosary Maternity, Emekuku near Owerri, before qualifying as a midwife in 1953 and in the process making another history as the first qualified midwife from Idoma Land. Her exceptional feat did not go unnoticed as she was snapped up by the Idoma Native Authority (Idoma NA) as a Community Midwife.
As if 1953 was not memorable enough, 19 year old Enikpa got married to handsome Benedict Ode Attah in the same year. While many people would have struggled with starting a new career at same time as married life, during a period when women were expected to sit at home and raise children, young Enikpa took on these big challenges and with the support of her loving husband, she was would go on to successfully fulfil her role as a Community Midwife as well as a loving wife/mother.
Even though Enikpa later trained as a Nurse in the late 1950s, it was her work as a Midwife that continued to dominate her life. By the early and mid-1960s, her house was fast becoming a Mecca for pregnant women who would troop there on weekday evenings and weekends for antenatal support. After 16 years in the service of Idoma NA, Northern Nigeria Government and Benue-Plateau State Government; and having attained the position of a Matron at General Hospital Otukpo, she decided to retire in 1969 and go into private practice. The overwhelming number of women turning up at her door, convinced her to set up her own midwifery practice and with the support of her husband, Ode Attah, who was already a successful businessman, she established St Theresa Maternity, Otukpo, where she provided unrivalled antenatal, childbirth and postnatal services to women living in Idoma Land.
The popularity of the Maternity grew astronomically in the 1970s and 80s as it became known for its affordable service fees and excellence, despite the presence of a fully-fledged General Hospital in Otukpo. Though, officially named St Theresa Maternity, it was better known as Inichi K’le Enikpa (Enikpa’s Clinic). Legend has it that Idoma men living in faraway towns such as Jos, Kaduna and Zaria would send their pregnant wives to Otukpo so that they would give birth under the care of Enikpa.
Even foreigners living in Otukpo patronised the Maternity and according to Mrs Ira Dolgopolova Odeh, a Russian who had her only child there in 1984, “having Enikpa take care of the delivery was very reassuring as her years of experience shone through. The facilities at the maternity at the time were of high standard; and the antenatal / postnatal care was also first class”. The reputation of the maternity grew and in the 1990s was upgraded into a full hospital thereby becoming the St Theresa Hospital we know today.
Aside from impacting the lives of young mothers and their babies, Enikpa was also a role model to Idoma girls who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. It is a widely held belief that many girls were inspired to take up midwifery and nursing by the humility and professionalism displayed by Enikpa.
Though more known for her midwifery skills, Enikpa, throughout her life, was true to her Catholic faith and was no surprise when she was made a Lady of St. John in the 90s. Her Catholic faith was to play a prominent role in her life when on 28th January 1989, after more than 35 years of blissful marriage blessed with 5 beautiful children; she lost her soul partner, Ode Attah and she needed to find strength in the Lord to see her through this great personal loss.
With her grownup children now involved with the management of the hospital, Enikpa dedicated her time to charity work supporting many organisations by volunteering for leadership roles, which enabled her to bring her wealth of experience to bear on these organisations and help shape the directions they took in Idoma Land. Some of the organisations are Legion of Mary, Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) and National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) amongst others.
Having led a life of service to humanity, it came as no surprise to all who knew her when on 30th September 2006, the Federal Government of Nigeria, accorded her one of the country’s highest honours by making her a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) for her service to healthcare. Sadly, just a month after this national recognition, Lady Enikpa passed away on 31st October 2006 at the age of 72, while surrounded by her family and friends.
May the soul of the Florence Nightingale of Idoma Land rest in peace and may her story continue to inspire Idoma girls to great heights. Amen.
- Oral Interviews
- Agbo, N.O, 2017. Remembering Martha Enikpa Attah, 1933-2006. NATSAGBO, [blog] 31 October. Available at: <https://natsagbo.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/remembering-martha-enikpa-attah-1933-2006/> [Accessed 09 February 2018]
- Dawodu.com, 2006. 2006 Nigerian National Honor Award. [online] Available at: <https://dawodu.com/award2007.htm> [Accessed 09 February 2018]