As the weeks roll into days for the 80th birthday of Uncle Sam Amuka, Chairman of the Vanguard Newspapers, many articles as well as tributes will begin to pour in to celebrate this true icon of the Nigerian press.
Many will talk about his staying power; his entrepreneurial prowess; his ability to spot and nurture talents; his vast network of friends across social strata; his humanity.
Those a bit closer to him will talk about his social habits, his sense of humour and his deep respect for friendship and family. There are so many sides to the puzzle of this public but intensely private man.
Last Sunday in ‘The Orbit’, a weekly column written by Obi Nwakanma, another side of him that I had been aware of but never really dwelt on was commented upon. Uncle Sam is a sprightly man. His mental and physical abilities at eighty will make many a young man green with envy. Obviously the columnist was impressed enough to try to unearth the secret behind his seeming defiance of the aging process.
One of the reasons he gave was that Uncle Sam still tries to swim about ten laps a day. Swimming is good and many doctors will recommend it as the exercise of choice across all ages. But that’s about half of it.
The other important half is the discipline that makes a busy, eighty year old find the time and aptitude to do ten laps regularly. The columnist referred to this when he said and I quote “He is also a man who no doubt loves the epicurean rites- the joy of the open table. Yet his eating is disciplined. There is no excess”. Over the past forty or so years, I have watched him move from football to squash to golf and finally swimming- all in the effort to keep his spare frame lithe and firm. I have watched him take the discipline of mind –he does yoga sometimes- and body to heights that have become hugely beneficial to him.
As to his eating habit, I can testify to that ‘Simple, healthy fare, taken in accountable measure’ mentioned by the columnist. I had breakfast with him last week Friday and dinner the following day and even I who had shared many a meal with him over the years, was surprised by his serving. When I asked him at breakfast if that was all he was going to take – about half a thin slice of yam- he smiled and said yes. At dinner, he was half-way through his small portion when he took a call. He never went back to the meal. It seemed he had learnt as he aged, despite the sumptuousness of the table sometimes, the importance of simple, small but regular meals. The same thing goes for social drinks. I have not seen Uncle Sam take more than a glass of any drink in a long while no matter how long he stays at the function. “Know yourself no be curse” he would tell you if you urged too much.
This is a lesson many of us who envy the likes of Uncle Sam have to learn. We go to weddings and can’t resist the constant flow of vintage champagne or rich red wine. We find we can’t say no to the small chops and delicacies either.
We gauge ourselves on free food and drinks as if we are in a contest. Maybe we are – to an early grave. At home, we eat late, heavy meals with assorted pieces of meat. Then we wonder when the stomach begins to bloat, the eyes begin to dull, the skin begins to lose its lustre and the organs begin to fail. A bit of discipline will take the toxins away and restore us to good health. After all, we become what we consume.
But it is not our appetite for food alone that is injurious to our wellbeing. Our inability to take the offerings of life in ‘accountable measures’ can also become injurious to us. Many times we forget the ‘simple, healthy fare’ when we are in a position of power and influence so we take and indulge simply because it is there even when what we take is not legally ours to take. Very soon, our appetites for the luxuries of life feed our greed and the excess becomes toxic to our system.
Many of our ruling elites for example, have houses in the UK, France, South Africa and the US. Many of these houses are locked up for most of the year and merely generate bills. A simple hotel accommodation when they travel, would have served the needs of most of them. It is even more injurious when we leave the position of power and easy money dries out. Meanwhile, our large appetites must be fed. We have become what we consumed. The decline in peace, health and happiness sets in almost as soon as we leave office.
I went to a boat exhibition last weekend and was awed at the sheer luxury of some of those yachts. One can spend one, two weeks at sea in those boats and not miss home. It is easy to become envious of the rich who can afford to acquire these rich toys without hesitation especially if the funds have come easy for them and their appetites for ‘rich food’ have become large. As usual, Uncle Sam brought me to earth when I told him of the exhibition. “Yes, I love boats.”
He said “but how practicable is it when you don’t live on the water front. Even if you did, how useful is it, especially when you look at the associated costs of keeping it afloat?” That is the thinking of a man who lives in moderation. A man who has learnt that the secret to a long, healthy and happy life lies in taking life’s many pleasures in small doses and that a man’s worth should not be in what you acquire or what you consume. We should learn, as he has, that contentment is in making the best of what we have- little or much.
Happy 80th birthday in advance Uncle Sam. It is still about a couple of weeks to go and I hope I have not opened the flood gates. You deserve the accolades which will come; many of which, if I know you, will not meet you in Nigeria. After all you can’t queue to hold party for someone who is not around.