Ikoli Harcourt Whyte: The Leper Boy Who Composed 200 Igbo Hymns

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He had a choice to commit suicide but chose to find a deeper and true meaning to his life. Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, diagnosed of leprosy at the age of 14, chose to be closer to God and in the process, received a cure, got a gift of music that saw him composing over 200 hymns in Igbo, a language that was not his. He also got married and sired six children.

Harcourt-Whyte was born in 1905 in Abonnema in the Niger delta of Nigeria to a family of the Kalabari tribe. His parents- Munabo and Odibo named him Ikoli, however he adopted the name Harcourt-Whyte later on in his life. He was trained by his parents in the vocations of the Kalabari people, fishing and trade and also was schooled in the traditional vocal traditions of the Kalabari.

He was diagnosed with Leprosy in 1919, at the age of 14 and was sent first to the Port Harcourt Hospital- the closest hospital to Abonnema- by his siblings and then to the Uzuakoli Leprosy Hospital in the East of Nigeria. In keeping with the practice at the time, he and other patients were kept in virtual seclusion since Albert Schweitzer’s vaccine had not been developed by then.

Its also important to point out that his beloved mother and father died in 1916 and 1919 respectively thus making him both an orphan and a victim of one of the most dreaded diseases of the time at a very young age. Substantial background about Harcourt-Whyte’s affliction with Leprosy is provided by the research of Hazel Mae Rotimi (wife of Ola Rotimi) and Achinivu Achinivu who wrote a PhD dissertation at the University of Berlin on the life and works of Harcourt Whyte.

The symptoms of the disease were first noticed in 1918, and the symptoms aggravated very quickly until its full blown manifestation in 1919. Especially noteworthy was that in ancient lore, leprosy was considered a curse from the Gods and Lepers were banished, resulting in most committing suicide.

Harcourt-Whyte however sought a deeper meaning for his fate and conviction that his life had a greater purpose than his affliction and the attended stigma represented to him.

Whilst at the Leprosy hospital, he immersed himself in Biblical text and in particular developed a strong interest in the religious hymns sung in the Hospital chapel and was encouraged to join the choir by the English Missionaries who ran the hospital and soon became an important part of the choir, subsequently becoming its conductor. He was encouraged by the missionaries also to compose choral pieces in Igbo, which though not his native language was the language of expression at Uzuakoli of which he mastered.

Harcourt-Whyte wrote over 200 choral pieces in his career, an incredible feat for a man with virtually no formal education. In 1949, upon Schweitzer’s vaccine gaining widespread use, he was cured of Leprosy, upon which he dedicated the rest of his life to composing inspirational music and educating on the need for care of Leprosy patients.

Dr Ralph James standing at the tomb of late Ikoli Harcourt Whyte

His music incidentally became a source of comfort for Igbos during the Nigerian Civil war, especially the track Atulegwu. three of the most popular recordings of his work were namely two albums by the Choir of the Uzuakoli Leper Colony (comprising Leprosy patients) and conducted by the legendary Musicologist and poet- Nnamdi Olebara, whose haunting and powerful poetry and narrative make these two of the most important classical works ever recorded in Nigeria. The third being the album “A e na o” by the St Louis Missouri African Choir, the only readily available recorded version of his work. By the way the Choir was composed entirely of Americans.

Harcourt-Whyte died in 1977 in a motor accident, however his compositions gained huge global critical acclaim after his death and whilst not on the same scale as his contemporary Fela Sowande, however his work is immprtalised in the published research by Hazel Mae Rotimi (subsequent to a 23-year research), Achinivu Achinivu’s work and Ola Rotimi’s great play “Hopes of the living dead” which featured the music of Harcourt-Whyte.

At some of my most challenging times- especially when undergoing Chemotherapy last year, the music of Harcourt-Whyte was inspirational to me, especially the song “Atulegwu” (never fear). Also his composition “Umu gi emebiwo uwa gi” (Oh God, your children have destroyed the beautiful world that you created..) is one of the most moving songs I have ever heard and has resonance with several themes of the beauty of this earth destroyed by man’s greed, avarice, covetousness and individualism.

It is important also that Harcourt-Whyte’s ministration never included condemnation of other faiths but focused on the simple philosophy love, compassion and empathy for your fellow men. A simple man, he never sought acclaim, money or fame, he believed his life had a purpose beyond the challenges he faced or merely acquiring material achievement. One of the greatest African’s who ever lived.

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