Living Leeside: 'When I first arrived, I thought this is where God lives'

Living Leeside: 'When I first arrived, I thought this is where God lives'
Dr. Stephen Onakuse, senior lecturer, Cork University Business School, UCC.Picture Denis Minihane.

UCC lecturer Stephen Onakuse, from Nigeria, has a diploma, a degree, three masters and a PhD, and says “study is my escape.”

With four young boys, he jokes that study is his way of avoiding domestic duties, but Mr Onakuse, who has been in Cork for the past 19 years, said he just loves his work.

“I’m married to my work first, wife second, just don’t tell her!” Mr Onakuse said.

Dr Stephen Onakuse
Dr Stephen Onakuse

“Research and teaching is a part of who I am. I love to watch students grow and see them progress.”

A deeply religious man from his youth in Africa, Mr Onakuse is named after an Irish priest who worked in his community as a child and is currently training to be a eucharistic minister at his local Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady and Saint John, in Carrigaline.

“I am named after an Irish priest, Stephen, in Africa. I am very attached to what they do.”

Mr Onakuse also regularly visits retired returnee SMAs (Society of African Missions) priests, who live in Blackrock.

“I love visiting them,” he said. “They speak the language very well, sometimes better than me! They have contributed to the development of Nigeria, bringing education, healthcare and religion.”

Mr Onakuse is also a board member of the non-profit organisation (NGO), Gorta, which works to end poverty and hunger in rural Africa.

“I’ve been a board member for two years,” he said. 

“I learned about their work through students doing placements with NGOs. I developed an interest in the work that they do and now I advise and contribute to a number of the things they do.”

Originally an agriculturist, with a degree from the University of Agriculture Abeokuta (Nigeria), Stephen went on to do an MSc in Environmental Biology from the University of Ibadan (Nigeria) and a PhD in Food Business and Development from UCC. 

Mr Onakuse also obtained a Postgraduate Certificate, a Postgraduate Diploma and an MA in Teaching and Learning from UCC.

Dr Stephen Onakuse
Dr Stephen Onakuse

He is a lecturer in the Department of Food Business & Development and Deputy Director, Centre for Sustainable Livelihoods (CSL), also at University College Cork.

Mr Onakuse said Cork's charm is rooted in the fact it is a small place. 

“You can feel it, it is not like Dublin. You can navigate it easily and you always meet someone you know.”

When Stephen first arrived in Cork in 2001, he said he learned a lot about Ireland quite quickly.

“When I first arrived, I thought this is where God lives, because of all the SMA priests that visit Africa. The Irish priests in Nigeria, they are very religious people, Mass is two hours long.

“So I got into a taxi at the airport, asked the driver to take me to Mass and when I got there I knelt down, but it was over in 20 minutes. I thought it was a joke. I have gotten used to it now, that is the reality here. Initially, it was a shock to the system.”

Stephen said he loves that Cork people carry a passion for their county and are very proud of where they are from.

Dr. Stephen OnakusePicture Denis Minihane.
Dr. Stephen OnakusePicture Denis Minihane.

“Cork people are very different to others. Even when bad things happen, they are happy and passionate, I love that.”

The father of four, who doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, said he has picked up a few key phrases since moving over but hasn’t succumbed to the peer pressure to drink.

“I say, ‘Howya boi?’ and ‘What’s the craic?’ but I refuse alcohol and coffee. I have never tried it and I don’t want to, it looks disgusting."

The UCC lecturer said he loves walking the Carrigaline to Crosshaven walkway, looking at the sea every Saturday.

“It is very different, it is safe, there is a sense of freedom and it is very relaxing with the fresh air.”

He is married to his wife Esther, with whom he has four boys: Berwin, 12, Evan, 10, Canice, 9, Jayden, four, and the whole family are heavily rooted in the Carrigaline community.

“Evan plays football with Carrigaline and sprints 100m, representing his school, Berwin wants to be a pilot so we are trying to help him with that.

“I have no choice but to be proud of them!”

All four of Stephen and Esther’s sons were born in Ireland and have never been to Nigeria.

“I go home about once a year, often it is a work trip where I kill two birds with the one stone, but this July we are all going, the boys are going for the first time. They are very excited. They can’t wait to put a face to the names they speak to on the phone.”

Stephen’s boys don’t speak Nigerian, but are fluent Irish speakers and often use Gaeilge to play pranks on their dad.

“It was a big mistake teaching them Irish, they just use it to play pranks on me, I don’t know what they are saying!”

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