A Nigerian PhD student in Japan, Ikenna Nweke, drew global attention recently when he returned a big purse he found containing money. He shares the story with GBENGA ADENIJI.
You are only known as a Nigerian from Imo State resident in Japan and being a student in the East Asian country. What more can you say about yourself?
I am from Amauzari in the Isiala Mbano Local Government Area of Imo State. I was born in Okpoko, Onitsha, Anambra State, where I attended both elementary and high school. I briefly attended the Enugu State University of Science and Technology for a Diploma course and came to Japan in 2013 on a Global 30 International Scholarship. It’s a scholarship programme sponsored by the Japanese government. I have completed graduate and master’s degrees.
I am currently on a PhD programme and in the second year of the programme at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. I am researching security. I was born into a poor family. My father was a truck pusher and for me to go to school, I had to do menial jobs. I am a rotary fellow for I got a rotary fellowship between 2018 and 2019. I was the president, African Students Union at the university.
You are being commended by compatriots back home for your honesty in returning a purse with money you found on the street of Japan to the owner. Can you share the story with us?
On the day the incident happened, I was returning from the university where I also work as a teaching assistant. On getting to the city centre, I decided to buy a kebab for my wife. I was ascending a staircase when I saw a big purse. I picked it up and opened it. I saw a huge sum of money in it like 10,000 yen each. I didn’t want to waste time as there’s a police station close by. I went there and gave them the purse. When the police officer who collected it from me opened it, he saw the money in it.
I saw the surprise expression on his face that an African could see such money and return it. He had already collected my resident card and knew I’m a Nigerian. He asked me where I saw the money and why I didn’t take it. I told him there was no need for that because of the way I was raised and my faith as a Christian. He told me about the Japanese law that if one finds anything lost especially money, the person is entitled to 10 per cent of the money. He added that if the owner of such money doesn’t claim ownership after three months, the money becomes that of the finder. As he explained everything to me, I told him there would be no need for that and they should just find the owner and hand over the money to him or her. He then felt I didn’t understand his explanation and requested me to call someone I know who speaks Japanese better than I do. I called my pastor, Augustine Odigie from Edo State. They explained everything they had already told me to him. He told me what they said and I told him that I don’t need the money but they should find the owner. They told my pastor to ask me why I didn’t need 10 per cent of the money because they wouldn’t want me to leave and return later to ask for it. He told them I understood everything and that not every Nigerian is a criminal.
Two days later, my wife saw a letter by the door. Since I couldn’t read Japanese well, I snapped it and sent it to a friend to interpret it for me. The friend told me that the letter was from the police saying I saw some money a few days back and thanking me for my honesty in returning it. The friend added that the letter also stated that the owner would call me to show appreciation. The owner of the money indeed called me and was deeply grateful for my honesty. Honestly after the incident, I didn’t want to make any post about it on social media.
But it was at a time the Federal Bureau of Investigation declared six Nigerians wanted for fraud and the Hushpuppi (A Nigerian, Ramon Abbas, arrested in the United Arab Emirates for alleged multiple frauds) saga. Before then, some of my friends from other African countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania would make a post like “Ikenna, see your Nigerian brothers, disgracing all,’’ and tag me.
The last part of my post indicated that, “Not all Nigerians are criminals. The criminal elements are just a tiny fraction of the country’s 200 million population. People should not judge other Nigerians by the actions of few. I told my story of how I saw a purse full of money and returned it to the owner. I also said I refused the lawful 10 per cent on it and to take up the entire sum if after three months the owner does not show up to collect it.” That was the post and it went viral.
What first came to your mind when you found the purse?
When I saw the money, the first thing that came to my mind was how distressing I felt in the past when I lost something. I knew how distressing it would be for the owner. I felt the owner would be in the same situation and I was really concerned about how to get the money to the owner.
What is the money worth in the Nigerian currency and would you have returned it if it was more than that?
I didn’t count the money to know its exact value in Nigerian currency. But with the way I saw it, it would be in millions in Nigerian currency. Also, the credit card in the purse is loaded with money as I got to know later. The owner of the money is rich. I knew this when he called me. He bought a new house in the city where I live , so he must be a rich man. The money is hundreds of millions of yen, so it should be in millions too in naira. I read some comments where some people said I didn’t take the 10 per cent or that I returned the purse because I was rich. I am not rich. I don’t have a scholarship for a PhD. I only got a scholarship for undergraduate and master’s programmes. I could have used the money to solve my personal needs especially during this period of pandemic. I have four children and we struggle to survive. I do a part-time job with my wife for us to survive.
You said the officer you showed the purse when you found it said you were entitled to 10 per cent of the money as a law in Japan but you rejected it. What made you take the decision?
I took the decision because I wouldn’t be happy if someone did that to me. If the money was meant for something important, 10 per cent from it would shorten it and no longer be useful for what it was meant for. Humanity entails I shouldn’t take 10 per cent of the money. I am a Christian and my faith forbids me to make money out of such a scenario. Also, I wanted to show a good example of my family and upbringing and be a worthy ambassador of my country. This is because I know that Nigeria has a bad image abroad. I consciously wanted to make a difference.
Since June 19, 2020, when the incident happened till now, what would you say has changed for you among the Nigerian community in Japan and Japanese friends?
The President of the Nigerian Union in Japan, Chief Kennedy Nnaji, has been quite supportive. He shared a lot of stories with me and encouraged me to continue being a worthy ambassador and doing good. Some of my Japanese friends were surprised at my actions, especially the rejection of the 10 per cent share of the money. They said it was my right but I said I couldn’t take it. They said I should have taken it and given it to charity then. But I told them that rejecting it was part of charity. My university is proud of me including my supervisor who sent me an email to appreciate me.
Your action came as a booster at a time the country’s image suffered hard knocks based on cases of fraud levelled against some of its nationals abroad. How do you feel about this?
I feel proud that my story has added positively to my country’s image. I feel proud of myself and glad that it came at a time Nigeria needed an image booster. The world should know that this is how Nigerians behave. Those who don’t behave this way are not good Nigerians. The narrative about Nigerians being criminally-minded is false. My action has challenged that narrative. I am happy that several people are saying, “Oh, he’s a Nigerian. I never knew Nigerians can do this.”
It could have been any Nigerian giving Nigeria this image booster because Nigerians are good people. I returned the purse to show that most Nigerians aren’t criminals. I am glad that God and fate decided to choose me to do this for my country.
What did the owner of the purse tell you when he called you?
Remember that I said I didn’t return the money directly to him but to the police. But when he called me, he was extremely grateful. He told me that we should make out time to have lunch or dinner with my family.
honesty ranging from bank guards to airport cleaners. How do you feel hearing about their laudable actions?
I know that many Nigerians have done great things. This kind of action helps to encourage young people that honesty pays. I was glad when the president of Nigeria made a speech about what I did. It was a natural thing I did. I felt honoured and couldn’t have asked for more. Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri, Pastor Sam Adeyemi and the ex-governor of Imo State, Emeka Ihedioha, among many others have commended me. I am happy.
What is your advice to those who have used the misdeeds of few Nigerians to label Nigerians as fraudulent?
Those who use the misdeeds of a tiny fraction of Nigerians to judge other Nigerians are not being sincere. There are many Nigerians doing great exploits and breaking records abroad. These are our stories. The few Nigerians into frauds are not representing Nigeria or Nigerians. It’s either who they are, how they are raised or given to peer pressure.
How are your family members, especially your wife reacting to the accolades rolling in to commend your good deed?
My wife is super proud of me. When we started we lived in one room. My wife put to bed in my mum’s one room apartment before I was able to raise some money to rent a two-room apartment in Onitsha. Seeing her husband being praised for his honesty both home and abroad, my wife is happy. I feel encouraged to be a worthy ambassador of my country.