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The Untold Story of Nigerian Famous Leper who Composed the Hymns
By Jane Nneoma

Ikoli Harcourt Whyte is a Nigerian untouchable who did not let his encounters of agony and stigmatisations encompassing his ailment ruin him from committing himself to music and creating more than 200 uplifting psalms.

The administration of the Uzuakoli Leprosy Center is trusting that the 40th commemoration of Whyte's passing on the 25 and 26 November will revive people groups enthusiasm for his work and empower pick up them more help on the training of disease. The ailment is currently totally reparable, identifying side effects early counteracts distortion, and there is not anymore any need to trash or separate sufferers dissimilar to amid the season of Whyte.

Who is Ikoli Harcourt Whyte?

Ikoli Harcourt Whyte was an Igbo hymn composer. He was born in Rivers State in 1905 and later diagnosed with leprosy in 1919.

He was sent to be an inmate at the Uzuakoli Leprosy Colony in South-Eastern Nigeria from 1932 where he remained even after being cured in 1945.

At the Leprosy Colony, he set up a choir made up of lepers with whom he travelled with around Nigeria to perform. Whyte also performed for British dignitaries visiting colonial Nigeria.

He wrote music with the stubs of his thumb and index finger which was slow and tedious. It would take at least an entire day to write just one page of music.

He died in a car accident in 1977 leaving behind a legacy of over 200 hymns.

Activism against stigmatization

Whyte's activism was against stigmatization of people with leprosy and helped lead the Methodist missionaries to establish the Uzuakoli Leprosy Centre in 1932 where he was amongst some of the first inmates.

This was after he had been receiving treatment at a Port Harcourt hospital in Rivers State which at the time had a leprosy ward until local authorities tried to forcefully evacuate them. Whyte had insisted that an alternative location should be provided for them to move to after being evacuated.

Also, even after being cured of leprosy he refused to leave the leper colony to prove a point that leprosy was not to be stigmatized.


Beginning of a lifetime dedicated to composing music

Whyte met a British missionary and medical doctor, Thomas Frank Davey, in Uzuakoli who cultivated Whyte's interest in music.


According to Achinivu, a friend and protégé to Whyte, "Dr Davey taught him everything he knew about music, that he acquired by studying the Methodist hymn book."

As Dr Davey travelled to villages to treat leprosy patients he recorded the traditional music of the people and encouraged Whyte to compose songs that sounded more like that rather than like ones in the Methodist hymn book.

Soon after Whyte formed a choir at the centre and made books of hymns that were being sold in different churches across the region, and choirs from around Nigeria were visiting the leprosy centre to listen to and learn from him.

Tales soon spread about his music and abound of the reach and impact of his music, most of which was written in his local Igbo language and focused on hope despite the trials and tribulations he had faced.


Whyte's 85-year-old son Godwin Harcourt said that, "He didn't want instruments with his music so that they wouldn't overshadow the message."

Some say that the Queen of England also became aware of his music, and once requested his hymns to be played by the BBC on Christmas Day.

And, during the Nigerian civil war when leaders of the Igbo ethnic group attempted to secede and form a different country called Biafra, Whyte's songs were popular as a source of courage and hope.

Rejection even after death

After Whyte had passed away, 4 years later Ola Rotimi was commissioned to produce a play for Nigeria's 21st Independence Day anniversary on 1 October, 1981.

Rotimi decided to use Whyte’s life as an inspiration and approached Achinivu who was once a protégé and friend to the composer but is now a professor of music.

Achinivu was asked by Rotimi to provide the music for the production he had titled hopes of the Living Dead. The professor assembled a choir that worked hard to learn dozens of Whyte's songs in preparation for the performance.

When the choir arrived in the then capital city of Lagos for rehearsals ahead of the Independence Day, a director at the Nigerian ministry of culture did not like Rotimi's plans.

The performance was cancelled as he was reported as saying that “we couldn't be presenting lepers to the world on Nigeria's 21st independence anniversary.”


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