Nigerian ex-Eton pupil says he will return to accept racism apology

Novelist Dillibe Onyeama wrote book about abuse received during time at elite school

Contains language some readers may find offensive

Dillibe Onyeama in 1969, aged 18. Eton banned him from visiting after he wrote about his experiences of racism at the college.
Dillibe Onyeama in 1969, aged 18. Eton banned him from visiting after he wrote about his experiences of racism at the college. Photograph: Bente Fasmer/Report IFL archive

A Nigerian novelist who was one of Eton’s first black students says he will visit the school after the current headmaster apologised for the “appalling” racism he experienced in the 1960s and extended an invitation.

Dillibe Onyeama says he was shocked by the school’s offer of an apology, but would return as long as Eton covered the cost of his travel and accommodation. He said: “Who is going to pay for the trip? If they want to pay for the airfare, the hotel and everything else, then I would be happy to go.”

Onyeama, who was banned from returning to the school after writing the book Nigger at Eton in 1972, which detailed the abuse he suffered, said he was surprised by the attention his story had received, and by Eton’s apology.

“My attitude is that it is not necessary. It was neither solicited nor expected, it was not fought for. There’s no obligation on the part of Eton college to apologise for anything. So really, to me, it is a non-issue.”

Onyeama was interviewed by the Nigerian Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani for the BBC and recalled the racism he experienced at the school, such as fellow pupils asking him: “Does your mother wear a bone in her nose?” and “How many maggots are there in your hair?” He was the second black student to attend the school, joining two terms after fellow Nigerian Tokunbo Akintola was admitted.

Eton’s headmaster, Simon Henderson, told the BBC: “I am appalled by the racism Mr Onyeama experienced at Eton. Racism has no place in civilised society, then or now.” He confirmed he would invite Onyeama to meet “so as to apologise to him in person, on behalf of the school, and to make clear that he will always be welcome at Eton”.

After leaving the school, Onyeama worked as a journalist and moved into publishing, writing Nigger at Eton and then returning to Nigeria in 1981. The novelist, who was born in Enugu, Nigeria, in 1951 and came to England in 1959, said he experienced little racism while attending prep school at Grove Park in Sussex, but when he moved to Eton the racist abuse was regular and systemic.

“When I got to Eton college and I encountered supremacist attitudes, I reacted violently, because to me, it was like blasphemy,” he said.

Onyeama said he regularly fought with racist classmates and his teachers automatically attributed “any shortcoming academically to race”. If he showed any competence at sport or a physical exercise that was put down to “beastly strength”.

When he obtained seven passes at O-level, the faculty and students could not believe he had done so legitimately. “‘Tell me, Onyeama, how did you do it?’ I am asked time and time again,” he wrote in the book. “‘You cheated, didn’t you?’”

The novelist’s father, Charles Dadi Umeha Onyeama, studied at Oxford University and became a judge at the international court of justice in The Hague. Onyeama said his father registered him to attend Eton on the day he was born and thought highly of Britain after his time at university.

Eton’s current student body has about 7% black pupils, while Asians students make up around 8%, and 5% are of mixed ethnicity.

The poet and journalist Musa Okwonga said during his time at the school in the 1990s “there were no more than three or four [BAME pupils] out of about 1,250 at any one time” and the school had produced several political leaders with “regressive ideologies”.

Onyeama said he did not want to be defined by the racism he received, and that his ban from the school was revoked a decade ago when he was invited to a reunion he could not attend.

“This is 52 years ago,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me. You take it in your stride as a feature of life. It isn’t something which, in retrospect, bothers me. But [the book] is a record of an experience.”