Excerpt from Me, My Mother, My Life
Chapter 8 – The Beginning
“Mummy, Mummy, see, E is for Elephant!”
I ran from the living room, where I had knelt on the blue and white carpet on all fours as Olalekan guided me through the colourful book of alphabets. I went to show Mum my latest knowledge acquisition. She was outside having a chat to the neighbour and another woman—one of her colleagues, who happened to have been passing by the house.
“That is great, very good,” Mum said, and turned to face her friends. I did not feel satisfied with the response; it did not feel quite enthusiastic enough. I told her I was going back to learn some more. She sent me on my way and resumed her discussion. I went back and continued working my way through the book.
That is not the earliest of my childhood memories. I seem to have a gift for remembering the odd moments and my memory once freaked Ibidun out. A lot of the memories of my childhood are as clear as watching a replay of the events. Some memories once in a while come to me like a flash of light that turns into a flicker. It sometimes glimmers as I struggle to put pieces of past events together. At other times it grows into a bright flame and the memories come rushing in.
Growing up in Ilesa, I was in every way a lastborn. I did not have any sense of suffering or not being cared for. My feelings when I was young were ones of being pampered. I was not aware of much of my relationship with my mother; I think she was quite a busy woman working as a nurse in the big hospital at the end of our road. Naturally, I spent more time with house helps and aunties, when they spent the summer holidays with us.
We lived in a house that was comprised of four apartments within a walled compound containing two buildings. At the time, the buildings seemed rather enormous. Our apartment was on the ground floor of the one that faced the road. We were renting and the owner lived in the house right at the back. The orange and fire brick red colour made the two-storey block quite distinct, particularly as all the houses on the mini estate on the opposite side of the road were white in colour.
Our house was about the last house on the road before getting to the General Hospital with its manned gates. The gates turned the rather wide, partly and thinly tarred road into a cul-de-sac.
Centred steps straddling the two ground floor apartments rose gracefully from the downward sloping, concreted front yard to our front door and those of the next door neighbour. I sometimes sat on the steps and played with my friends, the landlord’s daughters, Bolanle and Fola, and Titilayo, another girl who lived in the apartment right above ours. Hanging out with the other girls was my favourite pastime. Once Mum was out of the door in the morning, I would have my shower and settle down to breakfast. Having half eaten my breakfast I was always ready to go out to play with the other three girls, with the encouragement of the usually bright and sunny Nigeria days, when the sun extended a warm, tender touch towards us as its rays fell on our faces and the back of our bare necks. Its warmth gradually transitioned into intense heat as the afternoon approached and the hard concrete steps would get too hot. We would scramble to get the prime position in other spots under the shade where we could sit down without our bums feeling the burning heat of the exposed concrete steps.
“Bolanle, move. I need to sit there; I can still feel the sunrays on my arms.” If it was not Fola and her sister arguing about who sat where, it would be Titilayo and I wanting to protect ourselves from direct sunlight.
If anyone wanted me back in our apartment, they either shouted my name so loud that it could be heard all over the compound or they would come looking for me in my hideouts.
“Ayo! You need to come in now, we are going out,” Aunty Bolaji would shout whenever she needed to run an errand for Mum, and I would go in and get ready to go. On our way back we would walk through the primary school down the road from the house. The school was one of the state schools with some of the classroom’s external walls left un-rendered.
There was dust everywhere, especially when there had been no rain for a few days. You could see the dust settling on the houses as their colours take on an element of brown. There were very few trees around the neighbouring houses and you could see tiny bushes by the way side. Other forms of vegetation were scarce except for a little forest that could be seen from the lower end of the school. The forest extended to the rear of our compound before opening up on the land beyond the house and further past the side of the hospital, spreading afar into the distance, clear of what the eyes could see.
One day—during a holiday—there was a naming ceremony happening in one of the classrooms as we went past the school. The naming ceremony party sang, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices . . .” and so on. At first I couldn’t make out the words of the song, but Aunty Bolaji helped me and I sang the few lines she taught me for days after. A few weeks later we sang the same song in our church. We didn’t get to go to church often but Mum took us at every opportunity she had.
During Christmas 1977, as was Mum’s usual practice, we went to Ibadan to do some Christmas shopping. Christmas in Nigeria was the time when children got special clothes; a lot of parents would save up to buy new clothes for their children. I’m not sure it would have mattered to the children if they only got new clothes at Christmas. Mum had travelled to Osogbo before our trip to Ibadan to buy us some outfits for the celebrations. Ibadan and Osogbo were bigger trade centres than Ilesa and Mum preferred to travel to either or both places for the annual festive shopping.
At Ibadan, we went sightseeing and had a great time at Leventis stores. I was full of excitement going up the escalator to get the train to Father Christmas’s grotto. The train was an open top, rather low train that was only large enough to take children. One of the younger girls was crying, afraid of riding the train without her mother. It made me rather proud of my confidence as I thought to myself, I’m not scared. At four years old, I had found a new level of self-assurance since I started nursery school about three months earlier. At this time we lived alone with Mum. Dad was still in England trying to complete his studies. Mum had chosen to return to Nigeria with me and my siblings after she finished her own studies several years ahead of Dad.
Then one afternoon, Mum came back from work and took a letter out of the side pocket of her thick light blue uniform. The most exciting time of the day was when Mum got back home from work. It was even more exciting on this occasion as the letter was from Dad. It was already opened, but she read it again and revealed some of the content to us. Dad was fine; he asked after us. And he would soon be returning home to Nigeria.
Despite getting excited about the letters from abroad, I did not know the man who wrote them and so inevitably found the thoughts of him entering our family unit difficult.
“He is not my Dad,” I claimed.
Ibidun stepped in to do the diligent older sister duty.
“Yes, he is your Dad.”
Is he really coming back? I thought to myself. It seemed unreal.
“How is he going to come?” I asked Mum.
“He will fly in an aeroplane,” was the answer.
“Where will he live when he comes? Where will his home be?”
“Here, of course,” was Mum’s reply.
As curious as I was to hear more about his impending arrival, I still could not fathom how he came to be my father, a man it seemed I had never met. I was only a baby when we had left him in England. If he stood in a line with other men, I would not have been able to identify him. Mum and Ibidun told me more about Dad in an effort to stir my imagination and help me reach the essential acceptance of this man, of whom I was a part. I argued with them. I told them my Dad was in Ife, which was only half an hour’s drive away from Ilesa. But I was, in fact, referring to Granddaddy, seeing as I was not aware at the time that Granddaddy lived in Modakeke, not Ife, and that Modakeke and Ife were two separate towns.
Mum tried to explain.
“Granddaddy is my daddy; your daddy is in England, see, he has written to us. He will be coming back soon.”
I was not prepared to buy their story. It did not sound true. I couldn’t picture him in my mind, therefore, as far as I was concerned he simply didn’t exist. I told Ibidun it was her daddy that was in England, not mine. That was my way of getting back at her for what felt to me like verbal abuse. How dare she tell me my daddy is in England? My daddy is in Ife; whoever it is that they are expecting from England is their own business, not mine.
Dad was a foreigner in my world.
I loved Granddaddy, we saw him often enough; he was good enough for me as daddy. In any case he was daddy, the fact that there was a “grand” prefixing that daddy made no difference to my little mind. I was always fascinated by his big house—the pale pink, three-storey building that he lived in at the time—and the vibrancy that the house exuded with my aunts and uncles usually happily bantering away. I would shout, “We are now in Ife,” when we got to the junction of the house, although we would have already entered Ife several kilometres back.
As Dad’s arrival drew near, we moved houses. I wasn’t sure why we had to move, because the new three-bedroom apartment was just as big as the old one. The compound within which we now lived was a lot more compact and the buildings sat closer together. The first building had two apartments; ours was on the ground floor, and the landlord and his family lived upstairs. There was also a smaller block to the side, which formed an extension to the landlord’s apartment on the first floor and was linked to it by a balcony. On the ground floor of the smaller block lived a young family of four. Their first child was a girl named Moji, who was two years younger than me while their other child, another girl, was still a baby at the time. I formed new friendships with Moji, and with Iyabo and Ranti, the landlord’s youngest daughters.
The space between the smaller building and our apartment, on the ground floor, formed a courtyard where the residents sometimes congregated in the evening to relax. The smell of palm oil stew and burning firewood wafted into the courtyard when the landlord’s wife cooked on an open fire downstairs in the back of the house.
The road outside was busy and dusty. Its dust would rise up like puffs of smoke when a vehicle drove by and we had to cover our mouths and noses from its fumes: that acrid smell and the harsh, gritty taste. The road led westward to one of the town’s main roads, which in turn led to the hospital next to where we used to live. In the eastward direction, it led into the town centre and onwards to Osu and then Ife, both in the southwest direction.
Once we unpacked our belongings into our new home, the countdown to Dad’s arrival began. It was a month, then weeks, then days. The strange thing was, as the days drew closer to his arrival, my excitement grew and I couldn’t wait to meet him. I was a different child to the one who had argued that her father was in Ife. When I saw him at the airport, my excitement knew no bounds.
We arrived at the Ikeja airport, having travelled to Lagos the day before to spend the night with our cousins. Dad’s flight arrived late in the evening. I must have slept in the car; I heard Mum’s voice calling, “Ayo, we are now at the airport.”
After we had pulled into a space in the car park, we all stepped out and went to watch some planes as they took off and landed before we headed into the terminal. I felt overwhelmed by the size of the planes and the thundering of their engines at the same time as I felt a great fascination for them. The evening breeze swept coolly across my face and felt quite refreshing. It carried a distinct smell of the various water bodies around Lagos—the lagoon, the ocean and perhaps the various rivers running into them. After about fifteen minutes outside we made our way into the terminal building. The passengers had started to come through. My neck was stretched as far as it would go, asking which one was Daddy, and Ibidun was standing on tiptoe, trying to see over the heads of the small crowd blocking her view. Mum was reassuring us that we would see him when he came through. I was so focused on the family business of the night that nothing else at the airport mattered to me. I was no longer aware who else was there with us apart from Ibidun and Mum, who were actively involved in my mission to identify Dad. Olalekan and one or two extended family members that travelled to the airport with us had disappeared from my line of sight and merged with the crowd there.
I, of course, did not recognise Dad when he came through, but Ibidun, in her own excitement, and Mum pointed him out. The picture of him standing at the airport counter waving intermittently, calmly and with poise as his travel documents were being checked, is permanently imprinted on my mind. He wore a dark suit and looked very tall and smart. He was beaming with smiles and kept wiping sweat from his forehead.
“That is daddy, that is daddy!” I cried out. Anyone seeing me would have thought Dad and I had been very close before he went on the journey he was now returning from.
“Daddy, daddy,” I called out to him as Mum lifted me up to get a better view. It probably would have been difficult to believe that I had only recognised him for the first time that evening.