by Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, please, permit me to take you briefly on literary excursions today. In writing this piece, I’ve had to do an adaptation of 100 Years of Solitude, a novel by the Spanish writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is an allegorical masterpiece about the Buendia family, founder of Macondo, a fictional metaphor for Colombia. What I intend to do is use the tale I’m about to weave to represent different aspects of our daily lives in Nigeria, a la Marquez, because so much has changed since the period I’m about to describe. By the time I finish, the question naturally would be, how did we arrive here? We may need to provide that answer on another day.
June is often a special month in my personal life as well as that of my family in general. That was the month my father suddenly died, on June 14, 1973 without any prior notice and certainly without any symptoms whatsoever of a terminal ailment. June has also become our Democracy Month in Nigeria even if some artful dodgers have been trying to bury the best election that ever held in this part, on June 12, 1993. That again is an endless story.
The life of my father in particular should serve as a reminder of how paradise was lost in Nigeria. It would seem John Milton had seen the vision of our nation’s intractable problems ahead when he wrote his fabulously popular epic, Paradise Lost, in the 17th century. It is difficult to recapture the story of my youth without sounding hyperbolic. But it is nothing other than the absolute truth. Nigeria was once close to an Eldorado before the carpetbaggers took over and damaged our blissful existence.
My father, Jacob Momodu, was obviously a restless young lad. At what precise age he left his village of Ihieve, now in Owan East Local Government of Edo State, I may never know because there were no records of his expedition from that distant community to the ancient city of Ile-Ife. All I can recollect as a young man listening to the anecdotes of his shambolic adventure was that he left home like many kids of that generation in search of green pastures. And somehow, he meandered his way to Ile-Ife, after stopping over in several places including Ilesa, where, ironically, he died, on his last trip there.
The ambitious Jacob was a workaholic who tried his hands at many odd jobs. He trained as a photographer under Pa Arogbo, a pioneer in the field. He was a labourer, as public servants who fixed roads and general infrastructure were called in those days. The word Labourer was synonymous with dignity and hard work and had not been tainted or attained the derogatory status that the word now attracts. Eventually, my father rose to the level of a Road Overseer at the Public Works Department (PWD). PWD was the government organ deployed to use Direct Labour to maintain public structures before they deteriorated rather than when they became dilapidated as is the practice today. It was so effective that our roads were never littered with potholes or gullies like we find everywhere today. This method saved time and money as there were no big and endless review of contracts like they do nowadays. Then unlike now there was an unparalleled maintenance culture which the citizenry took for granted. The former Military Governor of Lagos State, Brigadier-General Mohammed Buba Marwa was able to adopt this Direct Labour magic during his tenure in office. He remains one of the most effective administrators ever to govern Lagos because he went back to the past to borrow and emulate a worthy legacy.
The public servants of that period were not wantonly greedy like many of the gluttonous ones around now. They carried themselves with dignity. Their uniforms were impeccably cleaned and clinically ironed to form a straight pleat.
Cars were at a premium in those days and so my father rode his Jawa motorbike proudly that had a special plate number – WF 333. We had a telephone at home with number 2242 and it worked perfectly. Although this was a luxury at the time it was not epileptic. Every street had pipe-borne water and as kids we bent over to drink the nicely-chlorinated tap-water. There was no fear of catching typhoid as a collateral repercussion. We knew of no bottled or table water and we never in our wildest imagination believed that there would come a time when the masses would be forced to buy water in sachets, thus risking their health in drinking so-called “pure water”.
We were taught then that cleanliness was next to Godliness. I remember the Sanitary Inspectors, called “wolewole” in Yoruba, the fear of whom was always the beginning of wisdom. The gutters were cleared regularly of garbage and disinfected with Izal chemical otherwise known as Taniya. We shared common toilet, known as Latrine, and communal bathroom. Co-tenants took turns to keep them clean. I can’t remember seeing a water closet at the time, yet everywhere was spanking fresh and hygienic.
Education was our family’s major priority. My father could not wait for me to start school. Unlike now that babies of two year old can start in a nursery, we didn’t enjoy such privileges. Mothers had time to nurse and nurture their children until they were of full school age. The crude method of knowing if you were within the age bracket of starting school was to place your right hand over your head and stretch it towards your left ear. If you were not able to touch it, then you were instantly disqualified. I failed my first test.
The next one was easier because the headmaster of Local Authority Primary School, Ifewara Road, Mr Isaac Olagbaju, who was very close to our family. Not only did he admit me, he took me to school regularly on his Lambretta motorbike. There was only one family, the Ayanbekus, taking their kids to school in a car. Their dad, was my father’s close friend who owned a successful clinic where I took free medication for a long time.
We lived like communists and distributed food to neighbours and they also reciprocated. Life then had not become “everyone for himself and God for us all.” I vividly remembered our co-tenants, the Osatuberus, who hailed from Igede-Ekiti, if my memory serves me right. We lived like one family. We maintained this communion of love for years even after we departed to different homes in the town. Our landlord was Baba Fagbewesa, an established businessman, who had settled comfortably in Osogbo and even had a street named after him. He hardly came around and was just happy that the property was well-maintained for him. It was taboo for a tenant not to pay his rent on time just as it was unheard of for a landlord to demand payment of any rent in advance. Now, Nigerians are forced to several years in advance when salaries are not paid in advance, a veritable invitation to corruption.
We attended a spiritual church, an Aladura sect, headed by Baba Akeju who guided us in the way of the Lord. I was born in that church and will forever have fond memories. We prayed and fasted regularly and sojourned on some mountains, including one known as Oke-Aanu (Mountain of Mercy), for special fortification. We had loads of problems like any ordinary family but they were hotly chased away with night vigils. My mum was in the spirit and spoke in tongues. Our prayers extended to distant families and friends.
I remember one of the Evangelists in our church called Baba Dele or Baba Fineface. You won’t believe he was an Igbo man because he spoke Yoruba well. He went back home during the Biafra civil war and we lost total contact. But we never stopped praying for his safe return each time we heard of the horrendous tales of mayhem and human deprivation. At a stage, we virtually gave up hope until one day we saw what looked like an apparition and we were re-united with our spiritual Daddy. We all hugged him and wept for joy. All the things he kept in storage were patiently waiting for him because no one ever thought of stealing even a pin from his sacks. That was how we learnt about contentment so early in life.
Oh my God, how much life has changed! There was no discrimination of any kind. Most people thought my dad was a full-blooded Yoruba man. Little did they realise he had crossed many rivers and bridges to get to Ile-Ife. He was not alone. Dele Giwa’s dad had also migrated like him to Ile-Ife and found a job in the palace of Oduduwa as a “washerman” to the powerful monarch, The Ooni of Ife, Oba Titus Tadeniawo Adesoji Aderemi, the first Black Governor in Africa. Dele Giwa was born and raised in Ile-Ife at number 2 Atiba Square, where I later grew up. So also was Papa John 2, who served Oba Adesoji Aderemi as a steward and later major domo. He remained very loyal to the Ooni’s family to the end of his life. His son, Dele Agekameh, was my classmate as St. John’s Grammar School, Ilode, and he became a successful journalist at Newswatch and Tell magazines. It is interesting that all three of us named Dele had humble beginnings with near-illiterate parents and yet learnt enough vocabularies to distinguish ourselves and conquer the world of mass communication.
Ile-Ife must have been a bastion of knowledge, the cradle of civilisation because the same environment has produced several high flying journalists including Kola Ilori of Tell and Wale Sokunbi (nee Abiri) of Concord Newspaper and the Sun Newspaper. Others from Ife who have shone brightly in the journalistic world include, Deji Akintilo publisher of an oil and gas magazine, Gbenga Adefaye of Vanguard and former President of the Guild of Editors, the Elumoye siblings, Remi and Deji, the latter is the Chairman of the Lagos State NUJ. There is also Kehinde Bamigbetan who was with the Punch Newspapers until he went into politics becoming Chief Press Secretary to Governor Bola Tinubu and is now Chairman of Ejigbo Local Development Authority. How can I forget Wale Adenuga of Ikebe Super fame? From next-door Modakeke came the Pulitzer winner Dele Olojede, lately of Next Newspaper, Abiola Oloke, Adedayo Ojo, Boye Ola and others. Also from the same axis is Femi Adesina, current President of the Guild of Editors.
Ile-Ife was renowned for its great artistes, novelists, musicians and theatre practitioners. Its University, like the town, was verily for learning and culture. At a time, this was the home of Wole Soyinka, Wande Abimbola, Ola Rotimi, Kole Omotosho, Oyin Ogunba, Jimi Solanke, Akinwunmi Ishola, Muraina Oyelami, Femi Euba, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Adebayo Williams and many others. These were the people who influenced my career path as they loomed larger than life in those days.
These honourable men and women came from diverse backgrounds, ethnic and religious affiliations and tolerably lived alongside each other. Sabo, where the Hausa community largely resided, was located side by side with Oja Ife, the famous Ife central market and there was never any hint of trouble. We ate and savoured their food and everyone simply blended.
My grand-parents were Moslems and my parents were Christians. The religious intolerance of today was non-existent. We simply treated each other’s religious festival as a time for celebration and no more. The military interregnum started the annihilation of our social fabric whilst the present crop of politicians completed it. The difference between now and then is crystal clear. The change has been drastic, just like the consequences of father’s death.
My father collapsed and died in Ilesha where he had gone to demand for payment in respect of a contract he had executed. My anathema for government contracts stems from this traumatic experience. Bureaucracy has always been the bane of our society. And it seemed my father was tired out by the stress of it. Only God knows what triggered the attack. From that moment onwards my life and world changed forever. We had to move from Ile-Ife to Modakeke to live with my Mum’s relations, the Oyemades who welcomed us with open hands.
This was an abject lesson in how your life could change in the twinkle of an eye. I’ve been guided by this harsh experience ever since. Nothing lasts for ever. I hope our leaders will listen and learn that ultimately, power is transient!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Dele Momodu