14 Apr November 1977, O Brothers (Part 1).
“In 1977, three years before you were born, your grandfather died,” my father’s mother told me. We called my grandmother Alhaja, the revered name for Muslim women who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. I had always hung on Alhaja’s every word, but this story about how my grandfather died was one of the most intimate things she ever shared with me. “It was traditional for him to be buried where he came from,” she continued, “and he was laid to rest next to his father, who was buried next to his father.”
I understood the honor in this tradition, since my family came from a royal heritage. Alhaja was the figure in my life whom I felt safe to trust the most, and she felt that helping me understand the events in our family’s history would shape my identity and help me to understand who I was. From what she explained, my grandfather had been a successful businessman with a loving reverence for his heritage. He had four wives, as was customary within his Muslim faith, and my father was one of his seven sons. My grandfather made his career in the retail and wholesale industries in Lagos, but Alhaja explained to me that his heart never left Ijaye (pronounced EE-jah-yay), the tiny rural village where he was born.
“You see, early memories of our childhood are like river tributaries. The rest of our lives not only flow through them but build around them. It doesn’t matter how well we do at running from our childhood, our guiltless years cling to our heart like a mother coddles a nursing baby.” Alhaja said. “Before your grandfather passed away, he implored all his sons to return his body to his birthplace—all of his sons, that is, except for your father. He was the absentee son. He was also the youngest. Your grandfather asked them to find him. However, no one knew where your father was. It had been over seven years since he vanished, and it wasn’t the first time.”
Stories about my dad as a lad often sounded more fictitious than not, mostly too captivating to be real. However, they were accurate accounts of his past. As fascinating as they were, there was no doubt that those were Grandma’s toughest years as a mother. She thought it was incomprehensible that my father was so different in so many perturbing ways. Raising him as a child was the most arduous journey she ever had to embark on. From Grandma’s stories, what I remembered most was there wasn’t much of a good or wrong depiction of him. He was just a different child. A very different child lost in a world of emerging civilization where things once considered the “norm” were no longer acceptable.
My father was born prematurely, two months before his expected birth date. Grandma carried him around in a basket because he was too fragile to hold. It scared her as she beheld almost every vein beneath her son’s epidermis. She was anxious about his survival, but he sure made it, the reason I can tell this story today. My father grew into a very eloquent, charismatic and noticeable character. He caused a lot of trouble in his early life. As a result, his father enrolled him in boarding school at a young age. In 1960s Nigeria, enrolling primary school pupils in boarding schools in western Nigeria was often a desperate action parents resorted to after exhausting all other options. It was a pseudo-military education system designed to enforce discipline and moral character in children. You could call it a place to break and rebuild a child’s character to fit into more socially acknowledgeable cultural values in a country still struggling to find a balance between cultural over-diversification and the introduction of British Westernization that was to stay in Nigeria.
“Academically, your father was a genius,” Grandma once told me. “Regardless of your father’s behavioral issues, the school wouldn’t expel him because he was the best student they had. By the time he graduated from primary education, he knew the nitty gritty of the boarding school system. He had them in the palm of his hand. He figured out how to get away with doing things his way while evading the consequences of his actions. He wanted to live his life the way he saw the world, and no one was going to stop him. He refused to accept rules from anyone, especially the school administrators.”
My father’s high school was in the city of Ife, located in present day Osun State, a significant historical landmark of the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. Often lauded for coming home with several prizes and awards for his achievements in sports and academic competitions, it didn’t change the painful truth that he was unpredictable – a bomb waiting to explode. It didn’t matter how bad his conduct was, he always told the truth, in a manner that made people wonder if he ever gave any thought to what the punishment for his actions might be.
“Overwrought with what the next report about my son would be,” said Grandma, “I tried to watch over him. It didn’t do much for me, though. Ramon, you frequently ask why I pray several times a day,” Grandma asked, “It’s because I needed consolation for the great loss to this family. I can only find solace in many grandsons. He gave you and your brothers to me, a much better version of your father, which makes all my prayers answered. So, if you see me always on my knees, that’s because I can’t stop thanking him.” Grandma looked up and pointed at the ceiling like she was referring to someone living up there.
I looked up the ceiling but saw nothing.
“I’ve seen all your father’s good qualities in each one of you boys,” Grandma continued, “but you are all nothing like the troublemaker he was growing up. I am telling you his stories so you know how far he came and mu struggles with him as his mother.”
The most shocking tale Grandma ever told about my father as a teenager was about his time in high school. The first time he disappeared. He surprised everyone who knew him. It was so shocking that the local news broadcast his story.
“When your father was in high school,” said Grandma, “over a period of weeks, he moved a few scraps of broken furniture from school into a remote forest which was a few miles away. No one could explain how he pulled it off. He built a shack for himself in the jungle; a home far from the worst of the civilized world. There was no doubt it was a domain for many wild animals. After he successfully moved his possessions, as well as the utensils he needed to cook, he soon stopped going to school.”
“He stopped going to school?” shocked! I asked. I knew my father as a strong proponent of education. In fact, my father would employ a private home tutor to give extra classes to all the children that lived in his house. My father emphasized the need for further development in English and Mathematics if a child was to be sound academically. “A real application of both is the foundation for a successful education,” my father always said. He understood how quickly the world had evolved since his childhood. He frequently talked about how his children should be part of the change the world anticipated many years before, especially during his time as a father.
“Do you mean dad dropped out of high school?” I asked again. Grandma knew I anticipated “no” for an answer.
“No, he did not Ramon. You should listen to the rest of the story. There is a lot for you to learn about your father.”
According to Grandma, it didn’t take long for my dad’s school to report his disappearance to his parents and the local police. They searched for months without success. It had been three months, and Grandma was beginning to accept the likelihood that my father was either dead or killed.
Games and the delirious lines,
As yet you play some pranks.
Loved ones turn a record of warning.
Conceit narrows your edges.
Learning by experience,
Then the neck breaks, for it’s so heavy.
Sorry. The game is now a bane.
The head falls off – end of the race.
And the world turns to hear a bitter tale.
To be continued ….
Copyright © Deji Ayoade 2020