20 Apr November 1977, O Brothers (Part 4).
“Your father remained in grandpa’s house. He chose to stay in a separate building from where his late dad and I lived. However, ever since your uncles died, the family history of violent accidents continued.” Grandma continued. “By 1979, less than two years later, your Dad tried to devote himself to providing for our family as he saw there was big business in automobiles at the time.” The oil boom had given Nigeria the opportunity to partner with America and a few European countries to establish an automotive industry. My dad began to consult in auto sales, and over the next few years, his business thrived. However, in our country, there was a cultural superstition that dictates many people’s lives: every time something good happens, you can expect something terrible to follow.
That’s what came in 1979. Your father had been involved in two fatal car accidents in Lagos and almost died. While he recovered, the family house, caught ablaze with me, your dad, his stepmothers, and sisters in the house. We barely made it out before it burned to the ground.” After he surveyed the damage, my dad built another home on the same property. After my father built the family house back up from the ground, the only son left to move into my grandfather’s home in the city, my dad married two women.
My mother was the first—a gorgeous 18-year-old girl with dreams of a career in fashion. Born on October 1, 1960 — the day that Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain — she embodied a spirit of freedom and excitement that would ultimately be whittled away by her marriage to my father. My father swore to never allow any of his children visit his hometown. Three years later, he separated from his second wife. I was only three and too young to understand why they separated. I was raised in my grandfather’s house until I was seven years old. My mom, Grandma, my four siblings (one boy and one girl from my mom, and two half-brothers), and I lived in my grandfather’s house until I was seven.
On weekends, the entire Ayoade family would huddle together in my dad’s living room to watch movies from dawn to dusk. However, when night called, we left to the warmth of Grandma’s chamber. I spent more time with Grandma than I ever did with my parents while living at the family house; a status quo fueled by the constant intrusion of my father’s apartment by other family members residing in the same compound. There were extended family members in the house, mainly my dad’s female siblings. Some of them were married with children, while others were high school or college students. I’m not sure if my parents had much privacy given how difficult it was to break away from the constant knocking on my dad’s apartment door. My father’s responsibilities were noticeably overwhelming, given how scarce it was to spend time with him, but he enjoyed them. When neighbors needed money or a place to hang out, they came to our home. My dad was known to be very generous to the people in our community. He handed out money to families that needed a little extra help, and he always brought home VHS movies. Our entire family and groups of neighbors would crowd into our living room, watching films like Rocky, Karate Kid, and Top Gun. Through these films, I saw America as a place where people knew exactly what they wanted out of life — Rocky went from being a no-name underdog to training, humbly and hard, and then eventually becoming a world boxing champion. In Top Gun, I loved watching Tom Cruise fly the fighter jets the way he did, his confidence and his quest to be the best, to fight and defend his country. These men endured, persevered, and worked relentlessly toward that dream until they came out on top. I related to them because there was so much that I wanted to experience, too. I was a Nigerian kid, but in my heart, I felt like an American
At that time, though, life at home kept things real. While our community knew my father as a successful and generous man, we knew a very different side of him. It was around this time, when I was seven that I woke up one morning and walked into my mom’s room, where I’d heard shouting the night before. When she raised her gaze, her left eye was bruised, and a slit in her eyebrow was gaping open. I knew without a doubt that this was my father’s doing. He got drunk and did this often. In a year or two, he would start using my five siblings and me as his punching bags. There would be several memories of being whipped until my skin was torn off my back. That morning, I made my mom a promise. “Mummy: one day, I will take you far away from here.”
“Where will we go?” Both her shame and her swelling made it impossible for her to fully look at me.
“We’ll go to America. One day, I will become a doctor. I will move to the United States and become an American citizen, and then I will take you and my siblings away from this terrible place.”
For a child in Nigeria, life was not easy. For a child in our home, sometimes life was worse. Even at that young age, I knew my father’s good qualities and his bad qualities would one day call me to make my own choice as a man
Watch out for “NIGERIA: March 1987, The Housewarming.”
Copyright © Deji Ayoade 2020