The following is loosely based on a true story…
I was only six years old when I first heard the words “Your mother is a great woman”. They came from the lips of my father who, unlike many other men of his generation, was quite pleased to have a wife that, according to societal standards, superseded him in many ways. He was her most constant and consistent supporter. The foundation on which her entire kingdom was built and the last stone left standing when it eventually came to ruin.
My mother was born and raised in the village of Ijaiye, now in Oyo state, the third of six children and the second of three girls. Her father performed double duties as the town priest and local headmaster. He personally began to school his daughter early, as he did all his children and from the start, she distinguished herself. It was obvious she was destined for greatness. What else could you say of a child that passed her common entrance examinations at the tender age of seven? Took and aced her A levels at fifteen? She was gifted mentally, of that, there was no doubt. If there was any left, it was finally decimated when she was, based on the results of a region-wide examination, granted a scholarship by the Western region government to study Agricultural science and technology at the university of Sydney, Australia. With that single feat of academic brilliance, my mother became the first of her fathers children to gain admission into university, the first female to be granted that scholarship and the first member of her family to venture beyond the shores of the fatherland. ‘First’ was a term I would come to associate with my mother a lot. She seemed to always pave the way on a lot of things. Ironic then that she used to tell me ‘the head that is used to break open the coconut, will not eat from it’ but her head broke a lot of coconuts. But that was my mother. Simple yet complex.
It was in Australia she first met my father. He worked in the library and considering how much time she spent there, it was no wonder they eventually became an item. When she finally concluded her degree, it was with a First class certificate, an offer for a PhD position, a job offer from Australia’s largest mechanized farm and an engagement ring that she returned home to her village. Foreign job offers and further study set aside, she married my father in a simple, elegant ceremony at the local Anglican church.
My mother later told me that she constantly dreamed of the day when Nigeria exported food to all of Africa. “We can do it!” she would say, just before showing me her laminated copy of the TIME magazine October 5, 1960 article NIGERIA: The Free Giant where lofty predictions of Nigeria’s coming greatness were made. She had decided to pursue a career in helping to develop the already booming Nigerian economy. With agriculture as its main export and recent oil discoveries playing an important supporting role, she felt she owed it to the government that had been so kind to her to help develop. It was her dream she said, to be a part of the coming African renaissance.
She took up a job with a new Cocoa processing plant in Ibadan. It was the to be the largest in Africa and designed to process fifty percent of the Western regions cocoa for export. She began as a quality control specialist but within three years, she was the quality control manager. Quite simply, there was no one in the facility who understood it like she did. Her job description quickly expanded and she became responsible for much more than quality control. Four weeks after her 26th birthday, my mother gave birth to me.
Another three years elapsed before my younger sister was born. This time her birth coincided with something of a spectacular event. The day my mother was discharged from the hospital, she received news that there was a fire at the plant. Barely recovered, she insisted that my father drive her there, seized control of the situation and commandingly began to coordinate the few men and resources available, while my father went home to keep watch over my sister. The fire was put out in less than two hours after she arrived. That singular selfless and dangerous act earned her a commendation and a strongly worded letter from Olusegun Obasanjo, the serving Military head of state .
When I was six years old, she was appointed as the commissioner for Agriculture, one of the few non-military personnel to hold such high office, the first woman and the youngest person ever to hold the position. She had always wanted this. A chance to have some positive impact on her community. Although my father expressed some disconcert at her foray into politics, especially with the military at its helm, he stood behind her final decision.
During her six years as commissioner, we gained wealth, from my fathers job and my mothers newfound political clout and although I and my sister had all that seemed to be required for a happy childhood, we hardly saw our mother. A few days spent in the office with her after school constitute some of my fondest memories. After a while, we went off to secondary school and every holiday when I returned, I noticed less emotion behind her usual laugh and smile. It was as though with every 3 month interval, someone turned down the dial on her happiness. Father said not to worry, the job was stressful, the military were difficult to work with. We accepted, but did not understand.
In September of 1985, shortly after the Babangida government came to power, she was forced to resign from government for “failure to adequately implement the new fertilizer subsidy”. It was a joke. Everyone knew that her reputation for blocking attempts to inflate budgets were the real reason. Still, she had to leave.
For the first time in all my years, I saw my mother go into a depression. She hardly spoke to us and the arguments with my father increased in intensity and frequency. I was just about to enter university then and my sister had a year to go at secondary school. We were old enough to see the dark clouds that loomed in our home. My mother took to keeping late nights at her private office in Ibadan. She said she was working on something big. At least that’s what I remember overhearing from her fights with my father. During one of these fights, when she came back home at three a.m. in the morning, my fathers palm made contact with her face. She left the house and did not return for four days. My sister and I had already started trying to pick which parent we would rather live with. But she came back.
After that, the late nights stopped and she saw us more often, especially my sister. Visits to our schools became more regular. Those days were the last vestiges of our happiness as a family. She would tell us stories of her childhood and how much it meant to her to be a Nigerian. She would tell of the civil war and how she survived. She would also tell stories of the hope of independence, the racism she had endured and overcome in Australia and she would tell of her sisters. That period was when my mother shed her superwoman status and became human to me.
It didn’t take her long to don her cape as superwoman again for one final flight. During her late nights at her private office, she had been working on a new fertilizer distribution system that would be cheap and effective. She had managed to concoct something using mainly starch and water that was more effective than standard delivery methods. It was pure genius. She applied for and was granted a Patent for her invention and when she presented her work at a conference, she was offered a consultancy position with UNIDO. She rejected their offer and chose to set up a local plant next to a farm in Ibadan. She found sponsors for the venture and so Zenith Fertilizer was born. My father had so much faith in her work, that he bought the family a twenty percent stake in the company. We all felt this would be her legacy. Our legacy. I even had dreams of working with her and eventually taking over the company when I eventually graduated. My sister chose to study mechanical engineering just for the same chance.
The first year of business was a spectacular success. They estimated that everyone would recoup their investments in three years flat. No one factored in the fickle nature of our country in their calculations. Petroleum product prices went up by military decree, energy and transport costs followed suit, profits went down – fast. The business model collapsed and management had to borrow money from banks to stay afloat.
My mother made one final attempt to redeem her dream. She went to Abuja to pitch her idea to the Federal ministry of agriculture and try to get them to buy a significant stake in the company, that would have saved them…us…from certain ruin. She felt that the Nigerian people had the greatest interest in the success of the company. More fertilizer, more food. It seemed so logical, she was sure it would work. People told her that the new capital, Abuja, was the place where good ideas went to die. But the brilliance of her dream had blinded her, and the reflection was strongly affecting my fathers own sight. The minister let her state her case and then promised to look into it. She never heard from him again. Meanwhile, there was turmoil as unpaid workers began to vandalize and loot from the facility. At the end of the fourth year of operations, the management decided they had finally had enough and the venture was liquidated. Everyone sold property to pay off debts and again, my mother went into a depression.
My masters degree graduation ceremony was a muted affair, the price of tickets to come down to Manchester had put a severe strain on my fathers savings, most of which had gone towards the education of myself and my sister abroad and investing in Zenith Fertilizers. Beneath the perfunctory smiles and the pride at my outstanding performance, I saw the clouds of worry and latent unhappiness that hung heavy in the air. It was obvious that the walls of our castle were crumbling down around us.
It was two years into my PhD degree programme in New York that the news came. My father called me and informed me that my mother had died in a car accident on her way to visit her sister. My world imploded and the force of the blast knocked me out cold. I woke up in the university infirmary where the nurse told me that I had fainted and that my father had been calling to make sure I was fine. I started to weep uncontrollably and the nurse had to sedate me after five hours so I could sleep.
I took a leave of absence and went home to attend the funeral. The tributes poured in from the highest levels as did the cheques and platitudes. I remained stoic and unmoved, I had run out of tears. I could only wonder where these people had been when she needed their help most.
My father on the other hand, was visibly broken. Men are supposed to be strong but I understood why he could not be strong now. She had been his soul. He had laid down his own life for her, taking a steady, uninteresting job at the auditing firm, slowly and deliberately rising towards the top just so he could provide us with a good life and give her the opportunity to live her dream. The dream she had shared with him in Sydney. He never said it but I could see it in his eyes, he felt there was nothing left to live for. My sister and I were grown adults and the dream was dead for who could bring to life a dream except the dreamer? He trudged along with heavy eyes and a weak voice. It seemed he had aged thirty years in three months. It did not surprise me when I came home from church to find his body in the kitchen. The death certificate said ‘Pulmonary Embolism’ but I knew it should have read ‘Broken Heart and Weary Soul. I could hardly weep, he was dead long before the ‘embolism’. His essence had died with her in the accident.
After his funeral, my sister and I sold everything we had left and returned to New York to finish my PhD in Applied Microbiology. I performed so well, I was offered a job with Neutracore – the premier cancer research institute in Europe. I moved to Belgium and I’ve been doing this job for two years now. I love it. My girlfriend, Simone, is lovely both on the inside and outside, I know my uncles would disapprove of her, seeing as how she is French but I know my parents would have cared little for such things. It doesn’t matter anyway, Simone and I love each other deeply. My sister is here with me as well, she works at the local Airbus plant as a maintenance engineer.
Its October 1st, 1997. Independence day. As usual my sister and I are sitting in my living room, listening to Mozart and talking as we have for the last two years. We laugh as we share childhood memories, we cringe as we complain about family members, we congratulate ourselves on having made something of ourselves despite the troubles of our past, we share gossip about old friends and she pokes fun at me for dating a white girl. Inevitably, she asked the question I have known she would ask since she first arrived here, waiting for me to lead her, as the head of our minuscule family unit.
“Dapo, have you decided when you want to go back home?”
I look down at the ground to hide my face as my heart swells with bitterness. Bitterness for what could have been. I keep my bitterness to myself for I do not wish to taint her with it. I am constantly haunted by my own dreams. Dreams of what my mother could have achieved if our country had let her. Nigeria. I love the idea of living in Nigeria but my mothers dreams died there. I’m not sure I want to build my own life in the graveyard of her dreams…even if that graveyard is home. I think long and hard before telling my sister what I think.
“Gbemi, we will…”