“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/her infinite variety” – Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra
When Group Captain A came over to say he had brought your brand new Peugeot 504 sometime in 1986, I overheard that the car cost about N25,000 or so and you were going to pay for it over several months using a loan taken from the Air Force. It didn’t seem strange at the time that your colleagues were able to buy several cars while you paid for yours in instalments. It looks even more admirable now knowing how taking what does not belong to you has driven our country to the brink of seeming hopelessness.
Aunty G literarily walked in off the streets into our house. I remember the woman who brought her said she needed a place to stay. You got her a job in TTG down the corridor from your office when they needed a typist. She did it for long enough and moved on to better things afterwards. I remember that after about 4 years, she left on the night of her wedding for Uncle L’s house crying uncontrollably. It seems strange that you would just welcome a complete stranger into your home and then be ‘mother of the day’ on her wedding day a few years later……to the point where even some people who claimed to be your close friends thought she was your daughter. Actually she was and remains your daughter…..I am unsure you could have done any more for her if you carried her for 9 months yourself.
I found it extremely hard, at the time, to understand why, despite having 2 house helps, you insisted E and I wash our clothes and plates ourselves. It didn’t make sense to me. And why you always reminded us that L was not a house girl and was not to be treated as such by us……so despite the fact that she came to live with us from Ijebu and you were feeding and housing her and sending her to school, she was to be treated like our sister. This time around, by the time you bankrolled her wedding, played ‘mother of the day’ on the day and sent her off to her husband’s house, I was not surprised.
I remember the day in 1991 when you called E and I into your room and told us you had been retired from the Air Force. And then you opened your wardrobe, counted out some money which came to about N300, got in the car and went to return it to your boss as money belonging to the Air Force which you were meant to use to purchase some things for them. And then you came back and told us how incredulous he had been that on the day you were retired after 15 years of service, you had enough presence of mind to return all the money that did not belong to you. To the very last kobo. I also remember how an officer offered to put your name on the list for the first batch for the ‘IBB Spirit’* even though you had been retired and you, again unsurprisingly, politely declined.
You didn’t even know Aunty L had been posted to Kaduna for her NYSC until her dad called and said she was in Kaduna. And on the same day you got in the car, took some supplies and went to find her at the orientation camp. And as soon as she was done, you went to bring her to live with us. Same thing when you found out Uncle J was doing his national service in Kaduna and you went to get him insisting he had to come live with us. You were never one to shut your door on anyone needing a place to stay.
I laughed when Mrs A recounted a story about when she first got to England and you made the considerable trek deep inside Guildford to give her sweaters and massage her all over with Robb to ward off the biting cold she wasn’t used to. And when she brought out the sweater you gave her as a gift in 2001 and showed it to the church that it was the first gift anyone gave her when she moved to England, I admit I came close to tears….not like I am going to admit to crying here even if I did.
How many times have you called me asking me to book you a ticket to Bristol at very short notice because something had happened to Alhaja A or one of her children and you had to rush down to be with her immediately?
I doubt you had ever met O and Aunty S before last year when you just suddenly told us they were your ‘cousin’s children’ and you were off to Leeds to console them on their mum’s burial…..just like that. And since then, if you tell them you are having a dance all by yourself in your living room, they’d head down from Leeds immediately to witness it and celebrate with you. I met O for the first time yesterday and believe it or not, he paid for all the drinks for the surprise party. We now have a problem as to where to keep the leftover drinks……he really went all out.
I was amazed when I discovered that because Mrs E has immigration problems here in the UK and had been through what can be described euphemistically as a torrid time, you have taken it upon yourself to be visiting her Son, U, in prison while he serves out his sentence. I was even more aghast when you told me all the procedures you have to go through each time you visit the prison. Mrs E doesn’t have a passport so you happily submit your own passport and fingerprints every time you go there to visit taking food and money each time and never once forgetting to pray before, during and after each visit.
I would listen in on your phone conversations to Nigeria recently in the aftermath of Uncle W’s operation. You’d call first thing in the morning and ask if he had eaten and if yes, what he ate. I found this rather amusing and hoped one day he would answer ‘no, just to see what exactly you were going to do about it from thousands of miles away. But I don’t underestimate you, I know what you can do when you work the phones like that…..like when an old friend from the church needed something and after about 30 minutes on the phone, you managed to arrange a meeting between 2 complete strangers to exchange a document….and the sheer joy on your face when you had accomplished such a daring cross border mission. Sometimes I think topping up £20 a day on Lebara calling Nigeria is a bit much but the last time I tried to complain, I noticed how important it was to you to keep in touch with your brothers and sisters and cousins and their children and Reverend D and Reverend O. And I can only dream of looking after my brother in the way that you continue to look after your brothers till this day.
How many Pastors have come and gone between Bethel in Kaduna and First Baptist in Lagos? And I know at least 3 of them still call you very regularly now and all call you Mummy. I remember when Reverend D first arrived and you would always take food to him as he struggled to settle into the new and perhaps strange surroundings…and generally showed him round Kaduna as best as you could. And you cross the River Thames every Sunday now to attend church in South London just to support Reverend O’s fledgling church.
And the sacrifices you have made for me….how do I begin to count them? How you took out a loan to pay my first school fees when I moved to England….without which I would not have the chance on life I have today. How you would buy cards and gifts for people celebrating one thing or the other and present it to them saying it was from me….in those days when I could barely feed myself, never mind sparing any money to buy things for people. And even when I was working but not earning enough to pay my own bills, you’d cover for me….seemingly bringing the money out of nothing. You’ve never been rich….at no point in my life has the cost of raising and educating me and my siblings not been a big one for you….yet you always managed to just make it. How can I forget last year when E had all those issues? You simply got back in that persona where you throw everything including the kitchen sink at a problem threatening to hold back one of your children.
And I see how you continue to give the things that money cannot buy….your time at short notice to look after F. Everything else becomes unimportant to you when it comes to looking out for your children…always going out on a limb for your children. And your ‘children’ are by no means just me and my siblings…..people I have never met call you mummy.
I remember that night on the Benin Ore road when we were going to Idofe from Enugu via Ondo and Iliya was speeding because he wasn’t so keen on driving late at night. I remember the moment when the car landed inside a massive pothole/crater and the car’s back axle snapped and we couldn’t move anymore. How you put on your uniform, got out of the car bravely in the dead of night on an expressway with no streetlights and began flagging down cars for a lift to the nearest town in the days when telephones were non existent in Nigeria. And I remember how you made the decision that Iliya should remain in the car with E and I while you went to get a towing vehicle…..the logic being that Iliya, who was armed, could better defend both of us, if somehow the car got attacked by thieves. I still get goose bumps as I see the picture of you getting into that vehicle that eventually stopped after spending what seemed like an eternity hailing cars. What if that was the last time I ever saw you? And the sheer relief we felt when we saw you come back with a towing vehicle at what must have been 3 am.
And how can I forget your Christian faith….from singing ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ to me, on demand, when I was a little boy to the selfless service you gave as church treasurer in Bethel (when you’d go to Allied Bank first thing on Monday mornings in your uniform to deposit the offerings in the bank) to the numerous times I have heard you break out in ‘A f’ope f’Olorun’ …never once singing it without deep feeling…never too tired to pray….never too occupied to go to church…never too conflicted to live the life you preached.
And how I love you so. The wisdom with which you have taught me to discern wrong from right. I am happy to report that my conscience, sharpened by your teachings, has never failed me. Even when I have done the wrong thing on numerous occasions, not once has my conscience has let me down by telling me what was wrong was right. I recall the days in Ago Iwoye and why I could never bring myself to even countenance joining a cult…..I never got past the question; what would my mother think? And it paid off when you defended me to the last when I was wrongly accused..never once doubting my testimony.
And when I hear the effusive praise showered on you by Deacon O, Mrs A, Mrs F and your best friend, Alhaja A, I know without a doubt how lucky I am to have you as my mother.
I have heard people call you Squadron Leader or Mama or Deaconess or Iye Tokunbo.
Me I will just call you Mummy. Happy birthday……love you loads. Wish you plenty more years of the good health that God has already blessed you with….and to bask in the warm glow of the love you radiate without end. I know from looking at how you have lived your life that giving of one’s self never makes you weaker…..we are not diminished in any way when we love selflessly…we are not poorer when we give of ourselves.
And I do not lose any part of you when I share you with so many people who call you their mother.
P.S I admit to taking money from your purse on a few occasions. I know you have forgiven me….the last time I did it and you asked, I know you didn’t believe me when I denied taking it, but you let it go. I consider this a debt I owe you at the highest possible rate of interest. I will continue to pay it back as long as you are alive.
*IBB Spirit was the time in 1991 when IBB decided to placate all the officers in the armed forces from Major/Squadron Leader upwards with car gifts. Majors were to get brand new 504s while Lt Colonels were to get 505s. There had been rumours of ‘restiveness’ in the armed forces at the time. The retirement cull at the time was partly to reduce the number of people who were to benefit from the cars it seems….but some retired people still got on the list any way and were given the cars.