Today my mother turns sixty.
She was down at my house this past weekend where she, my dad and my siblings recounted old tales of where we have come from and how we got to where we are now. There was a lot of food and nostalgia in the air this weekend, a wonderful time to remind oneself of all the things which ultimately really matter.
It is the way with these things that when the conversation gets going the memory is rejigged and new recollections are brought forth. We were reminded of the time in 1989 when, out of work and down on their luck, she and my father left Calabar for Lagos with three young children in tow, hoping to find something. We roomed with a relative in Ajao Estate in Isolo for the first year. The details of that house are sketchy to me. All I remember was Italia 90 and Roger Milla. We soon found an old house in Surulere which came to serve as our first home in Lagos. My youngest brother came soon after. I can still see him coated in dust from crawling on the stoop of the old house we found just off Adeniran Ogunsanya.
This was the early 90s and Nigeria was anything but a party. This was true even for a family of two professionals who graduated from good federal universities. My mother, a lawyer, could not find work in any law chambers or in any corporate organisation. (Things were not much better for my dad who couldn’t find work as an architect or builder.) Being a person with a basic impulsion to strive and achieve something, she set out to start a business selling fish and roasted plantain. The details are hazy now, but it seems to have transpired something like this: My mother got it in her head that this local delicacy from Calabar could generate some interest among the urban Lagos crowd, so she found a partner who had a shop on Lagos Island. She seeded the business for some amount which nobody can remember now, and agreed that her partner would supply the balance in fish and raw plantain. She was somehow convinced to hand over her capital to this partner, returning home to prepare for what was to be the beginning of a new and fruitful enterprise, she thought. That was not to be, of course. My naive small town mother never saw her business partner again, and ended up out of pocket and with an invaluable welcome-to-Lagos lesson (and a great story).
This early setback didn’t break her. In characteristic fashion, she shook it off and moved on to new things. The sheer range of activities she has gotten herself involved in leaves me exhausted. At various points she has owned and run a salon; she has worked as a barrister; she has studied and trained as a development expert; she has founded and run an NGO for several years; she started a business frying and selling puff puff and buns out of our old blue 305; she has run what might be called a ‘garden’ in Surulere, selling roasted fish, coconut rice, fried turkey, snails, gizzards and booze in front of our house at night (on Fridays and Saturdays we helped to wash plates and serve customers when we got old enough); she has also worked as a diplomat and as a member of parliament. Her sheer willingness to dare to do is a constant inspiration to me and a reminder that I, too, can.
This enterprising spirit is one of her defining qualities. She gets an idea that she needs to do something, and she does it. She does not think too much about it, she does not dwell on the downsides of it. She starts, she bootstraps, she hustles. “You can’t” is a meaningless phrase to her. We hear a lot about what’s wrong with such a crude approach to life. But I’ve seen the other side of this coin, I’ve seen a person who was long on execution and short on strategy, and I think there is a lot to be said for the grafters of this world, those who act quickly and leave the pondering for later.
In writing this piece, I had to think about some memory or defining moment between us. The more I thought about it the more I came to the realisation that that moment did not exist. All of it is a continuum in my mind, a sort of smorgasbord of sights, familiar smells, fierce shouts, hard slaps, awkward smiles, laughs, hugs, hairstyles, boubous, large heavy 80s lens frames, and so on. Here she is one minute working on a report on Adobe Pagemaker late into the night, me dozing off in a corner, standing, because I had failed to obey a simple instruction to go to bed at 9PM. Here she is on sanitation day making akara and ogi for the house, sternly driving all of us to our domestic duties. Here she is at Visiting Day with my favourite meal ukang (an excellent pottage of bushmeat, plantain, palm oil and scent leaf), me embarrassed because the meal was a bit too ‘local’ for my fancy private school where fried rice and jollof was the order of the day. (Turns out fancy private school boys absolutely love ukang, judging by what happened to the cooler I took back to the dorm.) And here she is, slumped on the stoop in the front of the house in Anthony Village where we had moved to. A few metres from where she is seated the neighbour’s massive diesel generator is on, filling the night air with its industrial growl and the smell of Lagos. We did not have a generator then. She had had a long day, it was 10PM. There had been no light all day and we could not pump the water from the borehole into the tank. Me, too busy galavanting, as we say, with friends, had failed to fetch enough water to ensure that there was water upstairs for her return. And so the one thing she had been looking forward to that evening, the one break in her crazy day: a bath, was not possible. She was too tired, too defeated to yell. She would not raise a hand to me either. She just sat there, with her handbag at her feet, and wept. She sat there for a long time.
But she beat that, and she beat everything else life has thrown at her. And she is here now. How do I describe such a leader? How do I tell her how much she means to me?
How does one, say, describe what breathing means to them?