I have, like millions of fellow compatriots, had what I prefer to call an overdose of death of dearly beloved ones. The first stab was in 1990 when Ejembi Matthew, my childhood friend, died when we were barely twenty. In 2003, Auntie Maria, who was very instrumental to my education passed on. In 2004, we lost Durosinmi Iroja, who trained a crop of us at Trust Newspapers. In 2005, Mandela, my second son, died in a sickness that lasted just a few hours. In 2011, Mrs. Zainab Kperoogi, with whom I was recruited by Trust in 1999, died in a fatal accident. And then, my mother’s death in the early hours of July 25, 2012. These are beside the six occasions between 2004 and 2011 when death decimated my in-laws by harvesting half a dozen of them – four of my brothers-in-law and their parents.
There are of course different but intensely searing dimensions to each of these permanently devastating losses most often too crushing to accurately capture in words. But the distinguishing aspect of the trauma relating to my mother’s passage is the pain deriving from a haunting feeling of presumptions such as: if I had known on time or if I had acted earlier and other such thoughts, she may not have died. Whenever this is openly articulated, there is always the conciliatory admonition that tags with the prevalent notion, it-is-the-will-of-God, a metaphor portraying prevailing fatalism in our society. Despite whatever philosophical admonition, what is not in doubt is that the human mind is always bound to go through the stinging influence of death no matter how familiar it has become.
It is in the context of these emotional swings that I postponed my goodbye homage to my mother until such a time that I may have sufficiently weaned myself of such pains that is likely to impose on me undue sentiments that could evoke expressions which I categorise as glamorised platitudes. I instead want to say a goodbye that will most symbolically reflect the distinguishing maternal burden and the communal worldview of her era, the deviation from which the very fabric of our society continue to dizzyingly sway.
For those of us who grew up in peasant rural environments, our window to the world depended mainly in the shared experience and vision of our mothers. For many of us therefore, there is usually that unflinching maternal affection and loyalty too sacred to appropriately illustrate. Apart from the fact that our mothers, more than our fathers, informally inducted us into the social, moral and philosophical spheres of our society, they also metaphorically ‘cooked’ or indoctrinated us to imbibe not just their worldview but also core universal values through folktales, folksongs and a variety of other sublime day-to-day shared experiences and existential challenges in that communal universe. All these coalesced to become potent tools for not only defining their children’s intellect and perspectives on a range of issues, it also more than anything served as the fuel for their children’s education which they rightly envisioned to be an antidote to the exceptional poverty of their generation. Perhaps the appreciable decrease in responsible maternal or parental care in our post-modernist era may be partly responsible for the falling standard of education and made possible under a scenario that is bereft of sound methodologies in a system that is incoherent and regressive.
Even though mothers of my mother’s generation and those before them never had a whiff of western education, they understood in a unique way the art of child upbringing, particularly daughters who necessarily need a more delicate and diligent rearing. With due respects to many mothers of this globalised post-modernist period, most daughters reared by past generations were and are paragons of moral purity and strict discipline. Unfortunately, this trend became endangered with an unusual sexual revolution captured in the word, Alibanti, a somewhat meaningless Idoma word except for its expressive symbolism portraying and propagating the idea of “sexual freedom” or “free sex.” This revolution swept most Idoma youths off their feet by the attendant loose morals that suddenly became the norm leading to rampant teenage pregnancies or childbearing out of wedlock. While many attributed this to western influence or the liberalisation of education that opened classroom doors to thousands of female children, this argument may be difficult to sustain as the Alibanti phenomenon in Idomaland coincided with the harsh economic period of the 1980s and 1990s most notably with the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida.
What the above thesis is struggling to narrate is essentially that Idoma mothers of my mother’s generation and those before them were heroines in not only the imaginatively literary sense but women who were practically very determined, courageous and resilient. Their world was one that is tragic in many ways defined by not just the environmental rusticity but more by its sheer cultural rigidity which imposed on them grave burdens day in, day out. It was, and still remains, a universe in which women are vulnerable in all ramifications. And this is apart from the often hopeless situation in which many mothers watch their children die from the most common diseases or folks despondently watch as expectant mothers and children die of diseases or conditions that they did not know can be easily diagnosed and treated with the simplest of medications.
Unlike in this era of birth control, women of my mother’s generation endlessly go through labour pains year in, year out until they reach menopause or die in the course of childbirth. My mother went through the painful ritual of childbirth ten times. She is considered lucky because out of the ten children, nine of us survived her. Not many were as lucky. As we grew up, we came to understand that beyond the natural, cultural and economic considerations, the logic of parents engaging in endless reproduction is also due to high infant mortality or the attendant uncertainty of survival of children due to a range of diseases. So parents, mothers especially, lived in perpetual fear such that they had restless nights at the slightest sign of sickness.
Unfortunately, in spite of the unimaginable advancement in science and technology, this sad situation is not only outliving my mother’s generation but has become rather complicated. Apart from the fact that many women are still being delivered of their babies through crude means which is responsible for the high maternal and infant mortalities in Nigeria, the health sector is in a general state of decadence rendering many hospitals as places where people go to embrace death. Apart from death resulting from the lack of health facilities and fake drugs, there has emerged a powerfully tragic dynamic in which thousands of people are dying from the malaise of misdiagnoses. My mother’s condition was worsened as a result of misdiagnosis at a state government health facility in Benue. By the time I heard of her sickness and rushed home to bring her to a private hospital in Abuja where the correct diagnosis of her condition was made, it was rather too late!
My mother, out of motherly concern, decided not to, in her words “bother” me when she initially became sick. According to her, she heard that I no longer had a job, a reference to the abrupt termination of my employment with the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) by its President, Abdulwaheed Omar, an action which is currently before a law court. Before then, she used to visit us to see her grandchildren since she claimed that we refused to bring them home. She used those occasional visits to have medical check-ups and treatment and on such occasions, I also conspired with Prof. Peter Obekpa, whose May Day Specialist Hospital serves my family, to prolong her stay and rest by having her appointments spread over months.
While it is the norm in most societies that it is preferable that parents are buried by their children, their death, particularly that of the mother, brings great psychological pangs for surviving children, more so if the parents were up and doing as my mother, who was about 65 years old. But subscribing to this doctrine does not vitiate the pain and mental exasperation either because of that sense of utter emptiness on the realisation of the finality of death, the fact that with death one will no longer have that rare opportunity of intense motherly affection which usually increases even as children grow into adults. For me and my siblings, therefore, it was a great paradox burying our mother as it involves, on the one hand, severe pain and on the other hand, fulfillment in doing our best by first striving to rescue her from death and when it became inevitable, we tried our best efforts to give her a befitting burial.
But our efforts in achieving all these were only possible because of the incredible solidarity and show of love from the benevolence of many comrades. I was able to psychologically withstand the pressures especially due to the continuous counseling of Comrade John Odah and Adagbo Onoja exemplified in their altruism and communality for which Edumoga people are known for in Idomaland by sharing with me the burden of not only being with me by my mother’s hospital bed on a daily basis but also the medical bills and burial expenses. Their efforts were complemented by an equally comradely solidarity from the pair of Comrades Peters Adeyemi and Comrade Ladi Iliya, General Secretary and President of NASU respectively as well as Engineer David Ironkwe, Comrades Esther Ogunfowora and Yemisi Ilesanmi, my colleagues in the media, particularly Hajiya Zainab Suleiman and Ismail Omipidan. Finally, Professor Peter Obekpa, the Chief Medical Director of May Day Hospital, apart from doing everything medically possible to save my mother and writing off a huge balance of the medical bill, also profusely wept with me when my mother eventually gave up the ghost.