- WOLE SOYINKA
For You All, Children of our “Iya Egbe”, This Reminiscence in Shared Solace.
Your late father, Oje Aboyade, had no inhibition whatsoever in referring to your mum as aje – closest English rendition would be – “witch” – but not quite the same tenor I agreed with him. There were quite a few occasions that bore him out – one of them effortlessly evoked by this period of your state of loss. I am no longer sure which among you happened to be around, or aware of all that transpired at the time but here it comes anyway, an anecdote to share with others, purposely to divert, yet engage your thoughts in the same breath.
On my way out of the country while I taught at Ife, you will recall, for any early morning flight, my routine was to set off from Ile-Ife late afternoon, then stop overnight at your home in Bodija so as to have a shorter drive into Lagos the following morning. This of course had nothing to do with the prospect of a farewell dinner, topped by a princely fish-head and laced with scintillating conversations. The fish-head was mandatory, conscientiously saved for me and defended against marauders by the matriarch of the home.
There did eventually take place, some may recall, an untoward variation of that routine. I was seen off early as usual from your home in Arigidi Street, arrived in Ikeja only to find, as was then quite commonplace, that the check-in counter for that airliune – guess which one! – was still unmanned, long after it was due to commence service. It was that time when it was safer for you to sleep on the queue – overnight if that was what it took – or else you ran the risk of losing your seat even though the seat was confirmed and you had paid all dues. For local, West African, and the one European destination, London, the staff of that airline were adepts of the vanishing trick, especially after they had sold all the seats to the highest bidders, including yours. When the staff finally showed up, the true Scramble for Africa began. Too late, the plane had departed, taking with it passengers who were wiser to the game.
On arrival in Ikeja, I placed myself patiently behind a long queue, waiting for the staff to surface and commence operations. It took at least an hour before I finally shuffled my way to the Promised Land, face to face with a fawning staff. I handed in my print-out, the lady commenced the process, then, the unexpected occurred. I asked her to return the booklet. I had just decided not to travel.
My driver cum aide-de-camp, Lati, – was aghast. Sensibly, he pointed out that, having endured the ordeal of a long wait on the queue, I should please ‘forgive’ the conduct of the staff and continue. The staff in turn apologised profusely, convinced that my decision was intended as a rebuke for the offhand service attitude. No, it was not, I assured everyone. I was compelled to lie that I had just recollected some urgent, overlooked business, and had to abort the trip. I picked up my hand luggage and turned around.
We drove back in silence. I was not agitated, nor overly exercised by any urgent curiosity long accepted that the world turns on a dialectic between the rational and the intuitive. True, I had planned a meticulous departure, but next I abruptly felt I should not budge, and for no discernable reason. I felt quite composed but also, naturally, faintly apprehensive. As we approached the turn off for Ibadan, Lati assumed that destination was Bodija. I corrected him – “Head for Ife”. As would be revealed later, a turmoil had broken out about the same time in your home on Arigidi. Now, let your father, my late friend Oje, take up the tale. The phase of emotional upheaval was over, replaced as always by individual narratives of whatever had triggered off such anxieties. As always, Oje began with the unique salutation he had concocted to signal my approach or corral attention:
“Wole Buruku, Double Silencer, a lo kan gbe’kan ti. Ge-ebu” – and you can all continue to deceive yourselves that we didn’t know how often you delinquents dared to chorus that greeting when you thought no one could hear you – “I tell you, that Bimpe is a witch. That dabaru phone call from Lagos came through about an hour or two after you drove off, so the immediate problem was how to stop you jetting out. We couldn’t reach anyone at the airport, it was much too early to wake up our liaison, so what to do? I decided to put a driver on the road. That was when the trouble. began. The woman said, no, the car bearing the critical message – should go to Ife.
“I looked at her, completely baffled. ‘What are you talking about? We saw him off around 5am this morning. Headed for Ikeja. If we’re lucky, the plane may not have taken off as yet.
“I tell you, this woman stuck to her guns. She kept at it so confidently, it was aggravating. “Take it from me, Wole hasn’t gone anywhere. Send the message to him in Ife. Don’t you know him? Not that Wole Buruku. No way he would have left the country”
“I began to wonder who was crazy – she or I. We all had dinner that night. And then coffee this morning, and we saw you off. No dice! Se lo f’aake k’ori. Send the message to him in Ife, she insisted. So, for the sake of peace, I agreed we should try and see if we could get hold of Yemi Ogunbiyi on the phone. Luckily we succeeded. He confirmed you had handed over the department to him, then taken off for Bodija en route Lagos. Bimpe insisted I should tell him to drive down to your house and check. All right. Yemi agreed to go and take a look. In the meantime, I told the driver to keep the engine running, ready to leave for Lagos.”
So much for Oje’s tale of woe. It was now around half past noon, and Yemi Ogunbiyi drove to my campus residence to find the car parked outside, but the house looking deserted. I had left both windows and doors were still shut, and the picture looked as if the car had dropped me in Ikeja, returned and was duly parked in its usual place. However, he knocked, and I braced myself – for what, I still had no idea, but I knew that I was about to find out what had turned me round at the airport. It was he who broke the news – My mother, the one I named “Wild Christian”, had passed on to join “Essay”, her husband. Sound familiar?
Of course, the episode grew collateral offshoots. Regarding my own strange conduct in the matter, abandoning my flight with seeming irrationality, Oje had an answer for that – it was all part of the Olabimpe effect – you know – t’ewe ba pe l’ara ose, oun na a bere sii ho”. If the leaf wrap sticks too long too close to the soap, it also begins to foam. The saga also resulted in the formation of a new body – no, not a coven of witches – something more down to earth. Here is the background, which you might have missed, or simply failed to take into account:
Long before then, just like you, I had already lost my own father, the one I nicknamed “Essay”. Thus I now found myself a fully rounded orphan, albeit middle-aged. Well then, a case of Aj’egbodo n wa eni kun’ra – it occurred to me that what the world badly needed was a structure to absorb the trauma of this predictable affliction. The outcome was a closed circle immediately named Association of Middle-aged Orphans. Bimpe was the veteran, she had long preceded the rest of us, having “eaten” both her parents in childhood, She was thus unanimously nominated Iya Egbe of the Association (A.M.A.O) – Egbe Amao – with a disposition towards loss, not on the basis of Companions in Misery but of Companions in Memory – deflective, therapeutic, given to copious libations to the ancestral realm. Your mother’s assumption of office for past “carelessness” – losing parents so early in life – included ensuring that fish -head – to which the Founder was notoriously partial – was always available at no moment’s notice. The Founder, as newcomer to the ranks, took readily to the task of ensuring the flow of ancestral libations – to which you can all testify, as well brought up children, raised in service to truth.
There were other collateral impositions, embraced quite fusslessly, often the fallout of those debates around the dining table and sitting room. One, for which the nation is much indebted to her, was that she became involved in the thankless chore of settling minor and serious tiffs between the Founder and a certain incorrigible former Head of State – who shall remain nameless – or at least ensure some level of civil truce in between public eruptions. Once she actually sat in judgment and exacted an apology from him in that very sitting-room – something of an all-time record at the time! Not many are aware of her nomination to the International Parliamentary Association – based in Canada – for many years. Her unobtrusive bearing hid a number of quiet interventionist engagements at some crucial moments of the nation’s political negotiations – and so on, and on – to each his or her own enduring memories. My favourite remains that of Arigidi Street as the cross-current of fish-head and libations, where Bimpe would sometimes hide the ‘specials” to keep them from her husband’s less discerning but persistent friends. That reminds me – my ritual 2022 submission, alas, was returned to me, since she was away visiting one of you in the United States, so I owe her one. I shall decant, and send a small communion flask to be emptied over her resting place – the rest, I intend to share with just the Founder, no one else.
And so, take heart. You have merely secured your place among a most select, self-replenishing club – the Egbe Amao. Yes, we have lost her, the one who saw further than most, but now you are members of an illustrious family of the bereaved.
Olabimpe, our Iya Egbe herself, bids you wipe your tears. She bids you all – Welcome to the Club.