By Gbenga Omotoso
The last of the itinerary drummers has disappeared. Gone are the ordinary folks who formed a massive human barricade at the gate in a desperate battle to get a piece of whatever action they thought was on behind the tall walls of the sprawling compound. Gone are the caterers and the dee jays, with their muffled equipment (the celebrator wouldn’t allow a carnival). Gone are the pastors, their hymn books and sacred texts tucked under their arms. Gone also are the venerable who bore gifts and the vulnerable, who came to try their luck. So are the ethnic groups who turned out in colourful native dresses in a rare show of glamour that kept many asking: Is it Christmas?
They are all gone.
The massive tent has given way and the stifled lawnhas regained its breath, its freshness, lushness and sheer greenery. Back are the ornamental birds that stroll arrogantly in the compound; they must have been wondering why the sudden violation of their space.
Now, it is fit and proper to revisit it all, its essence, its sense and sensibility.
I speak of the 56th birthday of Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu, Governor of Lagos State, on June 25. It was to be a quiet day of prayers and reflections. That’s all he wanted. No revelry. No jamboree. No jollification.
Mr Sanwo-Olu won’t ever embrace self-glorification. Neither will he be found in the company of professional praise-singers.
Members of the State Executive Council, among who this reporter is numbered, had a somehow different plan – to throw some parties on that day. We did – at various orphanages.
So, off to Ginti on the outskirts of Ikorodu, deep in the heart of Ijede, where Mr Sanwo-Olu had on June 9opened a four-lane 6.05km road, where I headed with my cabinet colleagues Bisola Olusanya, Commissioner for Agriculture and Idris Salako, Commissioner for Physical Planning.
A small mail bill posted on the wall of the home, a modest one-storey building with few neighbours, announced our mission. “Divine Heritage welcomes Governor Bababjide Sanwo-Olu on his birthday.”
The kids were away in school.
We waited for about an hour for them to return and put on in the T-shirts made specially for this special ceremony. How beautiful they turned out!
The ceremony got off with the National Anthem. The children sang the two stanzas with so much ease and recited the National Pledge flawlessly. Seven-year oldAkeem Ajao said the opening prayer. He did an amazing job of it, attracting applause from his mateswho were screaming: “Pastor!”.
Akeem took it all in his stride as he went back to his seat quietly. He must have been doing that for a while, this reporter thought.
Bisola spoke of our mission. She said: “As you all know, Mr Governor is a very simple and humble person. He always prefers low key celebration on his birthday and would rather celebrate with the vulnerablein the society as a mark of service to humanity and a heart full of gratitude to the Almighty for His Grace on his life. This is why we are here today to fulfill MrGovernor’s wishes on this occasion of his 56thbirthday. Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu would have loved to be here in person, but we, members of the Executive Council, are here representing him… He is deeply concerned about your welfare and wellbeing and has asked us to celebrate with you. You are always in his prayers that the Almighty will continue to protect and guide you.”
We had gifts for the home and for all the kids. Their excitement was indescribable. They kept on smiling and clapping, jumping off their seats and applauding every action meant to cheer up the gathering. They sang from their hearts. “A happy birthday; that’s all we wish you. Many many happy returns. … O yeah, we wish you happy birthday. Huuuyeah, many many happy returns.” It was as if they actually rehearsed the songs. More songs:
Baba o, baba o, Oluwa da Baba si fun wa,
Baba o, baba o, Oluwa da Baba si fun wa
(May the Lord keep our daddy alive for us)
You could feel the sincerity of the prayers in the innocence of their voice and the seriousness with which they sang and danced. The visitors were so moved that they joined the singing and dancing.
One of the kids, Jeremiah Jonathan, recited a “special”poem for Mr Governor. He displayed talent, his voice perfectly modulated. No stage fright. And when he got stuck and one of the visitors suggested that he should just say “happy birthday, Mr Governor” and end it all, he declined. Jeremiah whipped out of the pocket of his trousers a small sheet of paper. He read on to complete the poem.
Happiness you do bring to those who love you
If we could give you anything, we want you to know, we wish you much happiness for you in everything you do
We love and appreciate everything you have done for us
We pray may all your wishes come through this Year
Because to us, you are so DEAR.
This birthday wishes is just for you, I hope it come soon.
B-Be yourself, we love and appreciate you.
I- Imagine and achieve all you can be
R- Relax this day and celebrate another year
T- Take time to look after you, You are so DEAR.
H- Humor, never loose your sense of Humor.
D- Determination, You do have that Great quality.
A- Attitude, Yours is Positive and felt by others.
Y- Yesterday is gone, Tomorrow is not here, live today and enjoy the year.
We then presented gifts to the children. As we handed out the bags one after each waited patiently for his or her turn. It was, no doubt, a reflection of the discipline that reigns in the home. Nobody jumped thelong queue for ice cream and popcorn.
The dancing competition was electrifying, with the last two competitors displaying remarkable skills and expending so much energy that only such youthful bodies could summon. They kept all of us clapping.
Mrs Ebun Idowu, an ordained priest, spoke of avision in 2000 that heralded the founding of the home – “to contribute to the development of the child to enable him obtain his God-given potential”. Besides, she had a dream in which she was instructed to found the home, which was dedicated in 2003. It took off with nine workers, but the first baby did not come until 2003 when the Ministry of Youth and Social Development brought a one-month old boy, David Idowu.
She said she looked out of her office window one day and saw a young girl rummaging through a dustbin and feeding from its contents. She went down from the office to ask the girl why she wasn’t in school and why she was feeding from the dust bin. The girl replied that her parents could not afford to feed her. Mrs Idowuvisited her home to meet her parents, and assisted them to start life anew.
Today, many children have made the Idowus proud, passing through the home and becoming its good ambassadors. Mr Idowu proudly announced that one is due to enter the University of Benin after excelling at the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination.
She is one of more than 40 children, being nurtured in the home “to fear God and live a meaningful life”.
The home houses a library for the children. The public also has access to it. The shelves brought back memories of this reporter’s secondary school dayswhen we had Tin Tin, Beagles and others on the shelf. There was Ben Carson’s Think Big; there was World Book, as well as many other volumes, including some on foreign languages, on the shelves at Divine Heritage.
Unknown to Mr Governor, his birthday afforded the members of his Cabinet an opportunity to reflect on life and living in an age in which strange things have become so ordinary and many are asking: Isn’t this the end predicted by the holy book?” Many children of the rich and the powerful are suffering depression, but here are underprivileged children, full of cheer and hopethat life holds the best for them.
Among them are children from various backgrounds, possessing various talents, nursing various dreams and displaying various traits. Yet they harbour no animosity against one another in a world that is full of bitterness and deadly competition for everything.
They are orderly in a society in which elders find it hard to take their turn to queue up for services. They do not see themselves as Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba or Efikor Fulani; they are just Nigerians, in a country where ethnic champions are rising by the day, stirring things up. They dream of becoming lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, pastors, musicians and more.
The birthday party was not confined to Ikorodu. At Bab-Es Salam Orphanage in Ikeja, it was all fun. Soit was at Bethesda Home for the Blind in Surulere,Hephzibah Homes Orphanage, Badagry and Peculiar Saints Orphanage, Ajah.
When Mr Sanwo-Olu learnt about the visits later in the evening, he was deeply touched. A man in whom passion – for the development of the society, especially the youth – and compassion have become defining attributes, the Governor prayed for members of his Cabinet for such a thoughtful gesture on reading one of the letters from the various homes.
“This is the kind of thing we should all be doing,” the Governor said, nodding.
. Omotoso is Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Lagos