Reflections on brotherly love
In July of this year, my younger brother, Raphael Douglas Barrett (Rae), Grenadian-born resident of Jamaica, travelled to Nigeria. I regarded this journey as ostensibly being made to enable him pay me a visit before I answer the home call, as I am well over the three-score and ten mark. However, it really turned out to be a more emotional family re-union of sorts because he insisted that he had come to get to know all my children and grandchildren (or as many of them as he could meet) and to bond with the family members, led by my wife, all of whom he had never met, while I was still around.
Although I am his senior by about a decade, the operation was entirely initiated by him. I had no hand in the planning or the facilitation of such an important strengthening and renewal of familial credibility and had not even contemplated arranging it. While the 56 years that I have spent away from my birthplace have, unfortunately, not been profitable in terms of material gain, I cannot complain about the enrichment of my spirit. My soul belongs to the West African region in which I have been domiciled for 51 years, because even when I was an adolescent in Jamaica I had decided that Africa was the origin, as well as the destination of my heart. As a consequence, I have been largely a deficient brother and completely lost as a member of my blood family in the Caribbean. This has been a source of deep pain at the core of my being, but I have always tried to characterise my exile as a true homecoming, rather than an escape. Rae’s visit brought credit, albeit belatedly, to this perception.
I have found it extremely difficult to express my feelings about this extraordinary event in my life even to myself. I am particularly grateful to Igonibo, one of my sons now famous as A. Igoni Barrett the novelist, who made enormous sacrifices to visit Jamaica twice in the last five years and thus help renew the blood ties that Rae’s visit has underscored. But even more remarkable was the bonding that I witnessed between my brother and those of my children, and grandchildren, who gathered to welcome him. The ease of exchange with which they interacted with him, and the genuineness of their joy in his company was incredible. I seemed to perceive a lost portion of my life in their relationship for each of the 17 days that he remained in Nigeria even though only five out of the 17 were spent in my company. In those five days spent in Abuja, we had a full programme of meeting with friends and relatives and my wife Asamaere outdid herself in culinary hospitality. However, the real meat of this visit was in the growth of understanding between my children and I, which emanated from their perception of the deep love of family that my brother had exhibited, by making what must have been an enormous effort to overcome obstacles to visit us.
The complete abandonment of self that was displayed by my eldest son Risode (Erisohkwode), his brother Ejiro (Ejiroghene), their sister Obehi Amy, and the afore-mentioned Igoni (who with his wife Femke took charge of Rae’s comfort as soon as he landed in Lagos) told me volumes about their maturity and emotional responsibility that I, as a somewhat relaxed, not to say negligent, parent, had not taken note of before. By the time they took him on a tour of Lagos, Edo and Delta States to meet grandchildren, Rae was speaking like a veteran Nigerian visitor and showing a tolerant understanding of the daily trials that bedevil life in our great but complicated nation. By the time that they brought him to meet me in Abuja, he was as close to them and as solicitous of their own concerns as an uncle, who had known them from childhood would be.
As has often been the case at various points of my life in Nigeria, when my brother arrived here I was facing a difficult transitional period. We had no home of our own (having left our domicile in Bayelsa State 10 months earlier to relocate to Abuja with the support of my loyal and long-suffering wife and daughters), and I was threatened with not even being able to receive him in an appropriate manner. However, a miracle of opportunity occurred just a few days before he arrived in Abuja and this apprehensive anxiety was relieved. As my wife insists that I need not bare all the skeletons in my cupboard, I will not go into details about this wonderful incidental miracle, but let me say that my brother’s visit served not only to reveal the depth of family ties, but also unearthed remarkable revelations about some of the friendships that I have forged, as I have become a West African. My fraternal relationship with the Ghanaian journalist, Ben Odei Asante, is of particular resonance in this wise. Without his deep and constant encouragement as I struggled to prepare for this important re-union, I might have been overwhelmed by disappointment. The fact that I had often joked that he had replaced Rae in my life took on the ring of truth. When Her Excellency, Ms. Ann Scott, Jamaican High Commissioner in Abuja, received Rae in her official residence even though she was travelling home to bury her mother on the night of the same day that he arrived, she set his visit to me off on a high note of respect and welcome. Then when Okello Oculi, the notable Ugandan writer and Pan Africanist, told Wole Olaoye, (a friend whose links to my younger days in broadcasting I had not remembered), about Rae’s visit, he opened his home to us for an impromptu get-together. It turned out to be a celebration of genuine friendship and respect for me that brought tears to my eyes because it was so unexpected.
The fact that, apart from siring a large and brilliantly adventurous family, the maintenance of deep friendships appears to be among the major achievements of my sojourn in West Africa must have struck Rae. I was able to seek assistance from another close and dear friend, Ad’Óbe Obe, a very erudite professional colleague, who had been a top adviser to, and friend of, former President Olusegun Obasanjo. His farm outside of Abuja became the venue of a family picnic reminiscent of days that we spent as a family in Jamaica. In managing these outings, I think, I might have helped my brother to reconcile himself comfortably to doubts that he might have entertained about my separation from my family roots. If not, as he left Abuja, at least, I felt that he had fulfilled his expressed intention to get to know the Nigerian branch of the family, and that if I answered the home call without ever seeing Jamaica again, at least, my children and grandchildren would have a link that they can depend on with their blood roots in the island.
The success of this largely impromptu visit and the impression of family solidarity that it has generated give us hope for more exchanges across the void in the future. No matter what it takes, Rae’s effort must be duplicated by us. We need to think about visiting my homeland, and more of my relatives, especially my nieces and nephews, need to be encouraged to take the plunge and visit us as well. Indeed, I am looking forward to another visit from Rae, and at least, one of my three sisters not too far in the future, and this time I should be able to play a much more proactive support role in preparing for what I hope will be an even more substantial West African tour by representatives of the Caribbean Barretts.
My brother has inspired me to think seriously about the meaning of our family being both Caribbean and West African in provenance. He has made me understand that I did not leave Jamaica behind but brought its spirit with me in the same way that I have always insisted that the African communities in the Caribbean have carried the soul of the continent within them over all the centuries that they have existed there.
That, for me, is what Brotherly Love is all about – I think!