My father from my prism
I grew up to notice that we were strangers where we dwelt. Neighbours called my father Papa Nigeria and my Mum, Mama Nigeria. At school, other children taunted me and reminded me that I didn’t quite belong to where I was even when I spoke fluent twi, Ghana’s lingua franca. I didn’t also understand why we were living outside our own country and as child I had longed to come to Nigeria.
But father was respected. He combined trading with farming and his store in the small village called Mrewa in Ashanti Region was the biggest and in fact about the only one. He was also among the few that owned a bicycle in the village.
This was in the late 60s. There was no electricity in the village. The only source of enhanced illumination came from my father’s lantern. It was a kerosene lamp that was called gas lamp. Even now, I cannot explain exactly how a kerosene lamp became a gas lamp. Maybe it arose from the pumping device at the base which pressurized the kerosene into gas that moved along the connecting pipe into a crystal chamber which encased the mantle that produced the near-electricity illumination when lit.
This special light attracted human beings and insects at night. Thus the front of father’s shop also became the village square for moonlight tales. Once, a snake intruded but before it could get to where children were gathered, my father had sighted it with the illumination of the gas lamp and came with a big stick to kill it.
Papa was also a hunter. All through, bush meat was staple protein and not delicacy in our home. Food came from multiple sources and, as a growing child, the impression I had of my father was that of a wealthy man. The community loved him on account of generosity. He took the vital parts – head, heart, liver and the right leg – of any game he brought from his hunt to the chief of the village. He participated and contributed most in all communal efforts.
The story that Nigerians were no longer welcomed in Ghana came late to my father. He had one transistor radio that occupied most of his evenings. He would spend hours fine-tuning to place dial on the exact spot on the Short Wave length that opened to Radio Nigeria, Ibadan where news was cast in Urhobo. And so, when the news was all over in the local stations that Nigerians must leave Ghana, papa was unaware. Older children told us in school but I didn’t have the courage to mention it at home. What if I was asked to explain more?
Father was unprepared to leave Ghana. That wasn’t the idea at all. The plan was to see us all through school, do a little more to build a house back home and then leave the Gold Coast. And such was the standard vision of every Urhobo man of his generation and circumstances who moved out in search of better opportunities. Some stayed within Nigeria, mainly in the Southwest in Ikale, Ilaje and Ilesa areas; in Benin, Jos and Calabar.
I was only six in 1969. There was nothing back in the village in Nigeria that we would return to. If anything, he was returning to the starting point but he didn’t have the courage to tarry to observe how the policy of repatriation of aliens from Ghana would play out. He conferred with his elder brother, Pamah Edegware Idibiago, who took him to Ghana and both agreed to return to Nigeria with their families to avoid being caught on the wrong side of the law in far-away Ghana.
Days before departure were particularly stressful. On one occasion, father had gone for some business in Kumasi and mother was alone and came with this idea of ringing a bell over the items in the shop to attract buyers to turn as much of the stock as to cash. Somehow, the entire village heeded the bell and gathered at the store. There were miscreants amongst them who took away items while mum attended to legitimate buyers. She was overwhelmed and started crying.
I and my elder sister were helpless, too. I sneaked out to the chief’s house crying. I told him that some people were beating my mother and my father was not at home. The chief was livid. He dispersed the crowd and restored order.
The journey from Ghana to Nigeria wasn’t as fast and straightforward as the distance dictates. It took approximately three months. We got on the train at Bibiani and journeyed through Donkwam to Accra. That took only a day and it was the fastest and easiest stretch of the journey. There was a ready place that looked like a warehouse where we camped in Accra for a couple of days.
It was at a military facility in Tema near Accra that we had the full measure of the quit notice. Effectively, we became refuges with all the attendant features. Nigerians in their thousands were quartered in military tents in the open field. We queued at meals time everyday to be rationed food. The civil war had not quite ended but I would give it to Gen. Yakubu Gowon who seemingly rose to the challenges at home and outside home.
Even as refugees, we didn’t miss anything. We ate well but I wouldn’t know if the food came from the Nigerian government which was prosecuting a civil war or the United Nations. Planes and ships brought in supplies from wherever and our singular duty as children was to consume what food that was brought and be happy running around the vast barracks.
My father would have left many of his belongings behind in Mrewa but not the transistor radio that relayed the Urhobo service of Radio Nigeria Ibadan. At Tema, the radio took centre stage again. Somehow, on this day, the mood in the entire camp was upbeat. Some announcement had been made; people were rallying for the journey to Nigeria. The radio was placed in my care as our parents dashed to and fro to ensure we were on the list of those to make the journey. One man who stood by was particularly caring telling me where to place the radio to secure it. I did but remained suspicious and watchful.
As I turned the other way, the fellow picked the radio and hurried through the crowd looking back to see if I would raise an alarm. I didn’t and I couldn’t explain why. But while still in view, my mother showed up and I said: “mama that man going (pointing at him) just took daddy’s radio.” She raised the alarm and the chase began. I guess the fellow was stupid to have thought he would run through the wall of the perimeter fence that secured the barracks and escape with the stolen radio. He was chased to a wall, apprehended, beaten and the radio recovered and handed back to my father. I shall return to the transistor radio.
Meanwhile, we did not leave for Nigeria on that day. We were to spend another three weeks in Tema which was extremely hot in the day and extremely cold in the night. The day finally came. Hopes that we would be airlifted were dashed. All the same, we entered Nigeria in an unusual vessel. We got loaded in a war ship and set sail off the coast of Tema at dusk and arrived at Apapa, also at dusk the following day.
Between Lagos and Benin, the transistor radio returned once more to the scene. The civil war was ending and soldiers were everywhere along the old Lagos-Benin Road on mop-up operations. A cousin sat with the driver of the Bedford truck in which we were travelling all night to Benin. The rest of us sat on planks laid across the covered bucket facing the direction that we were coming from. The radio was given to this privileged cousin for safe-keeping.
It was a bad decision. Also seated in front of the truck was a soldier. And somewhere in the middle of the journey, the transistor radio was reported missing. My cousin who was much older tried to explain that the radio was not missing but forcefully taken by the soldier. He changed the narrative and agreed that the radio, indeed, was missing after a couple of hot slaps from the soldier. To cut the story short, we entered Benin and beyond to my village without the transistor radio. A very big uncle, Mr. Morgan Ofuede, father of the deputy managing director of Chevron who was then permanent secretary in old Midwest State only asked for the purchase receipt and promised to track and recover the radio. It was never recovered.
But father managed to re-enter Urhobo land with the other prized possession – the gas lamp. He was unprepared for the challenges ahead. No resources, no skill and no contacts. He had only one thing – hope. And it was more in the sense of waiting for the children to reinvent the failed economic adventure in the Gold Coast.
Something else went for father – contentment. He was a late starter. His first three marriages were challenged with childbearing until he met my mother. Among his peers, he was much behind but he never actually bothered. He resisted the temptation of a second adventure. Somehow, he juggled what the natural economy could offer – palm tree, rubber tree, cassava and yam – to create sustainability all through his active years.
He had even a stronger reason to stay back. As at 1970, his own father, Pa Idibiago Mevayero, was not only the oldest man in Oghara Agbarha-Otor but the oldest in the then Eastern Urhobo. He became the Okparuku of Orogun Kingdom in 1975 and died in 1977. His age was put between 120 and 130 years. Between Idibiago Mevayero and now, 10 men had come and gone as oldest in the village including Pa Onobrakpeya Omonedo, the father of world renowned print maker, Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya.
The role of the Okpako Orhere is both political and spiritual. According to the transmitted oral history, a certain hunter called Osovwah founded the community. Osovwah had two wives namely Emesirue and Erinodge through whom the filial networks of the community were created. While the arising consanguinity became expansive enough to permit inter-marriages, there are occasions when the filial distances seem too short to let go even if such marriages had been consummated.
Osovwah would be angry and would either prevent children from coming out of the union or cause their death at infants when born. An appeasement sacrifice with a he-goat is performed to ask Osovwah to let the couple be. It is the Okpako Orhere that sits over the sacrifice in ogwa (worship place of) Osovwah. Disputes are reported before the council of elders at the ogwa. The suing party pays a legal deposit which is matched by the respondent after which arguments are taken. It is a jury system where judgment is by simple majority of the elders in council. The party that is guilty loses deposit while the victorious party is refunded his deposit.
In the days of my grandfather, this system of justice administration and conflict resolution was so effective that I never witnessed any dispute in the community that resulted in arrest by the police. It was communalism at its best and even as my own father ascends the privileged height, I am not too persuaded in the face of the new confusing sociology that the lost communal tranquility of Oghara Agbarha-Otor will be regained. I pray for him.
And your next point is to ask for my father’s age. It is good to ask except to add that my culture forbids the child from telling his father’s age. I will, therefore, say here what my father told me about his age: “I was born on the day Ogbodo of Abbi was killed by the British and a friend of my father who came to see mother and child said the new baby was a re-incarnated Ogbodo Odinge and that was how I came to be called that name too.” Ogbodo of Abbi was killed by British expeditionary forces in 1914.