A special tribute to our mother – Maami
That’s what we all called her – Maami. We sometimes also called her mum, the English word for mother, even though she understood only two words of the English language, despite that my siblings and I spoke the adulterated version, pidgin English, to each other at home throughout all our childhood days in Jos.
The two words she understood and spoke mischievously a few selected times were –‘ruffish’ and ‘noisese’, both her own pronunciation of ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’. She would utter those words in either dismissing us after an argument or in telling us off that she too could speak English!
For reasons only known to her, Maami refused, bluntly, to learn to speak any version of any other language except the egba dialect of the Yoruba language plus a little of Hausa, because she needed that to transact some of her buying and selling business with Fulani Cattle rearers in Northern Nigeria up to Fort Lamy deep in the Sahara Desert on the border with Chad Republic.
She communicated with us her children in egba dialect, ostensibly to remind us constantly of our roots in Abeokuta. Otherwise, it was her greatest pleasure to ‘murder’ any other foreign words and language with her heavily accented egba dialect.
Every time she opened her mouth to talk everyone waited in bated breath, expecting any one of her series of words that sent people reeling in laughter, or anger, or both, with her looking bemused, happy with herself and totally unperturbed. It did not matter to her what anyone thought or felt.
She was so loud and proud of her egba roots and language that she wore both like garments.
Following her retirement from the life of a nomadic trader in the early 1960s when our father left home to join the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA) in Gombe, and she, on her own, had to take care of five of the six children left with her (Dele, our eldest brother had left Jos to attend secondary school in Western Nigeria), she took over the responsibility to bring up all of us, and settled down to become the biggest pepper grinder in the whole of Jos Township market!
Everyone knew her, or about her.
Within a few months she had become second in command in the market women’s association headed by Mama Alaso, the biggest cloth seller in the Jos market reputed to be one of the largest in West Africa at the time, and third wife of late Pa Jonathan Olatunde Odegbami, patriarch of the Odegbami family in Jos.
That’s how she became actively involved in mobilising the market women that welcomed Queen Elizabeth of England (whom she called onisafett) to Jos in 1956 during the Queen’s historic visit to Nigeria.
She was a ‘terror’ to anyone that crossed her path either in business or on issues concerning her children. No one could match her in an argument once she believed her position on the subject was the right one.
Even when she was ‘wrong’, she was right. In all her years in the Jos market none of us can recall that she was cowed by anyone over an argument, a fight, or a shouting match.
To submit to her is the only way the world would rotate peacefully and everyone would retire to their corners and live happily, ever after.
Oh, mum was a very stubborn woman, a rebel of some sort. No wonder she was a great admirer of late Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, whom she occasionally spoke about glowingly.
Maami was so stubborn that whenever she pronounced a word incorrectly and anyone attempted to correct her, the mis-pronounced word automatically became a permanent part of the human vocabulary!
That’s how ‘Courage’, my personal aide and her house help for many years, inherited the new name that has stuck since then – ‘Orangee o’; Charlton her grand-son became ‘Sharitee’; ‘Slow Poison’ Idowu Otubusen, the great ex-international footballer and my friend that interacted very well with her became Shilooow!; and Chioma (Ajunwa) whom she met in London on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, became Sioma forever.
Bintu was one patient that doctors and nurses in a private hospital in London would never forget. Some 11 years ago she underwent a surgical procedure for renal cancer that could only be described as a miracle!
At 86 then, she would never have been considered for surgery but for her passport that read 76 years of age, unknown to all of us. This was totally an erroneous transfer of the wrong year of her estimated year of birth from her original passport to a new one during renewal in the immigration office. That ‘error’ later saved her life.
That private hospital staff still asked about her whenever we paid visits to the UK. They had the unique opportunity of experiencing an extra-ordinary woman called Bintu, whose story should be told in a well-scripted drama series or movie.
In the hospital, how the name Florentine, the name of a nurse she could not pronounce, became Roseeo to her was impossible to comprehend.
She simply gave every nurse her own unique name. They all resigned to faith, stuck with strange new names. They happily responded to her whenever she called them these names, and there would be peace and tranquillity in the ward, thereafter.
When we thought about it deeply much later, we started to imagine that Maami was on some private cultural war, making a huge, deep cultural statement. We started to believe that everything she did and said was deliberate. She was enjoying the fun at the world’s expense, paying back the British what they did to us in colonial Nigeria through bastardising our local names, demeaning our belief systems, forcing us to accept their own religion, discouraging us from speaking our language and destroying our rich cultural values.
She returned to Nigeria after 11 months and for the next 11 years lived like a queen – pampered by all her children with a life of maximum comfort and good care. Her health status became excellent, a nurse at her beck and call 25 hours every day, and everything she needed to make her happy and comfortable provided without question. The only thing she lacked occasionally was the companionship of her husband whom she finally goes to join now.
She was a Muslim by birth, from the Olotu family in the Imo Igbore township in Abeokuta. She became a Christian by her own volition and allowed her children to follow their own choice of faith in the absence, since 1962, of our father who left to work in Gombe, married a Kanuri wife, and did not spend much time again with us until much later in his life.
The older Maami got, the healthier she became after she returned to Nigeria, as if she would live forever. Thereafter, she lived long and lived well.
Only God knows what transpired during the last two weeks of her life. She was broken by a freak ‘accident’ in the house. She fractured her right leg. That immobilised her and quickly led to a deterioration in her condition that she could not beat for the first time in her long life.
So, death won at last!
We are celebrating her because as she goes home to rest after a long, blessed and fruitful life, we have the greatest consolation that she did not suffer in her final days, and that she shed very little tears for any of her children and grandchildren who are all adults now!
She was blessed with seven children, 26 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren, and two great-great grand-children.
She was an epitome of a Nigerian woman that worked hard all her life so that her children could live well and have a better world to inherit when she departed.
Dele is not here physically with us, but as she meets up with him now in heaven, they would laugh together over our futile attempt to hide his death from her and fulfil one of her greatest prayers – that she never lived to bury her own child.
She was originally a Muslim but the last place she used to worship was at the Deeper Life Bible Church in Festac Town Lagos.
Despite all her romance with Christianity, the one other wish that was not fulfilled in her lifetime, but desired by her throughout until it became impossible due to her surgery, was to go on pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca before she died.
So, join us to celebrate the life of our mother, a rebel without a cause, a patriot to the core and an epitome of egba womanhood – Bintu Abeke Odegbami, as she rests finally.
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