Last week Kosi’s father arrived in Canada. This is his third visit this year and this time he arrived as a permanent resident. This particular flight to Canada cost a total of about five million naira, which included the cost of multiple flight changes and his final ticket. None of that mattered. All he cared about was being able to see his family in the fall. It had been five months since his last visit and he was ready to be in their company again. When Kosi – his Ada, a writer pursuing her master’s in Canada – arrived at the Vancouver International Airport to pick him up, it was a bittersweet reunion. As he settled into the back seat with her youngest sister Oluchi, she inspected his face from the rearview mirror. His beard stub had started to spot with grey hair, the skin on his neck hung looser and his eyes had become more hooded than usual. He’s only 61 but the stress of working in Nigeria coupled with the recent elections was starting to show on him.
Now settled, he recounted his 22-hour journey from Lagos. He began by charming his way through check-in and immigration by betrothing his son to the attendants. “Did you show them Buchi’s picture?” Oluchi asked mid-laugh. “For where?” he bellowed. “I just told them ‘My son is in Canada, he lives in Toronto’ and they started blushing.” “So if he looks like a donkey they don’t care?” Kosi’s other younger sister Nneka added as she eased the car out of the arrival pick-up zone. “That one doesn’t concern them, all they know and care about is that I have a son in Canada who is looking for a wife” he beamed. His smile was now accompanied by a few more lines around his mouth but it didn’t dim the glow of his smile. A radiant smile is one of the things that he passed on to all his children, he also made sure each of them understood the power of smiling and embracing an attitude of joy.
Kosi’s father was not always like a father to her. There was a time when he was just a man who fathered her, and then, he wasn’t much of a smiler. In the only childhood picture she’d seen of him – that was photoshopped out of an old portrait of his family – he had his eyes on the floor and a neutral expression on his face. In a family picture they made in the summer of 2009, Kosi’s father stood neutral and eyes blank beside her mother who sported a light smirk. In front of her parents in the 2009 photo, she stood to the left, her brother to the left of her, and two sisters to her right. Behind her and her brother’s smile held a secret pinching game they played through the photoshoot. Nneka’s supermodel pout and pose foretold her star quality and Oluchi’s tired smile told them all she was ready to be done with taking photos forever. Kosi’s father’s one childhood photo doesn’t lead on much about what the day was like, but it reflects what the majority of his childhood must have looked like.
There’s an Orikeze family compound in Delta State. The compound which houses two bungalows – one for Kosi’s grandmother and another for her father and his family – is located on a self-titled street in Agbor, a small town northeast of Delta State. It is this compound Kosi and her siblings called home when they journeyed from their home in Lagos to Delta State for Christmas or Easter. Contrary to her 13-year belief, this was not the compound her father grew up in. That compound was 2.5 kilometres over at Tete Street. The compound had a similar floor plan with two bungalows, one that belonged to her grandfather Chief Imade and his family and another he rented out to tenants. It was the compound where her father – who was just Ehiabor – grew up with his mother, Ngozi, and his four older siblings. Despite the meticulous floor plan to ensure a balance between compound space and building structures, he didn’t do much growing up in the compound.
As the 9th child in a polygamous family blessed with 16 children, it was easy for his existence to be forgotten by all and sundry. Due to the isolation, he became accustomed to creating his own experiences from a young age. He spent many of his days conjuring mischievous plans with his friends or unknowingly prepping himself to be the family’s Scrabble master.
During the holidays, Ehiabor and his brother, Sam, spent their days bicycling from their home in Agbor to their father’s farm in Ute village. “We hated farm work ehnn, I think that’s why my father wasn’t keen on putting us through school. Since he saw we wouldn’t be of value to his farm, he kind of just left us to our own,” he said as he, Kosi, and I discussed in their island home in British Columbia, Canada.
Ehiabor experienced most of his milestones alone. Only a few of them were shared with family. At 11, when he was getting ready to begin secondary school, his older brother Kenneth took him to Asaba for his entrance interview at Saint Patrick’s College SPC. The only other family member to ever accompany him to school after that was his uncle, Moses, on his first resumption day at SPC, Asaba. Other moments were solemnly experienced alone or in the company of friends. His matriculation and both of his convocations – Undergraduate and Postgraduate – from the University of Ibadan were unattended by family members. His friend taught him how to drive one fateful summer, and even his first and only time in jail wasn’t comforted with familial support.
From early on, life made a show of its unfairness to Ehiabor. At the age of 5 when he was still at odds with basic math, Ehiabor was forced to switch to survival mode as the 1967 Nigeria-Biafra broke out. Agbor’s placement in the south-south and its cultural relationship with the Igbos (then Biafra) left it in a tough position strategically. The civil war forced Ehiabor and his family to abandon their home in Agbor and retreat to the village.
Kosi’s father is tightlipped about the war. His averseness to opening that wound says that it may be a memory too painful. He blots that part of his childhood and decides to muse on the opportunities he missed because of his parent’s neglect and his sheer nonchalant attitude to life. “I hardly had all these with my parents. All these gist we’re having, I never had this,” he revealed. Freedom from parental supervision is a utopia for many teenagers. An ideal life for children would be one devoid of a mother’s nag or a father’s scorn, and the reality of that utopia is that it makes navigating life much tougher than it needed to be. Kosi’s father found himself in precarious situations because he failed to make an effort academically. It would be far easier for him to bear the brunt of the responsibility alone but should a pre-teen be solely responsible for making core life decisions? His nonchalance in life and his academics were supported by silence in front of his father and limited input from his mother.
Despite being intelligent, his natural lack of focus made his academic journey difficult… The journey at Saint Patrick’s College came to an end in the warmth of June 1978. As Ehiabor celebrated the end of an era with his school friends, his inability to immediately further his education had not dawned on him yet. 1978 also happened to be the year the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) held its maiden University Matriculation Examination (UME). Though Ehiabor prides himself as a pioneer student of the UME, he failed the exam on his first sitting. He thinks of his failure as avoidable. “There’s no way I wouldn’t have passed JAMB if I was serious-minded, it was just an exam,” Kosi’s father threw. The resignation in his voice signals a disappointment in his lack of tenacity.
At that time, Nigerian universities required a minimum of five credits in the West African Examinations Council’s (WAEC) West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) or General Certificate Examination (GCE) O’Level for admission, but because he only earned three credits, he needed to resit for the WASCE to make up for the other two credits. Through his mother, he secured admission into another secondary school, Pilgrim Baptist Grammar School (PBGS), to repeat form 5 to retake the WASCE. “She was the only one that was interested in my life,” Kosi’s father said. She was non-formally educated and spent most of her days doing farm work and petty trading when she could. She had sought assistance from a former tenant whom she’d had during the civil war, who had gone on to become a principal. The mother and son shared a sacred bond. One that combines the love a mother has for her son and the love she has for her last child. She wasn’t as agile as other parents could be but she showed she cared about his well-being.
The repetition of form 5 was no new arrangement. It was typically done to facilitate the smooth re-taking of the exam, but Ehiabor and life had both chosen to take different paths. For the form 5 students at PBGS, a typical WASCE exam day usually involved an extended general reading time during morning prep for those who didn’t get in on overnight reading sessions, followed by last-minute revisions of past questions. Soon after, students would part ways and take on a solemn state to sit for their exams.
On the contrary, Ehiabor and his friends’ exam morning began with a wake-up call from a sympathetic police officer on morning duty. Instead of a last-minute study group before heading into the exam halls, he and his friends sat silently at the back of the police car that escorted them from the jail they had been residing in for the last few weeks, to their first exam.
“We thought they would leave us alone.” Kosi’s father laughed. What is now a laughable moment started as an accusation that had gone a few steps too far. As special students, they enjoyed privileges that their other classmates could only dream of. Residing off-campus stood as their biggest privilege. In the one-room apartment these three students shared in a building opposite the school, they hosted all sorts of students. From those already accustomed to relieving stress by smoking a blunt or two, to those ready to explore life outside tuck shops and curfews. Their first few terms at PBGS were stepping stones for building their reputations as chairmen of the school (to the students) and delinquents (to the staff).
The day Ehiabor and his badly behaved band of repeaters reached the end of their rope of mischief must have come like any ordinary day. At around one o’clock on this fateful day, as this band of resitting students lounged in their overcrowded apartment, a team of policemen and the school principal arrived at the front door. Their presence didn’t seem to faze these young boys, and neither did the lengthy accusations of burglary, theft, destruction of school property and gross insubordination they were faced with.
Their arrest and subsequent detention at the police station still didn’t impress them. The reality of their predicament only began to dawn on these students-cum-jailbirds when the sun began to set and going back home looked like a fading dream. The next day Chibuzor’s – the oldest, most experienced, and well-supported of them all – mom found her way to the station to post his bail. The police refused bail as the aggrieved principal wanted the matter escalated. Whatever relationship Ehiabor’s mother had with him was not enough to soften his heart.
Ehiabor’s mother resorted to allying with Chibuzor’s mother to hire a lawyer for the boys. The judge in charge, whose identity is lost in the archives of Nigerian bureaucracy, threw the case out on the first court hearing. The lack of evidence, perhaps coupled with suspicion of malice from the principal, played a part in the release of the boys to finish their exams.
The not-so-little hitch Ehiabor found himself in, during one of the most defining moments of his life at the time, proved the futility of another of life’s attempts to peacock its supremacy over man. “Do you know the funny thing? I had my five credits after that,” Kosi’s father beamed as he scrambled to show us a photo of the exam result on his phone. The paper, now coffee-colour stained, bore his name at the top of the page. A scan through the 4 decade-old typewritten document reveals he barely scaled through with these necessary credits. It wasn’t a great result, most definitely not one he would accept from Kosi. According to Kosi, her father had set such high standards for her academically that not even a 4.32 graduating GPA was good enough for him.
As we discussed in their home one Saturday evening, he spoke with a bittersweet smile. The kind that fades into an agonizing smirk. “Most times, when I shout you guys think I’m overbearing, but I just don’t want you to make the mistakes I made, ” he finished.
Despite his financial situation, his decision to push through and further his education wasn’t made from a deep-seated desire to make up for his parents’ lost dreams. That realization – the one to better your life, make something for yourself, and have a life worth living – didn’t come until nearly a decade later. For the 20-year-old, leaving home for school was the natural flow of things among his peers. After two direct entry applications, he stuffed a bag with the few clothes he had and headed to Benin one July morning. The journey to Benin wasn’t to start his tertiary education, he had already explored that route in 1981 and wasted a year trying to secure his admission at the University of Benin. This time, Benin (Ugbowo) was merely a bus stop in his journey to the University of Ibadan where he had reapplied and was offered admission to study History and Political Science at Nigeria’s most prestigious university at the time.
Life at the University of Ibadan wasn’t much easier for Ehiabor but it was dotted with colourful moments. At that point in his life, a few of his innate skills had begun to find its place. The summer he had no money to return to Agbor, his ability to be level-headed in dire situations helped him scout a lonely agriculture student in need of a companion. In his tenure as a student union government executive, his resourcefulness helped cement his success in the role as he managed to organize concerts around campus that brought in musical icons like Fela and Majek Fashek.
His ability to make do with little or nothing was the guiding force throughout his time as an undergraduate student. In his second year, when feeding became more difficult after Buhari’s administration reduced university funding, he leveraged symbiotic relationships he had made with students all around campus. According to him “I don’t know how I was surviving, I don’t even want to think back to how God made a way,” I imagine him having a bowl full of swollen garri for breakfast and earning himself a free bowl of goatmeat pepper soup after a sweet talk session with a bar owner near campus. The same expertise must have helped him push through his time again as a postgraduate student.
Outside of the academic pastime, Ehiabor continued to glide through life. Delving deep into slight glimpses of opportunities, he scoured through the south in search of a job. From adopting another ethnic identity to reducing his credentials from Master’s degree holder to OND holder, Ehiabor was determined to get a job by any means possible.
A few years after completing his master’s degree, he eventually secured a job at the Nigerian Student Loans Board (later renamed Nigerian Education Bank and now known as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund) in Abuja. It took five years for unfulfillment, regret, dissatisfaction and boredom to creep in. All key ingredients for a mid-life wake-up call. “I was in Abuja and I just felt…” he trailed off. “you know you get to a point in life and just ask yourself ‘Am I successful in life?” He said, in deep thought. “I tried to change things, I tried and tried, I wasn’t happy with the way I was,” he added.
Nigerian Education Bank,
28 Maitama Sule St,
July 1st, 1994.
Nigerian Education Bank.
APPLICATION FOR WITHDRAWAL OF SERVICE.
I am writing this letter to let you know that, I hereby apply to withdraw from the service (employment) of the bank with
effect from July 1st, 1994.
I wish to also express my profound gratitude to the entire Management
Committee for allowing me to serve the bank since 1989. I count on your usual co-operation.
He resigned in July 1994 and started a business.
In the few days Kosi’s father has been here with his family, he’s done little. During the week he wakes up to the click-clack of his wife at her work-from-home workstation – a bedroom staple since the lockdown – and excuses himself to the living room. Uncomfortable by the silence in the apartment at 7 am, he turns on his phone which he had left on the dining table the night before. He’s barraged by WhatsApp texts from his tennis club group chat, good morning broadcasts from his university alumni group, and most importantly; updates from his staff at home. He proceeds to call Mr Kehinde, their driver-house manager- personal assistant, to hurl corrections to his previous instructions and deliver fresh instructions for the day.
“I still feel like I would have been more than I am today, but only God knows,” he tells me as we discuss his current position in life. Despite being a well-connected media entrepreneur enjoying the sweat of his brow, the daydream of ‘what could have been’ continues to haunt him. Now resigning his destiny to God and eternally grateful for what he’s accomplished for himself, he still battles with regret.