(Speech delivered at the Nigeria @ 50 symposium jointly convened by the Nigerian High Commission, Ottawa, and the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa on September 30, 2010)
Baba E wi hun hun would be approaching his 100th birthday by now if he was still alive. My Dad, who passed on three years ago in his seventies, used to call him “boda”, a common Yoruba cultural honorific, possibly a domestication of the English, “brother”. Like my Dad, Baba E wi hun hun belongs in that generation of Spartan, colonial, missionary-trained teachers who were the very incarnation of Nigeria’s moral and ethical fabric from the fifties down to the very early eighties.
Surely, you remember this teacher if you are a Nigerian of a certain age. Do you remember his well-starched khaki shorts that reached down to his knees, stopping just where his long socks started their descent into his well-polished black shoes? Do you remember that those khaki shorts were pressed so hard with a charcoal iron that the edges - called "gator" in local parlance - almost cut like a razor blade?
Do you remember the starched short sleeve white shirt that he tucked in and his immaculate black tie? Do you remember his glistening black hair, about half the size of the African American Afro style? His wife combed it for him every morning, faithfully putting the obligatory "parting" either in the middle or on one side of his head, just before he went to the schoolyard for morning assembly. If you grew up in the village when Nigeria was Nigeria, you probably called him “tisa”.
The remnants of this generation of teachers, who toiled to build Nigeria alongside British District Officers, Irish Catholic priests, and Canadian missionaries of the Sudan Interior Mission, and later took over the moulding of an unimpeachable national ethos when the colonial oppressors departed, are the same people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who now drop dead in pension queues all over Nigeria, tragic victims of a polity ruined and looted beyond repairs by younger generations of Nigerians they trained.
Before he passed on in 2007, my father used to stand in those horribly dehumanizing pension queues until I snapped and stopped him. I couldn’t take what Nigeria was doing to his dignity anymore. From the early 1960s when he made the mistake of quitting his comfortable perch in Dundee, Scotland, and returned home like other dreamers in his generation to build the newly-independent country, up until 1985, he had been “tisa” (teacher) and “pinrinsipa” (principal) to the generation of rulers that was now making him stand in those queues, exposing him to the elements in the evening of his life, especially that horrible sub-Saharan African tropical sun.
It is not easy to explain the pension queues in Nigeria to a Western audience such as we have here today. Fifty years after independence, that is how the giant of Africa has elected to treat those who forged and shaped her foundational ethos. Those of you who love to sunbathe in the summer, protecting your skin from the biting rays of the sun with all sorts of creams, should go and experience Nigeria between noon and 3 p.m. You will gain a firsthand understanding of what that country did to my father and Baba E wi hun hun in the last decade of their lives.
Baba E wi hun hun and my Dad were not asking for their share of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt and putrescent national cake. They would never have wanted any part of that cake. You see, they belonged in a totally different moral and ethical order. Theirs is a generation that took the saying, “a teacher’s reward is in heaven”, too literally. All they wanted was what Nigeria owed them: their pension. The never got it till they died.
My father was luckier than his older friend and colleague, Baba E wi hun hun. My father has a son who – I’m sure you will allow me this immodesty – is not doing too badly as a University Professor in Canada, a son who could afford to tell the Nigerian government to go to hell and take care of his father through the kind offices of Western Union money transfer. If he can afford it, there are things a son must never allow Nigeria to do to his father: expose him to the elements in his 70s just because he is asking for his pension.
But my mom, also a retired school principal in her 70s, disagrees with me. She has other ideas about dignity. Dignity, for her, is not allowing Nigeria to get away with robbing her late husband, even if it means gathering my father’s papers every month and heading out to Lokoja, the state capital, to stand for hours on end in those horrible queues. We argue endlessly on the phone. I tell her to forget it. After all, I stopped Dad from going to the queue because it broke my heart to see him dehumanised by the generation he trained but mom won’t be deterred. Calmly and with as much dignity as Nigeria allows the oppressed to muster, she explains to me that she was my father’s wife for 49 years till death did them part, watched him mould and shape that country through the generations he trained as a teacher in Katsina, Kaduna, Minna, Kabba, Isanlu, and Egbe and would therefore never allow Nigeria to steal his entitlements.
Recently, the wicked rulers of Nigeria upped their game in the dehumanization of this generation of Nigerian seniors. I phoned my mom and she answered from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. What could she possibly be doing in Abuja? Aren’t pension queues restricted to the state capitals anymore? Well, she got one of those terse government circulars (memo here in Canada). It was actually addressed to my father. Wait for this one: somebody somewhere was directed to invite my father to some ministry in Abuja to prove that he is dead so that his entitlements could be paid to his wife! Failure to come personally and prove that he is dead would of course lead to the forfeiture of his claims.
As we say in Nigeria: things dey happen! Pardon my use of “directed”. That is the language of government in Nigeria. Every government memo, every circular, starts with: “I am directed to inform you that…” That allows us the luxury of democracy without responsibility. If things don’t work, no problem, carry go. After all, you were directed by someone who was directed by someone who was directed by someone. One day, the president of Nigeria will forget himself and address a memo to his ministers saying: “I am directed…”
Let us leave one woman’s pitiful attempt to stop Nigeria from rubbishing the dignity of her husband three years after his death. Let us return to Baba E wi hun hun. Apart from being a church warden in our local Catholic parish and the scourge of kids who fell asleep during the homily of Father Léo Leblanc or Gérard Fournier, Baba E wi hun hun was one of the formidable teachers in the Catholic primary school system that was established throughout Lokoja Diocese in the 1950s and 1960s. The schools litter both sides of the Federal road from Kabba to Egbe. Isanlu, my home town, got two of those schools, one in the Ofin axis, the other in the Itedo Oba axis of the town. Both were called Saint Joseph’s. Government would later take over those schools in the 1970s and transfer them to the Oyi Local Schools Management Board (OLSMB).
Government takeover was a path to perdition for those schools. They would become part of the narrative of rust and decay that attended government takeover of Christian missionary schools all over Nigeria. My parents withdrew me from the public primary school system after only one year and enrolled me in the elitist nursery and primary school system run by Spiritan Catholic priests from France and Québec – the origins of my acquisition of the French language and acculturation into the civilization it carries. I was privileged to be a pupil of Baba E wi hun hun for one year before my parents enforced my pilgrimage to the upper middleclass elitism of the nursery and primary school system of those days.
His acquisition of the sobriquet, Baba E wi hun hun, is itself a study in the sociology of aliases and onomastics in rural Nigeria. A very broad range of traditional occupations provided ready-made sobriquets that often replaced the real names of many a matriarch or patriarch in the village. My world growing up in Isanlu was one in which I had to prostrate to say good morning to Baba Elemu (the palm wine tapper), Baba Olode (the hunter), Baba Alagbede (the blacksmith), Baba Oni gan gan (the gangan drummer), Iya oni resi (the rice seller), Iya Abiye (the midwife), Iya oni diri (the hair dresser).
Sometimes, the sobriquets came from the verbal artistry of the named. Is there a refrain that a patriarch or matriarch repeats often in situations of verbal fioritura? That refrain could end up replacing his or her real name for the villagers. For instance, there was a palm wine tapper in the village called Baba oro rinda. I never got to know his real name. Legend has it that he was so proud of the quality of his palm wine that whenever consumers of his white froth praised him, he would exclaim in his Yagba West dialectal variant of Yoruba: “oro rinda”! Standard Yoruba would have this as: “oro ni mo nda” – I tap the best palmwine! Luckily, you have all read Things Fall Apart and I shouldn’t have to explain the atmospherics of palm wine consumption in my part of the world.
It was such verbal artistry that got Baba E wi hun hun his own nickname. The future that Baba E wi hun hun and his peers all over Nigeria envisaged as they toiled in our primary and secondary schools after independence was that of a nation that was going to become the sum total of the values they were instilling in the pupils. In each pupil, they sought to build what the American historian, William Bouwsma, calls the “model of the educated man” – a psychic and sentient being socialized into an elevated sense of personal and collective honour, civic responsibility, professional competence, self respect, honesty, and integrity. Their approach to training and making us ready for the future they dreamed for Nigeria was a methodological mosaic that combined strict Christian morality with unimpeachable indigenous values. They lived what they preached. They did not spare the rod.
Baba E wi hun hun started our day at morning assembly with lofty speeches delivered in the tonalities and cadences of Yoruba verbal art forms. He loved the engagement of antiphonal call and response that is characteristic of traditional story telling sessions or the Catholic responsorial psalm. While other teachers preferred “yes sah” and “yes ma” as responses to instructions, Baba E wi hun hun taught us every morning about honesty, integrity, hard work, and dignity in lyrical declamations in which he required us to utter the refrain “hun hun” after his every sentence. It was his way of ensuring our participation and undivided attention. It was his own peculiar way of ascertaining that his message was sinking into our consciousness. For the Yoruba expression, “e ma wi hun hun”, literally means: utter hun hun in response to my proclamations.
Generations of Isanlu kids chorused hun hun during morning assembly to Baba E wi hun hun’s mandate that we should aspire to build a Nigeria ensconced in the values that he and his ilk were teaching us. The shape and condition of Nigeria at fifty` is, of course, evidence that these colonial teachers, who laboured all over the country, had cast pearls before swine. The generations that they trained, those fellows in their forties, fifties, and sixties, who are making such a thorough mess of Nigeria today, are not just content with betraying the dreams of Baba E wi hun hun. They are doing it in the most profligate manner possible. The labour of our heroes past... hun hun.
Because of the nature of the man who runs the show at the Nigerian High Commission here in Ottawa, we have been asked to assemble today and celebrate Nigeria at fifty purely as a feast of ideas, a meeting of minds, a bazaar of critical faculties, and occasion for red-eyed sobriety and head-bowing. I wish I could say the same for his hedonistic bosses in Abuja. I am not going to tell you how much they are spending on this independence anniversary. Even by Canadian standards, you will faint. I am not going to tell you that the President of Nigeria has a harem of nine presidential jets. I am not going to tell you that the President of Nigeria considers it a crime against humanity for him to travel even to the toilet with less than two jumbo jet loads of accompanying aides. I am not going to tell you that his wife travels with a “luggage officer” tucked somewhere in her Kilimanjaro of aides. The labour of our heroes past... hun hun.
I am not going to tell you that the President of Nigeria is a teacher who doesn’t seem to understand that all over that country, the teachers who taught his generation and established the ethos that should have guided us in the last fifty years are dropping dead in pension queues on his watch. I am not going to tell you that I suspect that the wicked generation now in charge of Nigeria are deliberately punishing those who have refused to die in the generation of Baba E wi hun hun. For it doesn’t make sense for a nation to entertain the world with the spectacle of the foundational generation of teachers dying in pension queues. Every one of those colonial teachers still alive is a living indictment on the looters. In those sunken eyes, the looters see evidence of the dreams they betrayed and the expectations they never lived up to. The labour of our heroes past... hun hun.
The labour of our heroes past... shall never be in vain… another old teacher drops dead in a pension queue somewhere in Nigeria before you get to the end of that song. To serve with heart and might... and they drop dead in Aiyetoro Gbede, Mopa, Ponyan, Isanlu, Ejiba, Odo Ere, and Egbe. One nation bound in... in... another teacher drops dead, his gratuity stolen by government officials. It is an insult to the labour of my father, Baba E wi hun hun, and all those colonial teachers that Nigeria is punishing as I speak for this anthem to be blared whenever Goodluck Jonathan steps into a room. The labour of our heroes past... does he even know the meaning of those words? Our corrupt state governors step into a room and that song is also blared. That is an insult. The labour of our heroes past... hun hun.
After October 1, 2010, the fumes of wine and the bacchanals will clear from the eyes of our oppressors in Abuja. They will prepare the presidential jets and the protocol officers and the luggage officers in readiness for the next jamboree trip abroad. My mother will dutifully prepare my father’s documents and travel to Lokoja or Abuja. Some government official in his forties or fifties, high on his daily dosage of bigmanism, will keep that seventy-two year old woman standing in the sun yet again. Her grey hair glinting and roasting in that sun, the wrinkles on her forehead, the ache in her knees as they threaten to give, and that tear drop, always a single tear drop whenever my mother is defeated in ways patented only by Nigeria to defeat a citizen, are, for me, the signposts to the next fifty years in the life of Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria.