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To My father, Joseph Utomi Nwaobi: A Hug And A Good-Bye

August 12, 2011

Partings are often not easy. But part we must, and at some partings, path ways that once could not be ploughed open up into beckoning horizons that are endless with promises of a life that just as so easily could never have been lived.

Partings are often not easy. But part we must, and at some partings, path ways that once could not be ploughed open up into beckoning horizons that are endless with promises of a life that just as so easily could never have been lived.

My father, Joseph Utomi Nwaobi, lived, and so upheld his own often quoted adage that the sapling of the plantain does not wither before its parent.

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Now, I live; for dreams, which where once they could not be fulfilled, I have re-woven into new narratives of ascendant triumphs.

If you knew my father, you would have seen a man so vigorous that in our eyes as children could never become feeble. But time and the treachery of the human body throws the best of us an unsuspecting curve ball. So, as he settled into the back seat of the car the last time I saw him, we hugged; once, for the fond ties that bind a father and son; then we hugged again; twice, for a knowing of good-byes that endure only in the remembrance of the living.

This, in part, is that which we remember: my father knew desperation and abandonment at an early age. He was born of a polygamous father, the second of four siblings of common maternal descent. He lost his parents at an early age, and not that so long thereafter, he witnessed the unsettling turbulence and devastation of then “great plague”, the influenza epidemic that ravaged entire communities and homes. The family heath was razed down with fire, thought to be a panacea for halting the vengeful spread of the plague.

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Without father, without mother, without a home, he single handedly put himself through standard school but could not attain higher education due to financial constraints. He uprooted to live with his maternal uncle who was serving in the Nigeria Police in Enugu. His uncle eventually enlisted him in the Nigeria Police which saw him go through the Police Training College, Ikeja, Lagos.
Apparently, it didn’t seem to be the life he wanted. He was to enter the Federal Civil Service in the then Post & Telecommunications (P & T) department, and traversed the old Western Region, from Oshogbo through to Jebba, on postings.

His initials, J.U., was his popular cognomen. But those who knew him intimately called him Joe. He put down roots in Benin-City and there spent the greater part of his family life. Our home in Benin was a bus stop of sorts, with family relatives immediate and extended and folks from the village passing through. Some simply stayed put. As children, we always had grown ups in the home; male, female, tall, short, dark, light, a fair representation of the pantheon of Catholic saints, Henrietta, Theresa, Caroline, Stephen, Pius, Paul, Augustine and countless others. Town meetings were held in our home for years.

Our long suffering mother hardly ever complained. If a man ever was blessed, that woman was the best part of him.

To his credit, he was selfless in many ways and would go to great lengths to help people. So even with his ordinary background he made friends in the most unusual places across the social and economic spectrum: Indian couple, both medical doctors, French bank CEOs, German construction engineers. At a point, departing expatriates upon completing their duty tour would take him by the hand and as it were hand him over to their successor to continue a new relationship that would survive the outgoing expatriate.

The dream for a good education that eluded him was a pursuit he wanted realized in his children. Typical example: When I left Immaculate Conception College, Benin City, and gained admission into the University of Calabar to read Theatre Arts, the only draw back for our father was that Calabar was too far from Benin and I was just 15. What if there was an emergency? What if I needed money urgently? What if this? What if that?

He took off to Lagos to confront the folks at the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) office. Who knows what he told them; but he was that punctilious, dogged and unyielding when he believed in something. They told him if you want your boy nearer home, University of Benin had recently begun offering Theatre Arts. If they have space for him, we will make the switch.

Now, we do not know the exactitude of this; but our father who it seems has never flown in a plane before took a flight from Lagos to hurry back to Benin because academic session had already begun. He got to the University of Benin and through Professor Nduka Okoh was introduced to the, honest to God sweet gentleman, late Professor Irein Wangboje, then head of the Creative Arts Faculty under which was the Theatre Arts Department, who simply told him if JAMB gives you a letter of change today I will take your son today. Our Dad whizzed back to Lagos and returned to Benin armed with a letter of change of admission for me from UNICAL to UNIBEN: at 15 I was unquestionably one of the youngest boys to walk through the gates of UNIBEN; you should have seen the curious and bemused look on faces on campus. Priceless.

That was our Dad.

There were parts to him that as his children we could not reconcile. He was, in some ways, a fire brand of a disciplinarian. A glare from him could have your knees in fellowship with one another. He was fierce in meting out reprimands and was as dexterous with the cane as with a leather belt. He was very traditional and uncompromising in many ways, yet when his affability kicked in, his laughter bounced around the rafters and you could hardly restrain him from kicking up his heels once a tune struck up.

Maybe it wasn’t then such a wonder that, unusual for his generation, he didn’t foist choices on any of us. As odd as studying Theatre Arts was to a man like him (what did it even mean), he was an ardent fan, following my acting career, even attending many of the stage productions I featured him - and was so proud of the company of friends and mentors; Femi Osofisan, Sonala Olumhense, Nduka Irabor, Okey Ndibe, Ohi Alegbe, that adopted me - through starring roles in Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband has Gone Mad Again and Kurunmi, J.P Clarke’s Oziddi,  Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers, The Engagement and The Oriki of a Grasshopper, Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Saro-Wiwa’s tv sit-com Basi & Company, the award winning home video, Forever.

The choices of a man are not always owing to how prescient he is. Given the choices that our father had to make, he probably may or not, given the chance, reprise his role on the stage of life. The light that once shone in the fullness of its luminescence, as with the way of all men, went into slow fade. Now, it’s light out. Every player on a stage knows that whether the applause is heartfelt or merely polite, parting with your audience is inevitable.

So, father we have parted. One hug for the best part of you as a father. A last hug I reserve for when I see Him who is the eternal Father of us all. And beyond the life you have lived, I now live.

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