Preying on the Dead – Culture & the Odyssey of My Dad’s Funeral – I

When my Dad passed in April, I promised to write about my experience navigating the usually murky waters of traditional politics, my personal disposition, my financial handicap and how I and my community worked  around it. It has taken long coming because I promised to respect the 40-day mourning period. Now that its over, I am serializing this for those who may benefit from that experience. I must say I have nothing but respect for tradition and that my love for my town, Okeagi, remains unflinching. I just hope that this story inspires someone somewhere to know that you don’t have to follow blind tradition – make the tradition work for you or work to change it.

Dad's picture, shot in 2013 when he was probably 113

Dad’s picture, shot in 2013 when he was probably 113 years.

‘Your Dad Has Packed Up!’

Saturday April 16 could’ve been any ordinary day except that I have lived in Ottawa, the Canadian capital for five years running. In those years, when there is sunshine in the forecast with the snow and sludge gone from the streets, the digits of your happiness thermometer runs in double digits. So when I drove into the parking lot of the BFM on Merivale Road that day, I was hoping for a swell time. Something told me to make that call to my father and I tried. I switched off the car engine; half opened the door to let the early breeze in and began to frantically dial Dad’s number. It had been two weeks since we last spoke and it was not for not trying the line. Each time the phone rang off the hook without a response, I blamed it on that ubiquitous Naija phenomenon – bad network.

Bad network often results in a phone giving the dialling tone without actually clicking at the other end. Base stations running on generating sets are often switched off to cool off sometimes making communication impossible. This is why Naija ‘big men’ (and women) often carry more than one handset belonging to different networks.

After several tries, I consoled myself with what I had taken for granted – the fact that Dad would somehow find the way to call that Sunday before I left for church. The six hour difference between Nigeria and Canada meant that we would talk for as long as possible for me not to be too late for Sunday service and I would have to cut the line before another issue crops up to extend our seemingly endless conversations. Sometimes, I would hand over the phone to his grandchildren and they would battle with communication as we drove to church. He speaks smattering English and they, smattering Yoruba. Yagba is out of the question for them, although Dolapo swears she speaks and understands it.

I settled to my posting that day at the Housewares Section under the direction of the knowledgeable, Ena ‘my favourite person’. She had requested that I print out some price tags. I set off like a good little kid, later returning with both hands full of the month’s colour coded price list. Next was to stick them on the wares and I settled down to doing just that when my phone rang.

The screen screamed – Ladele Gbadebo, my God-sent cousin and the manager of Dad’s upkeep for longer than I could remember. Without him, the life of a centenarian with an attitude and knowledge of how to use it would have been complex indeed. The only time that Dad ended unconscious in hospital, it was Ladele’s prompt intervention that stopped him from passing. After that, Dad took his own health, or whatever was left of it in his own hands, scheduling periodic check-ups in Mopa, seven kilometres away and paying his way in a chattered vehicle. Years later, he fell trying to get into bed and lost the use of his feet.

Ladele did more than manage Dad, he is the epitome of a personal support person – making sure that he physically lifted him to the bathroom for his baths. The few times I watched the scene, I was filled with awe and gratitude. I had always known my Dad to love his baths, especially the evening baths, but of late, he could no longer do it daily. That was one of my most painful moments watching age reduce the lion in whose strong hands I grew up turning with into a helpless cub. No young man would have accepted Ladele’s responsibility without remuneration – but he did and remained loyal, to the very end. I am indebted.

Back to the telephone, I answered without any concern in my voice, the way I have come to answer any call from him.
‘What happened?’
‘Your Dad packed up about an hour ago. We are making arrangements to take him to the mortuary in Mopa.’
A huge lump blocked my throat as I sank into the nearest chair. After I had swallowed the lump, I muttered ‘Wow’ a couple of times. The last time we had spoken, he had complained of a nagging sore throat. I had laughed it off saying that throat infections were common even for spring chickens like us not to mention a man of his age. I asked him to talk to the village dispenser or send someone to get him some sore throat medication. But he had told me that it was the first day he was eating in three days. In my years growing up Dad never missed his meals – breakfast being the cornerstone of his day. But there was nothing I could do other than commiserate.

At an estimated 116 years of age, Dad had become a bride eagerly waiting for death. Blessed with incredible health and strength and the memory of an elephant, he never stopped teasing about when the postmaster shows up with his call-up letter.
‘I am ready whenever the postman delivers my letter’, he would say without any tinge of regret. Dad does not believe in living life for regrets. He was an advocate for thinking twice before making decisions than regretting them afterwards. Regrets, he would equate to a dish served cold – not suitable for Yagba climate.

A few weeks before his passage, he had declared ‘I am striving to make sure I do not suffer on earth here and suffer on the other side’. We had laughed over it, knowing how my Dad had resigned himself to fate and how he romances his imminent encounter with death. He spent most of the dawn hours talking to the Great Man Upstairs with his shekere, a rattle that had become his synonymous object of worship. When he sings to heaven, his voice comes up strong and his knowledge and ability to read entire chunks of the Bible remained unparalleled – evidence of years spent poring through the Big Book. It showed in all his conversations, he never spoke a minute without quoting scriptures. He would spend hours singing songs of praise long before anyone else woke up, making his petitions to his maker. Then he would cover his children and his grandchildren with prayers. Looking back now, I remember how lazy it sometimes made me feel – knowing that your parents cover you in their personal prayers. I’ll need God’s divine grace to come close to that form of dedication or worship.

The story of my father’s life is filled with interesting anecdotes the likes of which legends are made. This is not because he is my father, it’s because he comes from a long line of gallant warriors, hates injustice and is never diplomatic about his views. His granddaughter, Dolapo has promised to piece these stories together someday in a book  if her procrastinating wannabe writer-father fails in that duty.

Although I had planned my reaction to his eventual demise over the years, hearing that my father had breathed his last showed the gulf between plot and reality. Sometimes, life does not give you enough lemon to make good lemonade without filling it with sugar. With gratitude for the years I spent with my parents and the grace to see them till I could take care of myself and raise my own family, there would always be strides I wished I could attain.

While I earned a salary, it was a thing of conscientious pride to increase my parent’s living allowance every year knowing how the cost of living in Okeagi is sometimes more expensive than Abuja, the Nigerian capital. This is no exaggeration when you look at the logistics and the dynamics. The things we finally come to identify as the basics of life travel several thousands of kilometers to reach Okeagi or other suburbs of the developing world. While our forebears tilled the earth and ate from it, our generation earned an education and left home – for good, leaving the soil to exiles and internally displaced persons using our community as a refuge. The instinct of the exile to survive is not necessarily premised on the satisfaction of their hosts – home, wherever they call it, always comes first.

Since I left home in 2010 and not finding a paying job, it had become increasingly impossible to fulfill that ambition of yearly increasing maintenance allowances. Yet, I am conscious of the crash of the Naira against the dollar and the resultant incredible rise in the cost of living, the price of the goods he needs to make his living conditions bearable. Dad never makes demands except when absolutely necessary or when it has to do with church project. He and Mum would starve than let a church project suffer if they knew they could contribute. Dad would boast that as long as God gave him life, he would never starve. It was one answer to prayer that God did not deny him to his death; the other being what he usually boasts was his agreement with God that he would never bury any of his children.

…to be continued.