PREYING ON THE DEAD – CULTURE & THE ODYSSEY OF MY DAD’S FUNERAL – V

Mum

Maria Titilayo Asaju, Mum was Dad’s fifth wife.

Everyone knew Dad to be tougher than nuts. He is pretty unconventional in his thinking and when convinced about a line of action, he would not easily change his views.

Dad avoids anything that would inconvenience him. Even though he had become the custodian of clan history and culture and is more knowledgeable on our traditions; he steered clear of the enslaving arms of culture. Flatly refusing to assume traditional titles that is exclusive to our family or our clan was one way he did this.

He once told me that he was conscious that most parents leave inheritance for their offspring.

‘In my case,’ he would argue, ‘I have nothing but the legacy and good name that my own father bequeathed on me. It is therefore right, that I should not impoverish you (his children) by taking decisions that would inconvenience you.’ Dad never shirked his responsibility towards his community or country. Shortly after returning home some decades back, we were cleaning his wooden box when I discovered that he had been paying his taxes to the colonial and national administrations dating back to 1944.

As at the time of this discovery, the only government presence in Okeagi were the three wells dug in the town for water supply. The community set aside every Tuesday to make the five or so kilometres stretch of road between it and Mopa. I recall how men would take their hoes and cutlasses and women would carry their gourds or buckets so that they can fill the craters on the road. While one group busied itself on this stretch, another worked hard on the Okeagi-Imela road. The Oyi River bridge was another problem. It was decked with wooden planks that would sometime cave in. The community would contribute for its repair.

Looking back at all this, I insisted in 1984 that my father should stop paying taxes to the government. My argument was simple, he was not ‘gainfully employed’, and if there was no government presence in the community, government had lost the moral right to demand taxes. Back in the day, to be caught dead without your tax receipt was a serious offence. But I was sure I could win an argument for my father in court. Incidentally, nobody faulted my logic and nobody sued him for dodging taxes. I believe that civil disobedience is a duty where the responsibilities of government to its citizens are blatantly denied.

Refusal to be King

When it was the turn of Laofin to produce a King, my father was eminently qualified and many saw him as the natural choice. Indeed, there was nobody in the clan that opposed his natural choice, not even Chief Isaac Dahomi who was then the Shaaba of Okeagi (long before the Yagba adopted the title of Otunba). Dad’s arguments were as sound as they could be. His sight was failing rapidly. Doctors diagnosed trachoma and said back then that as a result of his age, it would be suicidal to operate on him. He saw the darkness coming and bore it with stoic witticism, recalling God’s goodness over the years when he could see and remembering that some were born blind.

Dad’s best arguments hinged on his lack of formal education. He had taught himself to read and write and served as secretary to clan meetings and even town council meetings. After converting from years as a Jehovah’s Witness to Christianity, he even became the lay reader of the Church of God in Christ in Okeagi. But Dad argued that no forward-looking community installed a blind or an unlettered man as their king.

He went further to say he it would be shameful to go for a traditional council meeting in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital only to be asking for interpretation of proceedings from fellow rulers. This settled the argument. The right of first refusal was granted us, the children, but none of us thought Kingship to be the best way to serve God and the community. The right was waived.

His rejection of the Kingship bothered the head of our clan and second in command, Chief Isaac Dahomi who feared that the clan might lose out. When Stephen Dahomi, as he then was expressed interest, the Sha’aba was worried that although he is educated, he was not knowledgeable about the culture and traditions of the community. My Dad vowed that he would groom him. He kept that promise until the King joined his ancestors. Simeon Dahomi, one of the eldest surviving sons of King Dahomi rightly alluded to this in a video at my father’s lying in state.

Many Reasons For A Low-key Burial

For us the children, there were more compelling reasons apart from being unashamedly flat broke to avoid outward display of gratitude. Just because it is now fashionable for people to ignore the poor conditions of their parents when alive only to turn around and break the bank when they died does not make it morally right.

We believe that a community like ours, until lately absolutely neglected by the government that taxes its adults and give nothing in return should have community based development plans. Yes, with the creation of Mopamuro local government, communities have seen a few government presence, but conditions are far from ideal. Poverty is still exhibited in rusted roofs and wasted youths.

We were born in a ‘loaned’ house until our parents decided to build. Dad and Mum, especially Mum had a dream to see that home completed and so, they stayed both moved in and stayed in when it had neither doors nor windows and the ceiling was open. They lived in this shell for eight years while we all struggled to get an education. When people talk about poverty, we all could relate, but for me, poverty is not an abstract condition – poverty was our landlord. It regulated our lives and put breaks on our progress.

Writing so barefacedly about the background in which I was born and raised is not a badge of disgrace but a legacy that constantly reminds me to stay humble. Contrary to the stories I now hear, if we had the resources, we would have raised a palace to honour our parents. The fact that we kept trying to ameliorate the mud contraption is not to hide our supposed affluence but the level of our material wealth. We are wealthy in honour and that cannot be quantified. Borrowing money to show off would have been an accursed way of bidding our parents goodbye. We were not raised to live beyond our means, even if such forgery raised social status.

Five Times Married

Our mother, the late Maria Titilayo Asaju was the fifth woman to be married to our father in his lifetime. In a society that places so many premiums on childbearing, Dad’s greatest quest was to have children. At no time was my father a polygamist, but only Mum would break the jinx of barrenness. The first two wives died. The third was never consummated and the fourth whom I grew up to know left of her own volition, choosing to go and try her luck elsewhere.

As they say at home, Mum bent her knees nine times, and God kept eight of us alive to their last day. Mum died exactly eleven years less a week the day Dad breathed his last. In our culture, it was (and I hope remains so) that the prayer of every good husband is to be buried by his wife. Dad prayed that prayer, but God didn’t honour that request. Mum left before him. Although both our parents lived relatively beyond their fifties, Dad would have considered it worse than dancing on the graves of his wives if we painted the town red.

Another Reason For Low-Key Burial

The second reason is even more compelling. Dad was the eldest of four siblings – three of them were men and they had a sister. These were Pa Adeleye Asaju the next to my Dad and the first of the siblings to die. Reverend Jacob Asaju was next to him. He died ostensibly of an asthma attack while I was away on scholarship in London. The last of these, my aunt, Mama Abigail Owolaiye (nee Asaju) also died living their elder brother alive. It is not a thing of joy to outlive your younger siblings, but that is not a decision for us to make. In spite of sometimes lingering family squabbles, I do remember my closeness to my Uncles and Aunt. I would not subscribe to a culture that dances on their graves. If we ignored that culture, the same people who accused us of ‘burying our parents like chickens’ would have turned round to ask us where we kept shame, decency and decorum.

…to be concluded.

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