My Mother, My Friend

09 Apr 2013

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Edifying Elucidations By Okey Ikechukwu. Email,

I recall an event that occurred over 40 years ago in Umuahia. It was one of those rare occasions when the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) took the light for one or two hours. The ECN had announced an impending power outage earlier in the day and I was eating in the parlour when Mama came in to ask that she take the lamp for a moment in order to pick up something from the bedroom. I protested that the parlour would then become dark or at least a little less bright. She laughed and asked whether I would not see my mouth if she took the light for a mere moment. I assured her that I would not see my mouth at all in the dark. I then scooped a spoonful of the rice and took it towards the side of my face (instead of my mouth) for her to see what would happen if she took the light away. She laughed even more and then left the light for me. It was many years later that I found myself wondering why she did not ask how I could already not see my mouth even before she had not removed the light.

I also recall how I met her arguing with my sister who wanted to eat the Avocado pear she kept for me. This was in the 90s, when I still was a lecturer at the University of Lagos. It was an unplanned visit and I did not tell anyone I was coming. But mama made a sumptuous meal for me and kept some Avocado pear, which she knew I liked a lot. As I walked in, my sister just stared at me dumbfounded, while Mama smiled and said to Uju, ‘what did I tell you? Uju explained how she dismissed Mama’s announcement, early in the morning, that she felt I would be home later in the day and how everyone seemed to dismiss her ‘reckless’ optimism. Well, there had been similar incidents in the past, when she would call at the very moment all is not well and say ‘I have a feeling that you are not quite yourself and you don’t want to tell me because you don’t want me to worry’.

Her life with Bigman was an interesting and curious one and the story cannot be told without bringing in her father, my maternal grandfather. He was a hero, being the greatest wrestler of his era across the South-east nearly 200 years ago. His exploits in other lands earned him the challenge of the then well-known and dreaded great wrestler from Awkuzu in the present Anambra State. He accepted the challenge and also accepted to go to Awkuzu for the contest. He defeated his challenger and the people of the town named him after their most powerful and dreaded deity, Akose. Though a devout Christian and one of the most stubborn earliest converts, the man bore this name as a title until his death in the early 80s.

It was when Jeremiah Okoye’s second daughter became ripe for marriage that Bigman came into the picture. She would not accept any of the men who came. Like her mother, she was of almost ethereal beauty and was reported to be of calm, unpretentious personal dignity. But she was also a great athlete in the school’s female handball team, which she captained. Her father doted on her. So did her eldest brother, who was the first headmaster in the town. While the father was worried that her daughter was not impressed by the big men with robust purse and temperament who came for her hand, her elder brother was concerned that her sister would need more than an average man for a husband. Both men understood her nature and feared that she may not easily find joy in the common pleasures of life.

Then yet another suitor came with his people. After they left, Helen Okoye went and told her father that the suitor was her husband. She had seen him and he was shown to her in her dream as her husband. The suitor was Bigman, my father, who was on the verge of giving up on marriage for want of a woman he would be glad to live with as his wife. His earlier visits to all sorts of places brought him much distress, especially when he went with his car and driver. He confessed to his sister, Caroline, who was living with him that matters were getting out of hand. His relationship with this sister of his was also another matter, because he stood against a family plan to give the pretty woman away in marriage and made sure she was the first woman to smash the Cambridge examinations in the town. She later got married to the first class London trained lawyer, Ben Nwazojie, who rose to become the Federal Director of Public Prosecution (FDPP). But back to the story of Bigman and his wife.

It was actually Bigman’s sister, Aunty Caro, who told him about one of her seniors when she was in school years back. She claimed that the lady in question was ‘not like the other girls’ and that she liked her from a distance, but from a mass. Unlike during his previous quests, he went for Mama without his car. The rest, as they say, is history. What is however not history is the fact that I live today with the evidence that Mama was not just a mother but, more importantly, she was a woman. This observation is based on the understanding that womanhood and motherhood are two different things. A rat that gives birth is a mother; it is the same for a hippo, an earthworm and an Australian porcupine. But it is not the same for a human being. I agree with those who say that the man is the head of the home, but I add from experience that unless there is a brain inside that head called a woman, there shall be a house but not a home. I hear it said nowadays that what a man can do, a woman can do better and I ask why a woman would diminish herself by trying to compete with the man - if she truly knows herself.

As a seamstress and proprietress of a vocational school for over 30 years, Mama was always more concerned about ‘what’ people became as human beings who must live their lives in such a way that they would always please God. Newly married girls often came to live with us, to be trained by her. There was the well-known and really wild mad man, Chima Onyeara, (Chiman the mad one) in Umuahia who often came to be fed by her. As a little boy, I recall that the wild fellow would come to stand in front of her ‘Domestic Science School’ where she taught everything from cake making, sewing of wedding gowns and all else. Mama’s trainees would all be on edge, but Mama will calmly walk out with his plate of food and give it to him. The wild man would gobble up the food and, after eating, throw the plate as far away as possible and then walk away. When, one day, I asked her why she would bother to feed a mad man, she told me that he did not make himself mad. She also said that Chima’s mother would have fed her if she saw him.

This was totally incomprehensible to me. How could Mama say that a mad man has a mother? I duly informed her that she was wrong on the matter. We children were the ones who had fathers and mothers not adults; and certainly not mad men. She should not misinform herself. Then she showed me that people were not all of the same size and age, explaining that people grew bigger with time. But that did not explain how a mad man could have a mother. If such a big person should have a mother I concluded that his mother must be bigger than a house. When I asked why somebody would just go and give birth to a mad man instead of a child, or a human being, Mama said that a mad man is a human being and that he was once a child but grew up and then something bad happened to him. With that explanation I felt I had had it. I am being told that a mad man has a mother when we all know that it is not true!!!

Mama distinguished between good and bad based solely on whether it is a sin or not. “I have defeated the devil and his evil plans”, was the shield with which she armed her children against committing any sin. She taught us that rather than accept the opportunity for sin which is often offered by revenge, quarrels, etc., one should say the above sentence and walk away; as the refusal to sin would amount to aborting the devils plan to make your soul darker. There was, of course, the disconcerting realisation as I grew up that this was often the only one with this mantra, but I learnt the essential lessons.

Mama became an Oblate of St. Benedict later in her life. This is an Order of the Catholic Church sworn to a life dedicated to rejection of ostentation and the service of humanity; maintaining a healthy balance between needs and the real needs and the excesses that get people into trouble. Until her death last month, she was still shepherding the Mary League and managing young maidens in her parish. She still maintained her links with the Block rosary Crusade, which she and the late Mrs. Onubogu strove and gave root in Umuahia in 1971. This is in addition to several other activities that were somewhat unorthodox, in the sense that she worked for spirituality and would sometimes say ‘leave what the people are saying in the church because they will lead you astray if you forget that Jesus Christ is the issue and not the rules of the many societies of the church’.

Like her husband, Bigman, Nwyunye Bigman left this world fulfilled. Like him, she wrote her life story before she left. While her husband’s was typed, hers was in long hand. Like her husband, too, she left on the 24th day of the month – though not the same month. As we bury her remains this week, we wish her better and brighter experiences in the kingdom of God. Mama was a mother, a real woman.

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