My Mother, an Extraordinary Woman, Turns 75

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By Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode

Her Yoruba name, Ajoke, meaning ‘born to be pampered by all’, marked her out as a much loved, much wanted daughter. She was the third child of her mother, born after many years of secondary infertility, and the first child of her father who, despite several years of marriage to several women had also no child. The story is told of how my young grandmother, Sariyu Kekere Ekun, bold and courageous, perhaps a function of her royal lineage, was told that she could only find another child if she went far. She followed her dreams all the way from Southwest Nigeria to the ancient city of Kano, where she met my grandfather, the grandson of a Gambian who had found his destiny also following the trading route along the West African coast to Nigeria. Ajoke’s great grandfather’s journey had taken him through the Southwest where he had married a Yoruba woman, whose son then continued the journey, inland all the way to the North, to the village of Chalawa also in Kano State, where he married a beautiful Fulani maiden, who then gave birth to my grandfather, Kadiri Lanval.

Afsat, her other name, was after Prophet Muhammed’s fourth wife Hafsa Bint Umar, righteous, noble and sometimes obstinate which captures the tough and intransigent side of my mother, characteristics which sometimes put her and I on a collision course, but in those characteristics are also strength, courage, wisdom and tenacity; attributes that have determined how she has propelled my father’s legacy and define who her children are today. My mother overcame the tragedy of the loss of her husband when she was 30 and singlehandedly brought us up to be successful, in this rather patriarchal society. A society that is often very unsympathetic and unkind to widows.

A lot of what I am today is a reflection of my mother’ resolve and commitment; I am the first girl in my father’s direct lineage not to be a child bride. Until I was born all of my father’s siblings and most of his cousins were married at 12 and 13. My father dreamt of educating his girls, because he was aware of the intense suffering that accompanied the loss of a husband to a wife that had no skills or education to fall back on. After his death in a failed coup attempt, my mother did all she could to make that dream a reality. Like her mother before her – who, even though with no formal trading, was a very successful business woman with a fleet of fishing boats along the coast hiring foreign (Beninois and Togolese fishermen) – my mother began trading in wholesale laces when I was a child, one of the pioneers of what became in the 70s and 80s a lucrative import business. She was innovative and she challenged the status quo, owning the largest and very successful retail jewellery store in Nigeria. In later years she had extensive real estate projects. I watched her build homes herself. She taught me that there were no barriers for women, unless we want them.

When times became tough in the 1980’s, she soldiered on. She was no stranger to surviving adversity. Her childhood had been tough. My mother had to navigate the challenges of an almost Cinderella type upbringing of many step mothers, going from being extremely loved to being extremely poorly treated depending upon which woman was in her father’s house. Temporary respite only came when she went to live with her grandmother in Chalawa and full respite, after she married my father. When I asked her how she managed such a challenging childhood, she would say to me with no bitterness, “each and everyone of them loved me as best as they could”. During those really tough times I remember accompanying her to Hatton Gardens, in London, which had a thriving pawn section to sell her jewellery for the money needed to pay our school fees. That year, it was for my first masters, in public international law from Kings College, University of London, with the same proceeds she paid for my sister’s final year in accounting from the University of Cardiff and my youngest sister’s first year in economics at University College, London.

Her one regret, my mother often tells me, is that despite coming from such a distinguished family, and being born to such an educated father, who was one of Nigeria’s first indigenous engineers, she never acquired a degree. She had wanted to study dentistry and her father had insisted on law, but she was then caught in the politics of his marriage with another wife at the time when she was to have been sent to university and her dreams were subsumed in all their drama, such that her father eventually decided that he wasn’t paying for any degree. Thus, she had no choice but to self-fund, training as a dental therapist at the Lagos dental school. However she took the best of the best and the best of the worst in her life and became extremely accomplished.

With no degree in botany, biology or horticulture, my mother is one of Africa’s most renowned conservationists. She established and runs Nigeria’s only two botanical gardens in Lagos and Abuja, where many plants going into extinction are conserved. For the last 30 years, she has travelled the world to find and import Nigeria’s endangered plants as seeds with the aim to conserve, propagate and disseminate forgotten indigenous plants. She organizes plant expeditions to remote villages in Nigeria and has the largest private collection of plants in Nigeria, with more than 2,000 trees and shrubs, and 400 specie of palm growing in her Abuja botanical garden.

She founded the green belt movement in Nigeria and continues to expound the importance of exploring the commercial value of our indigenous plants.

My mother’s passion does not stop with environmental preservation. She is passionate about education for all and has spent her life committed to serving humanity. From a very young age she taught us how important it is to support those in need and never to walk away from anyone in hardship. My mother is a bridge builder; across tribes, generations and socio-economic divisions. My mother survived the assassination of my father and the murder of my brother, and rather than wallowing in her loss, my mother has become an epitome of dignity, grace, and equanimity.

On the softer side, my mother is an avid reader, writer and linguist. Her greatest talent till today yet undiscovered though, is her exceptional voice.

So with my siblings and I, our spouses and children I ask you all, on behalf of my father who cannot be here today, to toast with us, his pillar of strength, his beautiful “darling”, which is what he called her through out their life together in private and in public; my mother, Ajoke Murtala-Muhammed, who turned 75 years this week on May 23rd, 2016.

– Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode is the daughter of late Head of State General Murtala Muhammed.