Letter to My Brother, Yemi Ogunbiyi


Lai Ogunbiyi

My Dear Yemi,

Let me start by again wishing you a very happy 70th birthday.

A lot has been written and said about you over the past few weeks. How kind, considerate, fair and generous you are and I must say that reading those articles made me immensely proud to be your brother. It felt especially good reading those words from personal friends and professional colleagues who have observed you up-close and have been chroniclers of you over the years. I know the writers captured the essence of you and I also know that you will not change because that’s just the person you grew up to become. Kudos and many happy returns again.

However, in reading these articles I noticed that aspects of your life that in retrospect gave both us so much fodder for laughter in later years were missing. Not a surprise because they never knew you in our early years. I thought you might enjoy walking through that memory lane with me.

 Now, you know quite well that except for our parents, I am the only person around who intimately knows certain things about you that very few people on earth know. Our first decade of life growing up in Kano and wading through our budding sibling relationship was quite packed full of innocent acts of mischief and petty truancy one would of course expect to see in a family home of four with two boys and no moderating influence of a female sibling. When I look back, I truly wonder how our parents (particularly Mama) managed to cope.

One of the virtues that were repeatedly mentioned across the board by the various writers over the past three weeks was that of how fair and considerate you are.

Well, your younger brother in those first ten years of his life didn’t quite recall it that way.

Being your younger sibling, I became by birth and tradition a ward of yours subject to “disciplinary” actions that ordinarily would be left to our parents. People who are younger siblings particularly “last borns” would know what I am talking about. I had “three parents” while growing up and that meant that “disciplinary actions” when I did something wrong including minor infractions were potentially multiplied by three but more often than not, it was implemented by a knock on the head by you. By this definition, “last borns” who had two older siblings, had four parents and also four times the “discipline”. I grew up those years wondering how last borns who had more than one or two older siblings survived. They will in all probability be left wondering why on earth they were born into their family…. so I thought.

When we were growing up in Kano you knocked me about so many times for minor infractions and whenever I protested the retort was a sharp “I old pass you” and that was the end of the matter. If I complained to our parents they blew it off as a minor issue and if you were present, the look on your face after their dismissive response to my complaints, and that accompanying chuckle told the whole story.…mischief!! This happened so many times and mostly out of sight of our parents that I began to accept it as normal. On one particular occasion when you were laying it on me, our Mom suddenly walked into room. She screamed at you with the exclamation “i cho ni ki gbue e?” (Do you want to kill him?). I felt vindicated for once but nothing happened to you and then I looked up and saw that look and chuckle on your face, it drove me crazy! I kept on wondering how you repeatedly got away with it but as I said before, I became resigned to the fate. I always wondered how I got through those years without a permanent brain injury!!

Now, there were occasions when you were on the receiving end of the “discipline” usually from Mama or when you were punished for some misdemeanors. Those occasions were like “mana” from heaven and of course the look and chuckle was on my face. But the chuckle on my face was short-lived because you never forgot it at my next “knock “ session, which came up within a few hours when we were alone!! I could never have guessed that today’s Yemi was hidden somewhere in the Yemi that I knew in those years.

If you remember, we used to eat our meals together. If it was eba, amala, fufu or whatever. Mama dished out the food in one or two bowls – one for the soup and the other for the eba or amala. Once it was dished out, we sat down together, dug in and ate. However, something mysterious always happened to the meat in the soup. It took me quite sometime to figure out what was happening. We would start the meal with about 4 pieces of meat in the soup bowl and you remember Mama always told us to save the meet for last during meals to make sure that we had consumed the supporting cast…eba or amala sufficiently. So we would start off with four pieces in the soup and towards the end of the meal, just when I looked forward to the joy of consuming my share of the meat, there will be only one piece of meat left in the soup! I would protest and you will say that Mama gave us only 2 pieces of meat and that the one left in the bowl of soup was mine. I was always left baffled wondering what was going on. If I complained, nobody appeared to take notice or really thought anything of it or thought it was a big deal since I got some meat. Then one afternoon, something quite revealing happened. Mama was in Onitsha on a trip. We sat down to start eating and unbeknownst to us Papa was hiding in the corner and watching us. Just as you pulled the disappearing meat act, Papa appeared out of no where and said “en, en, en, he just took one piece meat.” I was not even watching so I did not know what actually happened. It turned out that whenever we ate any meal with anything that had the consistency of eba, (swallow) you had a very fleet-fingered way of taking adequate amount eba, build a gorge right into the portion of eba with your thumb and at the next contact of that construct with the soup, the appropriately targeted piece of meat vanished into the eba as if into thin air. The planning and warped speed with which you went through the steps I just described could only be described simply as pure magic!!  People ask me how come I am thin and you full bodied? I tell them that I was suffering from the after effects of “fraternally induced malnourishment” brought about by deficiency due to intentional and sustained protein deprivation in my first decade in Kano!!!!

I also read about how impeccably dressed you always were and that regardless of the occasion, you were always a standout. That is not even in dispute. You were always impeccably dressed for the occasion. The one thing they all did not know was that you were always that way. You always worried about how you looked even in those days growing upon Kano.

I remember a particular incident that occurred in one of those years in Kano. You were about 10 years old. Mama had decided to take us along with her on one of her trips to Onitsha. On the eve of our departure, Mama said we should go and get our hair cut and trimmed at the barbershop two houses down the road from ours.  You kept on insisting that I should get mine cut first. I could not figure out what the point of going first was all about. So I decided to go first. I sat on the barber’s chair and he took the clippers to my hair and within a few seconds everything was gone. I went home and left you at the barber’s for your haircut.  When I got home Mama loved my haircut. I could not figure out why because there was nothing left except my clean-shaven head.  So I went about my business playing about the yard. After about twenty minutes Mama asked of you and I said you were still at the barber’s. So she said I should go and find out what was going on.  When I got there I saw you fuming, angry and standing outside the barber’s shop with your shirt pulled over your head. When I asked what was going on you said you had told the barber that you wanted a particular hair style that was in vogue then called the “draw back” and that he had agreed. However, after the hair cut, when you looked in the mirror your head was just like mine – clean-shaven.  So I stood with you for a little while and then said something to the effect of “let’s go home” but you refused and kept on walking around with your shirt pulled over your head. I could not understand the point of not coming home so, I went home. It took Mama coming over to the barber’s to beg you and convince you that your “hair style” was beautiful before you reluctantly took your shirt down and came home. When we got home and I looked at your head, I had that chuckling look on my face but it was not pronounced enough to elicit a smack from you! Talk about being particular about how one looked. I don’t think many kids our age could have known the difference between a “draw back” and a “draw front” but you always had this thing about how you looked!

Then there was the “man no good” incident. One thing that you were always petrified about was the sight of a syringe and needle as a prelude to getting injected with some medication. The sight of a needle and syringe was so overpowering that one could see the palpable fear all over your face.

Growing up in Sabongari Kano, we always joined Ibo-themed masquerade dancing troupes with the goal of strutting our stuff at Christmas and getting some appreciation tips form on lookers who were usually parents, friends and extended family members of the kids in the dancing troupe. We would go from house to house until we could go no more and at that point we would dance back to our club base, which is usually the house of the club leader.

Our troupe leader was a bit older and wiser than us. We really didn’t know his name but his street name was “Man no good” Practice sessions were held at his “yard”. To become a member of the dance troupe, it took a lot of commitment to attend practice sessions, learn the dance steps and songs and pay some dues/membership fee for, uniforms anklets made of cowrie and raffia skirts. As we got closer and closer to Christmas the practices got more intense and we got sharper with our dance steps. However, something unfortunate happened at one of the practice sessions.

We practiced bare feet and as we were perfecting our steps, you suddenly stopped and yelled out in pain while grabbing your bloodied foot.  A rusted nail had punched a hole into one of your feet and the bleeding was profuse.

That was the end of practice and “Man no good” walked us home while you were wailing in pain. When we got home, Mama calmly cleaned the bloodied foot and we went straight back to the local clinic/pharmacy. The pharmacist looked at the injury and pulled out the syringe and needle. Once you saw this, all hell broke loose. The pain and screams were by far louder than when you were actually injured! Then you kept on wailing and suddenly went into a never-ending, monotonous and repetitious chorus of “man no good ooo, man no good ooo…” This went on for quite some time and it got louder as the pharmacist and his technician were trying to hold you down. At that point Mama got tired of the chorus and just smacked you while hissing and muttering  “man on good ko, man no good ni”. You immediately stopped yelling and got the injection. The wound was dressed up and we went home. A few days later while you were recovering in bed, I came back from school and saw you in bed. I looked at you with that chuckle on my face and I muttered, “Man on good ko, man no good ni”. You were so angry but you could not stand up and chase after me. One small victory for the for all last-borns!!

You had this fatalistic sense of curiosity that always got us into trouble. Take the case of the cigarette butt. Our Dad was a chain cigarette smoker during this phase of our life. One of your jobs was to keep his dinning room clean. Inevitably, there would be an occasional cigarette butt left in the ashtray. One Saturday morning, while cleaning, you decided to grab the cigarette butt and stick it in your mouth. As fate would have it, just as you were putting the butt in your mouth and simulating smoking, Mama worked right into the room. I was outside in the yard cleaning and the next thing I heard was Mama’s loud shriek with her yelling in Ibo, “this boy, you are going to kill me, you are going to kill me” that was immediately followed by a couple of left and right wacks and you ran out of the room and into the yard.

Our eyes made direct contact and of course your eyes had fear written all over them but mine were typical of what you see in the eyes of someone with that mischievous chuckle.  Then finally there was the burukutu incident. We had a very well trafficked burukutu and pito watering hole a few houses away from our house towards the Walkers. You always wondered out loud to me what burukutu or pito tasted like. Then one Saturday afternoon you went straight to Mama and told her that both of us wanted to drink burukutu and pito. Now, two things were in our favor on that sunny Saturday. First, Mama had a few of her friends over and she was in a good and happy mood or so we thought. You sensed this and got me to join you in pestering Mama to let us taste burukutu and pito. After refusing to even acknowledge our pleas initially, she finally gave in. As soon as her friends left, she got someone to go buy the burukutu and pito and we plied ourselves with the alcoholic brew. We drank and drank, stumbled and fell several times in the yard and then we started throwing up violently. Eventually we fell asleep in the yard like logs.  Mama got us cleaned up and we went to bed.  We could not go to church the next day, as we felt quite sick. Towards the evening as we were slowly coming around and managed to eat a little bit, Mama, with that chuckle now on her face asked you if you still wanted more burukutu and pito. You shook your head in a “no” motion. She looked at me and I did the same thing. Now, I believe this incident was after the cigarette incident and in retrospect I think she acquiesced not because she was wanted us to become booze heads but because she wanted us to learn a thing or two about alcohol and boy did we learn it. I don’t know about you, but after this incident, I cannot recall ever tasting burukutu or pito again!

 Then there was the Elvis Presley suit thing. However, since this happened after you left for Ibadan Boys High School, I will save the story for when you turn a healthy, happy and springy 100!!!

The Yemi all those articles described emerged after you left home for Ibadan. The day you left was one of the saddest days of my short life at that point. I missed you a lot and it was awfully lonely. I think you missed me too because your letters home made a point of asking about me extensively with detailed questions about how and what I was doing.

 The next time I saw you, was when you came  home for holidays. I saw for the first time the Yemi that all these articles were referring to. You were dotting all over me, kind, generous protective and above all immensely caring – hallmarks that are still with you today after these many years. May the Good Lord give you many more years of healthy living and the joy to live those years to the fullest?

Many, many happy returns, my brother!!!!


––Dr. Lai Ogunbiyi sent in this Tribute from the U.S. to mark the 70th Birthday of his elder brother, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, the Chairman of the Governing Council of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.