Recognising the unfathomable inevitability of the ephemeral nature of mortals, the recent death of Mrs Florence Adedayo Adeniyi should not be a bolt out of the blue: she was an 87-year-old in the country where the life expectancy is still less than 60. But the death, when it eventually came on Tuesday, the 14th of August 2018, was still received with a measure of disbelief. Grandma, (as she was affectionately called) was engaged in a string of multi-dimensional activities and was so deeply involved in the lives of all those around her that we had all “sedated” the portions of our brains that considered the possibility of death. Indeed, her physical demise immediately jolted us all again to the transitory nature of life and the mutability of human existence.
Ordinarily, I am always very reluctant in writing Newspaper memorial tributes to people close to me. In fact, I have only done it once before, when my friend and colleague, and someone I rate as one of Africa’s most brilliant scholars of my generation, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, died in a car crash in Nairobi, Kenya, in May 2009. Tajudeen, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and I were contemporaries during our doctoral studies days in England in the 1980s. In a way, I guess my reticence in writing public tribute is my own way of putting myself in perpetual denial that I would never see these people again. Be that as it may, I find myself now writing this tribute for a woman I genuinely believe is a rare specimen of motherhood and someone whose grace, whose charm, whose zest for life and whose elegance and style all truly made her the affectionate matriarch of an outstanding Nigerian family.
Grandma Adeniyi was the wife of Emeritus Professor Adeoye Adeniyi, a renowned Professor of Paediatrics and the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, and the mother and grandmother of extremely delightful (and, I must also add, quite successful) set of children and grandchildren.
My entry “Visa” into the Adeniyi family was one of my closest friends, Dotun, who was one of Grandma’s children. Dotun and I spent the glorious days together at the Federal Government College, Ilorin in the 1970s and later in Sultan Bello Hall, University of Ibadan, where we were, in fact, roommates in our final year. But quite strangely, I did not get to know Mama during these periods. Our first physical meeting was around 1988 when she brought a message from Dotun to me in London. My impression of her was immediate and favourable and from 1988, I had come to know her as a friend, loved her as a mother, respected her as a moral icon, trusted her as a confidant and admired her as an individual.
Where really do I start talking about Grandma?
In a way, I think I can best describe her using a string of paradoxical epithets: generous, but frugal; frank but sympathetic; firm, but fair; radical, but strategic; deferential, but not obsequious, compassionate, but blunt, considerate, but constructively critical; open, but tactically cautious, and boisterously friendly, but not gregarious. She had the right dosages of everything that is needed for a successful and meaningful life and her immense personal strength, selflessness and unwavering faith brought realisation of personal ambitions to many people who were privileged to come into contact with her.
Grandma possessed numerous positive virtues such that are rare to have embellished in a single individual. I strongly believe that she was also an individual of such diversified ability that nature appears to make her an exception to the popular expression: “Jack of all trade and Master of None”. She combined good cake-baking with excellent culinary skills; effective class-room teaching with beautiful gardening; faultless dress-making with exceptional knitting. Her capacities were really all-encompassing.
Grandma Adeniyi’s show of love for her children and grandchildren would remain one of the most unforgettable things about her. Every day, without fail, she would phone round all the children (sometimes, several times in the course of the day) to find out how their day was going. Any visit to her would also involve her packing foodstuff for them to take to their various destinations. Birthdays of her children and their spouses and those of her grandchildren were all engrained in her brain and affectionate congratulatory messages, laced up with sincere prayers were guaranteed hall-marks of birthday celebrations. All her children’s friends whose birthdays she knew were also beneficiaries of this affectionate maternal attention.
Apart from her love for her husband, children and grandchildren, Grandma Adeniyi loved the Baptist Church. It couldn’t have been otherwise though, as was the daughter of a Baptist clergy! The interest in the Baptist church was a subject we both had in common. There was a day we spent several hours together discussing about the Baptist Churches in Ogbomosho, the town of her birth. I know a bit about the Baptist church in the town because my late father was the Headmaster of Ijeru Baptist Primary School, Ogbomosho from 1969 to 1972. Grandma’s knowledge of Baptist ministry in the town was truly encyclopaedic and it was during our discussion that I was able to locate the whereabouts of some of the many friends my family had during our Ogbomosho days. She served faithfully as Sunday School Superintendent at the Oritamefa Baptist Church and participated in various executive capacities in the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) at both Oritamefa Baptist Church, Ibadan and Emmanuel Baptist Church, Ilorin. Until her death Grandma was the Treasurer of the Egbe Ireti Ogo of Emmanuel Baptist Church. She attended the Haggai International Institute for Advanced Leadership Training, Singapore and completed Holy Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1991.
Grandma Adeniyi also loved her alma-mater, the Idi Aba Teacher Training College and she would always recall with nostalgia her wonderful days in that great college that produced several hundreds of teachers who moulded lives of children in the 1950s 60s and 70s decades. She was the first recipient of the Western Nigeria Education Scholarship Scheme to study in the United Kingdom in 1952 and attended the Rachel Macmillan College of Education, University of London as one of the first black women. Grandma Adeniyi spent several decades teaching at the Du Beuvoire Infant Nursery School, London, the Church of England Infant/Junior School, Sheffield, the University of Ibadan Staff School and as the foundation headmistress of both Orita Mefa Baptist School Ibadan and University of Ilorin Staff School. The several thousands of children she taught are all over the world today contributing their own quota to the development of humanity.
Grandma could be demonstratively defiant over what she did not like – regardless of the number of people who thought to the contrary. In a calm but clearly unambiguous tone, she makes her desires clear. It may take her some time before she made up her mind on issues, but once she did, she made her position known to all in an unmistakable way. Indeed, when it came to her dislikes, Grandma had no curiosity value at all – her objection was always emphatic and could be visible to the blind!
Far more than what one would expect from most people of her age, Grandma was quite “trendy” and up to date on fashion. She looked out for good fragrances. If I am not mistaken, I think one of her favourite fragrances was “Beautiful” by Estee Lauder. While she was ever so ready to compliment her grandchildren when they looked nice, she would draw their attention to aspects of their dressing that she thought were not “up to point”. Young men’s clothes that are too tight did not pass her endorsement, and it was not unusual of her to affectionately advise her grandchildren against it. “That outfit really suits you”, she would say, “but it would even have been nicer, if it was not so tight”. Also, in a subtle but unambiguous way, she would also caution her granddaughters against gaining weight – even though, sometimes, she complained about weight-gain when, in reality, there had been weight-loss! She was really alert, very conscious and a huge fun to be with. She was up-to-date on national events and had views on important issues. In her company, boredom was out of the question and lack of interesting things to discuss was never an issue.
I also recall that Grandma had what is called a ‘sweet-tooth’ and she really loved sweet things. Here again, she had an ally in me. Chocolate, Ice-cream, Cakes, Biscuits and all their other “associates” were things not far from Grandma’s immediate vicinities. There were usually strategically positioned within reach wherever she sat, and available for all to nibble at. For me, “stranded” cake or ice-cream in her vicinity was the take-off point for rounds of extensive discussions. She was a truly remarkable woman.
As I got into the writing this short piece, I really began to appreciate more the special role of mothers in the lives of their children. Having lost mine at the tender age of 6 years, this was an opportunity that eluded me. In any case, I tapped considerably from some of my friends who had theirs, and Grandma Adeniyi was one of those who I looked up to as one of the best specimens of everything great in a mother.
To Grandpa, Professor Adeoye Adeniyi, Grandma’s husband of 65 years, I say, Eku aseyinde; to Brother Dapo, Sister Ronke, Dotun and Bola, I say, E ku idele; To Sister Bolaji, Brother Femi, Sister Jummy and Brother Bunmi, I say E ku ara f’eraku; to all the grand-children, I say, E ku eyin Mama O; and to all those standing by them during this difficult time, I say, E ku aduroti. We all can take consolation in the fact that her life was rich; not only in its duration, but also in its donation. Finally, to Almighty God, I say: “Take good care of her, in your garden of rest, because when she was on earth, she was among the very best”.
––Abiodun Alao is Professor of African Studies and Programme Director of African Leadership Centre, School of Global Affairs, King’s College London.