By Ola Balogun.
On August 1st 2015, I became seventy years old, having been born on the 1st of August 1945, towards the end of the Second World War. Exactly five days after I came into earthly existence, a U.S. B29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb ever to be used in military combat on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, destroying almost five square miles of the city’s land mass and killing over 70,000 human beings instantaneously in a horrible sequence of explosive blasts, searing firestorms and deadly radioactive clouds… Most inappropriately, the atomic bomb that virtually obliterated the city of Hiroshima, setting the stage for the end of the Second World War, was code named “Little boy”…
Thus, I was born in the midst of portentous events about which I knew little at the time as a little boy growing up in a town in the then Nigeria’s Eastern region named Aba (Aba Ngwain full), which is now part of what is known as Abia State.
However, in spite of the horrible events that had been going on for several years in many parts of the world, spreading in their wake a hitherto unimaginable trail of human misery and suffering on a scale never before experienced by humanity, it was as if I had won a major lottery prize on the day I was born, because I was born into the hands of a couple of wonderful and very loving folks who gave me an extraordinarily beautiful childhood and set the stage admirably for everything I was later to become in life.
Looking back now at the entirety of my life experience at the age of seventy, having travelled to a variety of lands and countries and encountered a very large number of human beings of different races, ethnic groups and faiths, I can genuinely testify (but perhaps I may be prejudiced!) that I have never once encountered any individuals whom I can compare to my late parents in terms of honesty, integrity, knowledge, humane and generous outlook, as well as a truly uncanny ability to give and receive love.
Whichever way I consider matters, I have to testify that I was extraordinarily lucky to have been born into the hands of two such wonderful folks. To the end of my days, I will continue to give thanks for having benefitted from this remarkable circumstance at birth. If my parents were to be still alive, I would go down on my knees in front of them every morning to thank them unreservedly for all the wonderful gifts I received from them during my childhood and all through my adult life, even when their presence in my life was no longer of a physical nature.
My father, the late Barrister Olatunde Olarewaju‘Balogun’ (our real family name is actually Omoolaiyole or Omolaiyole for short), was descended from an illustrious line of generals who led the armies of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo to war in past centuries, hence the pseudo name ‘Balogun’ which actually means supreme war commander in the Yoruba language.
I later discovered by reading Dr. Johnson’s “History of the Yorubas” that on my father’s side, our oriki (a word that can roughly translated as “personal power incantation” in English), which is : “Omo moro ma so, ma ja” is that of the Bashorun line of nobles in the old Oyo kingdom, an indication that my paternal ancestors were close collaborators and confidantes of successive rulers of the Oyo kingdom, probably beginning from the era of Alafin Shango, who was deified after his death…I have since come to believe that this may be the reason why, out of all the Yoruba divinities, I have always felt a strong predilection for Shango!
My father (who might have had a premonition that he would pass away while I was still relatively young) never tired of recounting our family history to me during my childhood, interrogating me frequently at each point in time in order to make sure that everything he told me sank indelibly into my memory. Thus in terms of early education, I was doubly privileged. On the one hand, I was brought up in a house that was full of books and I was taught how to read and write at home at about the age of three, long before I ever set foot in primary school.
At the same time, my father took care to lecture my younger sister and I ceaselessly on the history and culture of the Yoruba-speaking ethnic group, to which we proudly belong, telling us many folk tales and stories and singing Yoruba songs to us, as well as narrating the full history of our ancestors to us. Thus, before I was even five years old, I had already learnt to be extremely proud of my heritage as a descendant of Oduduwa, the original ancestor from whom the Yoruba speaking peoples are descended.
Here, a word of explanation may be necessary for the benefit of those who may not be aware that the term Yoruba actually represents a language and not an ethnic group, exactly in the same way as Igbo or Hausa are languages, not ethnic groups. Therefore, just as one finds groups as diverse as Owerri, Nnewi, Onitsha, Ngwa, Abriba etc among the igbo-speaking peoples, the Yoruba speaking peoples include a wide diversity of peoples, ranging from the Oyo to Ijebu, Ekiti, Ondo,Ijesha etc.
What brings them all together is their shared origin that traces their ancestry from a common progenitor or divinity named Oduduwa, as well as the use of a shared language that has many different dialects. Thus, one is an “Omo Oduduwa” by dint of genes and blood heritage, which is what modern science has named DNA.
From my father’s narration of our family history, I learnt that my great great great grandfather (I am not sure how many generations removed), belonged to the category of generals known as Esho in old Oyo, who were reputed to possess near magical prowess in war, and who were strictly forbidden to retreat from the battlefront or allow themselves to be wounded on the back, on pain of being instantly put to death by their own side if they dared to return to Oyo in the wake of such calamity.
It so happened that this particular ancestor of mine was sent to lead a contingent of Oyo solidiers to combat the Abomey-based Dahomean army in a region located in what is now the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic. Most unfortunately, my ancestor failed to triumph, and because he could not return to Oyo (where he would have been faced with the prospect of being put to death), he decided to remain in Badagry (which was a small village at the time) in the hope of regrouping his shattered forces and leading them once more into battle after a while, a prospect that however never seems to have materialized.
Therefore, as the years went by, my ancestor married a local princess and settled down to a privileged existence in Badagry, where the family compound he built came to be know as “ile eleshin” (i.e. the horse rider’s compound), due to the fact that he was the first person to have entered Badagry riding on horse back. It was thus that it eventually came to pass that my late father was born in the ile eleshin compound to a muslim father named Yesufu, who, at the start of the colonial era, took the name ‘Balogun’ (actually the title of our ancestors as leaders of soldiers in times of war) as a convenient surname, since our real family name was probably considered too long and too complicated to be easily pronounced by the British and their local Nigeria agents, who ranged from catechists and clergymen to messengers, clerks and lowly graded commercial employees.
My father’s first names (Olatunde, Olarewaju), both mean in rough translation ‘honour draws closer‘, which really signified that he was perceived at birth as a child who would bring honour to his family. This indeed came to pass, because he managed to save enough money while working as a school Head Master in Lagos and Badagry before the advent of the Second World War to sponsor himself to London to read law, qualifying as a barrister at law of the British Inner Temple in the midst of the war in 1942, at which time he returned to Nigeria to set up a law practice, having become the very first indigene of Badagry to become a lawyer, which was a very prestigious achievement in those days.
My own first name Olatunbosun literally means“honour draws even closer”, signifying that it was anticipated that I would eventually add more honour and glory to the achievements of my father and his forbears. However, I will have to leave it to posterity to judge whether I have faithfully accomplished my the mission assigned to me at birth!
My late dearly beloved mother, Epiphania Ibironke Balogun (née Ajayi), happens to have been the most beautiful and most elegant woman I have ever known. I am not at all ashamed to confess that she was the first and the very best girl friend and lover I have had in the course of my tumultuous existence. Why I can readily say so is that it is my mother who taught me how to love. All through her life, my mother never ceased to lavish oceans of love on my sister and I as children, caring ceaselessly for all our needs (not wants!), and ever ready to do battle, even to the point of giving up her own life, with anyone who as much as looked like wanting to harm a single hair on our young heads.
Alas! I have never found any woman that was as patient with me, as sensitive to all my moods and as caring as my late mother, even though I have spent all my adult years in quest of another copy of the kind of ideal woman that I perceived and lovedin my mother. Strangely enough, while reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography many years later, I came across a passage that resonated very powerfully in me: Madiba wrote that the love that he and his mother experienced for each other never needed to be expressed in words, because it was as obvious and as omnipresent as the sun or the moon in the sky.
According to his recollections, they simply had to walk together or sit in the same room or even simply think about each other for the love that bound them to resonate powerfully in each of them…
Could the omnipotent ties that bind a little boy to acaring mother ever be better described? In any case, I was one such little boy, and my mother was one such mother!
In terms of her roots, my mother had a very distinguished pedigree. Her grandfather was what was known at the time as a ‘Brazilian returnee’ who had decided to return to the land of his ancestors with his two little daughters (my grandmother and my grand aunt) after slavery was officially abolished in Brazil towards the end of the nineteenth century. He succeeded in tracing his family roots to a forbear from Offa (near present day Ilorin), who had been captured in battle during the era of Yoruba civil wars and transported to Brazil as a slave to toil on sugar plantations and gold mines.
My maternal great grandfather had prepared carefully for his return to what is now known as Nigeria, working tirelessly to purchase his personal freedom by dint of hard work in an era when slavery still prevailed in Brazil, and subsequently becoming a successful trader who thrived by importing and selling merchandise from Africa. Alas! This remarkable hero never lived to actually set foot in Africa following all his efforts. Most unfortunately, he expired on board ship just before the ship that was bringing him back to his ancestral homeland docked in Lagos, leaving his two infant daughters to be subsequently brought up by kind relatives. Thus, my mother was born and raised in the ‘aguda’ (Brazilian returnee) community in Lagos (at Branco street, precisely), ‘aguda’ being at that time an interchangeable term for Roman Catholic and Brazilian returnee descendant.
As a result of her origins, my mother was a very devout Roman Catholic all her life, and she did her best (poor soul!) to pass on this legacy to me. She had me baptised under the name ‘Augustus’ (a name I fiercely disliked!), and arranged for me to rise to the distinguished rank of altar boy in the Roman Catholic faith, diligently assisting the reverend fathers while they served mass in the Roman Catholic church in Aba. Alas however, I was too stubborn and independent-minded to remain for long an adherent of the Roman Catholic faith, and I duly parted company with the church and all its pomp and mysterious ceremonies in early adolescence, when I realized that I lacked the unquestioning faith that it takes to belong to any organized religion. In retrospect, I do hope that my dear mother will have found it feasible to forgive me for this singular act of flagrant disobedience! (My sister and I were brought up to obey our parents completely and unquestioningly in all circumstances).
Looking back now, I can see that I had no choice but to disobey her in the matter of religious faith, because her teachings in this field conflicted with a principle that both of our parents also instilled in us from early childhood, which was that we should always examine every issue rationally and follow the dictates of logical analysis and conscience, no matter what the opinion or outlook of numerous other people might be on that particular subject. Thus, since I was never able to subscribe to the teachings of religion blindly, I was eventually forced to fall out of step with the holy Roman church for good at the early age of thirteen or fourteen, by which time I had become the rebellious, highly inquisitive and thoroughly independent-minded rascal that I was to remain all my life. (I left secondary school with the reputation of having read virtually all the books in the King’s College Library!) Fortunately however, my sister Yinka has remained a staunch Roman Catholic to this very day, so perhaps my sins are partly redeemed.
The other interesting and lucky circumstance about my childhood was that my parents were both very liberal and thoroughly detribalized folks, with a result that my sister and I, along with three of our cousins, were brought up in a household where all the children (including the children of my parents’ domestic servants and sundry other adopted children) were brought up together, wearing the same clothes and attending the same primary school with other urchins of our age. We thus grew up intermingling freely with our igbo-speaking comrades and playmates, with the result that igbo and pidgin were the first languages that I learnt to speak fluently, long before I was actually able to express myself in my own mother tongue Yoruba.
My background as a child who grew up speaking three different languages in addition to English perhaps explains the predilection that I have had for learning new languages all my life, going on in later years to achieve a high degree of fluency in French, as well as a working knowledge of Spanish and Italian, not to speak of a smattering of Hausa and Bambara. It is also a possible outcome of this background that my most recent project happens to have taken the form of a language institute for teaching various languages, which I hope will eventually grow into a world wide structure for teaching major African languages in key cities all over the world if I am privileged to live long enough to nurse it to a sustainable stage.
In spite of having launched this ambitious project at a stage of my life when I was virtually destitute, having been forced to relocate to Cotonou in Benin Republic a few months ago to begin a fresh life in the wake of a disastrous fire incident that destroyed my residence in Lagos along with virtually all my earthly belongings, I have been able to thrive and nurture my new project, rediscovering afresh as I go along that faith and perseverance are often more important than actually availability of funds in ensuring the growth of ambitious and forward-looking projects.
Curiously, I find in retrospect that my early childhood had prepared me remarkably well for all the vicissitudes and turbulence that I would later encounter in my life. In effect, having benefitted at such a tender age from the wonderful generosity and munificence of my parents, I have never been tempted to envy anyone else for their riches or semblance of riches, never have I have ever been prone to lament when I have had to traverse lean and difficult times, given the fact that I have already had all the riches any human being can reasonably aspire to in my childhood, thanks to my wonderful parents, who also taught me to always be contended with whatever I am able to have at any given point in time.
Quite amazingly, my parents had such a liberal outlook that when we were born, my father insisted that my sister and I be given igbo names by one of his close ngwa friends in Aba (Chief Ubani Ukoma) in addition to our Yoruba names. I was thus named Chukwumeka, while my sister was named Ngozichukwu, names that we both bear proudly to this very day.
In addition, my parents were so liberal that when I expressed interest in participating in a local igbo children’s masquerade known as ulaga, they did not hesitate to buy all the required paraphernalia for me. They also actively encouraged me to go out dancing and singing with my very own group of urchins whenever it was time for ulaga masquerades to roam about the streets of Aba at Christmas and Easter, entertaining passers by and families whom we visited at home.
Perhaps it is partly to this circumstance that I owe my early love of music and dance, culminating in the momentous decision to form my own highlife-oriented musical group known as IROKO fifteen years ago, a fifteen piece band that I have succeeded in funding single-handedly all these years, singing and dancing happily as I gradually prepare to exit the stage of life.
I cannot end this piece without venturing some thoughts about my personal experience of life, as the time draws near for the final summing up (to quote indirectly from Somerset Maugham, one of my father’s favourite authors). In truth, the life I have led over the past seventy years has been too varied, too tumultuous and too adventure-filled to be easily recounted within the scope of a newspaper or magazine article. I have never managed to become a rich man (but then, I have never cared about money!), but I am convinced that I have led a rich and highly fulfilling existence which I would never exchange for all the gold in the world. Even if I were to be born and reborn a thousand times over, I would never want to have a different existence than the one that I have been fortunate enough to have in this present coming!
Obviously, like everyone else, I have had my own share of highs and lows. Along with a remarkable degree of success in certain endeavours, I have also faced an unlimited number of set backs, even to the point where I actively envisaged putting an end to my own life at one particular moment of great emotional distress. I have loved and been loved by a variety of women, discovering in the process (as the saying goes) that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I have known triumph and defeat in my endeavours, and have eventually learnt to take all that life has been able to throw at me, whether good or bad, with equal equanimity and calm.
At the end of the day therefore, I am firmly convincedthat when I finally exit this earthly existence, I will leave with no regrets, with my head held high, anxious and impatient to be reunited in some form or other with my dearly beloved parents, who have remained at the centre of my life in thought and deed for all the years and decades I have spent on earth. And this will surely come to pass eventually, because I have arrived at the conclusion, both through direct observation and deep meditation, that individual existence is akin to a stream or a river that begins in a modest and unsong trickle in some obscure corner or the other at the moment of our birth, gathering momentum as we grow older, passing through a variety of landscapes that we hardly have time to glimpse and enjoy as we are swept forward in the course of our onward motion, before finally pouring in a rush or flowing at a leisurely pace into a larger body of water that may happen to be a sea or a lake, with which the original stream or river merges seemlessly. And what could that large body of water (which is actually a miniature version of the entire universe) be but a recipient into which all our ancestors and forbears have already merged with?
To the younger ones, I make bold to say that the only thought I would wish to share as I cross the threshold of seven decades of existence is that life is a beautiful adventure that deserves to be lived and enjoyed on its own terms, and that the siren calls of overweening ambition and greed for material wealth are nothing but misleading signposts on the road to eternal perdition.
* Dr. Ola Balogun is a film maker, author and musician who has both enjoyed life and suffered immensely in the course of a very varied existence, experiencing adventures that have enabled him to travel to a wide variety of lands in Africa, Europe, North and South America, the West Indies and Asia, and who remains a proud and unrepentant disciple of Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and of Patrice Emery Lumumba, scornful to the last of the abundant variety of political dwarfs, rogues and ne’er do wells who have desecrated the sacred soil of the African fatherland by presuming to hold political office in post-colonial African countries, wreaking untold damage on the future of countless generations of Africans yet unborn.