Friday, February 3, 2017 3:40 pm
Why did Chief Obafemi Awolowo describe HID, his wife, as a jewel of inestimable value? Here are the reasons
By Wale Adebanwi
The Countenance of Prosperity…
IBADAN IN THE LATE 1930s when Hannah moved there to begin a new life with her husband was an effervescent city. It was an old war-camp turned city-state which became a trado-modern city. It was later to be described in “five mercurial lines” by one of Africa’s pre-eminent poets, John Pepper Clark, ” as a “running splash of rust/and gold – flung and scattered/among seven hills like broken/china in the sun.” In the 1930s, the “running splash of rust/and gold” was in the throes of defining what would be its modern identity. It was the city to which Obafemi brought Hannah to experience “the beautiful soothing countenance of Prosperity”….
Hannah explained to her mother that her husband had requested that he wanted her to be a full-time “housewife” and they had both agreed on this. She wasn’t initially happy about the arrangement herself. When her husband first told her a few months after marriage that he would not want her to “trade” or do any work, she was very sad. It was not only that she would be wasting her skills, she had become used to earning money on her own and not depending on anyone, including her father; therefore, this new regime would mean total financial dependence on her husband. More important, she was already being put under some social pressure because she was yet to conceive. In that era in Yorubaland, perhaps the most important prayer for the newly wed is “eyin iyawo o ni m’eni,” which was a prayer for fruitfulness of the womb.
Hannah’s situation was therefore not made better by what some gossips had started to describe as infertility. She was not tending a pregnancy or taking care of a child. Yet, she wasn’t employed in any way. It was an untenable position for a young married woman in late 1930s Nigeria. Yet, as pledged, she had to abide by the wishes of her husband.
She visited Ikenne regularly and therefore was open to being constantly taunted alternatively by those who advised her against marrying the rascal and those who advised Obafemi not to marry an abiku.
However, regarding the issue of whether his wife should work, the transporter and produce-buyer was convinced that, as in the tradition of his people, it was his exclusive responsibility to take care of his wife. At that point, he could not imagine that it was possible for his wife to combine the administration of the home front with commerce. He would learn later that she could do so brilliantly and still support him in his proposed political life.
“He wanted two things – politics and law,” Hannah, on the eve of her seventieth birthday, justified her decision to obey her husband’s wishes in the early years of their matrimony. “When I married him, he was in business – transport and produce buying. But he had always said, ‘One day I want to be a frontline politician. One day I want to be one of the first class lawyers in this country.’ So, I knew what he wanted, and I wanted him to be what he wanted to be.”
However, unknown to Obafemi’s cousin who was mocking Hannah for not conceiving by mid-1938, she was already pregnant, even though it was not visible yet. Still, when many who had been scornful of her “inability to conceive” eventually saw the evidence of pregnancy, they didn’t believe it. “When I was pregnant with Segun,” Hannah recalls, “they said it was not pregnancy, that there was no baby in my tummy….”
Contrary to the doubts, on January 20, 1939, the Awolowos welcomed their first child, a son. He was named Olusegun, a telling name, the full meaning of which was Oluwasegun (God is victorious). It was a strong response to their traducers….
With the moral support of Hannah, by the close of 1942, Obafemi Awolowo was free of all the debts which had “enthralled and cramped” him and his wife and children. Now “financially liberated,” the couple began a new life in which the head of the home was able to re-lunch his delayed attempt to travel to England to study for law. They had torn the mask, therefore, the “beautiful soothing countenance of Prosperity” was in the horizon. But, as Obafemi acknowledged, Hannah’s support was critical to this recovery. He confessed that “With my wife on my side, it has been possible for us to weather all financial storms. Because of her charm, humility, generosity and ever-ready sympathy and helpfulness for others in distress, she is beloved and respected by all our friends and acquaintances….”
Since he read Robert G. Ingersoll’s collection of essays in Lagos around 1931, Obafemi had started raising doubts vehemently about “the legends and fictions which the Israelites and their successors in dogma have woven round” God. In all this period, Hannah remained a steadfast Christian. As Awolowo later wrote, “Throughout the period of my oscillation between agnosticism and Christianity, my wife stood immovably for the latter. However, he eventually returned to Christianity. Her constant admonitions and steadfastness did more than anything else to restrain me from going beyond the point of no return….”
With his eyes focused on a future political life before he left Nigeria in 1944 to study in England, Obafemi clearly leveraged his wife’s royal background in Ikenne and Ofin (Sagamu). Given that she belonged to the Liyangu family, one of the three ruling houses that could access the Akarigbo throne, and the Obara family, also one of the three ruling families of the Alakenne throne, her heredity held the potentials for a significant social and political life for her husband. What emerged later from this background has been described by Nolte as “a gendered approach to politics” which involved “a division of labour between Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo in Ikenne and Remo,” one in which “Awolowo himself acted officially in the public sphere while his wife provided access to and mobilised non-public political resources.” It can be argued that though this approach was without doubt gendered, it was remarkably predicated as much on Hannah’s noble birth as well as her personal skills.
The leveraging of familial and communal connections that eventually became the socio-political basis for Awolowo’s emergence in local politics were also undeniably buoyed by the rare combination of certain traits in the couple – who were both succinctly described by Yomi Mamora as “two of a kind.” Obafemi’s methodical, comprehensive and thoughtful planning and mobilization of resources blended with Hannah’s calculated, determined, meticulous and patient shaping and projection of social capital in the struggle for influence and prestige. She also has a matchless capacity for recollection and detail, an intrinsic facility for identifying and understanding the social order of things and a unique aptitude for tracking loyalty and treachery. Therefore, within the first five years of their matrimony, it was already evident that theirs was a perfect harmony that blended. For a few months short of fifty years, they were to enjoy a mutuality that melded so well as to become storied….
Unknown to Obafemi, Hannah’s mind was already working on what she would do to make money while he was away in England. She and three (soon to be four) kids were not going to depend on a man who would be struggling with his studies in the UK for subsistence in Nigeria. She was going to exhibit her entrepreneurial skills while he was gone. She will be so successful before he returned that he would be convinced that she should be allowed to operate a business.
Once he was gone, Hannah returned to Barclay’s Bank to withdraw the twenty pounds (£20) he left for her and the children in the bank. That money formed the foundation of what turned out many years later to be a multi-million naira business empire called Dideolu Enterprises and Ligu (a shortened form of Liyangu) Stores. She used the twenty pounds to start a business in buying and selling. She bought some agricultural items such as tomatoes and onions from traders who brought them from the north of Nigeria. She also bought some food items from the north and resold them. With her natural talent for business, in no time, Hannah was doing very well.
“I prospered in business,” she recalls. “And before my husband could send us money I was buoyant enough to send him twenty pounds (£20). He later told me the money reached him at a time he had no money.”
But the law student assumed that his forbearing wife had again displayed her eagerness to sacrifice everything for his success. She had saved the twenty pound he left for the family’s upkeep and mailed it to him, he thought. Hannah remembers that “He wrote to thank me thinking it was the money he left for us that I sent to him. He wondered how we would survive now that I had returned the money. But I replied that I was working and that home was alright….”
Characteristically for a man who was a stickler for details, by the time Hannah sent money again, he started raising questions. What is the source of the money, he queried?
Hannah remembers that “Occasionally, he used to ask for the source of the money, but since he needed the money which I used to send to him from my little business, he had no choice but to keep his calm, because he was in no position to object in far-away London.”
Obafemi himself later wrote in his autobiography that “It is to record to my wife’s credit that she never made a financial demand on me throughout my stay in the United Kingdom. She always sent me good news every week about herself and the children; but when I returned home I leant that she had passed through many anxious times with four children the oldest of whom was only five when I left home, and the youngest of whom arrived four months after my departure….”
Hannah might have begun to be metaphorised in Obafemi’s mind at that point as a jewel. Also, he must have realised at that juncture, more than ever before, that he had found gold, the inestimable value of which will become much more apparent in their future together….
Exchange of letters continued between the couple in the two years and four months that Obafemi spent in London. He eagerly gave him details about his life in the UK, including the formation of a pan-Yoruba organisation, Egbe Omo Oduduwa (A Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa – Oduduwa being the popularly-acknowledged progenitor of the Yoruba) in 1945. Before he returned to Nigeria in December 1946, Hannah had sent money to her husband four times. It was a measure of how well she was doing in her business that she could take care of four children, expand her business and yet send money to the UK. By this time, she had given birth to their fourth child, a daughter, Ayodele.Therefore, she was bearing a heavy burden, which included not only feeding the family, but also clothing everyone and paying the fees of two of the kids in school.