Another sixth: In honour the woman who dug Me out of me
Medical Surgeon, Teacher, Social Commentator
Justin Fadipe Centre
Commonwealth of Dominica
If I had wanted all along to write about Ebun Akhigbe?, that article created added urgency. And I thought no time was better than today, another sixth; For me, …. another birthday ?. Ebun Veronica Akhigbe ( EV for short) was the first ever woman to come into my life ; And through her, i underwent no less than a ‘tran-substantiation !!!!!. EV died about two years ago in a California hospital, her chequered life shortened by an adrenal tumour. Though dead, she lives on inside me the woman who passed my way right time, right place, right purpose. The story of her l?ife is not just it’s fateful intersection with mine,
It also is the story of the peculiar challenges, biology, far less gender discrimination, has placed in the path of women all over the world. EV and I met happenstance , I, about 14, she 16. She had come home that year with her classmate and best friend ( my sister) for the Easter school break . And inside that short break was to be found the seed of my tran-substantiation. Until that time, “Sunday” ( as ?I was then known having been born on a Sunday 6th April ) was a crank. All I cared was live adventures …… endangered specie. Would sneak out of bed at night, long after my parents were asleep to go role- play ?a night guard ( security man) in the neighbourhood, dead of the night, big stick my only ‘weapon’, decked khaki short and shirt, merrily but seriously parading people’s houses uninvited, unknown , unafraid. convinced, though no older than 12 or so I could single handedly deter or even arrest thieves. I had seen police do it, so I too could. My delusion came to an abrupt end one midnight when a lady scared of footsteps behind her windows got up, cracked open her windows and flooded me with boiling water . I ran back home well charred up. But only to be more beaten up on confessing what had happened ?to my shocked parents. Another time, wanting to imitate garage touts, I got seriously hurt. I had always watched in admiration how these bus conductors ( as they were then called) would stylishly hop on and hop off their buses or ford wagons never when the vehicles were stationary, but in motion.
The mere gymnastics was for me irresistible . But so strict were my parents I could never expect them to let me out the house after school, unaccompanied. So on my way from school, I would always squeeze all the liberties I could for the day One afternoon I hopped into a ford wagon a la conductor after it has gained some speed. I giddied my way in, hitting my head on the inside ?rails That was bad enough. Worse was to come when I tried to hop out whilst it was still in motion I landed on the hard road only for the relative momentum between me and the moving bus drag me far along on the tar, knees ?and entire shins bruised up to the bones school uniform soaked in blood. The injuries were too serious to conceal I knew and reconciled myself to the idea of more beating when I got home. I’d always felt left out when I saw older boys ride bicycles ?. I couldn’t restrain the urge any longer The tenants in our house were fed up of Sunday regularly damaging their bicycles wherever they were parked. ?I had never been taught how to ride ; Who would, when my short legs could only hang mid air .
Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to sneak the bikes out of their parks, roll them into the alleys. Climbed up on them, feet many inches short of the pedals which meant I had to look for slopes. But slopes simply gave such speed to the bikes I couldn’t control. So crash was always the result ?and pay for the damage was always my dad’s cross. Once I decided I was tired of watching people smoke. I needed to be watched too. I assembled a few kids , bent on showing them not only I could light a cigarette, I too knew how to inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose even if cough spasms would then call my bluff. As hard luck would have me I had hardly lit my cigarette one of the days when my sister showed up from nowhere. I feared she would report me right away. That fear made me to quickly and unthinkingly pocket the lit cigarette while still smouldering . My shirt began to burn my flesh whilst I tried concealing my pain . When my sister saw a smoking shirt then in turn, the cigarette in the pocket she ran to our parents. Again, the usual penalty. Disappearing into useless expeditions on remote farmlands hunting rabbits or raiding banana trees ?or fishing in troubled waters earned me so much pain when found out. Twice I was rescued from drowning by river side passersby when I jumped into a heavy river from sheer bravado thinking the waters did for you all the swimming and the floating, having seen dead leaves float effortlessly too.
Such was? the long and jaw dropping list of truancies that characterised a beleaguered childhood so much so when in my second form at high school, about age 14, poor Rev fr cloutier, a Canadian Jesuit and school principal called my dad telling him he did not know how he, fadipe got a child like me, I was hardly surprised. Fr cloutier had been instrumental to my eldest brother going to McGill University Canada ?to study medicine, the next, to the UK for arts, another next again to Germany for nursing and yet another next, to the Catholic seminary. Here would come this complete abberation called Sunday, later Basil. Every end of term results, up until my third year, you would be wasting your time looking for my name on the school broad sheet if you started the search from the top. I was hardly farther than fifth from the bottom, no matter the size of the class.
It got even worse when my maths teacher expelled me from his class on grounds of unreformable truancy and “purposeless smiling”. On his part, fr cloutier was becoming exasperated: a devoted missionary, experienced Jesuit educationist, twenty four hour teacher . Then came EV.!!!! I had fallen ‘in love’ with her the very day she showed up on our doorstep 66 aderemi road ile ife about 10 am, first Saturday in April ….. in the company of my sister ?. Dressed in their immaculate disciplinedly ?ironed pinafore uniforms, shiny leather sandals, matching stockings, elegant school caps and badges , I did not think there was beauty anywhere outside of the duo. But here was a rural j Sunday/ Basil ; No one could recommend me to no one and no one would think a 14 year old would be thinking woman. But I was. ….further evidence if you needed more, of my precocious waywardness. It took me less than a day to realize EV would have nothing to do with the likes of me.
First, I had become too scarred up to look attractive ; all my self- inflicted injuries had each left unmistakable finger prints. My shins had become my unauthorised biographies : …the stories of my life up till then written in bold graphic scars …..they still are Second, I was too coarse in my mannerism, fitted only for hoodlumic existence , not anything refined or sublime. But third and perhaps above all, my restlessness and non- scholastic tendencies have thrown me so far off academic targets that when EV and my sister discussed school work, I couldn’t have looked more idiotic when I tried to participate. All these made EV to so look down on me I was raving depressed. But I was not deterred. My physical scars were unalterable I admitted but what about the non physical. I reached into myself, propelled by little beyond desire to reinvent myself just so I could make a dent in her contemptuous take ….and pull her a little nearer.
So strong was my emotion it became an irresistible force surging towards an immovable me. In the end, I got moved. In another term, I promised I was not to look so stupid if again EV ever came home with my sister. EV was not only beautiful, ( me the beholder), look at what else she was: ….one of the regular best in her class academics …..leading member of the school relay quartet …..leading member in her school literary and debating society ……lead long jumper for her school …..lead dramatist in her school dramatic society ?……lead runner in the 440 and 880 yards races ( as they were then termed) …..prominent psrticipants in the Legion of Mary society ?and the YCS ( young Christian society) ….lead player in netball. ….and what a singer she was !! Her voice would rise, then fall, then rise again the cadence, as captivating for charm as for message. And when it was Catholic special occasions like Easter times or yuletide or priest ordinations or bishops visiting, when our two schools would have invested hours specially preparing us, ( boys and girls) ?for joint liturgies, my ears would more sniff out her voice than the celebrant’s in the cacophonies that rented the air : …. be the renditions Latin or English.
But what was I? , ….blacksheep in the block. ….notorious at home, …. notorious at school. ….. Notorious everywhere. That same year, as soon as the break was over, and we all went back to our respective schools , I came off with the resolution to do all I could to be a candidate worthy of consideration by EV. And on that resolve, i never once looked back . I raked up all my books from kindergarten ( yes kindergarten!!) and I restarted a punishing program of self revision ….all by myself,…. EV the invisible angel teleguiding the reinvention. Nights had me sprawled out at table playing catch up Day had me shaft my tumultuous energies into school sports and social activities and church programs so I could rival EV’s reputation as an all rounder. I would wake up at 5 am to attend mass in the Parish, return in time to prepare for school. Fr cloutier who also often officiated mass would see me at early morning mass and I could tell he moved from palpable shock through pleasant surprise ?to overwhelmed with emotions : the proverbial return of a lost sheep. Within a year, and with gradual improvement in my class returns , he made me the school sacristan, charged with getting the school chapel ready for school mass and cleaning up the altar after mass.
Nothing made me prouder and fulfilled when in those moments of joint liturgies, ( girls and boys) I stood high up on the altar, reverently cleaning up the chalices, well aware EV was in the crowd below watching me?. Or in my re converted energies running in the school races, collecting prizes, on the boys’side, EV on the girls’ side. The most endearing was when I managed to clinch the role of Romeo ?in a joint Shakespearan drama where EV was Juliette.
Or the “Trials of Brother ?Jero” a play written by the nigerian Nobel laureate ( wole Soyinka) where I acted Jero , ….EV …the church member who had a crush on brother jero . The highest point of my reinvented self was in our fourth form when at the British Council Drama and Essay inter school competition , I had brought home the first prize that year, robbing EV’s school, one of the other competitors of victory in the then western region high school competition. By that time EV had stopped looking down on me: she had no choice. It was not without self mortification. Nor could it have ever happened were EV not the goading force : the jewel that was the object of that struggle. When we finished high school, both of us in first division pass, EV was as proud of me as I was of her.
We had had several moments together lying next to each other in bed, late into the nights on most of the holidays she would then come to regularly spend at our home ( our home indeed became her second home) , doing nothing but hammer out school assignments . We sparred on what had now become equal terms. We slept together on each of those occasions for nearly eight years, without a moment of pubic contact, only cerebral partnership. My relationship with EV became a model for her school and her nuns ( rev sisters and mothers) regularly cited our relationship at the time as example to her peers . A- level program brought a distance between us. But it did more than distance. I went far away from base to do my A levels, she remained at base for hers ?. A level consumed me to the hilt: in all my career till date , nothing has challenged me the way A level did.
A mix of unimaginative teachers ( in some subjects), compulsory school extracurricular activities, inherently difficult physics, chemistry etc at A level pitch and my prefectorial responsibilities made 24hrs impossible for the load. I could not communicate with EV as often as she had wanted . And she now wanted lots. The situation was not helped when an excited female classmate of mine, writing to her friend described how she had found love at her new school ( ie our new school ) and went to describe in every detail who the new catch was. …..a yoruba boy, school prefect, soccer enthusiast, school runner, science major etc. Everything that also happened to have fitted me. When the letter fell into EV’ s hand, shown to her by the addressee ,
EV connected her dots concluding I was not communicating because I was busy somewhere else. Francis O and Elizabeth O had met in lower sixth science and hit it hard ?from start. I was now being mistaken for Francis O. About the same time, fate brought EV in contact with a nigerian military officer ?, ….. maturer, well positioned, same tribal affiliate ( then Midwest) , known to EV’s family. EV became vulnerable. By the end of our A levels, as I prepared for medical school, Martin ( a very handsome charismatic young army officer) had managed to convince EV to slow down on academics and consider married life.
As I raced ahead into medical program, EV, still in love with me, still a virgin by my accounts was having second thoughts going on with a boy two years younger, who played disappearing act during A levels and who spoke nothing but careers. University again separated further. EV ended up in Martin’s arms. That was to be the end of a transformative relationship ( EV/Basil) but the beginning of a torturesome another ( EV/Martin) that EV never seemed to have recovered from till her death. Martin was the dream of every woman And how he played the field!! EV was stranger to the style. Though married and the prospect of motherhood loomed, EV never was able to get pregnant whilst Martin continued to sow seeds everywhere.
Eventually the centre could not hold. EV, the woman who had dug Me out of me and who has almost single handedly been instrumental to my reinvention was now herself caught up in a mess. She wished she could be pregnant and would have easily stopped at nothing to achieve that. I could not help even inspite of what often looked like solicitous consultations. EV remained in my mind and soul as my academic jugging partner, …a rebaptismal font for whom I am eternally grateful, not an eleventh hour reproductive consort ?. In what would turn out to be her last few years, EV went into her archives , dug out all the love letters we exchanged nearly forty years earlier, packaged and mailed to me!!!
Only a year before unforeseen death took her. They remain now some of the most cherished historical records in my possession that give an instant glimpse into my very early life, some aspects would have been lost to.memory otherwise. They are now in a bolthole. EV was an incandescent star : but like most women her type the irresistible lure of marriage and motherhood took precedent over career excellence . There is an African proverb : ” the fertile woman will die from same stress as the infertile ; the former for having many children to raise, the latter for trying too hard to have ” This just about summarises the obstacle nature and hormones place in women ‘s path, less the man’s. And though EV went as far as her master’ s, her PhD attempts interrupted by the battles contingent on choices, she was never able to catch up again with her starting speed. It is this peculiar challenge of biology and reproductive impulse , far more than gender prejudice that goes a long way retarding women into positions behind their male peers in any field. Societies, where the women are beginning to make waves are also the ones where women are redefining their fecundities, choosing to be less fertile and more career productive.
To that extent, that subset which has relegated to the rear the impulse to bear and bear more, Or not bear at all, does not suffer as much disadvantage as the more fecund ones. No matter how brilliant a woman, and no matter the career, each pregnancy is a dilutional damp on the efficacy of pursuit in any chosen field ; compute the cumulative disruptive effects of the number of times a woman interjects herself with pregnancy and you can begin to see how a male peer with whom she started out in life must come to outpace her in any competitive field unless the former happens to be intrinsically foolish or poorly motivated. Not prejudice, just choices .
So when Eliza Anyangwe ( UK guardian journalist) went out on a limb wondering why African women are unsung ( my paraphrase), I had no choice responding that if the woman would make her reproductive choices reflect her overall ambitions, synchronizing same with the competitive realities around her, gender factors will not only toss less surprises and humiliations ?at her, they might be kinder EV remains as much my object of admiration as she is my proof of how a woman in front can be shafted to the rear, no reason beyond reproductive choices… lucky or unlucky irrespective ?On this day, another sixth for me, joy in my heart, gratitude all over, sombre reflections the glue.
I celebrate the woman EV, who was my personal luck and fate to have met . …..met before my losses got irrecoverable. I choose to remember our childhood partnership and the enormous fruits borne thereby. How you turned the boy into man, drift into purpose ?. I remember the races we ran together, the plays we together thrilled our audiences to the songs we sang and the harmonious chorus with which we belted them , and above all, the stimulations we offered each other stimulation so intense I was shifted from the rear to the front ?inside a 3year wonder!. ….inside a total purity, so pure it was as inebriating as it was empowering I appreciate today as all of yesterdays, the change you wrought in my l?ife. And if for no other reasons, I hope heaven? will open its doors to you for that one sheep you brought back from a futureless wander. I know this piece will reach many of our school mates and mutual friends who must but be forced down memory lanes ?. Your sudden departure came to me as surprise ?but in retrospect I’m happy just the year before we managed to again swap old war stories at the Excellence Hotel , Lagos Nigeria when I briefly visited. You had just then completed your house and had offered to coauthor a book with me.
You had also shared your plans for National politics , committing your abundant energy into supporting Tunde Bakare the then vice presidential candidate to current Buhari I was happy his ticket lost to Jonathan Goodluck . I knew you were not happy when you saw my publications …..Nigeria Best Forum ….Punch newspaper ( “Between Theocracy and Governance “.Basil Fadipe July 28 2012) arguing against his candidacy and ticket : I had written at the time convinced nigeria should not complicate secular politics, dirty as it already is, with the religious dimension Pastor Tunde Bakare wanted to import into it ?. But I also did not want you in partisan politics ; I d thought we both could remain on the analytic side of nigerian issues, any issues not its partisan. You had thought different, ready to charge in combat colors .
How could we have known that was to be the last.
Adieu my darling EV.
Your school sweet heart Basil Jide Fadipe.