Her Royal Highness, Professor Isabel Kamene Okonjo
PHOTO CREDIT: “THE NATION”
Exactly a week ago today, I set out from Asaba intent on seeing someone who I had not visited or seen since I was in Primary School – mama Professor Isabel Kamene Okonjo. I had intended to spend an hour with her, less time spent on the protocol matters which I expected, and then proceed to Benin for other matters. In the end, I spent five hours with her!Incredible.
Though married for nearly six decades now to His Majesty, Agbogidi Professor Chukwuka Aninshi Okonjo, the Obi of Ogwashi Uku and Paramount Ruler of the Ogwashi clan, Mama Isabel comes from a different town, 20 miles away in our close-knit Delta North, which is a “twin town” to mine. You know those kind of two African towns where everyone’s dad comes from one town and his mom from the other – such as Effurun and Warri, Ife and Modakeke, Jimeta and Yola.
Anyway, people in our hometowns use the same streams, the same schools, the same churches and attend each other’s festivals. So Mama Isabel and my late father, alongside the likes of the recently deceased, Justice Augustine Maidoh all attended St Theresa’s Primary School, Onicha Olona…a few miles distant from our adjacent villages. They were mates. With my late dad, they were distant relatives. Mama Isabel and my late dad eventually became the first male and female university graduates from our twinned villages – a feat which drew them closer.
On the day, 3rd December 2012, I rounded off what I had to do at Asaba and headed off to Ogwashi Uku, twenty minutes drive away.
Not having seen her since I was in primary school in the early 1980s, I wondered how I would aid her recollection if age had taken a hold on her.
Upon arrival at the palace grounds at Ogwashi Uku, the first thing which I noticed was the fact that for the mother of a serving federal minister and being the palace of a senior traditional ruler in Delta State, the place was remarkably accessible.
I met some youngmen of Yoruba and Ghanaian extraction who were moulding thousands of interlocking blocks close to the entrance. They were resting under an orange tree and looking around to see a policeman, I found none. So I beckoned on one of the youngmen and he came to meet me where I stood.
We exchanged greetings and I told him that I wanted to see the Lady of the Manor. He pointed to a black Toyota sedan and wondered if she was seated in there and then said to me, ‘ let us go, sir’ , as we walked towards the palace.
Ominously, the first question which I asked was ‘why is this place so free, where are the securitymen?’ I asked this question knowing fully well that we were in the very rugged state of Delta where people are naturally gutsy and would try almost anything..even for a simple dare without a cash reward. He said that there was actually a policeman detailed to man the place but that he comes and takes up positions in different places – concealment implied. I said okay but suggested that one cop is not enough for a palace in one of the principal towns of Delta State. Never mind the parents of Nigeria’s defacto Prime Minister. “Nigeria, wake up”, I muttered to myself.
So we walked straight to the house and the youngman went in calling ‘mama, mama’. Without any fanfare and without overbearing aides in tow, she came out to meet us. As soon as she emerged, I bowed and greeted “Ozoji, ma’, saluting her the way people from her corner of our ‘twin towns’ are greeted. She responded and asked with a smile ‘ who is this large male greeting me with so much familiarity like a true homer?’, as she ushered me upstairs.
As soon as we were seated, I introduced myself and when she eventually connected the dots, she was kind of overwhelmed with delight. She asked if I would drink beer or stout but I declined, so she offered me Malta Guinness. She told me that papa, His Majesty, was holding court and meeting with his cabinet and that he had risen early and gone into his study to do some writing as was his habit. I was impressed that Papa was still writing in his late eighties but then again, I said to myself ‘he is a professor’
As soon as the elderly visitors and her pastor from her own village had left us, we settled down to what was a very, very long chat. I reminded her about how her husband used to drive down from Kumasi in Ghana many years ago for Xmas. He worked for a UN Institute which worked in collaboration with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology back then while mama worked at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His Majesty is a professor of Economics while mama is a professor of Sociology.
We discussed the previous weekend’s terror attacks at Chibok in faraway Borno. She wanted to know if non-muslims still lived in the North and I said ‘yes’. We discussed everything under the sun, going back to her primary school days. She told me that she only managed to go to school back then as the only girl in her class, thanks to her father who was a teacher. She talked about her growing up, how Nigeria has changed so much, how she kept home at Ibadan back in the day when our Honourable Minister of Finance was a baby and her dad had to go for postgraduate studies in Germany. She stunned me by telling me that the incumbent Rector of Ogwashi Uku Polytechnic grew up under her mentorship and babysat our dear minister in the 1950s. I commended her for having raised so many erudite females – Dr Ngozi and her younger sister, Dr Njideka and also the Rector. She smiled and wondered about the coincidence of her and her children all getting married to people in similar callings – she and her husband are professors, Ngozi(the Minister) and her husband..both PhDs while Njideka and her husband are both medical doctors.
In a seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy, I said ‘mama, ask Aunty Ngozi to talk to the Police Inspector General so that they can secure this place properly. Nigeria has changed and people even kidnap retirees these days’
She looked pensive and after a while, she said ‘ I will, my son’. She talked about the fact of having to be accessible since their home is after all the palace of Ogwashi Uku.
She talked about the bereavement of her dear siblings, Nkadi and Umerah and I comforted her, commending her on her good health and sharp intellect. She said to me that she would turn 83 in March of next year and hoped to live as long as her own mom who lived to be 92.
We gisted about everything like mother and son and even when I stood up to leave at 2.30pm, she told me with a royal command to ‘sit down, my son. Let me get something for us to eat together’. I smiled and sat back. Mama was probably enjoying my company and I felt obliged to keep her happy. She made me think of my own long deceased parents.
She asked her handmaid, Ojoo, a very pretty and tall teenaged Idoma girl from Benue State with the grace and elegance of a supermodel, who had just returned from nearby Nshiagu College,to go and get us some Gala beef rolls and bring us more malt drinks. Ojoo went off and came back after a few minutes. Mama called out to His Majesty’s nephew, Ubaka, who was leading repair works on a well inside the compound and told him to come and meet her long-lost son, ME. Mama was just charming and transcended the generations.
She told me that after she retired from the University of Nigeria, she was approached by the Enugu State University to help with the establishment of their Sociology Department and narrated how she had to leave Ogwashi Uku on Mondays for Enugu, returning on Fridays for the weekend. She said that she was given a big house at the ESU and that she had to throw the place open for cohabitation with undergraduates..for FREE. Again, the very humane liberalism and populist touch for which she has now been taken hostage by vermin.
She talked about the recent conferment of an honorary doctorate degree on His Majesty by the University of Ibadan, saying that it was the fourth such award given to the paramount ruler by as many universities.
At about 5pm, I finally got up to leave and she asked me to hand her a copy of my CV and credentials. Her gesture stunned me and I quickly went downstairs and brought same up to her. Next, she said “take my number”, asking me to call her whenever I felt like doing so. I promised to do so and thanked her for her hospitality and promised to come see her again at Xmas.
Then, yesterday, my worst fears came alive as I visited the website of “Vanguard” newspapers to read about the kidnap of my own dear mama. It breaks the spirit and it shows how much some of us Nigerians have sold our souls to the devil in our pursuit of money. How would those nutters have the composure to seize a mama who told me that she would turn 83 in March 2013.
Sunshine follows a dark night. So be it in my native Delta State where, in recent memory, the mother of celebrity banker Tony Elumelu, the father of my senator Dr Okowa, state commissioners, the brother of the Speaker of the House of Assembly, the cousin of the state Governor, among others have all been kidnapped in recent memory.
In closing, I am sure, because goodness begets goodness, that this simple and good-natured great grandmother,Professor Isabel Kamene Okonjo, shall come back to us alive and well. I look forward to spending a part of my Christmas with her.