BY NIRAN ADEDOKUN
These days, you’ll find a multitude of videos about Nigerian mothers and their overbearing, sometimes impossible tendencies on the internet. Many of these videos are humorous and evoke nostalgia for those who have experienced the intentional, fearful mothering of women from this race. It is not the same for all children, who are subject to more permissive parenting even in the country.
These videos mock mothers who worked in the trade from the 1960s to the 1980s. These videos are also subtle celebrations of the achievements of these mothers in raising children despite the conflicts resulting from western education.
Traditionally, Nigerian parents are heavy on the “spare not the rod” idea, which they believe, keeps children under check. Many mothers struggled to get the best from their children because of the relative liberalism in western societies. Now, when beneficiaries of hard-line upbringing reminisce, they marvel at how much they strain to recognise today’s mothering. For their sacrifices and effectiveness, we can all thank the mothers of yesteryear.
This celebration of motherhood and mothering is what Zain Asher’s debut book, Where the Children Take Us, does. Asher demonstrates the yeomanship of a widowed Nigerian woman who is suddenly unable to work and whose care for her four children is taken in another country.
While people of color lived with bare-faced chauvinism in the 1900s, this woman was not discouraged. This book celebrates her dedication and unwavering determination. It’s about her ability to overcome obstacles and raise children who are competent examples of responsible upbringing.
Today’s mothers, even in Nigeria, may have an avalanche of justifiable reasons to dismiss the Obiajulu Justina Ejiofor type of motherhood as unattainable. The subject of this book didn’t have it easy. The wife of fourteen years, and close friend for over 20 years, died. She was pregnant and had to take care of her four children. One of them never knew her father. It was a rollercoaster ride with one child losing his life in the same accident that claimed his father, and another being drawn by the youth’s delinquency.
But for Obiajulu, it wasn’t just about providing for her children. Obiajulu was committed to helping her children reach their full potential and achieve the heights she and her late husband envisioned. It was not an easy task. It took working extra hard and intentional attention to every child’s peculiar needs.
Obinze was her eldest son. She had to find a way for him to return to the right track. Chiwetel was her second son and showed an interest for literature and acting. This led to an unplanned love of literature and books. To be able to practice with her son, the pharmacist would read every Shakespearean play. Ejiofor would go on to win an Oscar nomination and receive British national honors many years later. He is currently Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Obiajulu Ejiofor made it possible. Anything she set her mind to for her children, she achieved it regardless of the cost. Such is the story of her daughter, Zain Asher’s University of Oxford attainment. Towards the end of Zain’s secondary education, teachers did not see an Oxford student in her, but her mother did.
Since then, she has worked closely with her daughter to fulfill her dreams. Mrs Ejiofor emphasized the power and potential of vision and images. Six times she drove her daughter to Oxford College, inspiring love and desire in the otherwise unbeliever girl. But it wasn’t just about the imagery, but also about hard work.
To avoid distractions, she stopped her daughter from having access to television, telephone, and friends for 18 months. She would bring attention to news stories about Africans succeeding in different walks of life. She would paste newspaper reports onto the walls of her house in an effort to teach her children that anything is possible.
“She encouraged us to split our days into three equal parts: eight hours for sleeping, eight hours for school or work and the last eight hours for working towards our dreams. Long before I reached my teenage years, the eight-hour rule was gospel,” Asher writes. Mrs Ejiofor did all she could. She even “shipped” her daughter to Enugu and worked extra hard to send her to a private school just to enhance her chances.
Motherhood is not the only thing that matters. Where the Children Take Us Also, love is celebrated. It is thrilling and inspiring to read about the uncommon love between Obiajulu and Arinze from their teenage years. The lovebirds, despite parental scrutiny and the devastations caused by the Nigerian Civil War (Nigeria Civil War), managed to escape the country and had four children, who now thrive in different areas of their lives.
Perhaps, in fact, Obiajulu’s dogged commitment to seeing these children do well derives from her fidelity to the dreams she built with Arinze before his untimely death. Their story is one of love never failing.
Asher describes love as the umbilical link that binds the Ejiofor families to their children, and each child to the others. The book celebrates the hard work and obedience of the Ejiofor kids. Obinze, Chiwetel and Zain, despite all the efforts of their mother, could have chosen a wider path of defiance like the one Obinze was forced to take. They listened to their mother’s advice and did not let the deprivations or temptations of adolescence deter them.
Mrs Ejiofor acknowledges this in the book on the day late Queen Elizabeth II decorated her actor son at the Birmingham Palace. Awed by the grandeur of the evening, Obiajulu looked around her and blurted out: “you never know where the children take us to.” This otherwise impulsive utterance, was equally a deep reflection of the reality of the relationship between the pharmacist and her children. William Wordsworth, Romantic Poet, says it in his poem My Heart Leaps Up, “the child is the father of the man.” The values Obiajulu inculcated in her children decades earlier have taken them farther than she could have ever imagined, and now, she’s the one grateful to the children.
In telling her parents’ story, the author visits the unfortunate 30-month Nigerian civil war. The author presents a disturbing, graphic picture of the horrors of war and the near-death experiences of so much of those who were not worthy of this terrible fate.
To bring her subjects home, Asher uses poetic and dramatic language. Using a prologue, which opens with the words: “there is a tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy,” picturesquely shows what is ahead. And with the prologue, she wraps up this creative nonfiction piece of “grit grace… and story of extraordinary triumph…” just as she promised at the start.
Although every author is free to tell their story how they wish, Asher who probably gathered her account of civil war from oral accounts and information she had read could have provided a more balanced representation of events between 1967 and 1970. The war is just a side note in Zain Asher’s book, published by 4th Estate. London. This isolation is justifiable.
As to her main purpose, the author says in the prologue, “up against soul-crushing challenges detailed in the pages ahead, Obiajulu raised four children who shattered every expectation. Her unique parenting style, her life-changing sacrifices, and her unrelenting discipline are the reasons my brother is today an Oscar-nominated actor; they are the reason I am a CNN anchor with degrees from Oxford and Columbia; my sister, a medical doctor; and my eldest brother is a successful entrepreneur.” The author celebrates Obiajulu and, to some extent, her mother Caroline Usonwa Okafor, who was Obiajulu’s foundation.
These women promote values that ignore limitations and encourage single-mindedness and focused self-development. This is proof that anything is possible. This is proof that the world still has models worthy of imitation.
Adedokun, a writer, public relations practitioner and lawyer, is the author of The Law is an Ass
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