By: Godknows Boladei Igali
It’s 8 March 2023, and the world, from the farthest east, where the sun and moon rise to their set point is still agog with cheering applause on International Women’s Day (IWD) again. Championed by the American Communist Party, since 1909, the marking of IWD has fledged on, neither hindered by walls nor fences. Essentially, to appreciate womanhood, matriarchy, motherhood, and the general gift of femininity. In addition, the celebration of ‘Mothering Sunday’ also modernised as ‘Mother’s Day’ for this year held on 19th March. From the earliest days down above a thousand years (till it became more formalised in the 16th century), on the fourth Sunday into the lent season, this appreciation of the gift of the birthing of children by women has been regarded as sacrosanct in continental Europe. Nowadays, it is observed around the world, especially within the Commonwealth, and revered as one of the most symbolic celebrations on which the life of humanity hinges.
This season rightly availed a fresh opportunity to refocus and reflect on what makes the world’s four billion womenfolk so unique and deserving of the highest esteem. For self, and likely many, the season offers fresh dew to recapture and reminisce on the direct impact on one’s life by the fondly thoughts of my mother, Fanny Patricia Igali.
Concurrently, from New York to Geneva, Tokyo to Toronto, Abuja to Lagos, commemoratory, laudatory, and triumphal gatherings marked the day, and Kings, princes, nobles, world acclamatory voices, men and women, all proclaimed the most tangible of all truths: that there is nothing in creation like a woman.
Endlessly, the famed and celebrity pantheon guided all through the thousand miles journey of struggles, pains, and relegation, not forgetting to recount also the occasional instances of jubilance. Notably, the boss of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Europe’s Central Bank the President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde and the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nation, Amina Mohammed, just to name a few, rightly contextualised the ambience. The UN honour bestowed on Nigeria’s highly-spirited Minister of Environment and a one-time elected Deputy Governor of Plateau State, Dame Pauline Tallen, is noteworthy.
ON GIRLS AND LADIES
Perhaps the most adorable creature on earth is the incipient stage of ‘womanhood’ – the metamorphic equilibrium of finite wholesomeness, enveloped in one body. From the time of birth to adolescence (about 18 years), the girl-child is an epitome of pricelessness, radiating joy, cheerfulness, and conviviality. Unarguably, from the youngest age, the girl-child begins to exhibit the innate instincts of care and diligence as different from the breezy and rather jaunty attitude of male children.
The progression to young adulthood transforms every woman into a near-perfection of beauty and a most impressionable creature of superlative values. Loving, amorous, peaceful, generous, gently, tenderly, dovely, and not the least, of most refined manners. Ladies, as they often become known, evolve into acquiring exceptional self-worth and sociable qualities for human existence. More than that, most young women, as others prefer to call them, progress on to be the bridge, nicely and tactfully webbing the habitually fracturing components of society. Hence, the greatest of human civilisations owe immeasurable tributes to such contributions from those, often, wrongly termed as ‘the weaker sex’.
Of the larval stages in the journey of womanhood, one thing most pleasing to the human mental feeling is the gift of motherhood. Hewn in the mysterious will and motives of the Almighty, humans remain permanently connected with the soul and womb of a ‘mama’, ‘mummy’, ‘mami’, or the other alluring epithets for characterising mothers. There may be actual, biological or adopted, fostered, or spiritual, but man’s most treasured gift is that of having a mother or mother figure.
Mothers bear the strain and load of procreation and perpetuation of the human species. Unfortunately, a lot of mothers still pay the supreme price while bringing forth new lives, which average a high number of 385,000 every day (140 million annually). In Nigeria, for example, Maternal Mortality Rate is still as high as 576 deaths for every 100,000 live births (UNICEF, 2022), the fourth highest on earth, a sad departure from the current global average of 223 for the period 2000-2020 (WHO, Geneva, 2023).
Mothers give incipient nutritional needs for the basic survival of all. According to World Health Organisation, with the benefit of the accelerated campaign, at least 40% of new babies worldwide still depend exclusively on breastfed nutrition for the first six months of life. All through life thereafter, mama’s nurturing essence continues either by way of meeting all manners of requirements or unending emotional support. Hence, the famed Cameroonian-Nigerian musician, Prince Nico Mbarga’s forceful assertion: ”If I no sleep, my mother no go sleep If I no chop, my mother no go chop She not dey tire aah, sweet mother“.. Unarguably, there is no better soothing and healing balm for humankind than the warmth of a mother’s love. No matter how rough the storms of life turn out to be, a mother always has a calming, tranquillizing, and assuring word of comfort and often, even physical ease.
But more than that, Mama is also an axiom for hard work and creativity. Her dexterity in being the earliest to wake, often before the first light of sunshine peeps, is transcendent. Then she strives, within the available means, to meet the needs of everyone, and ensures that all needs around her are satisfied.
ON MAMA FANNY PATRICIA IGALI
All these qualities listed in motherhood were found in my mother. So, it was with my mother until one dreary evening when the clouds went dark on her, which was few months ago. It all appeared like the antithesis of history! ‘What happened? she was not sick; we spoke twice today’. … I exclaimed as tears glistened from my eyes. Mama is gone. Mama passed away on 29th July 2022, at the age of just 85.
Although my art as a wordsmith has been repeatedly paved with glowing cobbles the lives of many for six months, the ink dried up on retelling the pioneering works of my mother. With the passage of time, it’s propitious to say a few words to the whole world, the story of this adoring woman of unusual mettle, my Mama.
A typical African mother of trail-blazing records, my mother, Mama Fanny Patricia Igali, was born in the riverine town of Oporoma, headquarters of the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, on Wednesday, 15th December 1937. She was born in the household of Chief Tumoi (adulterated from Thomas) Yogo. Her father was a revered moralist, first generation Christian convert and a successful ‘legitimate trader’ in palm produce. Her mother, my grandmother, Helena, was the first of three wives and produced five children, of which Fanny was the baby. Ma Helena, in living true to the meaning of the town ‘Oporo-ama’ – abode of shrimps in the Ijaw language, maintained an unusual record in the area as the highest-yielding farmer of seafood under rather inexplicable circumstances and she told no one until she departed 40 years ago.
Oporoma, my maternal hometown, lying gracefully on the banks of the River Nun, the large distributary of the River Niger had from the 1830s when the famed English explorers, John and Richard Lander (Lander Brothers) arrived, in their effort to trace the River Niger to the Atlantic Ocean, emerged as the main entry port in the area. At the time of my mother’s birth, Oporoma, one of the oldest of the Ijaw towns, had therefore grown to boast as an outpost of the colonial administration and a fountain of western education in this extremely riverine and deltaic part of Nigeria. By 1912, St Stephen’s Primary School, established by the Church Missionary Society, opened its doors to the very first pupils around; however, remained shut for girl-child education until Fanny rebelled against the orthodoxy, 32 years later.
Like the other young women, life started for her in fishing and farming. She particularly joined her mother, in shrimp farming and shared a bit of the glory for showing up with extraordinary yields. Sadly, the town’s golden centuries of shrimping have since the discovery of Crude Oil and Gas on its soil in 1950, gradually lost its fame and lustre to the new produce.
From childhood, Fanny was known for her love for Christian knowledge and education. Out of her father’s many children numbering over 15 and the larger kindred, she, was particularly close to him as she always accompanied him to religious activities. Irrespective of the fact that girl-child education was a near taboo at the time, she insisted on joining the few boys in schooling. After repeated efforts to dissuade her, involving almost the entire kindred, she was allowed to enrol in Class One at St. Stephen’s Primary School, Oporoma, in January 1944. With such zeal, unsurprisingly, she emerged top of the class of mostly boys in 1948, on completion of Junior Elementary.
The enthusiasm to proceed to Senior Elementary in a bigger school out of town became sternly opposed by virtually all. However, her eldest brother, Chief Arthur Tumoi Yogo (1920-2006), a successful merchant, who travelled often to Lagos, where he saw the worth of girl-child education took on the challenge of her continuing studies. By 1951, her father and brother moved her to the faraway town of Amassoma, the present location of Niger Delta University, to enrol at another school, which is coincidentally also called St Stephens. At Amassoma, she was made to live with an acclaimed disciplinarian, Anglican Clergyman, Rev. Stephen Ambaiowei (1904-1970), and his wife, Ma Phoebe Ambaiowei (1926-2005). Fanny sustained her record of brilliance and performance during the Senior Elementary examinations of 1953.
With such a level of study and focused upbringing, it was not unusual that she had become noticed by all. However, this was short-lived as the gates of the family came under sustained pressure from suitors. On 10th March 1954, Chief Yogo succumbed to her future husband, Newton Aaron Igali (1926-2012), a young Head Master, whom at the time, Bishop ET Dimieri, CBE, First Bishop of the Niger Delta, was said to have described as an academic genius in the area. More importantly, he was the first son of a Godly man, Aaron Amie Igali (1892-1970), from Eniwari Town in nearby Bomo Kingdom. Fanny was aged 17 years when she entered matrimony.
With marriage, children came quite early and in steady succession. She had a total of nine children, of which six are still surviving and distinguished in various fields. In this process, her grim persistence against the female gender became celebrated, when she refused to give up her third set of children (twin boys) Boladei and Bolouwei as was the tradition and practice at that time. This tolled a death knell on the infanticide of twins in the Oporoma Kingdom. This, most probably helped advance the same in other neighbouring areas and communities.
Like most other African mothers of her time, she also raised several other children of the house and scores of young relatives, from both sides, and HRM King WSJ Igbugburu X, (Ibenanaowei of Bomo), Pioneer Chairman of the Bayelsa Council of Traditional Rulers nicknamed her ‘Mother Theresa’, a title that many also called her.
Ma Fanny’s actual working life began in the early 1960s when she joined her husband who had ended his teaching career to pursue further studies in the United Kingdom (UK). Thus, between London and Glasgow, where Pa Newton studied to obtain his degree and Chartered Accountants’ qualification, she took several work-based Certificate and Diploma Course programmes in Catering and Nutrition, particularly at the prestigious Hammersmith College, London. On their return home to the infant Rivers State in 1970, she established several businesses in the Catering and Food industry in Port Harcourt, where her products were favourite delights in major supermarkets, hotels as well as hospitals.
In 1975, she returned to the UK, this time to the Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) to pursue a Higher National Diploma in Catering and Hotel Management. Her return this second time, coincided with the decision of her husband, to exit from the then College of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt (now Rivers State University) as a pioneer Bursar to set up private Accountancy practice. Now a Fellow Member of Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (FCCA), he settled in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, as the first resident Chartered Accountant in the northeast of Nigeria. Naturally, she followed suit.
There, the Government of Borno state convinced her to take up an appointment as the Catering Officer of the newly-established Borno College of Basic Studies. Here again, Fanny’s activist zeal showed up as she gained notoriety for defying the institution’s management by habitually giving free food to indigent students who could not afford the already subsidised cost of feeding. Many of such persons are today relevant citizens serving Nigeria in various capacities.
She later presented herself to move to the famous and then thriving Lake Chad Hotel, Maiduguri as a Senior Manager in charge of Catering and Banquets. Employment in a hotel setting in that environment was ‘reserved for men’ at the time, but again she broke the glass ceiling and became the first woman to do so and got the job on merit.
Thereafter, my mother transferred her services to the Old Rivers State as Catering Officer, at Government House at the request of their family friend, Chief Melford Okilo, who was the first democratically-elected Governor till 30th December 1983.
With the military coup, which brought the democratic Government of the Second Republic to an end, she retired from government employment and returned to business and social work. Until the last two years of her life, Mama remained an untiring Caterer and Dietician. She delighted in cooking and experimented with every recipe, and edible plant to develop her genre of exotic delicacies and health drinks.
Mama grew to be a mother to all wherever she found herself. At death, to her memory, several Professors, PhD holders, and professionals in their numbers directly were raised and trained by her. As one of the first women to acquire western education in her space, she invested her treasure in helping others to acquire knowledge. She is also remembered for routinely distributing succour by way of material goods to women and the vulnerable around her.
My mother was full of life, zest, and humour until her very end. From the latter part of 2020, she strangely started dropping hints on the impending peaceful exit, concluding every discussion with ‘pray for me’. Thereafter, she started visiting her children and grandchildren to spend time, perhaps pre-emptive of her final journey. On Thursday, 28th July 2022, after insisting on visiting the main ‘Swali Market’ in Yenagoa, the Capital of Bayelsa State to see ‘my women’ and wake up from rest, she complained of feeling unwell. Few minutes afterwards, Mama closed her eyes and departed to Yonder Land that she could no longer wait to go to, quietly and peacefully.
Even as the world raised high banners for our daughters, wives, and mothers, on this eighth day of the third month, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, lamented a deficit of 300 years in humanity’s journey towards acceptable and agreeable levels of ‘gender parity’. Not an ‘F’, but, somewhere behind a ‘D’, if this score were an academic assessment. Nonetheless, like a journey behind a slow-moving truck, proper inclusion of our women in society advances, tenuous and weak.
Yes, slow progress is being made for more women’s participation and reckoning in virtually every sphere of human existence. In Europe, a worthwhile forward move has been achieved, while the emergence of a woman, Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States of America for the first time in 245 years, is a pointer to the achievable milestones ahead. Aside from the nation of Rwanda, Africa still trails the race to catch up on this. But clearly, hope cannot be lost, as the continental giant, Nigeria, has for the first time in its history, seen a woman, Senator Aishatu Ahmed, who became a Governorship candidate in Adamawa State under a major political party, ironically in the so-called ‘conservative Muslim north’. Sadly, the Tenth National Assembly of Nigeria has turned out to be a blight for women’s empowerment as their numbers have dwindled to one of the lowest points since the Fourth Republic, which started in 1999.
As for my beloved mother, Fanny and other great souls of mothers of yore, despite institutional sclerosis against women, they have trodden the earth and departed peacefully after contributing greatly to humanity, and deserve rest and odes unending. Individually, most of them, in humblest anonymity, have departed the world with their ‘lamps trimmed and bright’. Their cumulative impact on the edification of humankind through the ages can not be sufficiently quantified but will remain sparkling in the hearts of millions, even generations unborn. More spectacular, that they could, under grave existential threats and prejudices, chisel through the glass ceiling, obviously remains a timeless enamour of what could still be achieved with one more step to advance one more woman forward.
Igali is a former ambassador and currently Pro-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA)