I’m not writing about politics this week; I’m going back 50 years to my roots, to Diobu, Port Harcourt, where I was born 50 years ago on February 19 to Robert and Jenny Ishiekwene.
If you have confused my place of birth with my state of origin, that’s fine; I have no problem at all with that. That’s because before you finish reading this piece, any attempt to distinguish between place of birth, state of origin and state of residence would be futile.
Rivers, Delta and Lagos have been central to my life, and identity.
My father, Robert, was from Umu-Ajeh in Umusadege-Ogbe, Kwale, in Ndokwa West Local Government Area, Delta State, but he was working with the Nigeria Ports Authority in Port Harcourt when I was born.
When the Nigeria Civil War started in 1966, he relocated to Kwale with his wife, Jenny, and me.
It wasn’t an easy journey. My mom told me how, during the trip back to our village, she lost contact with my dad, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. On that journey, she also frequently lost contact with my aunt, Esther Enebuse, who was also staying with us in Port Harcourt. She had the difficult task of taking turns with my mother to carry me about as war-stricken families ran from pillar to post.
I still remember what Aunt Esther said I told her once when I was alone with her somewhere in Atani as mortar shells rocked the bush where she was hiding with me. “Auntie, please look after me well. Don’t let mosquitoes bite me. You know mama said you should not let mosquitoes bite me!”
Poor Aunt Esther. Here she was alone with me, frightened and shaken, not knowing what would happen next; and I was moaning about mosquito bites!
Nearly one million people died, and we could have been among them. But we survived. After the war, my father moved to Lagos and resumed his services with the Nigeria Ports Authority at the Apapa Quay, Lagos.
We joined him in 1971. This time, my mom took along my first cousin, Matthew, who was then only three months old and a twin. Matthew and I didn’t know our real names until we were enrolled in primary school in 1972.
I used to call myself Monday Friday, and he used to call himself Ejime Matthew. Ejime means twins.
I attended Christ the King School, an Anglican school, in Orodu, Ajegunle, and from there moved on to Gaskiya College, Badiya, Ijora.
Apart from Bunmi and Niyi who later rechristened me Jimoh – the Yoruba version of Friday – many years later, anyone else who calls me Friday is either from my primary or secondary school days.
My mom also was called a couple of names, depending on where she was. At Hope Children’s School, Mile 2, Ojo Road, Ajegunle, where she worked as one of the best cooks ever, her employers called her Mama Friday, but the students and staff who loved her culinary prowess beyond words called her Mama Cook.
At home, we called her Mama, but my dad called her Nne Azubuike.
It was difficult to know that I was Mama’s (and Papa’s) only child. Mama was, well, Mama. She was the authentic African mother, fiercely protecting me and my cousins from danger and bad boys, but never sparing the rod: it used to be a piece of fan belt hung on the doorframe of our one-room apartment at No. 2 Aroworade Lane.
I have scary memories of that fan belt. Once when I sneaked out of college to watch a football match (I think between Bendel Insurance and IICC Shooting Stars) which ended in a stampede that left scores of fans dead, the beating my mother gave me when I got back home that night settled my dalliance with disobedience.
But she loved me in a way only a mother could. I almost missed my place at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, even though I obtained a higher score than the one for admission. My dad was afraid he might be unable to pay the fees. Then my mother called me aside and showed me something. She asked some big boys in our compound to drag out her large black-and-red aluminum box from under our four-by-six bed. It’s the type of heavy rectangular shaped stuff that had a fancy mirror in the inner cover.
She fetched the key, opened the box, peeled back layers and layers of coloured towels, and there was her treasure. London-wax print, Holland print, jewelry and the whole stuff.
Then she looked at me and said, “I’m sure that by the time I sell all this off, we’ll be able to pay your fees through university. You won’t live the life I’ve lived,” then, she handed me the key to the box. And we both wept.
Luckily, we didn’t have to sell any single item until I finished. Between my mom and dad they somehow found the money without pawning their treasure.
From when I was in Gaskiya College where I was president of the press club, consuming and sharing Dele Giwa’s “Parallax Snaps” in the Concord, to my A-Levels at Jibril Martins Memorial Grammar School where I established an underground press club because the principal forbade a press club, I have never been double-minded about my career. It was a toss-up that I took up a job in Punch in 1989 instead of The Guardian, which had been publishing my articles on the Op-ed pages way back in 1986.
But that marked the beginning of an odyssey, which after nearly 25 years took me from Punch to LEADERSHIP and opened my eyes to the view from “the other part” of the country, the part that makes the story whole. I would have been poorer without that experience.
So what are 50-year-olds doing? Google CFO, Patrick Pichette, just retired at 52 to a life of travelling around the world after receiving $31m in stock incentives between 2010 and 2013. Barack Obama is the world’s most powerful man at 53, the Nigerian equivalent for which Sam Nda-Isaiah made a bold move at 52. At 56, Madonna still rocks the world.
But my choice is different. My wife, Rume, says I’m terribly miserable at anything other than journalism. She’s right. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do; it’s the only thing I’ve been doing; it’s the only thing I plan to continue doing.
I have made a lot of people, especially public officials, mad by my writings, perhaps a few undeservedly. But through the years, I have taken as much as I have given, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but never acting in malice or bad faith.
Outside writing, my most cherished experience was teaching voluntarily for one year at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, and for a period as the Nigerian Institute of Journalism. The incredible opportunity to share knowledge with undergraduates, the excitement, the frustration, the hope and energy that come with engaging them should give my wife some comfort that I may yet have something to retire to in future.
I’ve served and continue to serve journalism beyond these shores. I was chair of the judging panel of the CNN Multi-choice African Journalist of the Year panel and member of the board of the World Editors Forum, before we started the Global Editors Network.
I remain on the editorial board of the World Policy Journal and write for City Press of South Africa and Clarin of Argentina.
How could it be without the incredibly kind help of many whom I have worked with these past years and the giants before me? I thank you all as I remember that it started with just one word, and another and another and another….