As narrated by Nsipidi
My daddy had travelled to Liberia in the early seventies for a conference at the University of Liberia, Monrovia. He remembered this workshop session on “The development of Democracy in the West African sub-region’ that was facilitated by a guy from Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, a certain Mr. Winterhill. Samuel Winterhill had only been in Sierra Leone for two months and thought that he had known enough to view himself as an African expert. The fact that he was a black American who researched on the political development (or do I say underdevelopment of west Africa) does not mean he was the best expert that everyone should listen to. He had a certain intellectual arrogance about him. He thought that because he had come from the United States, everybody should listen to him and dad clearly challenged him on a number of his submissions. To begin with, dad argued that the sub-region was too big a demography for him to research on. It had to be narrowed down. Winterhill claimed that he had the intellectual capacity and capability to deal with that range of demography which was quite undermining to the other scholars present. They had this robust debate which almost marred the success of the workshop. They afterwards met in the university’s staff club that night and shared a few rounds of beverage and local delicacy.
Ten years later, these two men stood facing each other in the most unimaginable circumstance.
For two days Wymne did not return and his cell phone was switched off. The next place where my dad knew somebody was Ohio. He made contact with Tari at Ohio. Tari asked him to come over straightaway. Sometimes in life, you just come across people who do not struggle to be of assistance to people and sometimes you come across folks who make you understand that they do not owe you any obligation. This is what makes life beautiful and diverse.
My dad thanked the Winterhills for their hospitality and left for Ohio to meet Tari, who was kind enough to put him up for a couple of weeks. With almost zero finance and long distances to cover, my dad began his American adventure. Every time my dad narrated his American expedition story to me, it always came with a new kind of gusto and element. Since setting foot on Nigerian soil and that ‘retell’ spirit took a hold on my dad, he narrated the story over and over to me. He had told me this story over twenty times and I looked forward to each session because each session revealed something fresh. For documentation sake, Tari advised my dad to go to the state of Texas, because it was supposedly easier to get a driver’s license in Texas than anywhere else in the US. My dad needed a form of Identity. In the good old Greyhound, did my father hop on once again, destination, Austin, Texas. We are talking here of a journey of about 1900 km. If you thought New York to Cleveland was bad, which was only 755km, then think of Cleveland to Austin with almost zero finance.
Within two months, my dad got a driver’s license. I could still see the way his face lit up, when he said “for once in over three months of a hard life, I had something to celebrate, some sort of accomplishment.” This encouraged him so much he would always say. While at Austin, his eyes caught attention of the phrase ‘north to the future’. That was how he got the epiphany of ‘fast forward’. Whenever he was going through rough times, he would always fast forward a few months and years ahead, to that life he had always wanted to live. The challenges of the moment would count as nothing compared to his destination in life.
For my dad, right from the first day, he set his feet on American soil, life was full of twists and turns. He kept holding on to the image of the kind of life he imagined himself living in America. That dream never left him. So, what about ‘north to the future’? Since his life was at such a state of labyrinth and almost rudderless, he needed something to serve as an anchor point for him, and that was the official state motto for Alaska. He had never heard of Alaska before then. He went on to the local library to do some research about the state of Alaska. It wasn’t like now when you could ask Mr. Google anything from your palm held device and got instant result. Back in the early eighties you had to visit the library or resource centre to look for answers. Coming to think of it, I recently found out from my little niece that Mr. Google isn’t that smart after all.
My dad was fascinated about what he found out about the state of Alaska. He loved the fact that Alaska was not a popular state, not top on the list for holiday makers, not top of the list for people retiring, not top of the list for job seekers, not top of the list for students, the list was endless. Yet Alaska had the largest oil and gas fields in north America. Alaska had the lowest population density. It was the biggest state in the United States. It could fit the state of Rhode Island, 425 times and was twice as big as Texas. He loved the fact, in Alaska you would be submerged and fused with nature. Alaska was part of the Arctic circle.
He had struck something profound during his research. Alaska had the highest record temperature in 1915 and that was a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest recorded temperature was in 1971 and that was a minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit. He fell in love with Alaska. No wonder he named me Denali, after the highest mountain peak in Alaska, my brother Yukon, after the Yukon river in Alaska and my sister Ptarmigan, after the state bird willow ptarmigan. That was how my dad ended up in Alaska.
Coming to Nigeria was now becoming a regular feature of our family. My dad had a nice country home and it was fenced round. He had built what they call in Nigeria ‘boys quarters’ (BQ) at the back of the house. We had sufficient space to lounge around and relax. With the weather in Nigeria being good all year round, we could do barbecues and outdoor cooking all year round. One thing I never understood was why that section of the house was called ‘boys quarters’. Why not ‘girl’s quarters’ or ‘men’s quarters’ or even ‘ladies quarters?’ It was all etched in colonial mentality. When the British ruled Nigeria, they had a separate quarter for the servants who served them and since these servants were like live ins, they had these quarters for them. The servants were drivers, cooks, maids and so forth. This concept came to stay in Nigeria and over the years has undergone some transformation.
In the BQ, lived Old Major. Old Major was the caretaker of the country home. Old Major was always talking about his escapades in Monrovia and Freetown during the conflict. He served in ECOMOG and was posted to Liberia and Sierra Leone. When he came back from the posting, he was discharged and on reserve. He had an old rifle that he kept as a souvenir for himself. He spent his Saturday mornings oiling the rifle. He kept the country home clean and gave a sense of security to the property. He mowed the lawns and trimmed the trees and flowers. He watered the plants and kept the outside perimeter of the gates and fence pristine. He took care of the dogs and took the dogs for walks and exercise. He loved his job. He did not have a wife nor kid(s). Rumours had it that he got shot in his genitals during the conflict and he could not reproduce and he chose to now live as a hermit.
He was well known in the village and was dreaded. He also made a lot of money from people who wanted to see my dad. He told them they had to book an appointment to see oga. Oga was a local term for bossman. He had a friend who was a palm wine tapper. This friend of his, Obulu, supplied him free wine because anytime my dad was around, Obulu supplied my dad fresh palm wine at triple the normal cost. His wine, according to Old Major was not diluted and was the best in the entire community. That was why his wine was booked weeks in advance. However, because of the special relationship and respect that Obulu had for Old Major, anytime my dad was around, he halted his supplies to other customers and delivered only to my dad. My dad needed this wine to entertain the stream of visitors that were always visiting him.
I found it quite surprising that lots of people always came to visit my daddy anytime we were around. From the minute we woke up till when we retired for the day, folks were always coming to see him. I once asked him, why so many people came to see him. Where were these people when life was dealing a hard blow on you in America? My dad would reply “what have they to do with it? Did they send me to America? They don’t owe me anything.” They were coming here for free food, free beverage and consultations. I never understood. But as I got older I began to appreciate why. When the economic realities of the community opened up to me, I knew that, my dad was doing the right thing.