As the last child in the Fayemi household, my arrival was heralded with song and dance. Although my birth elicited genuine excitement on the part of my siblings, it was for my mother a cautious welcome. My mother’s caution was understandable having lost a boy and two girls in quick succession before my arrival.
While I was generally called Olukayode (the one who has brought joy), mum privately called me Folorunso (we give this one to God to protect) because, as she once told me, it wasn’t until I turned five that she became more confident that I wasn’t going to disappear like my siblings did.
Given the above context, I grew up knowing my mother as a strong, proud, beautiful, elegant, industrious, hardworking and a consistently optimistic woman – the unseen backbone of our family. Unlike my father who was deliberate, self-effacing, almost withdrawn in his detached mien, Mum was spontaneous - her effervescence and generosity of spirit was bewitchingly infectious.
Yet the myth then was that being a special child and the last born, my mother would spare the rod and pamper me silly. I cannot recall enjoying any such status. Instead, she was equally generous and spontaneous with her punishments. Mother reached for the closest instrument she could hit you with from her pounded yam pestle to her giant soup spoon, not minding the injury sustained at that point even if she would be back to nurse the wounds.
Even at that, my sisters said she had mellowed by the time I came. She always told me that she missed out on school because she was pampered by her grandmother (with whom she stayed) – who removed her from school to escape the harsh treatment of the teachers – and promised herself that no child of hers would have the same experience. So, you dared not inform my Mum that you were flogged in school as this almost always certainly elicited a repeat treatment.
An unconscious feminist who refused to be dependent on anyone, not even her husband, Mum trained me in exactly the same fashion she trained my sisters. She trained me to be independent in all ways.
With the exit of my four sisters from home by the time I entered secondary school, I became the cook, the driver, her shop steward and the general journeyman. Mum worked hard and she expected all around her to work hard. I could not recall any time my Mum did not have to go out and work. Anytime I was on school break, it was all work – and my escape route was often my sisters’ various homes.
Although I also left home early and lived away from her for a considerable length of time, Mum had already taught me a lot about life. While she often taught the same lessons as Dad about character, compassion, hard-work, community service, perseverance, her style was remarkably different, uncodified and refreshing. She was direct, precise, demanding and often in your face.
Mum was extremely protective of her family, loyal to her friends and her milk of compassion to outsiders was legendary as she was always ready to share the little she had with the needy from far and near. She complemented her husband who was reserved, self-effacing and inscrutable fittingly and this helped his public image which would have suffered greatly.
My mum was the best wife any man could pray for and I certainly can confirm that my late Dad was very lucky. She was fun to be with and could easily laugh at herself in a self-deprecating manner. I guess I must have subconsciously searched for a woman like my Mum for wife and must have taken her teachings to heart with my marriage to a very conscious feminist, family protector and public relations agent, and I often marvelled at the remarkable similarities between my Mum and my wife.
My return to Nigeria after the exit of the military brought much relief to my Mum. My eventual decision to become politically active in Ekiti even brought greater relief because it meant my constant presence in Ekiti, something my Mum had missed since I left Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti. Mum had craved for my presence for a long time - even if she was not that enamoured of partisan politics per se. For her, anything to bring me closer home was more than welcome.
We grew much closer during this period that tested the mettle of many friends and family members. My Mum bore the brunt of the period with extra-ordinary grace and equanimity. She witnessed several betrayals in the course of my political work.
She endured many indignities from known and unknown quarters. But the period also showed clearly my Mum’s strength of character. Even when many had become disillusioned by the ‘do-or-die’ politics of our state and urged withdrawal privately, Mum was consistently optimistic.
Her single-minded determination and steely resolve often surprised me because I’d mistakenly thought age would have mellowed her. She never at any point urged me to throw in the towel. She told me she always knew the journey would be tough and rough but also consistently reassured me of the light she could see at the end of the dark tunnel. She urged me to be bold, courageous and not betray Ekiti people. She hated my dismissive, sceptical mien and impatience with religiosity.
A devout catholic who carried her rosary everywhere, she could suffer fools gladly and still entertained various hare-brained schemes by the emergency evangelists and fake medicine men that saw her as a conduit to her recalcitrant son – even if she didn’t believe them. One even had the temerity to tell her she was the source of her son’s problems and she must go back to where she got her son from and beg for forgiveness, whatever that meant.
That was just one of the several indignities she had to endure. Since I was hardly at home during this period, many of my supporters looking for me in the village ended at her doorsteps and her house was the refuge for many political exiles and supporters from neighbouring communities. She never got tired of taking care of people. I am convinced I got my selfless service genes from her as much as from my Dad.
The egregious rigging of the 2009 gubernatorial re-run election, coming in quick succession after the loss of her husband and companion of sixty years took its toll and I believe she never really recovered from the shock of her husband’s loss and the stress she experienced from my political struggle. It however did not dim her optimism.
When victory finally came in October 2010, she was extremely proud of me but I never stopped being her little boy. Her house became a Mecca of sorts for politicians and all those in search of favours. Her own pile of CVs was more than what I had in my own office. Consistently, she would pull my ear and said I must give somebody a job because he contributed hugely to the struggle through prayers and fasting.
And at every opportunity, particularly when she felt I was not paying adequate attention to her numerous and unrelenting requests for jobs for the political jobbers always in her house, she would reprimand me openly that I should not come to her house to ‘do Governor because she is the Governor in her husband’s house.’
When I got fed up with the way she was bombarded by opportunists of various hue and moved her to Government House, she protested loudly. She said I had no right to remove her from her house. For her, the greatest security was the people who pestered her with all manner of requests, not the ‘prison’ where I’d placed her in Government House without the freedom to welcome her unsolicited guests.
Two weeks to her demise, her paternal community in Omu-Ekiti honoured me as the son of their princess. It was the first time of knowing that my Mum had any drop of blue blood in her. But then she acted it all through her life. She was regal in her steps, highly fashionable and always liked to dress up.
Beyond the fad and fashion though, she had a more compelling urge to always look after people around her, the way a service oriented royalty behaved – always ready to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, clothe the needy, provide shelter for the homeless and share the little she had with all. When death finally came, I was sadly not at her bedside – but Bisi and my siblings were.
Mine was largely an unspoken, impenetrable bond with Mum. I thank God for my Mum’s life of service to all who had the opportunity to come across her. My mother, my mentor, thank you for showering me with love without expecting anything in return and for the joy of bringing me to this world.
I know that what you would really like most is for me to continue to live a life of service to our people in Ekiti and humanity at large. I promise not to disappoint you. Sun re o! Omo Oriyemusola…
— Olukayode ‘Folorunso’ Fayemi is the executive governor of Ekiti State