I was just turning four years old in the then remote mountain village of Mavis Bank in Jamaica when I first encountered my grandfather who I regarded as a venerable patriarch of unattainable age. When I asked him how old he was he told me he was eighty-two years old. At that time (the mid 1940’s) it meant that he had been born in the mid nineteenth century when slavery had just been abolished in Jamaica. At that impressionable time of my childhood the most enjoyable preoccupation in my daily life was listening to the reminiscences of my Grandpa who was a very articulate and vibrant narrator of life stories. To me at that age everything he said was gospel truth and I remember vividly his characterisation of our family as having vital ancestral roots in the African continent. I remember in particular a conversation in which he said to me that if he had not gotten too old to do it he would have loved to visit the Gold Coast (or present day Ghana) from which our ancestors had come. On that day I was convinced that I would never reach the age of eighty-two years. Ever since then I believed that I would never get anywhere near that landmark and then suddenly I have reached it. This year I will turn eighty two years of age here in Nigeria and I have fulfilled many of my life objectives, the main one being that I did reconnect with the ancestral continent as my Grandpa suggested.
Just over three years ago I suffered a medical mishap when my diabetic condition suddenly worsened and I ended up with my left leg being amputated. If that misfortune had not befallen me I doubt very much whether I would have realised that I had almost reached the age that I had always told myself I would never reach. I have become profoundly enamoured of interaction with my colleagues and acquaintances in the nearly sixty years that I have lived in West Africa. My devotion to communicating my experiences and observations through the medium of reporting and commenting by writing my impressions has gained ground as I have grown older. In fact, the truth is that I have remained pretty much that same young child who hung breathless on my grandfather’s every word nearly eight decades ago. I have had the good fortune to retain my mental faculties and to overcome my diabetic crisis substantially. I owe this good fortune to the care of a partner whose devotion to my welfare and continued good health has encouraged me to reflect on the purpose and direction of my entire life and made me recognise the fact that old age has actually arrived, The conjunction of my loss of a limb and the almost unimpeachable viability of my continued attachment to my profession of writing at this late stage of my earthly sojourn has led me to a course of reflective indulgence as I contemplate the years I have traversed to arrive at the age I thought I would never reach.
I left Jamaica without informing any member of my family that I would do so in my nineteenth year and so my twenties were spent in absolute exile from the heart of my upbringing. Whenever anyone asked me then what my objective for the future was I always told them I would be going to Africa to find out what the true character of my history really was. I must admit that the decision to do so at that time was based on romantic assumptions and naivete rather than on any well considered realistic plan of action, However, in the five years that I spent in Europe at that time I underwent an apprenticeship in feature writing and freelance broadcasting that was unparalleled. Instead of pursuing formal academic training as most of my peers were doing at that time I became a fanatic devotee of creative writing. I wrote three novels, one of which I later burnt. One was eventually published in both London and the USA with the title SONG FOR MUMU and declared a Caribbean classic by several international critics, However, before that happened I had found my way to West Africa by a convoluted and almost accidental process and because I had made a lot of African friends during my European sojourn I found it easy to interact with the community once I got there. For the past 57 years I have traversed the region with ease in spite of coming across some momentous occurrences and highly complicated situations. Now that I can view the course of my life from the advantage of old age I must say that my survival might be due to the resilience which comes from my having been born a Jamaican.
I have no idea how much longer I will survive although as I look around I see evidence that many of my friends are living much longer than maybe they expected to. At the same time having gotten to this stage of existence one must acknowledge the loss, often unexpectedly, of several acquaintances. In the last ten years the storm of calls to inform me of the demise of people I have known and been close to has been frightening. I have sired a brood of substantial size and talent. made up of eleven children and twelve grandchildren which means that I will probably be remembered for a long time after my own home call whenever it comes. I will be remembered by my offspring if only because I am undoubtedly their father whether I have been good or bad at paternity. Old age teaches you among other things that those judgments are sometimes unreasonable and baseless. All that matters is that one should manage to stay around and be available for discourse as much as possible. A full life is made up of as many faults as credits and the age you feel is too far to reach might sometimes be just the beginning. I think often of Jamaica with a touch of nostalgia now not because I have any regrets about having chosen to live most of my life in West Africa. That old age emotion affects me because at this stage of my life I understand more wholesomely why my interaction with my Grandpa in Jamaica drove me towards the continent. If I am unlucky and unable to see the island once again I am sure that some of my children and grandchildren will keep in touch with their island homeland. However, ,my old age wish is that before the inevitable end I will pay at least one visit to Jamaica where my African life really began.