Tobi sprang to his feet as the elder Longe approached the visitor’s area escorted by a young guard with a deep probing stare and a deep scowl meant for one of higher authority than him of lowly rank. Tobi’s attention barely stayed on him as he was more fixated on Femi, who seemed a little thinner than the last visit.
“Good morning father.” Tobi’s greeting like his nod was curt, and he fought against the weird temptation of hugging Femi whose eyes and form was an entire shadow of himself. Femi’s eyes were tired, saggy and hollow in its socket, and for the briefest moment, Tobi noticed the painful contort of his face as he settled. God! Were the others blind to this?
“Are you well father?” The words all but stumbled out of Tobi’s mouth as he sat face to face with his father.
“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”
“You seem….different” Tobi explained yet studying him on slanted gaze like some specimen he was weirdly curious about. He was no fool to give to Femi’s easy dismissal. And when another fraction of pain passed, he didn’t question him but decided to keep an even closer eye on Femi. Something was up with Femi and being him it was no surprise he would hoard back except if he felt the need to. Tobi could only hope whatever it was was not chronic.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you. I’ve been quite busy. Work has been demanding of late.” Tobi explained with a curious glance at the young warder monitoring the pair. “And why does he keep looking at us with such distrust?”
Femi didn’t bother a glance behind. He knew whom and what Tobi was referring to because he’d felt his preening gaze in the past weeks. “I think he suspects the hospital stunt. He’s been on my trail since then.” He whispered.
“That’s not good.”
“I know,” Femi whispered back. “But I do not intend on any more visits. Not when I have been banished by my daughter.”
Tobi’s smile was vague.
“So you said something about farming?”
“I know right.” The younger man nodded, now proudly settling into his seat, a proud smile on his lips as he relayed to his father his newest project and the recently acquired acres of land for the new venture. Tobi was going commercial, large scale farming; palm oil production and exportation, cassava and cocoa production, and processing.
“Wow! That’s great Tobi, I never figured you for the sort.” Respect and pride played apparently in Femi’s face that Tobi was returning to his roots.
Relaying some plans and ideas to his father, Tobi momentarily felt like that kid at seventeen craning his father’s approval. Except now he was grown and didn’t need approval to pride in his accomplishments.
Starry-eyed, Femi listened to his son as he shared his dreams, except his concentration was momentarily disrupted when more than once he broke on a teary wheeze, soon catching his breath and alluding it to a cold. “I never knew of your interest in farming, talk more of large scale”
A slow grin spread on Femi’s face. “I’m a businessman father, it’s only natural to delve into profitable enterprises. And seeing the drastic fall in crude oil prices, I believe agriculture is the next big thing.”
Femi regretfully nodded his agreement, watching Tobi ease in his seat in that air of superiority that only spewed from long years of leadership. Once Femi had been just that way, though that now seemed like eons away.
“For me, agriculture is huge.” he heard Femi say. “With the right incentives and proper management, it’s a life-long investment, because truthfully, food is one of man’s basic needs.”
“True.” Femi agreed, regretfully wishing he’d known as much in his age. Perhaps he might have done better than foolish dependence on government aids back at a time when agriculture seemed the country’s backbone until the smooth divert into oil.
“Father, you know I still wonder how the nation could completely forgo such profitability for oil.”
“Greed, laziness, call it whatever. As your mother says, it was a case of ariyawo titun koiyawoile*. We all are guilty of it. We were swayed by the abundance of black gold and some of us didn’t know better to operate independently of the government. They promised us heaven you know, until the advent of the black gold.”
He heard the pain in Femi’s voice and recognized the deep well of guilt. And without thoughts, he reached for Femi’s hands across the desk trying to ease his pain.“We all have made a mistake. The nation has a whole has. But we can fix it. It’s high time we awoke to the reality of things and got started at work again-I mean those who are blessed with the opportunity to. We should be more producers than consumers. By each passing day, the economy is devaluating, our currency is fast losing its worth and needs are not getting any cheaper. The poor become poorer and very little can afford two meals to talk more of three. It’s pretty bad father.”
“I know. I see it on the news. The people’s grumblings are incessant.”
“That’s the thing.”Femi sprang in his seat, emotionally irked. “Most have taken to the habit of grumbling and very few want to take charge and make things happen, while the rest just sit around, expecting a miracle and a savior in the next government which I’m not saying is impossible, but change is only gradual. It’s high time people took charge and made something of themselves and of the nation, or things will only worsen.”
Tobi clutched Femi’s hands even tighter now, solely owning his attention. “My point father, is that we can make it right. Each personal quota and contribution will go a long way in making a difference.”
Femi’s smile was wan and regretful. “Very true Tobi. Go make the difference.” Femi made a warped face to those words as if to say look, I’m here in prison.
“Sure, for us. I know a lot of time has passed for you here, but just think of yourself as reliving through me. You made a mistake, you had a past but don’t let it beat you down. If you ever think yourself a failure, just remember the miracle your seed produced in me and Pelumi. Your legacy lives in us both and that’s more than enough success.”
Femi’s eye lit with hope and a mixture of something else.
“You were always a good father and I love you as much as it goes. You gave us the best when you could father. I remember a great childhood of good exposure and influences that opened my eyes to vast wealth, opportunities that I always knew I would become something. You father planted the first seed of hope, possibility, and belief in me and whenever I do remember I owe it to all those lessons and thus to you.”
Femi sniffed suddenly teary.
“Pelumi on the other hand, let’s say has been through a lot, probably too much than she can bear.”
He nodded fervently, sniffing again.
“But I hope she heals in time and warms up to you so she can realize what a great father you were… and you still are.”
Those last words were Femi’s undoing that let loose streams of tears he’d been trying so hard to contain. “Thank you Tobi, you are too kind.” He choked on tears barely able to converse now. “You have no idea what this means to me. I don’t deserve this.”
“No father, you do. Everyone deserves the truth. So you see, we are a team again. We are making the change together. You through me.”
Amidst the tears, Femi couldn’t help a laugh this time. “Yes, you are probably right.”
Tobi would never understand how those words had impacted Femi. They were like life to dry bones.
“Thank you again Tobi.” He sniffed.”You are a great son too. I love you and I’m proud of you. I’m proud of what you are making of yourself and I’m glad you are not making the mistake of relying on the government as I did.”
Tobi sat back in his seat, a twinkling smile on his lips. “Nooo father, not in this country where no one cares and O.Y.O is the case.”
Femi chortled a laugh at the slang simply translated as ‘on your own’. The air had since eased along with Femi’s countenance visibly lifted.
The conversation from then dallied from Tobi’s family, Femi’s well-being and then Pelumi.
“So how is your sister?” Femi had only begun to ask when suddenly seized by another chest wracking feat which lasted even longer than Femi could take track of. At last, when finally relieved from it, he blinked back tears, only then noting Tobi’s presence, particularly the warmth generating from the palm monotonously gliding over his back.
“What’s wrong father?”
Misty eyed he looked up the face much similar to his. “I’m fine Tobi. It’s just cold.”
“No father, this doesn’t seem like mere cold to me.” Tobi started to protest but let it pass as his father assured otherwise.
“ I promise, it’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been to the nurse and I have had some medication.”
He looked first from his father to the cautious warder, wondering whether to believe or not, but decided to go with what seemed to be the truth in Femi’s eyes, only then returning to his seat, a monitory gaze matching the warder’s.
“So how is your sister?”
“She is fine, very fine. Only developing feelings for the wrong person.” He responded finally turning off the warder he’d dubbed as unimportant.
Femi frowned, concerned by the edge in Tobi’s tone. “I don’t understand.”
“I think-I believe she has feelings for her doctor.”
“And that is bad how?” Femi’s frown had skeptically deepened.
“He is Igbo” Tobi announced matter of factly deftly awaiting an impact and when seeing none, expatiated. “Apart from the language barrier and other cultural differences, they are too opinionated, and perhaps the most tribalistic persons I know. I will never put Pelumi through that. Not especially after all she’s experienced.
A vague quiescent smile broke over Femi’s face.
“Father?” Tobi called appalled.
“I used to think like you son, but not anymore.” Tobi’s voice quietly filled the silence. “I guess I now understand the ingenuity of each person and culture. Like you, I grew with a biased mind towards other tribes. I was trained to think them distrustful and really I had every right to, I had met quite a couple of such. But then I realized every tribe has a few of that kind.”
Tobi’s head darted fervently. “No father, you are wrong. This is different and you know that.”
“No Tobi, you are wrong. I have met some great Igbo people in here, they have been worthy companions and I have never had any reason to doubt them.”
“Probably just one out of a million.” Tobi snorted and when finally resolving each’s differing views on the matter, concluded. “You know what father. I am not talking tribe or diversification. Personally, I have my reservations about them and I won’t let Pelumi fall victim of that.”
“And what if she doesn’t agree or concur to them?”
Tobi’s gaze hardened as he boiled of silent anger.
“See Tobi, I understand your thoughts and reasoning but that’s not how to bring peace and harmony to a nation. There are two shades to a people you know. Every culture has its bad and good. We all have to embrace ourselves and strike a balance somehow and learn to coexist as one, unbarred by our differences. No one is a hundred percent perfect.”
“I know father. You think I’m not a supporter of unity, I am! But it goes beyond that. Trust me I’ve seen the struggle in making such marriages work. Family pressure and segregation. Insecurity for the woman in the midst of relatives even in her home. The woman ends up the recipient of it all.” At this, Tobi relayed an instance of a friend living such nightmarish experience and her growing complaints as to existing an outcast in a home now dominated by language-speaking inlaws. And from paranoia, she’d been recently diagnosed of high blood pressure.
“I understand, but that can easily be fixed. Love conquers all. If she really wants him, she can learn the language.”
Tobi huffed his disgust, glaring like Femi had suddenly grown seven heads. “You make that sound like ABC. We know that’s hard father. Also, let’s not forget that she is a woman, and no matter how you see this, she stands at a higher disadvantage compared to the man.”
Perhaps he was right. In this part of the world, the onus for utter change fell on the woman. On marriage, she was a different person, done forfeiting all of her past identity and cultural practices, and bound to a new one-her husband’s. Frankly, females had to make the most compromise. However if eventually, it was Pelumi’s wish, who were they to ask otherwise? “I see you are tribalistic.”
“I’m not tribalistic.’ Tobi straightened in his seat nearing Femi on a whisper. “I am only being realistic. And if anyone is tribalistic, I’ll say it’s the Igbo’s. So much segregation, well beyond any other tribe.”
“That’s sad.” Femi shook his head sadly.
“No offense father, but what’s sad is that you’ve been in here too long, you’ve missed out of the happenings on the street. There’s so much of pretense everywhere, and a front for unity. But somewhere is that underlying friction within us, that no matter how we try to make light of it, tribalism is such an invincible force that’s always present. It breeds favoritism and nepotism in every circle. Workplace, everywhere.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
But it is!
“Let the change can begin with you Tobi. Little droplets of water make a mighty ocean you know. You can choose to be the catalyst, the example and not the reactor. But right now you are as guilty as the next tribalistic being on the street.”
“That’s not true father. All my life, I have played the catalyst, trust me. I have loved all, embraced all and tried to be free and fair, in spite of culture. But what about Pelumi, she is too fragile and all of this can be too much for her to handle. What if she ends up at the worst receiving end, I won’t be responsible for that.”
“Then let her be the determinant of that Tobi. And besides has she personally told you this, about her feelings for him?”
“She didn’t have to. I saw it in her eyes. Perhaps the man in question has seen it too.”
Tobi frowned now at his Femi, wondering what had happened to the father who had once caused him to break ties with his childhood sweetheart Chiamaka because of the obvious. For months he’d hated him, but had grown to understand why. Thus having Femi speak otherwise was baffling.
“If I didn’t know you father, I will think you are merely saying all of this to win into Pelumi’s good books.”
Femi smiled unannoyed. “I am not trying to get into anyone’s books, Tobi. I realize my role in your wrong beliefs, and I apologize for that. I hope I will be able to help correct them and help you see rightly.”
I am seeing rightly as I have in the past eighteen years, thank you. Tobi thought but nodded instead.
Femi huffed a dejected sigh as he saw there was no getting through to Tobi on this one. But for Pelumi’s sake, pushed the last trial.“Cultural differences don’t matter Tobi. At the end of the day, what does is personality. And also, stop working yourself over nothing Tobi. What will be will be.” Femi concluded as the guard appeared, signaling visiting hours over.
Tobi rose mutely in silent disagreement with Femi’s theory, leaning his weight on a lone stick in the same instant Femi stood, with both bidding farewell. Femi swore his appreciation, and Tobi promised to visit again and then asked him to take care of his health. He waited until the man departed with the new warder he’d taken a strong dislike to-that being the least of his worries.
But on Pelumi, one thing was clear, over his dead body will he let her end up with any Nigerian of a different tribe.
Meaning of ariyawo titun koiyawoile; It’s a Yoruba word meaning when the new becomes more appealing/takes precedence over the old