To every child, at least at the very beginning of childhood, the parents are like gods and heroes. It is only very few children that do not imbue their parents with heroic attributes. And it is indeed only very few parents who retain these heroic character throughout the growth and maturation of the child.
This is not to blame the parents because parenting requires some delicate balance which only a few can manage. And this is not to ever forget that parenting does not always come with a previous manual; parenting is always a first-time experimentation, and no one child is like the other.
Ellen Key, the Swedish educationalist, captures the delicate balance in parenting: “At every step the child should be allowed to meet the real experiences of life; the thorns should never be plucked from his roses.” How is this to be done while still retaining the tender and loving nurturing that makes you a hero or heroine in the eyes of your child?
My mother, Beatrice Okebola Ajile Olaopa, remains a solid heroic figure for me till the day she took her last breath. I have written so much about those who affected my growth, mentored my intellectual maturation and influenced my professional passion for reform and social reconstruction, especially of the institutional basis of governance.
I have equally written about the significant role that my home town, Aáwé and how its context of Mazrui’s triple heritage (Christianity, Islam and Traditional Beliefs) played in my eventual coming of age as a mature intellectual.
But I seem to have remained silent about the critical task that Providence placed on my mother as the other significant half of a parenting duo who gave birth to Adetunji Olaopa, and inevitably shaped his worldview and scholarship.
Parenting is a heavy burden to bear. And only very happy few have survived and remain the same within its arduous terrain.
At the core of it is the art of socialisation, inculcating into the tabula rasa of the child cogent experiential gems, thoughts, insights, attitudes and values that even the parents may not be sure have critical existential validity.
Parents socialise their children as best as they could. Anne Frank, the German diarist, contends that “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
But then parents’ influence on their children seems a lifelong incidence. Children imitate their parents, and become either deformed or firmly formed to take on the critical tasks of life. Indeed, if asked, the family provides the very foundation of citizenship, good and bad.
One’s children constitute the very image of who one is, good or bad. I do not know what my mother could have written about raising me as an energetic boy not different from any other. In spite of all that made her simply human, I know two sure things in retrospect.
First, my mother took her profession of a mothering parentage (even as she did not attend any formal school) with the utmost seriousness that is only rivaled by living itself. Second, she was essentially successful because she left me with critical insights and instructions that have stayed with me for decades since I was born.
I remember vividly that my mother never got tired of drumming into my ears (and my guess is that she perhaps communicated the same message to all of us, perhaps with different emphases) the point that I must never be weary of striving to become the best in life, and this is because much of her future and most of everything she has been blessed with may eventually rest on God’s grace and on my shoulders.
I did not take this admonition to be one that urged me into wealth acquisition since she would have been discerning enough to know that my growth trajectory was far from being acquisitive in the material sense. My temperament right from my secondary school day has remained an introspective one that pursues knowledge and books.
I give her the credit for buying for me, every week, while I was home on holidays, either Time or Newsweek magazines or the Economist of London (which were learning manuals for me as a youth), insisting that I had to choose one. This lasted all through my undergraduate years.
My mother must have seen far enough to know that wealth must eventually reward hard work. She was right: Hard work took me from Aáwé to Lagos and to Abuja, and gave me a lifelong trajectory of a knowledge seeker and a reformer. But I took more than that admonition from her.
I could say my mother was as philosophical as my late father in spite of her entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, her reflective predilection bothered on the fatalistic. It is still a surprise to me, even till now, that they stopped me from pursuing my first and still glowing love for philosophy.
This philosophic predilection, I suspect, is also responsible for her orientation, especially her sincere conviction that one cannot always externalise responsibility for whatever is happening in one’s life. There is no reformer who can do without this critical gem from my mother.
My mother was averse to superstitious thinking, even as she held steadfastly to the Bible and the much of its tenets she had the grace to practice, and all reformers must also be. Whatever dysfunction happens in a person’s or nation’s life is the function of a chain reaction that follows specific actions. To reverse the dysfunction requires first owning up to what has been done rather than passing the buck to someone else.
Of course, to have adequately learnt this lesson meant many strokes of the cane and preaching relentlessly to a hapless child. But I learnt it all the same, and it is only hindsight that sometimes enables the gratitude that no child felt at the strokes of the cane, though I managed to be considered undeserving of such pains more often than not.
Not being superstitious could sometimes serve as a corollary of being self-reliant. The Festus Adeyemo Olaopa family was not a rich one (lower middle-class, though with the evident burden of poverty), but it was not destitute.
We learnt to be contented with whatever we had. More than this, we learnt to explore the potentials within us rather than waiting on others to open for us the sluices of opportunities. I never understood my mother’s constant frustration of all our attempts to celebrate her regularly in the same manner we did with regard to my father, even until his 90th birthday.
But each time we brought up plans for pomp and celebration, she was always insisting we deploy the celebration resources as investment into the struggles of some of her other children. Investing in the latent potentials of those who have more breath of life ahead of them meant more to my mother than lavishing resources on her ageing whims.
But then, does it not stand to reason that such a heroine who remained a stalwart of steadfast faith in God, as well as a reference point for a joyous and contented spirit, large-heartedness, long-suffering and a scientific outlook on life should also be celebrated, even against her wish?
Our collective desire to honour this inspiring woman finally came true when she gave in to our persistence, and we eventually celebrated the cumulation of her life achievements at a ripe age of 90 with great pomp and happiness before she departed this plane of existence.
Unfortunately, parentage is only heroic when it has succeeded in the successful upbringing of the children. Fortunately, my mother succeeded where many others have failed. And she succeeded against all odds, cultural, religious, contextual and even psychological.
That is what makes a hero—the desire to carry the baton until one reaches the destination. It is possible to say on behalf of Beatrice Okebola Ajile Olaopa, like Apostle Paul, that she fought the good fight, she finished the race and she kept the faith!
My mother is gone now, and her going leaves an ambivalent taste in the mouth—who wants such a good woman to die? She lived a good life; laboured and suffered for the sake of her children; loved her husband as best as she could; but loved her children even more; and she stoically accepted the vicissitudes of life.
For a befitting epitaph, Ajile was not the most heroic of all women; she was just a mother who saw the future of her children and nurtured them carefully towards it; a woman who died after having fulfilled her life’s mandate.
Dr. Olaopa, a former Federal Permanent Secretary, is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).