Today is my Mom’s birthday.
And more than anytime else, today, I realise how much she means to me; how much she has done.
My brother won something for his school recently, he told me on WhatsApp. My mother called me later and said in jest: You haven’t congratulated me for your brother’s success, me who was you all’s first teacher.
She wasn’t lying. She wasn’t entirely joking either —my mother says, in jest and play, therein lies the truth.
But she was my first teacher in deed. She homeschooled me such that I did not need to do kindergarten and started school from primary one. Such that at four I could read and write two languages fluently. Mother who drew, to illustrate for me things I appeared not to understand. Mother who taught me how to ride a bicycle at five—a sport for which I would have great love, love so great that Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace would be personal grief.
Mother who went to Lagos and returned from Oshodi every other day with Ghana-must-go’s of books and toys. Toys with which I told my first stories, and learned my first stories. Toys so much that whenever people came visiting at our house with their children, getting the children to follow their parents home was a struggle. Eventually, she’d give one to the crying child so they could leave with the parent. Mother who filled my world with charts upon charts, that from the top of my head, I could tell you countries where you would find a goldfinch.
Mother who first taught me about the continents, named for me all the oceans and told me that if you pushed it hard enough, Africa would fit into South America, like a jigsaw puzzle.
Mother from whom I learnt about Fela Kuti, that weed-smoking Afrobeat maestro whose excoriating discography and frenzied stage dance I would come to adore.
It was she who introduced me to poetry: from One Two, Buckle My Shoe in the many books of nursery rhymes she bought, to Shel Silverstein’s Ations, to Wole Soyinka’s Abiku in West African Verse. Abiku —I doubt she understood the poem apart from knowing it is about child-spirits caught in that limbo between here and the hereafter (or is it the Great Before?), because she would listen with rapt attention years later, after coming into the great light of poetry myself, as I explained to her the meaning of the poem, line by line. Yes, I came into the conflagration of poetry and its sheer fieriness washed over me, but it was she who put the first flame in my palms —solitary and promising.
Mother who would tell me to read a book, and whenever I asked “what is it about?”, she would say “I can’t really remember but it is a good book” or “your dad gave it me to read a long time ago but I don’t think I finished it, but it’s a good book”.
It is always a good book.
Mother who bought me a computer the price of which was five times her original budget because “you said it’s something you need for your work”. Mother who took time off work at my request, to accompany me to buy my first camera without even knowing what a shutter button was (she does now, I think), because I lacked the guts to pay $1500 for something I love.
Mother who, just this month, sent me money to order a dream lens and never stopped calling until it got into my hands.
Mother who prays ceaselessly, but thinks she doesn’t pray enough. Mother who would enter your room at 3am to anoint your forehead with olive oil, and even though awaken by the exercise, you would feign deep sleep so you wouldn’t join her in prayer.
In church, we were told that it is canonically and spiritually wrong to say another prayer after saying the Grace, and I held onto this —in those days, I held onto a lot of things. My mother has this habit of saying a prayer after the grace, because there’s always a distant relative who was left out of the main prayer, there’s always someone who has an exam the next week and needs the excellent spirit of Daniel to pass in flying colours. Once, I reminded my mother of what they said in church about saying a prayer after the Grace, because the habit annoyed me. I can’t remember what she said, but she never stopped, and I doubt she ever will. It reminds me of Chris Abani’s poem where he wrote:
For is prayer not disobedience?
The questioning of God’s order?
Mother who has always been for the good trouble, the good fight, the one that sets things right, or at the very least establish that they are wrong. If your ox is gored, then serve you right for letting it charge full tilt at her blade.
To anyone who cares to ask, I say my favorite name is Nneka. Mother is Supreme. I think I saw that first in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when Okonkwo flees to the welcoming earth of his mother’s clan because he desecrated his father’s clan’s. But isn’t existence plagiarism?
I say Mother and mean bulwark. I say Mother and mean sacramental font rimmed with chrysanthemums. I say Mother and mean guiding thread in the labyrinth.
As I write this, I have Novo Amor’s “Repeat Until Death” on repeat because this, all of it —the undying devotion, the unchecked readiness to sacrifice —repeating until death, repeated until death.
Mother, from whom a lot of things beautiful about me came, happy birthday.