Lois Adesanmi: Ponmo is Sweeter than Meat
By Pius Adesanmi. May 9, 2016.
Among the many sins of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the military tyrant who ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1993, was the fact that he forced so many hardworking, honest, and dedicated mothers to undertake the difficult task of rationalizing diminished circumstances to and for their children.
Ibrahim Babangida’s SAP and other ruinous policies disappeared Nigeria’s middle class. His social engineering created a class apartheid of the super rich and the super poor with nothing in the middle. Nigeria has never recovered from Babangida.
Lois Adesanmi was a secondary school teacher. Her husband, Alfred Adesanmi, was a secondary school principal. As teachers, they belonged in the doomed category of the middle class that Babangida destroyed. It was Lois Adesanmi’s duty to explain to her only son why the family was descending the rungs of the socio-economic ladder at a pace too dizzying for a kid to understand.
Adebola Adesanmi’s cosy middle class life involved a scenario of two family cars: his father’s Datsun and his mother’s Renault 12. It also involved what passes today for continental breakfast in upper class Nigeria. Growing up, Adebola Adesanmi’s breakfast universe featured planta, blueband margarine, Horlicks, custard, Quaker oats, peak milk, Titus sardines, geisha, baked beans, and Nasco corn flakes.
Then the tragedy that was Ibrahim Babangida happened to Nigeria and these items bade farewell to the tables of the middle class and migrated hurriedly to the breakfast tables of the super rich. Adebola Adesanmi was too young to understand why planta and co were no longer available for breakfast.
Every morning, Lois Adesanmi mustered all the dignity in this world to explain to her son that akara and akamu, akara and eko, fried yam and stew, or boiled yam and boiled garden egg were more nutritious than the breakfast menu he had been used to all his life.
If the lad persisted in his demand for what he was used to, she would teach him to be thankful for what was available. She would teach him to pray for other families who considered what he was complaining about unaffordable luxury. She would hold his head against her chest and plead with him. She would stroke his head calmly, calling him by his praise names and oriki and predicting a future when he would be able to afford all the things that had disappeared from his breakfast menu. She would sing to him and tie such a glorious future to success in his studies.
On the rare occasion that she failed to console the boy, Alfred Adesanmi’s koboko would intervene to settle the matter. Alfred Adesanmi had studied in the United Kingdom. He belonged in the generation of Nigerians for whom any departure from the English of the English was insufferable. His syntax, pronunciation, and syllabic stresses were those of the BBC. He was a man of great erudition. There was the inevitable Latin phrase in every other sentence. If he had to discipline you, it was in your interest that he expressed his anger in Yagba or Yoruba. If he came at you in his impeccable Queen’s English, that was not good at all.
My breakfast recalcitrance always earned me his interventions in English.
“Bola, you were not born to tarnish my name with greed!”
“Bola, you were not born to smear my name with avarice!”
“Bola, you were not born to soil my name with arrogance!”
“Bola, it has pleased God to bless your parents with the ability to offer you akara and akamu for breakfast. The day I hear that you look down on breakfast again in this house, you will go without lunch and dinner. What?! Did I just see you frown…?”
He would approach menacingly. Lois Adesanmi would step in diplomatically between father and son. Only she knew the secret of ostensibly supporting her husband in the verbal chastising of their son while actually tactically shielding the lad from her husband’s koboko.
“Bola, I can’t believe you frowned in the presence of Baba! Omo yi ma go o!”
“Bola, afira, prostrate and say sorry to Baba.”
“Bola, afira, prostrate and thank Baba for breakfast this morning.”
Alfred Adesanmi would storm out, satisfied that his wife had taken over the reprimand of their son. As soon as he was out of sight, a tearful Lois Adesanmi would gather the boy in her arms and plead for his cooperation. Gradually, the boy began to acquire a vague understanding of why his middle class breakfast was disappearing item by item, replaced by more affordable – and more nutritious according to Lois Adesanmi – local items.
Those were the desperate times when Lois Adesanmi acquired the verbal dexterity to convince her son that meat was overrated because, if you really think of it, ponmo was sweeter than meat. It was so convincing that Adebola Adesanmi actually started to harbour a grudge against meat for having cheated by impersonating the delicious qualities of ponmo all these years.
Babangida continued to dig Nigeria’s grave deeper and deeper.
Lois Adesanmi continued to work magic to prevent her son from being exposed to the real level of the family’s economic desperation. Her husband’s voyage into the diabetes that ravaged him for the last 22 years of his life had begun. He could no longer work. Their three children and at least a dozen other cousins and nephews and uncles they were raising and training now all relied on her salary.
This translated to more reduced privileges for her son.
This translated to more intransigence and lack of understanding on the part of the boy. Alfred Adesanmi was now too ill to curtail him with Queen’s English, Latin, and koboko. Desperate times for Lois Adesanmi. She would call her son into the sanctuary of her bedroom and plead with him.
“Bola, there are thirteen of you living in this house. You all depend on Baba and I. Yes, only three of you are our children but you know that we cannot treat the three of you differently. There can be no special treatment for you in this house because we are Christians. You have to eat what the others eat. Bola please, do not disgrace me. You shouldn’t be the one openly rebelling against me by rejecting your food. Okay, I will try to provide everybody with boiled egg for breakfast tomorrow but it means you must come first in your class this term.”
And she would ask Adebola Adesanmi to kneel down. And they would say the Rosary. And they would pray. And she would tell him about all the things she’d been told that her only son would achieve in the future. And she would say that the difficulties the family was currently facing were nothing compared to the glorious future they said awaited her son. And her son would try to cooperate and go along with the regularity of eba and amala in his life and the fewer intrusions of rice and stew.
The boy cleared WAEC and JAMB and went to the University of Ilroin to major in French. Lois Adesanmi took her son to Lara book shop in Ilorin to purchase all the books he would need for his first year of courses. She had money only for the French books. Adebola had also chosen English as his first minor and needed to buy Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s, novel, Petals of Blood, which had been recommended by his first literature teacher in the English Department, the late Dr. Bayo Ogunjimi.
Lois Adesanmi promised to return the following week to buy the novel. She kept her promise. She came to fetch Adebola on campus and they went somewhere in Ilorin. Adebola was curious for he had thought they were heading out to the bookshop. He also noticed that his mother was clutching her jewellery case which contained gold necklaces and ear rings she hardly wore. Some she had inherited from European missionaries and some had been gifts that Alfred Adesanmi gave her when they married in 1959. What was she doing with her precious jewellery box?
They arrived at a location. She bargained back and forth with a man. Then, she handed two of her most precious gold chains to the man who proceeded to examine them meticulously before handing her a few naira notes and telling her that he was not really in the mood for such bargains that day but, hey, a man must take pity on a poor woman. Oju lon roju s’aanu.
Lois Adesanmi knelt down and thanked the man profusely.
And the word, “pawning”, crashed violently into Adebola Adesanmi’s world.
From the pawn shop, they headed out to Lara book shop and Adebola Adesanmi’s copy of Ngugi’s Petals of Blood was purchased with money that Lois Adesanmi had sourced by pawning her wedding jewellery.
That copy of Ngugi’s novel has remained with him ever since.
It will be placed on his chest and buried with him when he dies.
Such is his wish.
The image of his mother kneeling down in submission, in total humiliation to pawn her jewellery just to be able to afford to buy him a novel and perhaps have a little left for Alfred Adesanmi’s increasingly expensive diabetes treatment is also something he will carry to his grave.
“Just make a first class”, Lois Adesanmi pleaded as she handed the novel to him.
He did not hear her. He was thinking of how Ibrahim Babangida’s rape of Nigeria had always managed to be intensely personal for him. Two years later, Gideon Orkar struck against Babangida. He joined hundreds of other students to march jubilantly through Ilorin city, celebrating the coup d’Etat. A few hours later, they returned to campus to a disastrous radio announcement.
“Pellow Naijayrians, I Major General Sani Abacha of the Naijayrian Armed Posses…”
The coup had been crushed. Babangida was still in power. Adebola Adesanmi was preparing to head out to Togo with his course mates for the year abroad programme.
Babangida dealt him another blow.
The year abroad program for French Students used to be free, sponsored by the Federal Government. French Students in Federal Universities spent the third year of their programme in a French speaking country. It used to be in France. To cut costs, the Federal Government signed agreements in Dakar and Abidjan before finally settling for Lome.
Adebola Adesanmi and his coursemates were the last set to go abroad. After them, the Nigerian government abolished the programme and set up the Nigeria French Language Village.
Adebola Adesanmi and his peers were also the first to pay for the programme. The Federal Government under Babangida asked them to pay half of their expenses for the year in Togo.
Three thousand naira!
Where on earth was Lois Adesanmi going to find such a humongous amount of money? Here was a woman who had been forced to pawn her jewellery just to be able to buy him a novel two years earlier when he was in one hundred level. And things had worsened considerably since then! The bulk of the family’s income was eaten up by Alfred Adesanmi’s hospital fees. And there were still all those cousins and nephews and uncles in school – sponsored by the same salary!
Adebola Adesanmi went dejectedly to Isanlu to announce the bad news. Lois Adesanmi smiled and said God would provide. She sent her son back to school in Ilorin with the assurance that she would bring the money in due course. Two weeks later, she was in Ilorin with the money.
“Mom, where did you get the money? Who lent you money?”
“Bola, what did I tell you about faith in God? He provided. He has never disappointed me and will not start with the education of my only son. Just make a first class.”
I went to Togo not knowing where the money came from. One year later, I was back in Nigeria. When I got to Isanlu, I noticed that we had become a one-car family. Lois Adesanmi’s car was gone. Only Baba Adesanmi’s car remained.
“Mom, where is your car?”
“Bola, what is your own with my car? Just make a first class. By the way, did you attend Mass regularly in Togo? Did you say your Rosary regularly in Togo?”
She had changed the topic.
I did not insist.
No words were needed.
I now understood where she got the three thousand naira to send me to Togo. She had sold her car.
Other items disappeared regularly from her wardrobe as I continued my studies.
I no longer asked what had happened to her stuff. I was scared.
First Class Honours.