When I wrote Visit the Mortuary in the Sunday Times early in 1974, the motive was to draw attention to the emerging decay in our national ethos brought about by the emergency millionaires created by the Civil War, the Udoji bonanza, and the untouchables in the Gowon administration. It was the era of lavish parties where bundles of wads of currency notes were thrown at the feet of musicians or pasted on the foreheads of sweating celebrants.
I was at the Church service for the funeral of my former boss Mr Kola Bamgbelu’s father and had my nostrils confronted by the heavily perfumed, gaily dressed women whose well packaged and padded buttocks were bulging through the pews they sat on. It was the most lavish display of wealth and opulence I ever saw. Earlier on in the month I had been sent by my Chairman Dr Babatunde Jose to the Military Morgue to confirm the sudden death of my mother’s cousin, Western Region’s most powerful Secretary to Military Government and Head of Service Peter T Odumosu. Mortuary attendants left me dumbfounded by their emotionless identification of dead bodies.
Those two events coupled with the impression planted on my consciousness by my first visit to London much earlier taught me unforgettable lessons on the subject of Vanity upon Vanity.
It has therefore been a recurring subject of conversation for me; the ephemeral status of status, the ordinariness of every human being regardless of the temporary position of power, affluence and influence, the fact that no person is actually bigger or greater than what he is when stark naked in the bathroom, and worthlessness of craze for material acquisition.
On my first visit to the United Kingdom what struck me like thunder bolt was the obvious realisation that more than 99% of the original owners of all the old buildings in the City of London were dead! And I transferred that thought to my hometown Ago-Iwoye, the greatest city in the world. My mind ran through all the roads, routes, streets and corners combed with my feet as my colleagues and I went through the exciting town in our youth.
We were home at Isamuro, Igan, Ibipe, Idode, Imere, Imosu, Odosinusi and Imososi as we joyfully played round the exciting ancient town in those days. Looking back now, more than 99% of the houses that fed us with Ikokore and Ebiripo have lost their original owners to death.
This is the same story, I am sure, in Benin and Calabar, two cities that reputedly have more land ladies than land lords, and in all towns and cities that are older than 300 years. Lagos, Ibadan, Kano and Sokoto are old cities and they keep expanding and modernising, but nonetheless, the inner cities of those ancient towns must have lost the original landlords of the major buildings that gave those cities their peculiar character.
As we go through this piece, it is my desire that readers of whatever age, but more especially the older readers should cast their minds on the old towns and cities well known to them and imagine for a moment if the builders and proud owners of the many buildings thereat are still alive.
In my generation, the years 1972 to 1979 were the years of property acquisition craze. Most men in my generation at that time were dying to erect a building that they would call their own. Thank God for the inimitable foresight of Chief Obafemi Awolowo who created the Housing Corporation before our time and made Mortgage loans available. And my generation did not settle for modest buildings. The reason for that choice I would never know, but it was simply the fashion. Dr Kunle Olajide, physician and philosopher, must have led the pack when he completed his first mansion in a huge complex before 1974! He was just 30 years old!
Now in our 70s, most of us are likely to go the way of our predecessors. And in 50 years or thereabout, passersby would be asking the same question: Where are the owners of these houses?
This is the crux of this article. If those who acquired their dwelling houses genuinely and with their sweat and hard earned money could say ‘bye-bye’ to those buildings, how much more for those who acquire buildings they never occupy?
Does it ever occur to all those stealing and stealing, looting and looting, and buying up properties in Japan, Germany, and Papua New Guinea that sooner or later those huge buildings for which they lost their name and soul would belong to new owners? Do they ever reflect and realise that sooner or later passersby would look at their ill-gotten buildings and ask “where are the original owners of these houses?”
If only we stop to reflect on the fact that our great grandfather’s farmlands have reverted to forests and bushes, if only we stop to reflect on the example of our great grand parents whose once towering buildings are now desolate in the villages and are now occupied, if at all, by itinerary labourers, if only, if only, we would moderate our life style and remember that every exhibitionism of opulence is vanity.
Nigeria needs to be brought back to the path of sanity. We need to come back to moral rectitude. Jail houses without moral reawakening cannot change Nigeria. Unfortunately Mosques and Churches have lost their sense of direction. Mass poverty has reduced congregants to morons. And rogues in religious robes are feeding fat on people’s ignorance and low self esteem.
The solution therefore lies in dialogues and conversations about lessons of life. We have attached undue importance to many things to the detriment of our peace of mind and humanity.
We must continue to ask the question; where are the owners of these houses anytime we visit our towns and villages and behold those houses that once stood majestically in the then centre of the town?
I know not many of us can visit London or Austria, but we do have ancient towns like Zungeru, Abakaliki and Ile-Ife. Go round those ancient places and ask yourself ‘Where are the owners of these old, old buildings?’ The answer in your mind’s eye tells you that you should not bother to own houses in South Africa or United Arab Emirates.
Guest Post by Tola Adeniyi