Motherhood and rewards that children bring, a review of Zain Asher’s “Where the Children Take Us” — Niran Adedokun
These days, you’ll find a multitude of videos about Nigerian mothers and their overbearing, sometimes impossible tendencies on the internet. A substantial number of these are comedic representations, which evoke nostalgia in those with first-hand experiences of the fearsome and intentional mothering of women of this race. But it is a different deal for most youngsters experiencing more permissive parenting, even in the country.
The videos poke fun at mothers in the trade between the 1960s and 1980s. They are also a subtle celebration of the successes that these women made of raising children in the face of conflicts from their various levels of exposure to western education.
Traditionally, Nigerian parents are heavy on the “spare not the rod” idea, which they believe, keeps children under check. However, the relative liberalism in western societies brought a dilution, which many mothers struggled with in the determination to bring the best out of their children. Now, when beneficiaries of hard-line upbringing reminisce, they marvel at how much they strain to recognise today’s mothering. So, we all give it up to the mothers of yore for their sacrifices and effectiveness.
This celebration of motherhood and mothering is what Zain Asher’s debut book, Where the Children Take Us, does. Asher shows the yeoman-ship of a working, suddenly widowed Nigerian woman upon whom the care of four children is thrust in a foreign land.
Although people of colour lived with bared-faced chauvinism during the 1900s, this woman was undeterred. The book is the veneration of her commitment and single-mindedness. It is about how she rises above obstacles to raise children who have become living examples of competent upbringing.
Today’s mothers, even in Nigeria, may have an avalanche of justifiable reasons to dismiss the Obiajulu Justina Ejiofor type of motherhood as unattainable. But the subject of this book did not have it all easy. After losing her husband of 14 years and friend of over two decades, the pregnant pharmacist had to nurture her four children, one of whom never knew her father, single-handedly while she worked day and night. She lived through a roller-coaster of emotions with one of the children almost losing his life (in the same accident that took his father), while another was drawn by the delinquency of youth.
But for Obiajulu, it wasn’t just about providing for her children. It was also about guiding them towards attaining their potential and the heights that her late husband desired. And achieving that would not be a mere walk in the park. It took working extra hard and intentional attention to every child’s peculiar need.
When Obinze, her eldest son, was going to derail, she found a way to put him back on track. When Chiwetel, her second son showed an inclination for literature and acting, she developed an impromptu love for literature and books. The pharmacist would study every Shakespearean play her son was performing in, just so she could rehearse with him. Years later, Ejiofor would be nominated for an Oscar and awarded British national honours. He is now Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
With Obiajulu Ejiofor, nothing was impossible. If she set her mind on anything for her children, she accomplished it no matter what it takes. Such is the story of her daughter, Zain Asher’s University of Oxford attainment. Towards the end of Zain’s secondary education, teachers did not see an Oxford student in her, but her mother did.
From that day, she worked with her daughter to achieve the dream. Mrs Ejiofor played on the power of images and vision. She drove her daughter to Oxford College about six times, creating a love and desire for the institution in the hitherto unbelieving girl. But it wasn’t just about the imagery, but also hard work.
To avoid distractions, she cut her daughter off the telephone, television and access to friends for 18 months! The mother would draw attention to news reports about Africans doing well in various walks of life. She cut and pasted newspaper reports on walls around the house to drill it into her children that anything was possible.
“She encouraged us to split our days into three equal parts: eight hours for sleeping, eight hours for school or work and the last eight hours for working towards our dreams. Long before I reached my teenage years, the eight-hour rule was gospel,” Asher writes. Mrs Ejiofor did everything in her power. She even “shipped” her daughter to Enugu and worked extra hard to send her to a private school just to enhance her chances.
But apart from motherhood, Where the Children Take Us also celebrates love. The uncommon affection that existed between Arinze and Obiajulu right from their teenage years would thrill, inspire readers. The lovebirds defied parental scrutiny and the devastations of the Nigerian Civil War, found their way out of the country, and made four children who are now thriving in various walks of life.
Perhaps, in fact, Obiajulu’s dogged commitment to seeing these children do well derives from her fidelity to the dreams she built with Arinze before his untimely death. Theirs is indeed a story of love never failing.
Asher portrays love as the umbilical cord that ties the Ejiofor parents to their children and each child to the other. The book also celebrates the diligence and obedience of the Ejiofor children. Regardless of all their mother did, the children, Obinze, Chiwetel, Zain and Kandibe, could have chosen the wider path of defiance, like the fleeting temptation Obinze went through. But they yielded to her every guidance and refused to let the temptations of adolescence, or the deprivations that attended the colour of their skin, deter them from the goal.
Mrs Ejiofor acknowledges this in the book on the day late Queen Elizabeth II decorated her actor son at the Birmingham Palace. Awed by the grandeur of the evening, Obiajulu looked around her and blurted out: “you never know where the children take us to.” This otherwise impulsive utterance, was equally a deep reflection of the reality of the relationship between the pharmacist and her children. As Romantic Poet, William Wordsworth says in his poem My Heart Leaps Up, “the child is the father of the man.” The values Obiajulu inculcated in her children decades earlier have taken them farther than she could have ever imagined, and now, she’s the one grateful to the children.
In telling her parents’ story, the author visits the unfortunate 30-month Nigerian civil war. The author gives a graphic, scary picture of the death and near-death experiences of so many people who did nothing to deserve the fate this war brought on them.
Asher employs sometimes poetic, sometimes dramatic language to bring her subjects home. Using a prologue, which opens with the words: “there is tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy,” picturesquely showing what is ahead. And with the prologue, she wraps up this creative nonfiction piece of “grit grace… and story of extraordinary triumph…” just as she promised at the start.
While every author has the creative liberty to tell their story as they feel, Asher, who likely pieced her account of the civil war together from oral accounts and information gathered from reading, could have given a more even representation of the events before and during the civil war between 1967 and 1970. But then, the war is only tangential to the story Zain Asher tells in the book published by 4th Estate. London. So, this isolation is excusable.
As to her main purpose, the author says in the prologue, “up against soul-crushing challenges detailed in the pages ahead, Obiajulu raised four children who shattered every expectation. Her unique parenting style, her life-changing sacrifices, and her unrelenting discipline are the reasons my brother is today an Oscar nominated actor; they are the reason I am a CNN anchor with degrees from Oxford and Columbia; my sister, a medical doctor; and my eldest brother is a successful entrepreneur.” The author celebrates Obiajulu and, to some extent, her mother Caroline Usonwa Okafor, who was Obiajulu’s foundation.
These women transmit values that disregard limitations but favour single-minded and focussed self-development; reject unhealthy competition; preach doggedness, deliberate preparation, and the defiance of obstacles like racism. It is proof that nothing is unattainable. A testament that our world still has worthy models.
-Adedokun, a public relations practitioner and lawyer, is the author of The Law is an Ass