The earliest memory I have of Surulere is the sound of Fela Ransome Kuti later known as Fela Anikulapo Kuti blaring from the loudspeakers across the road even though it was a Saturday the song blaring was ‘Lojo Monday Eko oni gba gba ku gbao’ which translates to mean Early on the first working day of the week a Lagosian will not stand being cheated. The next song would be “Jeun Ko ku O, ode, waki and die ode, chop and quench ode” It seemed the loudspeakers where from our neigbours Hans and Anita the German/Nigerian couple who lived opposite our house on Simisola as it certainly was not Dr McMolly the Cameeroonian or Dr Okeke who lived to our right! In those days Fela Ransome – Kuti and Segun Bucknor where the biggest acts in Music and they were “BeenTos” of the highest pedigree. Fela Ransome Kuti started his career with the Koola Lobitos however after an American tour and an exposure to the Black Panthers in 1969 he returned with a political message and a new vibrant sound called ‘Afro Beats’. After getting the golden fleece my parents had returned to Nigeria from England after the civil war and set up home at No 32 Subulola Road Surulere Lagos. The house was on the corner of Simisola Street to the right. At the left end of road was Sam Shonibare and the right end of the road was Ajao Road.
Many of the families In the environment at the time were young couples many were “BeenTos” which meant been to England , Canada or the USA and many had attended the Yaba Technical school and the New Nigerian Universities of which University of Ibadan was Premier. Many were also young successful traders and people of commerce. A young Gani Fawehinmi lived to our left at the time. My parents and their contemporaries the children of the Nationalists where the generation to take over the rein of affairs from the colonialists.
My Mum Juliana Adekunbi Kanmodi was born in Sapele in the old Mid Western region of Nigeria on the first day of April Nineteen hundred and twenty nine, at the time of her birth her father Joseph Okunyade was a Stock Keeper at the United African Company a company whose sole aim although disguised to look as if they were helping the ‘helpless natives’ was to cart away the raw materials of Africa to the United Kingdom and other Western lands, like our timber and plywood, cocoa and commodities too numerous to mention while leaving us with second rated institutions and infrastructure. My grandfather of the Nationalist generation major aim in life was to ensure his children captured the ‘golden fleece'(The golden fleece in Greek mythology is a symbol of authority and kingship, for Africans education brings authority and kingship) to ensure that they will not be enslaved by the colonials forever. My grandmother Elizabeth on the other hand was a trader of all and sundry which meant that my mother had to help to sell her wares in the morning before going to school in the afternoon. For this reason her education was delayed by a few years. Each day as a child must have been long and hard, such is still the life of many an African girl child today and many do not have the opportunities afforded to the girl child in the Nigeria of I940’s today in 2017. It is this background that made my Mum the strict disciplinarian and informed her to teach us to cope with the high and lows of life. This is indeed the background of many African Children of my generation which gives us the ability to cope and stretch ourselves in difficult circumstances.
Our home was a haven of safety, joy and music but it was run with military precision there was a timetable for meals and chores. As the Yoruba say ‘Inu ile latin ko eso rode’ which simply means charity begins at home this was the unspoken mission statement at 32 Subulola! My Mum insisted on structure and we all thank her for it. I can hear her voice saying in Yoruba “Ko Omo re yio si fun e ni isimi” which is from the Bible Proverbs29V17 and says Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; and bring you the delights you desire. I remember when I was 7 my Mum bought me a real Bible, the reserved standard version it was red in colour, I was so excited I think it made me feel like a real grown up I carefully printed my name with my new fountain pen the ones that you use quink ink for (at the age of 7 you were given the licence to use a pen and in my school you used a fountain pen you also needed something called blotting paper), my Mum called me to the kitchen where she was frying chicken, she casually said to me learn by heart Psalm 23 so I can give you some of this chicken! by the end of that day I knew Psalm 27 and 121 off by heart and today even though that version is no longer popular, it’s the version I know.
Saturday was the day for household chores each of us had our duties within the house, there was no need for the Cock Crow at dawn, the happy neighbour will wake you up with Fela’s music and you might even find yourself singing and dancing along. One of the chores I remember doing was brushing the carpet with a miniature brush and dustpan. I also remember dusting our National Cabinet television that came on at 4 O clock and the radio gram the Grundig set that my Dad would play his Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and the unforgettable Dave Brubeck and put me on his feet to waltz around. It was in this room that my life long love for jazz music was developed. I picture the room vividly in my mind,the carpet was maroon and black , the giant 3 sitter settee was maroon it also doubled as a sofa bed for extra visitors when the guest room was not sufficient. There were 2 single sitter blue leather chairs which were also swivel chairs my sister Seke and I swung ourselves round and round on these when our parents were not home. On the front facing wall above the radio gram was my Dad’s 2 golden fleeces a plaque from the University of London and a plaque from the Queens University of Belfast. In our home no one told you to excel in school, the plaques on the wall were the only message required! Every Friday evening we submitted our blue report cards to my Dad this card detailed your progress in each subject and your general conduct which said ‘teachers remarks’ my Dad would sign the card to acknowledge it’s receipt.
During the week we went to bed at 7 O clock the sun had not even set and inside the mosquito net I could still hear the plantain seller hawking her wares crying “Agbo son O, Agbo son ogede agba agba O” which translates too Buy my ripe and big plantains please! The vegetable oil seller would also be crying “Olo ro ro egusi re Olo ro ro egusi re O! For some, the activities of the day were just starting, but at No 32 the main actors were inside their mosquito net! Sometimes I sang along with the hawkers until I fell asleep. At the weekends we stayed up to watch Bar Beach show with Art Alade and Village Headmaster a soap opera about a village school and its environs. In those days Ted Mukoro was the headmaster an d his children came to the same school as me, Angela and Stan. You see, my Mum from the onset started us out the way she wanted us to continue. One person will set the table complete with serviette in serviette rings and one person will pack the table and sweep the floor after the meal. I do remember once asking my dad why the house help could not do the job and I was promptly told that the house help was a person like me too. Saturday was also a day when we had our hair done, during the holidays we sometimes had our hair straightened with what was called a “stretching comb” and curled,for this special treat we would be taken to as saloon known as Elegant twins, the ladies looked lovely in their white mini uniforms and wigs. On school days we had to have our hair plaited there were several ways 1.”irun didi” or corn rows of which there were several styles like ‘kolese’, ‘ panumo’, ‘ipako elede’, ‘ ajan le oso’ , ‘koroba’ 2. “Irun Kiko” or thread plaiting, some of the styles were ‘iyawo gowon’, ‘eko bridge’ 3. Hausa plaits this was usually done by the Mallam’s wife.
However most times my sister Seke and I had “irun didi” corn row it lasted two weeks and no one could pull it loose like “irun Kiko” in case there was a fight. On the Saturdays we were asked to go and do our hair in “irun didi” my sister and I would be so happy because we trekked to Adegoke street to the “Iya Oni diri” (Woman who does hair) it was a chance to play along the road from Simisola to Olufemi, Olukole branch at Bola Benson supermarket, on some days we will get home early and some days it will be late. My Mum had been watching these proceedings quietly then on one Saturday she tricked us, she said to my sister and I that she was taking us to Lennards in Lawanson market to buy some shoes but alas I found myself in the barbers swivel chair! Need I say more ! the true disgrace was going to school with “pongbe style”(when your hair is shaped round the edges like a boy). Such was the discipline of my Mum. Needless to say as soon as the hair started to grow we started to plait it again I had learnt my lesson the hard way, I now went to Mama Rasaki who made hair on our neighbours drive on Simisola I don’t know if she was their relative but she had a baby called Rasaki whom she will lie on her knee, cup her left hand to his mouth and pour cornmeal pap down his throat, my sister and I watched in incredulity as the child swallowed and choked. As she force fed this baby she will bust into a song which goes “Rasaki polongo O, to ba Dagba yio Gbe ya wo, abimo polongo” which translates too Rasaki my dear son very soon you will grow too and take a wife and have a baby like yourself. My sister Seke and I soon changed the song to “Rasaki polongo igbe polongo igbe po” which translates too Rasaki the poopoo baby. Looking back now Mama Rasaki was just another African single mother trying to survive on pennies, she had neither feeding bottle nor Lactogen milk, she had no terry nappies she used mere rags living in a society that has no social services for the poor but she did my hair perfectly well.
My mum used to go to morning, afternoon and night duties she did her initial training as a nurse in Eleyele Ibadan in the Western region of Nigeria she worked as nurse for close to 45 years of her life on going through her resume from St Teresa’s college Ibadan through so many diplomas I am convinced she could have gone higher and become a Professor however she was only allowed to get her Golden Fleece after her younger brother had completed his initial training in medicine. Such was the opportunity cost in many families of her time, the girl child may be held back for the boy child. On the occasion my Mum went on Afternoon duty it meant total joy for my sister and I. Our meals were usually prepared before we got home from school and set on the table by our help, we were meant to eat lunch then observe a strict siesta for two hours after which we go to lesson. On this particular day Eba was prepared with okro and red stew off course since my Mum was not there we ate the meat and proceeded to make shapes with the Eba, we left the table in a mess and played away (sere lo) to my friends house Sobeye Princewill she lived on Adebisi close at the bottom of Eniasoro Beyioku we had only been there for a short while when we saw our mother in her white uniform cap and all we were whisked back home! I don’t remember getting any smacking on that occasion , she must have been tired as she had trekked home from work and then trekked to our friends house although she had a car, a Toyota Mark 2 bright Yellow in colour with black leather seats my Mum prefered to walk everywhere within Surulere, she walked to idi Araba every day. And the cars duty was to bring us back from school with her driver “Broda Mukaila” I will not go into that it’s the story for another chapter
We once had a lesson teacher that came to our house and our Mum sat through every lesson with us sometimes she will be eating garri (cassava flakes) and epa (peanuts) with about 10 cubes of sugar! Of course I was day dreaming about the day I will be able to drink garri freely and never concentrated on the lesson. My Mum never allowed us to drink garri the only place I was allowed to drink garri was at my great Aunt Akinnibosun’s place in Yaba, Ondo and the accompaniment was eja din din (fried fish) from across the street. My Mum may have keeled over if she knew what food we had on holidays in Ondo!
Another lesson teacher we had was Mrs Adelekun, she had a habit of always eating beans (black eyed peas)! And to me as a child beans was disgusting, she was a teacher at the University of Lagos staff school but she lived on Falolu Road in Surulere. My sister and I both went to this lesson but my friend Funke Fasoyiro who lived on Sam Shonibare also came with us, as we crossed to Ogulana drive we always took a short cut to Falolu. On this short cut there were sacrifices of dead chicken we always ran stepping on stones to avoid any sacrifice as we ran we would sing “Ebo Elebo pada leyin mi” clicking our fingers over our heads! Some of my year group in the lesson where Seni Akinlade, Seye Morgan, Doyin Gansallo and Tola Olurombi the latter 2 went to the same primary school as me and the former 2 were staff school children I think remember the boys as one was a rough and the other was “Orobo” which means chubby. Thinking about it now I am not sure why we took this short cut! and one wonders why people who lived in such beautiful homes (most of the homes on Ogunlana, Falolu, Ekololu were new then) found the need to throw sacrifices after all many of them were ardent church goers!
Surulere was my Kingdom and were I formed the strong identity of confidence of whom I am today. Surulere informed my world view that I can be anything. As Ake is to Wole Soyinka and Isara to Olanihun Ajayi so is Surulere to me! It was the place I made my first friends some of whom are lifelong friends