by Akinsola Jeje
My branch from the great baobab came here by plane. We did not endure the trauma of sudden abduction, a middle passage of scourge and filth, rotting hulls in chains, generations of captivity, struggle and pain. Trapped on our own soil, surrendering to others the wealth from our toil, we dreamed of a better world.
All my grandparents were born into colonialism, their nations rendered French, British and Portuguese possessions. Indigenous lands became reserves, vast imperial prisons.
GrandDad, the only one with a Christian name, was the son of a traditional chieftain. When the Rt. Rev. H. Dallimore reviewed the mission school where GrandDad was a teacher and later headmaster, he only referred to GrandDad as “Michael” to avoid the cacophony of heathen ritual. GrandDad endured- he had five children, the first my father. In 1960, he became a civil servant at the London embassy of a newly independent Nigeria. His sons and daughter never placed on their children labels bestowed by invaders. He became an avenging angel, wielding the sword of the conquerer, setting him aflame. Michael Akinsola Olufemi Jeje, his full name, was a mark of pride, not a badge of shame. He dreamt of a better world.
Grandma never forgot the years in England where she studied to be a cook- the stares, the hollers, the sneers, the hostile looks. The new words spat at her were warnings before the trigger, stating, “Go home, you don’t belong here, you dirty black________”. There was kindness amongst her colleagues, and a few she did befriend, but in the end she gladly returned. She raised her five children, was a well-respected matron, loved science and Jesus, and prayed that her brood would fly further, higher and brighter in places she had never even heard of. She dreamed of a better world.
Babu, son of an Arab and his Nandi bride, lived at the edge of town between Asian and Native, in a Kenya with its own brand of apartheid. This became clear when walking Eastleigh with his five-year old girl, a year into the Land and Freedom Uprising. At the police barrier, white officers and dark askaris presided over prostrate African bodies. His papers, along with the olive skin and long curls of his child, marked him as “other”. They passed among the kneeling masses’ bruises and gashes from clubs and lashes. Years later, in a haze of Johnny Walker, he sent off his US college-bound daughter, dreaming of a better world.
Nyanya stood for everything she could against imperialism, the mixed-race girl of a Scots district officer and a Kikuyu woman, a runaway servant, a teenage wife and mother, a devout convert Muslim. Understanding every word of English thrown at her, they stung to the point that only Swahili, Kikuyu and Arabic, her language of prayer, were salves for her unwilling tongue. She grew, she became strong. She joined the struggle through Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the national women’s organization. In a photo I have left, she stands in singular purpose with M’zee, Jomo Kenyatta, father of the new nation. She empowered hardworking women like herself with primary educations. She passed, age 49, of diabetes, arthritis and a spine dislocation. She never stopped dreaming of a better world.
As I do, as we do, as do so many strands of root and trunk under the heat of a merciless sun, the fury of torrential rains, the iron chill of harmattan winds. Every year, an inch higher, every decade a ring thicker. My branch of the great tree, as do others, reaches past limitation, towards heavens, embracing a better world.