By Sunny Awhefeada
Sometime in the late 1980s, Kole Omotoso, university teacher, writer and newspaper columnist, published Just Before Dawn, a lengthy book which re-frames the Nigerian narrative by subjecting it to imaginative distillation to the extent that the line between history (which thrives on fact) and fiction (which is sustained by imagination) became blurred. The initial response to that book was the question of whether it was history or fiction.
However, literary aficionados went to work and located Omotoso’s book in the hybrid genre called faction which is essentially a blend of fact and fiction. Other writers intentionally or unintentionally have had to follow Omotoso’s example.
Francis Ewherido’s Life Lessons from Mudipapa poses the same challenge as Omotoso’s book. Although it is weaned off historical details, the book is replete with real life events, characters, dates and places to the extent that its appropriation of facts is not in doubt. Yet, the book is also sustained by imagination and anticipatory happenings which raise the question of classification as to whether it is fiction or biography or diary? This then is the discursive puzzle that readers and literary commentators will have to contend with as the book gets circulated.
Ewherido’s Life Lessons from Mudipapa can be read as biographical fiction, a marriage cum parenting guide and above all as an inspirational book providing nuggets for a life well lived which is omamo akpo in Urhobo. Among the Urhobo, from whom the author hails, life is akpo and the world is also akpo. Therefore, life and the world in Urhobo not only intersect, but they are inseparable. How a person lives in the world is central to Urhobo metaphysics and ontology. And this is virtually the same the world over. However, the density and depth of value attached to life and the world vary from place to place.
The story’s protagonist is Chief Julius Ferdinand Mudiaga Orien, PhD, a retired Accounts Director of a multinational company. Married to EseOghene (with whom he has five children; Tejiri, Emesiri, Mado, Edirin and Omo), he is also a proud grandfather and the nickname, Mudipapa, through which he is identified in the narrative was coined from Mudiaga and Papa by his grandchild, Temi. The story details Mudipapa’s early conflicts regarding the choice of vocation and life partner. After courtship misadventures he, through his elder brother Akpos, meets EseOghene with whom he settles down in matrimony. What follows is matrimonial tension manifested in the engagement of a nanny or house-help, the number of children to be born and the attendant rigour and strain of bringing up children by working class parents in an urban setting like Lagos. These put a strain on the evolving family of Mudipapa and EseOghene.
However, the family is able to overcome such challenges through dialogue, complementarities, collaboration, careful planning and prudent deployment of resources. Mudipapa’s changing his job, setting out on his own, and the establishment of St. Michael’s Crèche – which blossoms into O’rien International Schools – reflect deliberate planning, focus and the agenda-setting motions of a purpose-driven family. The education of the children, the problem of juvenile delinquency, indiscretion among the children and the choice of future life partners are to preoccupy Mudipapa and EseOghene and test their parenting skills. The reader encounters Mudipapa in many rewarding and insightful counseling sessions with his children, prospective in-laws, and even friends; on how life, especially marriage, should be lived. Mudipapa’s success can be hinged on two factors, namely; deliberate planning and his commitment to cultivating an intimate relationship with God. Both factors reflect in his character, his choices, his union with his wife, his work ethics and reliance on the timely intervention of The Creator when it is sought. Both factors also reflect in the naming of his children; Oghenetejiri (God is worthy to be worshipped), Emesiri (Good children), Oghenemado (God is the greatest), Edirinverere (Patience has rewards), and Omoghene (Child of God).
One after the other, Mudipapa and EseOghene watch their children grow, go to school and marry. The first is that of Tejiri getting married to Tosan, a marriage which foregrounds ethnic harmony between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri. The marriage ceremonies are not only elaborate and splendorous, but they are also meant to project the traditional significance of matrimony. The nuptials of Mudipapa’s children also show signs of conflicts, but his subtle interventions as an experienced husband and marriage counselor help to stir the young families in the right course. He teaches them to focus on understanding marital differences and the meaning of marriage.
The story climaxes in a comfortable retirement for Mudipapa and EseOghene with huge investments in real estate, education and stocks in addition to heavy retirement and PENCOM accounts. Life has become blissful. Their five children are also well-heeled with stable families. He takes up a part time teaching appointment with a university since, like his father, he has a flair for teaching and has also obtained a doctorate. Even at that age, he sets a new target of becoming a professor. He is also devoting part of his earnings to the service of God and humanity. He is a fulfilled man, but as he looks back and takes stock of his life’s sojourn, he spots a weakness which springs from his inability to ground his children in Urhobo lore and culture. But he consoles himself philosophically, “I guess you can’t have it all or win on all fronts. You simply win some and you lose some.”
Life Lesson from Mudipapa makes a good read as it benefits from the author’s formal training in Mass Communication and his practice as a newspaper columnist. The language is simple, lucid and uncluttered; the hallmark of a master storyteller. The book’s narrative style, which is the third person omniscient narrative, gives the reader a broad view of Mudipapa’s life from childhood to the present. There is a strong didactic, even moralistic, bent to the book. The influence of the Bible, the Catholic Church and her teachings confront the reader on every page. This conforms to the moralistic ideal of literature which is to refine the moral tone of society. Periodic authorial intrusions, which the author calls “nuggets,” help to reinforce the didactic import of the narrative in a way similar to an experienced teacher’s handling of classroom lessons. The element of epiphany which manifests in his choice of EseOghene as wife is also religious. Yet, the book also has many humorous episodes that make the reader laugh.
The book uses dialogue to give life, spontaneity and sense of immediacy to the events narrated. To give credence to the narrative, the author mentions real names, places as well as incidents and inspirational books and their authors. This factor will endear the book to readers as a reliable guide in life’s journey.
The author’s life also intersects with characters, places and incidents in the book. The names Ukani and Akpos, places like Ughelli, Ewu, Ozoro, Osubi, Effurun-Otor, Urhobo College, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, are part of the author’s life’s reality which impinges on the narrative. The many scenes on marriage and youth counseling reflect the author’s engagement as a family interest newspaper columnist and marriage counsellor in the church. Mudipapa’s niche for planning, investment and target setting are positive effects of the author as an insurance broker. The book is enriched by a deliberate and unmistakable Urhobo flavor evidenced in Urhobo names, expressions and ethno-philosophy.
In spite of its artistic and functional merits, the book has a weakness; which is that life is “too sweet” for Mudipapa as he is not depicted to have grappled with any serious or tragic existential crisis to enable the reader see how he would have responded.
Francis Ewherido has come in as “writer as counselor”. Life Lessons from Mudipapa, published by Laddertop Publishers and made up of 31 chapters running into 256 pages, will be useful in a multiplicity of domains; sociology, psychology, literature, marriage counseling, church, education, parenting, mentoring, and more. The book will be very useful in a society grappling with social crises occasioned by a fast paced modernity and socio-economic anemia. The book will help to consolidate the ideals of marriage and family values. The end result will be a stable social order for the society is made up of families and if every family is stable then society will be stable. I recommend it to everybody; the young and the old, not just as Life Lessons from Mudipapa, but as a guide in the journey of life.
(Sunny Awhefeada is a Professor of Literature and Dean, Faculty of Arts, Delta State University, Abraka)