It was in June 1968, the peak of the rainy season in Nigeria. The smell of the soil was all too familiar. It was a season so sweet most farmers neither heeded the warning of the reclining sun nor the chirping of the birds of the night warning that it was time to go home. It was a season that celebrated the green glory of plants and the densely dark rain forest. Whether on the mountain chains that surround Ilesa, or the fertile valleys that flourished with leafy vegetables of diverse kinds, or the plateau that provided a threshing floor for ofada rice in its season, the forests around this land of gold were a beauty to behold. They were unlike today’s vegetation that has been terribly depleted by loggers, and the land mercilessly despoiled by parasitic illegal Chinese miners, aided by their unconscionable local collaborators who dig deep gorges to steal our gold.
The season I’m talking about was one in which every kid in a farming household endured the discomfort of relentless rains to savour the sweet aroma and sugary taste of fresh maize. It was a season in which maize cubs regaled on mother stems with fluffy hairs, luring you to the green field. A little later, new yam would emerge. With a farmer-father like Mr. Paul Ayodele Oshunkeye, who knew the pathways of virtually every animal in the bush, squirrels and rodents were never in short supply in our menu on the farm. Most of them were perpetually hung over the fire place in our hut. Oh, I loved the rainy season; for the food but not the work.
The rain delayed that fateful morning in June, 1968, my final year at Ifeoluwa Primary School, Oke-Eso. We got to the farm around 6a.m. and set to work in the yam section which had been overgrown with weeds. We had covered a lot of ground before the sky began to pour. As it did, I grumbled. My father pretended he didn’t hear or see me. I grumbled again, the only response I got was from Mabayoje, my immediate younger brother. He laughed mischievously. I was hurt but I buried my boiling anger to avert my father’s fury.
The rain pounded the earth mercilessly but father refused to call off the work. When I couldn’t bare it any longer, I cried loudly. Our father worked on. Mabayoje’s laughter grew louder. I got mad and pounced on him like a wild cat. Instantly, we were both punching and rolling in the admixture of mud and weeds. Father didn’t bother to separate us. Suddenly, I felt the sharp pain of his cane raking my back. I cried with all the strength in me, father wasn’t impressed. A good Apostolic Christian, he believed that the devil resides in the heart of a stubborn child and you need a strong cane to exorcise it. The beating I received that day was not the type you forget in a hurry.
But when I managed to slip from father’s crushing grip, I took my cutlass and began to chase him and Mabayoje all over the place. Both did Usain Bolt. They ran the race of their lives. I chased wildly. I don’t know whether I would not have used the cutlass if I had caught up with either of them that morning. But they were running in different directions, and in my infantile rage, I was chasing the two at the same time. I had forgotten the wise saying that if you chase two rats at the same time, you will catch nothing. The Yoruba put it succinctly: Eni l’eku meji, a a pofo. Besides, Mabayoje was a fast runner and father knew the bush like he knew his palms. And the farther the two widened the gap between us, the madder I got. I continued the chase.
Now, it was unusual for palm-wine tappers to work during heavy rains. For some strange reasons, a tapper was wrestling zealously with a palm tree, sapping the sweet liquor, two gourds swinging rhythmically around his waist. He noticed the chaos below and descended with the speed of light. Within minutes, he had pinned me down, and wrested the cutlass from my grip. Then, he took me to the hut, with Mabayoje and our father in tow. The palm-wine tapper settled the matter. That day, I ate the biggest portion of boiled yam with igba yinrin and palm oil-a beautiful delicacy on the farm after a hard day’s job. The tapper, who I later learnt hailed from the east, indulged me with a small calabash of fresh palm-wine.
Five o’clock, the following morning, father woke me and Mabayoje from our mat and explained why he did what he did the previous day. He stressed the need for me to be more patient when dealing with my siblings no matter the provocation. He rounded up, telling us to “keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1Peter 4:8 New American Standard Bible).
Till he passed to glory in October 2015, my father never lifted his hand against me or any of my seven siblings. He resorted to counselling us and steadying our feet in the Word of God. Despite what I did that day, Mabayoje never stopped loving love. I love him equally, always bearing in mind our father’s counsel on loving unconditionally. Truly, when the winds of life pounded our family with the ferocity of a hurricane, it was love that sustained and lifted us.
In 1973, Mabayoje came to Lagos, first to do house-help with a God-sent family, Mr. And Mrs. Fareo. The matriarch of the family, Mrs. Victoria Akanke Fareo, I later discovered, was our aunt. I would later understand father’s decision to be a child of necessity. Long before that time, our father had stopped his tailoring work and sought employment as a gardener/cleaner at the Wesley Guild Hospital, Ilesa, now Obafemi Awolowo University. Poverty had become second nature to our family. But in our extreme poverty, we never lost our dignity and pride. We never begged nor covet anything belonging to anybody. Though life was treating us harshly, we were contented. We remained fervent in our rock-solid faith in God’s ability to turn around the worst of situations.
My father spent only one day in school. The following day, his father stopped him in the belief that with my father’s height and biceps, he would be more useful in his cocoa farm than in the classroom. That experience, and the deprivations of later years, would turn my father to a staunch education activist. He believed that education is the key to unlock potentials, delete poverty, and pave the way for a glorious future. Three months later, my father returned to the Fareos in Ebute-Meta, Lagos, and pleaded with them to stop paying Mabayoje. Instead, they should continue taking care of him but allow him to go to school. Great people the Fareos are, they agreed.
That was how Mabayoje found his way to Premier College, Yaba, near WAEC Headquarters, as an afternoon student. Lagos used to run a two-tier secondary education system at the time. The arrangement allowed Mabayoje to do his chores in the morning and go to school in the afternoon. And what a brilliant student he was. He cleared his WASCE at once and joined me in my tiny room at number 111, Apata Street, Somolu, Lagos, into which I married my wife, Funsho, on November 21, 1981.
Three adults in a room? Did you say: howzat? You have not seen anything yet. Not too long after, Monisola, our only sister, now Mrs. Adeyera, joined us. It was in that tiny room, occupied by four adults, that I had my first son. You will read the full story some day.
Today, the issue is Rev. Michael Mabayoje Ojo Oshunkeye. Hardworking and very studious, my brother studied for his A Levels at the nearby Baptist Academy, Palm Groove, Lagos. He cleared all three papers at once, and landed at the University of Ibadan in 1982 where he got his first degree in Sociology.
Prior to that, Funsho had introduced him to her boss at the time, Mr. K.A. Tejumola, the founder and chairman of the Research and Marketing Services Limited, RMS. Their office was at Ladipo Kuku Street, off Allen Avenue, Ikeja. Mr. Tej, as he is popularly known, signed Mabayoje on the same day. Even when my brother left to pursue his degree at UI, he was always returning to his job at RMS. Upon graduation, and after his youth service, he resumed fully at RMS, where he crisscrossed the country with his colleagues, doing market surveys for companies and organisations that could afford RMS.
In 1990, Mabayoje thought it was time to move on. And off to the United Kingdom he went. Mission? To prospect for the proverbial golden fleece. He found divine favour in London. With the support of our extended family members in the British capital, his own friends, and later, his darling wife, Mrs. Mary Oshunkeye (nee Adeware), it was not difficult to settle down. Together, Mabayoje and his heartthrob found God, trained and became ministers of the word. Mountain Top Ministries, which they both founded, spread speedily to Nottingham and Essex. They also have a television outreach.
I worshipped under my brother’s ministration a couple of times and I tell you, he had the word. He spoke the mind of God, did the work of God and never sought any self-aggrandisement. Rather, he pursued matters of the Kingdom with every fibre of his being. As if he knew his pilgrimage on this terrestrial plane would not be long…
Oh, Mabayoje loved God. He was a very neat man; clean in body, soul and spirit. He spewed no bile, no matter what anyone did to him. His smile was genuine and infectious. Though handsome and had what any lady wants in a man, I never knew any girl with Mabayoje until he was about to travel to the UK. Even so, anytime Funmilayo (of blessed memory) came to our uncle’s house in Akowonjo, where he was living and where I hibernated during my post-graduate programme at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba, he never allowed the lady to come into his room. Not once. He was that strict. He would rather take her to the living room or the gate where they could spend hours talking. He was unlike me. I did everything (in terms of girls) before seeking and walking the narrow path later.
Mabayoje was the epitome of discipline and love. He was a classical definition of love and giving. He loved unconditionally and gave till it hurt him. To him, blessing people with his substance was a calling. It was service to humanity and God. He spent a substantial part of his 60 years plus on earth giving and serving God. While others would choose a ministry that turns them to instant millionaires, with the popularity and profligacy of a rock star to boot, this star of the Oshunkeye Dynasty never sought fame nor money. And he never lacked anything.
Except that, shortly after our father’s transition on October 15, 2015, and burial in February 2016, he told me calmly that he was battling diabetes. Beyond that, he never talked about it in any serious way again. And I assumed he must be coping well. On his 60th birthday, last September 20, we spoke at length and prayed. He never betrayed any sign of any imminent danger.
Though he sounded in a hurry when he called me in the night of March 13, 2020, I had no foreboding of any imminent disaster. No fearful apprehension. Or, did God deliberately numb my spiritual sensitivity? How on earth did I not know that something serious was happening to my beloved brother and we just chatted on and on after he informed me of his desire to do a proper documentation of his property in Lagos? He asked about our general wellbeing; how we were coping with the coronavirus pandemic; why, at our age, we needed to maintain minimal contact with people; and observe every protective protocol prescribed by World Health Organisation and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC. It was one warm conversation that left no room for any ominous suspicion. I never saw the dark cloud gathering overhead.
Then, at about 6p.m. on Sunday, March 22, 2020, Sister Mary, Mabayoje’s wife, phoned from Essex and dropped the bombshell. An ambulance had just come to the house to evacuate my brother. He was critically ill. I asked if it was COVID-19? She said no. What was it? A diabetic crisis and its attendant problems.
My heart sank. I wept a gallon. I wept not because I was suspecting anything would go terribly wrong. I wept because Britain, like most parts of the world, had been completely locked down. With intercontinental travels paused, life itself was at a standstill. This was the time Mabayoje needed me and the family most. But here I was, marooned in Lagos, unable to help. With the lockdown, we employed the only weapon we know; prayers. We told many fathers of faith in Nigeria, Africa, and around the world, to invoke the power of Jesus’ resurrection upon my dear brother and pray God to restore him to perfect health.
Did God answer our prayers? I don’t know. What I know is that, 24 hours later, my brother was transferred to the intensive care unit of the Basildon University Teaching Hospital where he was put under a ventilator with all that goes with it. We continued to pray and work the phone between his family and the hospital. We were told Mabayoje was “critically ill but stable”. They repeated that terrible phrase many times.
The narrative changed a little midway into my brother’s treatment. Now, we began to hear things like “Michael is a good man”. “Michael is a fighter.” Fighter ke?! Fighting for life, or what? Then, the tone changed to: “Michael is stable. We will soon wean him off the ventilator.” Little comfort.
Our hope rose when, a few days later, we were told that the doctors had removed the ventilator for a few hours but had to return it because “Michael was not ready”. They did the same thing for 24 hours, two days later, and we were told my brother coped well. Problem was that they were also doing dialysis. In the weekend of April 17-19, we were told that he was even off the machine for 48 hours, and he did well. Still, they still had to return him to the machine. Confusion.
On Monday, April 20, Sister Mary rushed to the hospital after having been told that my brother’s condition had worsened overnight. From then, it was one bad story after another. At 3.43 a.m., on Friday, April 24, 2020, time froze forever for Mabayoje. He signed off the stage of life to begin eternal life in the bosom of God whom he served so faithfully. At exactly 10.31 a.m., local time, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, Mabayoje was laid to rest at the Chadwell St. Mary Cemetery, Brentwood Road, Essex. My tears are still falling. Our 86-year-old mother has not stopped weeping. The entire family is grieving.
At Mabayoje’s funeral on Tuesday, May 19, Sister Mary read a powerful tribute that captured the 30 years they had shared as husband and wife. Irede, the son, waxed clerical, extolling the virtues of his beloved father. If it was possible for the departed to see the living, Rev. Michael Mabayoje Ojo Oshunkeye would have smiled and patted Irede at the back for what he said and did.
There were other great people at the interment who came with a surfeit of tributes, testimonies, comforting words and verses. My son, Wale, who represented me at the funeral, eulogised his uncle to the high heavens. So did Pastor Olu Komolafe, Mabayoje’s childhood friend. My siblings sent their tributes from Nigeria. People who came to grief with us at the cemetery brought beautiful bouquet of sympathy gifts, keepsakes and memorabilia to honour Mabayoje and celebrate the life of love and service that he lived.
Though I was happy at the way my brother was celebrated last Tuesday, later that night, I relapsed into gloomy moments as I tried to ask God why He allows bad things to happen to good people; people who love Him and that He loves. If the wicked and the scums of the earth could strut in their iniquity and live long, why should the sun set so quickly for a God-fearing and God-loving man like Mabayoje? Why would God allow my sweet mother to weep in her old age? Why would God not take into account our tears of the past two months and return Mabayoje to us? Or, has the scripture not told us that tears are a language that God understands? Questions.
The small, still voice provided the answer during that quiet storm. It said: God is still God: almighty, all-knowing, ever merciful, forever compassionate. He is still the same God who cares so much about us that He assures that no hair can fall off our body without his knowledge; and no leaf can fall off a tree with His knowing about it. In our hour of despair and deepest darkness, God has renewed the assurance to send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to wipe our tears and heal us. Here lies my hope.
Goodbyes are often painful. But they could be comforting in times of intense grief and grieving like this. Mabayoje, when we spoke for the last time on Friday, March 13, 2020, you never said ‘I’m coming’. You never said ‘goodbye’. You were gone before we knew it. You were long gone before we knew the cock had crowed. Ha, erin wo! Ajanaku subu ko le dide. Mabayoje, aburo mi tooto, I have to say goodbye now. Greet our beloved father, Elder Paul Ayodele Oshunkeye, abiyamo nitooto. Intercede for us. Till that glorious morning when we shall meet at the feet of our Master, Jesus Christ, enjoy your well-deserved rest.