The Life and Times of Broda Layi

The Life and Times of Broda Layi

by Tunde Fagbenle

Early years

My brother and I were born in Zaria, he on 17th January 1943 and I on 4th October 1947 to Mr. Samuel Osho Fagbenle and Mrs. Elizabeth Adeoti Fagbenle, both of blessed memory. If I'm not mistaken, Broda Layi, as I and all younger siblings call him, was born on a Sunday and I on a Saturday. However, within a year or two of my own birth our father, a Railway worker, was transferred to Minna, another important railway station in the then Northern Nigeria. For some reason Minna was our father's last post where he spent some further 17 years of service before retiring - as Locomotive Inspector (LI) of Nigeria Railway Corporation - to ourhometown, Igbajo, in 1964. 

And so, Minna, in today's Niger State, became more or less our town, the place where those of us older children of the over twenty of my father had our formative years, and grew to love.

As to be expected of siblings, as a child I grew up being very close to Broda Layi, adoring him, and worshipping him. For real. I remember, for instance, failing my baptismal test at age 8 for answering, to the bemusement of the church wardens, the simple question, "Why do you want to be baptised", thus: "Because of Broda Layi."! Though we had been taught during weeks of Bible classes what answers to give to what questions, when that question came I answered as truthfully as my Christian soul could: I wanted to get baptized not to be like any Jesus but because I wanted to be like my big brother whom I had seen a few years back being immersed and raised in a river!

The first thing I noticed as a toddler looking into my brother's face was that he had one or two thin marks on either side of his cheeks. It was a curious thing for me. I checked my face in the mirror several times and found it sadly as smooth as a mirror. At age 6 I couldn't live with such glaring disparity between my hero and myself any longer and went ahead to contrive similar marks on my face. That I didn't succeed closely enough was not for want of trying, the pain of the razor blade was unbearable for me, even now in my old age!

Alas, Broda Layi was an "Abiku"! 

What an "abiku " is was incomprehensible to my child mind. Our mother, Maami, noticing the slight bruise on one side of my face had asked me for an explanation. I lied that I got the scratch climbing the mango tree in our yard. She wasn't convinced. I gave myself out when I asked her why Broda Layi had 'nice' marks on his face and I had none. My question must have brought agonizing memories to her mind as she sharply remonstrated me for being too 'nosey'. "Why must you want to know everything," Maami snapped. That was a giveaway that there was something needing to be 'known'!

Child mortality rate was pretty high in our time. Most families suffered death of a child or more in their lives. In Yoruba mythology, frequent and recurring death of the child by a mother indicates that the child is a 'spirit' child, an "Abiku" whose sole aim is to come to the world to torment the mother by giving her ephemeral joy of having a baby only to suffer the anguish of watching the baby die well before teens. "Don't you know Layi is an abiku," an aunt (my mother's cousin) living with us explained to me. And then she went on to explain that the marks on Broda Layi's face were meant to keep him in the human world and ward off his mates in the spirit world that kept coming for him.

Maami, after the birth of her second child, 'Jibike, a daughter again! (the first was 'Bisi) began to suffer recurring death of the third child before attaining age one. And the newborn each time was a boy, looking each time like a reincarnation of the same dead child. It took Maami about 8 years of trying repeatedly before, with the help of a "native doctor" and the brutal marking of the newborn's face, the third child, 'the' boy, came to stay! He was named Olayiwola Morakinyo Akanbi. Akanbi being his oriki.

One day, so told my aunt to me, when Layi was about 4 years old, my aunt took him on the train together with sister Jibike who was to go resume at her boarding school in Idi-Aba, faraway in Western Region. Maami couldn't go because she was pregnant with me. It was a long train ride. When they got to their disembarking point and they came out of the station, all of a sudden the 4-year old Layi had disappeared. Disappeared into thin air, so said my aunt, her face still carrying the unpleasantness of the experience. Alarm was raised and there began a wide search for a missing 4-year old boy! It was a search that went on for hours, taking the search party through the nooks and crannies of the little town. "That abiku boy showed me pepper," recalled my aunt. "There was no way I could have gone back to Minna without him. I would have died," she added. But miraculously Layi sauntered into the midst of the search party before dusk when hope was lost, looking all unconcerned as if his disappearance was nothing! The story made me want to be an abiku too like Broda Layi but I couldn't tell Maami seeing how she had reacted to my simply wanting to know why Broda Layi had nice facial marks and I had none.

Naughty naughty!

Growing up in Minna of our time was fun. I was Broda Layi's mascot wherever he went. And all his friends knew and liked me. I was more known by the name Adisa, my oriki, then. Everyone called me Adisa be it at home, at school, or amongst my mates. I was smallish, bright, and rascally. My rascality bordered on the impish sometimes. I knew how to get Broda Layi angry with me, and I occasionally took impish delight in doing so. I very early realised, to my curiosity, that my brother had problem with the letter R. His tongue could not get round it and so words like 'rice' would come out as 'wyice' in his mouth. I found it strange and amusing and, for once, didn't try to talk like that, especially as I had noticed that his mates teased him with it. If Broda Layi did something I didn't like, like refusing to let me go out with him, I would from a safe distance call out: 'wyice', owhi (for 'ori' - head in Yoruba). Whereupon he would chase me all over until he caught me for the beating of my life! And nothing would stop him then, not even the pleading of my mum for mercy.

Masquerade unmasked!

We had fun. Minna of our time was peaceful and cosmopolitan. We lived in Keterengwari (which probably translates to Gwari quarters). Minna more rightly belonged to the Gwari and Nupe than to the ruling Hausa/Fulani. But Minna was home to all ethnicity, Ibo and Yoruba alike. And in those pre-civil war years, the Ibos were probably the most populous non-indigenous ethnic group in Minna if not in the whole north. In Minna the Ogbomosho were next. The potpourri of ethnicities provided diversities of cultures and religions that made Minna an interesting and welcoming place to live. Christian festivals and festivities were as riotously lively as the Muslim ones were colorful and warm. Broda Layi and I partook of it all; I was his mascot. The Ibos made the Christian festivals of Christmas and New Year fun-filled and thrilling especially with various masquerades coming out to parade their characteristics, from the grotesque to the bizarre and the outlandish. All masquerades big and small have their minders, followers and fans. Children called the masquerade 'Ojuju' or 'Ojudu-Calabar (in full). I do not know the origin of that name. Some big ones are truly frightening, wielding horsewhips and even dangerous weapons. A clash of rival ojuju on the streets often got nasty and bloody with the vanquished one and his entourage scampering in different directions to safety. The Muslims didn't engage in this masquerade thing, they left the Christians to it whilst watching and sharing of the spectacle from the safety of their homes. Also some Christian denominations frowned at it too saying it is "devilish". But Broda Layi and I always joined in the fun - our parents let us - with him donning his own gareta (that's what the small ojuju head gear was called) whilst I and a few friends followed him around town beating drums and bottles and urging him on with popular festivity songs, mostly in pidgin English or Igbo. We went from door to door, our ojuju dancing to the beat and songs, as we entertained households and spectators. One such song that I remember was: "Make we go o, jenje-asawarije; make we go o, jenje -asawarije; make we go o!" This is usually sung to urge the ojuju forward. Kindhearted adults rewarded us with money or gifts which we shared at the close of day, the masquerade of course taking the lion share.

The rule is that the identity of the ojuju must be top secret, known only to his innermost handlers. And when two masquerades clash, victory is claimed when one is able to pull down the masque or gareta of the other who then takes to his heel in shame. No one must know who is behind the masque.

On one Christmas or New Year occasion, Broda Layi, as usual the ojuju, whip in hand and dressed in odd clothing or rags with assortment of feathers, sufficiently mean to scare little children, we stopped by the house of a family relation of our parents, the Latilos. The usual drumming and singing went on heartedly, and our ojuju was in his element dancing. Then the mother of the house came out and, happy to see me wondered where my brother was for me to be out alone with a group of strange boys. "Adisa, egbon e Layi da?" She asked. (Adisa, where's your elder brother Layi?). Not realizing the import of my action, I went pointing at the ojuju to the embarrassment of everyone. "Awon niyen", I replied. (That's him). Immediately, the ojuju ran off with all of us in tow, not waiting for whatever gifts the generous family relation would've given us. It was not funny!

Big Brother, Big Deal

Being an older sibling, at least in (many)Yoruba families of that time, was a big deal, even if by no more than a year, and in some (polygamous) cases, even by mere months. It's a big deal! Broda Layi and I were at one point attending the same primary school together - Baptist Day School, Minna - at least for my first two years which would have been Broda Layi's last two years of the 7-year system. There was also Broda Jide who though much closer in age to Broda Layi was a couple of years below him in class. I had great pleasure running up to Broda Layi's class at the sound of school's closing bell to go collect his own school box (school bags had not arrived then, our books and stuff were carried in a squarish metal box) and take it home together with mine. It was a thing of honour (and pride) that I was relieving my brother of his load and doubling mine! That was the case until Broda Jide got the idea of not leaving me to it; that he had as much right to carrying big brother's box as I had, and my monopoly must stop! And so the daily tussle began between two brothers, one much older and stronger than the other, of who gets to carry Broda Layi's school box at the close of school day. And, boy, what a tussle that was, one for which I regularly got the beating of my life by Broda Jide. It was a daily spectacle Broda Layi's classmates enjoyed, and probably envied. It spoke loudly of the affection and values the Fagbenle family pride themselves in. The way it was resolved was for the box to go to whoever got to it first, a decision that then resulted in bolting out of my class as quickly as the class closing prayer was said and honing my sprinting skill.

Going To Igbobi College

Broda Layi was very brilliant, even precocious, as a child. Not unlike Sister Bisi, the first child of our parents who though a girl had blazed the academic trail and broken most of the hitherto barriers most families of the time had placed on girl-child, Broda Layi almost always came first in class at Baptist Day School, Minna. That position was always a tussle between him and another brilliant mate of his, Bayo Ogunshola, an Ogbomosho boy. It was a rivalry that lasted all seven years of Primary School that was the education structure in the north then, whilst the south ran  a 6-year primary school system.

It, therefore, came as no surprise that Broda Layi passed the entrance examination to the two schools he chose for secondary school: King's College, Lagos and Igbobi College, Lagos. In our time there was nothing like Common Entrance Examination, each school (also known as college) conducted its own examination. The choice of what schools to sit for was not Broda Layi's who, in far north Minna may not be much aware of what obtained in the south (Christian mission schools were the creme de la creme of colleges then, and one or two in Kaduna, capital of the Northern Region, were obvious choices of the brightest pupils). Sister Bisi who by then, in 1956, was an undergraduate in the University College, Ibadan, advised him on which were the two most coveted secondary schools in Lagos, nay Nigeria, of the time.

But as fate struck! The letter of invitation for interview into King's College did not arrive Minna until a week past the interview date when the school had finalized its admission process which included a week-long stay in the school boarding house for the rigor of physical exercises, sporting activities, and so on, that was characteristic of good schools in those days. On learning of this 'misfortune' Sister Bisi left Ibadan immediately for Lagos to confront the King's College authorities and make a plea for special consideration for her baby brother. Sister Bisi had herself attended Queen's College, and King's College (the 'brother school') was her first choice for Layi. As I learnt years later when I was old enough to understand, Sister Bisi pulled all strings and threw all weights to no avail: the total number of students admissible had been reached and, unless there was one who turned down his offer, there was no way to make room for exceeding the number in a class! Goodbye to King's College, Lagos.

But then, King's College's loss was Igbobi College's gain. Broda Layi got admitted into Igbobi College, Lagos for 5 years starting January 1957 (January was the beginning of school Year in those days) and ending in 1961.

Best Boy In Town

Back in Minna of those days the long holidays was at the end of year, not summer as it is now. But the long holidays was time of great fun for us secondary school students coming home on holidays from our various colleges (high schools). And time of great showing off and rivalry for who could win the love of the most beautiful or desired girl, or, amongst girls as I can imagine, the best boy.

Broda Layi was lanky, tall and handsome. On top of that, he was brilliant, very brilliant. But he had rivals in one or two other boys, one of the Odu brothers who lived a stone's throw from our house in Keterengwari, and, in particular, a boy called George Nwabuku who lived farther away towards Kongila. To be honest, George was everything Broda Layi was but was also brash and arrogantly showy. George's ace was that he was a Kings College boy, the numero uno secondary school of the time, and perhaps the only boy in Minna attending Kings College then. And George would let you know it! That pissed off Brother Layi no end, especially as he also could have been a KC boy after all had the misfortune of the interview letter not intervened. Nevertheless, we all were friends and mixed freely in the neighborhood and at social functions. George had a younger sister, Rose and a younger brother, Anthony who was my own mate and friend.

The rivalry between Broda Layi and George got to a head when both of them were 'chasing' the same girl, Patricia Okapu, who was without doubt the most desired girl in town. Patricia had a lovely ebony skin, and was tall, slim, and beautiful. In those days the fun of holiday time climaxed in the grand social night that the students organized. Everyone looked forward to it. Looking back, it is amazing how we young boys and girls from different backgrounds and schools united to form a student body during the holidays and organized great activities and social events that would be the envy of university students unions of today.

That grand social night was when the 'big boys' were separated from us little ones who looked at them in awe and aspiration. It was the time, importantly, of revelations; of who wins over who. And the way it happens is most simple and funny. As we all mill around in the large hall (ours then was UAC Hall) music blaring invitingly to the dancing floor, lover-boy makes a move for the girl of his heart, to ask for a dance - "excuse me dance" was the code line. The girl then accepts the overture or rejects with some excuse. What is happening is being observed by those with interest. 'Publicly' going on the dancing floor says the girl is open to being wooed by the boy who then, if truly interested, pushes ahead with his line(s) of advances! On this particular social night, all eyes were on Patricia, who would Patricia choose to dance with; who will win her hand between the KC boy, who also thought he had the ethnic advantage of being Igbo like her, and the lovable and more reserved IC boy! George, being George, was the first to make a move cocksure no girl could resist him. Patricia looked away as George approached, and as George said his opening line of "excuse me dance" he was stunned by Patricia's rebuff of "not ready". It was a moment Broda Layi was waiting for, obviously watching from the corner of his eyes. Without hesitation he made his move and asked Patricia for a dance. Patricia accepted and, not caring what George or anyone else for that matter thought, went on to the dancing floor with Broda Layi to dance all night long! It was a night to remember, and one Broda Layi and I recounted with glee whenever we looked back upon those years. He and Patricia became boyfriend-girlfriend passionately  and for the few years until Minna days were over. Patricia's younger brother of my age, Afam, also became my closest buddy in those years until the Civil War sadly split us forever.

Broda Layi the Footballer

Our family was not new to sports in those days. I grew up in the early 1950s seeing Sister Bisi all attired in white trousers and top going off to play tennis at UAC Sports Club at Canteen area of Minna whenever she was home on holidays from the University College Ibadan (UCI). Our father, Pa Samuel Osho Fagbenle had had the then uncommon wisdom and courage to ensure his daughters were as educated as their brilliance would take them. His contemporaries frowned at sending daughters to school, it was considered a foolish idea to spend scarce resources on female children who would be married off and would not carry the family name farther. Sister Bisi was the cynosure of all eyes, tall, beautiful, educated, and then rubbing shoulders with white colonial masters on the tennis court. An uncommon sight, not only in Minna but anywhere in Nigeria, I daresay.

Education and sports thus became a necessary part of our lives as Fagbenles in Minna. Broda Layi was good at football right from primary school days when we would be playing 'toronto' - the fist-size rubber ball often a contraption - at school and especially after school, barefooted on dusty open grounds and untarred neighbourhood  roads in Keterengwari with our friends, almost all Ibos: the Odus, Nwabukus, Anyawuns, Okoros, etc. We played for interminable hours especially on weekends, and would leave for home only when Maami came for us as dusk approached with the threat of dad's cane that awaited us at home. But Broda Layi honed his football skills in secondary school, Igbobi College, where, I'm told, he was in the school's junior team in his early years.

Football became Broda Layi's first sport, even before tennis which had become a family interest of some sort. When he came home on holidays Broda Layi took pleasure in going to the Minna township stadium to practise football together with the big boys of the town's team. As a forward he was introduced to this higher level of playing by an older cousin of ours, Ojo Latilo, whose soccer skills were so outstanding he was selected as a member of the first National Academicals in the early 1960s. Broda Ojo was also then in secondary school, I think Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife, but when on holidays in Minna he played in the Minna Township Team. Together they would go off to practise with the team whilst all small me could do was tag along to cheer them or go find my own level. Before long, Broda Layi too started featuring in the Minna Township Team together with Broda Ojo during school holidays. Broda Layi's passion for football went well beyond those adolescent years as he continued playing soccer in his later years as an adult, teacher and father.

(To be continued