Things left un­said

Strange Nige­rian phone habits: why my fa­ther never said good­bye

The Guardian - Family - - Front Page -

Ihad been warned by my cousin about the strange tele­phone habits of Nige­ri­ans so, as I pre­pared to speak to my fa­ther for the first time in 30 years, I thought I was ready. But I wasn’t. The con­ver­sa­tion lasted four min­utes. Not the way I had ex­pected to strike up a re­la­tion­ship with the man I had last seen when I was 10.

My me­mories of my fa­ther are sketchy. I have no pho­to­graphs of him, but I re­mem­ber he was tall and thin and al­ways wore ex­pen­sive cologne. He smoked, too, a for­got­ten brand now rel­e­gated to empty pack­ets on eBay.

My par­ents had met in Lon­don in the early 60s. They were part of the new wave of ar­rivals from In­dia, Pak­istan, Africa and the Car­ib­bean. Lon­don swelled with a Com­mon­wealth pop­u­la­tion who came to work and build new lives.

My fa­ther had come to study en­gi­neer­ing. He met my mother, a trainee nurse, and swept her off her feet. My grand­mother sim­ply couldn’t un­der­stand why she in­sisted on a re­la­tion­ship with a Nige­rian and not a “nice Car­ib­bean gen­tle­man”.

My par­ents’ union be­came in­creas­ingly fraught thanks to my fa­ther’s some­what lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude to his du­ties as a hus­band. He had come from a wealthy fam­ily in Nige­ria. His mother, a for­mi­da­ble busi­ness­woman, spoiled and in­dulged him. Once in Eng­land, he was eas­ily in­tox­i­cated and seduced by the brights lights, par­ties, whiskey and, whis­per it, prob­a­bly, other women. En­gi­neer­ing was aban­doned and, re­gard­less of a grow­ing fam­ily, he showed no sign of suc­cumb­ing to do­mes­tic life. He took a se­ries of mean­ing­less jobs and con­tin­ued his play­boy life­style.

Years of un­hap­pi­ness and bit­ter­ness fes­tered and fi­nally ex­ploded into an ac­ri­mo­nious part­ing. My mother gained cus­tody of me and my sib­lings. She be­came a sin­gle woman with three children and no fi­nan­cial help from my fa­ther. After a few vis­its to Lon­don to see him, and oc­ca­sional shop­ping sprees to Marks & Spencer (the 70s Nige­rian shop­per’s par­adise), he dis­ap­peared. We were told that he had prob­a­bly gone back to Nige­ria.

I never saw him again.

We were brought up with a daily mantra from our mother to “never, ever marry a Nige­rian”. After all she had been through, you couldn’t blame her.

I sup­pressed my African her­itage and fully em­braced the Ja­maican. My fa­ther was a waste of space. In the early 80s, I wanted lim­ited as­so­ci­a­tion with Nige­ria. Ja­maica was cool. They had reg­gae, a killer cricket team and lovely sound­ing pa­tois. Nige­ria was too for­eign and they wore strange head- wraps and spoke in sing-song di­alects that I couldn’t un­der­stand. Plus, I had a fierce loy­alty to my mother. She had brought us up sin­gle-hand­edly and done a very fine job. Why would I want to find a man who had no hand in my up­bring­ing and whose face I could barely re­mem­ber?

As the years and decades passed, there was still no con­tact, un­til a phone call changed every­thing. It was a cousin. Cousin? I had no sense of a wider fam­ily of cousins, aunts or un­cles.

This cousin told me he had man­aged to track me down on the or­ders of the fam­ily in Nige­ria. He was a pro­fes­sor, lived in Ox­ford­shire and made fre­quent vis­its to Nige­ria. He told me I had a fa­ther who was very much alive and a host of fam­ily mem­bers in Abuja who were des­per­ate to con­tact me. Ap­par­ently, the search had started years ago. My fa­ther had tried the Sal­va­tion Army with no re­sults. Fam­ily mem­bers had tried too, un­til, bingo, they had tracked me down through so­cial me­dia.

When I even­tu­ally met my cousin, he handed me a let­ter; it was from my fa­ther. It was sim­ple and short. The word “sorry” dom­i­nated each para­graph. At first I did noth­ing. I didn’t re­ply. I didn’t tell my mother he had made con­tact, not at first. It felt dis­loyal. I left his let­ter in a drawer for months but con­tin­ued to meet my UK cousin. He was full of sto­ries of Nige­ria, its rich his­tory and our large fam­ily tree. I wanted to know more about them. They had beau­ti­ful names and I couldn’t blame them for my fa­ther’s mis­takes.

I wrote back to him. I saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to let off steam and be­rate him for be­ing a pretty lousy hus­band and fa­ther. He wrote again, apolo­getic, re­gret­ful and asked for for­give­ness. Some­thing thawed. I for­gave him. We ar­ranged a phone call.

At this point, my cousin in Ox­ford­shire gave me the warn­ing about Nige­ri­ans and their tele­phone habits. My ini­tial thought was: gen­er­a­tors. I knew there were fre­quent black­outs and as­sumed this would af­fect our call as would the amount of credit on his phone.

Our first call came and there were no procla­ma­tions of long-lost love on ei­ther side. The con­ver­sa­tion was in­cred­i­bly for­mal. He asked about my health, my fam­ily’s health, my hus­band’s health. I asked about his health. He was 82 after all. Four min­utes and the call was over.

What per­plexed me most was the lack of ques­tion­ing on his part and at the end of the call he said, “OK”, and the phone went down. He didn’t end the con­ver­sa­tion with “good­bye”, which I thought in­cred­i­bly rude.

We went through the same three-ques­tion tele­phone rit­ual a cou­ple of times. I knew he had an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics so I in­ter­spersed our chat with added com­ments on Theresa May and the weather. I asked ques­tions. He didn’t. He would say, “OK” and mid­way through my own “good­bye” the phone went down firmly. We con­tin­ued to call each other and on each oc­ca­sion I was left with the re­ceiver in my hand, in­cred­u­lous at the bru­tal end of our con­ver­sa­tion.

In one call, I men­tioned I would visit him in Nige­ria. It was a de­vi­a­tion from the three-ques­tion script. “When, when?” he said. I blurted out “April” with­out think­ing. This was never go­ing to work it was al­ready early March. Why had I said April of all months?

I called a few days after this and told him April was out of the ques­tion and I hoped to visit in Oc­to­ber. “Thank God,” he said.

My fa­ther spoke Igbo, English, Yoruba and Hausa. I had learned from a phrase­book the Yoruba for “good­bye” “O da dor”. My in­ten­tion on our next call was to im­press him with my rudi­men­tary at­tempt. I’d writ­ten him a let­ter too. It asked, “Why do you never say good­bye at the end of a call?”

I never got the chance to prac­tise my Yoruba or get a re­ply to my let­ter. The phone call came in May. My fa­ther had died. A stroke. He was 83.

And then I got an in­vi­ta­tion from an­other cousin to come over and meet all the fam­ily. They had been wait­ing, she told me. She put the phone down and didn’t say good­bye.

IOn each oc­ca­sion I was left with the re­ceiver in my hand, in­cred­u­lous at the bru­tal end of our con­ver­sa­tion

made the trip to Nige­ria and dis­cov­ered Abuja – a green, wide-spaced, in­ter­na­tional, vi­brant, youth­ful city, full of cof­fee shops (yes, Africa has them, too). I met a whole new fam­ily of aunts, cousins and un­cles. In Abuja, I learned that my name, which I had al­ways thought was very English and not Nige­rian-sound­ing at all, is quite a pop­u­lar name. Its roots are in Ara­bic and it is spelt Kami­lah or Kami­laat. My fam­ily were all solidly mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als with law de­grees and ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tices; one or two were pres­i­dents of oil com­pa­nies, and a cousin held a seat in the Nige­rian sen­ate – quite an achieve­ment for a woman.

They spoke fondly about my fa­ther, or Un­cle as he was known by all the fam­ily. They told me he was a quiet, thought­ful pres­ence, al­ways el­e­gantly dressed, who never for­got birthdays and smelled of cologne.

I asked one of my cousins about his phone habits. “My dad never said good­bye. Why was that?”

“Some­times we don’t,” she said mat­ter-of-factly. “Every­thing has been said al­ready.”

And I sup­pose it had.

Pho­to­graph by Si Bar­ber for the Guardian

Camilla Bal­shaw and, be­low, her fa­ther

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