On June 1, 2018, I was in a convoy from the Akure Airport to Ado-Ekiti. My husband, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, was being led back into Ekiti by excited party people and other Ekiti citizens. As we got to the outskirts of Ikere-Ekiti, I saw two old women running besides our vehicles, waving brooms and shouting, “Oko arugbo ti de o (The husband of the aged is here).” One of the women looked like she was in her 80s, and my heart was in my mouth as she ran with the energy of someone three decades younger. The social security scheme for the elderly, known as Owo Arugbo (money for the elderly), which was one of the key achievements of the JKF1 administration (2010-2014), was abruptly discarded when he left office. During the JKF1 period, I also coordinated a food bank/soup kitchen project for the elderly and other vulnerable people.
As we found our way into Ado-Ekiti that day, other elderly citizens joined in the excitement of running alongside the convoy for as long as they were able to. JKF had promised that he would revive the much-loved social security scheme that had enabled so many elderly citizens live lives of dignity and independence, if he won the election. The sheer joy and excitement on the faces of these old people that day was a sight to behold.
In June 2019, the staff of my Ekiti Development Foundation started the process of compiling names and doing due diligence for Ounje Arugbo (food for the elderly, a rebranded version of the previous food bank project), which we formally launched in September 2019. During the registration exercise, my staff came back from Ikere-Ekiti and told me that one of the old women they had documented there did not just need help from the Ounje Arugbo project, she would need a lot more. Mama Jolaade Osho’s name had been given to the team as one of the beneficiaries to be registered, but she could not make it to the registration centre because she was too frail. My staff decided to go to her home, where they knocked on Mama’s door for over 20 minutes before she opened it for them. She was found living in such filth and squalor, they were shocked. That was how Mama Jolaade Rachael Osho became my adopted mother. I got her a new place to stay near her family home, employed two carers who worked in shifts, and got a doctor to check on her regularly. She never lacked anything till she drew her last breath recently.
Rachael Jolaade Osho was one of the nine children of her mother, Mrs. Abigail Oyebade Osho, and a father with several other wives, Mr. Benson Osho of Apelua compound in Okeruku quarters of Ikere Ekiti, over a century ago. In trying to determine Mama’s age, we came up with a range from 105 to 115. Based on respected sources from the town, it has been determined that she was not less than 110 years old. Mama was a princess from one of the Ikere ruling families. According to the history she recounted, Mama Osho witnessed the installation of four Kings in Ikere kingdom during her lifetime. Even though Mama lacked material wealth, she was richly blessed with good health and a very long life. Mama Osho didn’t receive any formal education. However, she was hardworking and ventured into weaving and sale of the popular cotton fabric known as “Kijipa.” She spent most of her youth trading in fabrics and agricultural products such as cocoyam and palm kernel.
As was customary during her time, she was married off to her first husband, known to her as ‘Akowe Agba’. She did not know his real name. She was not happy in the marriage, so it did not work out. Mama Osho got married again, this time to Mr. Alakatakiti Sakiu, who, sadly, died, leaving her alone in the world. She then moved back to her father’s house in Apelua compound, Ikere. Mama lost all her children to untimely deaths 30 to 40 years ago. This resulted in a life of agony, stigma and, when she was no longer able to fend for herself, poverty.
Mama Osho was not the only elderly person in Ekiti State living under such circumstances. Since her case became public in July 2019, I have taken over the care of three other old women like her. One of them has children, but they are unable to fend for themselves not to talk of their mother.
In Yoruba communities, no woman is childless, every woman is a mother. Some women never have biological children. However, they join in raising the children around them, and when they pass on those adopted children become part of her legacy. Sadly, these positive values have been eroded. Mama Osho had biological children of her own but they tragically pre-deceased her. Due to her age and lack of support, she slipped into grinding poverty. She was hounded, abused and abandoned by people who did not know any better. She was labelled a witch.
Another lesson learnt from my relationship with Mama is the issue of a lack of documentation and how we are allowing critical aspects of community memory to fade away. We discovered that there were no photographs of Mama Osho, except for the ones we started taking of her in July 2019. We have managed to piece an account of her life together, using our interviews with her and various sources, but it is still quite sketchy. I would love to see a documentation project that records the experiences of elderly citizens in our society before they pass on. There are still many Mama Oshos in our communities who live in isolation and penury, with only their fading memories for company, memories no one is interested in, but which we so badly need as a society that is failing on so many levels. This is something that can be taken up by private foundations, faith-based organisations or state ministries of art, culture and tourism, in collaboration with young researchers.
Mama Osho lived her last days in peace and dignity, as is the right of all people. On January 27, 2020, the day of her passing, Mama had breakfast and took a nap. When she woke up she requested for pounded yam, her favourite meal, which she ate almost every day. She went to the back of her house to feed the two big chickens she had been rearing to give to me and JKF. When she was done, she went back in, placed her head on her chest and slipped away peacefully. She had no aches or pains and she was not ill. Her time was just up.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role in Mama’s life, albeit very briefly. If my team had not found Mama last year, and she had died alone in her room, she would have been buried immediately and unceremoniously, with hardly anyone to mourn her.
Mama kept telling everyone around her that I was her daughter who had left long ago and had come back. I am not sure if she meant it in the metaphorical sense or, due to her very old age, she truly believed it.
In the end, what matters is that Mama died happy, knowing she was loved and cared for. Time and people abandoned her, but God did not forget her. The first time I met Mama last year, I promised her that when she died, people would know she had children.
Tomorrow, we will bury Mama. She will lie in state with coral beads around her neck and wrists like the princess she was. People will file past the remains of the frail, helpless old woman who was teased, taunted and declared worthless because she had no one to care for her. She will be buried like the valuable human being she was, and I am sure she has a place waiting for her in heaven.
I am humbled by the kind words of many people from around the country and beyond who have been touched by Mama’s story and have sent messages of solidarity and support. Please, remember, there are still many like her around. Let us seek them out and care for them. Rest in peace, my dear mother. You have earned it. I will never forget you.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of
Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]