I remember that desolate house. I remember where exactly it stands. As a little boy my mother will always take me along when ever she had to travel home especially during the August break. I could have been 5 or 6 years old back then.
At that time we did not have the luxury of a car or okada so we would take very long walks and often go to my maternal home to say hello to my mother’s relatives. The fun part for me was not just the love my mother’s people showed me each and every time, but it was a realization at that young age that everyone from that vast community seemed to me to be related because everyone knew everyone just by the mention of their first names, and so truly it seemed that they loved themselves.
So, every time my mother and I passed by that desolate house there was always a desolate old woman sitting on the hard floor in front of the house with a small container of the heat ointment we call Robb and a walking stick obviously cut from a tree branch and looking taller than her; both kept beside her outstretched legs, within reach. At the time I was fascinated by the length of the walking stick since I have only seen a shorter different type and length in the city.
We will stop and my mother will greet her. She will respond and chitchat with my mother for about 5 minutes or more before she will request to know whom she was speaking with. Then at the realization the pleasantry will gather more momentum and take on knew dimensions. We would have spent about 15 to 20 minutes by the time they were done and mother will often give her some money. She called it ego utaba.
It was easy for me to conclude that she was blind because on all occasions she never recognized my mother until she asked who she was; and also even though her eyes were not shut and her pupil could be seen they always looked lifeless with the whole area around the eyes greased and shiny with what I assumed at first Vaseline.
The following year while we were taking our long walk, I had asked mother if we were going to pass by the blind woman’s house and I immediately sensed anger in her voice when she told me the old woman was not blind. She went on to explain that she only could not see too well anymore and had to constantly apply Robb to her eyes to enable her see at all. I would not talk any more, at least not immediately because I would sense that mother was not comfortable with the old woman’s situation. Nevertheless the questions will begin to grow in my little mind: why does she live alone? Where is her family – husband and children? Why does she always look and talk happy despite her situation? Who cooks for her? Do people stop to say hello like mother always does? I thought people in my mothers’ village love themselves, so why isn’t she getting any care? They let her look dirty and won’t take her to the hospital to see an optician, why?
I really never got answers to these questions because they never made it out of my thoughts, more from not wanting to see mothers’ countenance change but still I had to ask one very important question; “Mama who is she?” and she replied “Albert Onyeanwuna’s mother”. Of course I did not know who that was and it was not important to me that I should ask any further questions since I realized immediately that the name ‘Albert’ came up all the time mother talked with the old woman.
In my little thoughts all by myself, I wondered if Albert was the cause of her situation, and why he had to cause his mother so much pain. I looked at mother and saw that a smile had not returned to her face, and the air remained tense as long as she had that unpleasant grin. I made a silent vow never to make her sad.
The name Albert Onyeanwuna came up again when my father had friends visiting our house in Ogoja one evening. Unlike mother, father talked about him with so much glee and enthusiasm. Father was in fact full of praises for Albert and that was the same for his friends. Now, I was confused.
I asked and father explained to me that Albert Onyeanwuna was from Agbaja in Abatete (that I think I already knew). He was a footballer who started playing in Port Harcourt and father was living in Port Harcourt at the time and would go to watch him play. There has not been any like him, father would say, he was a master dribbler. He will then go on to sing me a praise song that was composed with Albert’s name and will talk about how the stadium will often echo with his fans singing that song.
I grew up knowing this little about him (but knew much about Pele, Maradona and other non-Nigerian stars), and the rest of what I know of him would be from my imagination of what his life after football was like, but these images in my head would be collaborated by stories from some relatives who had either made contact with him in Lagos by chance, or heard something about him.
My imaginative story even today is that his life was no different from his mothers’. They both were born and raised Nigerians;
They both had dreams of the kind of life they wanted;
They both made sacrifices and invested heavily in the Nigerian nation;
They both were happy to give themselves to their country;
They both had their dreams dead or killed at some point;
They both had similar and terrible health issues;
They both did not want health because they thought it should have come naturally;
They both felt abandoned and forgotten especially in the time of need;
They both were never celebrated in their lifetime nor were their works;
They both were left to die by Nigeria and its people;
In fact, they both were killed by Nigeria.
A few days ago mother called and while we were talking on the phone she hinted that Albert Onyeanwuna would be buried around August. I had no idea he was dead. Me, just like the government of Nigeria and its other people had forgotten that he was alive. We had forgotten that he had put the name of the nation in good books and world records when he scored a goal in the first ever African Cup of Nations Nigeria participated in in 1963. we all don’t remember that he made a total of 26 international appearances and scored a total of 7 goals in those appearances. We forgot that football in the 50s and 60s in Nigeria was synonymous with the name ALBERT ONYEANWUNA, the same way the contemporary age has Kanu Nwankwo, Jayjay Okocha, Odemwingie, Finidi George, Samson Siasia, etc.
We never thought that Albert was possibly the finest of contribution of a humble mother towards the greatness of our nation. Our people did not stop to see the possible ripple effects of the utter abandonment of Albert like many other Nigerian Greats, to be a selfless sacrificing mothers’ worse nightmare.
It is not like I have an idea of what it is exactly that should have been done. STILL SOMETHING COULD HAVE BEEN DONE, either by me or the government or even those in his trade – Jayjay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Mikel Obi, Stephen Keshi – who in contemporary times have also made our nation proud but in the process have become so deservingly wealthy that they may never fall in the path Albert Onyeanwuna finally trod and died in. Maybe it would have been as easy as them carrying along forerunners like Onyeanwuna to enable them have continued relevance, like organizing both local and international novelty football games in their honor and the proceeds from ticket sales going to their upkeep. I mean like our football stars playing against governors (who will of course sponsor) or against their western footballer friends somewhere in Europe (where Albert would have been present). I mean something, just anything and the story would have been different, he would not have died unattended nor his mother lonely.
As Pele is to Brazil, Onyeanwuna could have been to Nigeria if but our nation and people had done what is right.
It will be good for our true heroes from all fibers of our nationhood to be appreciated in their lifetime and be made to smile even on their deathbed. So while we talk about the predicaments of two Nigerian greats and their contributions to the greatness of Nigeria – Albert Onyeanwuna and his mother, it is important to mirror in their lives and deaths the true picture that Nigeria is today: lack of adequate rural health care, lack of a care plan for senior citizens, politicization and monetization of national recognitions, and all the improperness and misappropriations that the Nigerian people as well as their government are known for.
I remember when his mother died, she died and was buried uncelebrated. Now Albert Onyeanwuna is dead and will be buried uncelebrated and I hope that no one names a football academy or a stadium after him; but if that will make a difference and change our collective modus operandi as individuals, a people and as a nation then it is worth doing.
Chinedu Ezigbo hails from Abatete, Nigeria.