I think I must have been 9 when my Mum caught me stealing fried meat from her steaming Egusi soup. Back then my Sister Iyabo and I were always given one piece of meat to share.
On days when I had the task of dividing the meat, Iyabo got to choose and vice versa. We always ate from the same plate. Our younger brother Segun, who tragically died young, always ate with our Mum and Dad. He was the last-born then. My other Sister, Dupe lived with my grandmother, and I had no idea what the procedure was for ensuring she consumed some protein.
In our own case, the fact that we always had to share one piece of meat niggled away at me. I always wondered why our neighbour’s children got to have a piece of meat each while two of us had to make do with one. In hindsight, I guess this was the first and perhaps most influential lesson in moderation, fairness and equity I was taught. It, however, wasn’t the biggest nor the most important that my mum would teach and again fried meat would also play a central role in my learning.
One day my mum called me to keep an eye on the Egusi soup she was preparing and which was bubbling away on the hot stove in the communal kitchen my family shared with other inhabitants of the compound we called home.
As soon as mother left, the fried meat started talking to me. Various pieces of fried meat danced to the beat from the heat; Egusi, Palm Oil; and the vegetable soup Yoruba – call ‘Sokoyokoto’ all conspired in a beat and dance whose whispers were too seductive to resist. My will was broken, and I couldn’t take it any longer. Since I was put in charge, there was really no reason I rationalised why I have to wait for dinner to share a piece of meat with my sister when I could and for the first time too, have one all to myself.
I swooped in for the kill. Dipped my hand into that hot soup, didn’t even feel any heat and grabbed the most inviting looking piece of meat, but as my hand started the short journey into my mouth, I felt a hand grab my right fist. I did not need to turn to realise I had been caught, red handed. My Mum the one I always call the ‘Lion’ of the house, smiled and said. “Don’t worry Kayode eat it.”
The sarcasm was not lost on me, or the deadliness of that smile. I dropped the meat on the floor, waiting for the beating of my life but my Mum didn’t raise a finger.
We had dinner; Mum gave Iyabo and I the usual one piece of meat. I shared it, and as I was about to pick my portion, she directed Iyabo to eat hers and mine. The reason for her decision was, of course, clear to me but lost on my Dad who was unaware of what happened in the afternoon. So he protested, fighting my battle, my late Dad was the gentle dove, not until you start seeing photographs or hear his friends tell tales of his gallantry as a Soldier in the Nigerian Army would you ever think he was once a Soldier, my dad in his usual manner gave up, the stern look from my Mum was clear, he simply let go promising to buy me something special as compensation and choosing not to argue with my mum.
After we had finished eating, we watched NTA news, said our night prayers, (that family prayer conducted by a Christian Father and a Muslim Father both continuously trying to convince us on the right faith), anyway that night we moved items around and as was the practice turned the living room into a bedroom for us the children while my parents retired to the 2nd room. We lived in what is known in local parlance as room and parlour.
I was fast asleep in the middle of the night when my mum woke me up. She also roused my younger ones and sent them into the other room to join my Dad. I cannot write what she did to me here. None Yoruba will never understand it suffice to say the punishment shaped my life. I made up my mind never to take what does not belong to me again and in fact never even thought about it. Somehow my mother equated my first and last attempt at pilfering with such heinous crimes like murder in my mind. This is the day that I believe the foundation for my abhorrence for corruption was born.
As we continue to fight to build a strong Nigeria in which the commonwealth is used for the common good, I can’t help but wonder what lessons the Mothers of the thieves of billions of naira taught? Surely, the majority of our mothers taught the same powerful lesson I received so how come we have ended up as a nation in which well-known figures feel no shame in stealing massive amounts especially given its impact on the lives of some 180 million Nigerians? When did it become culturally acceptable that stealing isn’t corruption or that padding the Commonwealth of the many into the pockets of a few law breakers is acceptable or that a thief from my tribe is doing right by stealing as a form of revenge for the stealing perpetuated by the rogue from the other tribe.
How did we end up with a country where we can not have a cross-party, cross-tribe, cross gender, cross-cultural, cross religion coalition in the fight against corruption and bad governance?
Today August 12th, 2016, three decades later as I mark my 48th year on earth, I continue to remember and feel my mother’s disgust. I believe it has guided my conduct and shaped the direction of my life. I wonder what Mothers of our ‘distinguished’ thieves’ make of their actions, and if they feel the shame, their ‘illustrious’ sons and daughters won’t or refuse to feel.
We can continue to hold on to hope but until we agree to save Nigeria from Nigerians, that revolving door will keep producing the same corrupt element, those who steal, claim to repent, turn anti-corruption campaigners and then refuse to return what they have forcefully taken away from the Nigerian people. It is never too late to save the homeland.
Kayode Ogundamisi is a UK-based Nigerian Activist and Social Commentator on Nigerian and international affairs.