"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 06/09/12

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Remembering Zainab Kperogi Two Years After

By Moses E. Ochonu

This is the second year anniversary of the passing of Zainab Kperogi, the wife of my friend, Dr. Farooq Kperogi. Although her husband and I talked almost every other day in the few years before her passing, I didn’t interact with Zainab as frequently as I would have loved. Oceanic distance separated us, as it did her and her husband —and, before he relocated to the US, Farooq and I. The infrequency of our direct interaction is a regret I have whenever I think of her.

We communicated frequently, of course, vicariously through her husband, but two years after her passing my wife and I realize how we miss her calmly delivered philosophical insights into life and the quotidian aspirations of marriage and family. We regret not having known her better, not having done more to reach across the oceanic divide, in this age of trans-oceanic communicative ease, to commune more with her.

The regret is partly selfish because as I confront the inevitable juggling acts of family, fatherhood, and life, I realize that I could use more of Zainab’s boundless sense of optimism, her inexplicable instinct to look on the good side and focus on possibilities instead of obstacles. I wish that I had tapped more into her infectiously sunny outlook on life, her incurable refusal to allow today’s challenges deter her from envisioning a rosier tomorrow.

I got to know Zainab on a visit to Farooq in the newsroom of Weekly Trust, then based in Kaduna. My recollection might embarrass Farooq, but it is necessary for me to retell it here as a way of underlining the effortless warmth that Zainab radiated. I recall that Zainab’s reaction to me, a friend of her then fiance, was more enthusiastic than Farooq’s introduction of her to me. Which is not to say that Farooq’s introduction was tepid; it was effusive enough to tell me that this was no ordinary relationship. Yet the chatty warmth with which Zainab welcomed me that day put Farooq’s introduction to shame. Farooq had not told me about Zainab and she obviously had not heard about me, but she proceeded to interact with me with a disarming familiarity. It was as though she had known me for years.  I was even more impressed later when Farooq told me that they were in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel and were essentially taking a break when I visited him. This was Zainab. She could not help being nice, being friendly, being welcoming, and she would neither let a small romantic quarrel get in the way of her niceness nor allow her transient grievance against her fiancĂ© to cloud her interactions with his friend.

As I examined their relationship that day and the awkward newsroom dynamic that overlaid it, I knew that this was a relationship destined for marriage, with all its blessings — children, noise, growth, petty romantic quarrels, and sweet make-ups. I knew it there and then try as Farooq did to project the image of a macho, unemotional suitor. More significantly, as I left the newsroom that day, I knew that, if it was up to me, this was the woman that I wanted my friend to be with, for I thought to myself: a woman as naturally warm and sociable as Zainab would be the perfect antidote to Farooq’s sporadic social awkwardness. Plus, she obviously loved him very much. Farooq would later tell me that they both knew from the moment they met that they would be married because they felt that where-have-you-been-all-my-life connection.

It made me happy when in a matter of months after that encounter, Farooq told me the news I expected. He had married Zainab. Then came the birth of their daughter. It was a rapid unfolding of what I had foreseen for them, and it made me happy.

Several years passed before I saw Zainab again. In 2007 when she traveled to the US, she, Farooq, and their daughter visited us in Nashville. It was a memorable visit. Even though we were the host, Zainab’s altruism and selflessness reversed the roles. She mothered our daughter and hers; she counseled; she told jokes, some on Farooq, some on herself; she entertained and (re)educated us on many subjects. Of course, she shopped with my wife and they did women things. We made family outings together. By the end of the visit, it felt like Zainab was our host and we her visitors! She had become family! And it was all effortless on her part; it was just Zainab being Zainab.

After the visit she kept in touch with my wife and I on the phone, but as we settled into our routines again, the frequency of the calls we made to her decreased and postponements of conversations became regular. We went back to the familiar but now regretted routine of communicating with her indirectly by inquiring about her from Farooq.

I will conclude this tribute by telling the story of my third in-person encounter with Zainab in 2009. She had met me at the airport in Abuja to get the materials — a bagful — that her husband sent through me. My wife had bought a small present for their daughter but I had forgotten to give it to her at the airport. I subsequently arranged to meet her at her office in the Media Trust compound in Utako district of Abuja. After missing my way several times, I located the expansive premises of her employer.

All the small pleasantries over, Zainab, taking me completely unawares, asked if I owned a home or a plot of land in Abuja. I said I did not. She asked half-jokingly if it didn’t bother me that I, a US-based Professor, was staying in a hotel on a visit to the capital of my own country. I said it did and that I had thought of the awkwardness of the situation but had no means of addressing it. She then said that she knew that I would want to bring my wife and daughter home on vacations, and wouldn’t it be great to have a small house to spend time while in Nigeria? All of these were things that I had thought about and so I concurred with every statement or question she posed, wondering where she was going with the inquiries. With the seriousness of an interrogator, she asked why I hadn’t at least purchased a plot of land in one of the satellite towns, why I had not begun doing something about building a home in the FCT. I proceeded to give the familiar — and legitimate — excuses.  Abuja homes and plots of land were too expensive. I couldn’t afford anything anywhere in Abuja on my salary. It would take me decades to save enough to buy a plot and decades more to build a modest home on it, so why bother?  I had many dependants.

She watched me studiously as I reeled out my list of reasons and then, with the patient pedagogical sensitivity of a seasoned teacher, she demonstrated to me that I could do it if I tried. She disabused me of the myths of land ownership in Abuja, copiously drawing on examples of colleagues and friends who were on smaller incomes than mine and had managed to acquire land for their future homes in the FCT. She then proceeded to show me in both arithmetic and anecdotal terms how, with a little more financial discipline and determination, I could buy a plot of land in one of the Abuja satellite towns and start to develop it at a pace allowed by my finances. She spiced up her persuasive presentation by making the emotional case that this would be great for my family’s comfort and enable us take more vacations to Nigeria, which would help our children appreciate their roots more. With this patriotic and emotional pitch I was sold!

She convinced me. I came away believing that this was indeed possible, buoyed by Zainab’s remarkably expansive view of what was achievable even in Nigeria’s notoriously out-of-reach real estate market. Her optimism was intoxicating. I was fired up, and began to dream of land ownership in the FCT, of family vacations in the future in our own home in Abuja. This encounter is one of the most profound and transformative ones I have ever had. It changed my way of thinking, my view of possibilities, and moderated my acquired views on the worth and challenges of investing in Nigeria.

The encounter also told me something powerful about Zainab. I was only her husband’s friend, not a blood relative. She had actually only interacted with me sparingly before then. She did not have to give me such a life transforming motivational “lecture”; she did not have to give me invaluable informational details on how to acquire land in one of Abuja’s suburbs. Yet here she was looking out for my and my family’s interest and doing so with focus, commitment, and passionate altruism. This gesture gave me a memorable glimpse into the naturalness of Zainab’s desire to help others. This was Zainab, ever so willing and ready to encourage others to live up to their potential, to do what they considered impossible, and ever so determined to see people around her prosper and thrive.

I will never forget this encounter with Zainab, and I told Farooq so. We all have our own stories that illustrate the character and spirit that Zainab exuded, and her giving, nurturing personality. This is mine. The home ownership dream that Zainab planted in me is incubating, thanks to her dogged refusal to allow me neglect what she knew would improve the quality of my life. As I pursue this goal, no matter how long it may take, I will always remember that she generously put the idea in me. And when the dream materializes I will owe it to Zainab. It will be, for me, a visible, physical reminder of her legacy of selflessness, compassion, and optimism.

May God sustain her legacy and comfort her family.

Ochonu is an Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA 

Related Articles:
Mourning My Wife and Best Friend
Grieving in America 
Zainab: One Year After, It Still Feels Like a Dream 

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