By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Last year ended on a tragically sour note for me. As many of my Facebook friends and followers already know, my father, Mallam Adamu Kperogi, died on December 31, 2016 at 7:15 p.m. Nigerian time after a brief illness. Although we have no record of the actual date of his birth, we guestimate that he was at least 92 years old, based on his recollections of and witness to major historical events in Nigeria and the world.
To live up to nearly a century is no doubt an uncommon privilege, but I am still inconsolably devastated by the reality of his permanent corporeal departure from us. He wasn't just my father; he was also my teacher, my mentor, my source of inspiration, my emotional and moral fortress, my biggest cheerleader, my hero, my everything.
|Mallam Adamu Kperogi--20 years ago|
He taught Arabic and Islamic Studies to generations of students, including me, at many primary schools in my hometown before retiring several years ago. Although he had little formal education, he could speak, read and write in eight languages: Baatonu, Fulfulde, Arabic, Hausa, Yoruba, Dendi, Ashanti, and English.
A few years after his birth, he was taken to a Fulani camp because it was the tradition at the time to take Baatonu children with unusual teething timelines to the Fulani. Children with irregular teething timelines, which in my part of Borgu was understood as cutting the first tooth by the seventh month, were called “flying children” who purportedly portended bad luck for their families. It was a period of ignorance and superstition.
He grew up at a Fulani camp till he was about 10 or 11. So his first language was Fulfulde. By about age 11, he came down with smallpox. Because smallpox was infectious, incurable, and deadly at the time, he was thrown out of the Fulani camp—as was the custom then. He recalled that he was intensely heartbroken that people he thought were his parents kicked him out of his home. He cried and wandered alone in the bush for days, surviving on fruits and water.
Meanwhile, his biological mother often checked up on him periodically at the Fulani camp. On one such flying visits—a few weeks after he was kicked out— his adoptive Fulani parents told his mother that he had been asked to leave the camp to prevent him from infecting the rest of the community with smallpox.
His mother recognized him sitting forlornly under a tree in a village far from the Fulani camp. He survived the smallpox. When he saw his mother, he said, he had no idea whom she was. So he ran as fast as he could. He was dying of hunger and took some people’s food without their permission. He thought his mother was the owner of the food.
His suspicion appeared to be confirmed, he told me, when the woman enlisted the help of people to run after him and get him. They did. But the woman, instead of being angry, cried uncontrollably. He was confused. The woman said she was his mother, but he said she couldn’t be because he “knew” who exactly his mother was. At the time, the only language he could speak fluently was Fulfulde, which the woman who said was his mother couldn't speak. He spoke a smattering of Baatonu with a noticeable Fulani accent—like most Fulanis in western Borgu.
When his mother finally took him home, he thought he had been kidnapped, except for the unusual tenderness, kindness, and care that were showered on him. But his stay with his biological parents was short-lived. One of his uncles attributed his misfortunes to my dad’s presence in the town. So he was taken to an Islamic scholar in a faraway town to learn Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence.
Many years later, after memorizing the Qur’an, learning classical Arabic, and achieving proficiency in Islamic jurisprudence, he found his way back to his parents’ home. By this time, American Baptist missionaries had set foot in our town and established schools and hospitals. This was in the 1940s.
Some of his younger brothers had enrolled in the newly established elementary schools, but had to convert to Christianity as a precondition for enrollment. Although he was fascinated by the emergent form of education, he said, he couldn’t enroll both because he was too old and because he couldn’t imagine converting to Christianity.
In order to compensate for this, he chose to learn more figh (Arabic for “deep understanding” of Islamic jurisprudence) from an Islamic scholar from Gwandu who had settled in the community. Many years later, however, he decided to travel the coast of West Africa in search of more systematic knowledge of modern Arabic. He attended Arabic schools in Porto Novo and Cotonou in Benin Republic, Lome in Togo, Kumasi in Ghana, etc.
Upon his return to Nigeria, he also enrolled in adult education classes in English and earned the equivalent of a Primary School Leaving Certificate. He had a deep passion for education for the sake of it.
He taught me to read and write first in Arabic at age 4—perhaps earlier—and later in my native Baatonu language in the Roman alphabet. So when I started primary school at age 5 at Baptist Primary School in Okuta (where he was also a teacher), in the Borgu area of Kwara State, I was ahead of many of my peers.
I understood the basic principles of Arabic and Roman orthography and could sound out letters and read Arabic and English passages fairly well. That head start stood me in good stead throughout my educational career. But he didn’t just give me a head start; he also let me know that he had invested enormous hopes and expectations in me.
He told me several times as a child that he wanted me to have what he deeply desired but couldn’t have. He said he wanted me to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, a Ph.D., and shine a light on the world. I had no clue what that meant. I just understood him as telling me to take my studies seriously. And I did. I always made him proud by being among the top three students in my class. (The top three students of every class were often honored with prizes and a public applause every end of semester.)
One semester, in my fourth year of elementary school, I didn’t make it to the top three. I was petrified. I thought my dad would be so disappointed he would skin me alive. So I ran away after the prize-giving ceremony. He looked everywhere for me. He finally found me crying under a tree. That was the first time I saw him visibly emotional.
“Son, I’m neither sad nor disappointed that you didn’t make it to the top three,” I recall him telling me. “Don’t ever think you always have to be the best to impress me. You tried your best. It’s just that other people tried harder than you did. Don’t always expect to be the best. That’s not the way the world works.”
I can’t tell you how much these words changed my life. They liberated me from the mental bondage of always wanting to be the best in order to impress him. They also taught me the virtue of humility and modest expectations. Knowing that I just needed to do my best and not expect to be the best was one of the greatest existential lessons my dad taught me.
Without consciously working toward it—and certainly not expecting it—I have received the top student prizes at every level of my educational career after this encounter. I owe that to my dad, my first teacher, who also taught generations of people from my part of Nigeria for over four decades.
When he called me on December 29 after recovering from a brief illness to express gratitude to me, he was upbeat, chatty, and unusually prayerful. He told me I had made him proud, that I was everything he ever wanted me to be, that he was a fulfilled man, that the “evening” of his life had turned out way better than the “morning” of his life, etc.
Well, I’m consoled by the exemplary, fulfilled, praiseworthy life he lived. May Allah reward him with Jannah Al-Firdaus.