A mother’s love is a universal currency. There is hardly any culture that does not celebrate motherhood. In Yorubaland, mother is regarded as gold. That is where Ìyániwúrà comes from. In Igbo, it is Nneka. I am certain that its equivalent exists in almost every language of the world.
One mother who proved the truth of this golden axiom is an illiterate mother from the ancient city of Ile-Ife.
As of today, there is no monument to her memory. Her story also does not feature in History texts. Yet, when the roll is called of mothers who were prepared to pay the ultimate price for their children, the name of Asabi Adedire must certainly occupy a pride of place. It is to keep the memory of this extraordinary woman alive that Onigegewura is bringing you this story today.
The first time I heard about Asabi Adedire was from my mother. It was on the eve of my departure to College. Iya mi, Ikoyi Esho, was packing every conceivable food item into my bag. Like most teenagers, I wanted only money, and not garri and elubo with tinko [dried meat] I was being saddled with. My mother however won’t hear of it. She believed that I was going to die of starvation without rice and beans. Despite myself, I was appreciative of the motherly sacrifice and I told her. That was when she responded with: “Kini mo ti se? Asabi se ju be lo fun omoe” [What have I done? Asabi did more than that for her child.]
Which Asabi? What did she do for her son? The story you are reading is the story of Asabi Adedire. It is a story of a mother’s extraordinary sacrifice and love for her son. But, I warn you, this story may make your eyes moist before you get to the end. Let’s go back to Ile-Ife where it all started two years before the Union Jack was replaced with the Green-White-Green.
When Abraham Adewole Adedire won a scholarship to study his dream course in the United States, it was a dream come true not only for the budding scientist, but for all his extended family. The entire city of Ile-Ife erupted with rapturous joy. Onigegewura is talking about 1958 when you could count the number of university graduates on the fingers of one hand. Abraham became the golden boy of his generation.
Overnight, everyone in Ile-Ife remembered that they were related to the Adedire family through one dead ancestor or another. Abraham was born in 1939 to a father who was a farmer and a mother who was a trader. He hailed from Ita Agbon Quarters in Ile-Ife. If you are going to Modakeke from Itakogun, Ita Agbon is the last quarters before Oke Eso Bridge. You know the place?
Abraham was a son every parent would be proud of. Though of slight frame, he was gifted with massive intelligence. From his elementary school days, he had shown that he was a child of promise. Whereas most students lived in fear of mathematics, Wole, as Abraham was fondly called at home, was at his best when solving mathematical puzzles. It was therefore not a surprise when he won the Nigerian government scholarship in 1958 to study chemistry in the United States.
On arrival at Michigan State University, Abraham dove headlong into his studies. He was determined to finish his degree programme in record time. His ultimate goal was to return home with a doctorate degree. He knew that with his country – then under colonial rule – approaching independence, a postgraduate degree in Sciences would place him in good stead to contribute his own quota to the development of his motherland.
Abraham was however not your average student whose only preoccupation was studying.
He was active in both curricular and extra-curricular activities on and off campus. His innate talents and abilities soon landed him a leadership role when he was elected the President of the International Club of the university. As expected, Abraham proved his mettles as a leader in his new assignment. His commitment to the Club however did not affect his studies. In 1961, the Boy from Ile-Ife graduated from the university with his Degree of Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Among those who graduated with him in the same year were Ernest Becking, William Birch, and Robert Clark.
There is something Onigegewura did not tell you about Abraham’s achievement during his tenure as the President of the International Club. It was in the course of his duty as president that he met the young white lady who became his wife. Margaret Orvis was from Marion, Michigan. She was a second year student of Elementary Education in the university when they met. For Margaret, it was love at first. She knew immediately they met that this was the man she was going to marry.
Her father however didn’t share his daughter’s romantic ideal. Abraham was not only a black man, he had also come all the way from a strange continent called Africa. Margaret’s father, ever protective of his daughter, threatened to shoot the Boy from Ile-Ife if he didn’t desist from his love overture to his daughter. The opposition to the young lovers’ relationship was not only from Margaret’s father. Abraham’s friends and colleagues also did not find it funny that he would leave all the beautiful sisters in the International Club to date a white girl.
Well, love conquers all. Margaret’s parents soon relented and went ahead to approve the relationship between their daughter and the young man from Africa. Her father failed to keep his promise to shoot him. Instead he blessed the union of the young couple. Abraham wrote to inform his family in Nigeria that he was going to marry a white girl. They had no objection to his choice of partner.
Abraham and Margaret Adedire soon started their new life together as a couple. Within months, the couple had their first daughter. She was named Aderonke Adedire [Ronke]. A year later in 1963, Aderonke’s sister came along. She was named Adetayo Adedire [Tayo]. The joy of the family was complete. Abraham was studying for his postgraduate degree while also working on part time basis to supplement his scholarship allowance from the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The future could not have been brighter for the young family. That was however when sadness decided that it had no other place to visit but the household of the Adedires. When Abraham began to feel tired almost on continuous basis, he put it down to his punishing schedule as a fulltime student, a part time worker and a committed head of family. Margaret advised her husband to visit the hospital for a medical check. It was at the hospital that it was discovered that his urine contained high level of protein.
The doctors, professionals as they were, were shocked by this finding but they were not unduly alarmed. They prescribed him medications and he was advised to reduce his workload. The couple returned home and waited for his health to improve.
But as observed by Wole Soyinka in The Forest of A Thousand Daemons, it was the case of the proverbial seasoned witch, sooner simply gives birth to daughter after daughter, so witchbird swarms overs witchbird [kaka kí o san ni ara iya àjé, nise lo n fi gbogbo omo re bi obinrin, eye wa n yi lu eye]. Rather than improve, his health began to deteriorate. Margaret was not a medical practitioner but she realized that the prescribed pills were not the cure for her husband’s illness. Her fears were confirmed when Abraham began to lose consciousness on a regular basis. She didn’t wait a minute longer before rushing her husband back to the hospital.
Once again, Abraham was subjected to a series of tests and other medical examinations. From the grim appearance of the medical personnel who conducted the tests, Abraham knew that the prognosis must have been very bad. As a graduate of chemistry, he knew one or two things about medical tests. Perhaps afraid that he might not be able to take the news, it was his wife that the doctors informed of their findings. Her dear husband was suffering from an irreversible and progressive kidney failure. And it was not one kidney. His two kidneys were affected.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Abraham had only six more months to live!
For a young man who was just about to start his life, it was a death sentence. When his wife broke the news to him, Abraham was as stunned as Margaret was when she first heard the tragic news. His mind went back to the hurdles he had struggled to overcome to come to the United States. He remembered his promise to his father and mother back home in Nigeria. He recalled how he had pledged to train his siblings. And then he thought of Margaret and their two young daughters, Ronke and Tayo. What would become of them?
But if the doctors had expected the young man to begin to wail, they were mistaken. Six months! Abraham’s mind was made up. He was not going to go down without a fight. Kidney failure had picked the wrong candidate this time around. He was going to fight it with every fibre of his being. He was not going to dance to the drum of fate. Rather he would snatch the drum and dance to his own music. For his two young daughters, he would fight. For his wife, he would not give up. And for his family back in Ile-Ife, he would be strong. Oranmiyan Akinorun would see him through. Oduduwa Atewonro would be with him. He would fight!
Initial shock over, he asked the doctors for his chances of beating the odds. Even before the doctors could respond, he knew the stakes were stacked against him. But it appeared that something could still be done to save the determined young man. It was a little ray. It was a very little ray. But it was a ray all the same. Margaret had heard of kidney transplant operation. Was it possible for her husband to have one of her kidneys? The doctors were moved by the desperation of the young lady to save her husband. They referred them to the University of Michigan Hospital where there were specialists in that field.
At the UMH, Abraham for the third time underwent a battery of tests. The prognosis had not changed. The ray of hope had however become brighter. Instead of six months, the doctors UMH opined that with the best of care Abraham could live for five years. Five years! From six months to five years! That’s a miracle! But…, yes, there was a but. They warned that the five-year lease was not guaranteed. It could in fact be anytime. Abraham had heard what he wanted to hear. He would not die. He would live.
Then another miracle occurred. The doctors prescribed drugs for him. They also placed him on a special diet. They then decided to monitor him for about three weeks. At the end of the monitoring period, all the symptoms had disappeared! Abraham could not believe it. But it was true, the symptoms had totally disappeared. He was discharged from the hospital and was advised to take things easy.
Did Onigegewura tell you that Abraham had written to inform the government of Nigeria of his medical travails? Well, as a government scholar he was obliged to keep the government informed of whatever was happening to him.
The government advised him to terminate his postgraduate studies and return to Nigeria. He was also sent tickets to cover the passage of his family. Margaret was however not enthusiastic about her husband’s return to his land of birth. From the information available to her, she doubted if the country had any specialist hospital that could take care of her husband if there was a relapse.
But as you know that he who pays the piper dictates the tune, Abraham had no choice but to come back to Nigeria. If he had not come back, he would have been in breach of his scholarship bond which mandated him to come home and work for an agreed period. As a law-abiding citizen, Abraham realized the importance of keeping to his side of contract. He spent many days convincing Margaret. At the end of the day, the couple agreed that they would go back to Nigeria, work for government and save enough money to return to the United States without further obligation to Nigeria. It was an amicable compromise.
Six years after his departure from Nigeria, Abraham returned to his land of birth in June 1964. When he was leaving in 1958 he was all alone. But this time around, he was returning with his wife and two kids. In the 60s, employment was hardly an issue, especially for a graduate. He soon started working and was hoping to save enough funds to return to the US with his family. It however appeared that the matter of his kidneys was a scorched snake which was bound to come alive again. He had hardly settled down in Nigeria when he began to feel sick again. He was rushed to University College Hospital at Oritamefa, Ibadan. He was soon stabilized but the nightmare was not yet over. As she did in Michigan, Margaret began to keep vigil at her husband’s bedside. It was in the course of the midnight vigil that she decided that it was in her husband’s best interests to return to the US for a comprehensive medical service.
It was easier said than done. Abraham’s employers were reluctant to release him without completing his bond. Margaret however was not the one to give up. She started a one-woman protest to save her husband. Her activities were not confined to Nigeria. She was sending letters after letters to the United States. There was no day that she didn’t send telegrams across the Atlantic. And all of them contained only one message: Let My Husband Return to the US. Finally, her efforts paid off. The Nigeria government granted her prayers, but on the condition that he would return to the country after two months of his medical treatments. Two months! Half bread is better than none. Margaret did not look the gift horse in the mouth. She accepted the offer and they were soon on their way to the US.
Back in the States, his condition rapidly deteriorated. It was certain that unless a miracle occurred, his end was near. It was at this point that Margaret [who else?] raised the issue of kidney transplant again. The doctors considered her plea and it was agreed that a kidney transplant could be done. But then the question arose: whose kidney?
Messages were sent to Ile-Ife. Abraham had four sisters and a brother. They were all tested. His father and mother were also tested. From the tests, his parents and immediate younger sister were found suitable. But there was a small challenge. His father and sister had a different blood type. That left only the mother, Asabi Alagbon Obi [Asabi the owner of massive basket of kolanut]. Abiyamo ekeji omo [Mother is the closest person to her child]. Asabi did not hesitate when she was informed. She had only one question: ‘would Adewole survive? On being assured that her son would live, she did not bother to ask about her own fate. She tied her wrapper tightly around her bosom and accepted to go under the knife in order to purchase life for her first son. Like the legendary Moremi who risked her life and also sacrificed her only son, Oluorogbo to River Esinminrin in the same city of Ile-Ife in the days of the ancient, Asabi willingly accepted to sacrifice herself to redeem the life of her son.
At the time, Asabi became the symbol of motherhood. Onigegewura spoke to some elders in Ile-Ife who were old enough to know the story. They all confirmed that Iya Adewole was the heroine of the town. She became the modern day Moremi. A traditional chief Onigegewura interviewed told me that her decision polarized the whole of Yorubaland, if not the whole of Nigeria. While some were in support, others were aghast even at the thought of donating a kidney. Her sacrifice became the yardstick for measuring pristine motherhood.
A leading journalist at the time, Peter Enahoro [Peter Pan] in his weekly column wondered whether he would have demanded that his mother sacrificed one of her kidneys if he had been in Adewole’s shoes. He however was categorical that as a father he would not hesitate to give one of his kidneys to his child.
What of the woman at the centre of it all? When she was asked whether she would have donated her kidney if she had known that she wouldn’t come out alive, the brave mother responded: “I would have come to help Abraham even if I had been sure I would lose my live. What else can a mother do?”
What else can a mother do? Hummmmn! What else can a mother do! Well, getting a kidney donor was half of the battle. The other half was how Asabi was going to get to the United States. And she was not going to go alone on account of her age and the language difficulty she might face. It was agreed that Janet, Abraham’s younger sister, who was then a teacher would accompany her mother. But where would the money for their passage come from? Again, Margaret came to the rescue. Her colleagues where she was working to support her husband began a campaign to raise fund for Abraham. A leading newspaper company in the United States bought into the cause and accepted to publicize the story free of charge. The newspaper, Detroit Free Press, did not stop there, it also donated $1000 to the Abraham Adedire Fund. That opened the floodgate of donations.
From individuals to corporations, from churches to schools, from students to workers, the Fund began to grow. The Black community in Detroit refused to be left behind. They contributed massively to the Fund. Back home, good Nigerians also contributed their widow’s mite. Finally, enough fund was raised to cover Asabi and Janet’s passage to and from the United States.
Visa was not an issue. Based on Margaret’s petition to the government, visa requirement was waived for the two Nigerian women. It appeared that all the 301 gods of Ile-Ife were working overtime on behalf of one of their sons. Abraham’s joy could only be imagined when he saw his mother and sister by his hospital bed in Michigan. He could not contain his emotions as he saw the woman who gave him life and who was ready once again to give him another opportunity to live a healthy life. Mother and son hugged for almost an eternity.
No further ceremony was required. Ti a ba de ibi ise, sise la n se [Work is to be started once you reach your place of work]. Both mother and son went under the knife. The whole world waited with bated breath. From Michigan to Maidguiri, from Illinois to Ile-Ife, from London to Lagos, from Jalumi to Japan, the whole world watched and waited. Prayers and supplications were going up like rockets for mother and son across the world.
After many hours in the surgery, the surgeons emerged from the theatre. World journalists who had been following the story began to bombard them with questions after questions. But the smile of satisfaction playing on the lips of the surgeons was enough for the probing media personnel. The operations were successful. Both mother and son were alive and well. The whole world became one in joyful embrace. White and black, Americans and Africans, in fact everyone in the world became united in celebrating the sacrifice of Asabi who donated one of her kidneys to save her son from certain death.
They were soon discharged from the hospital to enable them recuperate among their loved ones at home. Ronke and Tayo were excited to meet their grandmother once again. They had met in Nigeria some months before. Though they spoke different languages, granny and the youngsters enjoyed hours after hours of playtime. Margaret’s mother also joined in the fun. They were all happy that the worst had passed.
Abraham was however the happiest. The proverbial race horse would not have stumbled in his stomach [Ti won ba gun esin ninu re, ko lo ko ese]. He knew that if not for the determination of his wife and the sacrifice of his mother, he would have been long dead and buried.
A kii se ore ero ki ayo, bi o pe bi o ya, ero n re ile re bi o di ola [Friendship with a wayfarer is not to be delighted in. Sooner or later, the wayfarer will leave you and return to his base.] Weeks after her discharge, the time came for Asabi to return home. On March 30, 1964, the happy mother left the United States for Nigeria.
It was as if his mother’s kidney was divinely made for him. In a matter of days, Abraham was back on his feet. If one did not know about his peculiar history it would be difficult to associate the sprightly young man with the invalid of a few months before. He soon began to work on part time basis at the University of Michigan Hospital as a laboratory assistant. The story of Wole Adedire did however not end there.
Five months after the successful surgery and weeks after he had started working at UMH, the final bell tolled tragically for the dogged fighter. On Friday, July 9, Abraham was readmitted to the hospital. Two days later, his condition became very critical. He fought back bravely. For hours he stared death in the face refusing to be cowed by the grim harvester. He had done it before and he was ready to do it over and over again. The Ife Boy in Michigan summoned all the willpower he could muster to live. Finally, four days after he was admitted, the cock from heavenly vault crowed. On Tuesday, July 13, 1965, Abraham Adewole Adedire breathed his last, 7,000 miles away from the land of his birth. He was 26 years old. He had fought a good fight.
What was however shocking about his death was that the doctors confirmed that his death was not connected to his transplanted kidney which was functioning perfectly well until he died. Abraham’s death shook the whole world. In the months leading to his surgery, he had attracted worldwide following of people who admired his courage and supported his cause. People of all races became united with grief over his death. Messages of condolences poured in from far and near.
The Governor of Western Region, Odeleye Fadahunsi, sent personal message of condolence to Asabi over the loss of her son. In the message sent by the Knight of the British Empire, the Governor said that the news of Abraham’s death came as a shock and the heart of all who knew her recent sacrifice would go out in sympathy with her.
On his own part, the Premier of the region who was also the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Ladoke Akintola said that Abraham’s death was a rude shock to all his countrymen and women in Nigeria. In the words of Baba Omodele: “I extend to the parents of and the family of Abraham Adedire the very heartfelt sympathy of the Government and the people of Western Nigeria on the irreparable loss of their promising son who had been snatched away by death after a really dogged fight backed up by the best medical facilities available in the world.”
On behalf of the Action Group, Dauda Adegbenro [who was holding fort for Obafemi Awolowo who was in prison at the time] also commiserated with the grieving mother. The Ekerin Egbaland told Asabi that: “your motherly love for your son during his period of illness had made world news.” Following his demise, his widow announced that his remains would be taken to Ile-Ife for burial. In response, the Federal Government of Nigeria through her Minister of Natural Resources and Research, Tiamiyu Alade Lamuye, a prince from Iwo, informed the family that the government would bear the total cost of flying the body from the United States to Ile-Ife for burial.
The body of Abraham was however not destined to touch Nigerian soil ever again. Hours after the initial announcement, the Ministry of External Affairs informed the world that the body would be buried in the medical centre of Michigan State University in accordance with the wishes of Adedire’s family to save them further grief and agony.
In case you are wondering what became of the widow of Abraham, Onigegewura will tell you. Margaret Adedire mourned the loss of her husband and the father of her children. It was a tragic loss for someone so young and so devoted. Margaret dedicated herself to the upbringing of her two daughters, Ronke and Tayo. She later got married to Oheneba Poku-Kankam, a Ghanaian who had gone to Abraham’s alma mater to teach African Languages.
By Lanre Onigegewura
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