By: Boladei Igali, Phd
The dates Thursday 6th to Sunday 8th of December 2018, would be remembered as very special on the calendar of times as men and women from far and wide join the Dickson family of Toru-Orua in Bayelsa State to bid farewell and perform the last rites of passage in honour of their matriarch, Madam Goldcoast Dickson. Known more fondly as Mama Gogo by her close friends and family, she yielded to the cold hands of death on that dim and dreary morning of Wednesday, 8th August 2018, in far way Houston, Texas, United States of America. It was after barely seven months of any visible and serious illness. But then she succumbed gallantly and courageously to the hands of Lung Cancer at the age of 72 years.
Unlike her son, the Governor of Bayelsa State, Henry Seriake Dickson and his siblings who come from Toru-Orua in Sagbama Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, Mama Goldcoast’s nativity was actually on the other side of the Forcados River in the town of Angiama in Patani Local Government Area of Delta State. She was born in 1946 into the relatively comfortable family of a cheery-hearted sailor, Oruama Nipe, known more by the sobriquet- Captain Nipe.
The two communities, Toru-Orua and Angiama and several others now divided in two states, lie peacefully on the banks of the Forcados which is a major distributary of the River Niger.
The Forcados meanders for 198 kilometres and washes into the Bight of Benin on the Atlantic Ocean. In his typical luxuriant use of water imageries for his works, ace Writer and Poet, Prof JP Clark, similar to Wole Soyinka’s depictions of the hills and rocks of Abeokuta, brings out the rich interplay of humanity, culture and mystical sanctity of the Forcados River. Today, one of Nigeria’s most priced crude oil facilities, the Forcados Oil Terminal, has brought new visibility to the river. But for centuries, the people of Ijaw ethnic nationality, to which the two communities and their neighbours including Urhobos and Isokos intermingled, intermarried and crossbred among themselves and raised worthy heirs like the happy and bouncing baby girl, Goldcoast. Like many others of her time and perhaps even today, life goes on totally oblivious of the political delineations.
Interestingly, at the time when Mama Goldcoast was born, both banks of the River Forcados were part of the Western Region although the rest of their ethnic kith and kin, all hitherto of the Oil Rivers Protectorate which was created in 1884 and later Niger Coast Protectorate in 1893 remained in the Eastern Region. It was later as a result of delineations and counter boundary adjustments that the Forcados River became a convenient natural division of what was Rivers State from Mid-West and Bendel States and finally Delta State from Bayelsa State.
The life of Mama Gogo is interesting and astounding from many sides. Primarily, she epitomized the very essence of motherhood. It remains a great mystery for reasons which only God Himself is the interpreter why the daunting task of regenerating humanity and the grace of ensuring that humankind is protected was left with our women folk. There is absolutely nothing more worthy and sacrificial than the fact that God entrusts the future of all of humanity on our mothers bearing the bitter-sweet burden of the period of neonatal and maternal formation. And then on, raising and nurturing the infants, ensuring their proper growth and preparing them for effective and productive lives. Our mothers protect all of humanity to ensure that life is more meaningful beyond birth and ensure that the fruit of their wombs are able to lead purposeful and meaningful existence and in dignity. The joy of most mothers unarguably is to ensure that their offsprings live more fulfilled and impactful lives than them.
But beyond that, many mothers have to carry out these awesome expectations in special cultural melee in which they find themselves. For Mama Goldcoast, she typified the hopes and aspirations of most young women from the Niger Delta: growing up in the swamps, in the creeks and rivulets, fishing and practicing peasant farming. She also like other girls of her time had to pursue only basic western education which was often truncated, prematurely. These were in circumstances in which female children were not the most favoured for such upliftment even by the most loving fathers. Girls who were able to get any level of learning were few in numbers. Sadly, Girls Child Education continues to lag behind in many parts of the world including Nigeria . The experience of Pakistani child crusader, Malala Yousafzai and the Chibok Girls are poignant reminders of the plight of many girls whose inner quest for knowledge are often eclipsed quite subtlety or overtly by all forms of barriers.
Typical of the experience in a common African rural setting, the young Goldcoast was soon to lose her sailor father at a young age below seven. This is not surprising because, as it was, the bare circumstances of existence made life expectancy in Africa very low. Even today, life expectancy in a place like Nigeria is 54.7 for men and 55 years for women but in say Sweden, as it is in most developed countries, it is well over 80 years and 84 years respectively. The 1950s when she was growing up were particularly endemic with various global diseases such as contagion, swine disease, yellow fever, small pox and malaria around the world. Indeed, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) called this era, “the era of mass diseases”. This was mostly as a result of the after effect of the Second World War which ended in 1945 and the simple easy flow of diseases across national boundaries. This was also to occur with the case of Cholera, a waterborne disease, in the late 1960s and early 1970s which decimated the communities of the Niger Delta.
Following the death of her father, like many children with such tragedy, she moved on to live with relations and had to combine rather tenuously, the life of growing to make her mark in the bigger competitive setting of extended family. Many young women around us are going through not too different undulating circumstances of life, subjecting them to vagaries that only God could provide answers. But few come out with results that are often more hopeful than at the times when they started. Mama Gogo stood out for her diligence, strength of character, hard work and faith.
In this same plot of life, she soon found herself married out as a tender young woman to a renowned and wealthy leader of his people, Chief Dickson Nanaye, who had gained fame from across the area. Chief Dickson was a strong man, a wrestler of great fame, a wealthy trader and a traditional ruler. He was a man of ebullient physical endowment, respect and was obviously the delight of all the women. The famous writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, puts it succinctly in his book the Passport of Mallam Illia when he said “… days when men were men and the hearts of women were won by men who deserve them”. It was not surprising that by the time Goldcoast came into the family, he was already a renowned polygamist. His fecundity was equally lavish.
The young woman therefore had to take her cue and grew up both as a wife and almost as a daughter with this powerful and adoring spouse. Though her husband was successful in his own right, each woman in such circumstance sought for herself an activity of worth. In this, the youngest wife, Mama Gogo stood out as her gift of entrepreneurship and enterprise endeared her to her husband who supported her quite quickly to stamp her imprimatur as a thrift and resourceful trader selling fish, petroleum products and native liquor in all the popular markets at the time.
Relatedly, each diligent wife in such places was not to sit and wait for their husband but take care of their children more directly. Even for a man like Dickson Nanaye who himself acquired education quite early, each wife was to work hard and ensure that her children did not lag behind. When moments came and her star son, the young lanky Henry Seriake, whose physical mien replicate his paternity, was to go to post primary school, but could have had to wait on the queue for his bigger siblings to take the precedence, Mama Goldcoast was well able and prepared to support. She ensured that he proceeded unhindered. This saw him and his other siblings always ahead on matters of education in the nuclear family of a few dozens. Many in the local environment recall the lonely nights and days when she had to risk her life paddling a dugout canoe single-handedly to pursue her trading ventures in other communities to support her husband, but more ensure that her children had a good life and acquired education.
Today her story is not amiss. Far and wide, we see African mothers, under rain and sunshine, sometimes running in between moving vehicles, sometimes with an advanced pregnancy or a baby on their backs, hawking whatever they can, just for the common good of family. Others work tireless on the farms or sell in markets for long hours or just roast plantain, corn or yam by the roadside or put their lives on the line in other unusual and unimaginable forms; just for their families.
Many have asked where Madan Goldcoast Dickson, like a lot of these women, get their strength from? Hers was simple – faith. Faith defined by unyielding bended knees. Knees that go before the presence of God, unstoppably to demand succour, demand mercy, demand breakthrough and demand the abiding help of God.
Another nugget which those who knew Mama Dickson well and eulogize her life speak about is her strength of character in remaining strong in the midst of life’s tides and tumbles. So she raised all her children by making them know that what mattered at the end of the day is God and character. Till she left to receive medical treatment outside the shores of Nigeria, all who were around the Government House, Yenagoa, will attest that she was most times the first to arrive for morning devotion or for any of the regular Christian activities which have become part of the rituals of her son, Henry Seriake Dickson, as Governor of the State.
More than that, most times her relationship with her son whom she had at the young age of barely 20 years was as that of a sister, a friend and a confidante. Occasionally, she would give him the very archetypical Ijaw greeting by calling him with the praise titles “Kule” of the heroic past of his forebears. Indeed the heroism of the Dickson family and the Orua people had been well shared with the whole world by Prof JP Clark in his epical work, Ozidi which hit global literally headlines in the 1960s. But for this proud mother, her interface with her son always ended with the Ijaw word “agbalaworimi” literally meaning “I have you on my back”. In Ijaw world view, this is the highest assurance which a mother or senior female can give to her child or younger person, which as it were means, “I am bearing you tightly to myself.” Or put differently, it is much like the mother hen standing in the gap and providing cover for her brood with her full wings and with all her God given strength.
The mystery of man’s rites of passage from the pre-life moments of conception, the rites of birth and growth, the rites of adolescence and parentage up to the last rites of death and funeral are indispensable. We must pass through them. Of all these, the most inscrutable are the stages before life on earth and what happens in the afterlife. Most religious schools including traditional knowledge believe in some form of predestination at the pre-life stage. In Ijaw world view, there is the concept of “biboye”, – what is asked denoting as it were, that we tend to choose or agree with our creator on how our lives on earth would be lived through. This seems to give some solace as we go through the vicissitudes of life hopeful that whatever roads we have to take are part of a supernatural plan of which we are in a way, party to and would end well. The rest of the matrix squares up as we see the hereafter determined essentially by our choices and actions here. Madam Goldcoast Dickson lived illustriously and carried her cross, by herself, with candour. As is the way of men, she’s gone to what St Augustine called the “City of God” to lay her cross down at the feet of the Master.
Death they say comes with a sting, a sting because of the pain which we will eventually bare from the physical loss of our loved ones, whom we piteously must inter to mother earth. It was the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Christian scholars, jurist and theologian who narrated God’s word audaciously that, “Oh death where is thy sting?” He concluded rhetorically that that pang of death no longer exists. Yes, it no longer exists where life has become laced with virtue, honour and praiseworthiness. From humble beginnings, most African mothers under some of the incredulously complicated, inexplicable and difficult circumstances continue to raise their offspring believing, like Mama Gogo did, that their hope and hard work will be rewarded by God Himself. No wonder, her son, Seriake, whose has assumed the “kule” of ofirima pepe” – The great White Shark is not only one of Nigeria’s most outstanding politicians of our times but turned Bayelsa to the epicentre of development and progress, nationwide. The world now gathers in Bayelsa and Delta States to honour an African woman, an emblem, a symbol and a pride of the beauty of motherhood and virtue. But in hearts of all other toiling and caring African mothers, from Cairo to Cape Coast, from Potiskum to Port-Harcourt, let hope and faith resonate aglow.
Adieu Mama Gogo. May you now find true rest and peace with your God even as we celebrate your amazing life.
Dr. Igali is a Diplomat, Administrator and award winning Author