I met Peter when I went to work for an agency here in Lagos and I would describe him as a fine gentleman; he was always impeccably dressed in three-piece suits and on hot days would wear a jacket over well ironed shirts; his shoes were polished to a shine…everyday.
Peter was an artist, a painter to be precise and he had become a Christian following after a serious threat to his life.
Now, the reason I want to talk about Peter is because I think he lived a remarkable life and I just want to share.
Why is Peter important?
I think he is because, like I said, his life kind of still amazed me. So here’s what happened.
When Peter joined our agency; he had been job hunting for years; he was a lot older than those of us in his department but he was so friendly.
He told us he was from a polygamous family and that he was his father’s favorite. Being a favorite of his father meant he was constantly being targeted by his father’s other wives and by his step siblings too.
His mum had passed at that time and he was in constant trouble with his father’s many wives, I think he told us they were seven in number, the wives, I mean and over 30 children.
Money of course was tight in that household but because he was his father’s favourite, Peter enjoyed some measure of favouritism from a father who couldn’t afford to send any of his children to school but managed to send Peter to school.
This meant, apart from him getting into the black books of his father’s wives, he was also not being given food; the only times Peter said he ate at home was when the father was home and eating, Peter would crawl up to him to eat with him and on the days and weeks his father was out of town, Peter would steal from his step mothers and whenever he was caught he would be beaten like a common thief.
“I was not a good thief,” he once said to us as he recalled his childhood days. “I was also strong headed, you know. People don’t like you, instead of you to put your head down and behave, you are being strong headed and this got me in a lot of trouble.”
Now Peter was talented.
He could draw.
When he finished secondary school, an uncle who had seen him drawing and painting small stuff in their house offered to send him to Yaba College of Tech to further his studies, something Peter’s father would never have been able to do despite the fact that he wanted his son to get educated.
Maybe the uncle shouldn’t have gleefully made that announcement in their home that day but Peter’s family had heard and some of them decided to do something about it.
A few weeks before he was set to travel to Lagos and begin his studies at Yaba Tech, Peter became struck with an unknown illness. One that paralyzed his hands and made him mental!
He stated, “They took my hands.”
Peter woke up one morning and he couldn’t move his hands. A painter without hands isn’t much of a painter, particularly one who had used his hands from childhood into adulthood. He was in his 20s at that time. “When I couldn’t move my hands, I knew I was dead.” The thought of not being able to paint or carve sculptures or mold anything made him lose his mind.
He was then taken to all the herbalists his father could afford and none of them could find a cure. He was soon drooling and became an imbecile.
Peter told us he was in this state for some 2 years or more; in fact, he said, he was locked up and shackled in a room where food was tossed to him on the day somebody remembered to feed him.
How did he get out?
I can’t quite remember. But I recall he said for the period he was in that state, his thoughts were like that of an animal; all he dreamt about was hunting, killing and eating raw meat. He said he became so hairy, so wild that he knew he just couldn’t have been human at that time.
Time went by and somehow, I guess, when whoever was responsible for his calamity thought the idea of going to school had been removed from his mind, Peter said he just woke up one morning and he was sane; he was able to think and talk rationally. He then sent for his father, who later opened the gate and removed the shackles he had been bound with.
Peter didn’t stay long in his father’s house, the old man wanted him out of that place as soon as possible, for his own safety; a few days later, without announcing it to anyone, Peter was sent off to meet his uncle in Lagos.
He stayed with this uncle until he was finally able to go to school and study painting. Naturally, he became one of the best!
While at school, he met someone who introduced him to Christianity; Christianity became Peter’s saving grace. According to him; it helped him map out a better future for himself; while he had earlier been consumed with hate and revenge towards his father’s wives and some of his siblings who had mocked him while he was in chains, Christianity freed him from all of that hate.
I wish this was all there was about Peter but there is more.
So after school, he couldn’t find a job for a long time though his paintings were selling but he was relatively new in the industry and so, what he sold could hardly keep body and soul together for long. Living in Lagos, paying rent and all that…
Recall I said Peter was a lot older than the rest of us when he came to our company?
Well, it took a long while for him to get a job and I think that while he waited or while he hunted for a new job, he lapsed into depression again.
It took friends to get him the much needed help for him to get back to his feet. Eventually, he got a job, that is, at our company.
Now, when he joined us; I remember we all used to tease him about his reluctance about getting married; he was already in his forties and though we were a lot younger than him, many of us had significant others that all of us knew about, so it was kind of odd that he didn’t have anyone we could tease him about and so began our collective quest of hunting for a wife for Peter.
He was a delight in all of these. He would make fun of us, tell us he was not going to get married until he met the right person. We introduced our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even some church members to Peter over the course of three years, I think…. He didn’t agree to any one of these women. He would be polite, he would even laugh at us and tell us to leave him alone…he never got mad or made the women we brought to him feel any less of a woman. He remained a gentleman to the core.
Then one day, through a link from another friend, Peter was introduced to Ingrid.
Yeah, Ingrid. She’s white, from Belgium or one of those Scandinavian countries.
Now at that time, the use of internet wasn’t so rife, we had just begun to get to understand how the internet worked but apparently, Peter had gone ahead of us-meeting and going to chat rooms to get to know Ingrid; all of these via yahoo messenger, you know we had yahoo messenger and we had chat rooms back in the early days of the internet.
Obviously an affair began.
We were all surprised, shocked in fact when one day, Peter came whistling into the office sharing an invitation card for a court wedding at Ikoyi Registry.
Lo and behold, the old dog had got himself a wife!
We were all happy for him of course; I mean, we had matched him with several people for such a long time and given up, so we were quite happy to see him settle down.
Ingrid turned out to be a really lovely girl in her early 20s, about 23ish, you know white people kind of look older than us blacks. Anyway, Ingrid had lovely soft brown eyes, an amazing smile and I personally had no doubt she would make Peter a happy man.
The arrangement was this; they would get married; Ingrid would stay around for a while in Nigeria; she would return to base and Peter would go join her when his papers were complete.
Peter was a new creature in the following months; we teased him mercilessly about his love making to Ingrid, we teased him about the shape of his children’s heads, we teased him about what we perceived would be a difficult transition for him-a pounded yam and egusi loving man to sandwich eating man; we teased him endlessly on many issues, all of which he laughed at and made more fun of himself.
When his papers were complete and he was set to go, he called a few of us to say goodbye. He came ro visit me, though. That’s when he told me he wanted to go see his father for the last time. He said he knew that if he left Nigeria, he would never see his father again. He wanted to go see him one last time and tell him his labour over him hadn’t been in vain.
I begged Peter not to go home; “going home is trouble, you know,” I remember telling him.
“I don’t want to be an ingrate,” he told me, “I don’t want to be like the one who didn’t look back to say thank you. My father fought for me.”
I told him, no. “You can call him once you are abroad,” I told him. “You can send him things, just go, don’t go to your village to see baba.” He was old and had lost his sight, we had been told by Peter and so, I didn’t see any reason he wanted to go see the old man.
“Ha, my father was the only one who believed in me, he was the only one who made me what I am today…I just want to see him because I know I will never see him again…”
“It’s just for one day,” he told me. “I’ll be travelling in three days,” he said
Peter went to his village and he never came back.
(series written and edited by Peju Akande and based on true stories)