“Search me O God and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
Psalm 139 verse 23
“Bi oni ti ri, ola ki iri be, ni imu babalwo difi Ororun ”
“I am still learning”
‘It has been over three years since I met my birth father Gabriel Oluwale Esuruoso. I knew that I would need to return to where he came from. I knew when the time would be right, a yearning which cannot be explained by sentiment, but just a “feeling” – a knowledge – a “knowing”.
So begins my journal, which I resurrected the day I arrived in Nigeria for only the second time in my life, three years after my first meeting with my birth father. Returning to Nigeria was my personal pilgrimage, which I had to undertake, another step towards completing the circle. This time I wanted to pay my respects to Gabriel’s wife and family. This time I would not be alone, but sharing this experience with my partner Liz-Anne.
I had been in regular contact with my birth father since my first visit. He had been over a few times, and on one occasion at his request, he met my Mom who was staying with her mother on Hayling Island, on the south coast. Gabriel and I met at Waterloo station and took the train to Havant. Given the setting, it was almost like a surreal version of Checkpoint Charlie. I did not know whose side I should be on, was this the post-cold war thaw? As I was the result of intimacy they had shared nearly forty years ago, there was a kind of irony when Gabriel, on seeing my Mom, saying “Well, are you going to introduce us?” I left them alone to catch up and headed to the other side of the pub to chat to my Mom’s friend.
When I was finally called over, I can’t remember what was said, but remember this was one of the most mixed up stressful moments of my life. At the same time, my abiding memory was having the photo taken of me standing there with my birth parents together at last. Wearing a suit, with my shirt sticking out untidily from under my waistcoat, I looked and felt like an unruly little boy standing awkwardly for a photo at a family wedding. This photo replaces and makes up for all the family events and other social occasions with my birth parents that never were, that never could have been. It also serves as another piece of evidence of where I have come from, of how two people meeting created me.
The time I spent with Gabriel on the return train journey was emotionally invaluable to me, priceless, almost; and the anecdotes he told me about his life were both amusing and insightful. Moreover, when I look back on my life I will now be able to say that I took at least one journey with my birth father and what a journey!
Once again I was flying into Lagos without time to think about what I was going to do or what was going to happen when we got there; or what I wanted to get out of it. Neither Liz-Anne or I were certain as to what returning to Nigeria together would mean for our relationship. We know now that it brought us closer together, and I was relieved to be with someone who understood me. Liz-Anne was pleased that she was there sharing the experience with me. For her it was informative because as the only white person in a black area, she stood out and people constantly called out to her “Oyibo” . When someone experiences what you have often experienced or felt, it brings them closer to understanding how that affects you.
It was a difficult and frustrating time, because despite my experiences the first time, I only got to see my birth father on the tenth day of a twelve day visit, I still had high expectations of this second visit. I did not reckon with the cultural and social differences within countries being more pronounced than those between countries. Gabriel texted me to say that he was coming to see me. However we were advised not to go with him because he had not approached things in the traditional way, i.e. he had not brought this wife. He came, we ate, we discussed and he parted without us. My heart skipped a beat as Gabriel sat regally in the back of the battered Peugeot estate as it pulled off slowly down the pot holed street.
I was frustrated by what happened. I should have been clearer in my communications prior to leaving for Lagos. I knew my birth father was a man of honour and yet the people we were staying with did not know him, nor his ways and felt a responsibility to protect us. They approached any meeting with him with extreme caution. In Nigeria trust cannot be taken for granted. At the same time, I also felt relieved and that it was an honour we were being so well looked after and protected. There was a deep sense of love from Mrs Osagiede (our guardian in Nigeria) and her family towards us.
In Ibadan, the following Monday, there was a second meeting at Gabriel’s house. We did not spend long with each other and the visit was difficult because it had been decided that we would not stay over. But there was a moment when my birth father in an outburst mixed with love, anger and frustration, moved me when he said “ you are a very important person, my blood runs in your veins, you one of the most important people in the world to me and you treat me like this”. His expression of these emotions was worth all the trials and tribulations that punctuated this visit. Gabriel and his wife gave me a bound study bible (an exact copy of one given to all their children) inscribed with the words “To Robert on his first visit to Ibadan 21 September 2006”. We gave my birth father’s wife a bracelet. And for my birth father? A pocket watch, which had a salmon, the fish of wisdom & knowledge, etched into the cover.
On leaving Ibadan, there was sadness because Gabriel had arranged for a number of people to visit and I was unable to honour him and stay to meet them. However, you sometimes need to have faith and dare to hope that things happen in a particular way for a reason. To trust that there will be other occasions when we see the people we love so dearly and that there will be other moments to share.
Liz-Anne helped me to put things in perspective and from these experiences I learnt to see this life as a continuous journey towards greater understanding. When we are looking for fulfillment and for what will make us complete, we can sometimes forget that it is the people we know and love, friends and family that make us who we are. I am made not just of me, but of all the people who know me and shape who I am and help me to be a better person. Wisdom, I have learnt comes with reflection and age. I met my birth father again, and that same year he introduced me to my brothers. Brothers whom I look like, and who live close by (London) and who have children.
Last summer, we took my children Louise and Elliot to London to spend the day with their African Grandfather, and to have dinner with their uncles and their sons. I have been blessed with being able to reach out and be influenced and shaped, and loved by a wider family.
All of me has changed and yet I am still the same person, son, brother and father. This duality of existence, which I found confusing for so long and over which I had no control, I now accept as just being part of how wonderful this life is. I am pleased that my children have more knowledge and awareness of their cultural and ethnic heritage than I had. My research interests, and personal journey makes me more conscious of the challenges mixed-race young people face. I have bought books for my children to read (or are they really for me?) when and if they want to. I have tried to make them aware that mine is an open door , so they feel free to be able to come and talk to me about their experiences.
I realized that in my journey to find what I thought was a missing part of me, I was also preparing the way for my children. In talking with my brothers, it is clear that whatever our family history is, it is important that our children know of each other. whatever has happened, there has been an unwritten, and an unsaid yet conscious decision for my birth father and I that we needed to bring the family together and our respective children and grandchildren represent the future. Part of our duty is to make sure that they know where they come from and a clear sense of their inner-self so they can belong.
I promised the people in Nigeria that I will one day return with my wife and children so they too can develop a clear understanding of where they have come from. A “knowing” will tell me when the time is right. And those who know me understand that whilst all of me is still here, part of me will always be there.
Towards the end of my journal I wrote
Mrs Osagiede called me Omowale (Omuwalay), which means the son has come back home, and Modupe, which means I thank God or I am grateful.
by Rob Worrall March 2008