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June 10, 2014
African Voice
Father's Day: Grandfather, Father and I
by Imo Eshiet

I never met either of my grandfathers. But from my genes and stories told by my parents, uncles, aunts and others who knew them, I am sure they were men who knew the big difference their presence could make in the lives of their children.

From the way he shaped his sons and daughters, I believe Grandfather Eshiet was a guy who knew about structure. I have reason to believe he was unique in raising his family by setting tasks and boundaries, disciplining and rewarding his children.

I am sure he must have roared quite some and even beaten erring children, as this was culturally acceptable in my tradition. One thing I know for sure is that some of his sons did physically fight him back and even left home because of his strictness.

For a man who had a harem of more than thirty-six wives and fathered children as if he were crowd-sourcing, he must have had an extraordinary nervous system not to break down. I do not know how he got away with it.

Judging from my experience with only one wife, five children, and daily struggle with fatigue, headache, tension, and heartache, he must have been an ironman. That his head did not explode nor was he stricken dead by stress or high blood pressure was perhaps a measure of his ability to take whatever life and the choices he took threw at him.

From what I have seen in the lives of my uncles and aunts as compared to what happens in other families in the village, I know he did much to keep family drama under wraps.

For instance, though my uncles occasionally quarreled among themselves — especially when they drank more alcohol than they could safely contain — they were never so bitter they failed to talk to each other. More often than not they ate together regardless of whatever rift there was among them.

Such was the respect they had for their father that even in death once someone invoked his name they would come together no matter the disagreement.

In my childhood, I had no idea that most of my numerous uncles came from different mothers. The unity among them was so compelling that even now I model the template in relating to my siblings and cousins.

I have heard and witnessed half-brothers plotting kidnaps and armed robberies against each other and the victims responding in kind and throwing the offending brothers into prison, bloodlines notwithstanding. I have heard stories of incest even in less expansive families — stories that certainly would have so frightened my grandfather and his children into having heart attacks.

How Grandfather Eshiet managed to instill such sense of oneness in his children is a feat I cannot understand. This is even more so because in our village rumor was always rife of other brothers settling scores by poisoning their siblings or betraying them to enemies to take them out.

One of my greatest shocks when I started traveling out was to see some fathers abandoning their families and children. Because of my background it was simply impossible to think anyone could shirk the responsibility of being a father. In my culture such lack of commitment was a quick way of asking to be ostracized from the community.

I fondly remember a popular saying among my folks: "No father can ever eat a corncob entirely by himself." The saying refers to a father’s sacrifice or ability to give all in order to raise children. My father literally believed in it.

I grew up thinking he never felt hungry because what little he had to eat during those lean days, he would give it up to any of his children who asked or appeared hungry.

Since I grew up during a civil war, my family was always on the move in search of safety. During these forced movements the only thing Father ever held close to his chest was his family. While others dragged with them precious household items, he carried us on his back, shoulders and arms wherever we trekked.

During the war, I saw many parents turn their back and walk out of the lives of their children. Some mothers cut themselves off from their families and went off with soldiers just so they could survive hunger. Some fathers melted and disappeared under the cover of the stampede and tumult of the war.

The one confidence I had throughout the hard, stern times was that my father and mother could never abandon me and my siblings. I remember when he had to pull the only shirt on his back and place on me to protect me from cold even though he was shivering himself.

Sometimes I would have to take turns wearing that shirt with my other brothers. Even though we looked like a scarecrow in the oversized shirt and other kids who still had energy enough to laugh mocked at us, Father made us feel as if we were in our Sunday best.

Anytime we had space enough to lie down, my brothers and I would fight to lie closest to him so we could feel his warmth.

Nothing made me feel more at ease with the world as a refugee even when hunger was ravening my stomach and death stalking, than trudging along beside my father my little scrawny palms held by his strong hands. Those hands spoke courage, determination, endurance and hope to me, my brothers and sisters.

Unlike Mother, who in the stressful circumstance was given to roaring like the screaming military jets above us or exploding shells about us, he never raised his voice. He communicated powerful feelings by merely using his eyes, by a touch, hugs and embrace.

One of my greatest hurts in life is that he passed without my having a chance to reciprocate his love and sacrifice. However, I celebrate him daily by mentoring my kids the way he quietly taught me how to, standing by them when they make poor and wrong choices and pointing them the way they should go same as dad did to me.

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