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October 02, 2011

Tunde Obe: "How my Father died inside a swimming pool at 45"

The story of my father, the late Amb. Emmanuel Oyeleye Obe, was one of success, by any standard. He’d been serving in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania simultaneously, as Nigerian Ambassador, which necessitated me, my mum and three siblings, living in Dakar Senegal, the biggest country of the three, during that period.
My mum, as an ambassador’s wife, needed not do anything but play the perfect hostess and organise lunch and dinner parties at home for her husband’s associates in diplomatic circles, whilst we the children (aged between 3 and 12years) simply went on with our plush, rich lifestyle, having gotten used to same whilst dad served in Mali, Tokyo, Geneva, Rome, and Washington DC previously.
In Senegal, my elder brother, sister and I were chauffeur-driven daily to Dakar Academy, an American school largely attended by the children of  English-speaking expatriates, career diplomats and ambassadors.  The youngest, Segun who was still 3 at the time, stayed home with mum.

Mum was a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian and simply would not over-indulge any of us.  Dad on the other hand, was the ultimate pushover. With him, we could get away with almost anything.  A very accommodating, unassuming and free spirit, my father was always the ‘life of the party’, wherever he went, for his laughter wherever he was, could be heard for miles! He trusted. A little too much, I might add, because he was never suspicious, and thought ill of no-one.

This was why we were able to convince him to take us swimming one Sunday afternoon on  June 11, 1978, at L’Hotel Teranga, despite the fact that a pool already existed in our backyard at home.  We’d felt that leaving home to go and swim at the Hotel would afford us the opportunity to indulge in the barbecues, ice- cream and whatever else was available.

At the poolside, I was busy chatting with my classmate whom I had bumped into minutes earlier, when he pointed out a man that was being carried out of the pool, with a bloodied gash on his forehead, not conscious.  Nonetheless, I could tell instantly that it was my father, so I ran towards him, only to be barred from getting too close by a male caucasian  guest, whilst officials and paramedics tried to revive him.
Ca c’est Ambassad de Nigeria.., ca c’est Ambassad de Nigeria..‘ I’d kept saying in my best French.
All I’d gotten in response was,  ‘it’s okay… take it easy…

After what seemed like forever at the poolside, I saw a white sheet being pulled over my father’s entire frame, including his face.  I shot forward and tried to uncover the face, protesting that he could suffocate with no air under the sheet. I was 10 years old.

The people around simply shook their heads and tried to pull me away from the scene, but I was having none of it. I began screaming and shouting, begging dad to get up for we no longer felt like swimming and just wanted to go home. But he didn’t.

And so from that very moment, our lives took an instant 360. An hour earlier, we had been chauffeur-driven with our dad in a limousine to our current location, and now were being sped off in separate vehicles – dad in an ambulance, and me with siblings in a family friend’s car, to anywhere but the mansion which we had left behind only a couple of hours earlier.

Mum, who had all the while been away in Nigeria burying her younger sister, had to emotionally withstand news of this second tragedy which instantly thrust her into widowhood, as she promptly made her way back to Senegal to pick her children, and what remained of her dear husband.

Months earlier, we’d all flown in first class to Senegal from Nigeria aboard an Air Afrique Airbus, and now we were on board a military fighter plane seated face to face on what looked like benches and hanging on for dear life, whilst my dad lay in a closed coffin on the floor nearby, en route back to Nigeria.

My father was a good swimmer and so it was hard to consider the possibility that he’d drowned.  Thus the cause of his death remains a mystery to this day.

Suffice to say his sudden and untimely passing at just 45, had unceremoniously pulled the rug of luxury from under our feet, when we least expected it.

Here was my mother, a young, pampered housewife with no working experience, running a house constantly littered with VIPs, family members, friends, hungry distant relatives and hangers-on, now left to raise four young children on her own in a much smaller, now empty house.

Yes, everyone left. For good.  No more calls, no more visits, no more lifelines, no more friends, no VIPs and no relatives – close, distant, hungry or otherwise. No one. A couple of my father’s close friends had agreed to help, but to my mother’s dismay, not without strings attached. Thus she was left with two options – wallow in self-pity or deal with it. So determined not to let her children feel their father’s absence too much, she dusted her degree certificates (two), went job hunting and eventually settled in as a paid employee in the banking industry.

Mum worked very hard to keep us in school and at the same time give us some semblance of comfort, but understandably she couldn’t quite meet up with the highflying lifestyle to which we, as children of an ambassador, had grown accustomed.

Needless to say, it took my siblings and I quite a while to get over this rude culture shock, but get over it we did.  Being shunned by erstwhile close friends was even harder to deal with, rather than grow bitter, I grew mature and wiser, turning it into the tonic that got me out of bed every morning.

Somewhere along the line, I met a friend, sister, mother, lover and confidante, all rolled into one. Someone with whom I’d shared the same life experiences, after our families’ breadwinners had passed on. But one of the most important things we’d shared was the strong desire to succeed. Our victory would be in our success. And so I married her. Thus Tunde Obe and Wunmi Aboderin became T.W.O.

Looking back 33 years later, I cannot but give all Glory to God. With a wonderful wife, beautiful children and a flourishing career that I love, I can only thank God for teaching me life’s tough lessons and making me the better for it.

Of course, as would be expected, everyone’s back.  Lifeline-seeking hangers-on, name-droppers, long lost friends and relatives – distant and otherwise.

Like I said earlier, I’m not bitter – just wiser.  I’ve learned not to take anything or anyone for granted.  I’ve learned to take all ‘praise-singers’ at face value.  I’ve learned that life is full of fair-weather friends.  I’ve learned to help people without expecting anything in return.  I’ve learned that for every 10 people that rejoice at my success, at least 2 are pretending.  And I’ve learned to rely on no-one but myself, and my God.

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