One of my all time favourite people is the Abami eda, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The man we lovingly called ‘Ogostin’! For those not familiar with the man or the name, Fela had a rather extended ‘back head’, what is known in the Yoruba language as ‘ogo’! That is why we called him Ogostin. He was the original Basketmouth (from where Bright Okpocha borrowed his stage name). He was fondly hailed as “omo Iya aje” (the child of the witch) on account of the exploits of his mother, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She was a fearless fighter for women’s rights and had, in 1949, led 10,000 Egba women in a demonstration that saw the Alake of Egbaland fleeing his palace and abandoning his throne. She was the mother of three boys who in their own individual different ways, were leading lights in the never-ending fight for a better Nigeria. The eldest, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was the former Minister of Health under General Ibrahim Babangida. Renowned for his incorruptibility and dedication to duty, it was under him that Nigeria had a primary heathcare system that worked. If his vision had been sustained and built upon, we would not have the comatose healthcare system we have today. He it was who came out to announce to the world that Fela had died of complications arising from HIV/AIDS at a time when the disease was still spoken of in hushed tones.
Arguably more widely known than the Prof but definitely more ‘troublesome’ was Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the younger brother to Fela. This chain-smoking medical doctor was more famous for his fights against injustice than he was for his medical practice. A thorn in the side of every military regime from the Seventies (including the one his brother served in), he was the founding leader of the Human Rights group Campaign for Democracy and also a founding member of NADECO. He was, like his brother Fela and his fellow activist friend, Gani, one of a select group of people in Nigeria that are recognised by the single name! I have never heard of any other person in Nigeria called ‘Beko’. The man in the middle was Fela Anikulapo (the one who had death in his pouch) Kuti! There isn’t much of a point in going into the profile of Fela here as it would be impossible to capture even a fragment of his being in a book, never mind a paragraph. If however you are reading this and do not know Fela, then the problem is one that nobody might be able to help you with. So, I will just go into the story of when he made the statement which I have used as the title of this piece.
Fela was the ultimate professional and a stickler for following his rules when it came to shows, as a few promoters found out to their chagrin. If Fela wanted the stage to be 8 ft high, you risked having your show cancelled if it stood at 7 feet 10 inches. The sound equipment, the lighting, the changing room, everything had to be as Fela demanded and you agreed to. Dede, his talented acolyte and man Friday would inspect the arrangements before hand and certify that everything was as Fela wanted it before the great man would venture out of Kalakuta (as his home was known). I have first-hand experience of the consequences of a failure in sticking to pre-agreed arrangements. Story for another day. On this particular day, a show had been planned for an events venue in Ikeja. The Park, which was managed by my friend Sola, was owned by a tough-talking American returnee who had a bit of a reputation as a hard man. Contrary to the agreed specification for sound equipment to be rented for the show, he had tried to save some money and had gotten something cheaper from another source. A few hours to the start of the show, Dede and the crew went in for sound-check and discovered the problem. Trouble! Fela was informed and as expected, he decided “no show today. Pass me the rizla”!
Sola was informed of the decision to cancel the show due to a breach of agreement. He had tried to make his Boss understand the risk he was taking when he was doing his ‘kurukere moves’ but he had refused to be properly guided. When he heard of the decision, he had tried some bluster and despatched Sola to Kalakuta to sort it out. I went with him and we tried to reason with Dede. He assured us it was out of his hands and we would have to talk to Fela himself. We tried to appeal to Fela but no dice. The recalcitrant Boss of the Event venue had to come himself. I remember the gentleman had a big American Cadillac that he hardly ever drove. For some unfathomable reason, he thought it might make an impression on Fela. He had the driver bring it out and drove it to meet us at Kalakuta, where we were in Fela’s sitting room, enjoying the effects of second-hand marijuana smoke! Long before he climbed up the stairs to the Sitting room, news had reached Fela about the man and his Cadillac. He was offered a seat, as Fela casually, and very irreverently, asked him why he was there. For the first time, I saw the gentleman unsure of himself. I cant remember for sure now but I think his first error was addressing Fela as Mister…. It was downhill from there.
“Mr. Big Man, look at you. With your big car and big everything (he also had a big tummy).” Fela went on to talk about how worthless his money was since it was for himself and his family alone. And he had the temerity to come here with your useless big car and expect special treatment? He pointed to one of the young men in the room. “You, what is your name?” The fellow replied “na Efosa, Fela”. “You don chop?” was the next question. “Yes Fela. I don chop garri”. He then went on to ask the fellow whether he knew his parents or anything about him. All he actually knew was that he had seen him around Kalakuta a couple of times. The young man explained he had come to Lagos to “hustle” and he had nowhere to stay, so he had been allowed to stay in Kalakuta and do work around the place until he found his feet. He was only one of a steady stream of his type who saw Fela’s home as a haven of sorts. They had somewhere to lay their heads and were sure they would not go hungry. Fela then turned to Mr. Big Man and asked him the question: “who dey chop from your money?”
Across the world, the most noble and most worthwhile lives are those lived in the service of and in giving to our fellowmen. We have examples of people like Bill Gates who have given so much of their substance and self in the service of people who can never repay them (never mind the hallucinatory vituperations about 5G and vaccines). People like Warren Buffet who have give away so much of their money and have already made arrangements on how the world will continue to benefit from their wealth even after they are gone. The generosity and philanthropy of the late M.K.O. Abiola was legendary. There are also the millions of unsung and unknown men and women all over who lift up their fellowmen in the little ways they can, within the limits of their means. People who do not have a lot but readily share the little they have, without expecting those that they share with to return the favour. That is what life should be about – what you can do to make things that bit easier for someone having a harder time of it than you are. Accumulation of wealth for its own sake is not just demonic, it is actually quite sad.
So, ask yourself today: “who dey chop from my money?”
– Bakare is a public affairs analyst and commentator