I was ushered into her room by two middle-aged women who were taking care of her. One of them was wife of one of her grandsons and the other, a great-great-grandchild. Her head being bare just as I entered, she quickly asked for a scarf to cover her all-white hair braided all-back. She was promptly handed her cap and scarf which she quickly put on.
She said jokingly that she had to cover her head to prevent the visitor from catching a glimpse of her hairstyle which was only meant for her husband’s eyes. I greeted her and she replied in Fulfulde language. She then greeted me in the Islamic way: Asalamu alaekum warahmotulahi wabarakatuhu. They said she had a considerable skill to speak in English, Hausa, Igbo, Fulfulde, Nupe, Igbira, Tiv, Kanuri, Kaje, Idoma and a few other languages. She enjoined all around to praise God with her for attaining the age of 160 without losing her senses or memory. We all chorused: Allahu akbar and then Alhamdulilahi. After some pleasantries, we tossed a few questions to Alhaja Alimatu Abdul Malik, said to be about 160 years old, arguably the oldest person in Nigeria. The interview was conducted in Yoruba.
I was born about 160 years ago to the family of Alhaji Kokewu-Kobeere in the Oja Gbooro area of Ilorin. I have witnessed the reigns of six emirs of Ilorin. I was born at a time when there was no means of recording dates of birth, when people were not literate enough to do that. But with the number of emirs who came to power and reigned in my lifetime in Ilorin, I believe my age should be around 160. One of my contemporaries was Sheu Ahmad Folorunsho Faagba who died at the age of 145, eight years ago. He was my classmate in Arabic school though I was about five years older than him.
Apart from the premier emir of Ilorin, Sheik Alimi, I knew when the other emirs came to power. When Sheu Sulaiman came to power (in 1896), I was already a grown-up. Although I cannot say exactly how old I was that year, I was a grown-up when he became the emir of Ilorin. Unfortunately, many of my contemporaries who witnessed the reigns of those emirs are long gone.
Who among the six Ilorin emirs whose installations you witnessed would you say had the most impactful reign?
It was Emir Sheu Sulaiman. He brought railway to this town (in 1904). He was asked the importance of bringing railway and he answered by saying that it would make all poor people wealthy. The wealthy argued that they would no longer be relevant. Then, it was time of surplus. Foods that were worth Eepinini (half a penny) would be eaten and people would have their fill. At our Kokewu-Kobere Compound, there was a house nearby then with an alfa. The children there were given three Onini for their upkeep. The reign of Emir Sulaiman was quite significant.
After his death, Bawa, the father of Abdulkadir, took care of those in villages. That’s the legacy being enjoyed by his children till date in Ilorin. The children of those who leave good legacies are bound to benefit. The first son of Faagba made me the Magajiya of Tanmowo Compound (head of the womenfolk). I went on holy pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 1977, when I was well past the age of 100. There is the date, written on the wall (pointing to the wall of her room). I thank God. Alhamdulilhahi robil alamin.
After the Adubi War (1918), as a traditional clothes seller, I took Etu (a popular local fabric) to Abeokuta for sale. We sold it for five pounds. Sanyan (another popular fabric) sold for seven pounds then. It is now100 pounds. We were selling to army officers and their wives. I had a shop at Sobi Barracks then. Soldiers were drafted to keep the Emir of Ilorin safe. I spent 10 years with the soldiers. I was living there during the (second world) war. After the war, I came back home due to old age. The soldiers came back to take me away. I said, ‘who are you taking away?’ I said I didn’t want anything. They said they would give me gun salute when I died. I said they should rather give the gun salute to their grandmothers.
What will be your reaction if an organisation or government provides a more befitting place than this for you to live?
I will die where my husband married me and put me. Or have you come to take me away from my husband? (she then chanted: Wa inna jundana lahumul ghaaliboon, which is verse 173 of chapter 37 of the Holy Qur’an).
At your age, you say you won’t leave your husband’s house, but wives, nowadays, with or without children, pack out of their matrimonial homes, what do you have to say?
It is not supposed to be so. Patience is the watchword here. Wives would only leave matrimonial home because they have lost their heads. Matrimonial homes are the heavens of housewives. Why would you leave the home of your husband who relates with you with patience? You have what to eat and drink. You have children and you are financially stable. Why are you moving about? Both of them [man and wife] should be patient. If one party is patient and the other is not, they cannot last long. (At this point, she saw me taking her picture) Take my picture very well because you may not see me again.
Mama, should money be a source of problem for a couple?
Money may lead to marital dispute. When a man has money and becomes evasive and pretends he doesn’t have and he doesn’t give his woman money, surely, there will be fight.
Please, tell us about your marriage.
Marriage is sweet but children nowadays do not follow the right way in selecting their partners. That is why it [marriage] doesn’t last anymore. I still live in my husband’s house as old as I am.
I am blessed with 11 children, 119 grand and great-grandchildren but I am left with only one surviving child, an over 80-year-old woman. I lost my first child in 2011 at the age of 113. I always give thanks to God in any situation I find myself. Almighty God is the giver and taker of life. It was her destiny to leave me behind. I don’t have authority to question God because whatever He decrees must come to pass. It is His will that I live this long.
What can you say about the late Dr Olusola Saraki?
Saraki, Baba Bukola [Bukola’s father]? His father was taken away to partake in the Adubi War. Saraki embraced Ilorin and prevented his people from being put to shame. Saraki was born in my presence. I knew when his father had him. The people from Abidjan came. They said there was war and that Amidu, Saraki’s father - or what’s the name now? - should come and fight for them so that they would not suffer defeat. That was when Saraki’s father was taken away. He took his children along. All the children of Saraki’s father were born in Ilorin. [The late] Saraki was born at Agoro Compound, in the Agbaji area of Ilorin here.
What were the late Saraki’s contributions?
Ha, who can mention them all? He met Ilorin in total darkness. He said he would rebuild his father’s house. Did he do it or not? What did they say Bukola did that they are fighting him? It was money his father was giving people. He gave people clothes and if a son cannot give as much as his father did, we don’t need to fight him. We should draw him closer and rally round him. If you say you don’t want little, what if you don’t get to see him anymore? Is the little you are getting not enough? What I will say is that people should give him support and not mind the consequences otherwise disunity may set in. Or am I saying balderdash or this is just an old woman’s idea? If Bukola didn’t do as much as his father, people should consider what his father did for the town and accord him more goodness. I am talking to only considerate people fah. Those that are not in their senses will say they should take Bukola away and all that he has but they will all fall. They can’t take anything. His father met this town in total darkness. He turned around his family house. He saved Alimi’s ancestral place from disrepute. He refurbished it. Am I lying?
What do you have to say about the speculation that the late Olusola Saraki was an indigene of Abeokuta?
No. Do you know why he was said to be from Abeokuta? Their great-great-grandfathers had come to settle here. That was how all of us had come from different places to settle in Ilorin. Some were from Sokoto, others came from Gwandu, Katsina, Borno, etc.
What have you been eating to stimulate long life and healthy living?
Many important people in the society come to me but I am not the one they come to visit, really; it is Almighty Creator. I drink obatin (Ovaltine) and I drink milk. I don’t eat much bread. If you eat bread, you may find it difficult to ease yourself in the toilet. I eat it [bread] but it has to be oven-fresh and soft, not stale.
Are there some foods you don’t eat? For instance, some say milk, which you just mentioned, should not be taken by old people.
Those who are not well or whose death is near are the ones that say all that. When you take milk.....bring your hand (reporter stretched out his hand and she pulls) e get power! If I don’t take tea and milk, how will I have power? Or am I saying nonsense?
Can you recall what happened at the time you went on holy pilgrimage to Mecca?
I went on hajj once in 1977, which felt like more than a hundred times. People from all parts of the world came for hajj that year. We were 14, 000 in number that year. Many people came to meet me. They asked me to follow them to visit different mountains and places in the holy land.
Why did they come to you?
It is God that directed them to me; that I should go with them to all those mountains He created. Or you think I won’t know how to answer you? It’s a person with sight that will show the blind the way.
How do you want to be remembered?
People will remember that Alhaja Ita Kure, Ile Elepo used to say this and that. Tell them that in Ilorin, Saraki did all he could do and his son wanted to contribute his own quota, but some people disagreed. And that they said there is money they wanted to retrieve from him. Which money is that? Their forefathers’, which Saraki got and which they want to collect from his son? It is a lie. Who are you, by the way?
I am Abiola Abdul Azeez, a journalist.
A journalist? You write news, don’t you? Don’t you have any other job than carrying newspapers about? Please, don’t take me overseas o! It has been a while since I went there. The children I had for Ekundayo, the judge, had done all that (taking me abroad).
Alhaja, do you remember Obafemi Awolowo?
He was from Ikenne. Ha! (she begins to sing) Awolowo, Baba Layinka, okunrin jigi jigi lori alabosi. Boroboro nii yo, ko see pa, ko see lu loogun (strongman that could not be killed or beaten with charm).