To hold and to cherish

To hold and to cherish

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 10:02 am

Owei Lakemfa

Owei Lakemfa

By Owei Lakemfa

Sunday mornings for me, are times to relax and reflect. The hustles of the workdays and social callings of Saturday behind, Sundays are inviting and alluring. So it was on Sunday September 18. I sat upstairs in my home, laptop in front. My thoughts were about peace; peace of mind, local and international peace. I thought about the internally displaced in North East Nigeria, those dying in senseless wars in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen.

I was oblivious that below me, a fierce fire was raging on the ground floor. Apparently, the fireproof doors did not allow fire nor smoke to penetrate. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice outside shouting “Fire! Fire!! Oh God, the children are trapped in the house! Fire!! Oh God, the children are inside the house!” Instinctively, I shot up, flinging the laptop and sprinting downstairs. When I opened the connecting door, very thick, dark smoke, welcomed me; the darkest I have ever seen. The sitting room and dining were on fire. I shouted for the kids, there was no response. I made my way to one of the bedrooms, they were not there; then I moved to the bathroom, there they were. In the brief period before the smoke enveloped us, the horror in their eyes turned to relief and expectation. One of them said “Daddy, there is fire” I responded “I know, we are going through the fire” I gathered them in front, using my hands to guide them and told them we must all stick together.

The smoke was so thick and dark that we could see nothing, and I knew it would be impossible to look for anyone in that situation. I avoided the kitchen entrance which was nearer, as I did not know if the fire started there. I groped towards the main door, slightly missing it as I realized I had gotten to the television set. Retreated slightly, got the door, guided them through it into the anteroom which was as dark with smoke, and herded them to the entrance. Day light has never been brighter and more welcoming for me. All four of us were out in the open air, safe and unscratched. As I delivered them into the safe hands of neigbours, my attention turned to the nanny and my visiting sister, Mrs. Ebisuobo Esemuede.

I ran round the house shouting their names, just as a throng of neigbours began to fight the fire. The nanny appeared on the balcony. She had thrice tried to run out from her room downstairs and the flames had chased her back, so she took the entrance to the stairs. The smoke was so thick that she could not find her way to the back entrance. I shouted that she was safe on the balcony, and began calling my sister. She slide open the window in my room upstairs. I asked her to make it to the next room where the second balcony was. Luckily she did and with the aid of a ladder, both climbed down.

All ten members of the family at home, were accounted for, safe and with no injuries.
Meanwhile, the fight to overcome the raging flames was fully on while we were expecting the Fire Service. Dozens of courageous people took on the flames; and while thick smoke was still oozing out, some of the youths entered the house while another group climbed the ladder and the pillars into the top floor. By the time the Fire Service arrived, the flames had been completely extinguished.

The fire experts identified one of the air conditioners and its socket as the source of the fire outbreak. It was a huge relief; the family was safe and only the ground floor and a small part of the upper floor had been damaged. As the last of the good neigbours left, I crumbled into a chair outside, relieved; all safe, no injuries, no race to the hospital. I called my old friend and brother in Lagos, Dr. Ayo Ajisegiri for medical advice whether I should take the family to the hospital as most of us inhaled smoke. Then I gathered the children to discuss the incident and what they should do if confronted by fire.

The responses from loved ones, friends and well-wishers was overwhelming. Their principal message which I entirely agreed with, is that property can always be rebuilt or replaced. What is irreplaceable is life.

However, as I sat back reflecting on my loses to the fire, I was also grateful that my small library upstairs was intact, but I had lost many of the art works I have collected in the last three decades. They have been so much part of my life that I can remember where and when I acquired them especially in my journeys in Nigeria and through virtually all African countries. Five years ago during a visit to Bishoftu, the Ethiopian holiday resort, I came across a large painting of the famous Ethiopian Emperor, Tewodros II who reigned from February 11, 1855 to April 13, 1868. He had resisted colonialism and when the British Army defeated Ethiopia at the Magdala Battle in April 1868, he shot himself rather than surrender. The painting was of his corpse, his pistol beside him and British soldiers standing a little away. Rather than dismantle the artwork on canvas, I decided to carry it to Addis Ababa.

When I got into the Ethiopian Airline aircraft and was told I could not take it without dismantling it, I tore the wraps and showed it to the air hostess asking whether she knew who was in the painting. She nodded “ That is our Emperor Tewodros” I said “Good, you have to get a place for him in your aircraft” She smiled, took it away and produced it intact at the Abuja airport. Now the precious painting laid wet and half burnt. Some of the early paintings of Adenle Adewale, one of the international artists contacted to restore the city art works of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, were burnt. Also damaged, is my only work of famous Nigerian painter, Kenny Adamson.

I had tried from 1985 to acquire his painting and he used to laugh that I could not afford it. So ten years later, I went to his home with a proposal for a phased out payment plan for any of his works. He gave his boyish smile, said he is convinced that I can take good care of his work. He signed the natural painting he just finished and gave me free. Perhaps it is part of the underdeveloped culture that neither my house nor any of these precious paintings was insured. But God is the greatest insurance.

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