Dateline Lagos 1946; The death of Herbert Macaulay
By Femi Olugbile
(from the forthcoming book ‘PELEWURA’)
She had a bad feeling about the national tour of the NCNC from the beginning.
She had seen Macaulay at home at Kirsten Hall in the week before he travelled out of Lagos. He was full of passion, as usual, but he was not looking well.
She was delighted that the Lagos rally, which she hosted, went off so well. Even Nnamdi Azikiwe came up to her after the rally to thank her for the expert way all the arrangements were made.
‘There is no Madam Pelewura in Aba or Kano, so I wonder how we shall cope in those places’ Azikiwe said, flashing his stark white smile.
Macaulay was sitting alone in his office, behind his large desk, on the day she saw him. In the wan light, there was a tired, jaded look on his face.
‘My doctor says I need rest. I will go to England to rest for three months after the national tour. But first I must nurture my baby – the NCNC, get it firmly on its feet…’
He laughed at her worry and did not allow her to say another word.
———————————————————————————————————— Now, two weeks later, she had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as her clerk Akowe approached her with a look of alarm on his face. It was obvious he had disturbing news.
‘Macaulay?’ she asked, spontaneously.
‘He has just been brought back on the train from Kano.’
She burst into tears, unmindful of the presence of others in the Lagos Market Women’s Association meeting room.
‘Is he dead?’
She was rushing to the door even as she spoke.
‘He’s still alive, but…but…He insisted they take him to Kirsten Hall.’
There was an anxious crowd already at Macaulay’s residence. She made her way with difficulty to his bedroom. On the corridor she met Dr Davies, Macaulay’s doctor and friend. There was a resigned, forlorn look on his face. ‘You’re not taking him to Odan General Hospital?’ she asked. cutting through the usual courtesies.
He shook his head ruefully.
‘Stubborn as a goat. Says he’s not budging from his house. I’ve done what I can, and I’ll come again to see him in the morning.’
Macaulay was lying on the vast bed, his head propped up on a pillow. His eyes were closed, as if he was asleep. She sat on the side of the bed and held his hand.
‘Egbon mi’ she said softly.
His eyelids fluttered momentarily, but the eyes did not open.
‘Don’t leave me like this. I won’t know what to do without you.’
Was it her eye, or did she see a smile fleetingly in one corner of his mouth?
She sat in a corner of the room to allow distraught family members access to the sick man.
She must have fallen asleep.
She was awakened by a loud cry. There was wailing all around.
Macaulay was dead.
Her friend and helper was gone.
Strangely she found herself unable to cry.
She made her way silently out of the house. More and more people were coming in.
Akowe was on her shoulder, whispering as they walked.
‘Just before he went, he sat upright, opened his eyes and in a clear voice of authority, directed all of us around to tell his son Oged to keep the flag flying, and that the NCNC delegates should pause for four days in his honour, and then carry on with their national tour.’
After that, he said, Macaulay slumped back on the bed, closed his eyes, and he was gone.
The story rang true. That was the man she knew.
——————————————————————————————————– Today, on the day of Macaulay’s burial, she had given an order that all markets in Lagos should be shut, as they had been yesterday for the wake-keeping. It was the least she could do to honour a man who had done so much for market women, and for Lagosians at large. Today, everybody would see that an elephant had fallen in Lagos, and things would never again be the same.
The funeral procession was to take off from the home of Chief Adedoyin, Macaulay’s long-time associate. They had been together in NNDP and worked with others to found NCNC.
Pelewura could not recall a more colourful occasion. Her market women were clad in brown aso ebi with matching gele. They filled the streets as far as the eye could see. The LMWA had bought the coffin – which was a rich brown colour with golden handles. They had also brought a brass band from Isale Eko The boys were belting out songs that everybody knew, a combination of Christian and Muslim songs, along with popular street songs.
‘A ti gbe baba re’le…
A ti gbe ee…
Everybody was singing along, and everybody was dancing. It was at once a solemn farewell and a joyful celebration of life.
The Lagos Cathedral was full, and the crowd spilled out onto the Marina.
Bishop Vinning led the service himself. He preached a moving sermon, dwelling on divine love and service to mankind.
Soon Macaulay’s body was back on the Marina, heading to Ikoyi Cemetery.
The band grew louder and more frenzied. Family members and market women were dancing after the coffin. All traffic on the roads had ceased, and people stood respectfully aside or joined the dancing.
At the graveside, Nnamdi Azikiwe stepped forward to give a funeral oration. He spoke emotionally, from the heart, eulogizing his leader. He made a vow that the flame lit by Macaulay would never die, and Nigeria would be free.
Pelewura reflected that even she, who always doubted Azikiwe’s true motives, could see that he genuinely loved Macaulay.
There would be more singing and dancing. Back at the Macaulay home, in Kirsten Hall, her market women had made arrangements for food and drinks for everyone.
But her heart was not celebrating, even as she went through the motions.
It was the end of an era.