An excerpt from my new book, The Code: A Simple Story About Mothering Great Women by Patrick N. Igbinijesu

14: The Principle of Reality versus Fantasy

It was Manic Monday again and the mood that morning was somber on the fifth floor of the Ephraim Bank Head Office. It was reminiscent of  every second week of every new quarter since Kay joined the bank in which supervising Directors would have interfaces with their frontline teams in what they called, a ‘Q.B.R’—Quarterly Business Review—and ‘Quarterly Broken Record’ for some. Kay and her colleagues had cramped themselves into one of the floor’s conference rooms in anticipation of the typically stormy session. And despite a sterling third quarter performance by the Emerging Conglomerates team, which Kay contributed largely to,  Niyi Babarinsa, their tall, barrel-chested, difficult-to-please, bottom-line minded bully of a director was already in the room seated—waiting eagerly like a frigate whose batteries could only be engaged as soon as the clock struck eight o’clock. He was quite Rowena’s opposite—and as far as the staff could tell—he respected her for that. Rowena wasn’t the kind of subordinate you bullied. In fact, she wasn’t like any of the other three department heads who capitulated at his many whims and caprices.

“Maybe Niyi respected Rowena because he had an idea of her net worth” Kay mused.

In that very moment, as if to say, “speak of the devil”, the door clicked open and Kay’s multi-millionaire boss walked in, decked in an expensive navy blue skirt-suit with matching shoes and a handmade Lana Marks handbag. It wasn’t a regular with Rowena but when she did power dress, she left female colleagues talking about her for weeks. She briskly exchanged pleasantries with Niyi and the other department heads before settling into a front seat that had been reserved for her.

It was now a minute before eight and Niyi couldn’t wait any longer. “Let’s begin. Good morning everybody… You are welcome to this quarter’s business review session…And…as you all know, our division did well in the preceding three month period… but we shan’t concern ourselves with that.  This morning we will start by fishing out the weak links on our teams…” he paused, looked around and then smiled, seemingly enjoying the sudden nose-diving countenance of his audience after he mentioned the phrase, ‘weak link’. “…and how to help them… but not before the Head of Social Media Banking gives us the opening address…Flora, you have the floor,” Niyi said, gesturing with his hands.

 

Unlike most of the bankers in that room who were busy trying to conjure last minute excuses as to why they had under-performed through July, August and September, Kay sat through the whole thing unperturbed and absent-minded. Her gnawing curiousity had gotten the better of her because Hypatia had failed to say anything about where they’d be having lunch today, except that she’d be at entrance of Kay’s office to pick her up at one ‘o clock.

When it came to Kay’s turn to present, she slowly mouthed her results and waited for the thunderous applause that followed before walking back to her seat.

“Great one Kay!..Kay? Are you okay? ”whispered the concerned voice sitting next to her. Becky, her office buddy had been watching her all morning and could tell that Kay was transfixed somewhere else particularly with the cold manner in which she received the applause for her outstanding performance.

 

“Yes,” she said.

“Did you eventually speak with the Chaperon?”

“Did I?…We had lunch the whole of last week and I had the time of my life.” Kay replied.

Becky’s eyes widened with awe for her colleague. “You just do not let up when you set your eyes on a goal Kay.”

“Yeah…maybe.” But Kay was not interested in continuing the conversation before Niyi ‘the Barbarian’ Babarinsa spotted the two of them engaging in small talk while the Q.B.R. was on. She had her mind on one thing—and that one thing was where Hypatia would be taking her to in the afternoon—and that was still two hours away.

*

Through the unfriendly and heavily barricaded gates of Fort Dan Fodio, the office of the General Officer Commanding the 89th Infantry Division, Nigeria’s youngest army division was located right in the heart of the army barrack.

Most of the barrack’s road outlay was fraught with speed bumps and security posts manned by fierce looking MPs. And the closer it seemed they were to where they were going, the more frequent the stop-checks became.

Kay still wondered about all the secrecy around this afternoon’s lesson and whether or not they would be meeting with anyone at all. After all, it had been the two of them on Friday and to this point, Hypatia hadn’t said a word.

“But all these security checks couldn’t have been for nothing?” she thought as they arrived and parked at the Senior Officers’ Mess across from the General-Officer. Obviously, much more than Kay had expected, the see-through, full-service restaurant looked very stately from where they parked—with exquisite Byzantine furnishing and lightings.

As soon as they were inside the door, the maitre d’ came over and ushered the two of them to a corner table.

“Of course,” thought Kay, “Hypatia must be a VIP here.”

“Thank you, Mark,” said Hypatia. Mark bowed to both ladies and returned to the lobby. It struck Kay that those were Hypatia’s first words all afternoon, and, as they took their seats, Kay asked the Old Lady about that.

“Silence is always a powerful tool for achieving deep seated change,” Hypatia replied.

“Once when I was a teenager, a friend of mine, Daisy, came home with me to spend the weekend. Back then, Daisy had been experimenting with alcohol for a while and so she sneaked out of the house to get some from a kiosk nearby. Daisy had gotten to the checkout counter and was waiting to pay just when my father walked into the store. It was too late to duck or pretend. The six-bottle pack she was carrying was visible in her right hand. ‘Good evening,’ said Dad, peering down at the pack. ‘Good evening sir,’ she replied. Daisy was white with fright and my dad noticed; she looked like she had seen a ghost…And as soon as she got out of the place, she looked for the nearest trash can, dumped the beer and returned home. In Daisy’s recounting of her ordeal months after, we spent the rest of that evening playing, yet daddy uttered not a word…My dad was bidding his time, she thought. Beer was bad enough but bringing them into his house—to me, the daughter of a Marxist-sympathetic policeman—was nothing short of sacrilegious.” Hypatia paused and let out a little chuckle. “When it was time for Daisy to go home, my father offered to take her. And all this time, the man had said nothing. The poor girl was terrified.”

“I can just imagine.” Kay replied.

“Their drive was fraught with light chitchat. He was definitely setting her up for the kill, she thought. When he pulled up in front of her house, Daisy quickly muttered her gratitude and climbed out of the car. ‘Wait, let me walk you to the door,’ Daddy replied. This is it, Daisy thought as they walked up the yard. It took an eternity from the little gate-entrance to the lawn…to the stairs. And finally, they reached the door. When Daisy parents answered, ‘What a pleasure having your daughter this weekend,’ was all he said. To Daisy’s utter amazement, my Dad simply smiled, turned and bid them good bye. He walked back to his car and drove off slowly into the dark… How did Dad’s silence change my friend?” Hypatia’s storyteller candour whirled up. “It’s been forty six years and Daisy never tasted alcohol again…ha! Our host is here!”

The female officer stood before them, a picture of alertness. An athletic-looking woman in her mid-fifties, she had risen through the ranks, defying male chauvinism, to the rank of the third highest rank in Africa’s most potent military service. Indeed, she must have been the most senior officer in the place as every officer she came across between the entrance and the corner table where the two ladies sat, stopped to salute her. She beamed, hunkered down with them at the table and exchanged a friendly hug with Hypatia.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your new friend?” Maria’s voice bore a martial tone.

“Maria, this is Kay. Kay, meet… Major General Maria Aderonke Biaduo, the General-Officer-Commanding, 89th Infantry Division of the Nigerian Army,” Hypatia said with a small smile.

“Wow! Nice to meet you ma’am,” Kay said with a broad smile.

“Same here my dear and please… called me, Maria.” She said, extending her hand across the table to shake Kay’s.

A waiter approached with a pair of menus, took their orders and whooshed silently away again.

“Maria,” said Hypatia, “tell my friend how you got to where you are today.”

The General looked at Kay and puffed, “Soldier’s blood.”

Kay blinked. “Soldier’s blood?”

“I was born to a soldier father,” Maria went on, “who himself came from a line of soldiers—my grandfather and great-grandfather serving in Burma and Korea respectively. Sadly, my dad was killed in action during the civil war just before I could write my A-levels…It was a great loss for me at the time. But my four brothers who also served in the military, were a great source of encouragement to me, constantly imbuing the mindset that a girl, no matter how disadvantaged, could achieve about anything a man could.

Hypatia, chuckled, and Kay had the distinct sense that her host had heard this story many times before.

“It was hard, at first when Papa died,” Maria was saying, “but I had my brothers, and a doting mother who scratched everything, even hawked roasted plantain and groundnuts… just to pay my A-level examination fees.” The General paused and continued. “It was then I decided to join the army for two reasons…Number One, it offered a steady income and two; the army would pay my way through the university…But then, I also decided if I would enter the army, I would be enrolled in a Regular Officer course because being an officer had its pecks and growing up in the barracks taught me that life was plainly about the paths we chose for ourselves—officers living like kings while the other ranks lived in obscurity.”

Kay nodded.

“But at that time, women weren’t allowed into regular officer courses at the Defence Academy and so, my applications were turned down twice.”

Hypatia smiled and gently said; “But that’s not the end of the story.”

Maria held up both hands in admission and shrugged, “Of course! I wouldn’t be sitting with both of you today if the story were to have ended there.”

“But,” Kay stammered, “how then did you get it? I mean, no offence, but wasn’t it only three years ago that the first female hostel was built at the Defence Academy.

Maria gave another shrug, as if to say, who knows?  She winked at Hypatia. “Maybe I was lucky?” Just then, her mobile phone rang. “Excuse me for a moment, it’s the CAS—“and she stood up and strode away.

“Who’s the CAS?” Kay asked as they watched Maria walk to a secluded corner on the other side of the room.

Hypatia smiled, “Oh that’s her direct boss. CAS is short for Chief of Army Staff.”

“Really,” said Kay.

“Really,” Hypatia replied. “In fact, with her records, she would probably become a CAS one day.”

“Really,” Kay was intrigued. The thought of a woman leading the Nigerian Army tickled her fancy a bit as her eyes settled on Maria still engrossed in the conversation she was having.

Their waiter placed their food before them and Hypatia thanked him. She took her first bite of the chicken yamarita, closed her eyes and groaned in pleasure. “Now I see why Maria loves this place.”

“It’s delicious,” Kay acquiesced. As she dove into the sumptuous meal, she wished Joseph were here to share her meal with her. The two ate in silence for nearly two minutes before the Old Lady spoke again.

“In fact, apart from overseeing the 89th Infantry…Maria is a key member of the country’s Security Council and was recently awarded the highest military honour for war strategy by the United Nations for her contribution to ending the Sudan Civil War.

Kay dropped her silverware and stared at Hypatia, who didn’t stop devouring her lunch. “She ended the war in Sudan? She’s the one we came here to meet?”

Maria was headed back toward their table as Hypatia whispered to Kay, “A very useful thing to remember: truly great people do not have two heads,” She readjusted her seat to make room for the General. “Truth is, they are exactly like you and me.”

Maria took her seat smartly. Over the next ten minutes, she and Hypatia gave Kay a quick rundown of her career.

Young Maria Biaduo’s two attempts at entering the Nigerian Defence Academy had gotten to the then Director for Army Training having come out tops on both occasions—at the entry exams. She met the physical requirements and she was smart but the unwritten requirement of being a man had staved off her career preference for two years.

Although Maria rarely talked about herself she admitted that the technicality that got her into the 36 Regular Officer Cadet Course was that Nigeria, under the Major General Buhari-led junta, had recently signed the International Convention on Women’s Rights in 1984 and needed to show that it had began to lower sex discrimination in its public service which was rampant at the time. Women were encouraged by the government to take up jobs in areas that were particularly dominated by men.

So, impressed with the young woman’s performance and his overarching need to also impress the junta, the Director for Army Training sent a memo to the Academy’s Commandant, instructing that she be admitted and shipped off as an exchange student to an infantry school at Mhow, India where there were facilities to train female combatants alongside their male counterparts. In the Army’s scheme, Maria was bound to fail. Her only purpose would be to serve as a kind of guinea-pig; a buttress to the male-chauvinistic inclination that had disallowed women from soldiering in Nigeria—from as far back as when the West Africa Frontier Force was formed.

“She proved them wrong,” Hypatia interjected, “in fact she beat her entire class, earning herself an instructor position at the school… which she turned down, to take  her first command as a platoon commander at the Lagos Garrison.”

And she hadn’t stopped since. Her career had taken her to the most volatile places on earth as a peacekeeper, twice caught in enemy fire and twice leading the country’s military contingent to operations in the Ivory Coast and Sudan. A well travelled lady, Maria had been drafted to almost every international conflict from Desert Storm and Sarajevo in the Nineties to Sierra Leone and Congo DRC in more recent times. The lady spoke French, Portuguese and Arabic with awe-striking fluency. It was as though her being a woman had driven her so hard in an environment that many still feel was the preserve for men.

As she listened, Kay realized that there was another layer of General Biaduo that she hadn’t seen at first. Underneath that tough, respectable Army-war-hero persona there was a deep sense of compassion and equity. Once Kay became aware of it, it was riveting. She began to see why she had successfully crossed the gender line to win the trust of even the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Kay understood that Hypatia had suggested Maria as the next CAS for a reason. It wasn’t the fact that she had proved herself as a competent warmonger but that she had a conscientious approach to what and how she did what she did. She effused a frankness that made meeting her unforgettable.

“So Kay, Hypatia tells me you have only daughters and I find it quite interesting because I have three too.”

Kay blushed, “Really? They must be grown and out of the house.”

“They are…Married, with children too.”  Hypatia pointed out.

“What can I say? God was good to me and my husband,” Maria shrugged, “partly because having our children succeed as they have…was an end we had in mind whether we were in Darfur or Angola on military assignments…and it took a lot of conscious effort given our busy lives.” She turned to look at Kay. “You see, my husband was in the Navy too, so we would sometimes…well on very few occasions be drafted to the same operation or exercise. He’s been retired now for about three years but as they say, ‘Old soldier never die’ right?”

Kay let out a giggle. “Yes ma”

“Tell me Kay, what do you think distinguishes unsuccessful parents from successful parents?” Maria jumped headlong into the lesson. “I mean when you see some children you can tell their parents made a real mess, while a few, like Hypatia and maybe myself, seem to have done modestly well, why?”

“Obviously it’s the attention,” replied Kay without hesitation.

Maria’s laughter was so loud that several heads turned in futile attempts to catch the joke that had stirred their boss so comically.

“Ah, thank you very much; you definitely are a good mother. But I must admit, while attention was very important, there were so many parents who paid their children ten times the attention we paid ours—and I mean that literally—and their kids still wound up not nearly as successful as ours. I mean, at some point in our careers, Richard and I were almost never at home and still our daughters—now married working mums—were virgins when they got married; had never experimented with drugs  and all earn six-figure salaries today at great firms.

“Why is that, do you think?”

Kay had no answer.

“Bad parents,” Maria went on, “try to give their children the comforts of life they can afford instead of attention because it’s easier. They figure that it is more expensive to sit with their children for an hour on a weekend and just banter about stuff than it is to just buy them video games they can play on weekends…They just look at the age limits of the cover of the video game and abdicate their responsibilities to it. It’s a parenting style that is always looking for surrogates…whether they are movies, sleepovers at the neighbours or casual outings…for these parents, parenting starts and stops at filling their names on the required spaces of their children’s school forms. A good parent on the other hand,  strives to—for a lack of a good word—parent…or supervise… his or her child. They understand that parenting is about giving the most quantity and quality of attention to their child or children as the case may be. To them, it’s about sacrificing everything possible to ensure their kids turnout right…and still some of them don’t.

“But great parents—ah, great parents strive to be truth givers. Their mission is to become the primary source of truth to their children by their words and examples. They look for the truth, teach it and live it. And so, the truths about matters like money, sex, love, beauty, hard drugs and so on, get to their children as a constant from them and not a surrogate. Great parents understand that parenting is a shedding of their days for the days of their children to blossom.” She looked at Hypatia and then back at Kay. “The Old Lady has already shown you Five Principles and now, you are ready for the Sixth?

Kay nodded expectantly. She had waited all day to learn Principle Number Six of Mothering Great Women.

“Here it is,” The Major General leaned in,

“Your daughter’s ability to differentiate
between reality and fantasy will determine
the kind of expectations she has of
herself, her relationships and the
society she lives in and how
she responds to those
expectations.”

 

Kay wasn’t sure how to react. Differentiating between reality and fantasy? It sounded too far-fetched.

“Forgive me…I don’t get it,” Kay confessed. “I mean, I understood the part of becoming the primary source of truth to my daughters, how it worked for you and your husband… and I figure you were able to do so by  being in constant touch with your daughters whether you were home or not, and honestly answering their questions each time they asked. But honestly, getting them to distinguish between fact and fiction sounds like a recipe for dousing their chance to just be children—to imagine, daydream and create.”

“Not at all,” Maria waggled one finger. “‘Does it douse their chance to daydream and have fun like other children?’ is not a terrible question. It’s a fantastic question. It’s just a terrible first question. It starts you off headed in the wrong direction.”

She let Kay ponder that for a moment, and then continued.

“The first question should have been, ‘What do you mean by reality and fantasy? And that’s where I’ll start…How old are your children again?” Maria asked.

“Five. Three. And Six Months,” said Kay.

“…And have you ever wondered the impact that dolls, princess costumes and fairy tale movies have on your daughters?… Now, don’t get me wrong…”Maria paused and then, deadpanned. “…while its perfectly okay for your girls to like these stories at their ages, you will need to add some real world perspectives to these tales as you go along…For instance, you can ask your five-year-old what she thinks happens to Cinderella after she gets married. And hear her use her imagination.”

“Wait,” said Kay. “So, it does allow children to use their imagination—only in a more realistic perspective?

“Exactly,” Maria agreed. “These discussions will help her put fantasy in its place and realize that she doesn’t—for instance—have to depend on a man to ‘rescue’ her—financially or emotionally—at anytime in her life…You reach her with this truth first before she accepts a different message from a surrogate parent—which in this case, could be television or a storybook.”

“And the beautiful thing about this Principle,” added Hypatia, “is that as you practice it you become your children’s life-long consultant, even into adulthood because they subconsciously learn to associate you with the truth.”

Kay marveled at the two of them, feeling very inspired by the thoughts her teachers were throwing at her as Maria continued.

“Don’t ban the dolls and fairytales altogether. Taking away what children want only makes it more attractive. Rather, point out that while Cinderella is fun, things like loving the family, paying attention at school and doing her house chores are real.”

As Kay basked in the whole euphoria of the afternoon, the subtle sound of a beagle being blown in the distance seemed to announce an end to their lovely lunch date. Maria looked down at her watch as many of the officers in the hall began to file out and winked at Hypatia. “I have got to go now.”

Hypatia jumped to her feet. “We too should go. You both have got to get back to work.”

“Hmm!” said Maria, nodding, “it was nice having you both around.”

 

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