My mom never really liked Zinno Orara.
She liked the artist, his works, just like everyone else. But the man?
‘That boy is a braggart’, she would say, as music blasted from Bro Zinno’s Volvo. It was often Lucky Dube; almost always reggae or soul.
But as he rolled up his windows and stepped out of the car, I imagined the girls peeping from their windows, ogling his huge shoulders and boyish face. They certainly loved the loud music, the blue Volvo, the man who drove it, his stutter, his sprinting walk.
But it was one who had him.
Aunty Adaora was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Simple, yet sophisticated, confident, with glowing eyes and a bright smile. You could imagine it was in homage to her complexion that Victor Olaiya wrote that classic, ‘Omo Pupa’. You could imagine it was because of her, that Bro Zinno was so confident and driven and, in my mom’s opinion, a braggart. Rumour had it that he insisted on her being a stay-at-home wife because of her beauty.
Not that I saw a lot of grown, beautiful women in and around Okokomaiko, the Lagos suburb where we lived. Maybe she was not
. Or even the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria. But in the entire six flats that made up our compound; from Seriki to Kemberi and Alaba; from Abule Aka to PPL and Ojo, none could hold a candle to her. That was my world and Aunty Adaora was the most beautiful woman in my world.
‘Kunle, Zinno is not around o. I’ll tell him you came.’
It was around 1994. I was about to leave Awori College, in Ojo. My parents were preparing me for Medicine & Surgery, but I was addicted to poetry and prose, and the only person who could understand me – apart from my childhood friend Shade Sarumi – was Zinno Orara. His flat, a 3-bedroom apartment, was right next to ours. Yet every trip there was like an excursion into paradise.
I would sit in his home studio and watch him mess around on canvas.
‘Kunle what do you think?’
‘It’s an abstract. What do you think it’s about?’
‘A young woman, longing for her children that are yet to come?’
You’re smart Kunle. Don’t worry. One day, you’ll be at the right place at the right time’.
I lived in a chaotic polygamous home where my self-esteem was terribly low. I was a severe stammerer with topical eczema; a kid no one wanted to relate with. Zinno Orara was my escape. His works and his words gave me life and hope. He didn’t even have to do much. The fact that he believed in my poetry, the fact that he offered to edit my first book, that he would listen and pat me on the back and say kind words, were enough.
My family lived, for 20 years, at 49 Seriki Street, Okokomaiko. I remember the night in 1984 when we moved in, fresh from Ikare, in Ondo State. We had moved to Ikare from Offa, during the wild Erin-Ile and Offa war. My dad was a police officer for 17 years during which the family was usually on the move. Dad was 40 when we arrived in Lagos. He left the force and joined Texaco, settling into an 8-5, while my mom set up a shop down the road, opposite the Dockworkers Union Secretariat.
Apart from my dad’s friend Olusegun Ologbese who owned the building, we were the only occupants that lived in the premises for two decades. We made friends quickly with new neighbours, only to lose them as they moved on, mostly to bigger apartments in FESTAC or Ikotun. In fact, Zinno’s flat was previously occupied by Godwin Etakibuebu, the crime journalist who authored a book on Anini. In those days, there were no mobile phones, no email, not to talk of Twitter or Facebook. So if you moved, and we did not have a physical address for visits, that was it.
Many bonds were broken, including mine with the Oraras. They moved ‘somewhere in Ikotun’, I moved to Ibadan, where I studied at the University of Ibadan for five years. Everyone moved on. I graduated in 2004, shortly after my mom passed on. I became a reporter for Encomium magazine same year, got married the next, and started ‘being at the right place at the right time’ for a couple of years.
My father passed on in 2011. With each milestone, I would think of Bro Zinno and his wife, and all their kind words. But I made no move to reconnect until later in 2011 when I started looking for him on Facebook, on Twitter, on the Internet. His footprints were everywhere but, just like my lost friend, the former Daily Times journalist Dave Njoku, it was impossible to track down Bro Zinno.
‘That’s his personal no. I’m sure you’ll get him on that.’
I emailed schools and art galleries around the world. Many would send phone numbers that would not connect. Some would promise to ‘pass the information to him and have him contact you’.
Then I found him on Facebook on November 24, 2013.
When he accepted my friend request on May 16, 2014, I sent another message. ‘Bros been trying to reach you forever. I hope you and the family are well? This is Kunle Ayeni from Okoko.’
I was away in London when his response came on September 23, 2014: ‘Here is my mobile number [080…] please get in touch.’
I called him the morning I got back, as I had breakfast with Dotun, my wife. I wanted to catch up and share all the good news and thank him for all his kindness. I wanted to tell him about Black House Media (BHM) and NET newspaper; about my kids and all the plans for the future. I wanted to talk about Okoko and everything.
But Bro Zinno had only one news to share. It was nothing good. ‘Kunle, if I tell you what I’ve been through. My wife has cancer. We’ve been battling it for about three years now.’
Aunty Adaora? I tried to picture it. That beautiful body and soul. That spirit. Cancer?
‘Kunle You’ll see her when you come now. That’s what we’ve been battling. I can’t even work. I’ve sold my cars, I’ve sold my plots of of land, we’ve gone everywhere. We’re just praying to God.’
I wished I didn’t have to visit; anything to avoid seeing Aunty Adaora in a state other than the one in which I knew and remembered her. I delayed and procrastinated. I delayed even more. Then, one Monday morning, I went to visit the Oraras. The most beautiful woman in the world lay on the bed, frail, hair gone, as her husband stood by me, fighting back tears. She smiled. ‘Kunle, you’re now a big boy o’.
I can’t remember if I managed to mutter anything. But I remember being overwhelmed by memories. I remembered Okoko. Then I looked at my own life and all the things I currently consider beautiful. I looked at the Orara teenagers, especially the girl, who had blossomed just like her mom.
I couldn’t say anything meaningful. But I determined it was important to do something meaningful. Not just for this overwhelmed family who need all the support at this point; but for those of us still beautiful, unaware, as my friend Steve Babaeko puts it, ‘of the cancer inside us’.
First step: Get Zinno Orara to work again; to grab the brush and paint the pain, the trauma, the suffering.
‘I can’t work Kunle’. I pick up the brush and I’m blank. I’ve not worked for a long time’.
‘Bros we have to get you to work. You will do it for her, for your kids, for the art. This is the most important time for you to be working….’
I believed the words as I said them. Yet as I left, I was sure he didn’t believe me.
Two weeks later I called him in the morning to give an update on some of his old works we’re selling to family and friends to raise funds.
‘I’m just going to bed now, Kunle. I worked all night.’
Zinno Orara has amazingly put himself together, bubbling again and full of life, even as his wife, as he told me last week, is now able to take a few steps unaided. In a few weeks, when he stages an exhibition in her honour, his first in many years, I pray she will be able to join in the celebration.
It will be the celebration of the most beautiful woman in the world – breast cancer or not.