Rather than what was meant to be a simple, straightforward and heartfelt obituary of the legendary Monsignor Pedro Ayodele Martins [1910 to 2014], Father Mathew Hassan Kukah the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto broke the Guinness Book of Records which is a unique testimony to excellence anchored on endurance – a validation of guts, sweat and toil.
Instead of a tribute by a young Catholic priest in honour of a departed elder Catholic mentor, what was published in “The Guardian” newspaper on Sunday, June 1, 2014 was a masterpiece which has endured the vagaries of time and our toxic environment while holding on tenaciously to its position at the top of literary vignettes (albeit a fairly long one). Nine years later, it is still circulating on the global web as an exemplar of a tribute that has bifurcated into a tributary plus a generous dose of cleansing water with its own self-determined source and destination.
Perhaps I should disclose my interest in the subject matter of the obituary. He was my father’s [Chief J.K. Randle] classmate at King’s College, Lagos. The Almighty granted him a long lease of life and more. His sojourn on planet earth went from full time to extra time and eventually penalty shoot out before he gave up the ghost, after numerous last rites, at the age of 104 years.
Sadly, my father died at the age of only 47 years. However, I remember celebrating with Monsignor Pedro Martins on his 100th birthday. He publicly declared that he was not yet in the departure lounge. He made no secret of his abiding love for good wine and whisky (Jonny Walker Blue Label). Of course, he had retired long before then – from priesthood and the Nigerian Army, where he had served as Chaplin during the civil war (1967 to 1970). His military rank was Colonel. He witnessed at first hand the carnage and brutality of the war while ministering to both the dead and the living.
It must have been when I visited him on his 103rd birthday at his residence on Adetokunbo Ademola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos that I saw him in his full glory even though he was frail. The property belonged to him but he had bequeathed it to the Catholic Church. Part of the property (the front) had been leased to an insurance company (Sovereign Trust Plc) and the holy father had retained a modest residence for himself at the back. In spite of his advanced age he was still in very high spirits.
He recognised me straightaway and muttered:
“Your father “JK” and I were rascals at King’s College. We were great buddies.”
He then proceeded to reminisce about when he and my dad were seated next to each other in the Assembly Hall of King’s College on the first day of term after the “long vacation” (almost three months). The Principal (Headmaster), an Englishman brusquely announced that a certain student would not be returning to the school. Apparently, he had killed his father for expecting him as a King’s College boy to participate in the lowly task of sweeping the family compound in their village in a rural part of the country. He felt it was below his newly acquired status and dignity. The entire hall was in shock. However, this did not prevent my Dad from asking:
“Pedro can you kill your Dad?”
The answer was “I am not sure. What I can tell you for sure is that there is no way I would kill my mother.”
Pedro then asked:
“JK, can you kill your mother or your father ?”
The response he received was:
“You know I adore my mother. There is no way I would ever want her dead.”
Pedro was insistent:
“What about your father, Dr. J.K. Randle the disciplinarian ?”
There was no response from my Dad. Low and behold, my grandfather died a few days afterwards on 27th February, 1928 at the age of 73 years.
Pedro Martins was quick to accost my Dad:
“JK”, are you sure you had no hand in the demise of your father ?”
The response was: “My Dad was tough on me.
All the same, he was my hero.”
At the time my Dad was nineteen years old while Pedro Martins was eighteen years old. It was their final year at King’s College.
What was truly fascinating was that here was I at the bedside of the great Monsignor Pedro Martins who by his own admission had been a terror to the students whom he taught science at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende.
He used to race around Lagos on a superbike. He subsequently acquired a Volkswagen sports car.
It was a powerful lesson for me. The transience of power, authority and worldly possessions is a recurring decimal.
The great man that he was, Monsignor Pedro Martins pointed to his only garment (a cassock) and a simple pair of shoes.
With an infectious chuckle, he declared:
“When I go, that is all I shall leave behind.”
Nothing for the taxman. No death duty. No Capital Gains Tax.
We are entitled to savour the first encounter between two “stubborn” matadors: Rev. Mathew Kukah: “That was my first encounter with the
Msgr. Martins the great and it was in 1978. The house was 7 Point Road, Apapa. The car was a sleek Volkswagen coupe. It seemed a scandal to me that a priest would have such a sexy car (“bird puller”!!) and that is why it caught my attention.”
Actually, it was Monsignor Pedro Martins who fired the first salvo.
“Young man, why are you looking at my car ?
Is yours missing ?”
Five years later, the boxing ring had shifted to Abuja, at Rev. Kukah’s abode.
The older priest offered a peace offering and a lame excuse:
“I came to visit Abuja and I thought I should look you up because I heard the Cardinal [Dominic Ekandem] had appointed you here.”
The situation rapidly developed into a grudge fight minus boxing gloves.
“When I reminded him of the memorable encounter in his house, he said:
If you still remember, then it means you are holding a grudge against me.”
It cost the small-framed junior priest an expensive bottle of choice red wine (instead of sacramental wine) to mend fences rather than draw swords or daggers followed by another round in the boxing ring. The wine did the trick. It was able to extract a confession outside the altar well beyond the confessional box:
“He said to me: You will be a great man, my son. I rather like you, but you look rather stubborn and I actually like that, because people say I am stubborn too.”
He had clearly met his match. But he had not yet delivered the “TKO” [Technical Knock Out].
“Monsignor Martins punched me in the belly on the grounds that I said that for him to get a letter endorsing his application for a visa, he needed to show me a letter from the Archbishop’s office to say that he is a priest in good standing.”
Well, we all know that Reverend Kukah does not pull punches !!
What he did not bargain for was to be damned to hell for daring to ask for a present.
“When I asked what he brought for me (after his trip abroad), seeing how much I did for him to get a visa, he accused me of asking for a bribe. Ole (thief) he said.” He then threatened that he would report me to Archbishop Anthony Okogie and the President of the Conference that their Secretary-General was a bribe taker. I made sure I had enough elbow room if he became aggressive and moved to punch me.”
For daring to enquire from the older priest how he coped with is failed attempt to trace his long lost brother in London followed by an equally frustrating and demoralising encounter with the archetypal Swiss banker, his reward was:
“What did you think I did, you fools ?”
As for the unfortunate bank manager, Monsignor Martins delivered a mouthful:
“The bastard said the cost of servicing my (dormant) account had wiped out my original deposit and I was now in debt to the bank!!. I just got up and left and went straight back to the airport to head home.”