A Series of Fortunate Events: How I Found My Father
Growing up, I thought I was like most of my friends and neighbours, a child of a single parent, whose father was off somewhere, not at all interested in being involved in my life. Fathers were rare figures in my community. Fathers were not considered very important in the world of my childhood.
However, I was aware that if it had not been for my father, I would not be Black. My skin was a constant reminder of his existence.
I think most children who grow up without their fathers are often curious to learn something about these mystery men. I began asking my mother about my father around the age of three. I was told that my father came from Africa, had been a bad man who cheated on my mother, didn’t want me because I was a girl and he had wanted a boy because he came from a sexist culture, was lazy and didn’t work. My mother had left him because of his laziness and cheating and he had eventually been deported while I was still an infant. I also learned that he had tried to commit suicide and had threatened to kill me before being deported. So, basically, I was told that my father was something of a loser and it was best that he was out of my life.
I think my mother had hoped that this would nip any further interest in learning about my father in the bud; it didn’t. I also think she felt that if I thought my father was a loser, I would not feel that I had lost anything by not knowing him. She was wrong about this as well. Knowing at such an early age that my father had been a bad person while at the same time drawing my own conclusions that my mother’s family was abusive and dysfunctional and my mother was powerless to protect me from it, I grew up feeling that I was doomed to be a basket-case and a failure because I was genetically-loaded for this fate on both sides.
As I grew older, I asked more questions and my mother was able to provide me with more details about my father. I learned that he was from a country in Africa called Nigeria. I learned that he was studying languages, such as German and Spanish, at Carleton University and had been supported to do so by the German Lutheran Church on Preston Street. I learned that he had worked for a pizzeria while my parents were together. I learned that my father’s brother had also lived in Ottawa and had children here. I learned that his last name was Oniyemofe and that the name I had been given by my father when I was born was Tamara-Emi. The only possessions of my father I had were a red long-tooth comb and an Intermediate Spanish Text book with his name written inside the cover. My mother had destroyed all her pictures of him. Or so she thought. When I was eight years old, while playing with an old typewriter at my grandmother’s home in Aylmer, I discovered a Polaroid of my father that had been taken in Nigeria stuffed in the back of the typewriter, underneath the keys. My mother had no memory of putting it there.
As I learned more about Nigeria, most significantly from reading a memoir by Adewale Maja-Pearce, a man who also had a White mother and Nigerian father, I wanted to learn what ethnic group my father came from. My mother could not help me with this one. She recommended that I contact the Nigerian High Commission. However, at this time, relations between Canada and Nigeria had deteriorated over the planned execution of Ogoni Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and going to make inquiries at the Nigerian High Commission didn’t seem that easy a task.
A few years later, I was walking down Metcalfe Street and realized that I had passed the Nigerian High Commission. I didn’t immediately go in but instead decided to call and make inquiries about the ethnic origin of the name Oniyemofe. After being passed to several people, I eventually spoke with a Cultural Attaché who informed me that the name was of Yoruba origin. But he also told me that the name sounded familiar and that I should come to the High Commission to discuss this further. I went to the High Commission and met with the Cultural Attaché who introduced me to another High Commission Staff Member , Mrs. Abiola Agoro, who said that she had known my uncle. She told me that he and his family had moved to Britain and that he now worked for the Nigerian High Commission in London. She said that she would make inquiries and try to relay a message to him that I was looking for my father. She asked for my contact information so that she could get in touch with me if she had any news. She also told me that “My father was all over my face.” I wasn’t sure what this meant but I guess she was simply making the observation that many other Nigerians have made subsequently that I have very strong West African facial features despite being of mixed race.
Mrs. Agoro kept to her word and a few months later she called me at home to relay the disappointing news that my uncle had passed away and that no one could get in touch with his widow or children. I thanked Mrs. Agoro and left that the search was at an end. At least I now knew I was of Yoruba descent, which was great news as the Yoruba have a rich history and religious traditions both in West African and the diaspora in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.
When I discovered Google, I decided to search the name Oniyemofe just for fun. I came upon the name Agnes Oniyemofe who lived in Britain. I wondered if this could be a relation of my uncle who had worked for the Nigerian High Commission in Britain. I called the operator in the UK and asked to look up the name Agnes Oniyemofe but I was told that no phone numbers were registered under that name. Another dead-end.
While I was a University Student at Carleton, I ran into a Nigerian who said that he would help me find my father. He said he had worked with a man who had spent a lot of time in Ottawa around the same time as my father and might have known him. I kept in touch with this man for a few years, but after I converted to Islam tensions arose as he wanted me to become a Christian and seemed to be romantically interested in me. I subsequently cut off all contact with him.
In early 2003, I received a phone call from Mrs. Agoro, who I had kept in touch which in an effort to learn more about the Nigerian community in Ottawa. He told me that she had a guest staying with her named Labi who knew my father and that I should come over and meet him. It ended up that this man was the same man who the Nigerian man I had met at Carleton University had worked with. Labi told me that he had last seen my father ten years ago in Lagos. He had been working as a security guard at a bank there. Labi, who worked as a petroleum engineer, was planning to go back to Nigeria soon and promised to make inquiries about my father. He took my contact information, including my e-mail, and a photograph of me.
Later that year, while I was going through a very troubling time personally, I received an e-mail from Labi while he was in Lagos. He told me that he had went to the bank where he had seen my father 10 years earlier and had learned that my father no longer worked there. Another dead-end. Or so it seemed. A few days later, Labi e-mailed me to tell me that someone who worked at the bank often ran into my father in the city and would try to contact him. A few days after this, I received an e-mail from Labi saying that he had found my father and was planning to meet him.
The next day, I received my first e-mail from my father:
Dear Daughter, this is the first time i’m calling someone my Daughter.I’m an Ijaw man one of the most powerful tribes in ngeria and oil producing area .in Ijaw language your name is Tamara–Emi which means there is God and really there is God.it is only God that has made it possible for us to meet again in this world. I want you to come to nigeria very soon to know your origin ‘cos you have an interesting origin.
Like father like daughter.i speak up to fourteen languages . ijaw, english, french, german, italian, spanish, yoruba, hausa, igbo, urobo, benin, calabar, idoma and arabic. i’m a security guard earning a very small salary.
I had found my father.
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