For Mama Williams, It’s 100 Years Of Amazing Grace

Mama Williams during the interview

Mama Williams during the interview

Mama Williams with her family      PHOTOS: SUNDAY AKINLOLU

Mama Williams with her family PHOTOS: SUNDAY AKINLOLU

TODAY Saturday June 20, 2015, Mrs. Eunice Ibilola Asabi Williams (JP), popularly known as Mama Palm Church, clocks 100 years of existence on this earth.

In this clime where the average lifespan is currently put at 53 years, Mama Palm Church has definitely doubled that figure. Her family is celebrating the event they have tagged “Celebration Of Amazing Grace” with a Holy Communion service.

She got that name, “Mama Palm Church” on account of her popularity and stay at 60, Palm Church Street, which is behind the Lagos Central Mosque on Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, Lagos Island. It was here she lived right from the time she got married in 1936 to her husband, the late Mr. Victor Akintunde Williams, an engineer who attended the CMS Grammar School and St. Gregory’s College, and was at one time organist at Williams Memorial Methodist Church, Ago-Ijaye, Ebute-Metta, Lagos. He died in 1983.

Mama Williams with some of her grandchildren

Mama Williams with some of her grandchildren

Her family has already been in a celebratory mood days before this day that marks the centenary year. Right on the door leading into her residence, and on the walls of her living room hung “Happy Birthday” decorations and her numerous photographs and those of people related to her. Customised T-shirts, banner and various souvenirs meant for the event were visible in the place.

From different parts of the city of Lagos, her children, grandchildren, great grand children and great-great grandchildren converged in her current home in the Iju-Ishaga area of Lagos as they fine-tuned arrangements for the celebration, and share the moments with her as she related her story with The Guardian.

Soon after stepping in, this reporter and a photographer were ushered in to see her. She was sitting on her bed in her neatly furnished bedroom and soon after, a meal of yam was brought for her, ostensibly to show her in action eating.

She nibbled at the pieces of yam one after the other, as some of her family members gathered around her bed, excitement written all over their faces, posing for photographs with her. That done, she was dressed up, and soon emerged from the bedroom dressed in an aqua-coloured gown with gele to match, and a pair of sneakers, as she walked into the living room with a stainless steel walker.

Mama Palm Church 3 CopyAs Mama approached the door connecting the living room, and made her way to a settee, one of her children raised the hymn, “To God be the glory, Great things He hath done.” Instantaneously, she picked up the song and coasted to the first, second and third stanzas. When she finished, she switched to “Sometimes a light surprises, the Christian while he sings,” and her entire family present sang along with her.

Done with that hymn, the reporter wondered aloud how she could still sing stanzas of some hymns by heart effortlessly. She cut in saying, “Which one can I not sing?” sending everybody in the room into laughter. One thing was clear as she sang; her sonorous voice, even at this age, was felt in the large living room. It was clearly an indication of her singing prowess, which everyone who knows was quick to point to later.

Asked how she feels reaching the milestone age of 100, her voice rang out in a short laughter, and then came the reply in a measured tone: ”I thank God. I thank God for everything He has done for me, Ibilola Williams; for every step I have taken in life. I have been celebrating my birthday every year and this is a century of my life.” She burst into another hymn; her favourite, “Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,” this time the Yoruba version.

She added: “I thank God that all my children are alive. I pray God to give my children, grandchildren, great grand children and great great-grandchildren long life, and prosper them.”

The story of her life began with her birth in Lagos in 1915 to her father, Otolorin Akinyemi of Iresa, Oyo State and mother, Adetutu (nee Akinhami) of Abeokuta who were living in Ebute-Metta, Lagos. She was raised here and attended Ago-Ijaye Methodist School, Ebute-Metta, and later Mrs. Gibson Private School. Thereafter, she attempted nursing education but withdrew for the simple reason that she could not withstand the sight of blood. She then settled for sewing, hat making, combining them with catering.

She got married at Williams Memorial Methodist Church Ago-Ijaye, Ebute-Metta to her husband, also a member of the church. Together they bore eight children – three males and five females, all living. From these progenitors, the number has grown to include 26 grand children, 35 great grandchildren and three great-great grand children spread across the country and abroad.

During her heydays, the children recalled, Mama Palm Church was a good wife and mother who worked closely with the husband to raise educated, morally upright and Christian children. She owned a shop where she sold her wares. She loves singing hymns, and such times are her favourite moments. A deeply religious person and a disciplinarian, she ensured that her offspring did not derail from the path set out for them to follow.

In the community, she showed concern for the wellbeing of members. For example, after World War 11, there were great economic strains, which manifested particularly in the decline in real wages and drop in living standards. Mrs. Williams mobilised women in the area, among them her husband’s sister, Mrs. Oyindamola Kasunmu (Mrs. Bunmi Emeka Anyaoku’s mother) to make their concern known. They went to the government of the day and demanded that something should be done to reverse the trend and ensure that families do not suffer.

Her first son and fourth child, Mr. Olusegun Williams, a retired member of staff of Nigerian Railway Corporation, eulogised her sterling motherly qualities of love and care. She taught them the importance of healthy relationship with siblings, relatives and people in the larger society.

Another son, Mr. Akinpelu Williams, a retired staff of the now moribund Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL recollected thus: “When we were young, she would follow us to school to know the school well and hand us over to a teacher to take care of us. I remember when I was in the boarding house in secondary school in Oyo State, she would come around on visiting day and she would move into the houses around the school, gather the women, tell them not to remain idle but find some little ways of empowering themselves economically. She would begin to teach them skills such as baking and frying pastries. That action never ceased to amaze me as a young boy. I learnt a lot from my parents as a couple. They enjoyed a healthy relationship.”

Mrs. Sumbo Howells, one of her daughters, recalled that the children lived a closely monitored life in that area of Lagos Island. The house, which was known for its outstanding architectural features, had a bell at the entrance such that at any attempt to enter the place, the bell would go off in a peal, indicating that somebody was about to enter the place and would be screened. There was an organ in the living room and she loved singing hymns, and coupled with the regulated life they lived, the neighbourhood christened the house, ‘Christian Home.’

Another of her daughters, retired Director, Education District 6, Oshodi/Isolo, Mrs. Abiodun Omotoyo added that Mama was full of vigour and spared no effort in contributing to the upkeep of her family. She sewed the children’s clothes, made hats for them, treated them to delicious meals, and assortment of tasty baked food and fries.

It was not only her immediate family that benefitted from her goodness and industry; she also extended her large heart to members of the extended family and neighbours around Palm Church Street and for which she was known.

“Mama taught us independence, generosity. She shows interest in people and pays attention to details. She is a very neat and meticulous person. She is still wearing her wedding ring till today. She always dresses to match and her favourite colour is brown.

“She is a giver; she was always ready to give her food, clothes and jewelry to people. Any time you visit her, when you are leaving, she would give you something. On one occasion when she did not have something to give a visitor, she gave the person a newspaper. That is the kind of woman she is. People took advantage of her benevolent spirit and would borrow jewelry and never returned them,” Omotoyo said.

Apart from Mama’s love for singing, she was equally devoted in attending services and evangelism. It was not surprising that later in life , she became matron of their church choir, held several posts in the church and belongs to the Hope Society.

That she remained strong and zealous in her devotion to Christian service and her church was manifested in her tireless trips all the way from Iju-Ishaga to Williams Memorial Methodist Church Ago-Ijaye, Ebute-Metta for services, even in advanced age.

It was not until 2008 that she stopped going to church. This was after she was involved in an accident; she had a fall. What happened that fateful day was that she was going for the wake keep of her best friend, Mrs. Bernadine Mendes-Baiyewu when she slipped and fell down. She had to undergo an operation. In 2009, she had another fall in the house and broke a wrist and hip, and had to be operated again.

The family disclosed further that before the accident, Mama Palm Church has always lived a healthy life. “She eats everything. She eats carrots, chicken, apple … everything. In fact, she likes fried foods – fish, chicken, and sweet things. You can see her here now eating pancake, cake, and chocolate. She is not diabetic or hypertensive. Though she complained about arthritis, it never pinned her down.”

She has travelled extensively within the country to many places visiting her children and relatives including Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna and Obosi. Outside the country she visited the United Kingdom and Jerusalem.

Mrs. Banke Oloko, ex-banker, is her grand daughter from Mrs. Victoria Karunwi. She described her as the “best grandmother. She is epitome of womanhood in all respects. She helped in building the foundation for everyone of us – moral, family and Christian values. She was very loving. She used to plait my hair and she taught me her signature Roman cake.”

Mrs. Gbemisola Ogunmefun said about her: “Mama loves singing and I took after her; I love singing too. I can sing all the stanzas of a hymn without looking at the hymnal. She is fun to be with. She calls me Iya alakara (because I used to be tiny when I was young and I talked a lot.) She’s a very loving grandmother.”

Mrs. Ayo Awosika, another grandchild said about her: “I had my primary and secondary education while living with her and her husband on the Island. She is a good cook; she spoilt me. She is very accommodating and a giver. It was a predominantly Muslim community but she would buy beverages to give to Muslims during Ramadan. I learnt the act of giving from her.”

Chief Adekunle Kasunmu, Mama’s nephew, noted that she is very accommodating, an attribute that endeared her to members of the extended family. “I live in the same Iju-Ishaga area with her and when I visit her, she’s always alert.”

Another nephew, Mr. Ope Abayomi flew in from Chicago, United States of America, to join in the celebration. He painted her as a “fascinating woman. She sings a lot. She takes care of everyone in the family. We love her. I wish her good health and longer life.”

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