By Omokugbo Ojeifo
I had just finished reading the short interview PUNCH newspaper had with the father of Tolulope, Nigeria’s first female combat pilot. I could feel in the man’s words the depth of his heartbreak but also his deep gratitude to God that his beautiful daughter was able to achieve her life’s dream of becoming an airforce pilot at age 22 before her death at 25.
I dropped the phone, laid back in bed and whispered to myself, “We will all die one day, a day we do not know.” As those words filtered through, my mind went back to the book we had for stations of the cross in the seminary, where at the twelfth station, we made this deep commitment to Jesus on the cross: “I accept, here and now, the time and kind of death in store for me. You suffered to be my redeemer. I will suffer to be a co-redeemer of my fellow men.”
This, to me, is the larger symbolism of Tolulope’s life – a ray of hope for young Nigerian girls cut short in her prime. On AIT last night, I watched an interview where Tolulope’s sister narrated how she would go to the Air Force Secondary School to encourage young girls to not give up on their dreams but nurse big dreams, knowing that the can achieve whatever they set their minds to do.
This was Tolulope’s way of expressing redemption – freedom from all the obstacles that often hinder us from responding to God’s plan for us. Her life was a good testament of this redemption, haven broken the glass ceiling at 22, with a BSc in Mathematics and commissioning as Nigeria’s first female combat pilot at 24. She was the powerful symbol of the grit, tenacity, foresight, determination, perseverance, and hard work that she spoke about – the basic ingredients of every human accomplishment.
Within a short time, she had brought her life to its zenith. I look back and I ask myself, what did I do with my life at 22? 25? And now that I’m 35? How am I using the opportunities that God has given me? Again, this reminds me of the chilling yet profound statement of truth that I read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It says: “Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our morality helps us realise that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfilment” (CCC 1007). The subtext of this paragraph quotes Ecclesiastes 12:1 which says: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.”
Life is a serious business. We will pass through this road only once. We therefore should strive to make every number of our days count as we count the number of our days. God has put us here to know him, love him, and serve him in this world, so as to be happy with him forever in the next. I can rightly guess that Tolulope clearly understood this within the short time that she lived here below. She had a solid upbringing.
In the PUNCH interview, her father mentioned how he had to travel from Abuja to Lokoja to inform his wife about their daughter’s death. He said the mother was not at home at the time he arrived; she had gone to the mountain to pray and later returned at about 8:30pm. This tells us so much about the sort of family through whom God chose to bring this brilliant soul in our world. A family that prays!
“I spoke with Tolulope at 1pm and at 5pm, I was told she was in the mortuary.” These are the words of Tolulope’s father. What does that say to us? The very same thing that the coronavirus pandemic has been trying to say to us: life in this world is radically contingent contingent. We are here today and tomorrow we are gone. In a flash of light or the twinkling of an eye, everything can grind to a halt. Like the psalms say, we are like a puff of wind, like grass which springs up in the morning but by evening it withers and fades. All our days pass quickly, our life is like a sigh. This is why the psalmist prays to God: “Male ya know the shortness of our lives, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 90:12).
In an exclusive interview with a reporter of THISDAY on October 15, 2019, after she was winged at NAF headquarters in Abuja, Tolulope said: “Throughout my training I have always looked towards flying. The major thing I have come to realise in my field is that there is just no break in my career, you just have to keep pushing and doing your best.” She further said: “My advice to younger ones out there is that they should keep doing their best, they should keep running the race until they finish and they should not set limit for themselves because the only limit they have is the one they set for themselves.”
Tolulope lives on in all the young girls who have been inspired by the example of her brief but eventful life to dream big dreams and set their sails with the rise of the morning star
Omokugbo Ojeifo Works at Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria