In life, one occasionally learns or hears of the death of someone he knows or has met which, depending on the circumstance, leaves one sad, despondent or indifferent. Although there’s the sense of loss and pain one often feels in the immediate or long term depending on the person involved, there are times the tragedy keeps recurring in one’s mind.
It’s been so with me since learning, a fortnight ago, of the passing of Gracious Akujobi, the Super Falcons media officer. Yet she was someone I hardly knew.
I met Gracious for the first time on June 9 in Winnipeg, Canada, during the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup. Prior to the tournament, I had known her only by reputation based on her work as Super Falcons media officer. On June 9, a day after the Super Falcons first match against Sweden at the Winnipeg Stadium, I, in company of a Swedish photojournalist, Jan Fleischmann, visited the Hilton Hotel where the Nigerian team was lodged, with the hope of interviewing some Falcons players.
As we arrived the lobby, I met a Nigerian official who told me that the team was on its way to training. I then inquired about the Falcon’s media officer from the reception and a call was put through to her room. She was on her way to training with the team and I was told to wait for her. In no time, she came down. To put it formally, I told her I wanted to meet “Blessing Akujobi, the Falcons media officer,” while explaining myself as a Nigerian journalist. She replied that her name is “not Blessing” but Gracious.
I immediately apologised for the slip and made my intention known. She acceded to my request but explained that the team was on its way to training and that it would last two hours. I had the option of waiting or returning later. I opted to wait and she left to board the bus.
About 30 or so minutes later, while Jan and I waited at the lobby, a man, probably a FIFA staff or security official, came and demanded to know our mission and after I revealed same, he informed us that journalists were not allowed within the hotel. He wanted us to leave but I explained to him that I had already met the Nigerian media officer and had another appointment with her, which was why we were at the lobby. He stood his ground and insisted that he was acting under instruction.
Disappointed, Jan and I decided to leave but not after I had written a short letter explaining my interaction with the man, to Gracious which I handed to the woman at the reception to deliver to her. I thought that was the end of the matter only for me to reach Backpackers Guest House where I lodged, and, checking my mail box, found a letter from Segolene Valentin of the FIFA media department saying: “We got the information that you were doing interviews in the lobby of the hotel which is clearly not accepted during this tournament. The training sites are equipped with all facilities to do interviews. I would therefore ask you to do them accordingly.”
I replied that no interviews were conducted by me, that I was not aware of any rule prohibiting journalists from interviewing team members at the hotel, and that I left the Hilton Hotel after being asked to do so.
Just as Valentin had done, I also copied Gracious my reply to him. Needless to say that that encounter with the man at Hilton Hotel scuttled my plans to interview some Nigerian players, as the press centre at Winnipeg which Valentin talked about, normally had just coach Edwin Okon and one of the Falcons who may not be my interview choice at that time in attendance and was open to journalists covering the competition rather than the one on one interview I desired.
It was however at Winnipeg Stadium that I met Gracious for the second and last time but I didn’t bring up the issue of interview again. I was hoping I would get another chance if the Super Falcons qualified from their group stage which never happened, as the team crashed out after losing 0-1 to USA in its last group match.
Incidentally, a day before she died, and now back in Nigeria, I narrated my experience with her to one of my editors and he urged me to contact her again to get the interview. Unknown to me, Gracious was about exiting the world. After the 0-1 loss to the US in Vancouver, the Super Falcons returned to Nigeria to prepare for an Olympic qualifier against Equatorial Guinea. While in the team’s hotel camp in Abuja, Gracious was reported to have taken ill and died as she was being conveyed to the hospital on July 16. A statement by the Nigeria Football Federation described her as “an energetic, hard–working officer” whose “commitment to the job was never in doubt.”
In his lifetime, Dele Giwa, the first editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine, wrote variously on many subjects including death. One of the articles Giwa wrote was about Dupe Ajose, a chief accountant of the Concord Press where Giwa also worked. In the article bemoaning Dupe’s death, Giwa pointed out that Dupe was only 33 years and that “she was too young and, in every sense of the word, too innocent to die like that.” It is the same for Gracious who died at 37.
Her passing is unlike that of Chukwuma Azikiwe, first son of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, who died three months ago at the age of 75. A quiet, unassuming but firm man, Chukwuma was someone I met in the course of my work as a journalist and was later proud to acknowledge as a friend in spite of the age difference between us. The last time I visited him in his Onitsha home last November, he told me he wasn’t feeling well. In spite of the loss that many of his family members and friends feel at his passing, there is the feeling of a life well spent or fulfilled.
Not so for Gracious, who at 37, had a long future ahead of her. Thinking about her, I recalled an article written some years ago by a man lamenting the death of someone he knew. The article was titled, “Why Do They Die Young?’ Gracious died young, which makes her passing even more painful. No doubt, she would have wished, like me, to see the Super Falcons win the World Cup in Canada. That didn’t happen but there’s always the feeling in sport that tomorrow’s another day.
The Super Falcons may have failed to excel in Canada but they could get another opportunity next time to improve on their performance and possibly win the cup. Sadly, Gracious won’t be part of the team, not even as an enthusiastic Nigerian supporter or journalist from the sideline.
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