I twitched back to feel the cool breeze coming from the surrounding trees of our family compound when the folded hand placed with my elbow on father’s arm chair outside our small compound lost balance, and I had to adjust it again to get more comfortable before drifting back into my thoughts. I had recently exchanged the weight of my chin from my right hand to the left, and the left hand got tired easily to my dismay. I overheard father’s brother who lived on the opposite side of the compound cursing his second son under a breath that felt like his last and I smiled. Theirs was not the model family, but they managed to live happily. Today was not like the rest of the days and I was grateful. Not like the near-depression I felt every other day, today was different. I looked out beyond our bungalow veranda into the sky and realized judging from the stars that had began celebrating their season, the time should have been way past 9. Mother was not back from the market, and father, a coffin maker was not back either. Mother, a fishmonger, always left the house very early and came back very late ensuring she stayed till every prospective buyer in the market had gone so as not to miss any intending customer. Father never came back late. People had stopped dying in our village and the few that did could not afford coffins and rather wrapped their dead bodies with big clothes or mats and buried them unceremoniously , so business was very slow for father. Sitting outside in deep thoughts was a daily occurrence since I got back from university and subsequently,NYSC. It sometimes felt like I never left. I had just returned from a long queue at the petrol/Kerosene station. People purchasing petrol made very little way for the rest of us trying to get kerosene. I literally fought my way into three of those petrol stations before I was finally able to purchase kerosene that will be used to prepare breakfast the next day. I had struggled my way out of the petrol station looking half insane with a ragged looking hair, a torn headscarf and one leg of slippers as the other was gone. Mother never advised us to buy from the people selling outside the station who referred to their goods as “black market”, she said it spoilt the stove engine in no time. On my way home,I had passed by two men who were rejoicing over the the release of some school girls who had been kidnapped some months back. I had joined them in rejoicing in my head as those stories were just one of the many we heard of, some of which we never got to hear the end. Just last week, the wife of a senator from our village had been kidnapped and twenty million naira ransom had been demanded. She was released days after. I guess twenty million naira must have been “chicken change” to the senator, and yet there had been no obvious amenities in our village or even anywhere his senatorial district covered. Banditry was fast becoming a norm and really did not come as a surprise anymore. People’s life ambition had now become striving to be PA to PA’s of these people in power as that was one of only means of survival left. The few that didn’t get those opportunities were into the “agbero”business. The “yes” men as well as praise singers. The application process into this group was simple, just go for campaigns, try to do as much to be noticed as a core supporter, then trail behind the backs of these politicians on their way out shouting “our president” or “our Governor” or “our chairman” depending on what they were campaigning for. The politicians on noticing this might drop few wads of cash to be shared. These “agbero” mainly used these to buy drinks and smokes, popularly referred to as “inhaler”, and when the money got exhausted, they turn to robbery, assassin jobs, every and any form of extortion in an attempt to save up for drinks and “inhaler”. That was where our society had placed our young men. Most of them were frustrated graduates who had tried some things that did not work out due to the economy and were then compelled to find other means of survival, licit or illicit was not contended. One of such persons being our neighbors first son, Aniefiok. His family basically starved to send him to school, withdrawing the rest of his siblings to concentrate on him so he can take care of the siblings after he was done. He finished from the university with a second class upper in civil engineering. After his schooling, all his attempts to get a job was fruitless. He got a bus on hire purchase,but just before he could finish paying for it, he was picked up by some officials of the Road Safety corp for not buying the day’s road ticket. All his explanations had fallen on deaf ears and the vehicle was impounded and packed at the Road safety office asking that he brings forty thousand naira to “bail his vehicle” out. He had tried finding the means to, and father was one of the means, but before he was able to borrow enough, the office had been closed for the day. It was a late Friday so he had to wait till the next working day,Monday, to get his only source of livelihood back. I remember his frustration when he came to relate to father, who was his mentor at the time, his ordeals and also his great anticipation for Monday. He got there on Monday morning with the money to discover the office in a state of pandemonium. There had been a robbery over the weekend at the office and almost all the impounded vehicles and some valuables within the premises had been carted away by unknown gun men. Nobody had really given him as much attention when he inquired about his bus. After some days,he was promised that the government will reimburse all the owners of the stolen vehicles. A promise which till a day like tomorrow had not seen daylight. The company he had collected the bus on hire purchase from did not seem to understand his explanation as they picked him up when he could not pay on his due date. His family was thrown into another round of debt to pay the company. Aniefiok came out of cell after four months, a changed man. The trauma had really worked on his head as he was no more the calculating young man he used to be. He joined the agbero soon enough, and in a blink of an eye, he became the leader of every major hit in town. His intelligence had at least earned him a position in society, though negative. The hits were always traced back to him, and he always found a way out. We never really understood if the reason for his early release was that the police found nothing to investigate him for or it was related to the rumour of his ties with high government officials and his godfather being a senior police officer, who visited his family often. Their deeds comprising rape, looting, even killing in extreme times were notorious in our environ.
The life I imagined while in school and even while serving my nation was miles away from what I was getting. I remembered my best friend Mbiere and I back in university when we planned the numerous impact we were going to create in the society after school. She already was making most of it. Her father was a renowned politician and businessman. He sent her abroad for Masters and Ph.d after her NYSC. Last I heard from her, she was a paid intern for a famous accounting company in a state in the USA while also getting Ph.d. She also was involved in exporting shoes to her sister who sold them here as our people preferred foreign shoes or goods generally to the indigenous goods, especially the brand with popular names. Her sister in return sent her a certain percentage. The last time we spoke was when I reminded her of her promise to ask her dad for a connection to a Fifty thousand Naira paying job in one of her dad’s company, and the line went off abruptly. It was a WhatsApp call, so my first thought was that I was out on data. I immediately punched in the digits on my sim to borrow data to complete the call. I did. I just could not reach her anymore as I tried throughout that day. Later that evening, I realized I could not see her profile picture on the display board nor her “about” profile anymore. I deduced she had blocked my number. I just was not certain. No, not my best friend. Days passed and I kept on trying her on WhatsApp call, hoping for a miracle even while I was certain there was none forthcoming. She updated her status every other day of her school, workplace and places she visited, so after a week of constantly checking and not seeing anything on her anymore, I knew it was certainly over. I cried more than I ever have, not even when my name was replaced on the admission list with someone else’s after the reprint of the school list, and I had to rewrite JAMB and the university examination, did I cry this much.. This was more personal for me, the betrayal from my best friend. I contemplated reaching out to her sister, but I had feared the embarrassment it could bring if her sister did not see reason.
That was father. He initially began calling me mummy to make mother jealous, as she said I stole all of father’s attention from her, soon enough, he got used to it and I sometimes feel he forgot my actual name. He held out the manly confidence in his tone every time he spoke, but at the moment, he did not sound so manly. His voice was feeble, like he could not breath freely. I turned swiftly to see father who had returned from his shop and leaning on the door with his hands folded into each other. The way he stood relaxed made me realize he had been there for a while. I saw his left hand move swiftly as in an attempt to catch something precious from falling to the ground, and when it rested on his left cheek, I realized he was trying to hide the trickles of pain which flowed freely from his cheeks before my gaze met it. The pain he felt from watching me, his only daughter and child in perceived frustration.I was broken. Father was a brave man, but he had never been brave enough to see his only child in pain. Even through childhood, I was the reason for most of the fights he had with mother as they both never really agreed on how best to raise me. Father believed in conversing about the “why” and “why not”when I did something wrong, while mother believed so much in slaps, hard knocks and on some occasions, slippers. I stood up hastily, so fast it could almost be mistaken for a jump, to hold back the impolite tear, to hug him so tight I melt into his huge body,to scream in his ears that our burden did not carry as much weight, and then I realized I had my own tears already dried up on my face while more were forcing their way out. I reached out to father and hugged him tight. With my head resting on his shoulders and my arms tightly wound around him, I said amidst tears“Daddy, I got the fully funded Masters scholarship to U.K” I waited to catch my breath before continuing “All expense paid with accommodation and allowances, with a provisional job offer letter from the company here in Akwa Ibom when I get back”. I added all in one breath. Father hugged me tighter. Another arm held us in tighter and I perceived mother’s market scent. She had returned, and maybe watched from a distance first before coming in. I perceived father’s sweat scent too in that moment.I never liked those scents. Asides being an indication of the sufferings of father and mother, it really was not pleasing to the nose. Today felt different.. I loved those scents. I wanted to perceive more of those scents. So much they sink deep into my insides and subconscious, serving as a reminder of who I am, where I am from and where i am going to. I love Africa,I love Nigeria, I love Akwa Ibom State but it has never given me the satisfaction those scents did. In that satisfying moment, I knew I had overcome. I had survived the turbulence that came with being an African child, where even state obligations felt like a thing for the privileged few, where financial instability was a status quo for the vast majority, where escaping the African society was a pathway to social stability. In a bid to escape poverty, we lose our brains every single day to other nations,who then intelligently engages those and use them to directly or indirectly fight us.
“I have survived”
I heaved into father’s shoulder, with relieve and at the same time disappointment that the only visible extent of surviving in my country was finding a way out, which I just did.