By Mitchell Aghatise||
I grew up privileged. Hunger never honoured invitations to our dinner table; my earliest memories follow trends of mother wailing at the top of her lungs just so I was compelled to eat. Food was ever present, such that eating became a chore. Private school education was norm and a life of drivers, maids and holidays abroad was seen as a given. But as I came to later understand- this is not always enviable, as all this was a perfect example of living in plenty, while in the midst of poverty.
From a very young age, I knew there was poverty in Nigeria- it always seemed to be a concept confined to the pages of the Sunday Punch Newspapers I read or when it manifested in traffic; toddlers like me will hustle at the risk of harm to themselves to clean the windscreen just to get some change of 5 naira. Other times, beggars on dangerous highways will make best use of the slowdown in traffic to press their faces upon the car windows- offering prayers of blessings to the occupants in the hope of some money to grab a decent meal.
I never really understood the real plight of poverty until I read Black Boy by Richard Wright. The book was not about Nigeria, neither was it set there, but it vividly described the experience of poverty in a way that broke international law conceptions of country boundaries- for you see the concept of poverty is not unique to a people or a country. Although it awakened the compassion within me, it was when I met a character not from inked pages that I considered the activist within me birthed. I was 16 years old; we had just hired a new driver to take me to school during my o-level exams. At this point in my life, I was more aware of my environment but not yet fully developed to say that I now identified with the struggles of the masses.
I remember the day clearly. I ran downstairs just before 7am and the driver was waiting already. You see, it was essential that we departed as early as possible, in order to avoid the notorious Lagos traffic. As any Lagosian will predict, we ended up trapped in the traffic jam. As I spoke with the driver while the vehicle snailed along; I explained to him the level of hard work that I was putting into my o-level exam preparations and he soaked it in with a sense of pride and expectation for success in my examinations. His next words shattered me. He said “… small oga, read well o! so you go make plenty money and my pikin go dey work for you…”. Now, this is roughly translated from the local lingua to mean, “work very hard so that my children can work for you in the future.” These words shattered me, and from pieces of my shattered self- a new mind-set was formed and the activist within me was discovered.
I was shattered because, the country had taught its children that lack of a silver spoon at birth was an eternal curse to penury and starvation; I was shattered because those who genuinely wished to excel through academic pursuits were sentenced to educational institutions which, rather than merit the name ‘university’ were more concerned with strikes and sub-standard teaching; I was shattered because of Ifeanyi- the motorcycle rider who I had seen smashed by a vehicle on a dark November evening, his mangled body being rushed to an ill-equipped hospital is forever etched into my mind, with more heartache provided by statistics which indicate that Ifeanyi will join the ranks of Nigeria’s jobless, due to disability, not for a play of fate at birth but because of lack of equipment to correct seemingly simple injuries. I weep that in all this, the government has no regard for the masses; with more effort that the elite, of which I daily am ashamed to be a part of are well fed and taken care of.
I find solace that despite a country that is set up to frustrate dreams and aspirations, there are still some who by sheer will and determination defy the odds to live their dreams. Easy, it is not- but like Chimamanda Adichie, I too respect those who excel “…despite the government rather than because of it.” Victor Ekwueme in Immanuel James’ recent novel, ‘Under Bridge,’ encapsulates this virtue well- with a family who had turned its back on him, a country who could not care less about him and a city, Lagos which prides itself on broken dreams of many a sojourner, the protagonist was able to carve a legacy for himself. Reading the book, transcends the reader to images of utopia, I assert that Victor is the exception but not the norm.
My learnings and experience has taught me that, success is not found in wealth or academic accomplishment alone, but success is found in making sure that another lived; that another could eat; that another could dream, safe in the knowledge that with hardwork and drive and with my support, those dreams can come through. Being a citizen of Nigeria, thrusts upon us a responsibility to succeed despite the government but more importantly to ensure that others have the opportunity to succeed as well.
When I die, may my tombstone read “…because of his life- Nigerians dared to dream again…”