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“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”― Carl Gustav Jung
In the beginning
For several weeks everything I had done was centred and geared towards this very moment. This one special instant and right before my very eyes, the cloud turned and the heavens opened up with torrents of unapologetic downpour. And with it, my heart sank to its lowest ebb.
There was no way I could have planned every detail meticulously and yet cover the bit that I had apportioned to God to handle.
The night before, when I wrapped myself up in my warm and cozy bed, I had absolutely no idea what was lurking behind the dawn. The rain had threatened the whole night and finally unveiled itself in its full majestic splendor as soon as the first streak of sunlight escaped through the clouds at sunrise.
The year was 2005 and I just woke up in a small riverine village in Esighi, Cross River state.
I was hosting the Inter-School Competition for all the schools within the Akpabio Local Government Area, a pet project I had taken great lengths to organize. I had less than 3 months to complete the compulsory National Youth Service Corps(NYSC) and this event was my shot at stardom for defying the odds and testing my resolve in this new experience.
The new Experience
Months earlier when I was posted to the Esighi Secondary School on the outskirts of Calabar for my primary assignment, I was intrigued by the idea and possibility of living in a completely different place with strange people for about a year.
Everyone who cared to listen advised that I apply for a repost- at least somewhere within the calabar city centre. I was presumed to be too urban to live in the farthest and darkest end of calabar where all kinds of danger was reportedly lurking.
I grew up in Lagos, lived all my life within the city centre and enjoyed the urban side of life. How am I expected to survive a whole year in the village. This I was about to find out.
To be honest, I harbored some trepidation borne out of the fear of the unknown, but the desire to travel far away from everywhere else to discover myself and what I could possibly do was far too alluring to pass on. I must have also been drawn to that blank canvas that going to a new place will offer me.
I recollect the trip into Esighi, I wasn’t prepared for the long ride and I had never been to a real village. I had no idea how villages looked like in the South Eastern part of the country and aside the vivid descriptions in textbooks, my expectations were very low.
To put a little bit of context, my hometown certainly wasn’t a village and I was shocked at the naked truth staring me in the face as I started the journey into Esighi.
It took the bike I boarded at the Esighi Junction, off the well-tarred express road 25mins through winding dusty dirt roads, narrow amateur bridges, water puddles and bumpy farmlands to arrive at the only government presence in Esighi- the Esighi Secondary School.
I watched with expectation as the bike sped through the cluster of villages looking for tiniest hope of modern civilization, but I was thoroughly disappointed. There was no supermarket building, no bus stops, no round-abouts, not even another vehicle and certainly no fancy restaurants.
The houses were mostly built of mud blocks, plastered and sometimes with faded paints lending it some semblance of modernity. But that was where the buck ended. The roof of most of the houses were corrugated and rusty, very few houses had external antennas. I shook my head in utter disbelief, what was I thinking coming here! No Television!!
When the bike stopped at the entrance to the school – which had no need for gates by the way, I was welcomed by the extreme quiet. This can only happen when there is a curfew in Lagos! I thought.
It was so serene and peaceful, I imagined that with the sound of the motor bike from a distance perhaps everyone scampered indoors to peek from behind a window to get a good look at the new arrival and obvious mismatch.
I paid the motorbike rider off and sauntered away from the school that was my original destination. It felt like I was walking away from reality. As though the decision to be in Esighi hadn’t been made eons ago.
I then wondered if it wasn’t a bad idea letting the motorbike go already. I arrived with just two bags heaped between the handlebars of the motorbike and now balancing my weight on either arm as I walked to a shop right opposite the school.
I would then buy a bottle of water or something, assess the situation and then take a decision. Whether to stay or return to the NYSC headquarters for a re-post. At this point my thoughts was everywhere.
Then a voice sounding so familiar and friendly appeared to be saying hello. When I turned, it was the welcoming sight of another serving corper but one who had stayed for many months and the village was already his home.
What a relief! It turned out he is from the south of Nigeria and had an almost exaggerated energetic and exciting personality.He made the decision easy!
If he indeed stayed up here for months, then I shouldn’t have any problem staying.
How did he convince me? First off, he was looking really fresh, calm and relaxed. He looked like someone who was totally content with life and enjoying the bliss of the country side. There was a Corpers’ lodge big enough for 8 corps members to stay and it was within the school property.
Electricity only just got to Esighi earlier in the year and it was still at the testing stage and was as constant as the rising sun. The voltage was often low he added. There was no pipe borne water and the only source of water was a flowing stream 15mins walking distance from the school. I liked the idea of bathing in a stream. I had seen that in documentaries. That shouldn’t be so hard.
My new friend, Abdul laid in seige at that small village shop for just one purpose: to convince any corp members posted to Esighi to stay the whole year. He left everything else and put in a good shift to convince 4 other corp members who came in after I arrived moments later. Two of these corps members were ladies.
Abdul and Sunny were the only two corps members prior to our arrival and they were a good bunch I dare say. As happy as a lark and with incredible enthusiasm.
They earned the Governor’s award at the end of the service year for initiating a post-communal crisis football competition at the village after they had fought for several months and decimated the peace and serenity of Esighi.
In actual fact, the peace and serenity I observed on my arrival at the village was that of a post-war crisis. Peace only thriving after bloodshed and loss.
The Ray of hope
When I walked down the water-soaked beaten paths towards the village centre to catch a motorcycle to the inter-school competition holding that morning, I wondered if the rain would ever stop. The motorcycles wouldn’t even come to the village centre with the rains pouring with reckless abandon. I was clad in the corps uniform complete with the green boots with rubber sole holding on tightly to a small umbrella as the wind bellowed through the drizzle.
I felt unhappy and the rain felt like a bad omen. I was praying for a sign. Any sign. Something to assure me that the event will go on just fine. And then I remember vividly the moment I am about to describe.
I saw a little girl dressed up in her school uniform, she couldn’t be over 4years old. She was walking ahead of me in easy strides. She looked so innocent and oblivious of my worries. It appears she even welcomed the rains. She walked on, carefully avoiding sunken areas of the now muddy footpath and even singing quietly to herself.
I beckoned to her to join my umbrella and she obliged stretching her left hand allowing me hold her gingerly. Then she looked up to see my face as though to assure me everything would work just fine. I looked into her innocent eyes. That moment felt very celestial, her eyes were bright and her face devoid of any negative emotions.She even wore the faintest smile. That moment my worries, concerns and anxiety about the rain and the scheduled event seem to melt away right there in her face. The calmness was therapeutic and infectious. It felt as though she was sent to reassure me that the rain was for my good.
When she got to her school field, she waved a thank you and made a dash into the school field ahead. I walked on. The rain stopped! Amazing! The bike arrived too! Now what just happened?
The Pet Project
2 months earlier, I had conceived the idea of an inter-school competition within the Akpabio Local Government Area. I thought it was a brilliant idea that would allow the schools to aspire to compete with each other and foster closer relationships with their neighbouring villages. Now Akpabio is a really huge Local government area. Esighi was just one of the village clusters in Akpabio. There are probably over thirty of such clusters within the local government with each having just one primary school or/and a government secondary school.
I remember pitching the idea of the inter-school competition with the 5 corpers at the lodge (at this time, Abdul had completed his service year). I had called for a meeting one weekend while we waited for lunch and spoke passionately about the event and how it could easily earn us all an award with NYSC. Spurred by the aroma of the beans on our kerosene stove, I tried to pique the interest of 2 men and 2 ladies.
They all turned down the chance to work with me on the pet project except one person- Prince.
Prince is your typical Enugu-bred Igbo guy, fair in complexion, imposingly tall, with a strikingly handsome bearded face and a square jaw set with a good dentition. Yes I notice the details…lol. His mum was a school principal and he had a privileged upbringing.
Prince offered to join me on the project with a caveat – he would only provide some financial assistance and wouldn’t be doing the leg work. Fair enough, I thought.
At that point I was wondering if he chose to join out of pity or just to hedge his risk should in case it turns out well.
So work started in earnest. I designed letterhead papers with a unique logo and I sent a formal letter to NYSC informing them of the proposed event and seeking their acknowledgement. They responded in the affirmative.
I wrote to the zonal coordination, the Zonal Inspectors (ZI), the local government chairman, the NTA Calabar and numerous schools within the Akpabio Local government.
I delivered all the letters by hand. Made countless trips out of Esighi to Calabar- a 2hour return journey. How I kept at this still remains a mystery to me. It felt like I had boundless energy. I was driven by the innate desire to get results and outstanding results too.
Funds for the numerous trips and the event was contributed by myself and Prince from our monthly allowance from the Governement- 7,500 only! There was nothing else that mattered until the event was successfully completed.
Somewhere along the line Prince joined in my letter delivery service. He saw the drive and energy to get the event done and he asked to join in the legwork.
We would both ride a motorcycle into the villages to hand letters to the school principals. Sometimes we would meet with the other teachers and intimated them of the competition and how to prepare the students. We would tell them areas to focus on for the mathematics competition, the school drama, debate competition and the cultural dance. It was so much effort and it was indeed pleasing to see how enthusiastic the schools got about the event. This also spurred us on.
When defiance redeems us
At my place of primary assignment, I was fast becoming a prophet not appreciated at home. I had run-ins with the school Principal and she blatantly refused to sign-off on my monthly payments for acting in defiance to her instructions.
The Principal, a masters degree holder and a well-bred lady of means held sway at this local village government school. She was fairly new and keen on asserting herself. She was also married to an Engineer. Proudly so, so much that she took objection to my adding the Prefix “Engr” to my name whenever I signed off the school register every morning.
She claimed that it took her husband almost a decade before he could add the prefix to his name officially and it was unacceptable that I would use “Engr” in the school register without first earning the stripes from COREN (Council for Registered Engineers in Nigeria).
I was particularly miffed by the way she passed the message across, stating categorically that I should remove the Prefix from all the previous sign-in from months before.
Preposterous! The rebel in me was suddenly awaken with so much gusto and at my next attendance sign-in I emblazoned my name boldly with the prefix in capital letters..lol
The lady was so livid when she noticed this, that she initially struck off my name from the register in disapproval wherever the prefix preceded my name.
I thoroughly enjoyed making her feel so upset and miserable. Years later I tried to justify my defiance by joining this elite group of engineers (COREN) within 5years of Passing out. Sadly, I couldn’t show my certificate to her!
So, my relationship with the principal was strained for many months, but not with my students. I took particular interest in one of them. His name is Mattew Ene. Today, I believe more than anything else that my decision to stay at this village for my entire service year was so that I could add value to Mattew’s Life.
Mattew Ene’s Story
Mattew’s father was the PTA chairman for the government secondary school and he was a farmer like most parents in this agricultural settlement. He sold palm kernel and was far more successful than the average farmer within the settlement.
Mattew was one in over 8 children that he was sponsoring to the secondary school level at the least. Yet in the long line of children deserving higher education, Mattew was not considered for further academic exploits beyond the SSCE level.
Fortunately, Mattew was one of the most outstanding students in the senior class. He stood tall far and above his colleagues. His grades though not so great, held great promise. He was also the school prefect and the leader of the bunch. He was quite firm and disciplined- two key values I thought was good for him to have at that age.
Remarkably, he was also very athletic and impressionable. It was therefore easy to take an interest in him. I spent an awful lot of time with Mattew after school practicing mathematical sums every other day. He was going to play a crucial role in the inter-school competition as the representative of the Government Secondary School Esighi, in the mathematics competition.
Mattew was excited about the prospect of testing his mettle with other scholars within the local government and he was determined to beat the odds. Hence, he put in long hours, revising and solving as many sums as he possibly could.
As the day to the event inched closer, I reached out to successful farmers and parents within the community to attend the event and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
When I touched base with Mattew’s father at his compound he expressed satisfaction with the idea of the competition and committed to attending the event as a Guest of Honor.
When I mentioned that Mattew was going to represent the school at the event, he went into a deeply thoughtful mood. When he raised his head, he asked one question that put Mattew’s future completely in my hands;
“Corper, in your candid opinion, do you think my son is really that good enough to compete at this level? This is because I do not intend for him to go beyond the secondary school education as I have a few of his older siblings I intend to train”
I didn’t hesitate to convince him that Mattew was the future and that he had the right qualities to excel in whatever endeavour he sets his mind to. Only time would prove this statement.
He looked at me quizzically searching through every cell of my face for answers. To convince him further I asked him to look out for him during the inter-school competition.
He conceded. Sighed and said a short prayer for me.
The Big Day
When the rain stopped, I boarded the first motorcycle that came off the village centre and headed for the venue of the inter-school competition which was at the Local Government Event Centre. I had managed to leverage some goodwill to get the hall for the event for practically next to nothing.
I had also made the Head of the Local Government at Akpabuyo, the Chairman of the event and it was also going to be a platform to project his political ambition. This was the trade off for the hall.
The event was a huge success. It was well attended by virtually all the invited schools. The number of guests from the state and zonal NYSC, the NTA TV crew, the local politicians and other dignitaries was a sight to behold. The venue literally turned into a festival. The red and green ribbons and draperies fused in the decoration of the hall added an elegant lustre to the venue.
At the mathematics competition, Mattew made my effort count. He answered questions thrown at him with the finesse of a scholar. He scrambled for bonus points and won the admiration of the entire audience. It was a proud moment for Mattew and in particular his dad, who was a new convert, won over by his son’s exemplary performance. He wore his pride like a chain of ornament letting everyone who cared to listen know that Mattew was his beloved son. That was a moment in history when Mattew’s life changed.
That event earned myself and Prince the coveted award of recognition by NYSC and other exciting accolades on the Passing Out Parade day. It was a real special moment on the day where efforts that yielded outstanding success and made good social impact was rewarded in kind. One moment I will not forget in a hurry!
Mattew’s father kept his promise. And many years after this event, Mattew graduated with honors in Civil Engineering from the Cross River University of Technology. A choice of study I believe was inspired by me and he is in full employment working in Calabar.
We get in touch every now and then and nothing gratifies me than seeing that a good choice was made and the outcome was far and above my expectation.
Kudos to Mattew Ene.