"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
August 21, 2012
No Stranger to Hunger
by Imo Eshiet

There’s a proverb my mother used to quieten us when starvation stretched, stabbed, twisted and knotted our intestines into misery. “The monkey is no stranger to heights,” she would say to inspire us in our prickly reality.

Our unfostering environment didn’t allow us the luxury of being strangers to hunger, which, after singeing us witless, forced us to voraciously wolf native clay or dust scraped off mud walls. Countless disfavored kids became anemic and died from malnutrition.

We did not know hunger merely as a word in the dictionary. In our maligned universe, we were so chiseled by it that we wondered which was closer to us — our taut skin or the churning and unyielding pangs of hunger. Our misery-scoured neighborhood routinely sounded with the howling of hungry children. Their anguished cries, groans and moans reverberated desolately like tolling bells. The memories cruelly stalk my peace even now. This ingrained nervousness is the psychological residue of a grinding insecurity.

Being the son of an automobile mechanic father and a manual laborer mother was tough luck. Mechanics were always grimy and greasy because without jacks, they crawled under the vehicles to fix them. Thus father always returned home dirt-smirched and grease-soiled.

Since the mad roamed our streets eating from and sleeping on trash dumps, they, like mechanics, were covered in dirt. In appearance these two looked so alike that mischievous folks said they had difficulty telling them apart. Father ignored the vexing social taunts and focused on his trade.

His meager earnings fed and supported us through school. From his job, we got cosmetics of sorts. Sometimes he brought home engine oil and brake fluid and mixed these for use as body cream. The lubricant protected us from the mercilessly harsh harmattan (a seasonal hot, dry wind from the Sahara.)

I have no clue of the mixture’s properties, but it was effective against skin infections such as eczema and rashes. I can’t say if the improvised cream had any harmful effects on our bodies, though it made us stink to the point that we were targets for derision and sneers by those who pretended be less indigent.

Life in our disturbed environment was angst-ridden and humiliating, so minor irritations quickly incited major and minor skirmishes between us and those around us. But we had more pressing issues to worry about than how we smelled. We couldn’t afford to care that others masked their hardship and transferred their frustration to us by scoffing at us over who we were and the way we lived our lives.

Like us, they were in the seething sewer. If denial was their way of dealing with inverted and gritty humanity, we simply refused to be aggravated. Guilt, shame and fury over their threadbare existence maddened them and naturally turned them on easy targets. It is much easier to take aggression out on powerless people around you than it is to rail against the state.

The dilapidated roof through which we effortlessly saw the stars and cloud formations at night was a trial to us. When it rained, the chilly elements passed through as easily as water through fishing net. In reality there was not much difference between a net and the roof of our hovel.

Driving rainstorms and dire thunder and lightning at night forced us to constantly scamper under our bamboo beds and sleeping mats in a futile attempt to twist some respite out of our cramped and dank hovel. To keep our floors from becoming distressingly waterlogged we deployed pans, pots, basins and buckets to catch the spattering raindrops before they spread and soaked the floors. Hitting these containers, the raindrops rattled with a din that made sleep impossible.

Those drops that splashed on the floor coalesced into meandering puddles that choreographed how gut-wrenching squalor deflates our spirits. Thinking retroactively, I sense the meaning of George Muller’s remark that, “The only way to learn strong faith is to endure great trials.” Our political culture is one such trial, and to stay sane, one requires faith.

It was one of the absurd contradictions and bitter ironies of life that we had to endure such deplorable neglect. The searing affront to our dignity was doubly painful because our misery was unwarranted. This was at a time when a ruthless dictator sitting tight astride our backs saw nothing wrong in declaring to the world that money was not the problem, but how to spend it!

Indeed, money never should have been an issue in the country. Every pore of our polluted land and oil-soaked waterways seemingly gushes with petroleum resources. So in fairness to our supreme leader, money was not our problem, but how to waste it.

So our apathetic leaders whitewashed our implacable poverty but went ballistic squandering on irrelevancies. Money was wasted with the same monstrous abandon as other resources and opportunities. To prove we were not poverty-stricken, they contentedly mounted boisterous, garish jamborees.

We had just emerged from a reeling war with more than two million lives lost. Roads, schools, hospitals, power grids, homes, and prisons had been gutted, leaving behind gory devastation everywhere. We hadn’t even cleared the debris or managed to stitch together our shattered lives when suddenly our gleeful leaders decided to replicate the way that imperial and colonial forces had denigrated our culture and degraded our history centuries back.

To put a party face on the despair of our lives, government swiftly hosted the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. Scantily-dressed and bare-breasted women paraded through the streets, reigniting the lechery and vanity of our lost glory. Contrary voices were viciously choked out.

To keep the hungry quiet, the state cynically muzzled them with gutsy slogans and delirious spectacle of a lost cultural past. It rolled out talking drums and put indolent ancient praise singers and horn-blowers back to work. The government demanded the return of artifacts looted by colonial powers although it could neither curate nor preserve them.

Our leaders cared nothing that millions of citizens were internally displaced and their living conditions simply despicable. The government had something to prove and set about it with hilarious verve and reckless lavishness. Even though we have clear, sparkling tropical springs and fountains, we imported water for the delicate taste of those invited to see our prodigal shame. Meanwhile, dismal sanitation and dysentery made bitter mockery of lives discreetly kept out of view of the invitees.

Without plans for their maintenance after the show, we massively ordered gleaming luxury cars to drive our guests around in grandiose style on our narrow and congested roads. We had to make an impression, and nothing was spared in organizing the spectacle of extravagance.

Speedily we rigged up a national theater that went to seed soon after we had hosted the event. Million-dollar mansions to accommodate the numberless invitees were constructed, although millions like my family slept in infested, roofless rat-traps.

After the circus, the state found it couldn’t outstrip its huge and biting hollowness. Going broke, it begged for foreign loans and aid, which it promptly sank into white elephant sinkholes. Brutal is the pathos when a corrupt government glosses over disfiguring reality, stokes its people’s hunger for change, but continually defers their hope for authentic leadership.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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