"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
September 4, 2012
Who's Afraid of School? How I Got My First Scholarship.
by Imo Eshiet

There is a saying among my folks that a man who has never traveled outside the confines of his home thinks the horizon begins and ends in his village. Until I journeyed out of my country, I had no idea that one did not need to pass through a vale of tears to get educated.

When I came across Aristotle’s views that learning is a pleasurable activity, I hotly contested it as mere philosophical abstraction and adamantly would have no truck with it no matter what my critical theory professor said to the contrary.

My reality was painfully different. Getting education was an excruciating experience — not for lack of aptitude, but rather because my society was determinedly disenabling. Throwing every obstacle it could muster from environmental, climatic and cultural to economic factors, it did all it could to frustrate and deny access to education to those at its margins. Let me illustrate this bush dry and crabby experience.

In my part of the world it never rains but pours, and the sun never shines but burns. Split almost evenly between torrential rains and scorching sunshine, the weather is a breeding ground for diseases from malaria to typhoid fever. During the rains, the environment teems with mosquitoes that transmit protozoan parasites to the blood of their victims. During the dry season it rages with ticks, gnats and sleeping sickness-causing tsetse flies. One barely had any defense against these pathogen-bearing nuisances.

Since we had no umbrellas but had to go to school when it rained, my mother simply improvised one. She would dash into the rain, knife in hand, slash a broad leaf from the plantain tree, thrust it in my hand, and push me into the rain. Off to school I went, defying the grim odds of hunger, the heavy downpour, lightning and thunderstorms.

Mother knew that opportunities for mobility were very limited without education. For her, school was the antidote both for poverty and for the rankling feeling of being unable to get out of penury in spite of long hours of hard physical labor. The nearest school was five miles away, and I virtually had to wade and swim through the flooded road to get there. I often arrived sodden and bedraggled, the improvised umbrella shredded by the driving storms.

Because my parents’ circumstances were humble, I set off most days without breakfast and returned to a measly dinner, the only meal for the day. Along the way, schoolmates and I foraged and wrestled with birds and squirrels for wild fruits, tubers, nuts and berries to keep the stomach from total revolt.

The vagaries of the weather were not the only difficulty. My parents worked for a struggling corporation. My father was an artisan and mechanic. He fixed and drove trucks and tractors in the oil palm estate while mother, who was in a gang of paid laborers, was a bushwhacker. Her work was arduous and dangerous because boa constrictors and other deadly snakes slithered all over the estate, feeding on rodents.

With eight children and several hangers-on who swarmed in from our extended families, we mostly lived a life of hardship. Since we scraped through with lean pickings, we often had to stay out of school (sometimes for up to two-year intervals) because our parents could not afford the exorbitant school fees. The government that charged these fees was appalling insensitive to the grueling plight of a citizenry it had abandoned to ubiquitous poverty.

When we couldn’t stay in school we tended the land and fed off it, for without money, ours was a subsistence economy. Failed and harsh state policies like the brazen absence of support systems for enterprising students are signal indicators of why governance is a debacle in my country. They also explain why educational programs fail to resonate with the people they were designed to serve but instead yield staggeringly poor results.

From my personal experience I found that an unsupporting school environment not only frustrates learning but also leaves some traumas deep in the psyche of the learners.

As a youth, school life was a nightmare for me as the corporation that employed my parents frequently trampled their rights by neglecting to pay them for three to nine months at a time. Such neglect aggravated the already dirt poor condition of the workers. We were reeling in this skinny and skimpy circumstance when I was sent away from school during a fee drive one day. Sickened by the apathy of the state to our privation, and the ruckus we caused at home when unengaged, Mother strictly forbade us from returning home if the authorities kicked us out. We should, she said, remain right there until school was over.

That day the head teacher came with a bundle of switches that he expended on fee defaulters before kicking us out. Running home and expecting some sympathy for the welts on my backside I was, however, ordered back to school by Mother. When I asked what to do with the head teacher she, fired back, “Who is afraid of your stupid head teacher? Go ask him when last he was himself paid his salary by the state. Let him know that any time your parents are paid, he will get the fees.” Knowing she could add to the already hurting welts on my back if I delayed further, I scurried away.

It seemed like being between Scylla and Charybdis. Along the way I figured out what to do. I would sneak and hide behind the half wall built to ventilate the class in the absence of cooling systems. In that position I eavesdropped on the ongoing social studies lessons but soon blew my cover when the teacher popped a question on who was the second Secretary-General of the UN and no one volunteered a response.

I recalled reading about that in a discarded newspaper I had picked up on the road. Unable to control my excitement I shouted the answer and the class went dead. Refusing to go home after being sent away by the authorities was a serious violation.

And so when the teacher asked me to get back to class I was predictably aware of the stiff consequences. Mates who did not like me gloated and ridiculed me for eventually outsmarting myself. To my utter surprise, the teacher was apparently appreciative of my fortitude and sad I was missing classes because I could not afford the fees. He took me to the head teacher and offered me a scholarship!

Everything happened so fast that I shed copious tears. When I eventually soaked in my new fortune, I was so overjoyed I could hardly wait to sprint home and share the fortuitous development with my parents. After feting me with what little she scrounged up, mother asked, laughing, “Who is afraid of your head teacher?”


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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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