"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
February 18, 2014
Zero Zero Wata
by Imo Eshiet

That day the sun was acting out like a crazy acupuncturist struggling to stick needles into a calloused skin. The maddening heat pricked, stabbed and stung with the savage wrath of hornets whose nests had been wantonly attacked. At more than 100 degrees, the searing heat cooked members of the class into a drooping and drowsing condition.

We had no conditioned air. The big pipes designed for central air-conditioning were in disrepair even though they had never been used. The cranks that planned the gigantic building never reckoned with the energy to power the huge air-conditioners. So the pipes became home to a creepy colony of spiders.

Often when a powerful wind from a river that snaked behind the university hit the classrooms, cobwebs dropped like soot from a squalid firewood kitchen. The webs hung from the dilapidated ceiling, draped like dirty curtains and flailed like traditional mourners at a wake.

There were a few ceiling fans. Those that could be coaxed to come alive anytime we had electricity whirred as if they were so retarded they lost memory of their function. Rather than cool anything, they aggravated the already cranky situation.

Each class day, from the crown of our head to the soles of our feet, rivulets of sweat freely broke and cascaded agreeably with the crushingly hot and humid weather.

Making eye contact with students was impossible. The class originally intended to sit 25 students now looked like an overcrowded mini stadium. Since there were no desks, students improvised.

They took notes by placing notebooks on the backs of their mates. From my platform, the students were like a flock of birds in flight. Trying to cope with the unwholesome situation, they used notebooks, handkerchiefs and even bare palms to fan themselves. As they waved these, the class hummed with noise and chatter, which made teaching and learning a ludicrous and disastrous affair.

By the hallway, kids driven out of schools by the fee drive did a brisk business, hawking. “Buy pure wata,” some shouted in Nigerian Pidgin English. In a bid to out-scream their fellow hawkers, their announcement was deep throated. Of course, the water was anything but pure. It could have been fetched from a sewer or slagheap.

This untreated water, packaged in waterproof sachets, was the cause of death for innumerable folks, especially travelers. But with throats parched by the boiling sun, people never bothered how close they were to the grave. Authorities cared nothing, for in our ruthless tyranny, all that mattered was whether the government got its tax money.

Another school dropout shouted repeatedly, “Me I dey sell mouth organ o!” Mouth organ is folk wit for roast dry corn. When chewed, it makes a gritty, discordant sound.

“Me I get boiled pear, groundnut and fresh coconut,” another kid carrying a large smoking basin laden with these items, advertised in turn.

Corn, when combined in a hungry mouth with the stuff the child touted, was quite a delicacy. As the hawkers darted through the passageway and chased half-heartedly by university security men, students who could afford it reached out through windows with broken panes and grabbed their lunch. It was at that moment that it happened.

As the aroma of the hawkers’ food wafted through the class, a student who had been studying for days without food was overpowered by hunger. Suddenly frothing at the mouth, he collapsed on the bare cement floor.

His slump was greeted by an uproar. Not knowing the cause for the stampede, I became apprehensive. Students exhausted and impoverished by the system frequently turned to gang violence and would open fire on opposing gang members in class.

A class wag saved me the embarrassment of running with my tail between the legs. “Oga, person don kaput there o! I been know say zero zero wata go born something one day in this class,” he said in our beloved pidgin. It was a language cuts across social class in the country though I never allowed it in class. Since he was right about state pillage giving birth to monsters, I couldn’t reproach the way he said it.

He was telling me that someone had dropped dead from hunger. Zero zero wata was the students’ slang for having nothing for breakfast and lunch and taking a cup of water for dinner. Oga is Nigerian for big man. Since I ran the course and held terminal degrees, I was in the eyes of students, a “big man.”

In those days our secretary for communications had proudly announced to a shocked nation that telephone was not for the poor. So only the very rich had cellphones. Since I was not so blessed, I had none to call our medical center to send an ambulance when I eventually got to the unconscious student.

I asked a student to go get an ambulance and threw the keys of my jalopy at him. Since the car would not start without a nudge, I asked other students to give him a push. Someone shouted, “Oga no worry o, ambulance no get tires o!”

“How you sabi,” another person asked indignantly. “Yesterday when someone was shot in the head by the Buccaneers, we called the medical center and was told the tires of the ambulance were worn out,” he replied.

“How you know na dem?”

“What if na Pyrates?”

“Suppose na Black Axe?”

“Or Eyee Confranternity?”

“What of Black Bra?”

The students bandied back and forth about the secret combinations on campus.

Many students chorused, “I no de for house o,” thus disassociating themselves from risk. The Buccaneer Confraternity was one of the most dreaded on campus. Its motto was, “Blood for Blood: No Price No Pay.”

Like other gangs, membership was secret and people rarely talked flippantly about them. When offended they killed just as swiftly as leaders in the larger society. Authorities did nothing about the murders because government had long abdicated its responsibility towards ordinary citizens. Some rumored that the gangs were a pool for the state to recruit thugs.

In the midst of the chatter, someone volunteered to piggyback the sick student to the clinic a mile away. Another did something even more creative in the circumstance. She shoved some food into the mouth of the fainting student. At first the student choked.

When she poured water on his head, he revived and unexpectedly chewed the food in his mouth with the avidity of a starving camel chancing upon some straw in the desert. Fully recovered now, the sick student who before now was as derelict as a body just waking from a tomb sat up with agility and asked for more.

The girl obliged with a canned soda while everyone else exploded in laughter.

Teaching in Nigeria exposed me to the pitiable plight of many. After years of struggling with it, I realized that keeping its youth illiterate and backward was a good way for government to entrench tyranny. Whenever students rioted against the cruelty, troops brutally crushed the demonstration.

The prophet who wrote that when the wicked rule, the people suffer, knew it well. Nothing in my country jumps at me more than the needless human hardship. Going by her staggering human and natural resources, Nigeria should nowhere near the groveling poverty in which she is mired.

I have lived close to those who live like rats in a trap, between life and death, yet manage to survive and excel mostly through dogged will. Their struggles and extraordinary fortitude persuade me Oscar Wilde was right when he observed that, “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.”

Facing up to degrading hardship was testimony to their resilience. It did not matter they studied with bush lanterns. They were not discouraged living in hostels prisoners in Dickens’ novels would have considered an affront. It did not matter they had no advocates. They were not deterred when academic calendars were frequently disrupted as professors went on indefinite strike actions.

What mattered was the fire their bones.


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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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