|Print | Back||September 18, 2012|
African VoiceStruggles, Dreams and Dilemmas
by Imo Eshiet
My undergraduate wardrobe was a narrative in stark privation. It was comprised of a pair of faded jeans, a couple of equally ratty old T-shirts, and shoes with nasty gaping gashes through which gritty pebbles sneaked in, grating my feet until they bled. Time took a brutal toll on the heels of those shoes and savagely chewed them up so that when I walked, I unavoidably limped and lurched with an ungainly gait.
Among the polished and impeccable fops among us, I was the source of much consternation. Since my appearance sharply contrasted with their cocky swagger, I attracted a steady diet of snide snickering from these well-heeled folks.
When the glue sealing the derelict soles of my shoes became overheated by the melting asphalt I daily trudged, I used tiny nails to fasten them. Though my feet had become calloused, they nevertheless hurt badly when stabbed by the sharp ends of the nails. Nothing that I had was remotely fashionable, but I didn’t sit brooding over the rags on my back.
I wore my only pair of jeans by day and washed them at night so that by the next morning they would be ready for use. It was necessary to launder them regularly because in our sultry weather, we sweated so profusely that the sweat mixed with the swirling dust in the atmosphere created grime that readily embedded in whatever we wore.
To get by without unsociable odors, we had to frequently freshen up. For those of us who were ruthlessly stalked by poverty, this demand overstretched our resources and skeletally slender self-esteem. For sanity against the merciless sneers of the privileged, we had to find ways to avoid being stereotyped as sloven.
Some students, pilloried by the harrowing indignities, lost the sangfroid and fortitude to handle their lives. Overcome by desperation, they allowed despair to wash over them. It was a warped response to the unseemly and tortured logic of a society that needed progress but that was unsupportive of enterprise.
One student drank poison to escape the cruel mockery of the environment. Another hanged himself. It hurt so much to see gifted people striving through personal sacrifice and integrity to better themselves, yet unable to progress because the bribe-seeking officials stood in the way of their scholarships.
In my country, wealth and power are distributed to advance ethnic interests and to reward tribal allegiance. Since education is a ladder to climb out of the steep slopes of poverty, impossible challenges are levied against those on the fringes who want to achieve an education. After all, if people on the fringes were allowed an education, they would probably want to change the status quo. Because everyone else is held down, the rulers have a stranglehold on wealth and power distribution in the nation.
Turning a corner here is like surviving an obstacle course.
My economics class taught me the concept of opportunity cost. I knew very well that there was no way I could eat my cake and have it. To the popular saying that one had to cut his coat according to one’s size, Mother added the reality that if one had need for a coat at all, one had to cut it according to the material at one’s disposal. That wisdom guided me to be practical in my tastes and choices throughout my career in college.
To maintain an agreeable level of decency, I skipped meals and used the money instead to buy bathing and laundry soaps. Body creams and other items for grooming were completely out of the question, even though our dry and steamy weather made the use of such things seem inevitable.
Sometimes when I could not juggle my needs, I resorted to extreme measures. In the common bathroom in my hostel, I found that the wanton rich often discarded bits of used soap. I would gratefully help myself to what they discarded. I would visit the bathroom very late at night or early in the morning before the housekeepers thrashed the leftovers and make my pickings. With these stumps, I bathed and laundered.
Because it was abasing and scandalizing, I kept this as a closely guarded secret from even my best friends. The school cartoonists were eagle-eye, unforgiving and vicious. If they had any wind of my hard-pressed life they would have instantly skinned me as the carrion bird of the hostel.
The privileged kids sashaying through the campus found it particularly maddening that the poor like us had the gumption to aspire through education to heights they assumed were their natural preserve. I am pretty sure that those of them who may read this confession would still have a belated laugh at the way I had to scrimp and scrounge through inhospitable conditions to get what they did not break any sweat over.
I had a scholarship equivalent to four hundred dollars. With this I bought books, paid for my lodging and food and catered for a sibling who now serves in the U.S. military. My brother was boarding in a nearby high school.
To save money, he stayed with me on weekends in the hostel where we shared the little available food. He returned to his school during the weekdays. Our circumstance was not only grueling but also meager, so we had to make the most of what lean resources we had in order to pull ourselves up.
A promising kid, my brother had successfully battled acute asthma and edema, the latter caused by severe malnutrition at infancy. I did not want him to drop out of school as I had done for four years because our parents could not cope with paying the fees to keep us all in school. The possibility that he could fall back on drugs while roaming the streets or be recruited to participate in the crimes that have wrecked our nation’s reputation was an outrage too bitter to contemplate.
The layered rot in our nation is systemic and anguishing. It is frustrating that the state repeatedly pretends to set a leadership example for our continent, yet is bereft of ideas on keeping its youth in school. It is bizarre that the state cares little about the suffering and loss of dignity by its youth.
It is maddening that the state is clueless how murky educational policies and unsustainable planning undermines its future. But the corruption will perpetuate itself as long as the insurgencies in the country draw willing fodder from the bastion of forty million unemployed young men and women in the nation.
A seedy state sorely trials the human spirit. Yet despite hurting and desolate memories, nothing refines than the ability to endure. As Ghanaian folks put it, “Each time a bird drinks water and lifts up its head, it is a sign of gratitude to God for tender mercies.”
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