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December 25, 2012
African Voice
Power in Naming: The ideals of Sacrifice and Service
by Imo Eshiet

Lately I have been turning over in my mind the ideals of sacrifice and service. In my sun-drenched homeland, a provocative wit urges that we should “Plant a tree”. This pithy adage in its fuller version means that when a person walking under the sun finds a shady tree for shelter, he should remember it took a thoughtful person in the past to plant that tree and so he in turn should plant one for the next roofless wayfarer.

Growing up in rural Africa there were no professionals to model my life after. The only light was an American educated uncle who believed like Bertrand Russell that, “Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery”. He committed his energy, resources and passion to the uplift of our humble family. Others who provided models to live by were poorly paid teachers.

The rest of the village folks were skills men. My father, an auto mechanic, acquired his skills in the British colonial army during World War II. My uncles were mostly hunters, trappers and fisher folks, craftsmen, tailors, bicycle repairers, tinkers who fixed leaking vessels and a smelter who made mostly hoes for farmers. My aunties were potters and petty traders. Others who had no skills were subsistence farmers. Villagers bored by drudgery poured into the cities where they lost their identity.

Becoming anonymous, they became maids, vagrants and petty criminals. In later years they teemed with other drifters as thugs armed by politicians to maim and kill. With worsening corruption and mass unemployment, they made the country known for super villainy. It is likely I was saved from this cruel fate by uncles and parents whose unusual steadfastness to a vision of family progress made them work themselves to their graves to keep me in school.

Following an ancient African tradition, my parents named their children mindfully. I guess the tradition possibly come down to us from our pre-mortal existence for we may have memorably retained the thoughtful way Heavenly Father names his spirit children. Think for instance of the redeeming values embedded in the name, Immanuel. So before Africans received the gospel, we held on to this residual knowledge.

At my birth, my parents honored my educated uncle with the privilege of naming me. I guess they hoped the influence of this respected uncle might rub off on me. They had wished I would, like my uncle, help light up the family and bless lives with the knowledge I acquired. I do not know that I have lived their dreams, but I certainly grew up appreciating their aspirations.

Without their motivation I likely would have quit my quest for learning quite early because getting education in Nigeria is as herculean as it is Sisyphean. The futility lies as much in the difficulty of affording the exorbitant fees as in the frustration of gaining meaningful employment at graduation. Without the right connections, one ends up in a worse social refuse heap than those who did not bother with schooling at all.

It’s possible my uncle thought of this when he named me, “Imowo”, later shortened to “Imo” by teachers, schoolmates and other family members. The name abbreviates my Annang cultural belief that kinship is wealth. Before succumbing to the greed of hoarding and material acquisition, sharing and kinship served as life insurance for my folks. Thus one was as wealthy as the relationships one either inherited or built in life. Having taught several generations of students in Africa as in the United States, I have perhaps become as rich as the relationships I have established with them. I pretty much know that I can’t hope to be as wealthy in material terms as many of my former students are now, but I am convinced that I am as rich as they are in the passion and message of hope I succeeded in transferring to them.

To return to the subject of naming, I believe that some of the happiest memories I have had for the past five years in America came from my membership of the Summit Ward in Greensboro. I do not know how the congregation I worship with got its name or what led me there in the first place, for three different wards meet in the facility every Sunday.

When my wife, Livina, who preceded me to this country, arrived, she worshipped at a different ward for the period she was here before returning to Nigeria. When I came the following year, I arrived on a Saturday night. The next morning, I asked my folks to drop me at church. Though worried that after flying for more than ten hours I needed to rest from jetlag, they however obliged. Since the distance from their home to the church was not far, I asked them not to bother coming for me as I hoped to walk back after the church meetings.

It turned out the ward in session that morning was the Summit Ward. After the service I realized I was truly jetlagged. I had forgotten the address I was supposed to return to and it didn’t help that in my eyes every house in the neighborhood looked almost exactly the same. I felt stupid, nervous and alarmed for I also could not remember my folks’ telephone number.

In my confusion I approached a church member who graciously offered to help me find my home. As we drove all over the town searching, my helper asked if I remembered any landmark I saw when I arrived the night before. I recalled our home was near the airport and remembered one building in particular along the street we lived because it looked like a community center and had some mystical symbols on its walls. That helped for after some hours we finally made it home. Thus began a relationship that would later save my life and family.

Because of that man and his family along with other relationships I have cultivated, Summit Ward has become my family. Also, because of the spirit there, I keenly feel the word “summit” truly means “the highest point” or “a conference of highest-level officials” or in our case, saints! This feeling was recently strengthened as I waited for a baptism ordinance to begin.

Arriving early, I decided to stroll down the hallways of the chapel. I was struck by some new paintings someone had placed on the walls to adorn it with the message of the Christmas season. The paintings depict temples awash with lights, nativity scenes and some arresting acts in the savior’s earthly life. Drawn to the powerful paintings, I touch them.

Not seeing any film of dust on my fingers, I was overwhelmed by the service and sacrifice of members in keeping the chapel sparkling clean and their love in beautifying it with paintings that minister with more than a thousand words. The Christmas spirit daily shines through lives that edify others. Gratefully, I recalled Aristotle’s timeless exhortation: “We live in deeds, not years: in thoughts not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best”.

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