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September 01, 2015
African Voice
Joy in Troubled Times
by Imo Eshiet

"Life's tough. It's even tougher if you're stupid." John Wayne

The times were combustible and spine-chilling. Everyone was in a man-eat-man mood. It was so dreadful we learned to cope with only butterflies fluttering in our bellies.

Living at the border between combatants, my family especially sat on a tinderbox. Our house faced a mountain. The mountain stood to the east and was a bulwark against the sun blast and its shimmering, prickly rays.

The mountain was rocky and its vegetation dense. A nimbus-like rain cloud perpetually crowned the mountain. Sometimes rain fell only on top of the mountain, leaving the surrounding areas dry but cool.

For some days we had seen planes flying ominously low over the mountain. There were rumors that it was used as base by rebels. One very unsettling night, the sky rumbled; the earth quaked and shuddered frighteningly.

Even adults cowered with fear over whatever convulsed the mountain so. War propaganda taught us to be vigilant. It also said we should see and hear nothing if strangers asked us about anything. So we kept our eyes and ears wide open as well as shut at the same time. That doublespeak was like a badge of honor for the sickening times.

When we woke up one morning, the mountain had moved — or rather, had been beheaded. The nimbus headband was gone too. In its place, a gutsy ill wind furiously swirled. We knew that neither faith nor witchcraft, a folk belief in evil so powerful it became real and crippled many in the community, had sacked that mountain. It had been bombed and the bombs had burrowed deep before exploding and shattering it.

Our first shock in the morning was not the massive debris of rocks, trees, and human parts that littered everywhere. Rather it was the glare of the sun staring us to the face like an implacable monster, the mountain that used to shield us, gone.

Mother went mad with hysteria. She had always said the world was evil and would come to no good. When Father asked why she was so sure, she shot back that it killed the son of God. Though Father argued the vile and repugnant crime was only one side of the coin for with it also came forgiveness, Mother insisted blood, especially guiltless blood, will always haunt the earth.

Although Father always shook his head that Mother was such a cynic, we in turn wondered why he was always so upbeat even when our wizened faces betrayed our weather-beaten life experience. It was obvious to all that keeping his head under fire was his strong point. He always invoked John Wayne’s remark that ''Life's tough. It's even tougher if you're stupid.''

Because of him, Wayne became my hero. I started watching every one of his movies. We had no TV and could not afford the public cinema. But as a saying goes, deity has a way of giving a tailless cow its fly whisk. A club nearby kept its windows open, so poor neighborhood kids could watch TV programs free.

The destruction and privation all around us sufficiently impressed me with what tough meant. The brutal war was sufficient proof life could be as evil as fetching firewood from a spiteful forest where the fire one makes with it burns the food one cooks with the wood, sets the house on fire, and comes back to haunt one.

But it was in my adult life when I read The Book of Mormon that I came to appreciate the second part of Wayne’s quip and why Dad heeded his remark. Apparently Dad wanted us to know that happiness had much to do with choice or decision to have joy even in the face of trouble.

He wanted us focused on the goal of surviving the adversities of the war through faith and hope for the future. I am thankful for his attitude of walking through life joyfully, so that we might run happily even when carrying a great burden.

That legacy prepared me for Ezra Taft Benson’s teaching that, “The real source of our strength and happiness is beyond the reach of men and circumstances.” This teaching has stamped itself indelibly on my countenance.

In the course of the war, even when we had hunted all the squirrels that contested against us for nuts, wild berries, and tubers, so that there wasn’t much else left to eat, father always said the crisis would blow over soon.

Even if it didn’t, he often said, no thunderstorm ever battered all the trees in a jungle at once. Those who would survive, would survive the war, he would say cheerily in a determined effort to put off the withering fires of fear that raged and tugged at our heartstrings.

Sometimes when Mother managed to scrounge up a grub, father would sit back and watch us fight like cats. Then he would pass on his own ration, which we grabbed and wolfed down rapaciously too. When we were done he would take the plate to his tongue and lick it dry.

Because he never complained even when our stomachs were still rumbling and biting, we concluded that adults did not feel the pangs of hunger, so we longed for a time when we could become adults too. It would be later that I would appreciate his self-denial as a subtle attempt at teaching us compassion so we could help make the world a better place.

His sunny disposition was reeling for one who had literally encountered so much bad weather in life. Father was born at a dark and brutal hour. His mother had died or was killed at his birth, for mothers of twin babies were smothered in those days in our culture. Raised on coconut juices, he learned to cope with living in a household of more than 70 children and dozens of stepmothers.

As a kid he circumcised himself early one morning at the village stream, having been bullied silly by his mates. He did not bleed to death, possibly because the cold water helped clot his blood.

Driven by destitution, he joined the colonial British army during World War II. At the end of the war he worked for a maritime company and was shipwrecked on a barge. Just as the search for him was called off, the sea threw him out and the stunned rescue party picked him up.

Far from bitter at his hardscrabble life, he rejoiced at fathering eight children and the hope that gave. He wore his big heart on his sleeves and face.

He knew instinctively what I would later learn from a world peace advocate and modern father of laughter therapy, Norman Cousins, that, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

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