As I look at the alert on my phone, informing me that a huge sum of money has been wired into an off-shore account, I am happy and sad at the same time. Happy, because of what this deposit like other deposits, mean for my future and that of my children. Sad because if you had told me, when I was a young idealistic youth that this is what I would become if I held public office, I would have said “over my dead body!”
I do not make to defend all public office holders in this country. I cannot. But for myself I have to admit, that the fear that drives me is strong enough to blur the edges of my conscience (though not able to deaden it). When I think back on my youth, the poverty. How we did not know what and when our next meal will be. How when our uncles came to the village from Lagos, and gave us N10 (Ten Naira), my mother will collect it and use it to buy stuff, which she put on a tray for us to hawk that week, through the process, she somehow made the ten Naira into thirty and it kept us for a while, until something came up, our little sister fell ill, books were needed in school and all the seed money will need to be spent then we will be back at square one. I remember all the hand-me-downs that made up our wardrobe, there were items of clothing that all 5 of us wore and even those were handed down to us by other families. I remember some nights when we were hungry and mother will soak the garri in a big bowl and ask us to go outside and play (on our empty stomachs), she will call us in 20 minutes later to a full bowl of garri which we then shared. She used to say Jesus multiplied it while we played. I remember nights when after we had eaten all the garri, and she thought we were in bed, she would sit by the window of our shack, crying. Crying for her husband who died, for youth lost too early, for the burden of raising 5 children on her own and being unable to ask for help from her family, who had cast her out for marrying an Osu – an outcast!
I remember most especially when our little sister fell ill, Ada, she was the crown on my mother’s head. She was beautiful and full of life. She somehow managed to look like sunshine even though she was wearing rags. Mama had secretly hoped, that she will one day fetch a good bride price, and marry well, so that she liberates the entire family. A lot of responsibility on a little girl’s head I know, but when you do not have plenty, what you have, you use.
Ada started running a temperature one evening, mama suspected that it was malaria. She went into the bush as usual- yellow mango leaves, the skin of a coconut, scent leaf, the bark of the eucalyptus tree and a few other things, she plucked and put in a pot to boil. She gave Ada some of the portion to drink, rubbed her down with water and a cold cloth and even made her inhale some. This time unlike other times, Ada did not get better. By the third day, she looked half her size and mama began to panic. She had sold all her wrappers over a year ago when she bravely decided we all had to go to school, her jewelery followed, she had even sold her pots and pans. There was nothing more to sell. She had borrowed and begged for food so that we could eat, it was so bad that some people started to avoid her in the market place.
Mama managed to get Ada to the general hospital by day four and waited on the long queue to see the doctor. Consultation was next to nothing, but even nothing, Mama did not have. She begged the nurse to just see the doctor, the doctor heard her voice and came out to say it is ok, he would pay. Ada saw the doctor, he made a diagnosis, it in deed was malaria. He wrote a prescription, and handed Mama the five naira note to go and buy the medicine and mama cried some more. “How will I give this medicine if she has not eaten, the other 4 have not eaten as well, ” she wailed. The doctor said he could not help with that and gently reminded her that he had paid for all the consultations in the past year, even when Kelechi had measles and we all come down with it, she had to pay it off by agreeing to scrub the hospital floors after we recovered.
I really tried to help in that time, I started to rummage through the dust bins in our neighborhood but when Mama caught me, I got a serious beating, she said hough we were poor now, we would not always be so. she will make sure we go to school even if she has to sell herself and that we would one day be important people and we could not have them say, those were the children who used to eat from our bins. As you can imagine, she nearly killed me the day i came home with stolen bananas.
Ada did not recover from that malaria. That she was malnourished could not have helped! The day Mama buried her own daughter was when I saw the resolve. It was not long before strange men started to visit our shanty and we would be asked to go outside and play, sometime we leaned on the window and heard strange grunts from the men. We did not know what happened in there but we knew that we suddenly started to eat more. We started to go to school regularly and over time we were not wearing tattered uniforms.
Fast forward, 33 years. I am 45 now, a Director in one of the Federal Ministries in Nigeria and since I got into public office and into positions where money passed through me, some has always gone to me personally. I know that this is bad, I realise that there are a lot of children whose lives are now the way mine was and I try to do my bit to help them but fear propels me. The lack I knew, my children must not know (even if on a different level). I feel a need to hoard, hoard, hoard! what if I fall ill, what if the hospitals here can not treat me, what if it’s my children that fall ill, what if the EFCC takes all I have or the government in power does not like me (I have honestly seen “rich” men start to beg for food under a year after they lost their jobs- No living from hand to mouth for me).
I know, I even stopped paying my tithe in church because I knew God would not approve of the source. This is something that I really should not do but when think of my past, of Ada, when I hear (as if i am standing by the window) the sound of men grunting in a room with my mother. It really does not matter. I look at my phone and smile. This alert for me, means security!