Ucheoma Onwutuebe: Growing Up in a Place Like This
I was born in the middle of Babangida’s regime and his rule spilled into my early school days. I may be deceiving myself to think that I did not bear the direct brunt of whatever that era brought with it. I was only a schoolchild and I cared very little about whomever had his rear on the seat of power. My head was preoccupied with enough infantile indulgences, of which the prime were ways to evade school each morning.
When our nation switched over to democracy, I was in the final year of primary school attempting entrance examinations for different Unity schools with much excitement and trepidation. I was overjoyed when I was admitted. But it was only then that the awakening of the influence of a government in my life dawned on me.
The schools were still in their hay days and had some measure of glory linked to them. They were extremely affordable for our parents. We had good teachers who were even of some influence. There I meet an English teacher who inspired in me the love for the dictionary.
For those of us who have found ourselves at some point in our lives, launched into the full remit of government, you would agree with me that resources are not as dear as we are made to believe. We live in a country of immense wealth and though this is unsafe to believe, it is only ideal to think that enough has been allotted for our comfort. It is not wishful thinking to believe that in a unity school, for instance, there must have been resources to provide good hospitality, constant power and water supply, and enough food. But before these provisions get down to us, they would have been pinched and pinched as they are being passed down from hand to hand, from authority to authority, such that by the time it gets to the beneficiaries, what is left is only pitiable.
It is sad to say that at such formative stages of our lives, we had to learn the extreme act of improvising. Slim bunk beds made for one student were apportioned to two girls. There were occasional blackouts and dire water scarcity. Food was so poor and often ‘massacred’ and the temptation to pilfer hung heavy in the air. The summary of my unity school experience would be that my bad dreams till date take up their scenes in that boarding school.
Proceeding to a state university afterwards was where I knew that my boarding school was in some utopian state . It was a university where school fees were increased at alarming percentages; a school rife with disgruntled and poorly paid lecturers. This had two predictable outcomes. There were occasional riots that often led to deaths of students and the gates of our school stayed shut longer than necessary. When the two giants that lorded it over us, FG and ASUU, began their endless tussle, we their subjects suffered.
If one managed to wriggle out these institutions, by hook or by crook, the next phase was being a Corps member. I have heard people argue that the program be scrapped, but I beseech government, keep it till the end of time. That is often the last time young people are gainfully employed and get a monthly slice of a national cake no matter how small.
As a writer growing up in a place like this, these grim realities are the canvasses one is forced to paint stories on. Chekhov put it this way: “Writers are the children of their age, and therefore, like everybody else, must submit to the external conditions of the life of the community.”
But there is concern that if a writer keeps painting pictures against these canvasses, she is judged as indulging in poverty porn. Of taking advantage of the third world status of her continent, of milking an almost dead cow. Why not write about happier things like the spirited conversation of beered up men watching football in seedy bars? Or the autobiography of your grandparents (skip the civil war); of the snail hunting days your happy childhood, of the pets you’ve owned?
But February 14th approaches and my darlings flee with the excuse that they are going to cast their votes, I would sit at the precipice of our living room settee and expect change. I would be torn between hope and incredulity. I hope that whatever happens would be of some benefit to my existence. Or unbelief that this is same old, same old story.
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Steven Frame