At the height of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa a couple of weeks back, the Chairman of Peace Air, Mr Allen Onyema emerged a hero for me. From comments I read on social media and what I saw on television, he was a hero for many others as well. The commendation he received from the National Assembly, when they invited him over in recognition of his act of kindness and selflessness was well deserved.
Using his airline, Mr Onyema offered to fly, for free, so many Nigerians forced to flee a country that no longer welcomed them. The hatred was intense; South African youths publicly threatened to continue with the attacks because they felt intimidated by the success of Nigerians and other blacks living and doing business in their land.
A good number of Nigerians had no choice but to come back home, and Peace Air was there for them. That gesture and timely intervention deescalated the tension and saved many lives. At a time I was looking to a certain class of Nigerians for true leadership and reason to believe that all was not lost, Allen Onyema offered hope. Sadly, that hope only lasted for a few days.
That hope was dashed, not by another spate of hate-fuelled attacks and the cowardly and uncaring manner our government handled the situation, but by the comments of a professor in one of the universities in Nigeria I attended.
My application for postgraduate studies needed three references, two of which had to be academic. The first person I contacted immediately accepted to endorse my application. He was happy with my decision to get another degree.
The second was an indirect contact because it had been so many years since I studied for my first and second degrees in Nigeria. When I eventually got the phone number of the professor I thought was best suited to give me the other reference I wanted, he gave me the shock of my life. I listened to his rant without countering the absurdity he spewed, and politely ended the call, because that was how I was raised.
The long and short of our conversation was that I wasn’t going to get any reference from him. He wasn’t going to support my dream of going back to school with a letter recommending me to this university I am applying to, because I didn’t check up on him in the years after he lectured me. He said he was tired of students asking him for favours when they wouldn’t stay in touch after they graduated.
Now, the question I asked myself after thanking him for his time was whether he wasn’t being paid by the university and if he didn’t know that writing references was a part of what that payment covered.
He didn’t say it, but I could infer from his utterances that he was bitter. He was bitter because his students prospered and they didn’t come back to thank him with gifts and money. He was bitter because I expected him to respond to an email on my behalf when I hadn’t done anything for him in the years since I passed his course to deserve it. Or how else should I explain his use of the phrase, use and dump?
It struck me in that conversation that, to this professor, giving references was a service rendered to ex-students for which he expected payment of some sort.
To be clear, as a student, you paid your school fees. You tried not to miss too many classes, you wrote your exams and maybe you passed on your own merit. And then you move on to the real world of job hunting and starting a family of your own while still being a socially responsible citizen in a country that gives you nothing. It is a lot we deal with I tell you.
You hustle and grind and do so many things for yourself, for family and for friends because life happens. Yet, a professor expects you to remember to send him a bag of rice every December for the rest of your life because he taught you English 101 or Chemistry 304.
If this is a legitimate responsibility of every Nigerian graduate, then just think how many bags of rice he would be buying and how much money he would be spending every year on nursery school teachers, primary school teachers, secondary school teachers and university lecturers. To be honest, these are the kind of demands and expectations that birth and sustain the culture of corruption that destroyed our country.
Let me reiterate, in that conversation, this professor didn’t come out openly to ask me for money, but it was implicit in his tone and in his words. If I begged and threw in a little something to make him happy, I might get the reference I wanted.
In that moment, I was tempted to ask what Mr Onyema wanted in return for sending his planes to pick up those Nigerians stranded in South Africa, but I chose not to.
Mr Allen Onyema is good man and there are still many good Nigerians out there who give and expect nothing in return – end of story.