The Weight of Struggle

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It was few minutes past 8pm when I boarded one of the loading vehicles for the night before drivers called it a day. I rode shotgun, squeezed between the driver and a middle-aged man. The engines kicked to life as the light overhead cast its dim glow.

“Your money please.”

Hands stretched forth clasping wazobia notes. I helped him collect the monies so his hands stay on the steering wheel.

“Sister, your money.”

He was referring to me. I took my first look at the inside of his cab. Layers of dust coated the dashboard. I suspected the dust on the fake brown fur placed just below the windscreen would choke the occupants of the car if anyone bothered dusting it off. The stereo system could barely be called that, considering all it sported was a gaping hole—a testament to a vehicle that once was. The only thing that appeared in fairly decent condition was the seats. But then, wasn’t that all we really needed in a vehicle anyway. Every other addition, from the stereo to the air conditioning was for comfort and another excuse to attach ridiculous price tags.

The car wheeled into a pothole and I braced myself for impact as the hand brake dug into my thigh.

“I should pay half the fare.” I’m not sure what response I expected. It had been a lousy day and even the best of the people in this State would have lost their quip.

“My sister, no vex. I get just 250 naira per drive and in a day I might go only three times.”
That’s an average of 750 naira per day’s work. Take the mandatory 50 naira ‘tax’ to the garage administrators per trip and the total take home pay drops to 600 naira. That’s less than $2 per day. His family lived in the outskirt of the city and he got to pay them a visit once a week.

“No money in this business at all. When I pay my debt, I’ll carry my car to another place.”

The journey from the bus stop to my home is about five minutes and within that time I reconsidered everything I’d thought about my life. Earlier in the day I’d done a bit of mental cataloguing and brain whipping. I needed to raise money for a certain project to kick-start the next phase of my life, but too many projects in the pipe tend to drain resources—including the emergency stash.

Helen Keller once talked about lacking shoes and realizing the next man had no feet. I have my reservations about this eternal wisdom because while it asks that we be grateful for what we have, it also attempts to diminish the weight of our struggle by drawing a rough comparison with the next man’s. I don’t have to wonder where my next pay check will come from. I’m neither in debt nor have family miles away depending on me for survival. However, I understand this struggle, not because I live that life, but because in my little world I feel hard pressed to make tough decisions and find solutions, too.

A few months ago I would have felt shame for feeling the way I did. Here I was without shoes staring at another without feet. But whether shoes or feet, our needs were different and not in any way diminished by their size. What mattered was the value we placed on them, not some invisible measuring line deciding if our struggle measured up to a community standard.

If I learned anything in that old beaten car, it is that to share in another’s story isn’t to make mine of worth; it is the understanding that struggle is universal, irrespective of our destination, that expresses true community.

 

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Wazobia—Nigerian slang for 50 naira note. Derives its name from the pictorial representations of the major ethnic groups. 

 

Happiness Through The Hour-Glass

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If you had asked me what happiness meant a decade ago, my answer would have read: it’s finally coming home to good food and a warm bed. You see, I was in a boarding school that availed me only the basic luxuries—as basic as they could get. When I posed the same question to a group of friends, answers differed with each person defining happiness as best he could, given the prevailing circumstances of their lives.

I used to think this was a one-definition-fits-all thing; that you could tell people what should give them lasting happiness, and that the sum of one’s feeling would be their dreams, both short and long-term, fulfilled. I may have been wrong.

It explains why a person living in luxury would consider suicide when they can afford everything they ever wanted. Why a mother would kill her own baby if children are God’s gift to man. Why certain people suffer spousal abuse, if the call to marriage is the highest union that two people can find. Why privileged children run away from home, when there are less privileged that would die to have just a bit of their part. Or why some go into crime even when provided for by the State. The paradox is that people want happiness but do not understand why their desires, now fulfilled, leave them feeling hollow still.

The much I’ve come to know is that our personal and collective definition of happiness changes the longer the sands pass though the hour-glass. It was Heraclitus who said that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man. If human character was subject to time and experience, one’s perception of happiness is also subject to the same prevailing influence.

It brings some perspective into this ever elusive definition. In fact I am willing to bet that if I threw open the same question, obvious as the answer(s) may seem, it will take some thoughts to offer one that pleases you.

So I asked myself again: what does happiness mean to me?

Over time it has been so many things, but the passage of time has helped to refine my perception. The more sand has escaped from the hour-glass of my life, the clearer I see through it. Whereas happiness used to mean getting as much as I could within the shortest possible interval; now it is knowing that happiness is not in achievement itself, but in the journey between how soon I want it and when I eventually get it.

Thinking About The End

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Death comes to all of us—eventually. Unless you’re of the biblical school of thoughts, then maybe you’ll live to see the rapture. Otherwise, death comes and it’s an end we all have to face.

I find the thought of this mortality amusing—I’ve said this before and got called a weirdo, but think about it. If we get to think about where we will like to be in the nearest or farthest future, if we are advised that the most effective way to ensure that we reach our dreams without giving up is to see where it all ends every time, then why shouldn’t we pay attention to our ultimate end which is guaranteed?

Yet people fear death. It’s the reason so many out there want to be immortalized in their children… I think it’s a biological order. Man forms community, chooses a mate and procreate to ensure that his genetic line continues to live long after he is gone. Animals—Lions in particular—kill off the cubs of the former leader of the Pride to ensure his offspring repopulate the feline nation. In life we’re still thinking about living longer than our mortality will allow. It’s like some kind of contingency plan against the inevitable. It’s the reason we feel remorse for one who has passed away, offering respect to the deceased we never knew like we’re appealing to Death to come for us at a much later date.

But death shouldn’t be something we dread; on the contrary we should encourage active discussions. And by discussion I don’t mean talking about it when we’re old and tired of this world; I mean thinking and talking it when we have everything to live for. We should take living everyday like it’s our last quite literally. We should even discuss the various means by which we could leave this world—as dreadful as some of it might seem. But most important, we need to think of the people we will leave behind and our legacy when it’s over… whenever it’s over.

A week ago I woke up to news of the death of a vibrant young man who allegedly slipped in the bath and died. I am privileged to have worked with him in the past and if there was something I loved, it was his jovial nature. The news got out and there was nothing but love from those who knew or were opportune to have read something he’d shared. I spent the rest of the day thinking of what will happen if people learn of my death. You should think that, too. Hopefully you do. Then I asked my sister what would happen if we both knew I’d die that night and she said, “We’ll spend the night awake; no sleeping for you.”

So there are a number of reasons for our fear of the inevitable. We fear the life we’ll have when the people we love are gone; we fear the life they will have when we are gone; we fear we will never be the person we want to be if we die now. We fear we haven’t lived enough. But we don’t have to be afraid, or death has the upper hand. We just have to embrace the truth of our very finite existence so it takes away the element of surprise.

How?
Think of the end. Talk about the end with people you love. Live well. Leave good. Perhaps this is a better contingency plan.

Reconstructing Yesterday

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It’s another season of resolutions. I love resolutions; I love that January  can be a marker, a month we set aside to take stock of our yesterdays and make better plans for our tomorrows.

A year ago I decided to take time to know my God better. It could have won the award for the shortest new year resolution list ever, but the effect of that single decision still ripples today. I’ve since learned it’s not how much you intend to achieve in a year that matters, but the quality of that achievement.

Just before the remodeling of our house commenced my dad and I talked about wisdom. The ease with which we make decisions based on current trends, and what’s acceptable today, but years after we are done reveling in the attention, we see the folly of our past choices and spend money and energy to correct the damages.

I sit in my bedroom and stare at the fresh cracks in my ceiling board. There are giant stones on my corridor and the parents have since relocated to another bedroom in the east wing of the house. Our living room is in terrible condition. The aluminum roofing sheets are totally gone and every morning I am jolted out of sleep by the slap of mallet on concrete above my head. There’s no telling when the ceiling boards will finally give way and cave in on me. The entire experience is frustrating. Yet there are nights when I stumble my way through the corridor to the living room, look overhead and have a perfect view of stars twinkling in the night sky. And I think that perhaps the remodeling process isn’t so bad after all.

There are two things this tells me:
One is that a new year resolution does not necessarily mark the close of a chapter or the beginning of a new one. Like a remodelling project, it can be a moment in time when we choose to retrace our steps and reconstruct.

Two, there will be clutters and times within the year when this new project seems like too much of a burden. It helps to remember why we’ve embarked on that journey in the first place and the quality of life we will have when it’s over.

Whether we are on a course to reconstruct yesterday, remodel, or simply taking more giant steps on the path we’ve been all along, I hope that when it seems like chaos is all there is we remember to look above and see the stars.

Christmas Blues

 

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I woke up today, walked outside and sniffed the air. It was there: Christmas. I could smell it in the cold, dry wind that signaled the beginning of the harmattan. It was there in the dust that twirled in the air; in this incredible heat from an angry sun, ever less often punctuated by rain. Rain in November was crazy– if anyone knows the seasons in Nigeria you know there should be none of that past October. But Lagos is the city cushioned by the Atlantic. We get rain whenever and harmattan only when it wins the battle of seasons. Yet there’s Christmas. I heard my first jingle yesterday: Jingle Bells, odd song to sing without snow or sleighs. But the season transcends international boundaries and brings with it a spirit of oneness. I can pretend the mist outside my window, sneaking in beneath glass panes isn’t trying to dry out the oil on my skin or dissipate the next hour, leaving in its wake chapped lips. I can pretend its snow like all the Christmas movies I’ve seen.

Soon corporate buildings will light up with decorations welcoming clients and customers with some cheer. The shops will advertise hampers filled with regular everyday items, strung together with red and green bows. And yes, I get to close work in a few weeks and run home—home could be the village back East with the rest of the family, sucking on marrows from goat meat pepper soup, or it could be here in Lagos, enjoying the road without traffic congestion and the freshest air you can breathe for a while.

For the first time all the stress and heartache of this year suddenly melts away. The moments of joy I’ve experienced seems like nothing compared to what is coming ahead. I finally get what the Apostle meant when he said leaving behind the past and striving for what’s ahead. There is no certainty what’s ahead, but somehow there is no fear of tomorrow—just hope. Lots of hope and a joy that cannot be explained

It’s amazing what one month can do. If we could take half the cheer of December and distribute to gloomier months—like October or May—there’d be so much left. I think though that December’s cheer lies in the knowledge of the end of a season and hopefully the beginning of a new one. The anticipation of meeting loved ones again. Perhaps the added joy that comes from bringing happiness to others. And there’s Christ—the birth of hope to a world filled with sadness. It’s a good time to remember what the 25th means for Christians all over the world.

Christmas will come whether there is heat, cold or rain. It is ironical though that a season of birth and life will be heralded by another season of dying plants. But who cares? Death hasn’t been more appealing knowing that when it’s past, new life will bloom again. I think it will be nice to forget what day it is for the rest of the month and watch it glide by gracefully.

May your lives be filled with all the cheer December brings.

When It’s Never Enough

My new friend and I walked down the length of the University’s road in search of an ATM. It’s been less than 30 minutes after feeding on what was no doubt the most decent meal we’ve had in weeks—not decent because we couldn’t find anything to eat all these while, but because we could finally begin to feel the knot in our belly loosen enough to savour the taste of food. We had just written the most important exam of our lives—you could say for now because when the next one comes this will be bumped down to second place. Continue reading

Blotched

Last Saturday I bumped into Mr. M. He used to be a friend of the family, until a certain incident changed that. Surrounded by basins of beans, rice, crayfish and other food condiments, he peered so hard at the polythene bag gradually being filled with items of food I wondered if there were hieroglyphic inscriptions on them. Continue reading

Rest In Peace

Do you ever feel like there are two contrasting emotions clawing at your neck, fighting to get out? Continue reading

Just A Glass Of Life

As far as taking parental advice goes, I can be a bit of a hot head, like the curious bird eager to see how everything works. I love to tweak and play with things, explore and test, and see life as one giant puzzle. But I am also adept at locating the bandage when burned. Continue reading

Have I Been Living A Lie?

This might sound weird considering the obvious, but I just discovered I’m a girl. Not just any girl, a girly- girl and that’s shocking.

It all began the day I noticed my brother’s toothbrush looked like it had been crushed by a truck, and offered him a spare. In disgust he said, “eww how do you expect me to use a pink toothbrush?” Continue reading