Her clothes were worn and tattered but clean. Her shoes were old and frayed but they shined. Her face had erupted in premature wrinkles and deep grooves of crow’s feet, but she held a proud and determined look of resilience as she walked with a sense of purpose and dignity to the bank to pay for her son’s WAEC (West African Examination Council) examination. She felt great joy at the prospect that one of her very own offspring was to have an opportunity to become a graduate; although she was already painfully exposed to the fact that it would be a hard, bumpy and rocky road ahead.
Life had never been easy for the forty year old mother of four. From the age of five, she was exposed to unbelievable hardship. In the barracks where her Father had been employed as a washer- man for a Lieutenant Colonel in those days, she had watched sadly and helplessly as her mates had marched off to the barrack primary school clutching their bags with happy, freshly glistening ‘vaselined’ faces; as she burnt her blacked fingers starting the small fire to which she roasted sweet corn under the old mango tree behind the Lieutenant Colonel’s house. In the evenings, she would pack her unsold wares and rusty utensils ready to go home, but on her way back she would also pass through the school playground and pick up pieces of papers or smudged leaves of torn books. She would hide them under her dress, and after she had swept and cleaned the one- room that her whole family called ‘home’; along with her three brothers (who were training as apprentice mechanics), and ate their sparse evening meal, usually left over’s from the main house, she would use little matches to try and decipher the shapes of strokes and lines that she saw. Sometimes she would peer through the cracked windows at the older children who had classes later in the day; and this is how slowly but surely over the years, she began to be able to piece together the letters to form words and by the time she was in her early teens she could proudly read the greasy discarded newspapers on her own. She took the opportunity to also use the cool pieces of blackened charcoal from under the cooling fire to practice writing and soon she was able to write her name and string together sentences.
It was when she was sixteen that she met her soon to be husband. He was employed as one of the junior guards at the barrack gates. He was a low ranking Officer and in those days he had the most charming smile with twinkling dark brown eyes. When he took an interest in the shy, soft spoken roasted sweet corn seller, she was shocked that out of all the girls in the barracks clamouring for his attention- it was her he chose to dote on with little packages of heavenly smelling lotions and creams. The memorable day when he came with elders from his family, her father almost pushed her out of the door with them as they departed; as he was painfully aware of the scores of spinsters around the barracks, desperate for indeed just about anyone to ask for their hand in marriage. The economic implication of having one less mouth to feed in the tiny one room home was a welcome relief.
On her wedding day, her parents stood proud and happy in front of the large party of friends, relatives and well wishers waving farewell to their only daughter, who was to move into her own two room flat with her young dashing Officer. Life as a bride was new and an adventure, for she was hard working and polite to her new neighbours and bossy relatives; but soon her fairy tale romance came to an abrupt end. For it was with dismay that she discovered her husband’s beautiful, twinkling eyes were not the natural gift of God, but were fuelled by his incessant alcohol consumption. He would drink and in minutes transform from a pleasant person to a demonic monster. He would slap her around when his beer was not cold enough, his uniform not starched to his liking or his food not as spicy as ‘his mother used to make it’. She saved up what little money she could from her grocery shopping, always on the look- out for good bargains, and soon she started to sell small amounts of provisions to neighbours’ in order to subsidize the paltry allowance that her husband gives her to run the house and cater to their growing family.
In ten years, she had four children and it was a struggle to buy their books, keep their uniforms tidy, buy sufficient provisions for them and ensure that they went to bed without being hungry. She was secretly pleased with herself that even though she had not formally gone to school herself, she could quietly easily help her children with their homework- this was a relief for she watched as the other children in the neighbourhood struggle with their work from school as their Mothers were either illiterate or just too busy making ends meet to be of use to their kids. But as her children got older, their needs changed; and shoes would be outgrown quickly or uniforms so worn that they could no longer be mended. Her husband became ever more engrossed in his late night and excessive drinking; many times it was the paltry profit from her little thriving kiosk that saved her from the shame of begging for help from anyone else. Many dark nights she would toss and turn on her thin, old mattress wondering about how much she had to give the children for transport to school and back and how much she would have left to buy food for the house and stock her little kiosk. Times were hard and getting harder by the day, but she had her trust in God and felt that positive changes would come in future and her children would one day make her proud by going to university and becoming independent. She had dreams for them to make something of themselves; she had ensured she had imbibed in them positive core values of good, honest hard work-she did not want them to be tainted and plagued by poverty and hardship like she had been subjected to.
So it was with joy she went to the bank that day to pay for her first sons’ external WAEC examination. It was a Friday and there was an incredibly long cue at the bank; but she was elated at the prospect of her son writing his WAEC examinations. Most of her savings had gone towards the payment of his examination so things were tighter than usual at home; but she was hopeful for a brighter tomorrow.
A few days later, she and her neighbours’ woke up to the news that the fuel subsidy had been lifted from N65 to N142. She was in a depressive daze for days as the NLC and TUC grappled with the government and for days and there was a national strike. When the strike was finally over, she and her children huddled around the small radio as they listened to the President’s address, announcing that a litre of fuel is now N97. She paused, reflected and calculated the impossibility of how she could continue to educate and sponsor her children...!
Her story; this one woman’s story stands as a practical example to government about the reality of living on the other side of the debate. All across Nigeria, millions of families were plunged into an unbelievably depressive dilemma as to how to continue to maintain their current ways of life. Yes, all across the nation were cries of pain and anguish.
Article Written by Hadiza Musawa
Twitter- @hanneymusawa