BNW Writer's Block







Tears of a Country

Nkem Ekeopara


ohn and Jane sat at the foot of their favorite hill. It is one of the many scenic hills that give their campus located in Eastern Nigeria its protective shade and natural beauty. For six years, John had spent most of his recreation time on this spot. On this spot, he has read the stack of books in his bookcase, most on subjects outside his 4-year Mathematics program. John counts good books among his best friends. His first literary choices as he grew up were books in African Writers Series (AWS). As he matured, he widened his scope and made a habit of reading most books by authors who have won or been short-listed for such international awards like Nobel and Booker prizes. This became an annual ritual he preoccupied himself with mostly during the holidays, since his Junior Secondary School Examination (JSSE). He saved and invested money he received as gifts from his uncles and his parents' friends who were always impressed with a dying habit he kept but one that they grew up with in their own time.

John also read works of famous Irish and legendary English writers like Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare. Reading, a culture heacquired from both parents and his elder ones has become an indispensable part of him. He was lucky to have parents who loved and cared for books and maintained a rich library. They always remembered to buy an interesting title for him on his birthdays and whenever he excelled in his studies. And he has so much knowledge on a variety of issues to show for it. He was unlike most of his peers without that culture and who had spent most of their time watching poorly scripted and shot violent home videos, with themes largely fetish and a cruel misrepresentation of their culture. He was selective of what he watched and this did not include imported films that glamorized sex and elevated violence to an art.

The spot where they sat has acquired added uniqueness in his life in the last two years. This was since he met and fell in love with Jane, now a part two Biochemistry student. Jane had shown immense love for that spot from the first day John took her to it. It was on one of the most clement days at the beginning of the dry season in 1998, barely two weeks after she arrived on campus. John planned that outing purposely as a way of introducing her to one of his pastimes. Over time their friendship has blossomed as they discovered that they have a common love for nature, books, music, painting, poetry and theatre.

It was not therefore a strange coincidence that their first meeting was at a dance drama staged in their university's amphitheatre. John had gone to see the drama with his friends. Out of habit, John's friends were mostly non-science students. He believed that keeping such friends and attending such events with those from the liberal arts background, stood him in a better stead to become a part of a world he cherished as much as mathematics. This habit coupled with his huge appetite for creative activities and cultural events had its impact. For instance his reading of dramas as the plots unfolded have become something that amazes his friends. For this, he has earned their respect. On this night, John in his studied and quiet way was at his elemental best. Jane, who was sandwiched between him and his friends, instantly admired him. Her admiration for him grew as she learnt that the drama was on cast for the first time. This gave credibility to John's power of appreciation. As Jane made one or two remarks in response to his comments on the drama, just as the curtain was opened and drawn, John who has by now become very conscious of her presence began to speak softly into her eyes. He did this a number of times before the presentation ended. When it ended, they formally introduced themselves. John was quick to observe that their names made a good rhyme, to which Jane nodded shyly. In his heart, John noted her unpretentious shyness, which to him was a good quality. Thus, began a relationship that John felt its warmth almost immediately and both now believe will lead them to alter.

John and Jane hail from Eastern Nigeria, but were born in the Metropolitan City of Lagos. They are both Igbo. Peering into their beginning was as though their circumstances struck a chord for the present. Both came from middle class homes. Their parents allowed them the full benefits of growing up in a metropolitan environment. However, they also ensured that they were thoroughly immersed in their own language and culture. They achieved this through multiple and deliberate approaches. Their native language was the first language of use in their homes. Indeed, in John's case part of his induction into the reading culture in his own family included a compulsory reading of Omenuko, a prize-winning Igbo novel published by Pita Nwana in 1933. He was encouraged to read other Igbo classics.

Also, reading the Igbo translation of the Holy Bible during morning and night devotions in their home was compulsory. It was a part of the scheme John's parents adopted to ensure he was brought up with his identity intact. Coincidentally, their parents took them to New Yam Festivals, Dance and Masquerades performances staged by their communities in Lagos. During festivities such as Christmas and Easter that most Igbo go home to be with their extended families and participate in launching of funds for community development projects, they took them along. At such times, they were allowed to freely interact with their communal peers and exchange tales of their seemingly two worlds. Their peers in their communities were always happy to know they could speak the Igbo language flawlessly as much as them. This made them more acceptable. It removed the tense and air of superiority that would have attended and possibly limited such interactions.

Also, their parents during such annual homecomings took them to typical events like Igbo traditional marriage and naming ceremonies conducted within the natural and communal setting. John told Jane that his love for nature got its baptism through such visits. He also loved to see everyone who attended such functions turn out in typical Igbo attires. The women always looked radiant and gorgeous in their colorful up and down wrapper made with the famous akwete material and a matching scarf. And the men always looked dignified in their isi agu jumper that they wore with wrapper made with njorge, which they tied to their waist and made to flow down to their feet. John told her he always appreciated the sea of red and the spectacular scene generated when titled men in their red caps graced such an event and the women's scarf bore the same color. He said he is repulsed by the current trend, where some Igbo perform such ceremonies looking like strangers before their more humble people who appear to be the only ones still interested in preserving their culture. That to him is not what the dynamism of culture is all about. Instead, it amounted to one not being proud of his root, a splendid and dignifying one for that matter. It projected other people's way of life as being better than ours, John quipped.

It was a bemused Jane who listened to him with rapt attention as he recounted this great part of his upbringing on their first date. To Jane, this was like replaying her own early life in a graphic manner. What a sweet coincidence, She exclaimed! The similarities in their upbringing made her to feel that the Igbo families are beginning to realize a certain need. She felt it was proper for them to consciously expose their offspring to their language and culture from an early age. This she reasoned was necessary in their retaining their unique identity as a people from one generation to another. It was very important in preserving their contributions to world civilization, she further stated. She felt such deliberate and committed efforts by parents cannot be overemphasized, especially as she has recently read in a development journal that United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expressed concern about some world languages, most in Africa, going extinct after a few decades. She feared that Igbo could easily be one of the languages so endangered. Without language, culture is lost, she emphasized in an emotional tone.

Jane thought what happened in their own case could qualify as a mini revolution, if this were to be the trend around the world, where the Igbo are domiciled. Her father, a former Chairman of their Community Development Union has always hoped for that and propagated it among his members. He even instituted two prizes, each for any daughter and son of the community that made the best result in Igbo Language in their Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination. To immortalize her late grandparents, Jane told John that her father named the prizes after them and instituted one full scholarship for the study of Igbo Language in the university. The later he did in memory of his younger brother who died during the 1967-70 Biafra-Nigeria war. She remembered her father explaining to them that it was more honorable to the memory of his parents and brother than placing yearly obituary announcements not too many people care to read. John said that was an idea worth emulating by prominent Igbo sons and daughters and Development Unions.

In particular, John felt that the custodians of their culture, the Ezes (Kings), should place premium on protecting their value system. He had been taught that the Igbo society recognized hard work and high achievement anchored on honesty. It irked him so much that in recent times the value and respect attached to titles in Igboland had depreciated, as communities bestow titles, some with Igboland attached to it to questionable characters and men whose source of wealth couldn't be ascertained, or was apparently linked to looting of the country's resources. He knew this bastardization of titles was not an Igbo problem alone but widespread in the country, where dishing out of honorary doctorate degrees to the members of the party in power has also become the order of the day. But as far as this issue was concerned, he felt more involved with his immediate society. He longed for that day when such sacred responsibilities would revert to the respectable and honest ways of a glorious past. It was a flagrant violation of our value system, which needed to be checked fast if an important aspect of our culture was not to be compromised forever, he blurted from his ever-active mind. He wished for the day when Igbo traditional rulers would become more imaginative and united enough to have New Yam and Masquerade festivals that would be celebrated on a grand scale in one manmade natural arena and elevated to an international annual tourist event.

As they inched closer to their destination, John assured Jane that he would sell the wise idea of her father to his own father and uncles to do the same in memory of his grandparents when they pass on. He said he would not burden his father and uncles with any suggestion for them to do anything in memory of his uncles that died during that avoidable catastrophe. For one, they are many. Secondly, he wanted to be the one to initiate and sustain such a memorial project. He was becoming disconnected from her as he buried himself in deep thought over this horrendous past. Then, Jane spoke. She expressed how proud she would be at his father and he doing something more enduring in honor of the dead than wasting funds on expensive funerals, in particular needless publicity years after someone has gone. She would always vote for and do that which will make her father happy and enhance the growth of her authentic Igbo heritage. She promised to let her father know that his idea and modest effort would be advanced beyond his imagination in the course of time. Her encouraging utterances brought his thought back. And John refocused his mind on their outing that evening.

Jane's interest and thorough grounding on such matters impressed John. As he led her away to Art-hills, a popular fun spot in their campus eight days after they met, he felt proud that he has such an intelligent and well-brought up girl as a friend. He was sure his sister, parents and brothers would like her. Her analytical skills and the global perspective she brought to the issue thrilled him. Reading as a habit for pleasure and knowledge acquisition beyond ones choice of career really pays much dividends. John spoke out of experience. His father's catch phrase of 'if you do not read, you will not know,' which he often repeated to the household, came flooding to him. He took particular note of the sensitivity and confidence Jane exhumed in their conversation. It struck him that that was not the trend on campus currently. Most do not have a culture of reading. And they are without deep knowledge. They cannot offer insight on issues as Jane has done. Those who read at all occupy themselves with materials that promote sexual promiscuity, exhibit wealth and glorify official stealing in style.

John always argued that for a society where HIV/AIDs is spreading like a wildfire and where all that matters already is money no matter how you make it, such publications should not be encouraged and patronized. A society that puts much premium on worldly acquisition and places little or no value on a mind's enrichment is imperiled, he surmised. One thing he is sure of though, is that with the compulsory General Studies courses his alma mater pioneered in the country, students like Jane will have their worldview further broadened like those who train in the best institutions around the world. To him, this was no doubt one very credible way of producing consummate scholars and leaders of tomorrow. John 20, good looking, fair-complexion and standing at 6 feet 2 inches was delighted to know that Jane 16, ebony black, slim and strikingly beautiful and at 5feet 8inches, turned out indeed to be his long awaited October rush. John thanked God for bringing him in contact with a young impressionable mind that was being exposed to the right values just as himself. As he reflected on it, he promised himself to contribute optimally to Jane's further development while on campus.

Art-hills was an ideal place to start a journey of the sort John was beginning to visualize the long path in his mind. Rounded by beautiful small hills and transformed by local talents into a square reflective of the culture of its immediate community, Art-hills was an innovation that instantly communicated romance to visitors like John and Jane. It attracted a lot of staff and students seeking to relieve stress, especially on weekends. The token fee charged is usually compensated by its airy and homily appeal. And there is always a life band on hand that is very good in performing popular numbers by local and internationally renowned artistes. They felt at home chatting in Igbo and telling each other their Igbo names and deep meanings. Without pretension, in their young minds they knew they got together that evening for love. It was a pure one. And doing that in a setting that brought them closer to their roots was marvelous. Jane loved it. For her, it was truly her first freedom day from a close parental and staff watch in her days at home and high school. Even then, she felt secure for there was something about John that gave her such a surety.

The Art-hills environment was a sharp contrast with the crowded lecture rooms, overcrowded halls of residence with its stinking toilet ends and the usually crowded and stuffy amphitheatre where they met. Jane tried to make that comparison. As a new arrival, she was still trying to get used to these rots. She has read and heard about them. Experiencing them is something quite different. John had since gotten used to these, in addition to the disruption in the school calendar that will make him spend 6 years for a 4-year program. He only wished that the same fate did not befall Jane. He knew that was a wishful thinking knowing what the country had become and how the educational system was the most decayed.

It is now two years since John and Jane met. They have shared most of their best moments at the spot they now sat. Art-hills had been another important relaxation spot for them. As voracious readers, they knew about stress and how disruptive it could be to career goals. In order not to breakdown, they understood they have to balance study with recreation. And from their experience, you do not really need to be a rich student to achieve this. To them, if you cannot afford to be at wild parties that may be stress relieving as well but where alcohol and narcotics are freely consumed, you can seek out natural joints to unwind without any health complications in future. When they were not in those two places, they were usually in the library studying together, their schedules permitting. Only John's attendance at the gym, where he firmed up his muscles and mastered the latest tactics in karate, was the only other thing that kept them apart during their adopted studying and relaxation hours.

Within the period they have been together, John proved to Jane that he was in it for the bigger picture in future. He was surprised to know that Jane even at that young age, has reciprocated quite enthusiastically with a seriousness that seem to affirm his long-term heart desire. When she found out that John did not have a relationship with anyone until he met her, she began to fantasize of a blissful future with him. It was unbelievable to her that such a nice, smart and very good-looking guy could be on campus unattached. They had deepened their friendship by introducing each other to their respective families. It was a very decent and open relationship. And they exchanged visits during holidays. Last year, Jane was specially invited by John's parents to his iwa akwa (initiation into manhood) ceremony held in his community to celebrate his coming of age at 21. It was a major traditional event in John's life. And his parents used it to give their tacit approval to their son's long-term desire.

On their part, Jane's parents have been impressed with John after she told them that he had been quite helpful in guiding her away from the numerous pitfalls in the country's university system presently. Being a non-cultist and a non-violent activist, he has ensured that Jane did not socialize with people or found in an environment where she would be exposed to serious harm or violent death. He gave her useful tips too on how to deal with sexual harassment from a few randy lecturers, who through their debase actions give notable anti-intellectuals, guilty of the same offence in their own work environments or spheres of influence, a leeway to rubbish the integrity of their decent and committed colleagues. John was a brilliant student who attended lectures promptly and regularly. Generally, he worked hard on his books. His lecturers loved him. He had a very good rapport with them, some for the power of his intellect and the originality of his thoughts, treat him as equal. Most of his mates made no fuss at this as they always depended on him for solutions to knotty problems in class assignments and computer skills acquisitions.

On John's part, he held his lecturers in high esteem. He treated his mates with a reciprocal respect in spite of his academic prowess. He was usually pained at heart whenever semi-illiterate people in positions of power and authority make unguarded and generalized statements to diminish his lecturers, using such issue as sexual harassment. He let Jane know that the most important key for avoiding being sexually harassed was to work hard. He ingeniously integrated Jane into his tested ways of academic pursuit that had seen him maintain a first class cumulative point average (CPA), since his first year. This he had done notwithstanding the countless disruptions and the crowded and intensive study and examination schedules that followed such. Jane let her parents to know all these about him.

It was not that she disclosed these aspects of John and their relationship to impress them and clear any perceived air of waywardness rampant in most campuses now, some a direct response to endemic economic hardship in the country. She confided in them in this detailed manner because it was the truth. And she had compelling evidence to substantiate this uncommon goodness in John and the inherent benefits of their friendship to her.

Jane like John was a product of a private school. She attended one of the renowned private schools for her nursery, primary and secondary education, where she graduated with straight As in her Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (SSCE). Their parents could afford it being from middle class families. In addition, they had planned their families, having a few numbers of children they could adequately cater for. Like John, she was therefore very well prepared for the rigors of a university education. Their situation was unlike most products of state schools. Majority of those in such schools are children of the poor and once middle class families who have joined the other ranks as a result of poorly conceived and haphazardly executed state policies and mismanagement over the years. Most state schools are totally rundown, with dilapidated structures, outdated or non-existing laboratory and library facilities. Teachers in such schools are poorly motivated. They go on for many months without salaries and normally resort to long strike actions in order to be paid. Jane and John were very well aware of this sad state of affairs. They counted themselves lucky to have the advantage of a good preparation in private institutions.

More importantly, they were blessed with a caring and an honest parentage. They were not like some kids from some affluent homes who lacked parental influence and play truancy at school and revel during holidays. Such kids were known to have relied on their parent's largely unearned wealth to buy their way through School Certificate and Matriculation Examinations. Sometimes, in very scandalous situations, they have received assistance from their parents even at university level in order to scale through, aided by very few unscrupulous lecturers. Worst of all, some of them have been rewarded with plum positions, mostly in government departments, while kids of the poor with brilliant results; roam the streets in search of jobs. John and Jane often wondered what future was there for a country that lets its educational system to decay to such a level.

Of course, there had been cases where university materials like Jane with good foundation had drifted away and drowned in the sea of excessive social life bordering on hedonism on campus. That she maintained her high academic achievement especially on those subjects that were common to their programs and which John had done so well in before her, were due partly to the help he provided her in tackling them. John helped in keeping her focused. This was evident in her results. And in spite of being thrown to the wider world, where her activities were not closely monitored, she retained her good manners and maintained an acute sense of family values. It pleased her parents and bolstered their confidence in John as a responsible, well intentioned and hardworking young man. It did make them more proud of her as well.

As John and Jane sat at the foot of their favorite hill on this occasion, it was not to admire the adjoining hills and watch the setting sun disappear behind them and embrace a body of seas, as they always imagined. It was not to talk about the latest books they have read or the latest drama on cast that they have watched. Certainly, it was not a time for an extended discussion on the beautiful paintings of the ugliness of their society, exquisite textiles, brilliant photo shots of nature and awestruck sculptures on display by the graduating students of Fine and Applied Arts, which they had gone to see the previous day. Ordinarily, they would have had an extended discussion on the soul-stirring and inspirational works they saw in that exhibition.

It was such an array of rare creative masterpieces by a young generation of artists unafraid of experimentation and giving a functional relevance to their works. It did instantly provoke Jane to comment that a Ben Enweonwu Prize of real value should be instituted to encourage them. This was an observation that John agreed with, unreservedly. Characteristically, he seized the opportunity offered by Jane's instinctive brilliant observation to deplore the absence of such prizes for notable Africans who have excelled in their fields. He blamed African governments who always looked up to the West to institute such prizes, while doing little to encourage their own. He always wondered why officials of Ministry of Culture of some African governments prod African literary and artistic talents to use their creative spirits to project African culture and yet offers little incentives to them.

Even worse, was the case of one of his favorite African writers whom he read was goaled by his country's sit-tight dictator for writing in his mother tongue? He understood the tyrant felt threatened because the writer's critical themes and views will wizen the impoverished populace who will now be able to read and understand how the country's resources was being squandered by him and his cronies. The tyrant was said to be afraid of the change that could be inevitable with time. For this, he had the writer incarcerated for a long time and his books banned. Pity, they will not have to discuss these Arts and Culture related issues more elaborately on this occasion, as they normally would have done. Their situation reminded Jane of an Igbo saying, that "If you see something bigger than the farm, you sell the barn of yams".

Their sitting at the foot of their favorite hill and one of their recreational spots today, was not even one of those evenings when they recited their amateur poetry to each other, works to which each served as a muse to each other. There will be no time for that today. On this occasion, it was to deliberate on their future together, even if still tucked in the womb of time. It was to weigh the foreboding in the air as John has graduated and been posted for his one year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). That he has graduated and been posted for his national service was not of concern. But his place of posting was. And this was to one of the educationally backward states in Northern Nigeria, notorious for its ethno-religious intolerance. Naturally, Jane was worried. To her, this has taken off the luminous shine in the First Class Honors that John has expectedly earned. It has eclipsed the celebrative spirit over the Award he has won as the best graduating student in the Faculty of Physical Sciences as published in the degree results a few days ago. However, John was happy about the development. The prospect of widening the scope of his general knowledge through travel pleased him. And he looked forward to it.

It was not as if John and Jane have not broached this issue in the past. They have, severally. They have talked about it more often in recenttimes since there had been an upsurge in senseless killing of innocent people and destruction of their hard-earned property supposedly in the name of God in that region of Nigeria. On such occasions, they have weighed a variety of options open to John. The bottom line has always been his insisting that he was going to serve wherever he was posted. He singled out the Northern Region as a part he would easily accept a posting. His decision was in spite of the documented evidence of the people of his own extraction, the Igbo, being the first targets during such carefully planned and ruthlessly executed mayhems. He was well aware that in a neighboring state to the one he was going to serve, they were not only killed in great number; but also their investments were looted and destroyed just a year before. John did not even border about the fact that the unprovoked massacre of thousands of people from Eastern Nigeria, his part of the country in 1966, preceded the Biafra-Nigeria war that claimed his uncles' lives. He knew that history. And he knew that it had happened severally at least in two other locations up there in the 1940s and 1950s before the 1966 one that was perpetrated on a very orchestrated and large scale. Yet, he was resolved to go and serve there. He rationalized it with the fact that he had witnessed riots in Lagos as well. He was curious to see the desert landscape that he has read so much about in his geography classes in the high school. He wanted to experience the climate. He wanted to make more friends with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. John was sure he would have all his desires fulfilled having been brought up to have an open mind and to love all of humanity equally, in spite of circumstances of birth and the frictions of nation-building.

Also, John wanted to test a mathematical model he has developed for reasonably projecting census figures. He wanted to assess first hand the parameters he had used in the model. He had done this quite successfully in the South. And he needed to do the same in the North. As a mathematician, he knew the importance of figures in development planning, an understanding his country's ruling class had failed to show in the manner they have addressed the issue in the past.

More fundamentally, John felt he would make some difference in the way mathematics is perceived, taught and learned wherever he would do his primary assignment. He figured out that this could be in a teaching environment. And if there was any part of the country that needed him, it was the North, where he had also heard that there were some states there with less number of technical manpower than found in his kindred. Information he had, showed that most had religious-related and management degrees. He was convinced such an environment must have been downplaying the relevance of mathematics in particular, and other physical sciences in general, in the growth of science and technology and the potentiality of prosperity therein. He concluded that they needed to be helped. Wealth could only be managed after being created and he knew that science and technology founded on mastery of mathematics at an early age, remains an indisputable tool for wealth creation and modern management.

He optimistically saw a hand of fate in being posted to that part of the country as an opportunity to contribute his modest quota to reducing the high level of illiteracy there. He understood this to be making mathematics easy to learn. He believed that ignorance and poverty are partially responsible for some of the uncivilized conducts issuing from that region. As John spoke in this vein, Jane cautioned and reminded him that he was just one soul who may hardly do much to a people, majority of whom were probably of primordial instincts and impervious to change and modernity. Of course, he was quick to respond to her with examples of his high school mates, Abdullahi, Aminu and Lawan who made good grades and proceeded abroad for further studies. To this, Jane pointedly replied that such people should be the ones taking such responsibility at a much-reduced risk. She buttressed her position by stating that the most effective and efficient way to bring change to such an environment was to use people who share a common beginning with them. This is where the Abudullahis, Aminus and Lawans really have a challenge, she seem to advice him. She counseled that he should be aware that people with his kind of resolve from their part of the country are always perceived to be arrogant in trying to give their best to assist fellow humans in need.

John appeared not to be interested in Jane's position, which was quite typical. As a very proactive person, he knew he had to begin formulating a plan of what he intended to do out there, with room for adjustment. He hated doing things without a thorough plan. He has tasted success in his academic career so far and he knew that could not have been without him being a stickler for proper planning. Over the years, he has learned that set goals could only be realized, if a proper plan was first put in place. His father taught them so. He said he was going to approach his resolve in the same way, trying to draw Jane into his line of thought. She still felt he was not seeing how much risk was there for him and how much security and assistance she would be denied in his absence. She had a certain premonition. It saddened her. And she made that open to him.

As the evening gradually receded into darkness, Jane raised the other options that they had discussed in the past that John had equally rejected. She did not want to give up. She had always known that John's Head of Department wanted him badly to join his academic staff as a Graduate Assistant. Since John came from another state from where the university is located, he could be allowed to do his national service in his department. It was within the reach of his departmental head in liaison with the highest university authority to arrange with the NYSC directorate of mobilization for him to be retained. This was quite easy to do because the university has in recent years started a deliberate policy to retain and train its best-graduating students. They started doing this as a means of replenishing its depleted scholars who have migrated abroad out of frustration caused by government's poor funding for salaries, infrastructure, teaching, learning and research.

It was not that Jane did not know John's position on this. She just wanted to persuade him for the last time to reconsider his stance on that. She wanted this option for obvious reason. It would keep them together. Of course, he maintained that he has accepted the department's offer in principle but asserted that it would not take effect until after his service year. With a big and surprise hug, he reassured her as always that he would be writing and visiting her as often as time permitted. He advised her to remain hardworking and of good behavior and to always disabuse her mind of the thoughts of him fooling around in a distant desert land. He warned her to stay clear of known shady characters and their trouble spots.

It was pointless then for Jane to suggest to him to take advantage of the corrupt system as some do and have his posting changed to the Southern Oil City of Port Harcourt or one of the other more secure and lucrative places. Also, she knew he had flatly rejected one of his uncles' offers to join one of the stable new generation banks seeking for the smartest young graduates to enhance their operations. His uncle had tried to induce him with the assurance to have him posted to Owerri, a very peaceful city, where his beloved maternal grandmother lives. The uncle, a young and fast-rising banker himself with a background in engineering, wanted him to make a career in banking. He thought that promising to send John to Owerri, where he would be close to a grandmother he adored would do the magic. John has always said that effecting a change in his posting either through corruption or connection, a variant of the former, will make nonsense of his being found worthy in character, an important plank of his program as would be enshrined in his Degree Certificate. And leaving mathematics for a career in banking amounted to encouraging internal brain drain in which scarce technical manpower needed to lay a solid foundation for infrastructure development, education and growth, defect to the non-technical sectors of the economy.

Although, the career prospect is great and the monetary rewards comparatively higher than the choice he made when he filled his matriculation form, getting him to change now is like biting a dead horse. Jane knew that John was somewhat of stubborn spirit, sometimes, on matters such as this. She decided not to press further. Rather, she chose to make the most of the evening. She understood that their being together like this may be long in coming her way as John departs for Lagos the next day. He had to be in Lagos to meet with his family before proceeding for his national service. So, they spent the rest of the evening in each other's arms, chatting heartily about love and extracting from each other pledges of loyalty and faithfulness. They relished their past together in the last two years and looked forward to a future filled with sweet dreams.

Early the next day, Jane saw John off to the only luxury bus terminal in the university town. She had shown so much maturity for her age and sex up to that point. But as the bus engine breathed into life and John peeped through the window to bid her farewell, she was overwhelmed with emotion. And she let the tears roll down her cherubic chick. John himself on seeing that betrayed an African tradition. He took the tears from her. In Africa, male children are brought up with an injunction not to cry in public. John felt concerned by the number of eyes he has attracted by his behavior. He quickly helped himself. He became strong again. While the bus made its exit out of the terminal and gained speed, in tear-stained eyes they frantically waved at each other, muttering best wishes to each other. For two years they have had the best of times of their youth together. They have become soul mates. Certainly, they will greatly miss each other. And both knew it. Nonetheless, they believed with faith that the good Lord who made their path to cross in the first place, will in due season bring them together. And when that happens, they will be together, never to be separated again except by death.

John arrived to Lagos at 7 p.m. after traveling for twelve hours. It was a journey that should not have lasted more than six hours but for the death traps called roads, especially in the eastern section. His sense of serenity was assaulted by the ever present and discomforting Lagos traffic jam. The chaotic milling of mass of beings did not make the matter any better. Having spent most of the past six years in a largely natural, quiet and peaceful environment, he more than ever before, felt the negative impacts of an uncoordinated urbanization. Now, he even wondered how he survived here until he was 16. He loathed it.

Although, quest for quick money was the major magnet for which more people flood into the cities and caused this maddening situation, John knew that empowering the rural dwellers through improving their agricultural practices, setting up cottage industries and provision of social amenities would have helped to stem the tide. It was a fact he knew so well that successive Nigerian governments have paid little attention to. Having been brought up in the city and having experienced the serenity and sweetness of the natural environment, occasionally, as a child and more permanently as a university student, he has become a strong advocate of controlled urbanization and monitization of the rural economy without adversely altering the beautiful greenery of the rural areas.

Money was not everything, he reflected as he sat at the back of a cab sweating and growing impatient to get home. It strengthened his resolve to accept to return to his alma mater on completion of his national youth service and hone a career in academics. This was a decision he pictured will be more fulfilling and less stressful than anything that will permanently put him in a city like Lagos, where very wealthy people are not insulated from the severe consequences of poorly planned and continuously expanding cities without a matching security and infrastructure needs. Some have in fact succumbed to all kinds of stress-related medical conditions. Many others had been victims of a rising crime wave. The university system in spite of its present problems has its good sides, so he felt. In his own case in particular, he was lucky to have his alma mater far removed from this sort of hostile environment. And he praised the wisdom and foresight of its founder. In retrospect, he was full of thanks to his parents who advised him to make that choice as they did to his two older brothers, Chibuliem and Chidumam and his only sister, Chimamaka, who took their first degrees in electronic engineering, geology and pharmacy respectively from the same university.

It was well past 9 p.m. before the cab meandered to his home. But for what John termed unruly expertise of the driver, a characteristic of most drivers that pride themselves as being good in Lagos, he would still have been in the traffic jam. However, the driver had to cut the queue where he could, made quick unconventional dashes only to rejoin the queue in the front at the risk of poor pedestrians and to the displeasure of more disciplined and patient motorists. He knew the driver was not doing that to get him home on time but to maximize his time and increase his profit margin at the end of the day. It is a common practice among commercial drivers in Lagos. John saw no need in protesting. Such protest would have enlisted an aggressive response. Of course what would you expect from a man who had been up since 5 a.m. and who probably has 3 wives and 21 kids and 6 in-laws to cater for? He did not protest to avoid a possible cantankerous being worsening his mood. Besides, he was very tired. He saved his energy and kept his peace.

As John pressed the security button a voice queried to know who he was. He recognized the voice to be that of his older and only sister, Chimamaka. He was pleasantly surprised. Chimamaka, like his two older brothers was resident in the United States of America. Although, he knew that she was supposed to be home this Christmas for her Ipa Nmii Ukwu (Traditional Wedding), he never expected her home at the beginning of November. He responded in an excited tone that it was he, Chimeremeze, using his Igbo name, as was their convention. He could sense that Amaka, as they fondly called her in their home, could not contain her joy as she struggled with the series of corrugated security barricades that had become a feature of most homes in Nigeria. It struck Amaka that these obstacles were scantily there four years ago when she graduated and left for the States. Their reinforcement to serve as a form of protection must have been due to rising violent crimes they have read about in the US, in which on a number of occasions Nigerians visiting home from abroad had been victims.

As she opened the second to the last protector, she prayed silently that this did not become her portion or that of her loved ones. She realized that in the absence of a social security scheme to ameliorate the pains of rising unemployment and mass poverty that she had noticed since arrival, coupled with a notoriously corrupt, ill-trained and poorly equipped police force, anyone could fall victim. She had seen newspaper banners screaming of banks being raided in broad daylight. She has read of rulers of the country who brazenly display their ill-gotten wealth and operate more as socialites than serious citizens after cornering power, being attacked as well. It did seem to her that no one was safe any more as such reports always indicated that police teams were usually outgunned during such incidents, if they responded to emergency calls at all. And she tried to cast the security concerns out of her mind and to focus on embracing his sibling whom she had not seen in the last four years. And that moment came. And she flew into the waiting broad arms of his brother. 'Boy, you have grown so big,' Amaka complimented him. 'Thanks.' John responded, with a broad smile.

Pleasantries over, Amaka helped him to take his belongings into his room. As John embraced his mother, then his father, Amaka dashed to the kitchen to prepare dinner for her brother. The stories she told him can wait. She has not changed. She always prided herself as the junior mother of the house and did take time to learn from their mother those attributes that qualified her to parade herself as such. She knew how to keep the home. She could cook all their native cuisines and more. On several occasions when the mother had gone to be with the younger sister whenever she puts to bed, Amaka ran the home if she were around, with the same dexterity as the mother. That was before she traveled to the US. Her father always told her she would make a very good wife. And his brothers never disputed that. She cared for them like a real mother. They knew it. They loved and appreciated her.

While Amaka was busy in the kitchen, John told his parents about his result. He decided not to talk about the NYSC issue immediately for a discernible reason. They were happy. They gave glory to God. John tried to get a bit of the day's news with his parents from his father's favorite independent channel. He was pleased that his father now tuned in more to that independent channel than the unreliable and manipulative government source. He was a man who cared for truth. And he has discovered since private investors were granted license to participate in electronic media services that government sources, both radio and television, even though they have the widest reach, were not designed and operated to tell the truth. They existed to manage information to favor the government in power. John's father always said it was wrong to abuse such important vehicles for education, information dissemination and entertainment. A society where such is the norm will pay a high cost in the long run. He would say you did not need to be a prophet to know that for it was in itself a culture of fraud. And he believed that if they continued in this very unprofessional way, they would suffer the same fate as their counterparts in the print media that have disappeared from newsstands after more independent newspapers came on stream. John knew his father had had to switch stations to listen to their reporting on the same issue to dictate this fatal flaw in government news agencies and arrive at his choice of channel. He was such a meticulous man. John took leave of his parents after a while to take his bath before his sister was ready with the meal.

John commended Amaka for her culinary skills. Sitting across each other on the dinning table, they chatted. Amaka updated him on the progress she had made in her post-graduate studies and his brothers solid accomplishments in their chosen careers. She told him that she had completed her research work for a PhD in Pharmacology and that she had been working as well as studying, as is the norm for most of their people in the US. She acquainted him in details with what the system was like and the fact that people who worked hard and remained focused always achieved their set goals on time, as there were no disruptions in the academic calendar as in Nigeria. She said she was lucky to have supportive brothers and sisters' in-law. Obieze, her suitor had been quite helpful as well since they met last two years, she told him. She then told him that they have concluded plans for him to come over as soon as he completed his first degree, which they knew he would do in flying colors. Opportunities abound in the States for gifted and hardworking young people like him, she continued.

As John made to let her sister know about his result, they were signaled by their mother to join them in the main living room. Both knew what it was for. It was about 11 p.m. and time for the devotion before going to bed. That was part of the tradition of the family. Amaka elected to read the portion of the Bible, Igbo version, due for that day. She read it so impeccably well as though she wanted to prove to John that in spite of the little American accent in the little English that intruded in their earlier conversation, her sojourn in the US had not affected her understanding and use of Igbo language. It remained perfect and impressive to the ears of her listeners. Her mother led the prayers, thanking God, especially for journey mercies granted to John and his outstanding academic attainment.

Prayers over, Amaka demanded to know from his brother why he was not upbeat about letting her know about his successful graduation finally after all this years and the fact that earned a first class as they expected. He took his sister's hand and led her to her room where he confided in her about his posting and resolve. He reminded her that she should not forget that their father taught them that important issues were discussed in the wee hours after morning prayers. He knew their mother would be opposed to her decision just as her. So, he wanted the best atmosphere to sell his decision to them. Amaka wasted no time in registering her opposition. She was equally posted to the Northern region at her time but did not serve because she felt no need to do so for a country that denied her a place in the so-called Unity Schools on account of Quota System which in her understanding sacrifices merit on the alter of mediocrity. She reminded him that she had an opportunity to go to States as he now has and she took it. She wanted him to do as well. John did not have a ready answer to that. He bade her goodnight and went to his room.

John spent sometime thinking about this new option he knew was always at his beck and call. All this while he never gave a thought to it because he did not want anything that would separate him from Jane. For the first time, he gave a serious thought to the concerns that had been expressed by Jane and now Amaka. He knew her mother would show equal measure of concern. Ominously, an Igbo proverb that says that "a dog that is about to die, hardly perceives the smell of human waste" dominated his mind. He thought about men in history who failed to heed such premonitions expressed by women in their lives and who paid the ultimate price. It weighed him down! Would this be his fate since he was not going to heed the advice of these women in his live? He tried to query himself as he made to sleep.

Early the next day, John made his decision known to the family. He overcame the opposition posed by his mother and sister. His father gave him his blessing and they all prayed and committed him to the hands of the Almighty. He spent the few days he had before traveling to assist his sister do some shopping for some of the things she needed for her traditional wedding. Amaka promised him that she would visit Jane in their alma mater and try to talk her into coming over to their country home to assist them during her wedding at Christmas time. A day before he was to leave for his place of posting; Amaka surprised him with a gift of the latest laptop. On plugging the system to the mains and seeing the Internet ready facility, John bemoaned the fact that being connected to the World Wide Web was still very expensive in the country. He told his sister that their university was not yet connected and that people with appetite for knowledge rely on a few cyber cafes for their Internet needs.

Amaka capitalized on the last statement to admonish him that that was the more reason why he should be over quick to the US, as someone with his aptitude and attitude to knowledge cannot realize his full potential in a country like this, where monies budgeted for providing such facilities and supporting infrastructure like reliable telecommunications and uninterrupted power supply end up in Swiss bank accounts of the so-called leaders. She further observed that dictators in Africa are not likely to support information explosion for obvious reason.

John also received some money from her sister, including an airfare to the nearest airport to the place to reduce the stress of the 18-hour trip by bus. Although he took the money, he told her that he wanted to go by road, firstly, to fully appreciate variation in nature and settlement as one traveled from south to north and secondly, to be on a safer route since most people have lost confidence in domestic air travel in recent times, due to mishaps that exposed the country to a dismal emergency preparedness and in which proper investigation into the causes was hardly done and published. John expressed his sincere appreciation to his sister for her love and cares.

John traveled light, leaving his most prized possessions largely books, music system and his new laptop at home. They arrived so late and had to sleep at the bus terminal to avoid running into armed bandits that they were told occasionally raided that state from a neighboring country. He dosed off for a while. When he woke up and checked his time, it was about 5 a.m. in the morning and yet the sun was already up. He tried to put on his shoes only to discover that they could not enter. He was instantly reminded of how long he had been sitting down, a situation that had momentarily enlarged his feet. He decided to relax and wait until about 6.30 a.m. before leaving for the orientation camp.

He arrived the orientation camp on a motorbike, popularly called ina aga (Going?) in his part of the country. From what he saw in major cities they passed on their way, this had become an indispensable means of transport for the poor masses in the country. Although, the man who took him to the camp did not understand English, he was very pleasant and welcoming in his attitude. John felt reassured. He had the feeling that the situation may not really be as bad as it was being portrayed in the mass media. He saw people on their way and they were just people. He had seen people here, they were just people, human beings like him. He knew red blood ran in their veins, like in his and all the people around the world. There was no religion or tribe written on the face of anyone. Yes, little differences here and there, in language, culture, accent and physique that was all he saw in the people of the place. There was nothing suggestive of the killing mentality he had often read.

As one of the earlier arrivals, he did not need to queue for long hours before receiving his kits. John quickly adapted to the rough environment of the camp and the regimented life style. He had a wonderful time with new friends he made from across the country. Also, he fell in love with the stars that populated the clear night sky. He loved their occasional sporty swaying swings. He loved the chilly night weather, although he felt very uncomfortable with the very hot and dusty daylight, which he was told was worst in the month of April. He loved the endless view around him that took his eyes to where the earth possibly kissed the heavens. The sand dunes spoke volumes of the poetic beauty of the desert landscape, the only dark side of it was that it was advancing rapidly, burying farmsteads and eating up agricultural lands. This ugly part of it reminded John of those big erosion sites that had caused great damages to schools, hospitals, and roads and agricultural lands equally in the east.

After three weeks, the orientation ended. John returned home directly and participated fully in his sister's traditional wedding. Chinenye was there. Everyone addressed Jane in her Igbo name, in the pet form of it, Chichi. The event was a very memorable one especially for Amaka. John came back to his place of primary assignment with all his possessions. It was a College of Education. And he gave his best which included encouraging the students to develop a reading culture. His students loved him. He also realized that adequate training for these people, who trained pupils, was very important in making mathematics shade the terror garb it adorns in the heart of most students.

Seven months into his service year, the unpredictable happened. It was a sunny Friday. Some Muslim adherents after listening to a fiery speaker during Friday prayers condemn American's perceived uneven-handedness in Palestine, turned violent. They killed, maimed, looted and burned down churches in the city. John, who was returning to the Corps members lodge located on the outskirts of the school, was unfortunate. He ran into the fanatics and as he tried to make his escape in the opposite direction, three confronted him armed with very dangerous weapons. He deployed his karate skills, tactically taking on the one with an iron rod whom he successfully disarmed. He used the rod to take on the three. He neutralized two. When the third one saw the fate of the other two, he ran. John was amazed to know that some of these perpetrators of evil, who kill willfully, also value their lives. He sustained injuries on his head and right arm and managed to find his way to a military barrack where he stayed for a week as a refugee and was receiving treatment before the situation was brought under control.

By the time he got back to the lodge, his books laid at his doorsteps in ashes, the door to the flat he shared with acolleague was ajar and from a distance he could see that his material belongings were all gone. He counted himself lucky because his flat mate from a neighboring ethnic grouping in the east was still missing. He knew that most of those corpses buried in mass graves within the week were mostly people from his part of the country, east.

He remembered Jane, Amaka, and his mother. He remembered their oppositions. And tears dropped. It was not his tears. It was tears of a country. And a destiny that awaited.

Nkem Ekeopara
An Igbo and African

Tears of a Country

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