Sweet Home Alabama. These words caught my attention and jumped at me from out of a magazine’s front cover. They were emblazoned above a photograph of a flower-strewn meadow. How lovely these flowers were! I thought wistfully, as I flipped through the magazine, which Mama had brought home from the hospital where she used to work.
That was the moment the longing to visit Alabama was ignited in me. That, after all, was the place I would see such beautiful flowers up close. Of course, there were flowers in the modest compound where I lived with my family members. But, there was something heavenly about the ones in the photograph.
Thus, going to Alabama –even when I wasn’t sure where it on earth was – became an obsession and my secret goal. How long I could keep this precious secret of mine, I didn’t know. But I had to keep it to myself. This I knew so well. Besides, what good would it do to share it with anyone else? I would simply be made a laughing stock.
Years later, that memory of flowers would be my beacon to the future. It became a catalyst in my quest for a university education. But, my real world was a far cry from the one this dreamland dangled tantalisingly before my mind’s eye. I was just one of the many nondescript village children in my derelict primary school.
Talking about that school, “primitive” best describes the conditions in it. We, the pupils, had to bring our own seats to school. Poverty stalked me even to this place. It didn’t permit me to enjoy even a moment of reprieve.
Thus, you could imagine how socially difficult school was for me. Indigence and having no one to look up to made me reticent. I was afraid to speak out and turned my gaze inwards to my dreamland. Yet, somewhere in the inner recesses of my being lurked this fear of something I didn’t know about. Thus, I became the most reserved child in my class.
Though passionate about my education, my family’s penury kept obtruding itself into my consciousness. Yes, my family was always close to my heart. Sometimes, the many problems at home kept haunting me and made me miss my classes. Sometimes, I would be late to school. And both situations were unacceptable!
Perhaps, the only spurt of illumination the school offered me was the fact that I was the teachers’ favourite. I owed this first of all to my quietness. Then, there was also the fact that they loved my Christian name Benigna, which they thought was unique and hence chose to call me by it. They were always nice to me. And that included even when they had to kick me out of class for being unable to pay my fees. They must have sensed that beneath my indigence lurked my determination and insatiable appetite for learning.
That year, even before I stumbled upon the magazine photograph, I heard an airplane rumbling through the sky over my house. I remembered looking up and how, from that moment, everything about my life seemed to change.
Such flights over my locality were uncommon. I had already lived here over a decade without ever seeing a single airplane fly over my village. My heart cartwheeled with excitement at the sight of tons of metal flying high overhead.
“Airplane, airplane, bring money to me!” Funny, how this line from a popular ditty among the village children of Umudihe suggested itself to me. This ditty probably dated back to the time of the Nigerian civil war when the military tried to keep food away from our village.
I remembered waving frantically at the tiny dot in the sky, dancing and singing with sheer delight. This marvel of an airplane was a revelation to me. Just watching it kindled the desire to, one day, fly one in me.
An uncontrollable excitement gripped me. My heart was pounding, as I began imagining the pilot in his cockpit, guiding the plane through the clouds. I also wondered how the wings held it up and how its engine drove it forward through the air.
As I sang the song over and over, I dreamed about being up in that plane, flying away into the blue sky. I believed that I could do anything. Literally anything… The more anything sounded impossible, the more likely it was that I would try to do it. Now, it could be anything from a new advancement in science or mathematics. Above all, because I desperately wanted to know how that airplane could fly, I dreamed about becoming a pilot.
But I came from a poor family! And not a single family member had ever been known to have got a degree or certificate beyond primary school. Then, I knew that I would have to go the extra mile to achieve my dream. But I was ready to make whatever sacrifice was necessary.
Eventful years flitted by and my primary school education was soon over. My attention shifted to secondary education. I knew that enrolling in a secondary school in an urban centre would offer me a better chance of getting a refined, quality education. This would put me on a different level and catapult me to the kind of life I wanted.
But, I was not content with just dreaming. I also began to plan how I hoped to achieve these dreams.
Every holiday, I would travel to Onitsha all by myself to visit my mother’s other sister, Dee Bridget. Because my only brother Charles lived with her, it was an opportunity to spend some time with him as well.
Being in Onitsha also offered me the opportunity to make money for my education. In this commercial city, I sold oranges to earn this money. I would buy them cheap in the dirty city market and would sell them in front of Aunty Dee Bridget’s snack shop.
The market was a filthy place. But you could buy cheap fruits and food items there and resell them elsewhere to people who did not want to go into the market. I would buy oranges in big quantities, wash them thoroughly and then resold them for more money. I developed my own little sales pitch, offering to peel the oranges for customers as an extra service.
My aunt baked snacks, which I also sold out in front of her store. In addition, I became a barker for her snacks. Through me, she made more money.
This made her always look forward to my visits. This was understandable. After all, she was guaranteed to make more money with me around. For that reason, I would spend two or three months in Onitsha during my long vacations or even when there was no money for my schooling.
I lived frugally and carefully saved every little change I had. Thus, I was able to substantially contribute to my family’s income as well as save money for school.
It wasn’t long before I became a regular breadwinner for the family, just as I had predicted. I began going on my own to the market to buy food for the family and books for my education.
For now, education was my priority. My being educated would ultimately give my family a new lease of life and stability as well as move me up the social ladder. As I said, education was not free in my part of Nigeria. So, I decided to make money to pay for my secondary school education.
Even before I could achieve that dream, I was already dreaming of a university. Despite being among the least expensive in the world, my family could not afford to pay for my education in any of Nigeria’s universities.
In Nigeria, high schools and secondary schools are often referred to as colleges. Nigerian colleges are called universities. The secondary school is more of a college preparatory school.
One day, my aunt Agnes (not her real name) came visiting Umudihe from Owerri. Her mission was to ask my grandmother to allow me to live with her as her house help. That would be the second time I would ever meet her. I only knew her as a distant relative.
She was not only well educated and intelligent, one of the most powerful women in Nigeria.
She told me I could go to secondary school in Owerri and get a better education. That was all that was needed to convince Grandmother to let me go.
As for me, I didn’t hesitate for a second when she asked me if I wanted to go. I knew the secondary schools in Owerri were better than the ones in my village. I quickly packed my few belongings and went with Aunty Agnes to start a new life.