Story Written By Ogechi Alabi
We were seated in front of the Sacred Heart altar as we said our morning prayers. As Catholics and members of Sacred Heart of Jesus Society, we had an altar that had a light on at all times. The light was never to go off. The altar had images of Jesus and his mother Mary, a very big rosary, pictures of his sacred heart and a special table cloth which was white with blue writings and a red heart.
As early as 5:00am every morning, we gathered at the altar to say our morning prayers and the rosary. After that, we got ready for Mass which starts at 6:30am and from there we go to school. It was a daily routine except on Saturdays which we all went for confessions in the evening.
Today was different, our father, Michael Ozoemena had an announcement to make. We had sensed there was a problem but as children, we couldn’t place our hands on exactly what it was. The telltale signs were our mother, Agnes, crying silently and her puffy red eyes while father sat quietly and was no longer his bubbly self.
After the prayers, father said we should sit down on our spots.
“Well children, since I got laid off from my job, it has been very difficult to find a new job at my age. I tried my hands on business but right now almost all the
money is gone. Your mother alone cannot carry the family as her petty business isn’t adding much to our resources. I am sure you have noticed the landlord coming here often. The rent has been overdue for a year and he has gotten a court injunction against us. We do not have money to pay for a new place. But, we have a beautiful and comfortable house in Umuoji. So, your mother and I have decided we will relocate to Umuoji and continue our lives there”
As he spoke, we could see our mother tearing. She stifled her sobs with her wrapper. I wondered why she was crying. We lived in a two bedroom right now, I and my two older brothers shared a room. But in Umuoji, the house had six bedrooms and each of us had a room to ourselves. I loved the house in the village and couldn’t wait to get back there.
At that time, I didn’t know what laid ahead. I was just twelve years old and the last child of my parents. My elder brothers, Obinna and Ikenna understood what they were saying and were sober. Father said a prayer over our decision and asked God to go ahead of us and make every crooked way straight. We chorused an Amen.
On the day of our departure, all our belongings were packed into a 911 truck from Lagos to our hometown in Ebonyi state. The next day, we travelled in a luxurious bus into the town of Abakaliki and arrived in the evening. Then we travelled another thirty minutes to our village, Umuoji. Our belongings were being offloaded from the 911 when we arrived there. Some of the villagers welcomed us and helped us to unpack. Some brought water for us to drink. My friends hugged and welcomed me in excitement. I was happy to be back in the village. My friends and I helped carry my things into my bedroom. My room was special. It had beautiful pink curtails with white butterflies on them. The floor was tiled with cream colored tiles. My bed was 6” by 4” and my mattress was till fairly new. I had a big wardrobe and addressing table to match. I also had a reading table and chair. Most of my friends admired my room whenever they visited. I was glad to be back.
My father built the house in the village when I was just seven years old. He was awarded a big contract which fetched a good sum of money and he decided to build a befitting house in the village. He chose to build on two plots of land and surround the house with green scenery. We had trees of all types, vegetables, and herbs around the house. Further down, through the back gate, was the opening to our farm land. We had a big cassava and corn plantation. We also had some palm,
plantain and banana trees. Deep into the farmland were ugba (oil bean) and ukwa (breadfruit) trees. We were surrounded by nature which always appealed my father and I.
The sitting room was large and so was the dining. Mother had always desired a big kitchen; father didn’t disappoint her. My parents’ bedroom was large too, it had a wall to wall wardrobe to contain all my mother’s things. Obinna and Ikenna had their rooms beside each other while my room was beside my parents’ bedroom. Each room had its own toilet and bathroom. The four rooms were together and had a small corridor from which connected to the kitchen and the sitting room. The other two rooms were on the opposite side of the sitting room. They were guests’ rooms. The dining led to both the sitting room and the kitchen. The house was a beautiful bungalow, well built with everything inside. The beautiful thing was that my father built this house himself with direct labour. He was a builder; a good one at that. An accident caused him to lose his job. He fell from a building he was supervising a few months after we opened the house in the village and broke his waist. Money was spent getting him to walk again. Now, he could walk but not for long. He lost that job and couldn’t get another.
Our relatives in the village prepared food for us to eat while we tidied the house. Father’s cousin who held the keys to the house organized the cleaning of the house before our arrival. This made unpacking very easy for us. We spent most of the evening tidying up with the help of other family members while my father sat with the men in the compound. That was where dinner was served and he ate his food. From my child’s eye, I was happy we came back to the village. My father sat with the men and I heard genuine laughter from him for the first time in a long time. My mother too smiled as she worked. My brothers were the only two who did not show any emotions.
That night, during the night prayers, we thanked God for journey mercies and getting back to Umuoji safely. We prayed that this phase of our lives will bring God’s mercies, favour and blessings. Father added, “Lord give us the grace to accept with serenity of the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference”. This prayer played a major part of my life from that day henceforth.
Life in the village was fun for me. I loved nature and farming. Father couldn’t do much farming but he joined us every morning to his farmland through the back gate with a chair. He sat down and supervised our work. Feeding wasn’t much of a problem. As we returned, women brought us food stuff to start life with. It brought tears to mother’s eyes but the women told her she had given to them what they can never repay her so this was their small way of paying her back.
We were on long holiday when we began this journey. School was the next problem. My brothers Obinna and Ikenna were 16 and 15 years old respectively. Obinna just finished in SS1, Ikenna JS3 while I had just finished JS1 before we left. My brothers refused to attend the village school. They were ready to work and make money to pay their fees to a new ultramodern secondary school run by the Catholic Church in Abakaliki they heard about. It would take 30 minutes to get there daily and the school fees was affordable compared to where we were coming from. Father’s cousin was ready to pay our fees but father refused any handouts. He said, “To always keep our heads high, work for what you make and do not accept favours that can breed insult later on’. My brothers went to look for work at construction sites and fortunately they were able to get. I worked with mother at the farm and sold some of our produce in the market on our market days. Mother taught me how to plant vegetables in the compound. I couldn’t complain much because we were all together. Life could have been better but then we had each other and we had accepted our fate.
My brothers paid our school fees. They took it in turns to lap (carry me on their laps) on the bus from the village to the school and back. They paid the fees, bought our uniform and books. We were the only children in the village that attended the school. That was when problem began. Our relatives in the village began to envy us. They gossiped about us. They said we felt too big to attend the secondary school in the village. They were laughing, waiting for when our money will run out and we will be like them. Each time my mother related the latest gossip, she would add, “Tufiakwa, we will never be like them”. Father just laughed at the gossips and said a word of prayer.
Mother was very protective over me. She didn’t allow me mix up so much with the girls in the village. We had a borehole in our house so we did not need to fetch water from the community tap or the stream. She always kept me occupied so I do not have time for them. She taught me how to do house chores. I learnt how to
cook our different delicacies. She told me I was a girl; girls are seen not heard. She advised me to make myself scarce so I can be valued. At that time, what she said made no sense but I began to understand later in life. My brothers still worked after school in other communities. They never wanted the prophesy of the envious to come to past.
During the festive holidays, our other relatives in the cities and abroad came around. It was a joyous occasion for us. One of father’s cousin came back from America to visit during the Christmas holiday after we had spent more than a year in the village. He was upset with father for not telling him what had befallen him.
“Not you Michael! How can this happen and you didn’t tell anyone? If not for you, I would not be in America. You had challenges with having children but you still extended your love to me. You didn’t see me as a cousin but a brother. How can I be alive and watch you suffer? You can’t live in this village. I will get you a place in town where you can stay with your family. I will give you money to start a business with your wife. These lovely children cannot suffer while I am alive”
“Chukwuma, do you want to pay me back for what I did for you twenty years ago? I didn’t do it for you to repay me. I did it because I loved you and I could. You had done the ground work by getting a visa. Giving you money for ticket and some to hold while you settle down was something I could afford then. Don’t pay me back by making me a charity case. My family and I are fine. We have adapted to our environment. We have placed our trust in God and he hasn’t failed us one bit. Look at us; do we look like we are suffering?”
We did look like it but at that moment no one could point it out to him. We understood what he was trying to say. Many more people came with same tale of what father did for them but he still refused to accept help. His pride was intact. He sat, ate and drank with them in his faded clothes. He walked with the aid of his walking stick back to the house with his head held high. People marveled at him. Others called him a fool. We his family were inbetween. We never discussed it with him because we understood.
Close to Christmas, someone dropped a bag of rice, a keg of vegetable oil, two big fowls, and other condiments in large quantity at the entrance of our house. We didn’t know who dropped them although father had his suspicions. He asked us to
carry them in. He said, “the person who does a good deed and wants to remain anonymous is one who wants his reward in heaven”. We joyfully carried them in and the person was added to our prayers.
As our relatives were returning to their various destinations, they dashed us money, clothes, shoes and food items they remained. They brought them to us; we were not allowed to receive anything from outside. Father decided which we would accept and which we will refuse.
His cousin, Chukwuma, who came from America came to the house to visit before he was to return. He told father he wanted to start building his house in the village and would want father to oversee the building project. He was ready to pay father N500,000.00 for the period of the project. Father asked some technical questions which he answered. He looked impressed. He came later in the day with his architect to see father. Father accepted the job but refused the payment. He told him he would do it for free as he is his brother. His cousin refused. As he was leaving, he dropped an envelope on the table and walked away. When father opened it, there was N100,000.00 inside it. Tears dropped from father’s eyes while joy filled our hearts. This was a big sum of money to us.
The next morning, immediately after prayers, father walked slowly to his cousin’s house. He thanked him for trusting him by giving him this job and assured him he will not be disappointed. When he came back, we waited anxiously to hear what father had to say about the money. He said, “Agnes, we have done well in bringing up these children. They will never put us to shame. Obinna and Ikenna, you will no longer work at the construction sites. We will pay your school fees upfront for both of you until you finish secondary as the work progresses. You will work with me on this project. I am glad this has come so I can teach you all that I know. Since I am in charge, it is more honourable for you to work with me. You will work there for free to thank your cousin for considering us. Other jobs will come through this by God’s grace. When they come, you will get paid. Agnes my wife, you will take some money from what is left to start a small business. As we get paid, we will grow the business. We will continue to live as we have, we don’t want people to believe we have money now”. We were very happy at his decision.
Father went to the site everyday and the boys joined him after school. I took lunch to him at the site every afternoon I was not in school. He sat under a tree and
supervised the workers. He came out earlier than usual to walk round the site because he knew he had to rest after walking short distances with the support of his cane. He got there before everyone and made corrections when they came. My brothers were glad to join him after school as they learnt a lot from him. The other labourers were amazed at their dedication to the work seeing that their father was in charge of the project. The project concluded before the stipulated time which made his cousin very happy.
Other jobs followed. There was a donation of a library to the primary school in the
village. Father handled the project. The priest house needed renovation. Father was
called upon too. Other relatives who wanted to build their houses or renovate their
parents’ houses also called upon father. Obinna had finished secondary school. He
wanted to study Architecture in the Polytechnic. He was working to save money
for his survival in school. Even though jobs came, the money offered wasn’t much
compared to Uncle Chukwuma’s job but because father saw himself as relevant, he
took them. The spark had returned into his life. He didn’t buy new clothes or
shoes. He invested his money on his children. Obinna’s school fees was complete.
Ikenna wanted to study Agric Economics. He was interested in farming. He had
started a small poultry in the compound and he tended to his fowls very well. The
money he made from working at sites were invested in fattening his fowls for the
festive period. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor. I was in JS3 and not
too enthusiastic about it.