By: Benjamin Oku
“Push! Push!!” Those were the first words I heard as I opened my eyes to this world albeit with some strange creature who had five slender legs pulling me from my mother’s womb. “Congratulations! You are now a father”. That was all Daddy had to hear before leapng and throwing a fist to the air as though he had just won Nigeria the world cup. Finally, he had some bragging rights amongst his friends. Soon, our house would be filled with baby fragrance and sweet, fresh smell of baby powder.
Puff puff had always been my favorite snack. It was not a secret. Little wonder Aunty Rita had to buy five balls for me on my 3rd birthday. “Hanty wehcome” as I ran to embrace her and await the usual seconds flight in air as she would lift me, throw me up and catch me again. The Nigerian way of telling kids you love them, other than buying gifts ofcourse. “You’re now a big boy o. What are you feeding him, sister?” she said as she dropped me to my feet. “Bassey, I brought this for you”. Who else would it be for? I stretched forth my hand to receive my gift only to stop short due to the sharp pain I felt at my ear. “I have warned you several times never to use your left hand and collect anything from somebody. This child, Udu suene k’emi. You will not bring shame to me. Use your right hand, nonsense”. I had just been reprimanded by my mother not to obey nature’s rule for my life. I would have to desist from making use of my prominent hand – left hand – as it was viewed as being abnormal, disrespectful, and badluck.This is difficult and confusing. They are both my hands. Say those words and be tagged a stubborn and insulting child. What an irony. The same force that brought me into this world to express my being, is now bent on concealing me to its will.
I am now 5 years of age; adorable, carefree, living life without its consent, running around the compound in my pants barely covering my yash, having seemed to accept their fate of not being stretchy anymore. I have my fellow comrades of the playground, Ahmed and Ifere with whom different play scenes and episodes have been conquered. From kicking oranges, police and thief, to building sand castles, our quests always ended successfully. Adults looked at me and wished they could be me. This ride life took me on, was smooth, until dad forbade me from playing with Ahmed, simply because his parents were Muslims. As if he has three legs and four hands being a muslim. “I have told you Bassey, you play too much. You never read your books. Is this how you will end up as a Doctor or Engineer?”. Those words again. Doctor or Engineer. I had first heard them when mom was discussing with dad as she made food in the kitchen. “He ‘ll be a Doctor or Engineer. Is it a bad thing if we have a doctor or engineer in this house?” Now, dad had just used them again. Maybe everyone in this world is either a Doctor or an Engineer. So when I heard our new neighbor who had a supermarket down the street introduce himself to my parents as a business man, I became lost in thoughts. There is confusion in this world, maybe.
“Bassey Essien! Best in Fine Arts”. The speakers echoed the voice of the Headmistress of Super Children Nursery and Primary School to the gathering of parents and pupils, who came to witness the 15th graduation ceremony of the outgoing Primary five students. I was applauded as I stepped majestically unto the podium to receive my once in a lifetime handshake and my award. Ecstasy and pure bliss. This was the happiest day of my life, well other than the days I ran naked in the rain. Surely, mom would treat me to a big bowl of my favorite food, rice and stew with chicken. I couldn’t wait. Perhaps I should have. “Your mates were awarded bests in mathematics, English Language and Elementary Science. Yours is Fine Arts. Nkó enyene ibuot iba? They have two heads ba?. Look at Patricia. Best in Mathematics and Elementary Science. Her father must be proud. It’s better you be a Doctor or Engineer. For your own good o”. I was demoralised. I wished it was a dream. Please, whosoever this is, return my daddy. How would I explain to them that drawing and painting came naturally to me as breathing? Would they ever understand that the monstrous elementary science devoured my confidence anytime i approached it? Look through me dad. “I don’t want to see you drawing rubbish in this house again”. That was it. The once cheerful and lighthearted boy became reserved and diffident. Painting became my secret.
If I had thought growing into my teen would set things straight, then I was mistaken. Maybe this notion ends with my parents. Surely, secondary school will better things. I was wrong. Secondary School became from frying pan to fire. Science students enjoyed the royal banquets while those in the arts were forced to eat off the crumbs. Everything was placed in a system whereby the first beneficiaries would be the students in “A” classes. There was the Junior Engineers and Technologists (JETS) club, Science club, Young Farmers Club – all intended for the science students. Even the teachers disdained the art classes. Daredevils, little demons, meaningless garbage, dustbin, etc the names never stopped. Even competitions organised by the government, associations and agencies, played this music. Governor’s Maths and Science competition, Rotary competition for science students, etc. Most junior students feared being the rejected and so swamped to the sciences immediately they got to Senior Secondary Class 1. I wasn’t left out. The horror at home was already devastating. No need for an additional. All I needed to do was pretend I loved the physics and chemistry classes. How hard would it be? A quick answer, very hard. I painfully came to grasp with the equations of motion and the stoichiometry that had found its home in our class. With time, school became hades. I suffered in stoicism. School had failed me; home wasn’t even an option. Only painting comforted me with its soft and tender hands. Its warm embrace, gently caressing my hairs with its warm hands, kissing my cheeks and consuming me in pure love. My romance with it became a daily routine, albeit in the secret. It became like a ritual performed in the shadows, only these shadows were the bushes near school and the bushes behind our house. I will never leave you, my love.
Jamb don jam am. Him don turn jamb customer. I had never understood the meaning of this expression until I had written Jamb three times. After passing WASSCE with several distinctions – it was like a miracle, only that this miracle had been expected as our teachers, who were interested in upholding the school’s reputation of being MIRACLE CENTER, had turned on their dark sides -, dad made sure I filled the Jamb form right in his presence. “Make sure you put Medicine and Surgery as your first and second choice”. He was ruthless and left no stone unturned. He was inches close to fulfilling the family dream of having a medical doctor among his children. This would be his crème de la crème bragging right. Ette Dockay. So, when I didn’t score the required mark for Medicine and Surgery, he made sure I registered it again – even though my score was enough for other courses. Alas! On my fifth attempt, I managed to pass and gain admission to study Medicine and Surgery in the University of Nsukka, Nigeria. I was happy. Finally my parents would be proud of me. So proud that they didn’t worry about the huge sum of two hundred thousand naira they had paid to buy my admission slot. The end justifies the means. The stage had been set. Very soon, drum roll would follow.
I had never been as electrified as I was at the prospect of beginning mg university studies. Finally, I would be far from home, far away from the torments of my parents and my intercourse with painting would no more be relegated to the bushes. Freedom was imminent.
The Dictionary defines the University as a high-level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done. Unfortunately, the genuity of this concept has been modified by most Nigerian universities. The only degrees worth studying are Medicine, Law and Engineering. THE PREFERATI. The preferred ones. Others are merely wasting their time. This ideology has been so glorified that it has become a belief. Upon resumption, we were oriented on the importance of knowing our identity as Medicine students. We were to dress differently from others, not associate with others, walk differently and behave differently. We were the true students of the school. On the students’ hierarchy, we were classes above the relegated, unserious, minors and hooligans of the Pure Sciences, Biological Sciences, English and Literary Studies and Theatre Arts and Media departments respectively. Our hostels were different and more attention was paid to our laboratory requirements. This belief had diffused into the DNA of the school and passed on from generation to generation. Even the students saw themselves as demi-gods of education. That guy na medicine student him be o. Omo, those guys de jack book, back to back. See as him neat na. Na them dey go school o. These words echoed each time I walked past a gathering of students. Deep down, I knew I was fooling myself. I hadn’t still come to terms with physics, chemistry, biology, gross anatomy and the rest. My parents called as often as possible to remind me of their goal. “Keep your eyes on the prize. K’uyung usuene mi mbok. Don’t disgrace me please”. Sooner or later, I knew I would have to descend into the abyss and all hell would be let loose.
” Bassey Essien, you have failed 6 courses and your G.P.A is very low. I’m afraid you have to be withdrawn”. Those were the words of the Department’s Academic Adviser informing me of my withdrawal from the department after first year. Although expected, the news was devastating. I had to choose between facing my parents and facing my future. I chose the latter. I would never go back empty handed to my parents. You can never know the extent of their reactions. It would crush them. They would probably disown me or label me a total failure. I would have to play second fiddle to my younger brother who was making waves in secondary school as a prospective engineer for the future. The world was crashing on me. Depression became my tormentor. Again, I turned to painting for some consolation. I began drawing and painting endlessly. I would bury myself in the sheets and seal mg grave with the brushes. Soon, I healed and resurrected, determined by to make my marriage to painting public. My parents still believed my medical studies was going smoothly. In next 6 years, I would be confirmed a medic. It was disheartening that I had to lie to them daily. This was important to keep everyone’s sanity intact. I had tried to warn you guys, but you wouldn’t listen. I wrote GCE, passed the required subjects for Theatre Arts and Media studies. Unsurprisingly, passing Jamb and gaining admission wasn’t difficult at all. Last last, I no be olodo. I was determined to succeed at my passion. Soon, tales of my works began to spread. Everyone in the department wanted to meet with the student who was compared to Da Vinci. My talent was astonishing. By my final year, I had received numerous awards in the department and faculty as a whole. Life was sweet. The only challenge was telling my parents not to expect a doctor but a painter. I had to tell them. How I would do it, I didn’t care. There was no need for pretence any longer. I summed up courage.
“Dad, my convocation ceremony is next month”. I said carefully, eagerly anticipating his response.
” Ah ah, but it’s not up to 6 years na, Bassey. What are you saying?” He replied surprised. I could sense fear in his voice.
“Actually, I had been withdrawn from medicine department and had switched to theatre arts and media. The duration is four years”. A huge log had been lifted off my chest. Time seemed to stand still as I awaited his reply. Silence. ” Dad, are you there?”. He had ended the call abruptly. There and then I knew I had crossed the dreaded line. It was official. I had become the devil’s incarnate. Eyen esuene. Child of shame. I had sent them into deep emotional distress. No one came for my convocation. I didn’t care. Success was assured. Or so I thought.
NYSC finished sooner than expected. Others looked forward to their triumphant returns to their homes. They would be received by family, friends and well wishers amidst a celebration party in their homes. My case was different. No one was going to throw any party for a ‘failure’. My fate had been sealed. I had expected my stay at home to be short. I would definitely have tons of opportunities waiting for me. Time proved otherwise. It seemed the society at large, had spaces only for the PREFERATI or just wasn’t ready for others. Days turned to weeks, months and two years. My allawee savings had almost dried up. My parents had left me to fight my battles. Since I never listened to their advice, I was left on my own. A failed project. Time to move on. I still painted daily. I would upload my paintings on social media. People loved them but never requested them. “Why was life this difficult? Had I made the wrong choice? Maybe I should have forgotten about my talent and passion and force myself into my parents’ advice. Seems only the elderly know the best choices to make”. Fear and dejection enveloped me. My paintings became outlets of my expressions.
As fate would have it, one of my paintings uploaded online, had been shared numerously until it got to the eyes of a prominent figure in the society. He loved what he saw and immediately contacted me, negotiating the price in five zeros. I had struck gold. Soon, multiple offers began to pop out. My life took an upward surge and has been on the rise since. Now here I am, an international painter with works in sixteen countries and counting. This is where passion and talent has brought me. Maybe if I had buried nature’s gift to me and followed my parents’ dream, I would have been wallowed in one hospital by now. Now I’m not saying this bad but whose life would I be living? Mine or my parents? It’s time parents, schools and the society at large realise that every child has a dream. Our work is to guide them, making sure it doesn’t interfere negatively with others. We all own minds. Don’t cage them. Thank you.
“Wow! This is so interesting. Who would have thought that the 2022 Nobel prize-winning painter had once been a medical student. Thank you so much, Mr Bassey for having this time out with us. Well viewers, this is as far as we can go today on your favorite show, INSIDE LIFE WITH DEBBY. We’ll take all your reactions on the next edition. I am Deborah Odey and I’m still your host. Bye”.