I cried, for the first time in seven years. I had just gained admission into the University of Lagos, but there was a problem. How would I raise thirty thousand naira for the school fee and other registration costs at such a short notice? I had planned for this. I had found a teaching job that paid 4,500 naira and joined the most reliable thrift contribution scheme in town. Everyone knew Baba Modi did not mess around. He ran an anonymous structure and when it was your turn, you paid up. And I did. I contributed 3,000 naira from my monthly salary for 10 months. And now, with my turn to receive my total savings just two months away, the news just filtered in: Baba Modi just died!
I had no clue who the other contributors were. No one did. His wife was too distressed to remember them all. Even if she remembered, she was too broken to track them down. I empathized with her and their two children. I knew. I knew what it felt like to lose one’s father in his prime. What it meant for the weight of leading and providing for the family to fall on one’s mother alone. My father’s death, three years earlier, was still fresh. I encouraged Baba Modi’s family with my experience, but deep down, I knew they would be burying my dreams with him. So, I cried.
For the first time in seven years, I run into my mother’s arms, soaking her buba with my tears. I begged her to do all she could to raise the funds, promising her I would only need her this one time throughout my UNILAG journey. I would do whatever it took to pay my way through. Though I knew she needed no convincing to fight for my dreams, I was aware of the sacrifices she would have to make. She was barely breaking even, and where my graduation from Mayflower should have eased her cashflow, my brother, Lloyd’s school had also increased. She would have to fill her free time with menial jobs and hawking.
I hated hawking. I hated it on her behalf. I easily shed my pride when I had to hawk. Years before, when I started hawking, it was the most I could do to contribute to my survival and development. I stomached the insults from impatient customers and endured pity from sorry eyes. After hawking, I would get home and watch my mother labor deep into the night to prepare the next day’s bowl of ice water. It broke me to think about it.
With the corner of her Ankara wrapper, she dabbed the tears rolling down my face. She lay my head on her laps and reminded me I was still a child. I was still her son.
“Wale, you have worked hard for your UNILAG admission and you will go there and graduate. I will do whatever I must, to make it happen. Don’t worry…” Then, she began to chant my oriki. My mother’s voice was not sweet. It still isn’t, when she sings the high-pitched way most women do. She spoke with the last air in her lungs and could never sing to perfection. But that night, with my head in her lap, the conviction in her voice gave new life to my oriki. Every word landed with a message, breaking down my grief and casting my bright future in stark relief. When she finished, she told me the shortest story I have ever heard.
“Wale, you are fulfilling the dream of my generation. I wanted education like you do, but my step mother did not let me. I am your mother and I will make your dream come true.”
I could not see her face as she spoke, but her voice told me she was smiling. That wry smile that cloaks an elder’s face as they recount the regrets of a lifetime, all while staring into the distance, into nothingness. My mother was staring into distance, but not into nothingness. She could see all I would become and to her, that was worth every sacrifice. In silence, we agreed; I would go on to Lagos while she and my brother would hawk corn at the NYSC camp.
Ogun State’s NYSC camp was walking distance from our one room apartment. There would be lots of mouths to feed for twenty-one days and my mother would try to feed them all. She would boil ten thousand ears of corn if we had the means. She would spend her nights by the corn-filled pot over an open wood fire, fanning faithfully to keep the flame alive. The heat and smoke would make her age years in days. I could see all that in her near future as clearly as I had seen it when we hawked in Mowe. Even then, young and powerless as I was, I felt guilty that she had to suffer that much to fill my belly. And now… now… Oh! Baba Modi… Oh death!
Six weeks later, two months before the first semester exams, I called my mom to remind her about my school fee. She had good news. Camp was very good to us and she had turned in enough profit to help me complete my registration at the university. Two days later, my brother arrived in Lagos with the money. I do not remember ever being happier to see him. His face, though drawn, expressed a pride that reminded me of how much they had sacrificed for me.
Soon as we opened the bag, we all burst out laughing. Inside was a rainbow of colours, littered with change, in ten, twenty and fifty-naira denominations, in which the Corps members had paid for my mother’s boiled corn. True to her principle of keeping change for the customer, she had not bothered to aggregate the notes in larger denominations. We counted all the notes smaller than fifty naira and they amounted to almost 12,000 naira. This would surely draw a laugh from the bank teller.
At the bank, the following day, the teller frowned as I tried to engage her in conversation to ease the pain of counting. Eventually, she smiled and asked me, brows raised, where my fee had come from.
I replied, “From the best mother in the world.”