Fighting Free

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| This is the 424th story of Our Life Logs |


Maybe it would have been a lot different if life had stayed peaceful and carefree like when I first came into this world. I was born in Gudi in present-day North-Central Nigeria, in 1956. I was the third and the only girl in the family, blessed with two old brothers and a younger one, who was the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life. As far as I can remember, my father was quite a handsome man, as gentle as a dove, even though he served in the military; my mother, on the other side, was a Thatcheresque woman, strong, fearless, a total inspiration to those around her. She sold small farm produce at the community market to support our family. Life was simple and happy.

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When I was six years old, our family relocated to Obaoma, my father’s hometown. It was a rather rural area; a lot of people seemed to enjoy talking endlessly in their local language, and there was a certain way they behaved to people who had come from the city that made us feel unwelcomed. Nevertheless, adjusting to the life in Oboama wasn’t so difficult as such. My brothers and I moved with the flow and tried to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. My parents made sure that we were united as siblings, instilling in us the spirit of togetherness to be able to stand strong; perhaps, they had foreseen what was going to happen and created a bond among us that would be strong enough to get us through the rough times ahead.

One afternoon during the Harmattan, we had returned home from the farm with my mother earlier than usual. The dry winds and the dusty roads seemed to be trying to catch up on how the day had turned out for everyone. The compound where we lived wasn’t fenced, so we could see everyone passing by. As usual, some would peek in and exchange random talks with my mother, and some wouldn’t.

After about 40 minutes into our daily routine in front of our compound, we heard a huge shout from the main road a few yards away. We all dashed out. Our mother was ahead of us, but she warned us at once to stay back. We watched with keen interest from the main road as a group of young men carried in their hands a man who appeared to be involved in an accident; his face was entirely covered in blood with the top part of his head already mutilated. The sight was frightening.

Then, we watched as our mother helplessly ran with the men and threw herself on the floor repeatedly. I didn’t understand what was going on until the lifeless body was dropped on the floor of our compound. It was our father! A hit-and-run vehicle had knocked him down from his bicycle as he tried to cross the road opposite our compound. That day, my childhood ended.

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The following months passed with immense agony as my mother was drifting between periodic cries and unusual solitude. She was barely eating, and nothing around her really mattered. We kids didn’t take the death of our father as hard. My two older brothers were away in big cities, one in Onistsha living with an uncle and the other in Lagos attending the prestigious St. Finbarr’s College. I was only six, my little brother was two years younger than me, and we didn’t really understand much about life yet.

As expected, my mother couldn’t cope with raising my brother and me on her own. Our father used to be the sole breadwinner of the family; she was a mere support system. And now, she didn’t know what to do. We experienced the most unique hunger. Sometimes we went hungry for two to three days and would scamper to the nearby bushes to search for fruit or anything that we could eat, when our stomachs had cried endlessly for food to no avail. As the days passed by, we emaciated and suffered malnutrition, which was beginning to affect our health.

Eventually, my mother decided that she couldn’t watch her children starve to death and sent me out as a maid to a distant relative in Enugu. Aunty Nneoma had come home from Enugu to convince my mom that she would send me to school and give me a proper training, so I would help her out with small household chores, as her children were already grown up and moved out. I refused bluntly as I couldn’t stand to leave my mother alone, but the truth was that I had no choice.

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Two weeks later, I traveled with my aunt to Enugu, and that marked the beginning of a long battle for survival. Turns out, it was all a farce that my aunt was going to take care of me. In fact, she brought me in to be a “glorious” housemaid spiced with myriads of unjust treatments. I barely slept four hours every night and would work from morning till I went to bed:  cleaning, sweeping, fetching water several kilometers away from the house, cooking, hand washing their clothes, and going to the market. Even worse, she didn’t send me to school like she had promised.

Some days when she was off to work, I would cry myself sick, thinking of my poor mother in the village. I tried to send her letters through my aunt, but there was never a response. I guess the letters were never delivered—Aunty Nneoma must have opened them, read my crying words, and threw them away.

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I was with my aunt for over four years till I decided that “enough was enough.” I didn’t get to see my mother even once during this time and had now got words that she was terribly ill. I decided to leave the city and return to the village. I told my aunt that I needed to visit my mother.

I traveled back to Oboama and wept profusely when I set my eyes on my mother. She also lamented when she saw how pale I was. She insisted that I wasn’t returning to Enugu, even before I said anything about my ordeal.

My presence brought back a lot of life to my ailing mother, but unfortunately, it wasn’t for long.

That fateful morning, I woke up and started to do some house chores, warming the leftover soup from the evening before and sweeping our compound. It was a typical warm day. My mother called to me that she was feeling feverish and needed some herb tea. As I dashed to the kitchen to arrange firewood to boil some water, she called to me again. I told her that I would join her shortly, but she insisted that I come at once. I rushed back to where she was and she asked me to take a wooden stool and sit by her bedside. I did, and she lavished a lot of praise on me and told me not to change from what I had always been. Then she asked me to take care of my little brother. She concluded her statement by saying, “Keep my kitchen warm” (to date, I don’t understand what that meant). She smiled at once and fell asleep; my world came to a standstill.

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The following months were some of the worst in my life. I had realized in a very harsh way the reality of being an orphan, with two brothers who were AWOL and a younger one who depended on me for everything. I wasn’t even 10 yet.

Having to fend for myself and my little brother was difficult, but I had to; I had promised my mother at her deathbed. For the next few years, I did any petty job I could find to get by: doing farm work for other villagers, clearing farms in preparation for the planting season, cutting of dead trees to prepare firewood for cooking, and fetching water for aged people within the community. All the while, I tried to attend school, on and off. I knew, even in my young mind, that could be my only way out.

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At the age of 16, after being in and out of school countless times, the challenges of making a living were beginning to get to me. I wanted to create a better future for myself and my brother.

I scoured around for where I could get a job as a maid and eventually got a breakthrough with another family in Aba. I left for my new job soon after. My younger brother, who was 14, left for Abuja for his own struggles. My oldest brother was at this time in the US through a federal government scholarship, and my second brother was just nowhere to be found.

Life in Aba wasn’t any better. As a matter of fact, there is nothing pleasant about being a maid. I almost washed off the outer layer of my palms doing laundry, and my skull was wreaking from the heavy metal pails of water that I always troubled it with. But at the end of the day, it was still a job, so I stayed.

I stayed in Aba till I was 20, so I could save some money to continue my schooling, which I had stopped for the umpteenth time. I returned to Owerri to take my ordinary-level exams. I managed to pass the tests and applied for admission to the teachers’ training college. And by the grace of God, I got in!

That was truly a turning point in my life. By then my oldest brother in the US had settled in and agreed to support me through school.  He sent me all that I needed while I was at the college and made my stay in the school worthwhile.

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To cut a long story short, I graduated a few years later and became a teacher, and had since been teaching until I retired in 2017. While at the teachers’ training college, a friend of mine introduced me to her brother Eddy, who was an engineer and lived in Lagos. Through several months of exchanging letters and getting to know each other, we fell in love. Eddy and I got married in April 1985 and had our first son in August that year, although we lost him to the cold hands of death about 15 months later. Picking ourselves up from the grief of losing our first child, we went ahead to have four more boys, who are all grown-ups now and thriving in their own lives.

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On our Christian wedding day, 1985.

The tragedy of being orphaned early in life was a strong statement to what formed the basis of the eventual breakthrough that came my way. I built on the positives from the hurdles that I had to surmount rather than dwell on the turmoil that presented itself. The maltreatment I received when I was young turned out to be a stepping stone towards the future I had always dreamed about and the quality of the life I am living now. Today, I look back and see that I have fulfilled my dreams and am enjoying my retirement in the most amazing way. Every dream is valid if you soldier on!

 

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 This is the story of Nonye Akuche

Nonye was born in Gudi, North-Central Nigeria, in 1956, the third of four children in her family. She was orphaned before the age of 10 after losing her father in an accident and her mother to a strange illness. At a tender age, she had to take up the responsibility of making a living and caring for her little brother. She did all sorts of jobs and eventually worked as a maid, until she saved some money by the age of 20 and went back to continue her schooling. Nonye studied at the teachers’ training college and graduated to be a teacher. She met her husband Eddy through her friend at the college, and together they built a lovely family. Today, Nonye is a mother of four with her youngest child aged 26. Two of her brothers now live in California; sadly, she lost her second brother to a heart attack in Texas in 1997. Nonye retired from teaching two years ago and lives a peaceful life with her husband in the suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on September 20, 2019.

| Writer: Jeffrey Oparah | Editors: Kristen Petronio; MJ |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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