‘Hoooopppe!!!’ came the familiar shrill voice that wakes me up every morning. It wakes plenty of people up, actually. My mother’s voice has the power to silence me and make me stand up at attention instantly, all at the same time. But I love her. My mother is the kindest soul I know – a woman with nothing but pure intentions and the sincerest of consideration for others. She puts others’ good above her own… sometimes, too much that she has been easy prey to those with not so good intentions. ‘That’s why we’re still just here,’ I whispered to myself. With the usual groan, I sat up and stumbled out of our rickety bamboo bed and made my way to the next room: the cramped, dark, slightly fetid space our family of four calls our dining room, kitchen, and living room, all in one.
‘Here, your sister set this aside for you to eat. Eat up and get dressed for school quickly! Your sister has already gone ahead to school,’ my mother said, as she pointed to the miserable looking plate of garri and beans on the table. ‘I’m ok, Mom. I am not hungry,’ I lied. ‘I want you to have it, please. Besides, I have to hurry and get to school earlier than the bell. We also have a group assignment to finish. Please, Mom, have breakfast before you leave for the market.’ I quickly turned away, not giving my mother a chance to protest. I have gotten used to skipping breakfast most days, knowing that my mother does the same, just so we, her three daughters, will have something to eat. ‘I just need to beat her at her own game,’ I told myself. I quickly made my way to our small bathroom, which is about 3 ft. by 3 ft. of damp space in total, and serves as our bathroom and toilet. Truly, it is not easy to live in my area, but, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
My name is Hope and, along with my two sisters, I was born in the most densely populated part of Owerri. This has been our home for the entire 11 years of my life; more for my mother and eldest sister, Grace, who is 12. My father left us right after my youngest sister, Faith, was born eight years ago. He said he had a better prospect of earning more and taking care of us if he could find his way to Lagos. Go to Lagos he did, but we never heard from him since then. My mother has been single-handedly taking care of us from then till now. With every splash of water from the bucket against my head and body, I am reminded that all we have in our lives are all thanks to the un-complaining hard work and sacrifice of our mother. Every last drop of water coming out of the bucket has been because of my mother’s unrelenting love for us. I finished bathing as fast as I could – which is not hard as I try to use up as little water as I can. All I know is our mother pays rent for our tiny little shanty, and we have non-existent light which she likewise pays for to our landlord every month. Numerous times, I have heard my mother arguing with and enduring the threat of eviction from our landlord, Mazi Uche, over the exorbitant rate of estimated billing for electricity each month.
‘Enough of this!’ I admonished myself. It will not do me any good to every day dwell on the deplorable situations from living in such condition all my life. Or does it? Perhaps this could motivate me to strive higher, to do better. The challenge is to never allow myself to fall into the trap of getting used to one’s circumstances. ‘Never,’ I muttered under my breath. This has become my daily mantra – my personal vow to myself to never grow comfortable in abject poverty.
‘I’m leaving now, Mom,’ I said as I reached for her hand to squeeze it. ‘Are you sure you took a thorough bath? You were in the bathroom for such a short time,’ she eyed me suspiciously. I playfully rolled my eyes at her and said ‘Bye, Mom. Take care in the market!’ I bid her goodbye with a smile.
My best friend, Evelyn, also lives in the area, and we go to the same elementary school. We are both in primary six. As is the routine, I pass by her shack so we can trek to school together. ‘Evelyn! Evelyn!’ I call from outside their house. If our shanty is depressing, Evelyn’s is even more so. Their walls are more bits and pieces like an uncompleted building pieced together to hold up the square structure barely resembling a home. ‘Evelyn! Hurry, we’re going to be late for school!’ I yelled out again. ‘Coming! I’m coming!’ my best friend yelled back from inside the house. A few seconds later, she bursts out of the door, looking as if she could not wait to leave the house – their house. Her hair was still uncombed and her school uniform was still unbuttoned at the blouse, showing her undershirt that had the fading prints of ‘Acme Paints’ on the front. ‘Here I am, let’s go!’
‘Evelyn, you smell! Didn’t you take a bath before putting your uniform on?’ was the first thing I asked her the minute she came up to me. Up close, Evelyn didn’t just look unkempt – she looked utterly tired, as if she had not slept at all. ‘We have no water – again. Mazi Uche did not allow us to fetch from the well yesterday (we shared one landlord, as did several other houses in the area) because Father was not able to pay for two months now. And Ifeanyi is sick. He’s been pooping all night and I had to help my mom fetch water from the construction site, just so we can clean Ifeanyi’s messes,’ Evelyn recounted. Ifeanyi is Evelyn’s baby brother – the youngest of all six siblings. Ifeanyi is a small baby of seven months old and Evelyn is the eldest among them all. ‘All the water we fetched through the night were used up and I didn’t have enough time to go back to the construction site to fetch more water just so I could take a bath. You know I can’t be late to school again. A few more tardy days and I am going to get sent home! Now, who would you trek to school with?’ she playfully asked with a wide grin.
Evelyn is a remarkable girl. Even in a life filled with hardships, she still manages to find a smile to give, a laugh to share. Which is probably why I have not completely given up to depression myself. Evelyn is my best friend and I could never imagine what I would do without her by my side.
As Evelyn and I trek to our school every morning, we pass people from different walks of life. Some going to work in offices, some like my mother, hurrying to the market. I always wonder why some many of them look so different from us. Once we leave out shanty, we enter a new world. A world of fine buildings and motorable roads. The people who live in these houses were definitely different from us. Sometimes, I wondered if their parents also missed breakfast just so their children could have something to eat in the morning.
What of the prestigious private secondary school we pass every morning on the way to our LEA primary school? As always, I would marvel at the sprawling grounds of Excellent Grade Academy (EGA) – a highly respected secondary school for the elite. Only students from rich backgrounds could afford to pay the fees of the school. If you graduate from here, you can pretty much go to any university that you wish and study any course you want. It has been my dream to attend a prestigious school like EGA, schools like the State’s Science School and FGC, for those who did exceptionally well in their entrance exams. Maybe if I am able to attend such a world-class secondary school as a student, I can go to University and earn a degree that will land me a real job more than just selling fish and vegetables in the shanty market. And when I have an amazing job after University, it means no more cramp, damp, and fetid spaces; the end of living without basic amenities. Oh, how I can help Mother make a better life for our family!
‘Hope, hurry up. Let’s go!’ Evelyn’s voice breaks me out of my reverie. It’s time to go to school. In real life.
The next day, I was up long before Mother’s shrill voice could pierce through my sleep. My eyes were wide open and darting back and forth, as if seeking to make sense of the stillness of what feels like the early makings of dawn. Everything was quiet, as if the night has not completely separated from the break of dawn. Mother was sound asleep to my right, with Faith on her right. Grace was also still asleep on my left side and it seemed like I was the only one awake for miles. I slowly sat up and gingerly crept off of our rickety bed, careful not to wake up my mother and sisters. I moved quietly to the only window of the bedroom and gazed out into everything that night stood for in our quarters. The entire quarters was generally quiet, but it’s not peaceful. Though everybody seemed to be fast asleep, there hardly is a feeling of rest anywhere. My eyes were drawn to the direction of Evelyn’s shanty. What do you know – it is Evelyn’s shanty. It was the only home in the shanty with activity going on, under a pale glow of what seemed like a spatter of oil lamps or candlesticks or both. ‘What could be going on at Evelyn’s?’ I wondered softly. I look past Evelyn’s lit window and onto the horizon. There is a streak of red breaking through the horizon. Morning is coming.
‘Hope, are you all ready for school? I need to leave for school now,’ Evelyn said. I was surprised to get a knock on our door so early and Evelyn being the one to fetch me first, when usually, I was the one who called her down so we can go to school. ‘Wow, Evelyn, look at you, so early! We don’t need to leave for school for another hour, what’s the rush? Do you have an assignment to finish?’ I asked. ‘Um,’ Evelyn began. ‘I don’t have money for tricycle. I need to walk to school.’ My best friend is almost embarrassed, but she knows she can tell me anything. ‘Give me three minutes, Evelyn. Let me just put on my uniform real quick and I will walk with you.’
As Evelyn and I walked out of the quarters and towards school, I handed her part of my akara and bread so we could have breakfast while we walked, to save time. ‘What’s going on, Evelyn?’ I asked my best friend. ‘Ifeanyi is still sick and so all of Father’s money had to go to buying medicine,’ Evelyn told me sadly. ‘I didn’t get any sleep at all again last night. It was another long, long night of fetching water from the construction site. The good news is, I was able to save some water for myself and take a bath this morning!’ Evelyn finished off with a faint laugh.
By then, we have reached Science Road and were walking by the fences of EGA where new announcement posters seem to have been placed. ‘Evelyn, look! The National Unity Schools entrance examination for JSS1 is happening in October! Just a month away! We should try out for it, Evelyn! Who knows? We might be able to make it!’ My heart skipped beats as my dreams of attending the FGC on a scholarship seemed one month closer.
‘Oh, Hope. We both know I don’t have what it takes to make it to FGC, much less on a scholarship! You know my position in the class, right? The number of lessons I’ve missed because of all my absences and tardiness in elementary school alone makes me ineligible for any kind of scholarship!’ As Evelyn told me this, she was half-laughing, half-tearful. And my heart tore a little for her. Evelyn sounds like she has surrendered. ‘Evelyn,’ I began carefully, trying hard to scale back the excitement from my voice. ‘Don’t you want the chance to make a better life for yourself and, in turn, for your family? Getting in FGC is a huge step in that direction, Evelyn. We can study to become scientists! Engineers, even! Evelyn, it’s our huge step away from the squatters’ quarters! Besides, you wouldn’t know until you tried, right?’ I want so much to take the scholarship exams with nobody else but my best friend. ‘Hope… I’m just trying to be realistic here. You are FGC material. No doubt there. But me… I’m not. And Father said that after I graduate primary school this year, maybe I can start helping Mother in the market so we can sell more vegetables. We can rent another market space and I’d manage that. So double the chances to sell more in a day, see? That’s making things better for our family, too.’
Never give up. Never give in to poverty. Never! ‘Evelyn, listen. You can be so much more than a wet market vendor. Wet market vendors earn enough for the day. Okay yes, sometimes more than what you need for the day, if you’re lucky. But having a solid education with a real purpose will get you so much farther than just a day,’ I pled with Evelyn. ‘Come on, Evelyn. It will be so much more fun and meaningful if you and I spend our secondary school lives together in the same school!’
Evelyn wordlessly took my hand and just held it in hers. ‘Let’s walk faster. Engineer Hope can’t be late for school!’ Evelyn joked and was silent the rest of the way.
‘Hope, let’s go home. Mother told me to come straight home after school so I can help my younger sister watch over Ifeanyi. Now that Ifeanyi no longer has diarrhea, Mother is back to selling in the market full-time,’ Evelyn explained as she tugged on my arm. ‘Sorry, Evelyn, I’d like to stay on for a little bit and read up in the library. The National Competitive Examination is just two days away and I just want to read some more. Maybe you can hang out with me in the library. You did say your sister is already watching Ifeanyi, right?’ I cajoled Evelyn. ‘I’ll even pay for your tricycle fare going home, if you stay and review with me,’ I added with a grin. ‘Well,’ Evelyn started, seemingly interested with my offer of company and free ride home. ‘Throw in some fish balls, and it’s a definite yes!’
Evelyn and I spent two hours in the library, poring through our notebooks and past questions. Later on, in the tricycle ride home, Evelyn seemed to be in good spirits and was almost non-stop in talking about new things she learned from our two-hour jaunt in the school library.
The moment Evelyn stepped into their house, her new-found excitement over added learning was cut short as she was confronted with an enraged mother who was red in the face from all the anger. ‘What time is it, Evelyn?! Where on earth have you been?!’ yelled Evelyn’s mother. ‘I was in the school library with Hope, Mother. We were studying. I learned a lot of helpful things, Mother!’ but her mother would hear none of it. ‘Wasn’t I clear, Evelyn, that I wanted you straight home after school? So you can help your kid sister watch over Ifeanyi? You disobeyed me! And now, Ifeanyi is throwing up and pooping like crazy again and your kid sister had all but gone mad, watching over the baby by herself!’
‘That’s just the thing, Mother! I think I found some answers why Ifeanyi’s diarrhea and stomach troubles seem to keep coming back. I read up on it! It’s our water, Mother! And I think I know some things we can do to help keep Ifeanyi and everyone else healthy!
‘It’s our water, Mother! We’re not sure if the water that we’ve been fetching from the construction site is clean and safe for drinking. Neither is the water from our own tap – you know, if Mazi Uche doesn’t cut off our supply. Either way, what we can do is to boil the water first before we drink it. And should we start to get our tap water back, we can filter the water that comes out of our water lines,’ Evelyn was on a roll. ‘Also, let us make sure, too, that the containers we have are not contaminated themselves…’
‘You don’t understand, do you, Evelyn?!’ her mother cut her off. ‘We have neither the time nor the luxury to do such things! Your father and I are both busy working so we all can have food to eat and your brother to have his medicines. Your brother is sick! Sick! And all I asked of you is to come home straight after school and HELP! He probably wouldn’t be sick right now if you had come home as you were told!’ Evelyn’s mother was exasperated.
Evelyn continued, ‘But mother! If we can start to make changes to how we treat our water, then we will have less problems to worry about and we would not need to be spending so much on medicine. If we only had clean water to drink and to bathe ourselves, we would not have to clean so much mess in this house…’ but Evelyn’s mother’s hand descended across her face hard even before Evelyn could finish her thought.
‘How dare you answer back so insolently? It is not enough that you defied me, now you talk back to me this way! Is this what you learn in school? Maybe we should stop sending you to that school, then?!’ Evelyn’s mother threatened.
‘Mother, please…’ Evelyn began to plead. ‘No, you get away from my face and don’t speak to me until you’ve learned how to better respect me, your own mother!’ her mother yelled.
The following morning, Evelyn did not go to school with me. Instead, she handed me a hand-written letter telling me about the words she exchanged with her mother and how she needs to stay home that day and watch over Ifeanyi who is sick again while her mother and father went to work. I felt a touch guilty for making Evelyn stay in school with me yesterday. ‘But hey, if I don’t see you between now and tomorrow, I want to wish you ‘good luck’ on the National Competitive Examination tomorrow. Wow them all, Hope! You could very well be the first from the quarters to make it to FGC… you are our hope, Hope!’ and Evelyn ended her letter with a doodle of a smiley face.
Come Monday morning, right after the National Competitive Examination, I passed by Evelyn’s house again, hoping that she will be allowed back to school by then. Evelyn’s sister, Nwaka, told me that Evelyn has already left for school an hour ago. She needed to leave early because she was to walk to and from school today.
In school, I caught up to Evelyn during break time and I offered to walk home with her after school. ‘That would be great, Hope! Then you can tell me all about the National Competitive Exam and how it went for you. Just make sure to walk briskly, okay? I can’t be late making it home again!’ she finished with a wink.
This went on for several days – Evelyn leaving the quarters earlier because she was no longer given money for the tricycle ride to school. She explained that she doesn’t want to trouble me to leave an hour early each day and make me walk the five or so kilometers to school every day with her. On some days, Evelyn would let me walk the distance home with her after we’re done with school, but on most days, she would just quietly head on home by herself. ‘I have to get right on home and take care of Ifeanyi. He’s still sick.’ Or he’s sick again. Or Nwaka is sick. Or another sister of hers.
The day I’ve been waiting for finally came. I was by the gates of FGC at the break of dawn, joining the hordes of people who are also hoping to find their names on the list of successful students for the next school year.
I am now an incoming JSS1 FGC scholar!
As I raced back to the quarters to share the greatest news to what I anticipated would be an equally ecstatic mother, my mind was racing as well which strand I will choose when I reach the Senior Secondary School. Do I want Science? Or am I more of Technology? Oh wow, I can be an Engineer if I want to be! Or am I exceptional enough at Mathematics? No matter what I choose, I know life, from now on, will be better. Not just for me, but for everyone in my family.
After I shared the good news with Mother, the next person I wanted to know about my good fortune was Evelyn. Maybe now, Evelyn can believe it better when I tell her that any dream is possible, with hard work and determination.
There was unusual activity around Evelyn’s shanty. There were scores of people huddled at different tables, playing with what appeared to be cards and were laying down coins and paper bills. I noticed a spatter of people coming and going through Evelyn’s front door. As I observed closer and closer, I saw what appeared to be a pair of bright lamps emitting glaringly yellow light, filling up the entire house. The lights from inside Evelyn’s house were not from oil lamps or candlesticks anymore, no. They were electric and they glared. My heart started racing again, but this time, it wasn’t the ecstatic kind of pounding – there was a sinking feeling of dread with every heavy beat of my heart. By the time I reached the door way, I can smell the eerily familiar scent of flowers and candles. ‘Oh Lord no, please don’t tell me something terrible has ultimately happened to Ifeanyi,’ I prayed silently in my head as I inched closer and closer to Evelyn’s doorway. As I was about to enter the house, I found Nwaka, Evelyn’s kid sister, carrying a fussy Ifeanyi in her arms. ‘Oh my God, Nwaka. I was afraid something terrible has happened to Ifeanyi! And look, he’s okay! Thank God! What’s going on, Nwaka? Why are all these people here?’
It was only after my barrage of words came out that I noticed Nwaka’s tear-drenched eyes. ‘It’s not Ifeanyi, Hope. It’s Evelyn. She was walking home from school yesterday when she got hit by a speeding car. Maybe because it was dusk when she made it home, that’s why the driver of the car did not see her very well.’
It’s been nine months since I lost my best friend, Evelyn. Life has not been the same without her, I must admit. After she was gone, it was a little harder to see the silver lining to things, unlike when Evelyn was still around and she always had a reason to smile under any circumstance. Living in the squatters’ quarters was actually a little more bearable with Evelyn around. And now that she’s gone, every cramped, damp, and fetid corner seemed more so. The crowd seemed to be closing in a little bit more; it was harder for sunlight to reach every nook and crevice, and the odor of stagnation seemed to fester a little bit more.
Maybe this is the silver lining. With Evelyn gone, I am less inclined to bear what living in the quarters does to us. With one less reason to smile in this place, comes one more reason to do everything I can to try and get my family out of here.
That was the thought that carried me from the moment I opened my eyes this morning to the front of the class where I am standing now.
‘Good morning, everyone. My name is Hope and I live right across the road. It may not be for long, though, as I know that my being here today and for the next six years, means I can go places. And I will. Because I am here to learn doubly well. I am here to learn for both myself and my best friend who would have also been here with us if only she was given the chance.’
Life, for it to mean something, requires many sacrifices. This, I know now. But sad is the life where there is too much sacrifice for little or no reward. I will not let you down, Evelyn. Never.