Heart of Arts

Death on the Road

Toyin Falola

In all toil, there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.

 Proverbs 14:23

The purpose of work is viewed through different lenses, but the consensus is that it is a medium via which humans guarantee survival. Our conception of work through the ages conditions us to see it as a prerequisite for attaining elementary but fundamental needs. Yet, when those needs are practically a given due to the volume of wealth or status a person has acquired, work takes on a different meaning. Then, it develops a subjective definition; to the billionaire who spent his youth investing in high-yield markets, it could be optional, a mere indulgence in interesting projects. To one whose wealth is a product of substantial inheritance, it is perhaps an exercise in proving the self-capable of recording personal accomplishments to which claims of true ownership can be laid. To another whose life centres around politics, such as governors and presidents, work represents impact — the investment of effort in a goal that is not simply to make ends meet but also to transform the fortunes of a people. Working in such a context is a responsibility.

These reflections on work are more often than not only available to a few. Many in Africa, my part of the world and, indeed, much of the developing areas of the globe, cannot lay claim to liberal, ideological views of their relationship with work. If at all there are ideas, they are most likely constrained by the desire to feed a family and raise and set up a grand future for their offspring. Work here is distant from notions of choice. You do what you must to survive, whether you love it or not. Many times, you learn of poverty and deprivation influencing the lives of people in this category through their popular culture. Afrobeats, particularly, features a range of artists who sing in recollection of their struggles in hoods or backwater areas as children. Likewise, Black American and Black British soundscapes tell the same stories.

Herein lies the question, “At what cost is a great deal devoted to work?” Surely, some due must be paid for the endless pursuit that the bulk of our species has set upon. And surely, the finite nature of our existence also means that we possess doubts as to the purpose of it all. I will tell you a story to illustrate this.

Like many young people in the more than a hundred million multidimensionality poor Nigerian population, Akinola was born to the low-income cadre of the society. His parents were a couple educated enough to read, sign their names, and perform a wide variety of literate functions but lacking in terms of a tertiary education. Given this, both understood the relevance of proper education for their kids but were hamstrung by tough economic conditions that were unfair to the artisanal trades to which they had committed themselves. Thus, Akinola and his four siblings wound up attending government-owned schools, commendable only for the fact that it provided a semblance of formal education to the hordes of learners who attended it, but dismal by every standard by which we may deem such an affair quality education. So, even while he was talented, his skills were an unshorn diamond in the rough. From his preteen years up till the early days of secondary school, Akin commenced his day with hurriedly completed chores, a hike down to his school, his midday meal dangling in a plastic bag in his hand, and rounded off with a rush back home to assist with work. Despite the relative difficulties of this period, his life possessed such stability as a family with resources such as his could afford. At least until tragedy struck.

The young boy would later suffer the loss of his father in an accident, setting off a stream of events that deteriorated his family’s condition. Where there had been hopes that his parents could stagger their children’s education by sending one child to school at a time, there was only assurance that if the demands of life did not extend them too widely, all siblings would only make it as far as secondary education, the same as the people who had birthed them. Akin was, therefore, thrust early into a work-life himself, moving now from a child who returned home to help his parents to one who completed his days as a part-time apprentice. In all this, one thing defined his life, and that was the strength of character that governed him. Unpleasant as his status in life was, he would often approach things with a bright ray of optimism and relentlessness. Bestowed on this good-natured lad was also an ability to learn rapidly, a trait that endeared him to his boss during his apprenticeship.

Though the boss was not better off than Akin’s father had been in his lifetime, having taken him on as a favour to his deceased friend, he became a father figure in Akin’s life. His guidance focused Akin’s mind, enabling him to navigate a distracting study environment with a thirst for success. ‘Baba’, as Akin preferred to call his boss-cum-mentor, encouraged Akin to attempt a balance between work under his watch and his academic life. So long as he was preoccupied with matters of education, he imposed tasks on him liberally. Thus emerged the critical evolution that the young man needed as the further he found instruction in Baba’s words, the more he realized how dire his family’s situation was. His reigning philosophies, therefore, became a quest to never be submissive to poverty and a lust for peak excellence amongst peers. For him, it would be a disservice to be emasculated financially in terms of any remarkable status among peers. He would neither be condemned to the folk who left school to lead mediocre lives, nor would he struggle to make ends meet.

With these in mind, he committed to passing his school certificate examinations in one sitting, intending to proceed from there to a tertiary education. And here, his ambition came under threat. Twice, he struggled to raise the funds needed, and twice, he failed to gain admission to study his desired course at the institution he chose.   Amid these attempts were obligations to help his mother and younger siblings with their lives, straining his motivation on numerous occasions. Still, with his guiding philosophies in his mind, he redoubled his efforts, extending study hours into the deep hours of the night and accepting every opportunity that came his way to refine his knowledge. He finally broke the jinx on his third try, surpassing even his expectations and those of the people who doted on him.

Save for an early recognition of his potential in his tertiary days and a stream of scholarship awards, little changed in the circumstances of his life. He was required to work as a student to augment the incomes of his family, and he also had to work extra hard to retain his academic clout. The combined burden would have crushed the average person, but Akin’s ambitions burned too brightly to be extinguished by such challenges. He was an optimist who also believed in the realistic principles that he would certainly not reap from where he did not sow. Defining points in his academic career included volunteer roles as a research assistant to his lecturers and emergence on his faculty Honours list for being an outstanding student.

Expectedly, he graduated from the top of his class, venturing into the vast and turbulent landscape of the Nigerian labour market. His was a story of trials and triumph to his family and all who knew him. But that also meant that the expectations that had trailed him from very early in life blossomed into a much bigger bundle of responsibilities. Having redefined what was possible for people born under similar trajectories to his, he owed no practical and moral obligations to assist family and acquaintances, either distant or remote. Despite his academic achievements, Akinsola wasn’t finished. A vast landscape of goals stretched before him. Undeterred, he persevered, tackling his Master’s and Doctorate degrees, building a family, and steadily rising through the social ranks. His struggles as a boy were now stories to be written into speeches, delivered to audiences eager to hear from a luminary.

But one day, on one of his many foreign trips, Akinsola, now decades into a fulfilling life, would lay on his bed in a hotel room with windows that peered into the roofs of skyscrapers and sigh deeply in his sleep. He would remember the years he had spent racing to his primary school, a bowl of food in one hand, a cross bag swinging diagonally across his body as he ran. He would remember being told of his father’s death, how his young mind had struggled to comprehend the transience of human life and the stubborn, unyielding body that belonged to his father. He would remember sitting high atop his colleagues’ shoulders as he won yet another competition on behalf of his university, the calmness he had felt when he was told of his distinction in his postgraduate degrees, almost like he had always known they would come. He would remember life, respect, honours and family. Then he would sigh deeply at the lengthy yet hurried progression of it all, knowing with a small hint of a smile that sigh would be his last.

 

PS: This piece was provoked in Madrid. While waiting to board a plane, I received three invitations to give lectures in Morocco, Australia and Senegal. I sighed, mumbled some words to myself and said, “TF, you will die on the road!”

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