I knew an uncle when I was young; he used to come from Lagos. Everybody who came from Lagos then was like an angel to me, not because Lagos was spectacular or anything (I started Primary School there myself) but because the coming of an uncle from Lagos could have only meant one thing, gifts. When one learns an uncle would be coming the next day, one’s eyes would stay excitedly open throughout the night, anticipating and fantasizing. And if they would make you even more astonished, they should just say the gift they brought was procured in London. Ehn, ìlú èèbó! But then this particular uncle suddenly started speaking English to me, knowing I didn’t understand, yet did it to amuse himself. I would watch his lips move and I wouldn’t be able to make any sense of his words. It was only “How’re you?” I could cheerfully say “Ayam fine” to. Anything beyond that, I couldn’t deal. This uncle spoiled my love of Lagosians for me, for ever since he embarked on this ridiculing adventure; I avoided him and all his Lagosians alike. I disliked to be taunted.
Children like us, growing up in the uptown side of Oyo, always dirty and without slippers, those uncles must have thought worst of our futures, because evidently, they did their best to separate their children from us. They must have thought we could never qualify for greatness in life, Fifty Kobo coin was what they owed us and we wouldn’t argue we would grow up otherwise. And when our parents would make it worse for them; they would send us to them during holidays and in effect, we would sweep, fetch water, do dishes, do laundry and iron till our fingers bled, and after they’ve finished watching their movies, which we didn’t qualify to join them to watch, or especially when there’s power outage at night, they would call us to their sitting rooms and haul English words in our faces, and when we say, “Àwa ò gbéèbó!”, they would laugh, laugh and laugh till mirthful tears roll down their faces, and we would laugh too, helpless souls, what else could we do? They were our uncles.
They forbade their children to play with us so that we would not infect them with our bad attitudes and language. Sóosièrè ni? Àbóofésoríibú ni? Àbáyé e féé bàjé ni? Kòníí dáa fún o lágbára Olóhun. Ògún ní ó pa ó. These swear words were our constitution. We didn’t know who the president of Nigeria was, we weren’t aware of the larger world, we just wanted to eat and play. And after all those treatments, we would still feel happy, poor souls, we were with our uncles, we loved them. We didn’t wonder why their own children could not wash their clothes by themselves and we had to wash it for them. We never wondered why their mothers called them away if they heard our voices at the same playground. “Junior, come and do your homework o.” We didn’t complain when our uncles’ wives sent us out at late hours in the night to run errands they couldn’t have ever sent their own children. Did they care whether we could be kidnapped or bitten by snakes? Will I ever know? But we loved to be sent out anyway, for only then could we be able to smell jollof rice from people’s kitchen windows, catch sights of foreign dogs barking behind iron fences, and girls of our age whose mothers sold stuffs ask us our names. Àwon omo ìlú òkè.
The kids did allow us to play with their bicycles though, and we would eagerly wait each day to finish the chores and hit the streets, cutting through the air with all teeth bare. And after the holidays, we would return home to regale our parents with stories of how much we had enjoyed the places, how we ate jollof and fried rice, how we rode bicycles, how a dog chased us, and so on. Children don’t see faults in the deeds of people they sincerely love unless they’re faced with unmistakable hatred. To be candid, they weren’t completely at fault to expect nothing great of us though; we knew nothing but to play. Schools weren’t places of learning to us but venues of uniformed plays. The first half of the school hours, after being spent on picking vegetables for our mistresses, would be rewarded with a second half, to be spent outside the classrooms to wrestle (m’èmù), leap over mounted posts (fò’fò), play football (gbá bóòlù) and act Fádèyí Olóró, Abìjà wàrà bí ekùn, Ògúnjìmí, Òòsábùnmi, Sòhún Ogunlolá, Lúkúlúkú and Parí Olódó. We didn’t have any dream; we didn’t have a reason to dream. But we did enjoy the days; they don’t have such again.
Growing up and looking back at the years, I understand everything now. Our uncles didn’t want us around, for justifiable reasons obviously. We weren’t good companies to keep. But again, it wasn’t entirely our fault, was it? We were products of our environment. Environments and personal uniqueness are always at war over a child’s life. If the environment wins, a child becomes like others. But if the innate compass wins, a child becomes uniquely himself. Such a war was subconsciously fought in my life, and thankfully, today, the Tunde who had làpálàpá on his head then is now the man called lord, writer of over three hundred articles in English; the English they mocked him for. He surprised his mockers. He beat his odds.
Now do you see? It is not the strength of a sentiment but its duration that defines such sentiment a passion. Children always brim with potentials. If you don’t see it, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And when a child wants to be great, forget about how much or how little he has in the way of resources, if he’ll refuse to be limited by all the limiting limitations in his limited environment and he’ll keep moving against the current of mockery and the storm of financial frustration, such a child eventually ends up great. After all, every great man of today was once a child who dreamed, a child who struggled.
It’s shortsightedness to treat children like dirt because they’re dirty and without slippers. Don’t conceive poor futures of children who hawk sausage rolls on the expressways, stories change. And guess what, children don’t forget. The uncle who said, “That boy is a floor boy; he doesn’t belong on a bed,” has forgotten he said it but I do not only remember he said it, I also remember when he said it, where he said it, who he said it to and the cloth he wore when he said it. And I wasn’t even ten at the time.
When I see a dirty child in the street, I don’t see a gallows bird. When a student performs poorly in my class, I don’t see a lost cause. Most of them would go to the university to top their classes and prove that you were the one who didn’t know how to teach. And you would realize they were never dullards in the first place; they just either weren’t properly taught or didn’t have any reason to dream. What they need is not such words as “This boy, you better go and learn a trade. Your brain cells are completely dead.” What these children rather need is motivation; a reason to dream, a reason to want to excel; a reason to want to change. And if they will dare to dream, against all odds, you can never tell how far they will go. They must choose to dream; choose to learn; choose to be limitless and choose to live and not merely exist. For at the end, people don’t care about what you have or what you don’t have, where you were born or where you grew up, what they care about is where you have arrived and how many lives you’ve positively touched along the way. Things we say to children, thinking they’re just children and incapable of sound reasoning and comparative analysis, but you have no idea, do you? Just watch your words dear, most children don’t forget, I know what I’m saying. Help them dream. Don’t mock them.
– Lord eBay (and his random ruminations, 2018)