Left to me, every October 6 would be a public holiday. It is perhaps by divine providence that the Nigerian government has made this Monday a holiday to celebrate Eid el-Kabir. Thus, I enjoin corporate bodies and individuals sharing “Barka da Sallah” greetings to add “Happy Golden Jubilee” to messages addressed to me.
Celebrate with me, ladies and gentlemen, as I mark half a century of my life. I was born on Orie market day, Tuesday, in a beautiful village east of the River Niger. There were no hospitals or maternity homes within 10km from my village then. So, I was born in a room not far away from a manger! My mother, who later became a midwife, was only 18 then. My father, whose story I have told in this space, bore a striking resemblance to Obierika of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. They had, but lost, their first child (a boy like me) in 1963.
At 50, I’m reluctant to recite a line in Nnamdi Azikiwe’s poem, “My life has been a joy to me”. Zik and I are two generations apart, and our journeys are quite different. I was a toddler when the art of coup-plotting began. The country was plunged into a senseless civil war that claimed my father’s life: “gallant” federal troops from currently Boko Haram-ravaged areas shot him, not on the battlefield but because he lived in a Biafra territory. I’ve lived through the “oil boom” and the time Independence Day was celebrated with great ceremony in schools and in homes. I witnessed the beginning of “austerity measures”: suddenly, in 1981, the unexpected started happening. A packet of detergent that was sold 10kobo climbed up to 15kobo, then 17, 20 and 30kobo! (The same product is sold 20,000kobo today] I also witnessed the start of graduate unemployment as well as the era of SAP and election annulment.
I’ve lived in the two worlds that exist for the rich and the poor – in villages and in cities, in rustic Lejja and in Washington, DC; in a ghetto (Iponri) in Lagos and in highbrow Wuse in Abuja. As a journalist, I have dined with CEOs and with beggars. I have spoken my minds to presidents in their living rooms and to elders in village halls.
Looking back to the road I’ve travelled these past 50 years, I can confirm that, indeed, human life is “laborious, nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes stated. I can also confirm the truth buried in the Bible book of Ecclesiastics: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…” The biggest fools in this world are those who violate their consciences in the course of pursuing wealth, fame or happiness. For conscience, truly, is an open wound.
Are there other lessons of life that I can pass on to the younger ones today? They are many. Apart from my own experiences that have been rich and quite interesting, I have always had friends among the elderly whose words of wisdom I cherish. Let me make five observations, one for each decade:
Life and death
I’ve wondered how people in their 80s and 90s are able to survive the shock of losing several close relations and friends right from their childhood. The secret, which I’ve discovered myself, is: be a shock absorber. From age 6 perhaps, my emotions have been assaulted by the deaths of former playmates. Several close friends with whom I shared ideas and ate from the same plate did not make it to age 50. Partly as a result, I have on occasion doubted the existence of life after death. My doubts have not been cleared, but it is better to believe – on faith.
Religion and morality
Anyone who doubts the existence of God should be isolated, at least until he explains why all the advancements in science and technology have not solved life’s mysteries. But even atheists and agnostics, I believe, have religions in their consciences. The society I grew up in did not worship wealth, unlike these days that many worship money but pretend they worship God.
I’m supposed to know: I started seeking God from an early age – a search that took me to three other Christian denominations apart from the Catholic Church into which I was born. By the time I reached adulthood, I found that all religions and all churches were similar. I had to stick to the Catholic Church which I found unassuming and closer to reality than any other. We did not have mushroom (or warehouse) churches as we have them today, though I observed that some gold seekers had started hiding behind churches even in the early 1980s. Armed robbery was unknown in the cities I lived in from age 9 to age 19. Thieves existed, but they were stealing to stay alive, not to drive the latest cars or contest elections.
Money and happiness
As someone who has seen poverty, I know how its pangs feel. I’ve never been rich but I don’t envy the rich many of whom I’ve been close to. Take it from me: money doesn’t bring happiness. It creates problems that did not exist. I’ve learned two lessons from Shakespeare’s plays: 1. “Neither a lender nor a borrower be.” 2. “Envy no man until he has lived and died.” Interpretation: Don’t live above your income; be contented with what you have. Some of the “billionaires” you see are never happy and do not sleep at night because they live on borrowed funds or borrowed time (for those who have sacrificed their life to the devil in occult kingdoms).
Age and lifestyle
Old age creeps in about age 45. From then, few fail to contend with diseases like hypertension, diabetes and associated ailments. Have you wondered why most sportspeople retire before that age? Hearts, lungs, veins, kidneys and livers that have worked nonstop for 40 years ought to get tired. To prepare for the inevitable, young people should learn to eat less, drink less and engage in physical labour or exercise. Farmers and artisans are on the right track!
Schools and jobs
I have refused to do postgraduate degrees because I have felt dissatisfied with the education system. When you consider that I was in school almost 30 years ago, you would understand where the system is now. I have always known that every venture founded on fraud must collapse. Western education has failed because it is full of lies. Schools that will survive in the next 20 years are those that teach skills – those that produce employers, not jobseekers, talkers or clever crooks. Genuine entrepreneurs should start good schools, institutes and academies.
Epilogue: It has been a privilege to attain age 50. At a certain time in life, I doubted I would live up to this day. But here I am, surrounded by a prayerful wife and four wonderful kids. [Our first child has just made us proud by scoring A in each of 13 or so subjects she took at the Junior WASSCE this year.] I’ve not forgotten the love of a host of other relations and friends.
To commemorate my 50th birth anniversary, we have launched this digital newspaper dedicated to pursuing society’s ideals. See you at www.eyeway.ng every hour and every day.