“WHY MAKE A PROMISE?” (SHORT STORY)
Patrick was so relieved he decided to buy a bottle of soft drink from a passing vendor’s cooler to go with the N100.00 moi-moi he was eating. He was sitting at the Faculty of Arts Quadrangle amidst scores of other students, some of who were eating, reading, typing their assignments, surfing the Internet or chatting with friends. The quadrangle had become his favourite spot on campus for cooling off between lectures in the overcrowded classrooms where he scarcely got a seat.
His Nokia 3310 phone was on top of the books beside him and he was certain that at any moment, he would receive a credit alert from his bank. Patrick was a second-year History student and he hadn’t paid his first semester school fees. The university had announced that the online portal for printing school fees receipts and registering one’s courses would be closed that day. After unsuccessfully soliciting for help from so many people in the past week, he had only one ray of hope to meet the deadline: the promise of a cash transfer from his uncle, Matthias, who lived in Abuja.
Matthias was his mother’s elder brother and although a rich trader, he had never helped his family before. Patrick was certain his mother would be cross with him for appealing to her brother because she swore to train her children singlehandedly after he let her down repeatedly in the two years immediately following her husband’s death. But Patrick was hard-pressed and had reached out to every living relative with means that he knew. They all told him they could squeeze nothing out for him because of their immediate family obligations and projects.
“So much for Africa’s much-touted extended family networks,” Patrick had sneered after the last call.
He had even approached his lecturers and got a total of Eighteen Thousand Naira from two of them, half of which had already been gulped by assignments he couldn’t afford to submit late for fear of having poor results.
(Related: “No One Is God!”)
In spite of the tough financial difficulty at home, Patrick had never been one to beg in the past. But all efforts to raise the money for his fees and other school expenses during the long vacation had been frustrated by his mum’s ill health. Her diabetes had become so debilitating that she stopped her petty trade in fruits.
Patrick’s two elder sisters had married artisans right after secondary school, one a welder, the other a painter. The oldest girl, Adanna, had three kids in quick succession before becoming a sewing apprentice. Her sons were aged between 5 and 2 and half. The younger, Nwanyioma, had a two-year-old daughter and plaited hair at home. Their meagre contributions couldn’t pay their mum’s medical bills, so Patrick had to sink in all he made as a labourer at construction sites during the long vacation and the strike that followed.
He sent his dear mum, whom he called Omalicha (for she was truly a beauty before the ravaging sickness came calling) to stay with Nwanyioma and her family when he came back to school and still sent them help from whatever he made from working over the weekend or when he cut classes, which had become more frequent than in his first year when his mum was healthier.
Patrick’s late father was a victim of a hit-and-run driver. He had been a carpenter and had worked tirelessly to pay for his children’s education. He specialised in roofing houses and had several young men working for him but he was knocked down by a speeding commercial bus as he was riding his bicycle home after a hard day’s work. Patrick had just entered secondary school when the tragedy occurred. His sisters shelved their father’s ambition to see them go to the university but Patrick’s mum encouraged him to proceed. But by his Junior WAEC year, she became sick and he started his labourer work to help. He devoted a year to it after writing his O’levels to save money to begin his university education.
Paying for his WAEC and NECO exams was a miracle. He had given up hope of taking the exams with his mates but his pastor (a 20-year-old who didn’t finish secondary school himself) surprised him by raising an offering on two Sundays for him. Their church was small: about 100 members, mostly youths. Their offerings were seen as seeds sown to help a needy brother with the expectation that God would intervene to better their lots too
Another miracle helped him to complete his first-year fees even before he accepted the admission. It was on a fateful Friday as he came down to carry concrete to the first floor of a building he and others were working on. He saw a handsome young man in dreads talking with their foreman. He was angry that the contractor was not on site and Patrick learnt he was Chigozie, the owner of the building. He and the foreman began a tour of the ground floor while Patrick continued his work. By his third trip down thereafter, the foreman asked him to run after the visitor and return his PDA which he had forgotten on the ground floor railing.
By the time Patrick got to the main road, Chigozie was entering his SUV (Patrick didn’t catch the model). He tapped on the driver’s window and when Chigozie rolled it down, he breathlessly informed him, “Sir, the foreman says to give you this. It appears you forgot it.”
Chigozie was surprised at how polished the language spoken by the labourer sounded. “Where did you learn to speak that way,” he asked.
“What way, Sir?”
“You don’t sound like a labourer. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in school?”
“Sir, it’s a long story.”
“Indulge me,” Chigozie insisted. Patrick looked back at the site and Chigozie understood he was worried the foreman might punish him for not returning promptly.
“How much do you make here?”
“It depends on the work available. Today, I hope to get Two Thousand Naira.”
“I’ll explain to the foreman. Go on, tell me your story.” Patrick was unconvinced, so Chigozie gave him Two Thousand Naira.
(Related: A Way Of Escape)
Patrick thanked him and gave him his life story in a nutshell. Chigozie, who had also lost his dad at a young age, sympathised with the boy. He reasoned that if his relatives had not picked him up after his dad’s death, he would not be a permanent US resident with the kind of job that enabled him to be putting up this commercial building for his mum’s comfort and sustenance at the age of 28. He wished he earned more, he would have offered the boy a scholarship but he had his mum and poorer relatives to care for plus the huge project (a three-storeyed building) he was handling. Nonetheless, he resolved not to leave him empty-handed.
“You said you’ve got admission. Find out what you need to get started: your initial fees ….”
Patrick interrupted him. “I’ve already done that, Sir. The acceptance fee is Twenty-five Thousand Naira plus Sixty-five Thousand Naira school fees.”
That sounded high for an undergraduate programme. Where do they expect people to come up with that kind of money in Nigeria’s bad economy, he wondered. Or it may be the boy was inflating the figures. Heck, he may not even have got admission but made up the story to take advantage of his kindness. He would need to verify his story before acting. But on second thoughts, he decided to finish with the matter there and then because he had too many things on his plate than checking a poor boy’s story and he was travelling back to the US in a few days. It would break his heart to forget and miss the opportunity of assisting a needy soul.
“How can I transfer money to you?”
“What? You mean now?”
“Yes, I’ d like to help you pick up your admission. A fellow like you doesn’t belong at a site like this.”
“Oh my God! I have an account with First Bank, oh my God!”
“Calm down, okay? I may not give you all you need but I will give you something reasonable. It may be because of you that I’m here today because I’d scheduled to see this site with the contractor on Sunday when no one will be around. I want you to determine to graduate no matter the difficulty. The God who brought me here today will see you through.”
“So, can I have your account number?”
Patrick recited the number and two minutes later, his phone beeped. Chigozie had transferred Seventy Thousand Naira to his account. Patrick was still thanking him profusely by the time he drove off.
Ever since he had been seeking help to pay his second-year fees of Forty-five Thousand Naira, he had been wondering where all the Chigozies in the world were. He had been asking God to provide him with a sponsor: just one Chigozie to lighten his load. He wasn’t asking for someone to carry his whole burden but just a concerned man or woman to pay his fees so that he would be hustling for his sustenance, levies, books, etc. Plus his contribution to his mum’s care.
By 2 p.m., Patrick was getting agitated. He called his uncle’s line and he brusquely responded, “Nwoke m, how many times will you call me today?”
“I’m sorry, Sir, I just wanted to remind you that today is the deadline for paying the fees.”
“Why are they fixing deadline? Did they give anybody money to keep? And why are they charging you school fees- is that not a federal university?”
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Patrick was worried that his uncle was about to embark on one of his tirades about the failures of the government. He didn’t have the call credit for that, so he focused his response on his problem. “Exams will start on Monday. That is why today is the deadline.”
“Send me your account number. Let me see what I can do.”
Patrick’s heart sank. This latest reply from Matthias was worse than his response earlier in the day: “You don’t have a problem. I will transfer the money to you immediately.”
He reminded his uncle he’d sent him the account number in the morning and added, “I’m sending it again now, to your two lines. Thank you.”
(Related: God’s Word Never Fails)
Four hours passed and there was no word from his uncle. Patrick had spent most of his day at the quadrangle hoping to rush to a cyber cafe to generate his receipts, zoom off to a bank to pay the fees and back to the cyber cafe to register his courses.
By 6:30 p.m., he left for the lodge where he squatted with a classmate. His last two calls had been cut by his uncle. Matthias had not changed. He was still as undependable as he had been to his mum, Patrick bitterly thought. What made it worse was that in waiting expectantly at the quadrangle, he had missed his lectures for the day and an unscheduled test in one of them.
“Why make a promise, why hang my hopes like this? Telling me to get lost would have been better!”
Now, he would be looking for not only his regular fees, but an additional Five Thousand Naira in late registration fees. He couldn’t restrain the heaving of his chest and the tears that cascaded down his cheeks as he walked back to the lodge he called home.
Ⓒ Edith Ugochi Ohaja 2019
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