A Kind Act

Princewill Udom

© Copyright 2022 by Princewill Udom

Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma'aji at Unsplash.
Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma'aji courtesy of Unsplash.

In September 1999, after my undergraduate studies in southern Nigeria, I moved to Abuja, the capital city in the north-central region of the country. I had just turned twenty-seven years old, so I felt mature and ready to grasp the nettle. The relocation came after nearly a year of several failed attempts at finding a job, deep personal thoughts, and not being in any serious relationship. After arriving in the city without knowing anyone, I moved around a few parts of the city seeking a place to stay. I slept rough for nearly a week. Fortuitously, a place emerged. With the little money I had, I rented a room in a one-storey block of rooms occupied by other tenants in a poor peri-urban area of the city. I was relieved and happy to have a place to keep my bag which contained a few clothes, certificates, and toiletries.

Then I went out daily in search of a job. I polished up my resume, joined some jobseekers networks, attended resume workshops and career fairs to garner contacts through networking. I also took advantage of every networking opportunity which I thought could help with my job search. I bought and pored over newspapers’ job pages. At the turn of the century, Nigeria’s internet penetration was peripheral and so played a very little role in helping one find a job.

At the end of the month, the search yielded no result, despite my determined, almost frantic, efforts. I wasn’t getting any interview requests. But I kept on searching, hoping that something will show up.

However, mid-October, the second month since my arrival, my hope started to flag when I noticed that my little savings was declining at an accelerated pace. Transport costs and feeding were my major expenses. I discussed with some of my neighbors and some other persons I came across during my job hunting. Some of them volunteered leads relating to where to send in my application. Yet there was no immediate result.

When November, the third month came, my savings was down to its bare bones, making having a single meal a day a near-impossibility. It showed in my shrinking physique and waiflike appearance, no thanks to long hours spent trekking in scorching heat without so much as a little money to buy a bottle of water. I left home most mornings not having breakfast and not sure where my first meal of the day would come from. And I returned home totally fagged out. Then it began to tell on my physical health. That was when I decided to take a day or two off every week going out to look for job.

Some of my neighbors in the five other rooms showed genuine concern, offering words of encouragement, whenever they could. Everyone of them had their own financial worries because of the challenging economic situation at the time, given that their incomes were hardly enough for their basic needs. It was not uncommon to overhear some of them complaining about how difficult it was to afford decent meals and good clothes. This was no surprise to me because the bulk of the general population in that part of the city were low-income workers who worked in the informal sector. Some of them were vulcanizers, plumbers, carpenters, waiters, factory workers, farmworkers, mechanics and taxi drivers, while a larger chunk were involved in hawking all kinds of stuffs, which provided just enough earnings for a day’s meal or at best two days’ meals. The neighborhood also had commercial sex workers and some men who were engaged in swindling, fleecing people off their money, for a living.

On one of the days when I lacked money for transport fare and when my mind wouldn’t allow me go out, I stayed indoors till about noon, slumbering, reading and thinking. Suddenly, I began to hear voices filtering into my room from an outdoor space by the side of the block of rooms where neighbors lounged under a large mango tree during hot afternoons and sultry evenings. The voices were all female, about three of them. I quickly recognized each of them. The first was Chinenye, a young, fair-complexioned, unmarried woman, in her twenties. She had no known means of livelihood but the assumption was that she had clients in the red-light district, given her outlandish, stylish dressing and the several male visitors she received or went out with. The second was Emmanuel’s mother, slightly older than Chinenye, and with a three-year old lad named Emmanuel. She was a young, single mother and hawked oranges. The third woman was Philomena, another young, single mother, with a two-year old daughter, and who recently separated from her husband or boyfriend. She prepared and hawked freshly cooked corn. She seemed to be quite adept at bearing tales and snooty, believing to be in a far better financial position than me even though I had never begged any of them anything. All of them occupied separate rooms in the six-room block. Chinenye and Emmanuel’s mother were more kind-hearted and generous than Philomena, having assisted me with some food items a couple of weeks back.

Their voices were audible enough for me to hear them. Perhaps they were oblivious to the fact that I was inside my room. The loudest of the voices was that of Philomena, so I could hear her clearly. “Have you seen his room? It’s as bare as a desert. He has no bed but lies on carefully arranged stacks of old newspapers placed on the floor. I don’t know what he eats or if he ever eats at all,” Philomena announced to her friends. Of course, she was telling them about my destitute situation. Her nosiness may have lured her to peek through my window to see the interior of my room when I was out.

Chinenye asked her, “Why doesn’t he return to his family or parents?” At this moment I lost them.

A week after, out of the blue, my situation lurched from bad to worse. One weekend, a theft occurred in Chinenye’s room during her absence. I was unaware until she returned to find her room burgled, and raised the alarm. Without much thought, she pinned the crime on me. Some of my neighbors were disgusted with me because of the allegations leveled against me by Chinenye and Philomena. Maligned and humiliated, I was at the receiving end of rounds of blistering attacks from Chinenye, her sister and Philomena. Chinenye publicly expressed her regrets for providing me with cooked meals some weeks back. It was funny that in spite of their accusations they never called the police on me because they had no evidence. Instead they tried to march me to a voodoo priest whom they claimed hinted at my guilt. However, I declined to go with them.

This episode tested my emotional and mental stability, especially my resilience. But I held no grudges against them after it blew away innocuously. It only helped me deepen my community engagement, which took the form of church attendance, where I found strength, acceptance, and community. My local church stood with me, assisting me with prayer, counsel, foodstuffs and money fairly often.

In January 2000, I got a teaching job in an elementary school. Though it was not a distinctly well-paid job, I was grateful and happy that I finally had a source of livelihood which enabled me meet my basic needs. The job was taxing but exciting. The staff, children and parents kept me on my toes but were appreciative of my efforts. I assisted the children as best I could with schoolwork and personal matters. I remember helping Grace, an eight-year old girl, when she suddenly took ill at school late one morning. During a school holiday, the little girl surprised me with gifts from her parents, which she personally brought to me at my home.

In Nigeria, most houses built for the poor have communal bathrooms and toilets for the tenants. These facilities were located at the right-hand end of my block. Nearby were an outdoor hearth for charcoal fire and a mature mango tree whose leaves provided both shade and cool breeze especially during hot tropical afternoons. Since cooking gas and electricity were luxuries the tenants could not afford, the firewood provided a cheap source of energy for cooking for some of the tenants. Others used a kerosene stove in their rooms. Some tenants usually sat under the mango tree to unwind after a hard day’s work in the evenings, where they indulged the time with light discussions.

One day, I returned home from work sometime after twilight. It was a particularly hectic day for me, having had so much to do at school, no thanks to my increasing workload. Usually, I left work at four o’ clock in the afternoon. Immediately, I got home, my sweaty skin yearned for a cold bath. As soon as I dropped my bag and changed clothes, I headed straight for the bathroom. Amidst the electricity blackout, I still found my way to the bathroom with a flashlight. But just before I got near the entrance to the bathroom, I noticed a female figure sprawled on the sandy earth with the head closest to the hearth which glowed with a reddish hue. Though there was no live flame, the heat from the hearth provided enough warmth. Slowly my eyes switched to the three young men – two of them tenants – who sat on a sizable log of wood a couple feet away from the woman, who had herself covered with a fabric-made wrapper from her breasts to her knees. Since I could not see her face clearly, I asked the men who the woman was and why she wanted to burn her head in the fire. Casually, one of them, a tenant, replied, “This girl”.

Then I asked, “Which girl?”

He answered, “Philomena.” As I pressed further, he added, “She is sick.” I shook my head and walked away into the bathroom.

After my bath, I sauntered back to my room but the woman lay still. What struck me, however, was the frivolous manner the young men, who were of the same ethnic stock as the woman thought about her precarious situation. In Nigeria, ethnic ties are particularly powerful, stronger than religious or political alliances. In some cases, ethnicity trumps merit in terms of being offered a job, marriage or renting a house.

A day later, I received my pay check, my first in about twelve months. I was overcome with excitement, thinking about the various stuffs I could purchase with the money. But first I decided, as a Christian, to offer ten percent of my income, representing my tithe, to my church. However, the next morning, while getting ready to leave for work, a thought whispered to me, “Why not give the tithe to Philomena?”

Nigeria lacks universal health coverage, even though federal civil servants enjoy a certain degree of access to contributory health insurance. A majority of the population are forced to make outrageously large out-of-pocket payments for medical care in both public and private hospitals. Such prohibitive costs of healthcare and drugs mean that most of the poor prefer self-medication, where they buy generic drugs or over-the-counter drugs, which are relatively more affordable, from patent medicine stores to treat suspected ailments. Many simply describe the symptoms to the store attendant, who makes prescriptions, which the sick person buys and uses.

As soon as I was ready to leave, I walked to her door and knocked. She opened. My good morning was quickly followed by, “How do you feel today?” She tried to speak but the words weren’t audible. Instead she spread out her hands as if to say “Look at me!” Her shriveled body was plain.

I am so sorry. Please have this for your drugs.” I said, stretching a few bank notes towards her. Without a smile, a huge task for her distressed lips, she muttered a listless, “Thank you”, as she received the money. Seeing her in bright daylight for the first time in over a fortnight, she looked emaciated and weak. Her beauty disappeared. She was probably ashamed of being seen in that state by a man. So I scurried off to work.

The following weekend, the next time I saw her, she was clearly on the mend, with her sprightliness gradually returning. She was the first to greet me with a broad smile. I replied, grinning. That was the first time she had ever addressed me with the word, “Sir.” I guessed my good deed earned me that honor.

The next day, another tenant, a young man, walked up to me, and said, “Thank you.” While I began to wonder why, he quickly added, “I learnt that you provided Philomena with the money with which she bought medicines.” It appeared I was the only neighbor who cared enough to see her back on her feet.

The following week, Philomena had completely recovered, joking and laughing with her friends. She also resumed her business. I was full of childish delight for her.

My joy, infused with a magnificent sense of fulfilment, was that I helped restore a vulnerable human being to good health. I found it to be a humbling experience for some reasons. She wasn’t a member of my tribe. Tribal prejudice and patronage are rife in Nigeria; citizens are wont to assist someone of the same ethnic group as theirs. Moreover, I wasn’t from a gilded family. Furthermore, supposing she had died, none of her neighbors would have been guiltless. And despite her diatribes against me, I maintained my gravitas.

Before my good deed, Philomena appeared to accord herself unwarranted powers over me, perhaps because she thought I was a failure, with no chance of ever turning out better. I remember one morning, resplendent with glorious sunshine, it felt particularly cosy to me to bask in the sunshine by sitting in the outdoor space near the mango tree. Suddenly, I saw Philomena standing in front of me, pointing a freshly cooked corncob, with a commanding tone, “Take!”

I turned in shock and replied involuntarily, but politely, “No, thanks.”

She repeated, even sterner, “I say take!”

When I insisted, “No, thanks”, she traipsed away, confused. Probably, her attempt to assuage her hurt conscience or atone for her offenses against me was painfully rebuffed. The incident left me bemused.

Noteworthy however was the fact that her demeaning disposition towards me changed totally after my humanitarian intervention. I never heard insulting comments or innuendos about me from her lips. But I noticed that she felt uneasy whenever she saw me. Her sense of superiority was badly singed from the bruising defeat to her outsized ego. And her capacity to launch further verbal assaults on me was neutralized. See what a single act of kindness can do.

Princewill Udom works in the stationery industry. He attended the University of Calabar, Nigeria, and has previously worked as a teacher. He lives in Nigeria with his family. He loves reading and rambling. He dreams of a world where everyone is their neighbor’s keeper.

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