Fruit of Labour: Lovelyn Ugwuezema

As I write this, my white shirt filled withscribblings of different marker colours like an artwork of splashed paints hung on the wall. It is my souvenir to remember the hecticjourney of 4-5 years which ended a few days ago. If I had not kwechiri when the tides were against me; if I had not swam harder than the tempest of 9 years ago, I would not have arrived at shore. Perhaps, I would have been thrown into a new boat heading to a destination that would have forever left me an alien.

We were all born and brought up in Jos, Plateau State, but my parents had to bring some of us back home due to the incessant Jos crisis. At first, we stayed with my maternal grandparents, but started staying on our own in 2015.

I had finished secondary school a year before with excellent grades. And had written JAMB. My dad went about how proud he was of me for having a good JAMB score. He told almost everyone who cared to listen. His daughter will be going to the university soon. It was the first time I saw my dad openly proud of my academic achievement. Of course, he has always been proud of me, but he had the philosophy that showering so much praise on someone makes the person misbehave at some point due to pride. 

One time, I complained that he never got me any gifts or cooked nice meals for me as my mom did whenever I came top of my class, he said,

“I also always came top of my class when I was young, but my father never got me anything. Besides, whether gifts or not, it is your responsibility to work hard and make success.”

I felt so heartbroken that it seemed like working hard to come top was unnecessary. Though I was the first child at that point because my step-siblings had not yet been revealed, I felt he had been tough academically on just me. My other siblings had no expectations tied around their necks to come top of their class, as it hung heavily on mine.

“Oh, I am not loved by my father,” I would conclude. 

Even at that, I had the best relationship with my dad while growing up. I was closest to him, and he took so much interest in my academics. He had studied medicine, though we sold foodstuffs, and he wanted me to be a doctor. 

“You’ll not write WAEC. If you continue with these good grades, you’ll write GCE in SS2 and move to the university immediately. I promise to sponsor your academic adventure to whatever heights you want to attain,” he said to me one evening while we both sat in front of our provisions and foodstuffs shop. 

We were not rich, but we were comfortable. 

Due to my closeness with my dad, I could start the generator even before I was 12. I fixed our electric issues, killed rats when my mum and siblings would scream, and could fix the generator. As I grew up, I understood that his attitude was geared towards me being the best. 

My academic excellence started in primary 3. Prior to primary 3, my position ranged between 15 – 20. My turning point started one day when our teacher asked who would come top of the class that term.

Every pupil raised their hands to come top, but I didn’t. I was a very quiet, reserved, and shy person. However, I was making declarations in my mind. 

“It is not about raising hands,” I said to myself. 

“Patience, will you come 1st place this term?” our teacher asked our mate who came 1st place the previous term.

“I hope so,” she replied, with a nonchalance that said, ‘I’ve always come top of the class and no one will beat me to it.’

“It’s not about hoping,” I quietly said to myself, feeling challenged. “I’ll come top of class this term,” I firmly declared to myself. 

When I went home that day, I told my mom all that transpired in class. I did not forget to tell her that I resolved to come top that term. She encouraged me that I could do anything I put my mind to.

By the end of the term, I was top of the class, to the utmost amazement of everyone. I developed a strong passion for writing, reading, and private communication with God. To encourage my reading and writing culture, my parents got me newspapers and novels. At the end, I emerged as the best graduating pupil of Police Children School, Police Staff College, Jos. 

I made excellent grades until I finished secondary school. 

The day before Father’s Sunday in 2015, my dad sent us money to celebrate. That night, after eating a sumptuous egusisoup, we sat outside in the dark night for awhile discussing before we could start the generator and watch movies. A cousin of ours, who is mentally deranged, came around. 

“You guys are here celebrating and being happy. You don’t know what happened to your father. They are talking about it in our house,” he shouted.

No one wanted to take him seriously. However, the damage had been done to our souls. But what could possibly happen? We spoke with our parents in the morning and wished our dad a happy Father’s Day. 

We called our dad’s line, but our neighbour picked up saying our dad left it at a his place to charge since their light had issues. We could not concentrate to watch movies, so we decided to go to bed. We all slept together in the same room because, for some reason, we were afraid. 

Before 5 a.m. the next day, our deranged cousin came banging on our window.

“Your father is dead! They’ll soon come and tell a.m. guys.”

A few minutes later, we had a knock. Behold, it was our eldest uncle. Looking out of the window, I saw other relatives lurking around. Could this be true?

After my dad’s burial, things fell apart. My uncles tried to extort us. We stayed in the village with my mum for months. When we got back to Jos, we barely had anything in our shop. We could not survive. We hardly got around three square meals a day. My stepbrother decided to learn a trade, and it finished my mom, as she used all her savings to see him through. 

My first university admission trial failed. I had to shop for a lower course, but to no avail.

“I know you must be sad that you were not given admission,” my mum started one morning while we sat in our one room that served as kitchen, parlour, and bedroom, “but it could be the Lord’s doing. God knows that I don’t have anything to see you through school.”

Those words shattered my heart into a million pieces that I could not bring myself to gather them up. It hurt her. It hurt me. I watched helplessly as a dream I have nurtured for years with my dad slip out of my fingers. But was giving up an option?

I started selling kerosene. My plan was to save for school. However, I still had to support the family as much as I could. At 17, I took up the responsibility of catering for myself and my family to some extent. 

My sisters had to drop out of secondary school due to lack of finances. I saved up to enrol my junior brother in senior secondary school due to the zeal he had for studying, just like me. Unfortunately, he never got to make it past secondary school, and it hurt my spirit to date because he wanted to. He had to become a mechanic apprentice before becoming a nwaboi serving a master in Nsukka. 

To keep the income coming in more, I took up a salesgirl position at a shop close to ours while still overseeing my kerosene business. I also started putting up soft drinks and donuts in our shop, as well as donuts in the shop where I was working. I applied again to the university, but even with a higher score this time, I was not admitted. I concluded it must be ‘village people’.

One day, a neighbour met me and said, “You say na school you wan go? School no dey pay these days ooo. Why you no go marry help your mama? Can’t you see your mama is suffering? Quit this school thing and go marry”. I cried the whole of that day. This was not the first time I had heard such complaints. My siblings are already tired of me always talking about school and saving for school when I could do something better with the money. Neighbours and relatives were beginning to see me as foolish and selfish, especially when I rejected two marriage proposals just because I wanted to go to school. Almost everyone was against my decision for school, though my mum never complained. I felt she must also be nursing the feeling that marriage would have been better. She was supportive, regardless. 

I lost my passion for reading and writing and was unable to locate them. After my dad’s death, my emotions became a rollercoaster. I was that girl who hardly cried, that girl who could withstand darkness, that brave girl who could go anywhere, that girl who never showed emotions or attachments. Reverse was the case after 2015. I hugged depression for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, no one understood depression. My mum would refer to my sudden change as spiritual manipulation. I hated everything I once loved, had mood swings, wanted to be alone most of the time, and was easily angered.

I lost concentration and comprehension when it came to studying. I had no retentiveness whenever I read. But even at that, I was not willing to give up on school. I lost admission the 3rd time, then I decided to go on break. Physically and spiritually, I fought against whatever was holding me back. For one year, I focused on my work, businesses, and prayers. 

The next year, I got admission to study at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. By the time I got admission, I had about N200,000 to my name as savings. I paid for my acceptance and school fees, accommodation, foodstuffs, and every other necessity to start life away from home. I had no uncle or aunt somewhere to help. My mum had nothing. So, it was all on my shoulders, but I did not care. I left for school at the end of 2019, leaving my kerosene business for my mum.

In school, I found out that remaining in school was more difficult than getting into school. I soon exhausted my savings. To God be the glory, with the help of a friend, I applied for the HillCity Foundation scholarship, and I was selected. So, HillCity, with a yearly application, covered my tuition fees. 

To survive, I sold bread from hostel to hostel in my first year. It was very hectic – struggling to get bread and hawking it. I joined an essayist group to help revive my writing passion, but it was not forthcoming. I felt lonely in the wide space of the university.

Things got so difficult that I almost cried in a lecturer’s office one day. We were mandated to buy textbooks worth N7,500,and I had no money. I collected them from someone who had graduated since we were to submit an assignment with the textbooks. My textbooks were rejected because they were not new, and I had to buy new ones. I tried explaining to the lecturer, but it fell on deaf ears. 

After a while, I met the dean of our faculty to help me out with scholarship opportunities for indigent students. He looked at me after I narrated my story, and said,

“You, indigent student? Are you sure? How is it that your skin glows more than ours in the office?” It was funny, but not funny. I could not explain, because even with everything going on, unlike my roommates who indulge in skincare routine, I did none and still had nice skin. He directed me to a professor, but after everything, nothing came out of it.

During the COVID-19 period and strike, I went back to Jos. I started selling charcoal to save up for resumption. After 8 months, we went back to school and I had some money with me, but it did not last. I resorted to writing assignments for people, did ushering work, and took up a nanny job just to sustain myself in school. 

A few weeks ago, I signed out of the university, which took me almost 5 years to complete and 4 years to be admitted. My immediate junior sister is currently married with two kids.

“How’s that possible? Why aren’t you married then? What are you waiting for? You should be married oo you’re the eldest, and a woman’s time is fleeting.” These are the kinds of responses I get when I mention it. 

Three of my junior siblings never got to finish secondary school to date. Two of my junior brothers are serving masters. So far, I am the only one in my family who relentlessly pursued her dream of attaining a university degree.

I would say that I am better today than when I started off. I joined the University of Nigeria Essayists’ Group in my 1styear, and now I am their Vice President after serving in the position of Financial Officer. I am the Secretary-General of my department and will be handing over soon. A few weeks ago, I won the Power of One Essay Contest for Enugu State undergraduates; was longlisted for the Wakini Kuria African Award for the 2020 Children’s Literature; was a finalist for the Excellent Mind Initiative Essay Contest for undergraduates in West Africa in 2022; shortlisted for the Chima Ugokwe Prize 2022; and was the 2nd runner-up for the WeNaija Essay Contest 2023. I also had my work published in the Writers Space Africa Magazine in 2022. All these happened because, though I struggled with finding my feet in writing again, I never let it go. I kept writing, failing, and dipping my hands in rejections till I got a few wins.

I know I am not there yet. Tomorrow is scary in that I don’t know what step to take and I have no one to guide me to it, but I am living one day at a time. I have a lot of responsibilities to fulfil, but I believe that resilience and faith which have helped me succeed thus far, will sustain me. 

I won.

I reaped the fruit of my years of labour. 

This is the story of my life.