— Obinna Okwuolisa
We started talking after the general compound clean up — an exercise which takes place every last Saturday of the month. I was apportioned to clean up the area close to the compound gate, which was adjacent to her assigned sweeping area. After I swept and collected the dirts into a heap, she asked me not to worry that she’d throw the dirts into the thrash. That was the ice breaker, and that was how we started talking. Her name is Chika.
She is tall and has straight long legs you’d mistake her for a runway model. Her skin is brown and smooth, and when she smiles her oval face reveals a perfect dentition and nice little dimples etched on both cheeks. She is what you’d call “a babe”.
She stays with her mom, and their apartment is a window away from mine. You could say I was thier neighbour next door, or next window if pun is your thing. Due to the proximity, I could hear the chit-chat between mother and daughter. Chika didn’t spare any detail when gisting with her mum. They talk like friends; in contrast to the discussion out of obligation prominent in African parent-child conversations.
I didn’t see Chika again until on Thursday evening while I was returning from a football viewing center. She was coming back from a church meeting when I chanced upon her. We talked about work. We talked about life.
From the way she spoke, you could tell she’s a lady who knows what she wants and goes for it without being apologetic. She exuded confidence and a lot of charisma. She told me of her plan to expand her mum’s restaurant business, and increase profit by supplying catfishes from her fish farming project which she plans to start soon.
Home was still a long way off, so we kept talking through the dark streets with the moon behind us. She told me she has a masters degree, and currently studying for a professional certification.
My respect and admiration for her could no longer be hidden when she told me of her brother in final year whom she was sponsoring. Her dad is a deadbeat and her mum doesn’t make enough money, so at twenty-seven, Chika is already a breadwinner.
She can easily be called Agụ Nwaanyị. An Igbo word that loosely translates to tigress.
One evening I saw her come back late from work around 8pm, looking disheveled and worn-out. Her hair was rough, her jacket was loose, and her bag was almost sweeping the floor as she dragged her feet through the corridor. I asked her if the traffic was terrible today, because traffic of late had been hectic and could induce the type of stress written all over her.
“My mum was rushed to a hospital after she collapsed in a market,” she answered in a low voice. “I dashed to the hospital immediately I got the call and I have been there since.”
The two most common causes of mortality for elderly people in this part of the equator are diabetes and high blood pressure. The latter is what caused Chika’s mum’s collapse. It is a condition that requires proper treatment and monitoring. It is advised that patients check their blood pressure regularly. A person can leave his/her home in the morning vibrant and healthy, and could be struck by hypertension in the afternoon. It is one of the reasons why grown-up offsprings of elderly parents receive unexpected calls from relatives with apprehension.
I was brought back from reverie when Chika said she’d be going back to the hospital that same night.
“The tests showed nothing serious, but she is not looking strong,” she tried to hide her emotions and show strength, but I could tell she was anxious. “I just want to prepare a meal for her and myself, and then I would take some clothes along so I can change into work outfit and leave for work from the hospital tomorrow morning,” she continued.
I held her and said, “Everything would be fine.” Reassuring words never hurt anyone.
The next day I stopped by the hospital and I saw her mum lying on an iron bed looking pale. Her wrapper was used to cover her legs to her chest. A half-empty drip was suspended over her bed and its content trickled into her veins. She spoke with difficulty when I came in, and her voice was frail. I could barely hear what it was she said. She was not looking strong.
When she slept, Chika thanked me for coming to visit, and I waved it off. “It’s how neighbours do,” I said.
“I have an exam in two days and this is just the wrong timing,” she informed me.
“An appitude test for an international auditing firm.”
She pointed to the GMAT booklet at the corner of the room and told me she was preparing for the test. And as if she wanted me to hear her thought — perhaps her source of motivation — she said, “My mum trained me through school after dad left when I was 13. She couldn’t keep up with the rent so we moved to a smaller apartment a year after. Her business barely survived and she would go hungry to feed us back then. It is the reason why I would do anything to give her a better life.”
I saw where the determination and firmness of character came from.
She spent most of her time in the hospital, and at work, of course, and she rarely came home unless she wanted to prepare meals or change her clothes supply. When I saw her at home in three days, I asked her, “How’s your mum?”
“Her condition wasn’t improving, so I had her transferred to St. Raphael Hospital yesterday.” St. Raphael Hospital is about half-an-hour drive from our locality and it has better service with specialist doctors. It ranks among the best in our region.
“I also passed the aptitude test, the result came out this morning,” she said with a smile and two dimples.
“As if there was a doubt,” I teased.
She smiled, “There’s an HR interview in two days, for which I am preparing.”
“Godspeed in that too.”
I noticed she was growing leaner. Shuttling between work, the far hospital, and home through the hectic traffic was enough to emaciate anyone. As if that wasn’t enough stress, she was also cooking, doing the dishes and laundry, and studying.
I was overwhelmed by sympathy for the poor girl. Even though I had my own mammoth-sized problems, I prayed for the recovery of her mum. My problems could wait.
I recalled how both of them conversed like chatterboxes before bedtime. I recalled how they both prayed in the morning before setting out for the day. Sometimes their prayer woke me from sleep. I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening to her mum.
The following week, I saw an uber pull up in front of the compound with Chika and her mum alighting from the back seat. Her mum had been discharged and was looking strong as ever, and Chika’s face grew rosy.
Later in the day, I saw her sitting on a bench under a shade, and I went to sit by her.
“I am happy to see your mother whole again.”
“I know right. It was really a difficult time for me and her. And now I am like the happiest person in the world.”
“Along the hardship comes a relief.”
“Indeed! Even though the bill was quite an amount, it doesn’t bother me”
“How much did it total to?” I dared to ask. She rummaged through her purse and handed me some pieces of paper. I scanned them and the bill summed up to 450k.
“Four-fifty-k!” I exclaimed.
“Well, a life costs more,” she said rolling her hair. “And I passed the HR interview I told you about, and if I get the job, that bill would be nothing,” she waved her hand in the air to emphasize her point.
“Interesting! So when are you starting?”
She laughed, “It is remaining one last stage. An interview with top executives in Abuja and a team exercise.”
On the morning she was to travel to Abuja, I heard the familiar voice of her mum praying for her safe trip and success. It ended with, “It shall be well with you my daughter.”
Four days later she arrived and was all smiles. She said the interview went well and she liked the hospitality of the hotel the company had lodged them in. She told me of her flight experience and was gushing about how she’d tour the world when she gets the job.
With the way I was happy for her, you’d think I was the one with a potential job offer for a multinational company. Hers would be a story that would inspire young people to put in the work.
Yes! A girl can fight for what she wants and achieve it against all the odds, without help or favour, in cash or in kind.
It was rather heart breaking to overhear her sob one evening, “Mummy I did everything for that job; I studied, I presented well to the applauses of other candidates, I bonded well with the team, and most of all, I prayed. I was among the best candidate…” she said in between sobs. “Why wasn’t I selected.” It was an emotional uppercut for her.
It changed my mood when I learned she didn’t make the cut. Losing when the finish line is in sight bites deep. It really does.
I bumped into her the following day when she was on her way to church. Her countenance was sad, and I asked her what was wrong, like I did not know.
Immediately, she tried to feign a happy face and put up a show of strength. Typical Chika!
“Nothing really, it’s just that I got a regret mail. This things happen, it’s life, yeah?”
Now that’s one thing with strong people. They don’t show their emotions outside and they put up with happy faces, but within, thier spirit could be broken.
I nodded and watched her leave as she was adjusting her scarf with one hand, and a hymn book in the other for a church gathering.