A few days ago, I learned that a young man I knew had died in an accident on the streets of Calabar. It was an avoidable death, save for a couple of small details that fall into a broad category known as ‘the Nigerian factor’.
For my non-Nigerian readers: the term is used to describe a unique combination of circumstances and/or behaviours that create an occurrence that is deemed to be peculiar to this environment. In this instance, Kingsley was said to have been roller-skating along a busy city street with his headphones on, lost in music. A speeding truck was approaching him when its brakes failed and Kingsley didn’t hear or heed the desperate blaring of the horn. His next stop was the mortuary.
I doubt that he would have ever heard or seen a public safety message about the dangers of wearing headphones while crossing the road or the risks associated with skating in traffic. The truck is likely to be very old, poorly maintained and probably never had to pass a vehicle inspection or road fitness test. Also, if he was alive after impact, it’s highly improbable that there would have been an ambulance available with paramedics to save him. Even if there was, nobody would have known which number to call. That’s the Naija factor.
Be that as it may, a boy of 17 or 18 is dead – just another statistic in a country where no one is keeping score. Yet, it could have been so different.
I met Kingsley about five years ago because his neighbour, a colleague, wanted me to help him to get his life back on track. He had been out of school for two years because his father had died and his mother could not afford the fees. He came to my office with these very clever remote-controlled toy trucks that he had constructed from scrap materials, complete with hydraulic parts made from syringes. I was fascinated. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I would give this future engineer a second chance at completing school and possibly continue to support him through university. I still remember his mother – excited, humble and grateful for new possibilities.
He started well at a small private school but struggled to keep his grades up. Somehow the lure of his neighbourhood was stronger than his ambition to make something of himself. In the second year of this experiment, I had a serious accident in Lagos and ended up in hospital for a couple of months. Despite this, my PA, Sharon, continued to ensure that he had his weekly allowance to attend school. By the time I returned, she had bad news – Kingsley had been skipping school but was attending my office faithfully each week. He would come in his uniform, collect the funds, then change into the street clothes he kept in his backpack. His standing excuse at school was that his uncle (me) had been in an accident and he had to stay home and take care of him.
When I hobbled back from treatment in Jo’burg, we had a couple of tough conversations but Kingsley continued to make promises he couldn’t keep. In the end, I decided to sever ties and focus my energies on Christian, another fatherless boy, who was doing much better at treading a parallel path. Wisely, I had kept them apart in case Chris, who was younger, became influenced negatively.
A couple of years later, a rather penitent and persistent Kingsley kept calling me and sending messages, begging for another opportunity, but I held firm. At times I felt guilty and nearly gave in, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had tried really hard to give him the chance of a lifetime. Now, there is no chance of redemption.
For me, no more dreams of training a future engineer. No option for him to translate his computer course into a career; no possibility of stardom, however far-fetched, through the hip-hop dancing he had taken up; and no way of making his mother proud.
All of our dreams died with him on a busy street in Calabar.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Langston Hughes (1902-67)