My unwitting teacher
Dad left when I was six, and poverty quickly moved in with us. Not that we were rich when he was around, but we had good food to eat, attended good schools and were better off than most of our neighbors.
When he left, a younger lady in tow, the world seemed to crash around my mother’s ears. Yes, I was young, but I’d always been a feeler. I’d look at her pinched face and conclude she was missing dad real bad.
It would take me several years to understand that her concerns ran raggedly beyond missing the one man who’d abandoned her with four children. Being on the lowest rung of the minimum wage cadre, she was in a constant state of worry. What would we eat? How to pay our school fees? What would we wear?
The first solution was easy. A benevolent stranger lent her two patches of arid land, and we immediately became a farming family. She made it look like fun. Who can grow the juiciest tomato? Who can hoe the fastest? We loved her something crazy, so helping out was easy and natural. After months of hauling water to and fro, we were rewarded by leafy vegetables, sturdy tubers, and succulent fruits.
The second problem was not as easily solved. There was no way she could simply afford having all of us in the schools we’d attended when dad was around. So we changed schools.
I didn’t fit in to my new public school. The other children preferred eating and screaming to learning, and the teachers just didn’t care. I wallowed in self-misery and did not try to be like the other kids.
Mum found me another school, one that swallowed a third of her salary every month. That was when my learning process began. I began to learn self-sacrifice, even though my teacher was an unwitting one.
I’d watch Mum push her plate towards my elder brother, whose stomach was a deep hole.
“Eat your fill, honey. The food is not really sitting so well on my stomach.”
I remember she had one white dress, and it was her uniform to every party she got invited to. One late evening, I overheard her telling my aunt that a friend had insulted her at the wedding they attended, asking her if she had nothing else to wear but this. Meanwhile, we the children had a variety of clothes (albeit old), and she always scrimped and saved to ensure we had at least one new Christmas dress. Some years, we even got a birthday dress.
She’d buy us candy, at the expense of her own lunch, so that we could feel like normal kids and boast about the huge candy we consumed when we arrived school the following day.
I often heard her stomach growling. I was a light sleeper and often found her awake in the middle of the night, tallying up figures and drinking gaari*** to assuage her hunger. That didn’t mean we kids wouldn’t have a feast of rice, plantain and chicken the next morning.
It’s nineteen years since dad left. He made a brief appearance back in our lives some years ago, penniless, womanless and unrepentant.
The lean years are over.
Over the years, God blessed my mother’s earnest work. She built two houses, now lives in London and travels extensively. Yet, she’d rather you have that kitchen appliance you saw in the Argos catalogue than go to her hairdresser’s this week, all paid and delivered with her own money.
I find myself trying to be like her.
In my home, there’s no shortage of money. But when there’s a piece of chicken left in the freezer which I know my husband would like to eat, I control my appetite and find something else to eat.
When he wants to watch football and I want to watch Who wants to be a millionaire, I allow him, thinking of my Mum.
When my daughter wants to play and I want to read, I quietly drop my book and enter her little world with her.
Mum doesn’t have a clue how, but the lesson she taught unknowingly is the best of them all.
***Gaari is a powder made from cassava. It’s dissolved in water, so as to be edible.
A true story.
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