Poverty is real. So also is the story of countless individuals and families who have demonstrated over the years that it is possible to survive poverty. An example of such stories and a very very inspiring one, is how a poor man, and father of popular Nigerian author and lawyer, John Elnathan.
In a very graphic and telling way, Elnathan, the author of “Born on Tuesday”, “Becoming a Nigerian: A Guide“, and “On Ajayi Crowther Street“, shared the story of how his family survived poverty in Kaduna, courtesy of his father’s commitment to learning as well as a discipline, and frugal lifestyle.
Read and be inspired
I was born and spent years in a face-me-I-face-you in the heart of Unguwar Rimi, Kaduna. The compound was right in front of the tree that was the center of Unguwar Rimi, where it was rumored to begin (not sure if it is still there). It consisted of single rooms. One room.
This one room of ours was turned into a “room and parlor” using a curtain to partition the room. Our meter was nailed to the wall outside by the street. I remember clearly one night seeing the silhouette of a thief cutting the meter as we (brother, dad and mum) slept. There was so much petty theft (compound didn’t have a door that locked) that one man in one of the rooms, Samaila, used to connect the steel handle of his door to a live wire on his way out, to shock anyone who touched the handle.
I remember it shocking me once as I played. He was a bachelor and I was always fascinated by him. In a somewhat conservative place (mostly Muslim but very “cosmopolitan”) he had women and girls always coming to visit him in his single room. He had red, greed and regular bulbs too. This was where I first saw a woman smoke.
If you were wondering what happened when the thief was cutting our meter (standing on an old mortar turned upside down), when I woke up, my dad also woke up, and shouted: “Barawo!” The thief hadn’t finished cutting and jumped off, leaving the meter hanging from the board.
Years later a relative of my mother offered us his two room low cost house (also in Unguwar Rimi) which he had got when it was allocated to some civil servants. His wife had got another house a bigger one allocated to her. And that was how we moved out of a single room.
He asked us to pay only a nominal rent because we were family. So it was almost free really. Uncle Dogo’s house. I miss that house close to the river Kaduna, opposite the Muslim burial ground and up the road from the abattoir. Uncle Dogo was the darkest man I’ve ever met.
Uncle Dogo was also the first person I knew personally who smoked. It was such a scandal back then. A Christian family man who smoked cigarettes. An ECWA man. Side Story: In university, there was this beautiful young woman every guy wanted. One of the most popular girls on campus
We became friends. She would come to my room off campus to watch movies. (All the boys in my compound were sure I was doing something else. @rossoinc who also lived in that compound can remember the day I was accused when she slept over to watch Indian movies. (Snow remember?)
Not that I did not find her attractive. I was just not bold enough and quite frankly was still too emotional from the Indian movies she brought which made me cry several times. Uncle Dogo died about a year or so later. I was telling her about this and she said my uncle died too.
And then we realised he was both our Uncle. And then we laughed so hard saying thank goodness we didn’t have sex because that would have been weird to have sex and then discover you are related by blood. End of segue. All this to say, I love my baseline.
None of my parents finished any conventional school. I don’t even know if my mother has a primary school leaving certificate. My father is largely self educated. He studied privately to write A levels as an adult. Then learnt how to type by the roadside in Unguwar Rimi.
He sold ice cream on a bicycle and was a daily laborer. He eventually became a typist in an accounting firm, then a secretary. He was a secretary when computers came to Kaduna and he learnt and transitioned from typewriter to desktop, learning programming for accounting (BASIC)
This was how he started programming accounting solutions like spreadsheets etc. He learnt accounting on that job. And then eventually became and retired as an assistant in a slightly better job. I was born in what you can call a ghetto. Still, we weren’t the worst.
Because even in our one room there were people still begging us for food. The only way my dad did not default on bills was that he was super disciplined (none of which I learned or inherited sadly), didn’t drink, didn’t go out, counted every penny and did what was called PP (Private Practice).
PP was our lifeline when his salary would finish. Private practice. That was him helping others program their spreadsheets. And being dragged from our low cost house in the middle of the night to debug a program that was malfunctioning. Programming with Basic/QBasic was hard core
When my father was whisked away in the night by strange men and brought back in the morning we knew there was money again and we could afford the basics. This was how he shielded us in the ghetto from the worst of poverty. He got out of it. But I was already grown by then.
Because of my baseline I can say I started from the bottom in an almost literal way. Still poverty is relative. We lived better than most people in our neighborhood because my father was unusually frugal. Everyone including relatives thought he has a stash of money somewhere.
It was only because he had no friends, no vices, no hobbies. He gave everything to his family. So he did things the men he worked with couldn’t afford. Like send me to Essence International School. Essence was the school for the richest kids in Kaduna. It was new.
General Buhari had a daughter in my class. The then governor Dabo Lere had a son in my class too. That is the kind of school he put me in. He could only afford it for six years and after one increase in school fees, from 800 to 3,000, I was out, back to a school he could afford.
So my story is unusual in that sense. I was going from ghetto to rich kids school on a commercial motorcycle every day. My father’s salary was N450 a month. My school fees was N800 a term. It was the hugest fucking sacrifice. I hated that school. I hated every day of it.
I hated being the kid who came on Okada while my classmates talked about their summer abroad. I hated being the kid who would sometimes come first in class but could afford to go on any excursions. Sometimes I wouldn’t tell my dad because I knew he didn’t have the money.
I hated not having the stickers the children of the northern elite would exchange among each other. “Oh I got mine in Paris”. “Oh I got mine in London”. “Oh I got mine in America”. And all I knew was Unguwar Rimi. All I knew was Kaduna. I have never been anywhere.
So I traveled through the books in my home. 90% of the books were religious texts. But my dad had the complete volume of Your Health And You, a book called Where There Is No Doctor and the Oxford Encyclopedic Dictionary of 1976 all of which I read cover to cover.
A lot of my education happened in the pages of the dictionary. It is still the best dictionary I have ever used in my life and had entries for everything including brief histories of countries and major world figures. I knew the whole world in my little Kaduna.
I hated not being able to afford the expensive snacks they had at breaktime. I hated not being able to play basketball because I didn’t have a rich friend with a half court inside their palatial home to practice with. Not that I could afford the basketball shoes.
The basketball shoe squeak still gives me traumatic memories. Everytime I wear sneakers that squeak on concrete or marble floors I remember the basketball courts that I did not have access to. My school had some of the best basketball players in the country.
I remember kids at my school pulling stunts like buying the entire bicycle of ice cream and sharing it with their friends because they could. Ridiculous stuff like that. I think about this a lot. On the one hand I went to a good primary school. On the other hand it was traumatic
When people ask: did you study abroad? I laugh. The first time I got a passport was 2012. The first time I left Nigeria was 2013. Abroad? I studied in Kaduna then Abuja. And that’s it. I learned how pronounce words by listening to religious tapes and the BBC.
There is something about poverty in Nigeria existing so close to wealth. You can see it but cannot touch. Someone starving on the left, someone buying his girlfriend a house in Dubai on the right. There is something very violent about this. Something very wrong.
Your Dad is the real MVP… he gave you a SOLID early learning education, which is the critical part. Even middle-class families in KD couldn’t afford EIS at the time…the good news is that the investment as well as your being ensconced in the pages of books paid off handsomely
Replying to @elnathan_john Read through the thread from start to finish. Thanks to @PatrickOnwordi for drawing my attention to it. We usually do not look like where we come from and what might seem a problem to us might actually be someone else’s breakthrough. Thanks for sharing.
Replying to @elnathan_john What a read. Can’t really explain why but ‘Born on a Tuesday’ kept ringing in my head as I read. Maybe cuz you wrote it. Now I see why you were able to evoke such emotions through Dantala. Thanks for sharing Elnathan.
Replying to @elnathan_john Really enjoyed the thread because I always believe the best thing you can sacrifice to your children is giving them a good primary education
Replying to @elnathan_john What a beautiful read. I couldn’t stop till the last word. Remarkable writing style. Traveling through reading was one of the best things as a kid. I did it a lot but, @Sossiq was oga boss
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