As told to Femi
We hope for easy lives. But life doesn’t always go the way the wish. I spoke to Balo*, a an educational program advisor. We talked about fending for his family when he lost his father and a culture that does now allow men to grieve. We had an interesting chat.
My dad died when I was 16, and everything changed. He passed after a prolonged illness. We’re not quite sure what it was, but he was diabetic. It had been just one month since I resumed university when I received the call to come home. I cried for days but people didn’t let me grieve, constantly urging me to be strong because I was now the man of the house and I had to be strong for my mother and sisters.
He was a government official and we were doing well. He enrolled me in one of the most expensive universities in Nigeria just before he died. I knew him as a protector and provider whom no responsibility was too heavy for. We weren’t very close but I know if he had lived long enough, we would have been buddies. My mother was distraught and slipped into a deep depression because my dad was the sole provider. She was a housewife and it wasn’t until after he died that she tried to get a job.
I was the oldest child. I had two younger sisters who were still in primary school. I wanted to drop out of school because I knew my mother would be unable to keep up with four years of tuition, alongside my siblings’ school fees. However, she made me promise her never to drop out, no matter the circumstances. She intended to collect loans to keep up with my tuition. She asked for loans from almost everyone we knew, including my dad’s friends. They all turned her down. They were worried that people would think they were having an affair with my mother if they gave her money. I’m not sure what she had in mind for handling our finances, seeing as she had no job, but I promised her anyway.
My mom had some money saved up and opened a provisions store but the proceeds weren’t making a dent in our expenses. My dad also left behind a bar which he started up shortly before he died, but it was barely profitable. As the firstborn, I knew I had to step up and fill my dad’s shoes even though I had no idea how.
After the burial, I went back to school. But my sisters had to stop school for a while. I found that I was unable to study and writing exams were difficult, due to the grief of losing my dad and the troubles on the homefront. To avoid flunking out of school, I decided to attend and focus on classes. I also made the acquaintance of my lecturers and HODs.
In my second year, I met Mr Subomi*, a lecturer in my department. He thought I was a smart guy and pitied my condition. He started to give me past questions, areas of concentration and potential questions. My grades improved, and I was doing okay.
I knew my mom could not keep up with my school fees. I needed to figure out a way to make some money. I had the idea to use the tips I was getting from my lecturer to draw up potential exam questions and sell these to my classmates. The questions were usually 80% correct. My school had a lot of rich kids who didn’t want to study, so my exam selling business flourished. With this money, I was able to pay my own school fees, send money home for my sister’s school fees and also some money for my mom to invest in the bar business. Even with all the money I was making, I didn’t have a lot of extra money lying around after settling my school fees and my family’s needs.
I sold exam questions for the rest of my stay in school. Mr Subomi would supply me with areas to concentrate on, and I would draft them into potential questions, sell them to my classmates and give him a share of the profit. There were times when I couldn’t make school fees because Mr Subomi would too be scared to pass me exam tips because school inspectors were monitoring the faculty closely. I had to beg for an extension. My dad’s friends ghosted us except for one of them who chipped in from time to time.
Eventually, I grew the bar into a hotel from what I made from selling exam questions and what I made from the bar itself. My family no longer had to rely on handouts. I could also put my younger sisters through school and that made me really happy and take care of their needs.
My examination question-selling business rounded up when I graduated. I did not attend my convocation ceremony. Ridden with guilt, I could not bring myself to collect a certificate I obtained doing what I did. If I faced the same circumstances, knowing what I know now, I would take a different path. However, I’m no longer plagued by that feeling. I did what I had to do for my family.
Now, I work for an international academic organisation. It’s a remote job that allows me to run my farm and the hotel.
I’m not where I want to be yet, because most of the money I make goes into paying my sisters’ school fees and other expenses, but I’m certain I’ll get there someday.