Updated: Jun 24, 2020
| This is the 450th story of Our Life Logs |
I grew up in the rural area of West Africa. I was born in June 1980 in Ogun, Nigeria, as the fourth of six children in our family. My father was a police officer, and my mother ran a small shop. My life started out normal, just like that of any other young boy in our village—we didn’t have much, but we had family, we had occasional laughs, and we had dreams.
My dream was to become a legal practitioner one day, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to be precise. See, my childhood friend, Julius, and I took making money serious. At the tender age of 10, we both realized the value of wealth and decided that we didn’t want to live like our parents. We wanted to someday get out of our village and live in a big city as rich and influential men. I knew it was a big dream and would take a lot of sweats, but I didn’t know that my journey would be so full of trials and tribulations.
In 1995, I was attending secondary school: the Anglican grammar school in the Mushin area of Lagos State; it was not far from home. I had just finished my first year when news came that my father got shot by armed robbers when he was on night patrol. The gunshot didn’t take his life, but he got paralyzed permanently. Due to his condition, he was asked to stop working.
A few days after my father was discharged from the hospital, while our family was still recovering from the devastating news of his injury and the consequential financial burden that fell on my mother, another disaster hit. My elder brother and sister were involved in a hit-and-run, and they both died on the site. The loss was so sudden and so devastating that we didn’t really know how to digest the sadness; our hearts were simply broken.
Yet, in a dark moment like that, what else could we do other than swallow our grief and let life push us along to the next moment?
September came and I went back to school with a sorrowful heart. Then, one month later, a fire razed my mother’s shop and destroyed everything. Everything. What were we to do? We couldn’t stop questioning why. Why us?
To help out, my siblings and I started to hawk packaged water on the streets after school. With the little money we earned from our hawking business, we managed to finish that semester. During the winter break, I went home. My father became ill. We sent him to the general hospital in Ikeja, the capital city of Lagos State, and the doctors diagnosed him with kidney failure. They concluded that he needed a surgery and it would cost three million Naira (about $8,300 USD). Three million? Where could we get that kind of money? We had no one to turn to for help. In the end, my father asked my mother to go to the Police Service Commission to collect his pension benefits. She went there immediately.
Months after my mother’s first visit to the Commission, she was called in to collect my father’s benefits, a total of 3.2 million Naira ($8,800) approximately. We were overjoyed. Had the money come any later, it would be too late for my father to have the surgery.
The surgery was done two days later and was successful. My father recovered well, and with the leftover money, we were able to pay our house rent for that year. The problem was my school fees. After the surgery and the rent, there was nothing left. I had no choice but to drop out of school.
It seemed I was going farther and farther away from my dream.
After dropping out of school, I joined my mother and siblings in selling fruits and packaged water on the streets of Lagos. For a while, we were almost doing okay, until three months later, another misfortune befell us. It was 1997. My mother fell ill. At first, we thought it was uncomplicated malaria, but when malaria medicine proved ineffective, we became alarmed. We took her to the hospital and found out she was having Stage-II womb cancer. Chemo and other treatments were estimated to cost around seven million Naira ($20,000), way too much for us to afford. My mother was given three months to live without treatment. All hope was lost.
A few months later, cancer took her life and put us into sheer darkness. Before her death, though, my mother’s last words to me were for me not to abandon education. I decided that I would try all I could to honor her wish.
After the burial of our mother, my siblings and I continued with our hawking business in Lagos. We did that until our landlord began demanding the rent. The previous year’s rent had elapsed and the landlord was not in the mood to listen to our plea. Running out of options, we relocated to our home village in Ogun State.
A few weeks into our stay in the village, I became dejected. I was not used to the rural life and found it difficult to cope. It felt like there was no hope for a better life if we continued to live in the village. We tried our best for the next few months, but when we had exhausted all efforts in finding a solution to improve our condition, I decided that I would go back to the city of Lagos alone to seek a better future for us. My father gave me his blessings.
When I arrived in Lagos, the first thing I did was to contact my old friend Julius who I knew was living in the city, but I was soon disappointed when I found out that Julius and his family had moved to Abuja a few months ago. The news of their relocation shattered my hope of getting cheap and cozy accommodation. After wandering the streets of Lagos, I decided to settle under the famous Carter Bridge to spend the night.
Early next morning, I began searching for jobs. By evening, I was exhausted, but my search was still fruitless. That night, I went back to the bridge and was accosted by some street boys, asking me to pay them rent. Because they had been sleeping under the bridge for so long, they felt it had become their home. What a funny world, asking for rent under a bridge. I found myself begging them that I had no money, and I was homeless. They threatened to beat me up, but a soldier and his bodyguards passing by at that time rescued me.
The soldier, Mr. Ali, was a Major in the Nigerian army. He usually took a walk in the evening with his bodyguards. That was around the time the boys were harassing me. “What is going on here?” he asked the urchins. They became scared and walked away from me.
I thanked the man and his bodyguards. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him my ordeal, leaving nothing out. Major Ali sympathized with me and took me to his house. He offered me free accommodation for as long as I wanted to stay. I was so grateful. Finally, a ray of sunshine had found its way into my life.
With accommodation no longer a problem, I devoted my time to searching for a job. After one month, I finally found employment in a factory producing baby foods. The pay was not good, but it was what was available to me at that time. I took the job immediately.
After a few months of hard work at the factory, I’d had a little bit of saving and decided to honor my late mother’s wish to pursue my education. I had dropped out in ninth grade, so I enrolled in a night school to continue my secondary school studies. Working during the day and attending classes in the night was not an easy thing to do, but I persevered. I was about 19 at this time.
A year later, I was able to get my SSCE (Senior Secondary Certificate of Education). Though I didn’t get the best result among all the students, it was good enough to secure me admission to a university to study my dream course of law.
As I was basking in the success of passing the exams, I received a message from my hometown that my father had fallen ill. I left for the village immediately. Unfortunately, my arrival couldn’t save my father from his illness; he passed away two days later. The little money I had, alongside what my uncles had, was used to bury my father. With that, my dream of going to university to study law was buried too. Once again, my heart was broken, and so was my future.
A few days later, I returned to the city to resume work.
One day, I stumbled upon an announcement on radio. It was about a scholarship opportunity to study law at Essex University in the UK. I wanted to apply for the award, but I didn’t have the money for the application. The next day at the factory, I asked my boss for a salary advance, but he refused and threatened to sack me if I persisted with my request. I felt depressed as I watched the opportunity fade before my eyes.
A month after that, the factory started having financial issues and decided to cut budget. I, alongside other 120 workers, was let go. I became unemployed, and penniless, all of a sudden. My major headache was how I would feed myself and my younger siblings. With both our parents gone, we had nobody to rely on.
When Major Ali learned about my situation, he asked me to bring all my siblings to his house to stay permanently. He promised to feed them and assist in their education. I was overjoyed. I brought all my siblings in a few days later. The Major kept every word of his. His wife was very accommodating, too. Since her only child had grown up and moved to live in Canada, she saw my younger siblings as a chance to be a mother again.
With my siblings being taken care of, I went on to search for a job again. a few weeks of rigorous searching had resulted in nothing. I started to feel hopeless and defeated. Then one day, I came across a flyer lying on the street. It was an advertisement for a scholarship exam to study in the US. Even better, this one didn’t have an application fee. I just needed to pass the exam. I felt a little smile arise from my heart.
I took the flyer home and showed it to Major Ali. He was pleased and encouraged me to sit for the exam. He also asked me to read and study hard for it. I nodded and went straight to my room to begin preparing.
The exam day finally came. As I entered the exam hall, I felt a little intimated at first. The room was full, with over a thousand candidates. But I thought about my past, about my mother’s last words, about my dream that I held dear since I was a little boy, and so, I was determined to take the exam no matter what. I didn’t get that many opportunities in my life; I must seize this one.
I felt more and more confident as the test went on. After one and a half hours, I submitted my answer sheet and left the hall. A few weeks later, I received a letter asking me to go back for a second exam. It was more like an interview. They asked me how I heard about the scholarship and why I wanted to study law. I told them everything, including my desire to fulfill my mother’s last wish. I was accepted on the spot.
You can’t imagine how happy I felt that day.
I left Nigeria for Howard University in Washington D.C. a few months later. And from there on, my life was bound to be different. The future that I had been dreaming of, that had once seemed so impossible, was now becoming real. Of course, the road to earn my law degree was not easy, but perseverance saw me through.
After five years of hard work, I returned to Nigeria to see my family. It coincided with the arrival of Major Ali’s daughter, Halima, who was returning from Canada for a visit. We fell in love and got married not long after. Today, Halima and I have two beautiful children, and we live in New York. My siblings are all doing well, too.
If you ask me when my life turned around, I will tell you that it was that evening under the bridge when I came in contact with Major Ali. You never know what opportunity is waiting for you next, so never give up on hope. No matter how dark the clouds might be right now, there is always a ray of light behind. And I believe the most important ingredient for success is determination. It is true in my case.
This is the story of Femi Obetta
Femi currently works as a divorce attorney, residing in New York with his wife and their two beautiful children. Coming from the rural area of Nigeria in West Africa, Femi has endured a mountain of hardships—including the loss of two of his siblings in a car accident, the loss of both his parents due to illnesses, being homeless and unemployed—before he reached his success today. At one of those dark moments, Femi met a kind-hearted military man, Major Ali, who helped Femi and supported his dream. Sadly, Major Ali died three years ago due to old age. Through all the tribulations in his life, the one thing that Femi never gave up was his dream of studying law and becoming a legal practitioner. He still wants to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria someday. In his spare time, Femi likes reading and playing golf.
This story first touched our hearts on October 28, 2019.
| Writer: Femi Obetta | Editor: Kristen Petronio |