Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 429th story of Our Life Logs |
What makes a happy life? Wealth? Success? Passion? For many years, I tried to figure out how to be happy. Turns out, I found the answer when I wasn’t even looking.
For a child born into a family of eight in the northern central city of Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria, in the 90s, one of my first lessons in life was to accept that I would have less than others. I used to look in wonder at the good clothes and fine bags of my classmates and wish that I could have them too. My parents beat that silliness out of me quickly. I was told, “Be contented with what you have.” I tried, but the perpetual lack thereof wound up making me associate happiness with material possessions. We didn’t have much, and I wasn’t happy much.
As one of the later-born children, my parents had to send me to school a year late because of the financial burden of sending so many children to school at one time. Now, although we were in the lower social class, my dad gave his all to make sure any of us kids who wanted to go to school could do so up to university level.
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Despite my unhappiness, I did find joy in reading. Stories helped me step out of reality. My cousin discovered my love for books and gifted me with a lot of them. This constant reading ignited a fire in me to begin to write. With a pencil in my hand, I could create whatever I wanted. I couldn’t change my own reality, but I could alter a character’s.
Unfortunately, my dad was never in support of my writing ambition. His reason was simple; people don’t read and writers end up poor. In fact, the first time he caught me writing, he was furious. “Why are you wasting time writing? Go wash the car,” he ordered. Subsequently, anytime he caught me writing, he would find a task for me—no matter how irrelevant—just to distract me from my writing. Most times, it did the trick, sadly. When I returned to my writing table, the initial idea I had would have disappeared, and I’d end up staring at a blank sheet.
Because of my father’s strict distaste for the arts, I found myself gravitating towards them in a rebellious fashion. The caution tape that my father put around my writing made me dislike the sciences, it didn’t matter that I was good at them.
When I gained admission into high school, I faced the most difficult choice of my life. I had to choose between my writings and the career path my dad wanted for me. My dad wanted me to be a medical doctor—a career that would guarantee financial stability. He had painted a lovely picture of my decision as a choice between poverty and affluence. As a child who equated possessions with happiness, I decided to pursue my father’s dream for me. Maybe this was what I had been searching for.
I emerged among the top in my class and, by default, I was drafted to one of the advanced science classes. That meant I had to compete among the best in the school. While I did well, some students had an edge over me because they were doing what they loved while I was doing what my dad wanted. It was both mentally and physically draining. In the end, I graduated with good—not wonderful—grades.
I applied for medicine in the university but just barely missed the cut-off, so I opted for microbiology. I gained admission a few months before my 17th birthday. While I was able to get by with good grades in high school, I was constantly getting low grades in university. By my second year, I was panicking.
Then, I heard a voice inside my head that said, write.
My passion that I had almost forgotten about. So, I picked up a pen and began writing down my thoughts, my fears, and my frustrations. When I’d finished, I felt a lot better. I discovered that writing was the easiest way to fight the pressure I was under. Whenever I wrote, my anger and frustration dissolved.
Getting back into writing was thrilling, and I started writing more frequently; first for pleasure, and later, poems and essays for school magazines. Over the next year, I found myself spending less energy on schoolwork and more energy on writing. It was like I was addicted.
Friends advised that I should pause on writing and focus on my studies, and I tried to do that…but it was too late. It wasn’t enough. I was unable to graduate because I had failed one too many elective courses.
The day of my friends’ graduation was one of the saddest days of my life. While I was taking photographs with my friends, and now ex-classmates, I wore a forced smile. I retired back to my room that evening and cried like a baby. Not loud. I just let hot tears stream down my cheeks.
Then I realized what my father had been trying to say all along, buried beneath his stern demands was what he really meant. In the best way, he was trying to give me a better life than we had. With this, I reevaluated my passions and figured, why couldn’t I do both? Who says I couldn’t create a new happiness?
Seeing the importance of staying focused, I put all my efforts into my repeated courses and managed to graduate the following year. In 2012, I was mobilized for the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) where we are required to serve our country for a year. I had the opportunity to offer my services as a high school teacher in a local school called Emmanuel Hilltop. I had no idea how lucky I was.
The school was in the Echori community, a poor community filled with very hospitable people. The villagers had no electricity, poor network reception, and a lack of potable drinking water especially in the harmattan (the time of dry, dusty winds in the country)–they relied mostly on deeply dug wells, but, unfortunately, these often dried up during the harmattan and the only manually-operated borehole in the community gave out one bucketful of water at one-hour intervals–but still, they were happy people.
They lacked so much yet they were happy. It made me understand what my parents had always told me about being grateful for what I had. Seeing people, especially children run around in ragged clothes and still carry joy in their hearts made me see that happiness is a choice and not tied to possessions, to a career, or to circumstance.
I moved back to Makurdi after my service in June 2013 and the job hunt began. I settled for a teaching job and it was during this time that I started telling stories to my pupils. I found myself drawn in and captivated by stories once more. The kids really enjoyed them, and it gave me a sense of satisfaction I’d lost for a few years.
Then, a voice inside me said what I already knew I needed to do: write. And so, I wrote the stories down. The result was a novella titled Chidiebube.
I was happy with teaching—at least for a while. Unfortunately, my bills began to grow and the money I got from teaching could no longer take care of me. After teaching for a year, I resigned. In November of 2014, I was part of a one-year internship program pioneered by the federal government but then it was back to unemployment. Poverty was looming—and so was depression.
But like the many times, all my routes, somehow, led back to writing. In mid-2014, I joined the Tunza eco-generation, a platform for children and youths that work to protect the environment. The platform gave me the chance to be my true self and write more often. Toward the end of the year, they had their annual essay contest, and I entered. I wound up receiving an honorable mention. Getting that from an international body gave me a sense of confidence I’d never had about writing. It also gave me the courage to show my dad the certificate and souvenir they sent to me.
When I placed it in front of him, my hands still trembled. He simply nodded—an approval. All my life, I’d been searching for his support and to get it about something I loved felt incredible. I thought back to the kids I’d taught in the Echori community, how they were happy because they chose to be. It was time for me to choose happiness and pursue what I loved.
In the next month, I had a friend call me up who recommend I looked for writing jobs on one of the popular online marketplaces. I did not hesitate to log on and begin my search. Consequently, I landed my first writing gig. I didn’t want my dad’s prying eyes following my writing just in case he should change his mind again, but I planned to pursue it, no matter what.
So, the best way to keep us both happy was to apply for a master’s program in medical microbiology. I wasn’t sure of how I would afford the fees, but seeing the prospects in my newly-found freelance writing, I decided to say, “Damn the odds!” I had this conviction that I would be able to make enough money from freelance writing to take care of myself. Our success in life often boils down to one insane move, and I’d made mine.
In the end, I realized that I was only ever going to be as happy as I decided to be. I make enough to pay my bills and even send some money home to support my dad’s trade. Today, I no longer see art and science as two separate entities but as two parts of a whole. You can find a way to have both.
This is the story of Anthony Emecheta
Anthony is a professional freelance writer, editor, and writing coach residing in Nigeria. This is a story that highlights the internal struggles of Anthony as he fights against his father’s wishes to find happiness and become a writer while also obtaining a degree in the field his father wished for him. His current focus is expanding his writing portfolio so that he can employ and train writers struggling with self-doubt. Anthony still dreams of inspiring every home across the globe through a book he is yet to write.
This story first touched our hearts on August 29, 2019.
| Writer: Emecheta Anthony | Editor: Colleen Walker |