Up Hill

Updated: Jun 26, 2020


| This is the 376th story of Our Life Logs |

I was born on the eve of the ‘90s in the sleepy town of Ile-Ife, Nigeria. I have two older sisters. My family was considered small because it was common in our country for families to have more than four children. My mother was a nurse, and my dad taught at a secondary school. Together, we lived a hard but simple life.

But our country, as a whole, was suffering. In my youth, Nigeria was caught in the military era, dealing with a dictator that made life intolerable for all. The local kids made funny songs out of the country’s hardship. How else were we expected to cope? There was one song we sang about the dirt-riddled rice we had to clean before it could be cooked and eaten. I remember Mom spread out the rice on large trays as my sisters and I picked out the little stones. Our lives weren’t perfect, but I still feel a dreamlike sense when I look back on my early childhood. Because soon, my first jolt from the dream would come.

Statue of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife in the town where I grew up. Photo credit: guardian.ng.
Statue of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife in the town where I grew up. Photo credit: guardian.ng.
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It happened when I was seven years old. I was walking home from school with two schoolmates when a van lost control and hit two of us. I don’t remember all the details since I was so young, but I remember I had a fracture on my right leg. It was placed in a cast, and I had to spend several months away from school to heal. Then, when I learned that my friend Sade did not make it out alive, I was devastated. That was my first touch with pain.

I couldn’t understand why little children had to die. It was hard for my seven-year-old mind to grasp. I was troubled that my deceased friend could not breathe in her coffin and that she’d be alone in the dark. These thoughts gave me vivid nightmares. Mom was eventually able to calm me down by telling me that dead children went straight to heaven because they were pure souls. She painted a beautiful picture of my friend playing with angels in a garden full of white and purple flowers. I smiled at Mom through my tears.

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Despite the harsh realities of living in a developing country, I tried my hardest to defy all odds stacked against me. This became harder when early secondary school began. The education system was distorted because a new government reshuffle sacked many teachers and led to a state strike. I spent most of the first year of secondary school at home.

Just when normalcy seemed to return, an inter-ethnic conflict broke out in Ile-Ife between ancestors (Indigenes) who’d founded the town and the settlers (Modakekes) who’d moved on from the old ways and wished to establish a separate local government. In 1998, the Indigenes had a new crop of youths that were tired of being bullied by the settlers and they fought back.

On a sunny morning in September that year, I woke to the sound of gunshots. My family lived in the Indigenes’ area, and we watched as the youths marched to the houses of the settlers and set them ablaze as a retaliation to the settlers who did the same. During those days, there were brief pauses when peace reigned and I could play in front of my house without the fear of being hit by a stray bullet, but they were rare. I coped with the violence by writing. In fact, I wrote my first story based on the ethnic conflict I had witnessed in my town.

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The year 1999 had come with a rainbow; hope for the people as the brutish era of the military came to an end. A democratic government was sworn in and conditions improved. My parents were even able to afford a new car in 2000. Little did we know that addition to the family would become the cause of our lasting sorrow.

On July 15th, 2000, while returning from a wedding ceremony in our new car, my whole family except my dad were involved in a ghastly car accident. It was another blow from the country we lived in. The roads were bad; riddled with potholes. Some were so deep and wide that a driver had no room to maneuver which often led to accidents. It was one of those ditches on the road that our family friend who was driving us had tried to avoid as the car ahead of him braked suddenly. He swerved to the side of the road where a towing vehicle was parked. It was like hitting concrete. 

We lost our dear friend in the crash. I broke my left femur and sustained a large gash on my forehead that left a permanent scar. My oldest sister had a bilateral fracture, and my mother had an internal injury that almost led to her death. My other sister had it the worst; her face was mangled almost beyond recognition.

Yet, in all these tragedies, I never took it personally. Almost everyone I knew in my country had gone through one traumatic experience in their lives. I saw that as the norm. I’d never thought about how it would affect my psyche. But soon, I realized that I’d developed a phobia of car rides, which was unfortunate since it was almost impossible to avoid them. The train system wasn’t well established and plane rides were too expensive and far away from where I lived. Each time I was in a car and it gathered speed, I feared that it would be my last moment on earth. A family friend of ours had become paraplegic from a car wreck, and I was terrified of a similar, or even worse, fate.

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As life continued, I started studying what I loved best at the university—English Literature. Things appeared settled, that maybe I was not cursed after all—that I could stay safe and find success.

Then one day in my third year in August 2007, I was hit by a motorbike on my way home from class. I was in a zebra crossing area. Typically, they’d wait for students to cross the road before they whizzed past, but I suppose this bike was in a hurry that day and flouted the rules. After that incident, I started feeling more on edge, that I was always in danger. And with that fear began the panic attacks.

My first attack came when I was in my hostel and suddenly my heart started to beat rapidly, like it was going to burst out of my chest. I broke into a cold sweat and felt confused by my surroundings. When the strange symptoms subsided, I was terrified. I tried telling a doctor at the university clinic, but he wrote me off, mentioning he could recommend me for a psychiatric consultation. I shrunk back in horror at the suggestion.

You see, in Nigeria, the mention of anything related to mental illness is met with stigma and fear.  People hide their loved ones who suffer from any psychological disturbances. It was natural for me not to want to have anything to do with such a prognosis. I was fine, I told myself. I was not crazy. I developed ways to cope—listening to calming music and exercising. Just like that, the panic attacks stopped coming, thankfully.

With them gone, I kept my eyes focused on the ultimate prize: Success. I believe the Nigerian spirit is indefatigable because we have no other option than to persevere if we want to make it. So, I pressed on. I didn’t allow my history of accidents to keep rooted to a spot. I wanted to succeed despite all the odds packed against me.

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