The Lazarus Pit: Covenant University, A Shame of Nigeria (III)

Bad water wey dey flow gan, e no fit carry us — Falz

In the beginning, there was nothing —

No, that’s not where our story starts.

On May 17, 2000, in LUTH, I was born and —

No, that’s not where our story starts either.

When David Oyedepo built Covenant University, he —

No, no, that’s not it.

On an early Monday morning in August, when the sun was still sleeping, I stood at the edge of a railing on the highest floor in the school. I looked up at a sky with no stars, and I looked down at the ground beneath me.

Is that where our story starts, perhaps? Where mine was about to end?

My first tremor was in January, in my right hand. I was in a rough situation with my parents and it felt like a day that wouldn’t end. And then, like a butterfly flapping in the wind, there it was. A slight shake, a little spasm. I looked at my hand, observed it, and then shrugged.

These things happen, I said to myself.

When I collapsed for the first time in April, my friends carrying me to the hospital, with me crying that I couldn’t move, that I couldn’t stand, that I couldn’t see, I was in the hospital for a night. And the next day, I looked in the mirror and shrugged it off.

These things happen, I said to myself.

When my blood pressure was hypertensive at 152mm Hg, when days passed without me eating, and sleeping. When standing was a task. When being was a task. When the breakdowns, the tears, the suicidal thoughts came. When my whole mind and body and soul was completely broken and there was nothing I could recognize in myself, I still put on my corporate shoes, and knotted my tie, and continued about the day, shrugging it off.

These things happen, I said to myself.

I saw a friend of mine last month with a bandage holding up a half of his face. He’d had a stroke, he said. The stress of school and life, he added. But there was a look there, a way we both acknowledged the situation. These things happen, we said to ourselves, and we continued about our day.

He is 21 years old.

As I sit now, typing with two hands that now shake, with a mind that won’t stop running and a heart that has long since tired of this game, I think to myself, “Where did I learn this habit of shrugging?”

When a pastor in school slaps a student in front of a crowd of his peers, when a school shaves lines on the heads of the male students, when young women are preyed on by pious lecturers who swear by the bibles, when hundreds of students are suspended at once, we, as a people, did what we do best.

We shrugged. And we said to ourselves, “These things happen.” We continued about our days, and the oppressors, the rapists, the corrupt, continued about theirs.

When I wrote the first essay, I was 18, young, angry and full of the foolish teenage pride that is certain it has seen all the world has to offer.

When I wrote the second, I was 19. Angry, still, but now restrained. Now thoughtful. I had seen actions, I had seen consequences, and I had learned from both alike.

As I write this, I am now 21. Three years have passed like leaves in the wind. And I find myself here, still angry, still foolish, and more pensive than I have ever been.

What was I trying to tell you, all those years ago?

When I was assaulted in Covenant, when false grades were shown on my portal, when the school put up policy after policy, that broke and broke us more, I didn’t know what to do.

I was in Covenant for five years and I saw things that made my heart cry. Things I’ve spoken about before, that I can’t bear to speak about now. Things that are still going on now, under our noses, while we shrug, and say to ourselves, “These things happen.”

I think of the essays now and I see them for what they are, for what they always were: A cry for help.

So, with all my heart, to all who read, who understood, who cared, I say this now, thank you.

You saved my life.

I call Covenant a shame because it could be so much more for the people in our country. It could be a haven for the young, a place where you can find peace in your education and learn in way that is useful to the future you need.

I call it a shame of Nigeria because it is a shame we all carry — this is our country, these people are ours. I am you and you are me. But shame isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, shame can point us to the areas that we’re lacking in, that we can improve.

But, I don’t know.

Can structures really change? They can improve, and they can progress, but can they really end? Are we doomed to the choices of the past, forever playing out the cycle that keeps us digging, looking for more?

Or is there hope? That somewhere, through somehow, that we can build a house called Tomorrow, where all is right again.

I don’t know.

We die multiple times in our lifetimes.

When my father sent me to Covenant five years ago, I died.

When I was suspended, once and then twice, for not going to church and my ‘facial hair’, I died.

When I was assaulted once, and then twice, I died.

When I stood at that railing, looking up at a sky with no stars, feeling like I was nothing, even though I didn’t jump, I died.

But that is half the story.

I came back to life again.

Because that is the glory of the story of Lazarus. It is not a testament to the power of death; it is a testament to the power of life.

A shout in the void that says:

Life endures. Always.

No matter how bad things have been, no matter how dire, the sun will rise again tomorrow. And we can begin again.

So, where do our stories start?

Not when we’re born — that’s just when we become aware of the story. Our stories start long before us. They stretch far and wide and back to our parents, and their parents, and their parents, twisting and winding through time and space.

So maybe our stories don’t start, because they never end.

They just change.

Maybe there’s a story that’s been at play now for millennia, that we’re all a part of, coming in and out of, like characters in a play.

Maybe the British secure a colony on the ‘dark continent’ decades ago and name it after a river, and then maybe years pass and the colony gains independence. And then all is right again, until, of course, it isn’t, and a civil war begins that tears them apart. What if two parents have children during those times, and amongst those children is a boy, and that boy grows to a man, and that man becomes a pastor, who builds a school, in a land he bought, and realizes all his dreams.

What if another boy came to that same school, almost two decades later, and fought and struggled through the system? What if he didn’t know how to describe this pain and lifelessness he felt? What if he didn’t know how else to express himself? What if he began to write?

What if he told you a story? Of a lost boy, in a lost system, who grew up into a young man, with eyes that now saw a better future for himself?

Would you see it, then, what I’d been trying to tell you all these years?

Or would you shrug, go about your day, and say to yourself,

“These things happen.”

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.