The Tyranny of “Hand Me Down” Dreams

I was born in a rural west African country, known for her beautiful landscape and enchanting forests but not so benign or reconciled with the political upheaval of those days and its lasting effect during my early years. The beauty of the rolling hills, verdant outdoors, and water bodies that were the subject of many folklores were lost on a people whose only goal from dawn till dusk was survival. Growing up in a military controlled country makes for a difficult childhood but affords many interesting dexterities that are now outside the norm, but I cherish them regardless. Dexterities like making palm oil from palm fruit, making soap, using a grindstone for tomatoes, peppers & onions instead of a blender, cooking with firewood underneath an open sky — nightly, and racing home with waterlogged shoes in the rain. My current circumstances have diverged from the realities of my childhood home, after almost a decade and half in the U.S. trying to realize my so-called “hand me down” dreams.

My story is the story of my antecedents, a tale that began long before I was born in a remote village in the then western region of Nigeria. You see, my parents were born in colonial Nigeria to local farmers who had no use for western education, it would have been an exercise in futility, not as it pertains to the value of its applications, rather, the nature of the training at the time would have been incompatible with the prevailing culture. Neither of my parents knew precisely when they were born. This is not uncommon for people born in those days. Later in life, my parents estimated their ages based on stories of events around the time of their birth and when they started elementary school. Although the prevailing ethos at the time of my grandparents and their antecedents placed no value on knowledge paraded by the Europeans as basic education, what could not be denied, even then, is European imperialism; the colonial masters were steady in their resolve to occupy the continent until her citizens come of age, so to speak.

To qualify to begin school, your hand had to reach around to touch your ears on the other side of your face. This certifies a person to be at least six years old. The local “modern” school, as it was called, was built in the 1940’s by Catholic missionaries and served as a means for the local youth, at that time, to learn some of European culture, Arithmetic, Elementary Science and English Literature. The story goes that my grandparents were among the few who indulged some of their children in this manner. I imagine the ones not really useful on the farm were prime candidates for this experiment. I believe that the underlying hope was that learning some of “Oyinbo” (European) culture will ultimately help to bridge the divide between the colonial masters and foster the mutual existence of both cultures with minimal conflict. My father was one of such youth growing up in the late 1940’s and attending modern school in the early 1950’s. My mother would do likewise in the late 1950’s. Both of them abandoning their original names in favor of names given by the Catholic church. In a way, my father’s dream was an extension of his own father’s dream: to excel and be first among equals. My father believed very earnestly, early on, that western education is the only way to differentiate himself from his peers and fulfill his father’s mandate.

About the same period, Oil was discovered in Nigeria. After completing modern school and a teacher’s training program in Ibadan (a city in western Nigeria and the second largest city on the continent at that time), he moved to Port Harcourt, a growing urban area in eastern Nigeria. My father, gone from his childhood home, went to work for the burgeoning Oil & Gas industry with drilling locations and production facilities located mainly in the eastern part of the country. Nigeria gained her independence in 1960 and moved towards self-governance, the country needed leaders and an educated workforce to thrive in a modern world. Possibilities were endless for the educated youth. Although this experiment in self-governance quickly dissolved into chaos and civil war within the first decade, largely due to a lack of unity among the leaders of the indigenous tribes. It turns out that the brilliant minds who so elegantly withstood the British could not get over their own egos to foster unified nationalism.

In spite of the growing dissent among our national leaders, we were still free to create our own future and shape our collective destiny. My father had observed that most of the people with a voice on the national stage, as it were, had been educated overseas. Consequently, his own personal dissatisfaction enjoyed a growth spurt, one that led him to apply for admission into an Accounting program at a school in Wales. As with most immigrants from impoverished backgrounds, he lied on his application as to the condition of his family and his finances. His initial VISA application was denied, and he would continue as an analyst for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) for two more years before re-applying for a student VISA at the British embassy. This time his VISA application was approved and he went on to study Accounting at what was known at the time as Gwent College of Higher Education, and he later becoming a Chartered Accountant.

My mother’s journey was not far removed from father’s experience. They met during the late 1960’s when my mother was a teacher at a modern school, not far removed from the one she attended just a decade earlier. My mother would leave her teaching position to attend the Nursing school in Oluyoro, affiliated with the University College Hospital (UCH) in Orita-Mefa in Ibadan in the early 1970’s. While in Ibadan, my mother enjoyed some of her best years, as a beautiful young woman in a fast-growing metropolis. To understand, what it was to live in Ibadan in those days, you would have to read, Wole Soyinka’s “Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years”. It was indeed, in hindsight, by proxy, “the good old days”. After graduation, she decided to work at the government hospital close to where she grew up in rural Ondo State, in a remote village called Iddo Ekiti.

A year after my father’s departure for Britain, my mother followed, to aid him in his dream of becoming the first man to earn a bachelor’s degree in our little town of Iwaro, Oka Akoko, located close to the shoreline in the area now known as OSOPADEC region of Ondo State. This achievement would prove to be both a source of pride and constitute an enormous sense of duty for us — his children to be better than everyone else, more than that, to achieve beyond his scale in our own generation. From the moment we were born, our dreams were ‘hand-me-down’ dreams: the expectations of his father passed down unto him, forming the premise of what we must now accomplish as his children. This is hard. You see, we were born in the 1980’s, it’s been 30 years, since education was rare, now everyone attended primary school and most people graduate high school. It’s definitely not sufficient to graduate high school and attend college, we had to be in the most prestigious programs or the hardest disciplines and then some more. That “more” is not well defined in my father’s universe and as such, tedious to satisfy the constraints it imposes. It’s hard not to let someone down when you are uncertain about what you must do. Regardless, we had to begin and we did by graduating as the best students at the Catholic primary school as well as graduating high school among the best overall students except for my sister, she died. After high school, my siblings and I knew that my father’s constraints only admitted what was considered the most prestigious disciplines and during my youth in Nigeria it was namely Medicine, Law & Computer Engineering.

My father never attended my matriculation and convocation (graduation) at the University of Technology where I spent almost 6 years earning a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Applied Mathematics department. Why 6 years? That’s a long story, deserving of its own treatment. Worse still, he never stepped foot on the University of Ilorin, in the 7 years that my brother was a medical student. He however, attended his convocation ceremony, held months after his actual graduation. In that sense, my brother earned his respect in becoming a Medical Doctor. Since he didn’t attend mine, I imagined, I hadn’t done anything from which he derived a sense of pride.

By the time I graduated college, my father was down on his luck and had no claim to fame except for his achievement in a distant past, overshadowed by its minimal significance in the present, it was a rough reality for him. After graduation, I worked as an IT instructor in an educational consulting firm in Lagos, earning the Naira equivalent of 200$. My ambition was to get a lucrative job — in a bank, dress in well-tailored and starched shirts, complete with a jacket — settle down in a modest flat in a good neighborhood. However, the burden of the hand-me-down dream necessitated me to do more, I had to modify my goals. I borrowed money, registered for the GRE & TOEFL and took another job sorting books at a warehouse so I could buy food while using my salary to pay college application fees. My principal goal at that time was to earn a degree abroad like my father, earn his respect in doing so and make some money to take care of my extended family. I graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering, two years after my arrival in the US. I am unsure if I was acknowledged by my father, but I remember he asked me — “So, when are you starting your, PhD?”. This is relevant because if I succeed, this would make me the first PhD in my family’s history and I am certain, the first one with an American PhD in Engineering from my father’s hometown, at least to the best of my knowledge — maybe someone else got there first, who really knows, genealogy is wild!

For me, this is quite disconcerting because I wasn’t ambitious, I wanted a simple life for myself. I never wanted to leave Nigeria, my father suggested that I write the SAT after high school and planted the seed, years before it eventually took root and I wrote the GRE, which ultimately led to graduate education in the US. Even then, I had no desire to continue to a PhD, I was exhausted! The conditions back home and the nature of the accompanying responsibilities of being the only child overseas was debilitating, no one in their right mind would add on the pressure that pursuing a PhD would inevitably impose.

After 3 years of awkward and disappointing conversations with my father, and disappointment in myself for not aspiring to more — there was some kind of implicit shame in settling for something not considered the ultimate. So, I got started with the applications, got back in graduate school and endured a grueling 4 1/2 years to PhD. Neither of my graduate degrees was an expression of my own desire, it was born out of necessity, it was a mandate I cannot refuse, a burden for legacy, but whose? Mine or my father’s. More than a decade has passed and I realize that I have lived most of my life in service of my father’s dreams and expectations, to lineup with what he says “legacy” demands, these “hand-me-down” dreams, I cannot escape, especially because I was not the first or second choice, I inherited them in tragedy and the conflict that arose from my older sister’s passing and the acknowledgement that my brother has done his part by becoming a medical doctor.

I now have a 5 year old and she is beginning to construct her own path, I am unsure about what my role should be? What is the burden that legacy demands of her or is it finished?

Engineer, Aspiring Writer & Musician