Gods of the Ivory Tower
We all have stories to tell. Some of our stories we gladly tell to whoever cares to listen, parroting them until we begin to sound like worn-out tapes. Others, we leave to gather dust at the bottom of our hearts because they are sore wounds, dark pages of our lives that we are not glad to read to the public. Because it adorns us with an odious garment and gives us out as a specimen of shame. Some of us are living dead. Some stories remind us of the day we died, remind us that we are moving corpses with an existence that has lost its essence, counting days and waiting for every sunset and sunrise. Some of us are murdered souls crying for vengeance against the vessel of clay that lynched us. Some of us have blood on our hands – the blood of the innocent. We are murderers. We spill blood neither with stones like cavemen, machetes like a jealous lover, a gunshot like an assassin, nor blazing fire like an angry mob. This killing is a game of skill. It’s ruining a healthy soul by hurling words. It can be baggage some of us carry into our graves. Some bitter hearts refuse to accept that vengeance belongs alone to God. They pull the sword from the scabbard and parade the severed head of a god that murdered them on the street. Only then do their souls rest in peace.
As for me, I simply let go. But one thing is for sure: it hurts, the memories of yesterday’s indignities. If in those days I enjoyed the luxury of smiling here and there, I bet you under it were layers upon layers of hurtful and virulent words eating up my spirit like cancer. Those muttered obscenities. Poor dirt. It still makes me cringe and puke. The events surrounding my murder are still etched in my memory and at times, I find myself using the back of my hand to wipe away tears from my eyes. That is just it. I have accepted it and have learnt to live with it. But there is something else you should know. The hate and anger that possessed me during my undergrad days and nearly made me a murderer too is no longer there. I am free now, and perhaps that is why I tell my story.
I am not from the clan that has anything to share with the cock. I am not an early riser. It was the cool air that whispered through the window of my room, where I lay on the bed, that told me that only the dead don’t think of their daily bread or where to go to make the best out of the gift of a new day from God. I reluctantly rose from where I lay like a corpse throughout the night, not because I cared much about the counsel from the uninvited visitor that stole sleep from my eyes, but by the mere fact that it was my day. Yes, this was the day I was to go and collect my list. So, I begged sleep to let me be. I had waited for this day. The day I would confirm my formal admission into the university and become a bonafide member of the faculty of arts, social sciences and the department of law. The final task for someone who had just been admitted to study law was to fulfil the obligations imposed by a clan of gnats and goblins who had captured power and ruled the ivory tower with the swagger of Mussolini.
Where do I look up to? How do I begin the day? It’s always like my people do. Those of us in this country that makes you wish you never had a country. My clan knows one place to knock at: the doors of heaven. I knelt and folded my two hands like I did as a child when praying before the grotto of Mother Mary as a Block Rosary disciple at Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Kontagora. My head was not bowed. This time around, my head was upward and my eyes looking into heaven from where I knew my help would come. I am a Catholic and will remain a Roman Catholic, not because there are no other glamorous options in a nation where religion is a lucrative business, but because I love it. Simple and smart. One Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a short prayer to Saint Michael the archangel were all the supplications I always offered to heaven as my morning prayers. I neither belong to the circle that speaks in tongues or roll on the ground as if suffering from bouts of epilepsy nor do I belong to one that kneels for so long that they have gotten calluses on their knees like camels. But it was a special day, so I had to fly to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mum was so much of a bosom friend that falling in love with Mother Mary was a natural thing.
Other morning rituals done, I looked towards what I persuade myself to call a wardrobe. I could not boast of a Louis Vuitton but I knew I would have to look my best. Going to collect a list was such an important rite of matrimony between me and the university. I had always known that the first impression matters. I wanted to wear an Ankara; the Aso ebi my family used during Nnenna, my darling kid sister’s traditional marriage. There was no need to rummage through my wardrobe, that was a luxury only the rich could afford. Three pairs of trousers and two shirts were among my assets. The Federal Government was paying lip service to made-in-Nigeria goods. I had thought of allowing myself to be deceived by the propaganda from the government. Two thoughts wrestled within me: either becoming an ambassador of made-in-Nigeria fabric or evoking a man students feared like cobra. The latter got the better hold of me. Not minding the weather that was likely to be hot by midday, I decided to go English to impress. For some, class was all about how best we are able to copy Oyibo people. We wear suits and it doesn’t matter that we sweat like bread in an oven, provided we succeed in showing our Oyiboness. I went for a plain black trouser, ironed to that point where the lines could cut through the shell of a tortoise, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a blue French tie that would make me look like a young attorney on the streets of Paris. The second-hand Italian shoes I got at Ogege Market in my home town of Nsukka cost me 5,000 naira. It was my bride; when I visited her with black polish, she gleamed and glowed like a Nupe Belle.
The initiation list was on the lips of every fresher. It was a sacred list that contained the price every student must pay to belong. Students sang Nunc dimittis not with the arrival of their admission letter but with the acceptance of their ritual offering from the gods of the land. This initiation of a thing was a witch of yore; every student knew the tone of her cry. Students knew the tree top where she perched and the right sacrifices to offer to stop her dreaded voice from echoing around them. Not a few of my friends had boasted that I was their classmate because I was not yet among the elect. I was the last man standing because of my name. Yadibarachi. Alphabetically, I always come last on the list. My name was not yet in the book of eternal life neither at the faculty nor at the departmental level. Was I disturbed? Yes, for two reasons: I am a Nsukka man and I knew what initiation rites entail.
In the land of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Arse who’s ruled like a god, to belong to the clan of the chosen, young men are initiated by getting naked and successfully jumping onto a castrated male cow four times. This symbolises the childhood they are leaving behind. In Nsukka, life is built around initiation rites. One of them is Iwa Akwa. This initiation welcomes every diala into the college of adult men, conferring prestige and responsibility. Anyone who is not initiated is a no-body – anonymous and ignominious. He does not sit in the gathering of his kinsmen or raise a voice in a conclave of Umunna, the Izu. So as a Nsukka native, I knew I had to be initiated to belong. I was also disturbed that none of my friends could tell me their story. It was as if the rites were governed by the Mafiosi rule of omerta. But I knew that there were many dirty secrets lying in the belly of the shark, like Jonah, the prophet and fugitive. I came close to seeing the skeleton in the cupboard. Ngozi, my girlfriend, tumbled a bit out of her closed closet. “God will not forgive that he-goat,” she cursed. We were lying on the bed and I discovered that she was not telling me sweet things after we burnt out emotions, which was unlike her. Every trick I employed to make her tell the tales was impotent. It was as if an angel appeared to her in a dream and warned her not to open the grisly can of worms to prevent the belching and stultifying stench from speaking eloquently about what happened behind closed doors. I stopped pestering her because I realised it would be inhuman to make her relive the horrors of that night. It was not as if I was a child. I knew Oga patapata had seen her nakedness. Ngozi, who longed for me like a fish desires water, avoided me for weeks after going for her initiation rites. What else could be her reason? It was guilt stinging her. My presence made her sob and her tears made me feel sick. For almost a week, she would burst into tears unprovoked. Me too! And we would weep uncontrollably. I could not sleep because the ghost of what he did to her kept tormenting my night. After days limped into weeks, we accepted our reality without speaking about it, wiped away our tears, dusted our lives, and continued our existence. It is not within the realm of the metaphysical, nor will it take a visit to an Ifa priest, to know why most of my female classmates who had collected their list on weekends came to class on Monday wearing the faces of mourners. With a look into their eyes, one could see shame and defeat. We all knew but enveloped our shame with silence. It was a cowardly way of participating in the lie that it was normal for gods in the ivory tower to use our classmates and girlfriends as firewood to prepare a tasty meal for their hungry and lusty loins. Who dares to raise a voice or lift a finger against his god? The consequence was expulsion or a scar that would dwell with you till death. Every undergrad knew two things: silence was a dogma, and skirts were spoils or bounties to be shared and enjoyed by the gods. The list was all about settlement. It was a deal where cash mattered but I also knew that everyone who wore skirts and bras had no business signing cheques. They knew where to go and how to settle. Ngozi had been initiated. Life is anything but easy for a Nigerian girl. And school, just like the street, is too dark a cloud for any skirt to escape the grip of a predator. After all the pretentious air of civility, the classroom is not a bunker. Academics was a beautiful facade, a window-dressing for wolves.
When I got to the office of the HOD, I tiptoed and took a look from the half–swathed window to the office and caught a closer look of the man I had been preparing to meet for weeks.
“Good morning, madam,” I greeted the secretary. “I am here to see my HOD. I am a freshman.”
In a second, her eyes travelled from my head to toe. She made a perusal of my worth and decided I was not worth her attention. I stood for almost five minutes before she pointed to an empty seat. “Oga is busy,” she murmured and returned to her phone. The condescension didn’t care for a hiding place. Truth is truth. I had to savour the taste of her snub.
Truth be told, I am a sucker for pretty ladies. Even if I knew nothing else, it was clear I was not her class. That fair-skinned belle had an earring, a piece of gold or diamond, glittering against her cheek. She was intimidating, the opulence of everything on her body. And for her beauty, I pardoned her lack of courtesy and manners. It was a little after 8am and I knew it was not going to be a beautiful day at all. The waiting began and I busied myself with the vade mecum from Michelle Obama’s Becoming – a masterpiece that should be the companion of every girl. I bought a copy for my unborn daughter and was reading it on her behalf. The secretary just overlooked me, ignored my presence, as if flipping over the pages of a newspaper that don’t interest her. She was a peacock wearing a breath-taking beauty. I knew why she ignored me. Her type only bows to deep pockets. Who pegs respect on humanity again? It now rests on the intimidating profile of one’s bank accounts. I was not expecting a red carpet or to be greeted with a smiling astonishment reserved for highly revered royalties, aristos, and politicos in a country where everything was a matter of coin and class. No. But I had thought that anyone who once sat in a classroom or worked in a citadel of learning should take pride in parading a certain degree of civility. All the same, I could not ignore her. It was difficult to ignore her or remain insensitive to her charm. While I pretended to bury my face in my book like Socrates, I had the leisure of scrutinising her wild arsenals. All I was imagining was having her on my bed. She was alluring, endearing, and apt to arouse the man in any man with blood running in his veins.
The humiliation should have angered me but her beauty did not allow the seed of anger to germinate. I was actually serving two masters at a time. I read a few pages from the book in my hands and took a longer time staring at the fleshy and appealing thigh. Don’t blame me. The vow of celibacy is not for me. The eye-snapping white shirt and mini-skirt she wore were revelatory. What did I not see? Her breasts stood full and pointed at me like the pistol of a bandit who had just declared, “Your life or your money,” to his victim. Her thighs fed my lustful appetite where I was seated. I kept the corner of my eyes busy until she caught me and closed her border. Relieved of my duty, I directed my eyes to my book but failed to concentrate. The glamour of what I had seen kept popping up notoriously. And by the time I checked my watch, I had been in that office for six hours waiting for a man who was busy doing what only God knows.
Don’t forget that this is Nigeria, where there are professors without professions. The devil lies in the details. An encounter with some of these professors will draw forth revelations that are not only jaw-dropping, but will also leave you reflecting on the plausible gulf between the godship that all of us share by virtue of our humanity and the tin-gods others have turned themselves into because of academic titles. We know that the ivory tower is filled with deities who profess rubbish or nothing at all.
The sad tales about gods who hold the proverbial yam and knife and decide the fate of every student under their care are still flying around. As a young child, I knew these Mussolinis in academic gowns from the pages of the Newswatch magazines. Even when my agemates were running naked under the rain, I already knew that even our revered ancestor, Dede Chinua Achebe, got a slice of their macho show of power while on earth. And by the time he was done with them in the 80s, Jo the philosopher and his kinsmen in Akoka were left naked in the market square. Back then, my young mind wondered about what was in academic work that was not in creative work. I needed no dibia to tell me that these gods of the ivory tower find great consolation in belittling others and clouding their achievements with dirty politics and theatrics.
“Paper Boy” was what Daddy called me. I was the journalist of the house. Nothing gave me joy like Daddy asking me to go and buy him a copy of The Guardian newspaper every Saturday morning from the stand just across my street. I fell in love with newspapers because they knew a lot and were generous in letting me know a lot too. The paper was an open pool of wisdom and I never resisted the urge of drinking copiously from it. It was from the papers that I read about it, the telling drama between Soyinka and Ife. A professor without a PhD, Ife mocked. It was nothing but plain mischief and pure malice. Nigerians of all divides refused to sit back and watch this sea of bad belles pour spurious attacks on Nigeria’s only Nobel Laureate of literature. I wondered what else, outside egos that are as long as the Lagos third mainland bridge, they had to offer. Soyinka’s fans cried. At last, these local champions who planned to pummel Professor Wole Soyinka to the ground burnt their fingers and went home in shame. You can imagine local fowls casting aspersions on giants who are visible on the global arena. If politics is said to be dirty on the street, it is even dirtier in the ivory tower with the melange of juju and tribalism. Pitiably, for some folks professorship is a licence to become un petit diable, who can’t see God in any other mortal, especially in those at the back of the queue.
I could have sworn with the names of Allah, Olodumare, Oseburuwa and all other gods that some Church-goers who sit in the front pews at Mass bow to in their dark closets. But I am a Catholic, and Roman Catholics don’t swear, not even with the name of the Pope or the Caesars of Rome. If you insist, I will still swear. But not by my grandfather’s grave or by Amadioha’s left foot. I will swear with the beating of my chest that there are gods in human skin. I am a living witness.
“Good morning, sir,” I greeted as I stepped into the office, bowing slightly, my voice cultured and polished. I bowed my head low to avoid having my face in direct confrontation with the harsh glare of a god.
I stood like a condemned criminal. He dropped his pen and looked up after pretending to be deeply engrossed in the art of a scribe for almost 10 minutes. He said nothing and continued writing.
“Please, sir. I am a first-year law student. I am here to collect the sacred list, sir.”
“And so what? Are you blind?” His voice, masculine and rough, roared almost immediately, and I knew I was dealing with a barbarian sleeping under the false carriage of a scholar.
“Young man, you must be an idiot. Who did you address as “sir”? I don’t blame you at all. I blame your useless father for not giving you proper home training. Are you blind? Can’t you see that I am a Professor of Law? This bloody scallywag!”
“I am very sorry, Professor. Please forgive me,” I stammered in my shock and confusion. The apology was out of my lips before I could think properly. I was sweating profusely, and all I wanted was to murmur my apology and glide away to safety but the old bully would not take it.
“Idiot, bloody fool, you are apologising to a professor while standing. I thought you lacked home training, now I know you don’t even have a father. You must be a bastard.”
“Yes, professor. Thank you very much, professor,” I cried, lying flat on the floor immediately. What should I have done at 18? Make no mistake about this. There was a need to fall on my knees. It seems a sign of wisdom. Here, that is what a dirt-poor like me does before a god. For one way or the other, this could buy me a cup of mercy.
This was a blow that hurt my dignity like the jabbing fist of an opponent in a boxing ring. Those who have heard the song before know the lyrics. It’s a dirge! Have you gotten a fuck-off stare or a cold welcome that whirs like the inside of a freezer? The gods of this world don’t squabble in whispers like the two mischievous lovers I saw the other day at Mass, quietly doing their hide-and-seek romance. They shout, threaten, and even dash ruthless slaps at random. Their power is felt as far as Timbuktu, and you dare not defend your humanity against their insanity. That would be suicidal. Any whiff of protest and you will be bundled out of the office like a petty thief.
It was a full circle of humiliation. I wished to melt but couldn’t, consumed by rage, but yet lacked the courage to whisper a word for fear of spending 10 years for a five-year course in the university. But what else will you do when you remember your catechism class and what Mumcy told you back in those days? Never talk back at elders! You definitely wouldn’t pray to imagine what this hell looks like even for a few seconds. You think you want to rationalise why it happened to you, you find nothing. What else? You feel like a leper, like wishing you were never born or begging the earth to give way and swallow you. That is what humiliation does to you.
“You bastard without home training, if you try this before me another day, if you ever try not to include my title when addressing me, I will teach you a bitter lesson.”
“Yes, professor,” I mumbled with tears streaming down.
“Well, I heard you are frolicking with that beautiful lady in your class. If you try to dip your dirty hands in my pot of soup again, you will regret why you chose this university. Is that clear?” Other litanies, insults, threats, and curses he vomited mingled and fell on me.
“Look at me, boy. I can’t imagine a small boy like you chopping the girl I had reserved for myself. You are playing with fire.”
I was confronted by a face darkened with anger. I was now standing and looking at the monster. His head was big enough to carry the burden of an entire clan. His belly, big as if his Umunna stored a thousand kegs of palm inside it, rested on his table. The man was breathing like an overfed elephant. I give it to him, Professor Bola Buchi Bulama knew his craft. He was indeed a master of terror. He looked not more than half and a quarter century on earth. I give him 60 years.
In some places, an audience with these gods will require a stamped passport from the Mesopotamian embassy. But that will not be enough. You will still dip yourself like Naaman, the Syrian, seven times in Gurara to get a clean bill of health. These gods are the raw material for terror. Shameless perverts! God will bless them! An encounter with these tyrants is always a nightmare for hewers of wood and fetchers of water like me. Megalomaniacs use the free grace of God to disgrace and diminish others. We know the Decalogue but some gods will insist that their whims and caprices must not be just laws but dogmas. You will agree with me to a degree or another that for these tin-gods, the only way to be a good boy under their terror is to scramble at their feet and kiss their stinking toes. Or, to put it another way, you have to be a clown, a zombie without a say or a mind of your own.
What do you do when confronted with the tragedy and irony of a sheep that can’t enjoy the protection of the shepherd because the sheep does not belong to the sheepfold of those who write cheques or wear panties? These gods bow to nothing else but themselves, hot laps, and brown envelopes. If truth be told, Almajairai in the street of Kontagora, though they may never have sat in a classroom before, uncouth and unpolished, they may not be able to spell civility, but they live it better than the gods of the ivory tower.
That day I knew that shame was an expensive luxury that many can’t afford. That these gods at the pinnacle of power who fed on anything and feast on everything suffer a telling deficiency of shame. Class matters, but class is not all about power and coins. It is most importantly about carriage, culture, and character. It’s about the glory of alluring civility that avoids the path of shame like leprosy.
“Idiot. Bastard. You better get your smelling self out of my office before I change my mind,” he barked at me with the fury of a provoked dog.
I didn’t know whether to be happy that the barbarian did not use the most lethal weapon in his armoury: “You will not graduate as long as I am alive.” Threats from gods are not jokes or mere polemics. Stories are told of student activists who tried to trod these deities with dirt by ruffling the feather that hid the fowl’s rump. They are still licking their wounds. I knew he was abusing his power. But a mortal is powerless before the divine. I was before a god who was not pretending about having contacts that mattered and access to the corridors of power. I knew what it took me to gain admission. I waited at home for four years. My father sold his only plot of land and murdered his conscience for me to read law. Not that I did not come out with flying colours in my exams. For the three years that my father refused to provide the sacrificial offering demanded by the gods and their chief priests, I stayed at home because my name never made it to the list of those favoured by the gods. It doesn’t matter if your brain is as hot as lava; to study courses considered lucrative, like law, medicine, nursing, engineering, and pharmacy, your family has to appease the gods. My poor father had to play the game according to their rules. Men also cry, because the day he gave me the offering, it came with tears. I also thought of my mother. She was already enjoying her new title as Mama Lawyer. It was a status that afforded her a promotion to a higher class in the social circle. If I returned home without a wig, I would be responsible for her death. For I knew she was living to see the day her only son would be called to the bar.
“Did you not hear that I said you get out of my sight?” He smiled to himself, the sardonic smile of a monster congratulating himself for a job well done.
At this second command, I knew that it was finished. I was lucky. I then took a deep breath and fought back tears with futility. What was my crime? Perhaps that for all his prowess on the bed, Ngozi rewarded him with the loud moaning and cry of my name. Or was it because I came from the clan of those whom society sentenced to kissing the rings of gods to survive, not minding the aristocracy of their brains? Again, again, and again, I wondered which was my sin.
With dripping sweat all over my fear-stricken body, I finally found the strength to move my legs. Alas! I carried my smelling and shredded poor self, the dirt and dust of shame hanging on my neck like stolen jewellery, out of the god’s presence. That day, I lost my dignity and Ngozi, my girlfriend. That was the price I had to pay. My initiation rites. Don’t forget he took e my sight, too! On my way out, I couldn’t see the beautiful secretary. Clouds of hot tears had blinded me.
Martin-Hassan Eze grew up in Lafia, Nasarawa State, North Central Nigeria and attended Saint John Bosco Secondary School Doma. He is currently a Theology Student at the Catholic Institute of West Africa, CIWA, Port Harcourt, where he previously studied Philosophy. He has a passion for creative writing and storytelling. When not writing, he listens to music or dreams up stories.
*Image by Desola Lanre-Ologun on Unsplash