The feel of the breeze against my skin was amazing. The air was clean and fresh and oh, the way it seemed to sieve through strands of my hair brought back memories of standing beneath the shower vigorously washing the mud off my calloused palms as cold water trickled from my scalp to my feet.
Besides the occasional interruptions of the cluttered trumpet sound of the passenger’s farts, the journey to Welta State had been a quiet and refreshing one. I missed having my Nokia torchlight phone – a personal buddy, we had done several of these journeys together: it shone for me to thumb through the pages of hamlet, Americanah and things fall apart as the engine of the long coaster bus coughed while negotiating pot holes and the stuffed luggage gradually edged me out of seat. Papa always said, a cow doesn’t know the use of its tail until it is cut off!
Tona Oil and Gas Services was everyone’s dream employer, In fact I remember like yesterday how papa’s steady rapt voice went on, the night before I left for the wider world, ‘Nnenna! You need to burn the midnight oil and cultivate the habit of reading’. I will not be there to look over your shoulders and keep you from joining the bad wagon but you need to make use of all the wisdom and knowledge we have poured into you Nnem’ He would pause and clear his and reach for the glass of water knowing I always had one ready. Then he would go on to say, I remember in 1956, when The Ohaleta’s first son Uzo graduated top performance in his class, Tona Oil and Gas offered him a job immediately and brought him home in the company vehicle just to carry a lean sack of old clothing and say good bye to his family. Uzo had been since been relocated to France by his company but his feat and praise never ceased from my father’s motivational tales.
When I received the call from Engr. Joaquin Loo, the recruitment specialist for Tona Oil and Gas informing me of being shortlisted for the final stage of the interview for the Graduate Entry Role, The celebration at our house was boundless. Papa had ordered that ofe-okazi and fufu, my favorite meal be prepared immediately. We sat together around the table and ate as my father sang my praises; He punctuated every sentence with ‘Nnem, I always knew you would bring our family to limelight in Ebenebe’.
I could barely eat; I could feel my intestines move one against the other like the shuffling feet of the maidens at the atilogwu dance festivals. My siblings took turns recounting my parents initial displeasure at my refusal to study medicine and bring them the glory of birthing the first doctor in Ebenebe. There was a traffic jam in my mind, diverse thoughts of how we would raise funds for my trip to Uturu in Welta State for the interview, and how sad my parents would be if I didn’t pass the final screening stage of the interview. I had already done several job interviews and examination and had passed excellently. In one instance, I had received a call requesting I travel to Lagos for medical fitness examination. Having emptied our coffers and made the journey, 7 months later, I had heard nothing from the company. It would really hurt my parents if this towed the same line. I did the sign of the cross and hoped that God wouldn’t let that happen.
The stream of lights and sound of gun shots woke all the other passengers immediately. Our bus driver immediately attempted to reverse but one of the robbers quickly shot the windscreen. The driver immediately shut off the engine, jumped down and lay flat on the floor shouting ‘Abeg oh, No kill me oh, Na mistake’. All the passengers scuttled to the rear seat hoping that it would delay our encounter with the robbers. In no time, the bus was surrounded by the gun men shouting ‘Oya make una come down or we go shoot’. Terrified, we trooped out in a cluster hands raised and faces facing downwards. Every one kept bumping into the other. The one of them howled ‘Flat! all of you lie down flat on the floor and do not look up’.
I could hear their foot-steps everywhere around us, interrupted occasionally by the thud of one trunk thrown out from the bus for ransacking. I heard several shouts coming from passengers around me ‘I no get money oh’, ‘Abeg oh’. I wondered what the robbers were up to when I felt the hand reach into the back pocket of my jeans and I screamed. In fear, I reached for the envelope containing my credentials which I had taken from my luggage. I don’t know if it was the sound I heard first or the pain as it shot through my legs. I squeezed my lids tightly shut as I cried papa! Papa! I felt the robber snatch the envelope from my hands. The fight had gone out of me already, after ruffling through them a bit, I vaguely heard him say ‘No be money, na paper’ and throw my credentials at me. I remember the thud to my head and nothing else.
‘Doctor, I think she’s awake’. I quickly shut my eyes again. Paint shot through my brain as the high beam of light hit my eyes. I didn’t recognize the voice I had just heard. Oh, maybe the robbers had decided to take hostages. I cried aloud. Doctor, she’s awake and she’s crying. I think she may be in pain.
How could I have missed that, she had said Doctor – that meant, I was in a hospital. I wanted to open my eyes to affirm that I was awake but weakness won.
The night was quiet and it was so cold. I wished one of the nurses would come in so I could ask that the Air-Conditioning be put off. It felt the same as that night in the bus, when I snuggled against my sweater to keep warm. Why had God let this happen to me? How would I contact Papa and Mama? Had they been trying to reach me already? Where was my phone? I had many questions and there was no one to answer them. The doctor had said, my legs were healing quickly but I would need to use clutches for a while. The nurse who gave me a bath had asked that I rest well. She said I was going to have a special visitor the next day. Who could it be?
‘Hello Nnenna’ the voice broke through my solitude. I knew I had heard that voice before, but where?
‘I am Joaquin Loo, Recruitment advisor for Tona Oil and Gas’. A smile broke out across my lips and he smiled too. He sat beside me and spoke very gently. He mentioned that the company had been contacted from the details I had alongside my credentials. He empathized with me about all that had happened. Papa and Mama had been contacted already. In fact, a company vehicle had been sent to convey them to Welta state to spend some time with me while I recovered. I was so eager to tell him how thankful I was, but I couldn’t speak. The shock from the incident had resulted in my inability to speak, but the doctor had commented that I would regain my speech with time and encouragement. I had since learned to nod, smile to say yes or sway my head from right to left in disagreement. My fingers and hand muscles worked but writing hurt a bit.
Houston is an amazing place, the wide stretch of lands on both sides of the highway were an intriguing site. I would have mama and papa travel with me on vacation here. It would be great to share this sight with them. We had gone to a Rodeo game the day before and the tour around Jeremy’s ranch today promised to be an exciting one. Jeremy has an eye for aesthetic beauty and loves sport. I have never known one person who embodied intelligence, fun and with so much ease. He could go from giving a high-tech Oil exploration lecture one minute to describing the petals of the flowers at Ugwuta Lake. I couldn’t have wished for a better mentor.
Three years after my employment in Tona Oil and Gas services, I have gone on to become the best well design engineer in the eastern hemisphere and a spokesperson for the company on Equal opportunity, employment, Diversity and inclusion. Papa was right; working with the company had proven to be heaven on earth. Through the hard phases of re-learning to walk, regaining my speech, learning the operations of the life cycle of an oil well and the interludes of travelling to the backsides of Africa, where education is not the norm for the girl child and the giving speeches in the industry in Germany, I have not been successful at detangling my trip to Uturu from my opening remark. I would often see people reach for their tissues, or shed a tear without shame as they made the journey with me again. It wouldn’t be any different today at the international Diversity Conference for women in Engineering holding in Dallas Forthworth, Texas.
The visitor’s bell chimed its soft tune as I put the second stud on my earing. It had to be Jeremy.