Till Death Did He Race
His name was Eric and he used to live in an inn across the street, just a walk away from the popular Costa Rica Nightclub, though he never knew how its inside looked like. The owner of the inn preferred to call it a hotel — he believed the word inn made him lose lots of customers. You could hardly know there was an inn there. But it was in that little mansion that Eric rested his tired bones whenever he returned from a far-away school in the suburbs to teach.
Eric had graduated from ENS three years ago. How he got in, no one really knows, especially in a society so corrupt that you can hardly trust its government. How he graduated was not a problem, but where he was eventually posted?!!!
From a classroom made of mud, Eric gazes out the window. Outside, schoolchildren scream and jostle under the glare of the April sun. As an ordinary primary school teacher, it’s not really Eric’s job to oversee the school’s infrastructural development, and he knows the school needs it. But the village can’t afford the cement needed to build a proper kindergarten classroom. By the way, government support is erratic. But there’s nothing poor Eric can do about it.
According to the rules of the trade, he’ll have to spend his first two or three years teaching for free. More like volunteering though the government won’t refer to it that way. Then, if he is lucky, he’d receive his first, second, third, and subsequent salaries for all the time he’d spent working for free. It was more like a game of chance Eric had to play. And his odds of winning the game rested entirely on hope, how strong his hope was.
After returning from school, teaching students how to hammer a nail into wood, dad had decided to have a little chat with Eric. The sun was gradually disappearing behind the clouds when dad and Eric sat under a shaded tree that stood in the center of the yard. A vein of anxiety ran through his words as he described the dilemma many villages in this part of the country face. “Yes! There’s some funding set aside by the government, but it is just luck if it happens to come your way.” Eric said.
The road to Eric’s school was unmarked and rocky. On a glaringly hot day in April, Eric would jump on a dusty bike with his white, neatly tucked shirt — the state of the bike didn’t matter — he just needed to get to school on time — teachers in this part of the country rarely ever got to school in time. The bike rider maneuvers around potholes in the dirt road as they find their way through the bushes. Eric was petite, dark-skinned, and bald-headed. He had made the trip to this small school dozens of times, and knew how to hold on tight. He didn’t want to fall off the bike. Lest, he stained his white in the mud-laden road.
As the sun began to rise over the village, young Eric ushered his pupils into a bare, cement-floored room that served as a makeshift kindergarten classroom, that hung from one of the village’s communal buildings. Dressed in blue tops and brown khaki trousers for boys, and blue gowns for girls, some barefoot, the children would stake out spots on the floor and spread out their writing materials, all ready to learn ABC, 123.
The mix of well-used picture books, flashcards and puzzles, are bathed in a thin layer of dust. A single wooden desk sits in the corner of the room, stacked with papers and lesson plans for Mr. Eric and his teaching assistant, David. With two teachers and more than 40 children squeezed into the small space, there isn’t room for much else.
It’s break time already and Eric and David are having a little, but mature talk. But there’s nothing mature about the talk. It sounds more like a lecture for David.
“Access to early childhood education is a growing concern in Cameroon, where a booming population is straining the country’s agriculture-dominated economy.”
Eric pauses, his eyes starring at the dusty classroom, and shaking his head pitifully.
“Children who receive a good kindergarten education are more likely to stay in school for the long-term, but the bureaucratic and financial obstacles to building schools in rural areas are overwhelming…” David cuts him short, trying to give Eric his own little but mature lecture.
“…and the country’s decision makers are nearly 500 kilometers away in Yaounde, Cameroon’s bustling, traffic-choked political capital. In an overwhelmingly rural country of nearly 24 million people, it’s easy for a far-away village of 2.000 to be forgotten.”
Eric looks at David in astonishment. For the few weeks David had been with him, Eric had believed David to be a dumb. Now, he knew he had been wrong about David all along.
Three years had gone and Eric was still teaching for free. Had the government forgotten about him? “Perhaps, my documents had gone up with the flames when the parliament caught fire in November last year.” He sighs as he recalls parliament is the place where the big boys make all the country’s bad decisions, not where educational documents are kept.
Seven years had now gone and Eric hadn’t got a single word of encouragement or assurance from the government. But Eric was so patient with the government.
All this while, Eric had survived on P.T.A. funds. He would have made a few francs by exploiting the schoolchildren like the rest of the teachers were doing. But Eric was an earnest man. He had a conscience. He knew the children couldn’t afford. Most of their parents were peasant farmers who had spent a good chunk of their lives contending with the soil for survival.
“Please, let me die,” sobbed the robust, now frail young Eric as the old fisherman struggled against the violent waves of the river John waterfall.
“Just a few more seconds, teacher, and you’ll be out,” replied the old man, gasping for breath.
Finally, they made it to shore and both fell onto the sand, desperately in need of rest. “Why did you pull me out of the river?” cried the angry-looking Eric. “You should’ve let the water swallow me. Your good deed means my continuous painful existence.”
Stunned by these words, the old fisherman looked down at Eric who had nearly drowned as he panted from the heroic effort of rescuing the victim from the violent waves. He shook his head, revealing the shock that filled his mind.
As tears flooded Eric’s eyes, he buried his face in his rough palms.
Until one evening, I must have been returning from the farm that day with a 50 kg bag of coco-yams on my head, that I heard a few whispers of a fatal accident. I gave a deaf ear to it and continued my 5 km journey home. But as I approached the inn where Eric lived, the whispers grew louder. Then, they became less of whispers and more of discussions. Someone mentioned Eric’s name and connected it to an accident. It was then that I knew something was cooking up. But the load on my head was too heavy to withstand even a short conversation that I had eventually continued home to release the load first.
Big brother who had stayed back at home to prepare food for us while we where on the farms, was just starting to narrate the tragedy to mom whose ears were already itchy to hear. Little sister is hanging on the chair, her right hand supporting her tired head, and listening to the story. Fifteen seconds later, I’m resting on the arm rest, trying to understand what big brother is saying.
According to big bro, uncle Eric’s seven slave years of teaching had finally paid off. The money had come in a pile, about one point something million francs. Then, he had used nearly half of the money that day to get himself a good motorcycle that’ll transport him to school.
Two days ago, he had told dad he wanted to get a motorcycle for himself. But dad had advised him against the idea, which he apparently ignored.
It was this particular road bend near dad’s school that started it all. Dad always told us, “when the road bends, slow down and watch out.” Dad had been riding his 10-year-old Yamaha motorcycle for a while. He had certainly mastered the terrain. But Uncle Eric didn’t slow down when he got to that bend. He was too excited on his new Boxer 150c motorcycle to see the red taxi coming from the opposite direction. Eyewitnesses said they saw Uncle Eric in the air before falling on the concrete road, with his head gashed, and blood pumping out.
The doctor and his nurses were just five minutes away from the scene. But Uncle Eric was gone. The worst part wasn’t desperately trying to perform CPR before the hospital arrived. No! The worst part…was when I saw the pictures, with Uncle Eric lying face-down on the road with his brains pouring out of his head.
To this day, I wonder if those five minutes wouldn’t have saved Eric’s life.