A great story about the struggles of a “doctor-in-training” in Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War. John Anakwenze will fascinate anyone who is addicted to anecdotes about the trials of fighting your way up to becoming a doctor against overwhelming odds.
Udenka was pleased yet surprised to be offered a place at the medical school over two hundred miles from his village. He was only of average intelligence and you would never have classed him as being clever. The day before school resumed in September 1965, he had to make the arduous, long and crushingly tedious journey to the capital city where the institution was situated. It took him an entire day to get to his destination. Udenka already knew from when he had been for the interview that the medical school was on the mainland of a heavily populated city, occupying a large expanse of flat land, completely surrounded by a high-security thick brick wall. The wall was unpainted and unassuming. The institution seemed private and it was kept apart from the nearby houses that provided accommodation for the town dwellers. The main gate was majestic and very wide. It was made of steel, with overbearing proportions, providing the institution with added importance.
During his first visit three months previously, when passing through the gate after going through security, Udenka was immediately taken aback by the wide and the straight tarred road that stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile like the Appian Way, before he caught sight of any buildings. Once inside the huge grounds, Udenka was struck by the well-kept hedges and the carefully manicured gardens on either side of the road. The serenity and seclusion of the surroundings made him proud to be part of it all. Buildings of a different style and size, scattered far and wide, filled the space. They were all painted in various attractive colours. The largest edifice was easily visible from the gate and stood on its own, isolated and lonely. It housed all the wards of the teaching hospital, the administration departments, the dining hall, the mortuary, and the Accident and Emergency Department (A&E). On the other side of the A&E was an open space, separating it from the nurses’ hostel and a multi-storey building that accommodated the hospital medical consultants of all specialties. Two buildings, close to one another, provided accommodation for doctors and for medical students alike. Turning sharply to the left from the main hospital building, one would come across a large field that acted as a football field, where Udenka hoped to play football frequently with his peers in the evenings after lectures, when the sun would be less intense. When you cut across the well-kept grass field, you were quickly greeted by a small feeble gate that only allowed one person through at a time, from where one could see a roughly painted multi-storey building. The paintwork was fading fast, due to the onslaught of tropical rain and it was now covered in dust. The building contained the offices for clinicians and administrators. A small bank was also located within the same structure, which contained two lecture halls where students came for lectures. The building stood next to a noisy slum neighbourhood that one dared not venture into, particularly at night. It was such a sharp contrast.
The next day, as Udenka was idle and bored, he decided to take a little walk and, out of curiosity, he ended up in the dreaded slum area next to the teaching hospital. He was immediately put off by the stink emanating from an overflowing open gutter full of rubbish, next to people’s homes. Neighbours in dirty clothing, talking at the tops of their voices close to a shouting match surrounded a half-clad woman sporting unclean clothes. She was busily frying plantains and yams at the same time, inside a large, thick, metal frying basin, full of boiling oil. She was multitasking, busy constantly turning what she was frying, to prevent it burning, while simultaneously looking after her nearly nine-month-old baby in pants, who was crawling next to the boiling oil and the smelly gutter. The unwashed baby with dripping nostrils, had to cope with flies now overcrowding her face and perching on her mouth, nose, and eyes. She detested the flies now resting on her eyes and she threw her short arms over her eyes in an uncoordinated move to drive them away, only for them to immediately cover her eyes again. While her mother was busy frying and dealing with her hungry customers – mostly healthy-looking jobless men in want of grooming – her unsupervised child crawling next to the gutter, put a small piece of paper turned black with dirt, straight into her mouth. Udenka watched her make a short chewing movement without any dentition and then swallow.
Udenka saw men sitting idly by on the verandas of overcrowded houses with zinc roofs, talking to one another while their suffering wives were fully occupied. Soon, a newspaper vendor came along, blaring a horn held in one hand to attract attention. Suddenly, one of the men lazing about, beckoned to him. The vendor approached him, putting down the basin full of newspapers perched on his head. He carefully chose the newspaper that attracted him the most, and paid the vendor, who quickly lifted his newspapers back onto his head and disappeared. One could still hear his horn blaring from a distance. Udenka lined up in front of the woman frying plantains, pretending that he wanted to buy and eat plantains like the others in the well-formed formation. He was busy watching the man who had just bought a newspaper, who was looking at it as if reading it, while the other men around him watched with interest as they were uneducated, and they were anxious to know what was in the newspaper. Suddenly, the man with the newspaper who seemed to be showing off, as it was assumed by the others watching that he would inform them on the current issues of the day, as detailed in the newspaper, shouted, ‘K.O. has spoken again: boycott-the boycottables.’ Udenka looked closely at the man with the newspaper and noticed that he was holding it upside down and that what he was telling them was not in the newspaper. He was just showing off, and he was as uneducated as his comrades. The late Dr K.O. Mbadiwe was an eminent Nigerian, and a great parliamentarian. He was loved by his people, and he was fond of using difficult sounding, highfalutin English language in his speeches and his writings.
Udenka settled down quickly at medical school, spending the first week familiarising himself with the huge compound and locating important places in the city centre, particularly the shopping mall, that he had heard about so often. He realised that he needed to be initiated into this busy, highly populated and dynamic capital city, which was far more vibrant than his life in the province had been. He knew that he had to learn fast if he wasn’t to be consumed by the complex lifestyle of the people in this new environment.
On his fourth day, he decided to visit the busy shopping mall, eight miles away. He flagged down a taxi and explained to the driver exactly where he was going. They rode on and during a conversation, Udenka made the life-changing mistake of telling the driver that he had just arrived from the province. As they crawled through the busy Lagos traffic, the driver mentioned to him that his shift had suddenly ended and that he wanted to change his planned drop-off route, in order to arrange for another taxi driver to relieve him. Udenka told him in no uncertain terms that there was no way that he would allow him to change the agreed route.The driver’s attitude changed immediately, and he started speeding.
Udenka, even though new to the city, realised that the route had suddenly changed as the driver sped along. The driver had stopped talking by now. Udenka thought fast and he decided that he had to jump out of the moving vehicle, but he knew that the timing was important, in order to survive. To the surprise of the driver, who never expected the traffic to slow down, as he had chosen a well-known escape route where there wouldn’t be any chance of a delay; as they approached a wide junction, there was an unavoidable slowing down of traffic and, at that juncture, Udenka made a quick escape by opening the door of the car and jumping out, rolling along the pavement for a short distance. When he got up, he looked back at the taxi driver and he noticed that he was smiling. It was a close shave. Udenka dusted off the dirt on his clothes and continued to his destination.
Now in the shopping mall, Udenka took more interest in the foreign shops such as Kingsway, which mainly sold British goods. He would spend hours admiring the goods which he could not afford, but wished that he could. As far as he was concerned, it was the best way to while away the free time he had before the commencement of lectures. This also ended up being a worthwhile activity as, on a few occasions, he bumped into people who he knew well and who had travelled all the way from the eastern region, just to visit the shopping mall.
Udenka, the story teller
Udenka tried to make friends at his new institution as he had arrived not knowing any of the students, except for one who he’d met briefly two years previously in an examination hall in a town near his home. He was called Emeka. Both students found themselves at the same medical school, and they easily connected with one another as they had a lot in common. Emeka’s father was a strict disciplinarian. He often told Udenka stories about how he had been grounded by his strict parents. Emeka had turned into a well brought up human being, and he was one of the best people Udenka had ever met, faultless and dependable. He was a good boy. His admiration for him was boundless. Emeka was talented and good at sports, especially football and tennis. He had so much energy that Udenka was unable to keep up with him. He kept Udenka occupied, in the first few days in the medical school, playing football together and loitering around town. He was so unspoilt that he had no vices. Like Udenka, Emeka was extremely shy. Emeka’s tallness suited him, and he was as straight as a bamboo tree. His fairness attracted attention and exaggerated his handsomeness. One easily assumed that his exquisite beauty would make girls easy prey, but surprisingly, he had none. He was either lacking the skills to make a pass, or he had other problems in approaching the opposite sex. Emeka walked quickly, in long strides, with one knee slightly bent. Udenka often struggled to keep up with him with his short steps, and he often had to break into a run to catch up. Emeka spoke in a slow and gentle fashion and on rare occasions, he stammered, particularly when upset.
On the other hand, Udenka’s strict upbringing was interrupted by the sudden death of his father when he was still a child, after which he was exposed to vice and indiscretion in the township. When his father was alive, discipline was the order of the day. Flogging was as certain as having three square meals a day. In his primary school days, failing any class test was taken very badly by his head-teacher father, Fidelis. Udenka always came last in class tests in his formative years, particularly in arithmetic (he was baffled by the subject), and with these poor results in his hand, he dreaded going home after school. The flogging whenever he got home with a bad result, was intense, endless, and was only brought to a stop by his mother, Udego, throwing herself between the victim and the oppressor, crying out, ‘Do you want to kill my boy?’ Following each beating, Udenka would remember how he had struggled for two years to be admitted to the school while his father had turned a blind eye, even though he was the head teacher.
Udenka was exposed to girls in the township at a young age, and he could have inadvertently been telling his friend, Emeka, how much he knew about life. In a way, their different exposure and life knowledge complemented one another and they stayed together in harmony.
One weekend, Udenka decided to do some window shopping at the mall for the last time, before lectures commenced. He was penniless but still he had the urge to go, but did not desire to shoplift. He had spent about two hours inside the large Kingsway shop in Lagos and then came out onto busy Broadway Street. As he ambled leisurely along the busy street bustling with people, he walked into a bank that he suddenly saw, to enquire about opening an account for such a time when money would hopefully be in his possession. He spent barely five minutes inside the bank before leaving, with his empty bag hanging loosely over his shoulder. As he came out, Udenka flagged down a taxi that was fast approaching. When the taxi was close enough, the driver stuck his head out the window and shouted, asking where Udenka wanted to go. Udenka shouted back, saying that he wanted to go to Idi Araba, where his medical school was located. The driver slowed down and then sped off. To Udenka’s surprise, when the next taxi approached, he discovered that when he again shouted, ‘Idi Araba’, about five men now appeared from nowhere also screaming ‘Idi Araba’. They were now all going to the same destination. Udenka became suspicious and he smelt a rat. The taxi stopped and the men quickly moved forward, trying to persuade Udenka to join them. They were almost inside the taxi before they realised that Udenka was dragging his feet. It was too late for them. Now they were inside the taxi, it drove off. Udenka continued to watch the taxi as it moved about fifty yards, before it suddenly came to a stop, where the men jumped out. Udenka knew that they were going nowhere. With the bag over his shoulder having come out of the bank, they had hoped to sandwich him in the back seat of the taxi, rob him, and throw him out of the moving vehicle. Udenka was too smart for them and when the plan didn’t work, they had stopped the taxi and got out. Udenka was getting better and better at navigating the complexity of living in a fast-moving, vibrant city. He was perfecting his skills at how to beat the bad characters swarming the city. He retreated into the Kingsway store for a while and exited through another entrance into a quiet street, where he found a taxi to take him back to campus.
Lectures resumed in earnest and Udenka worked hard to familiarise himself with his new science subjects. To his surprise, initially, things moved effortlessly. The timetable was crowded and students had one lecture after another and soon assignments began to pile up, meaning that there was hardly any free time. One could not afford to miss a single lecture, as everyone was afraid of failure. Tests and examinations became a frequent feature and one always wished to come out on top. Hopes were often dashed but the students kept on, despite the uphill task facing them.
Udenka began to progress in his school work after an initial shaky start. The medical school was well supported by the federal government, and the students had everything going in their favour. Accommodation was good enough, and there was certainly nothing to complain about regarding the food: the menu was rich and the taste of the food was glorious. It was an easy and an enviable university life at that time; in the mid-sixties. Udenka lived outside the medical school in a decent area of the city. The hostel was a two-storey building about fifteen minutes’ bus ride to the teaching hospital. Most evenings, as the students ate their supper, they always had one thing in mind that excited them: a regular event that occurred after dinner at about seven o’clock. A number of students, about eight of them, would often gather in front of the university hostel to await the arrival of Udenka. The front of the hostel was separated from the busy road by a low brick wall. While a few leaned against the low wall, others perched upon it, making every effort not to fall. They had identified Udenka as a brilliant and a reliable storyteller. They were often blown away by his talent and his poise and he was often revered. His storytelling would never be found wanting, and the students were enthralled by his narrative. His arrival on the scene lit up the atmosphere as if Udenka had brought along a dazzling light. Once surrounded by his colleagues, anxious to hear what he had in store for the evening, Udenka was not about to disappoint. As he opened his mouth, stories would follow one another in quick succession. The success of storytelling was dependent on how it was polished to a shine and the way in which it was delivered, to enhance the storyline. Udenka had tales to tell in abundance.
There was a recurring story of a student nurse, Nwanka and her exploits. She came all the way from the east to visit her boyfriend, Erik, who happened to be a medical student, in the western region.
This particular girl had been Udenka’s girlfriend some years before, when he was undertaking a clinical attachment as a medical student, in a specialist hospital in the Eastern region. One afternoon, while Udenka was escorting her out of the hospital to catch a taxi home, they suddenly met Eric at the gate and she was introduced to him. That same day, Udenka had visited Nwanka in the evening, and he was startled and intrigued to find Eric in the house. Both denied that there was anything going on. This happened again and again, and, in the end, Udenka gave up and ended the relationship. The same fate was to befall Eric. During her visit to the west, Eric introduced her to a newly qualified doctor friend. The doctor invited both of them to his flat for dinner. Following that visit, things did not work out well for Eric. Every night, after taking Nwanka back to her temporary accommodation, having spent time with her in his student hostel, she would sneak out to spend the night at the doctor’s flat. Her exploits were so numerous that countless stories revolving around her, were told, and no one ever got bored hearing about her shenanigans. No one in his group could get over Udenka’s expertise in storytelling. His stories coruscated into magic brilliance, and his peers regarded most of the evening tales as a form of relaxation, before getting down to the nitty-gritty of schoolwork.