Murky Waters

What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail?

Those words hung in the air around me long after the empowerment seminar was over. I was glad I had attended the seminar organized by the student union government for all undergraduates. This was the first in what was to be an annual event, and this year, speakers—successful people—from different sectors of the economy were thoughtful enough to come to campus and speak to us. They inspired me. I learnt a lot; however, those words, what is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail haunted me. As soon as Dr. Mrs. Badeshi, a PhD holder and business mogul asked the rhetorical question in a hall full of attentive students, the silence that followed was palpable. She had gotten the students right where she wanted them—thinking. I was thinking too. I had an answer to her question immediately after she asked. For me, the answer was a no-brainer. I had grown up wanting to be a missionary. My father had been one before his untimely death and we travelled all over the West African coast when I was a child. I enjoyed the constant travelling, and even though we lived in poor conditions most of the time, I saw the joy my father experienced preaching at local churches and helping the different communities in the ways he could. His eyes shone when he smiled, and he was a man who loved people deeply. We didn’t stay at a village or town for more than a year before having to move again. Wherever we went, we relied on churches and the goodwill of the people for our needs. Dad made a little money from offerings raised when he visited local churches to preach, and he would sometimes take on short-term jobs, but we were not rich by any measure, and could only afford the basic things we needed.

We were living in Nhacra, a small town in the Oio region of Guinea-Bissau when a cholera epidemic hit the country. Father contracted the disease and because his body was already weak from malnutrition and a recent bout of malaria, he did not survive. That year, the cholera epidemic affected over 14, 000 people and killed over 200. In fear—and sometimes I think relief—mother and I returned to Nigeria. I was seven. Her family was quick to receive us into their home. Mother soon found a job and began to earn a good wage. We moved out of her parent’s home into our own apartment. The travelling ended, and we soon settled into a typical life. I could tell she was very happy to be living stably. She had never been happy with father’s constant travelling and our penurious living, and she made it known many times. They frequently had heated arguments at night while I pretended to be asleep. On such nights, father would sleep outside on a bench, at the mercy of the heat or cold—depending on the month of the year—and mosquitoes.

In the years following father’s death, two things never left my mind: his deep satisfaction with, and love for his vocation, and the love I had developed for travelling. I wanted to be like my father, to do the things he did. I wanted to go from place to place telling people about the value of a relationship with God, and how it is capable of providing deep satisfaction. I wanted to tell people about my father; to let them know that there was fulfillment beyond simply acquiring and amassing material wealth. I had watched my father touch hearts and change lives with his message. I wanted to do the same. It became a dream I would dream every night. I would close my eyes and see myself back in Guinea-Bissau, or Burkina Faso or Mali or any of the other countries we once called home, living in a small house, welcoming the young and old and speaking words of encouragement to them. I would envision myself helping to build small schools and clinics. I would dream of the wind blowing over my face as I stuck my head out of the bus window while I traveled from one town to another, from one church to another, from one country to another.

When it was time for me to go to college, I told my mother I was interested in studying Religion as an undergraduate major. She asked me why, and I answered, “So that I can be equipped for missionary work.” My mother screamed at me, telling me I was out of my mind. She said over her dead body will I be a missionary. She banned me from speaking about it and demanded that I throw the desire out the window. At first, I was adamant. I gave counter-arguments and defended my decision. Mother then resorted to emotional blackmail. She would cry and beat her chest, calling me her only child, her only boy, reminding me of Father’s death and the poverty we once experienced. She said times had changed, and as a missionary, I would not be able to afford to start a family of my own. When her emotional blackmail didn’t work, she called a family meeting where I heard the dreaded word disown. My own extended family threatened to disown me if I decided to cause my mother unbearable grief by becoming a missionary. I bowed under the pressure. I gave in to their demands. I certainly did not want to cause my mother unbearable grief and lose my entire family. I got into college to study Business. I was in my second year when the student union government decided to organize the empowerment seminar. I still had the strong desire to become a missionary when Dr. Badeshi’s voice thundered from the speakers in the hall and she asked the question I couldn’t shake off. What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail?

I knew Dr. Badeshi asked that question to encourage people to look beyond potential obstacles and failures and launch out into the fulfillment of their dreams. She went on to say that on the road to success, failure is inevitable; that the people who truly succeed are those who pick themselves up after failure and keep moving.

What about me?

I wanted to ask Dr. Badeshi what she had to say to people like me, whose fear is not necessarily failure on the path to success; whose barrier to fulfillment is not necessarily money or opportunity, but the loss of loved ones? What about people who are willing to launch out and take risks and fail and get back up, but are held back because they will hurt and disappoint or even lose family and friends if they dared? What advice does Dr. Badeshi have for us? The one thing I would do, if I knew I would never lose the love, trust and respect of my family is to be a missionary. But here I am, studying Business. I’ll likely graduate in another 2 years and get a job. I’ll earn a good wage and live a stable life. I’ll get married and have children and everyone will be happy. I may travel occasionally, alone or with family, but it won’t be to the places I have grown to love. It won’t be to those villages where they smile in the midst of lack and pray even when surrounded by uncertainty; where their happiness is not anchored on how much wealth they have, and where they will die having lived what I consider a fulfilled life.

How about you? What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail? Or hurt those you love? Should I even care about disappointing or hurting loved ones? What do you think?

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