For three weeks, I did not know that I have been admitted to study Literature-in-English at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Because earlier, three days to Post Utme exams, I had narrowly changed my course from Fine Art. And it was unfortunate that after I got my Post Utme result, the proposed course was still Fine Art, so I came to school and went to the Admission Officer’s office for clarification.
I still remember how the yellow woman in charge looked over a sea of piled papers, took a pity glance at me, and prophesied that I would not be admitted, that “even those who arranged their things properly have not been admitted.” I traveled back to Ogbomoso, Oyo State, broken. But when I finally discovered I’ve been admitted, I began to prepare immediately, telling my Big Brothers far away in Jos to send trousers and palms and boxers and shoes. (I had spent all my money buying some books, and it was until then I realized I have only two proper trousers to wear).
One midnight, the resumption date was finally released. I was happy. I prepared towards it. But it flunked. And the second flunked, too. Everyone around taunted me. They cooked up new resumption dates, to make me feel happy and bad at the same time. But it was true: how could a university be so unorganized with issues as simple as resumption dates? I never knew it was a drop from the iceberg, the prologue to a plot of disappointments.
The five months that preceded the actual resumption date were languorous and boring. Most days, I ate five to six plates of rice. I cooked and ate and read and got my stews burnt and forgot to feed the chickens. I logged on aspirant’s websites and read news and hoped. I was enthusiastic, my head beaming with thoughts of a new life, a new environment, new friends, new resolutions. I scribbled OAU in my notebook every time I got tired of reading, trying different styles of handwriting. Most of them came out oblong like the head of an immature foetus.
Then one day I can’t remember properly, I read on the school’s portal that the main library, the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library, houses 500,000 volumes. For me, volumes in that context was ambiguous because of my disbelief. I looked it up in the dictionary. It means books. Jeez, five hundred thousand books? My former school only has a few hundred books, like a handful of dust. I got up and told my Mom I’ve found my place of death in OAU. “I will die in Hezekiah’s Library!” I said to her. My mother stirred the soup and said may God help me. I nodded, and then told my Dad about the library, told my sister, told my brother who was still learning how to spell ceiling, told friends and folks in church, told God. I was sure I would love this. I began to look forward to dying in a 800 seat building full of books.
Hostel accommodation registration came and went in one weekend. I paid my school fees three days after accommodation finished. The story was that the hostels were under serious renovations and about twenty percent of freshmen would be accommodated “for the mean time.” I wanted to cry, because I was sure the hostels would look like the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge after everything had been done. Why have I missed such a gallant opportunity? I asked myself. I knocked my head on the bed and sought for alternatives.
Early one morning, without taking my bath, I rushed to Ile-Ife to secure a room. It was the same week empty private hostels close to the School Gate were as scarce and expensive as gold. I had been chatting on Whatsapp with this guy who called himself an agent. He had sent me pictures of one-windowed rooms with pale walls and doors with broken handles. I had chosen one. I traveled to pay him. I got to school with forty thousand naira in my pocket to discover that the guy wanted to swindle me, that he was actually in an Eastern state.
I saw TO LET posters, contacted one, and got a room to share with a dentistry student. The new agent took me to the room, going far away into the belly of the town, past houses with rustic roofs and railings, and peeling paints. He drove fairly fast, through a silent estate, only slamming the brakes each time he saw any lady with large buttocks. At Mayfair, he parked by a lady who was about to enter a church premises and got her number. I shook my head and stared at the CLERGY sticker on his windscreen.
The pictures of the hostels under serious renovation came a few days later, uploaded on a public website. The hostels were colourless like diluted tea. I saw holes in the ceilings, holes big enough to fit a whole goat. I had seen rats before at Adekunle Fajuyi Hall, in one of the Annexes. The rats were big, with pot bellies, going about their businesses as though they were admitted students, too, dragging bedspace with occupants, eating left over pizzas. Some of them got a shock of mane below their chin. In the pictures, I saw burnt sockets, burnt power outlets, red, black, and white wires in tangled knots like noodles mixed with spaghetti, the naked ends wrapped with masking tapes.
There were holes on the bathroom floors; stains on the walls, the colour of blackcurrant juice; cupboards and beds and buckets flung everywhere as in a refugee camp, like houses earlier invaded by terrorists. In some rooms, all the louvres were gone; the gaps reminds one of an oldie without teeth. Some bunks had kwashiorkor, the rusted metal cribs a crooked letter K struggling to maintain balance. The lawns behind some hostels had swimming pools: tea-coloured water laced above mud, grime, and shit. Mosquito Breeding Relaxation Pools. A lady said that when it shines, the heat of the sun seeps through the hole in the ceiling and scalds her bed. Serious renovation indeed! Mom said that as God liveth and her soul lives, I will not live in a place like that. I said “Amen!” and received it.
April, 2018. The Mercedes that brought me and my things (mostly my novels) to school was full. I was pressed like bread all through the ride from Oyo State because the whole house came with me. It rained that day. Flies, like locusts, came out and covered all the way to Ife. They entered cars and noses and mouths. Mom said, “Is this the biblical Egypt?... Aregbesola must have done a great job here.” There were pools on the roads; the car craned on all sides like a boat in a tempest.
I arrived days before resumption, settled in my room, with a roommate that did not talk, that sat at his table solving Physics problems as though his survival hung on it. He slept and woke and read and read and forgot to go to church on Sunday. He kept seeing science documentaries about space on his long phone, especially One Strange Rock, a documentary hosted by Will Smith.
Then slowly, like drawing chewing gum from the mouth, like pounding air into a tire, the school began to swell with stale and new students. I met classmates, coursemates, all eager to share contacts, enthusiastic like someone moving to a new flat on Lekki Island. I roamed the library entrance everyday, waiting for registration to commence. I spent a week at the ICT centre, taking computer lessons that refused to enter my head. I registered and collected my library ID the first week it began. Minutes later I was upstairs, on the third of four floors. A dream came true. Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library at last!
A question hit me between the eyes: An art gallery? Because there were paintings in the hallway, in the reading rooms, under the staircases. I thought I had just entered Nike Art Gallery. I took my time to savour Pelumi Ponmile’s mural, his collage portrait of Buhari dumped at the lobby, to study Akinola Lasekan’s Moremi, a full portrait painting about the Yoruba goddess who sacrificed her son to save her people from Igbo invaders. I remembered that Akinola died the same week we studied his biography in secondary school.
I continued to walk around. But then I began to feel cold. I shrank into a bundle. I wanted to faint. The books I saw were in cages. The type of free range cages one would use for overgrown Rottweilers. And they had Guards, not librarians. Most of them with “Don’t come here” written on their faces. The Guards stayed in the cages. Most passed the day sleeping heavily, making the table vibrate. You are expected to go to them after spending an hour in the Catalogue Room fishing out the book you want to read, give them the catalogue code number for the book, wait for ages before the book comes. Then exasperated, sleep off while reading the book. A book you might never be able to borrow because “the library, too, was under serious renovation.”
I leant on the iron netting. The books were old. So old, dating from the 70s, the years behind the Civil War. So stale and placid like old wine. They kept calling me to save them.
“We have something to tell you,” they said in whispers.
“I don’t know your catalogue codes,” I replied.
The books at the far end of the cages were browned with dust, the pages and spine covers lolled off the shelves, some held firm with spider webs. I was sure the Guards have not picked a book from there in years. It was like coming into a room that had been neglected for a hundred years.
Where is the literature section? Where are the latest novels from Africa and the Outside World? I suddenly felt like falling on my face. I literally died on my first visit.
Afterwards, I found consolation in the Reference Room, a small room where you can pick books from shelves without catalogue codes. I paged through encyclopedias, got little of the things I wanted, copied them into my notebook, stared at students sleeping all around me. Most of the chairs were gone, and I wondered where. Some chairs had no backrest. The leather covers of some had torn, the foam underneath ridden with moth. There was a day I sat in a chair that smelt like rotten egg. Above, some of the fluorescent lamps were dead; some had their light reduced to orange embers, like a fire going out.
Then one evening, leaving the library, I wondered what Hezekiah Oluwasanmi would say if he were to resurrect that day to find what he had struggled to put together in such a state. I wondered whether he would laud the VCs for being such great administrators. I wondered whether he would get a proper book to read. A book of this time, that wasn’t printed in 1972. Of course there were new books, but they were very few, like new wraps of freshly consumed goods spread above a rotten rubbish dump to give it a more acceptable appearance.
For me, the essence of education is learning. And the place to get this is the library. Ray Bradbury was born during the Great Depression in America. After high school, when there was no money to buy books, he visited the library three times in a week for ten years. He was a great American writer afterwards. Ben Carson’s life in the same vein began to change on the first day he began to make use of a public library closest to him. The library is the richest place in every school. And it must be kept equipped as often as possible. The fragments our professors refuses to say in class, the parts they leave untouched, the secrets they treasure so much that make some of them swell like an overstuffed pie can be gotten from the library. The library hands over mature power into little hands. It is the beginning of the future. But where now is that future, for me, a fresh OAU student? Is this how I would be for the next four years, for the next seven semesters?
Rita Mae Brown said, “When I got my library card, that was when my life began.” I would like to tell her that, “When I got my library card, that was when my life began to fall.” I cannot envisage a university without an updated library. I just surely can’t.
We need new books.
Boluwatife is a student of Obafemi Awolowo University. He loves to write and paint.