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AT THE GATE: LIFE AND LIVING by Chijioke Ngobili

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Let’s call him Rabman. For more than a year now, I have come to know Rabman. He hails from the South-southern Nigeria. He’s been serving as a steward in a particular institution I visit often for one thing or the other. Rabman would routinely stay at the gate and guard his employers from 6pm till 8am the next day before he’s replaced. He looks boyish but he’s a man. His voice is feminine: a mixture of alto and vibrato which makes you turn around to see his face when you’ve not heard him speak before. He’s dark and has a gentle mién. He’s slim and not very tall. It was this slim and not very tall frame that the red-eyed security men saw in front of me one night and kept their cool before yelling out: “Is that Rabman?” The “Yes” that came after the question was what doused the tension that night. It was this Rabman’s “Yes” that saved me from telling long stories.
That night, I could have been shot by the red-eyed security men. They had been ordered to shoot at anything that moves around their post once it is 11pm-3am. Nobody was expected around there or seen awake between those times. Yet, I was awake. I was not only awake, I was moving. Moving to where I would rest my head and sleep. The night was already still and silent. It was very dark too.
“Where are you going to, sir?” Rabman asked me in his hushed feminine voice peeking through the small window of the security post.
“To my room”, I innocently replied.
“No, wait. I’m going to accompany you”, he said authoritatively. “It would be risky if you walk alone. A fresh order was recently given to the armed security men and I fear they would be too zealous to abide by it”.
And it was true that it was risky to walk alone at that 11pm as the muscular figure later told me in his frog voice: “Hmmm! Bros, na dis guy save you oo. If nor be am, hmm…. I nor know oo”. 

“Goodeee..”, Rabman would often tell you in a fading voice when you walk past the gate like he feared he could anger you with his greeting. I once asked him what was that he greeted and he loudly replied while chuckling: “‘Good evening’. That’s what I said, sir”.
I would later befriend Rabman to understand what ticked him and urged him on in a seemingly uninteresting life after a particular experience.

One of the madam-bosses in the institution had asked Rabman to carry goods and food items into the butt of her car when Rabman was still running the errands of another boss. The fat madam would not care if Rabman splits himself into two for her and the other Oga. From the first floor, Rabman modestly pleaded with her to allow him 5 minutes to be done with what he had on his hands. When he climbed down, the plump woman repeatedly brushed and knocked his head with her clenched fist closing her ears to his excuse and adulthood. I knew Rabman didn’t feel good about that but he never showed any anger on his face. He smiled all through and chuckled. I would later feel the humiliation more when Rabman told me his age which was more advanced than mine and his pedigree too. He would also tell me how much he believed in Abraham Lincoln’s words to his son’s teacher: “Teach my son to smile even when he’s angry”.

One night, around 10pm, I chanced on Rabman in front of the security post buried and soaked in something he was scribbling with pen. He was using the screen light of his phone and never stopped swatting mosquitos at intervals. I saw him from a distance as he bent over the bench where he placed his paper and pen. I observed him for some minutes before I got closer. As I stood few inches away from him, he rose up frantically revealing that he was a bit scared. “Rabman!” I called him fondly and shook his right hand. “Good evening, sir”, he smiled back.

“You are just coming in, sir?”
“Yes, my dear. I just walked in here from another part of the country.”  
“Wow!” he said smiling, like he always said.
“What are you writing with a dim light in this mosquito-infested open space?”
He was still smiling child-likely when his feminine voice came: “I am writing a book”.
“You are writing a book. A book?”
“Yes”.
“What type or kind of book?”
“It’s a motivational book, sir”.
“You mind if I take a glance?”
“Of course, sir”.

I perused through what he had written on that paper and was amazed. His English was perfect in my assessment. I had hoped to correct something but never saw anything to correct. His thinking and organization of thoughts were mature too. I made sure he was looking at somewhere else before I raised my head to take a little long look at his face in search of the masked genius. When I returned his paper to him, he was shy and kept chuckling. I quickly realized that I have never met a night watchman in Nigeria that wrote a good letter let alone a book. From that realization, I was obliged to keep an eye on Rabman to know him more.

Rabman isn’t Igbo and couldn’t speak in Igbo, so, I engaged him in a discussion with English language. Thirty minutes later, Rabman would impress me with his fluent grasp of spoken English. Nigerian gatemen rarely spoke in plain English if not pidgin English. But I had Rabman do that with ease when we talked. He told me how he took an Art course in diploma program at the University of Port-Harcourt but never completed it.
“I didn’t find the lecturers inspiring”, he said. “They were only giving notes, hand-outs and repeating the same things they taught every semester just the same way”. I told him that I am aware of the laxity and jejune style in the academia and our education system but he should, at least, complete the degree program and have the certificate since he’s no dunce. In the ensuing arguments and counter-arguments, I discovered Rabman’s exposure and strong will. Even with his smiles and disarming courtesies, he was not to be convinced too quickly. I realized that his feminine voice hid the strong masculine resolve in him. In the end, he gave me reasons why he’s chosen self-education and why he thinks it’s better for him. In the days and months that followed, I would find him listening raptly to news from the in-built radio in his phone. He had a rickety Techno phone that sounded annoyingly loud when it rang. It was with this Techno that he browsed all the Nigerian news sites to follow up with trends and events. He read and knew all them Okey Ndibes, Uche Ezechukwus, Funke Egbemodes of SUN newspaper together with the Ocherome Nnannas of NATION newspaper. When we became friendlier, he did brief me with updates of things I never had time to read up.

Naturally, one would think that Rabman is as poor as church-rat but he had a sister who could partly help him complete his degree with the little she makes from business. However, Rabman isn’t desperate for a degree but he’s just desperate to learn, to teach himself. He chose to make his money by himself and save it to buy books and a laptop with which to type and document his thoughts. In the day, Rabman would go take a lesson in computer studies after a few hours rest, and then return to his night job in the evening. Those hours at night when mosquitos became his employers’ greatest tormentors even with all their sophisticated mosquito nets, Rabman would be seen struggling with sleep, his writing of a book and the worst exposure to dangerous mosquitos. Whenever I was done chatting with him before getting to sleep in my apartment, I would imagine what he goes through at midnight sleeping outside in comparison with what I experience inside my room still under a mosquito net. It gave me goose pimples. Yet, he had been writing a book – a motivational book – under that condition. “What was his motivation under that very harsh condition that he still wanted to transfer to others?”, I often wondered.

I would one day walk past two young men, one evening discussing at a flower lawn inside the institution. I heard one speak so eloquently of Rabman to the other. “You see that guy at the gate? He’s too much!” he convincingly declared. “Mehn, the day I discussed with the guy, I was amazed at his level of intelligence and exposure. I never expected someone at the gate to be that savvy and I have never seen any in the last 10 years I have worked here”. The other guy was impressed as well as amazed. “Are you serious? You mean it?” he asked. I couldn’t control what happened inside of me listening to them while I slowed my pace. “You mean the guy that guards that gate at night, right?” I turned to joined. He said yes. And I included my confirmation of Rabman’s extra-ordinariness. It suddenly became a trio where two of us thrilled the other guy with our discoveries like two violinists thrilling a singer on stage.

In the end, these would be my thoughts.

With all the pressure he receives constantly from his employers in the shades of humiliation and poor welfare; with all the limited resources with which to realize his goals; with all the stress of his life in the day and at night and other private pains he never told me, Rabman has never worn an angry or depressed look in the past 21 months I have had to know him closely but I have countlessly done so with my better privileges. With all the harsh condition and discomfort of each night in the past 21 months, Rabman has always struggled to write a line and update the thoughts he scribbled on paper for the book he’s finished writing, yet I have not done more than him despite my sleeping in a relatively comfort space each night.

In his best-selling book, LIFE OF CHRIST, the electrifyingly intelligent man of God and a serious teacher’s mentor, Fulton Sheen had this to say repeatedly: “Divinity is often found where one least expects”. Let me just say that knowledge is more a human thing but Wisdom a more Divine thing. While knowledge could help one’s living, wisdom helps one’s life. And we are not unaware that “life” and “living” are not essentially the same. Understanding that enables one to understand that you could have a better living than someone else but not a stronger life than that person and vice versa. It is from this humble thinking of mine that I see the life of Rabman in Sheen’s words.

Of a truth, Rabman has a stronger life even though I may seem to have a better living. Each time I remember this Rabman no one knows, I am motivated the same way I would remembering the Chinua Achebe everyone knows. I did not meet Abraham Lincoln alive. I only learned of his words. Yet those words inspired me the more in the humble and unpopular life of Rabman than they would in the famous “Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to his Son’s Teacher”.
This is exactly the reason why the ancient forebears of the Igbo People left us the proverb: “Ife onye na-acho n’uko enu dikwanu n’uko ani”; “That which you findeth above can be found below”. That’s why Fulton Sheen insisted many years ago that “Divinity is often found where one least expects”. That is why a better living cannot essentially mean a stronger life. That is why Divinity can be found at the gateman’s post and not necessarily in the church.



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