The knock on the door came too early. I could tell, without opening an eye, that it was barely daylight. The air was crisp and dusty – just as it should be in the northern Nigeria dry season.
It was Saturday and my first opportunity, in six years, to sleep late. Last night had been the school’s first graduation and 50 young men received their diplomas.
The six years had been tough. There was the battle to wrest land from illiterate tribesmen who should have appreciated a school in their midst. Then, endless forms and applications.
We drew plans and built classrooms and dormitories. We disciplined and inspired, provided food and neat uniforms. Day by day, we hammered into shape a first-class school.
We endured six military and political coups – bloodless and bloody. A civil war left thousands dead and threatened the lives of students and teachers of hated ethnic groups. We hid them and smuggled them to safety.
Students who could not afford the cost of traveling home remained at the school throughout the six years. They became an added responsibility – sometimes a burden.
Finally, the students were sent home – every one of them. I choked back tears of joy for a job well done and of sorrow over separation from sons I would never see again.
Release from responsibility for the first time in all those years sent me home to sleep the sleep of the dead.
“Someone’s knocking at the door!”
I felt like I had had surgery. I had a hangover from the drunkenness of success and freedom.
The visitor persisted. I got out of bed and braced myself until I was steady. I pulled on a robe, but I didn’t care how I looked. Anyone who came at that hour wouldn’t care either.
I opened the door to see a small, withered woman and a boy about 12. Dust had dulled the glow of her skin and hair.
My eyes moved to her bare feet whose miles of walking had made soles like those of boots.
The boy was our interpreter, as she and I did not understand the same language.
“This is Olu’s mother. She came on the train to thank you,” he said.
Olu was one of the boys who lived at the school for six years, sometimes alone.
Olu’s widowed mother lived 700 miles away in another world. Only by a miracle of providence did Olu and the school find each other.
He worked hard to pay what he could and stay at the top of his class. Occasionally, he got a letter from home and came to tell me. “My mother sends her greetings and thanks you for helping me stay in school.”
Last night, Olu graduated and left. Neither of us knew his mother was coming. The trip was a three-day nightmare of heat, sickness, delays, thievery, filth and abuse.
Her ticket cost everything she had. She walked five miles from the station to knock on our door.
Olu’s mother had something to eat while I dressed. Then she and the boy and I climbed into the pick-up for a bone-shaking ride to the school.
She was uncomfortable. Walking was her style. We didn’t give the interpreter much to say.
I unlocked the office and took the bundle of keys. The two of us walked with our interpreter at our heels.
I unlocked a classroom and led her inside.
“This is Olu’s desk,” I said.
She sat in it, fingered the rough edges and touched the ink spots. We went to the lab, and she sat on Olu’s high stool. In the dormitory, she smoothed his mattress now without sheet or pillow.
I unlocked every door I had so tightly locked the night before, not to be opened for four wonderful weeks of vacation and rest.
I tried to show her everything I could remember that OIu had touched. In the kitchen and dining hall, she touched every kettle he had lifted, every table he had washed.
While she looked and touched, she moved in a trance – eyes half-closed. All she said was a repeated, whispered, reverent “A dupe o. Thank you.”
We finished the tour. She did what I knew she would do. She knelt in the dust and took both my hands in hers.
I was embarrassed. Compared, mine were so smooth, hers calloused like leather. I could not and would not stop her. It was hers to give and mine to receive. Tears fell.
“Adupe Olorun. Thank God,” she said.
I took her to the station and soon she was lost in the crowd already waiting for tomorrow’s train. I drove back to school. The sun was up. I went back to work.
William A. (Bill) Cowley was for 23 years an educational missionary and the founding principal of Baptist High School in Jos, Nigeria. For more than 16 years, he was a professor at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.