By Uche Onyebadi
LAST Thursday was a day most of us wished was not a day. By “us” I mean the community of people of African origin in the small university town of Carbondale, Illinois.
That Thursday was when we had memorial a service to bid farewell to a young and budding scholar, Fiyinfoluwa Onarinde, a Nigerian who was just in the first three months of his doctor of philosophy education in the department of English Language, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
This is how the campus newspaper, the Daily Egyptian (November 5) reported his death: “Onarinde was found dead in his apartment…..according to police. The cause of death is uncertain, but foul play is not suspected, police said.” A young poet, Fiyinfoluwa had a bachelor’s degree in English (Osun State university) and a master’s in communication (University of Ado Ekiti). He was only 31 years old. It wasn’t as though we were strangers to death. But there is something immensely sorrowful about the death of a young person, so full of life and vision for the future. When that person is an African student so far away from parents, siblings and loved ones, the sorrow is magnified; worse still when the departed is a compatriot.
Some of us who attended Fiyinfoluwa’s memorial service never met him. He must have been busy settling down on campus before death came knocking. The few of us who knew him, from his course mates to professors (Caucasian or Black alike) provided moving testimonials about his diligence, intelligence, calm demeanour, versatility in knowledge outside his discipline, being deeply religious, friendship, and pride in his Nigerian and Yoruba origin. Yet, death was unimpressed by those sterling qualities; that was how our human minds processed the encomiums about this young man.
Another lingering thought was that in the past five years or so, we have lost a number of African Ph.D students. Two doctoral students (a Kenyan and a Nigerian) had also died in such mysterious circumstance of being found dead in their apartments. Another student from Ghana was terminally ill but managed to set foot in Accra before his death less than twenty-four hours later. And yet, another one from Senegal also died after a prolonged battle with cancer, but just when signs of recovery were all over the place.
So startling were these deaths that at Fiyinfoluwa’s memorial service one of the presiding pastors, originally from Zimbabwe, took some time to say a special prayer for God’s protection for Africans in this university town. But it wasn’t that death has a special appetite for African students. No. Students from the US and other places have also died in the same period. I guess the reason for the special prayer must be because it is a different story when death hits home.
For me, death also hit home years ago, long before I arrived in America, when I learnt that my bosom friend and colleague at Vanguard newspaper, Ely Obasi, had died. He too was student in the US. And, like Fiyinfoluwa, he had died in the loneliness of his apartment, his remains only to be found a few days later. Another incident in 2007 was the death of a friend from Kenya. As a result of the unique circumstance of his wife and three young kids (the oldest was seven years), I had the unpleasant but must-do job among people in our little community in Columbia, Missouri, to accompany his body all the way for the funeral in his village, a few kilometers outside capital city, Nairobi.
The fact of life is that such deaths will not cease despite the pain in our hearts. But, they remind us, especially those of us who have accomplished their education, about the challenges of graduate (and undergraduate) education far away from home and in a culture that constantly reminds you of the differences between it and where you had lived before migrating abroad.
It is tough business being a graduate student, especially if it is your first time in America. You have to adjust to a distinctly new system of education; to the tyranny of being lonely in a crowd; to the suddenness of being cut off from all uncles, aunties, parents, siblings and those childhood friends you constantly interacted with back home; to the somewhat “dehumanizing” realization that you have no one with whom you could communicate in your native language, unless you were lucky; to the mountain of academic work that never diminishes; to the high and complicated cost of living that challenges your concept of America before arriving on her shores; to the humbling nature of life in America where you must perform those chores you had hired hands to do for you back home; to the fact that your new normal is that you may have to do what you used to consider as menial jobs unfit for your status and accomplishments back home; and, above all, to the often intimidating reality that you are truly alone in your struggle because this is a society where the sense of individualism continues to impact human relationships. It usually takes a few months for all these to sink in and you begin to make the necessary adjustments in the new culture.
But, the African community is quite supportive in and outside the classroom, especially to people who arrive and actively seek out their compatriots and African brothers and sisters. That may be the greatest survival mechanism. In your period of transition, you need someone who is already in the system to give you tips about navigating the “strange” academic island.
Then you need to seek out and fraternize with more established compatriots (teachers, other residents etc.) for Nigerians, and Africans, are indeed everywhere in this country.
However, no matter how much you reach out to people, and they in turn reciprocate, the burden of life and education still lies on your shoulders. So sad therefore when a young person who is immersed in this struggle suddenly dies without accomplishing his or her goals.
Rest in God’s presence, Fiyinfoluwa Onarinde.