Because of him
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
My legs almost give way under me when I hear the blare of my name from the speakers. The announcer has made a mistake in the pronunciation and my name sounds unlike my name but this is the least of my worries right now.
The three speakers before me were seasoned professionals with pre-typed notes and crisp manners. I am nothing more than a boy, despite my suit and certificates.
“Ifeanyi.” My mother’s elbow pokes me sharply in the rib and I am reminded once again that I’m the only contestant who brought his mother to the political debate. But she’d suddenly turned deaf and dumb that morning when I tried to persuade her to stay behind.
I cough and straighten my tie even though it’s unnecessary. I force a smile at my mother and move away from her side, placing one heavy foot in front of the other.
Halfway to the podium, someone matches my face with the name the coordinator announced, takes pity on my obvious youth and begins to clap. It startles me and I almost stop in my tracks but I go on, thinking of him.
I’m doing this because of him. And because of other men like me who grew up without their fathers.
All too soon, I reach the crudely constructed elevation and climb the stairs. People are clapping in frenzy now and my confidence rises, but just the tiniest bit.
“Thank you.” My voice seems to fill the air, and I’m no longer the little boy who brought his mother for emotional support. Mum often tells me I sound just like my father, and this to me is the highest compliment anyone can pay me.
My speech isn’t typed and for a moment that seems to stretch into eternity, I regret this youthful lapse in judgement. In the euphoria of the moment, I forget what I’d meant to say. My hesitation rages on and the applause becomes deafening. I open my mouth, take in a mouthful of air.
The words finally come.
“The last time I saw my father alive, I was eight. Old enough to understand what happened but young enough to be scarred.” I scan the crowd for my mother’s face. She’s wearing a smile but I know there’s untold anguish in her soul, just like there is in mine.
“We were fast asleep when the fire started. He carried me out of bed and raced downstairs with me. When I was safely outside, he went back for my mum. She’d been in a car accident and was in a leg cast. By that time, our neighbors had gathered and one kind lady called the fire fighters. But my father had to go back inside. To retrieve some important documents, he said. Mum pleaded with him not to but he said he would be okay. He said there wasn’t going to be any problem but just in case there was, at least the fire fighters were on their way. Something did go wrong, and the fire fighters never came.” I swallow a lump.
“The house was mostly made of wood, and dad was unfortunate to step on a weakened floorboard. He crashed. Death was instantaneous.” I look over the crowd. They’re soaking in my words hungrily. Good thing I forgot my intended speech because that speech had been devoid of emotion, had reduced our story…my story to a carefully scripted political piece. This was raw, and this was me, the way I intended.
A thousand drops of tears press against my eyelid but I blink them back.
“When we contacted the fire fighting office the next morning to find out why they didn’t come, they told my uncle something I’ll never forget. The manager said they hadn’t received operational funding from the local government in three years. As such, they didn’t have working trucks, no water. Nothing.”
I press the tears back even more violently. “Lack of funding killed my father. Denied me the privilege of growing up with a father.”
My mother is sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. I take a deep breath, turn back to the crowd and plunge ahead. “If you elect me as local government chairman, my first official duty would be to overhaul our fire fighting office.”
As the applause begins, I step down quickly from the podium and force my way through a mass of admirers to my mother’s side. Behind me, the coordinator is announcing the name of the fifth and last aspirant. The tears are coming fast and furiously now but I keep blinking back.