Monday, 4 March 2019

WHEN REPUTATION TRUMPS EMPATHY

Image: Anaya Katlego for Unsplash

A memory came to my head a few days ago and stayed with me.

It was sometime in early 2013. I was serving Nigeria as a corps member in Yola, Adamawa State, under the mandatory National Youth Service Corps program for fresh graduates. I had been deployed to the Government Girls Secondary School (GGSS) and a lodge was made available for corps members like me. There were just two girls (from my batch) who were assigned to the school. We joined two other girls who were a batch ahead of us, bringing our total to four.

Technically, there were two lodges; one for men and the other for women. Ours was a four bedroom flat that used to be the Principal's quarters. As years went by and the building began to crumble because of lack of use, it was converted into an abode for female corps members. Since there were four of us at that point, each of us had our own room.

Now let us go to the memory.

That year, I had become deeply religious and immersed in learning more about the Christian God. I was carefully cutting out things from my life that I felt didn't glorify Him. This meant that I was trying to do right, speak right and generally, live right. It was so bad that I even cut out songs that weren't gospel music from my life. Anyone who knows me knows that it was one of the hardest things I had to do.

Anyway, I didn't just want to do right. I wanted to be seen to do right. I didn't join conversations that tore people down or promoted what I termed vulgar. I stopped partying and began my descent into near reclusion. I continued to have male friends but I made sure it was known that it was just platonic. In the past, I would have given people the illusion that I was involved with all my male friends. It gave me a thrill to see people wonder what I was about. But my new way of life meant that I didn't want to be perceived as that person anymore.

It was at this point that I met another corps member. He was a young man who was, for lack of a better phrase, a 'bad boy'. Let me call him Wale. You see, among ‘believers’ then, if you smoked cigarettes and weed like Wale did, you were termed a bad boy. To make matters worse, Wale only listened to rap music with explicit lyrics, and was constantly downing bottles of codeine-laced cough syrup. If I had met him before my 'journey to spirituality', he would have been my type of person. We would have hit it off and being just peachy. At that point however, I didn't want to be friends. And worse than that, I didn’t want to be seen as his friend.

But he didn't get the memo.

When I stopped visiting or communicating as often, he decided to take up the responsibility. He would call, text and visit. He would be talking about the music I was trying to remove from my life and wondering when we could go out to a club for drinks. Sometimes, I would try to avoid him and at other times, I would just go with the flow.

It was during one of these visits that he told me he was having problems with his landlord and didn't know what to do. I was worried because, as ‘gangsta’ as he showed he was, I knew he was from a privileged home and he didn't have a lot of experience handling things by himself. I asked what he was going to do and he said he would figure it out.

One night about a week later, he arrived at my door unannounced. I asked if all was well and he said he had been kicked out of the house where he had been staying. He had hopped from place to place and was at a loss as to where to stay. I went into panic mode and began to knock on doors at the male lodge asking if they could put him up for a couple of days. The male quarters were already cramped and many said they couldn't. One guy however, who (incidentally) was one of the nastiest persons I had met in a while, said he would take him in; even though I had been loath to ask.

The next day, I asked Wale what he was going to do about his situation. The fact that he didn't serve in our school meant he couldn't stay for long. Also, we were expecting new corps members. His problem had to be solved by his own place of primary assignment. It was while discussing this that I realized he had burned bridges at that place of assignment. A lot of it was hinged on his habits but the most part was because he was a bit of a loner and his people skills were almost nonexistent.

In about a week, the guy helping him out decided he was done. He had assumed (correctly) that my friend was from a rich family and thought it was his opportunity to fleece him. When Wale had given away almost all he could without going under, the horrible corps member kicked him out of the house. This happened at about 9pm.

Wale came to my door to let me know what was happening. I was worried. I knew no one else would take him in. And then it occurred to me that I had my room, which was big, had two mattresses and could be his abode for the night. However, as soon as the thought came to my head though, a part of me said no. Almost immediately, my brain went into overdrive. What would happen if he slept in my room? For one, I would be breaking the rules of the lodge; no boys after 10pm. The second thing was that I didn’t want to be seen keeping a man in my house. This was because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was having sex with Wale. And the fact that it was Wale, a boy who was everything I shouldn’t be with because of my ‘born again’ status, was another reason why I didn’t want him in my room.

The other part of my brain tried to be reasonable. ‘He had nowhere to go’. ‘I had slept in the same house with many people (male and female) before’. ‘I would be helping him in his hour of need’. ‘Wouldn’t I want to be helped if I had nowhere to go to?’ These thoughts flooded my brain and crease lines appeared on my forehead. And just when I thought I was going to let him stay with me, regardless of the consequence, a thought came into my head.

2 Corinthians 6:14.
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

And every other thought disappeared from my head as my brain latched onto this one. I imagined what would happen to my reputation if my supposed light was found to have broken the rules by housing ‘darkness’. I thought that no matter what happened in my room, no one would believe I didn’t have sex with Wale. I imagined that people would be repulsed by me and pushed away from God because I said I lived a good life on one hand and on the other hand, I was doing something ‘wrong’. And if I am being completely honest, I was more interested in protecting my reputation than I was in anything else.

I realized that in the two minutes while all these thoughts were running through my head, Wale had asked me a question and was waiting for an answer.

‘I am sorry. What did you say?’

‘I was wondering if I could stay the night since it is already so late.  Hopefully, tomorrow, I will go fix my situation.’

I looked away from him. ‘No.

Then I went further to explain how it was against the rules and blah blah blah. He said okay, thanked me and left. I was feeling so bad but I knew that my reputation was going to be intact. So I slept easy.

At around 6am when I got up and went outside, I found Wale sleeping on a bunk that we kept in front of the house; no mattress beneath him and no covers above. Did he sleep there? All night?! I was shocked. As I watched him, I noticed he was shivering slightly. I remembered how cold the night had been. And anyone who has been to Yola knows that the mosquitoes in that town are giant, bloodthirsty freaks that are a tad worse than the ones anywhere else. Again, I imagined how much of a feast they had had with his body. I gently tapped him and when he responded, it was to rub his body for warmth.

‘Did you sleep here?’ I asked, solemn.

He gave me just one response, delivered in a flat tone as one resigned to his fate. ‘Yes.’

I don’t think I have felt as much shame in my life as I had felt that day. I wished I could undo everything that happened and damned my reputation. This is because, in that instance, I realized that I had become the type of person who cared more about her reputation than she did about a person in need. And almost immediately, a clear image of the parable of the Good Samaritan came to my head. I was the hypocritical priest and Levite! I usually sang ‘WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?’ as I spoke to people and when it came to it, I did the very opposite.

The shame made me get him breakfast and I was bending over backwards trying to please – or better still, appease – him but as soon as Wale was done with his meal, he got his things and left.

I didn’t see or hear from him again until we were almost done with our NYSC; nine months later.

Now that I am older and maybe a bit wiser, I know what I did was foul. I was a horrible person in that instance. And even though since then, my house has always been a haven for friends, families, acquaintances and even strangers, I still wish I can undo that one day where my reputation was more important than a person’s humanity. I wish I didn’t have to see the hurt in Wale’s eyes as he sipped his tea, drinking almost grudgingly as one who didn’t have a choice. I wish that I had been a friend and even better, that I had been the friend that he needed that night.

It is sad that many ‘believers’, and I am talking across all religions, would have acted in the very same way that I did. The fact that Wale smoked and abused drugs would have been a perfect excuse. Most deeply religious people I know care more about their reputations than they do about people. And as long as your reputation trumps empathy, trumps the humanity that connects us all (regardless of our belief systems), we will never get it right.

Though I cannot change the events that happened on that day, I have ensured that it never repeats itself again. I will never put my reputation ahead of a person’s need. And a lot of that has come from growing into my new religion; humanism. Hopefully, you also never let your reputation trump the empathy you should feel towards a person in need.

Anyway, that memory is what has been bugging me. For some reason, I knew I needed to share that story, mostly for me but who knows? Someone may need to hear this.

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