I have this painting hanging on the wall of my office. You see it from afar, it’s a blaze of bright reds and browns, with streaks of yellow. You come closer, and it’s obviously a cauldron of shooting flames and lots of structures in different states of gnarled collapse. You look even closer and you realize that these are iconic edifices from different parts of the world that are undergoing cataclysmic destruction. You identify the Eifel Tower, leaning tower of Pisa, Big Ben, Statue of Liberty, Taj Mahal, the Colosseum and the Pyramids.
This the Apocalypse or descent to Hades? Most baffling is that in the forefront are men in firefighting gear, sitting and watching helplessly, with no effort to engage the inferno. On the backs of their uniforms is emblazoned FDNY, the Fire Department of New York, and the hardy, renowned, heroic first responders – the best of the best! Why are they looking on idly, reduced to mere spectators? The painting is a frequent conversation piece for my visitors and I have gotten some interesting reactions. Many find it unsettling and I remember a colleague saying that the artist must have a warped imagination. I have studied the painting over countless hours and each time I get a fresh perspective.
The fundamental interpretation I have come to, especially after talking to the artist, is that anything manmade can be destroyed and quite often, when this happens, there is no human force that can change the course of things. You may be reduced to just a spectator, as things take their course. The lesson and affirmation that I draw from the painting is that we should not put too much score or premium on material things. When the chips are down what matters most is not necessarily your possessions or how many monuments you build to boost your ego, but your relationships, your health and your faith. Of course, there’s a finite quantum of financial resources necessary for sustenance and a good life, but it’s surprising how little a man needs to achieve this.
Once in a while, our equilibrium is destabilized and that’s when our psyche/mettle is put to the test. One remembers icons like Mandela who left a lucrative and prestigious law practice to spend 27 years in jail, a lot of it in solitary confinement, mostly because of trumped-up charges. He came out triumphant and not bitter to lead his people as the first Black president of South Africa. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of Western Nigeria and esteemed leader of the Yoruba was thrown into jail on a bogus charge of treasonable felony. He was incarcerated first in Topo Island, near Lekki when it was no more than a mosquito-infested swamp and later in Calabar prison. In one of his books, he narrated his experience sitting on a cane chair under a tree and enjoying the breeze in the prison yard. He felt so much at peace and could not help musing to himself, “Man’s needs are really minimal”. He did not miss his mansions in Ibadan, Ikeja and Ikenne or his retinue of attendants.
On a personal note, I had the biggest trial of my life about 30 years ago (wow, time flies!). While at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, I was offered a Fogarty Research Fellowship at the Medical College of Georgia in the US. This was at the height of the Structural Adjustment Program in Nigeria, with extreme deprivation and life was tough generally and especially for academics. My wife therefore supported my taking up the fellowship although she would have to stay behind with our four boys. Not long after I left Nigeria, she became very ill and was actually dying from end-stage kidney failure.
There was no way she could be effectively managed in Nigeria at that time. On top of it, one the boys came down with a severe infection. It was left to the oldest child, all of 14 years old at the time, to assume the leadership role in the family. I therefore decided that I would return to Nigeria immediately. However, good counsel from friends prevailed that I could be more useful to the family by remaining in the US. Cut a long story short, my wife was able to join me in the US to start treatment. After she arrived in the US, I took stock of the situation, thanked God that she made it this far but the reality of the situation was still rather grim.
She did not have health insurance and the boys were left to their own devices back in Nigeria. What a dilemma! I went to my room and prayed to God. I felt a sense of tranquility but I thought I needed to do more to really center myself and prepare for the ordeal ahead. I decided to make a personal sacrifice to God. I thought of what material possession I had, that I could divest myself of as a token of my zeal and hope for my dear wife. To my chagrin, it dawned on me that I actually had no tangible material possessions, in spite of being a medical doctor of more than 25 years and an Academic Associate Professor, to boot! My only cherished possessions were some original paintings by renowned Nigerian artists that I had amassed over the years.
I actually brought them to the US, had them framed and just finished a well-received exhibition before my wife’s arrival. There and then I decided I would give them all away! I called the gentleman who had helped me with the exhibition that I was giving him all the paintings if he could pay me the money for the frames. He thought I had gone mad and my wife thought the same when she found out what I had done.
I did not reveal the cause or thought behind my action. My wife started her treatment in Augusta, Ga in April 1993 and we moved to Kuwait in August. She did well, the boys joined us and all performed brilliantly in school and are now well-established productive citizens of the world. My wife lived for another ~20 years, saw all her children graduate from the university and welcomed her first grandchild. I thank God that I was able to look after her all this time and she died a peaceful and satisfied woman.
This piece was written in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.
To be continued tomorrow
Professor Adekile wrote from Department of Pediatrics, Kuwait University.
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