“Twenty Years In America And Not A Penny In The Bank By Onwuchekwa Jemie

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Onwuchekwa Jemie
Onwuchekwa Jemie

The story is told of the old woman captured by kidnappers. “You have four children in America,” they said to her. “They must pay N1 million each, otherwise we kill you.” They handed her the telephone. “Don’t give them any money!” she screamed into the phone. “Save it for the children’s education! Let them kill me!” They snatched the phone from her . . . .

“The kidnappers are fools,” said Taiwo. “They think there’s money in America.”

“You just came from there,” said Ogbuagu. “Let’s have a situation report.”

We were still at our lunch by the lagoon. Taiwo had just finished telling us about his cousin in America who wouldn’t let his son study music and theatre because “there’s no money in it.”

“Money, money, money!! What’s all this about money?”

We swung round. It was a diner seated two tables away.

“Sorry, gentlemen. I heard all you had to say about your cousin—which was bad enough. Now you start this horror story about a lady who would rather die than let her children pay N4 million only!”

“My friend, you call N4 million only!” shouted someone from the other end of the hall. “You think everyone is a moneybag like you?”

“The lady is a hero,” said another diner. “She would rather sacrifice her life than her grandchildren’s future.”

“Education is the key, man,” said a third defender. “Marketable skills! If you can’t give them to your children you might as well die.”

“Which is one reason you should have just one or two children—not four, seven or ten like your parents and grandparents!”

“A very un-Nigerian gospel,” said the stranger who started it.

“It is the gospel of the future. Every mother’s child has a choice: to stay stuck in the past and spread poverty to the next generation—or to seize the future and be a winner!”

Some diners started clapping. Our conversation had taken over the village square once more. . . .

Taiwo resumed his report. “As I renewed my acquaintance with America I made a shocking discovery: there’s no money in America!”

“Oh come on!” shouted someone. “There’s more money in America than anywhere else on the planet.”

“True, but it doesn’t belong to Nigerians. Most Nigerians in America are poor.”

“With all the hundreds of thousands of dollars they send home  every month?”

“The money they send home is part of the reason they are poor. The US tax system doesn’t recognize the extended family, especially when they live in some foreign country. So Nigerians get no tax breaks for supporting their relatives. Most Nigerians in America live from hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Miss one paycheck, you’re half dead. Can’t pay your monthly bills for water or electricity? Can’t fuel your car? Worst of all, can’t pay the rent on your flat or the mortgage on your house? You’re ready to be buried.”

“What of . . . em . . . what do they call it . . . welfare . . . food stamps . . . ?”

“In UK they call it the dole . . .”

“When you hit welfare and food stamps in America you’re  finished. Your credit rating falls to zero. They write you off. You must pay cash in a country that lives on credit. You might as well move to India and join the Untouchables.”

“Mr. Taiwo, aren’t you describing a jobless person? As long as you have a job you should have no trouble paying N1 million to kidnappers to save your mother’s life.”

“How many dollars is N1 million?”

“About $6,000.”

“Do you know how many Nigerians have up to $6,000 in their bank accounts? Two to three percent.”

“That’s dismal!”

“That’s the reality. The dollar is hard to find.”

“What of their fine houses and fancy cars?”

“Bought on credit. Five years to pay for car, thirty years for  house.”

“So they don’t really own car or house?”

“Bank owns both. Miss two monthly payments, bank  repossesses car. They find wherever you parked it, open it with master-key and drive off. They get court order, throw your belongings in the street and lock up your house.”

“Mr. Taiwo, this is too grim! It doesn’t tally with the glamorous images in movies and magazines.”

“You must know there are two Americas. The one you don’t see is the other America.”

“In one sentence, how would you describe the life of Nigerians in America?”

“Twenty years in America and not a penny in the bank. That’s why it takes them 10-15 years to afford a flight ticket to see their relatives or bury their parents.”

“There must be exceptions.”

“Yes—doctors & nurses, businessmen, and 419 crooks.”

“Why don’t they come home?”

“They can’t afford to. It is difficult to go to America; it is ten times more difficult to return. And what are they returning to? Jobs are as rare as leopard meat; and starting a business requires a heap of cash which banks won’t lend without collateral, even at their exhorbitant 33% interest.”

I’d finally had it. “Taiwo, if this is the sort of bad news you must bring home please don’t travel out again.”

“Yeah,” said Ogbuagu, “the news at home is bad enough . . . .”

Onwuchekwa Jemie

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