Na Gode, Umaru

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NA GODE, UMARU by Earl (Buzz) Welker, (05) 62-65

He often came when I was watering the neem trees. He would always offer to carry the bucket for me and splash the water in the typical Nigerian way—a method that I never truly mastered. He was tall, shy, a taciturn young man who came from a small village near the border with Cameroon.

I was a “lecturer,” and none of the other “lecturers” actually worked with their hands, indoors or out-of-doors. I was told that I should hire a garden boy to do the work. I was told the sun was too hot for a bature.

He was a student in my English and geography classes. He spent more time with me than the others did. His primary school education in spoken and written English had been inadequate. He was determined to catch up and be as proficient as the students from larger towns. Unlike some of the other young men, he did not look at an American degree as being less worthy than one from a British university. My American accent was not something he worried about, he just wanted to learn and I was willing to help.

My cosley was close to the teacher training college gardens. Living there made me feel like I belonged after being quartered for months in the enclave of spacious houses several miles from the commercial and residential section of town where colonial civil servants had lived before independence.

Every student had a plot that he cared for every day. Since my house had no trees, no garden, no flowers, I often spent my time outside planting anything to add color to the drab landscape of the extreme savanna, the sahel.

At first, students working in their gardens would look over, stop their work, and come to offer to help. I chatted with them, told them that I enjoyed working with my hands after a long day of mental work, and encouraged them to just talk to me about themselves. The students would politely answer my questions but reveal little of their ambitions, their goals, their dreams. They were either unable to open up to a foreigner, or simply did not have the English language skills to talk casually with me.

He never called me by my name, but always said “Sir.”

During the first few months the students’ names were strange to me, but eventually I mastered them and enjoyed using both their first and last names instead of the traditional “Mister” which the British expatriate teachers used.

Umaru Bubaram became the first visitor to my cosley, my home, in Maiduguri.

When I joined the Peace Corps in 1962, I was optimistic about what I could learn and what I could accomplish. As an inexperienced, but trained, teacher, I was hopeful about what my classroom experiences would mean—not only to my students but to me. Nearly forty years passed before I really understood the impact I had.

We shared many hours of private lessons improving his English. I gladly lent my books to him. He read them, asked questions about them, and faithfully returned them. By the end of my tour in Nigeria, he had become more articulate and could speak and write English more fluently.

I had one letter from Umaru Bubaram after I left Nigeria in 1965. He had taken a teaching position in a small village in Bornu Province—near Potiskum, his home. After that, our lives went in separate directions and we lost touch.

When I went to Nigeria for a visit in 1976, I made it to Maiduguri, but none of my former students or colleagues knew the whereabouts of Umaru Bubaram. On rare occasions I would pull out photographs from Peace Corps days in Maiduguri and look at the serious faces of my former students. I wondered what had become of Umaru.

Six months ago, I clicked on You’ve-Got-Mail and found a message captioned “Are you E. Walker?” There was a photograph of me as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963. Was I the E. Walker who had taught at Bornu Training College in Maiduguri in the 1960s?

“Yes! The photograph is of me—but my name is Earl.

The next day, I had a long, excited email from the daughter of Umaru Bubaram. Her father had kept my photograph and told her stories about the college, and me, and the Peace Corps. He insisted that I had been an important influence on his life. After Umaru became a teacher, he went on to become a headmaster, a prison superintendent, an important government official in Nigerian administrations, and steadily gained respect and trust from those he served.

My long-ago student is, today, Alhaji Emir Umaru Bubaram, the Emir of Potiskum.

In his picture today I still see the young man I tutored. I see the pride and dignity that was there when he was a student. His determination and conviction still show in his face and posture.

We have exchanged letters. Slowly we are learning about the lives we have led over the last 40 years. His adult children have earned university degrees. He has many grandchildren.

Umaru Bubaram infuses me with pride and reflected glory—the glory that comes from having students who make teaching a profession that truly is like no other.

Na gode, Alhaji Emir Umaru, Na gode.*

(* Hausa for Thank you.)

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