When we were young, up and coming, in a dusty village deep within the hearts of Anambra state Nigeria, everything seemed so small. The village was small, hope was small, we were small and dreams were small too. Escape had been spelt out to us by our parents: “Gain enough grades and go to university or you’ll remain stuck in this town. ”And so back then in class there were three kinds of students.
First there was, the class of extremely brilliant ones who were on their way to gaining admission into professional courses like Medicine and Surgery, Engineering, and Law. Up next was my category, the class of students who didn’t mind whatever course they would study so long as they got as far away from this village as possible, and then there was category number three; ‘Ugochukwu Mba’.
Ugo, as we called him, was by far the strangest kid I had ever met. A short scrawny-looking kid, he rarely talked, he was one of those friends in a clique that you didn’t notice till you needed an oddly favor that no other kid was willing to help out with. Ugo placed no demands on life, he wasn’t the smartest in class, he wasn’t the strongest either, and the simple things of life were enough for him. But Ugo was blessed with the gift of artistry.
He was always the earliest to school and the last to leave every day. He sat at the back row by the window of our classroom, both hands on his open large drawing book, staring out into the sky. Everyday he would paint the sky when the sun rose and paint it again when the sun set. The rest of us saw this as a complete waste of time; our parents had made us believe such stuff was for kids with no future, and that was what Ugo was to us: “the kid with no future.” While we schemed endlessly and tirelessly on how to leave that village, Ugo never for once spoke up and quite frankly no one bothered asking why. To us, he didn’t matter.
One fateful night, Ugo earned our full and undivided respect and quite sadly that was the same night I realized Ugo may never have had any plans to make it out of the village. We had illegally snuck into the local school principal’s house to pluck some juicy, show-ripe mangoes and somehow our getaway plan (through the broken wire fence) had failed when we realized the dog was left unchained that rainless night. The only escape route was to jump over the fence.
Ugo, who had reluctantly came along with us after we persuaded him, volunteered and bent over, hands on knees, as six boys twice his size stepped repeatedly on his frail back to scale the fence. Just after we escaped, he was caught amid a flurry of blinding torchlight beams, frenzied cries of “Thief! Thief!” and loud barking from the neighbourhood dogs. He was suspended for 2 weeks for refusing to name his accomplices. No kid dared sit on Ugo’s seat in his absence for fear of being beaten up by the rest of us. In that vacant seat we stared at our cowardice and shame and it stared back at us. In a wry touch of irony, it rained a lot in those long weeks and I often wondered if the skies had felt lonely in Ugo’s absence.
After secondary school some of us gained admissions to Universities, while the rest of us were going to be apprentices to rich business men at Onitsha. Ugo stayed back at the village to nurse his sick mother, who passed on a year afterwards. Before she passed, she had begged Mr Ikeme our fine arts teacher to make sure Ugo never stopped painting the skies.
In our 3rd year into University, we all planned a reunion back at the village. On arrival we heard Ugo had won a full scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts, Verona, Italy. Mr Ikeme had entered one of Ugo’s paintings for an international competition and he had won, leaving for Italy just 2 days before we arrived.
I stood in front of our small classroom giving a speech at our reunion party. It was quiet and I smiled as I felt the tears gather in my eyes. Everyone had left Ugo’s seat empty, it was bright and sunny, and I wondered if Ugo, half way around the world at that moment, was staring out the window, finally painting the skies again from an entirely different viewpoint.