Sola Means Gracious

SOLA, I remember so well the first time I saw you. Having scanned the roll, I was ready for your arrival in my computer class: your name, Babasola Olola, told me of your foreignness. The "IE" beside your name had told me you were majoring in Industrial Education, and I wondered what overseas government had sent you here to study. You took a seat, and although I suspected you were African, nothing in your dress departed from the American college male's usual costume. Since you kept your sunglasses on, I c ouldn't read your eyes, but you had a wide, friendly smile. That smile helped to allay the fearsome impression created by the two long dark scars on your face - vertical crescents carved into each of your cheeks.

This was a class in "computer literacy," and the keyboard proved to be a nightmare for you, as you couldn't type. Worse, you were tormented by the programming. You flunked the first quiz: On your paper I wrote my usual "Please see me," and wondered whether you'd continue.

You did come to my office for help. On a one-to-one basis, you managed to understand better, and your delight in mastering the INPUT statement revealed the grace and perseverance that you brought to your studies. But never had I had a student who so misunderstood looping, data structures, and sequencing imperatives. This class was all that stood between you and a degree. If you passed, you would return home on schedule. Home was a city called Ilorin, capital of the Nigerian state of Kwara, where you taug ht junior-high woodworking and where your wife, your two young daughters, and an extended family of 20 people awaited you. You said you missed them very much.

So began our tutoring sessions. We built a data base of towns and schools near Ilorin. You worked to manipulate this data, finding the average distance between Ilorin and nearby towns, the number of junior-high students in each of them, the number of woodworking students for whom you would plan a curriculum, the budgets for each of the schools. You grinned like a kid whenever you managed to make the computer do your bidding. It began to seem possible that you might pass the course after all.

During these sessions, we rarely spoke of personal matters. I feared offending you by seeming too friendly. I looked in a book instead; words previously impersonal assumed human dimensions: Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Muslim north, Christian south, secession, civil war, Biafra. We didn't speak of these things. But you always took your leave with a request that I tell my family "hello." I replied in kind. Yet you did tell me that I could shorten your name and call you "Sola." You explained that "Babasola," in your Yoruba tongue, means "God is gracious"; "Sola" means simply "gracious," and is often used as a nickname.

Eventually a new problem arose. You showed me a rough draft of your senior project and anxiously asked whether I knew of someone who might be able to type it for not too much money, since your budget was limited. As I looked over your draft, a complete woodworking curriculum for Ilorin's junior-high schools, I saw that you needed an editor as well as a typist: You spoke English much better than you wrote it. I knew you weren't asking for my help, only for a referral. I also knew that anyone who could do the job right would charge more than you could afford.

And so I heard myself saying "Maybe I could do this for you." Folly, I was thinking, since I was already overloaded. What made me do it? Was my nurturing instinct out of control? Or was it just my feeling that we owed it to you, and to ourselves, to see that your sojourn here was positive, a feeling that whatever you experienced here would stay with you always, for the rest of your life.

Whatever the reasons, I worked with you on your project, typing the drafts, editing the grammar, and choking over the pedagogical jargon forced on you by a committee of academics. There was one version after another. Each time, the committee wanted more jargon - "instrumentalities," "micro-curricular provisioning," "mode of transactions," "substantive entity." You crammed it in, whatever they wanted. I came to understand that your voice on the phone asking for "Dr. Lynne" (though I have no PhD) always si gnaled some new pedagogical imperative. Through all the demands and hassles, you maintained an incredible grace under pressure.

One day I had to ask for your phone number. You supplied two numbers, one for your apartment, the other for "the mosque." "The mosque?" I asked, puzzled, as I was not aware of a mosque in our town. "It's not really a mosque," you said. "But with five other Muslim students, I rent a small apartment very near to campus - we use it to go pray at all the necessary times of the day."

Another time, I needed to leave a manuscript at your apartment. At the address you had indicated was an ordinary tract home with a converted garage apartment out back. As I made my way along the cramped space between the side fence and the house, I thought how strange it must feel to you to live here in a small corner of some other family's ill-kept garage, when at home you were the head of a household.

Finally we finished. You said you could not thank me enough, that all you could do was pray each day for me and my family. "You shouldn't thank me, Sola," I tried to explain, "It was truly a pleasure to work with you."

After you had passed my class, I invited you to dinner. My daughters eyed your scars soberly and commented on how well you spoke English. At table, we joined hands, and in Yoruba you said a Muslim blessing, its soft syllables incomprehensible to us, but its goodwill poignantly apparent. Then we spoke of Nigeria, of Ilorin, and of your family.

You explained that your middle name, Ajape, means "long struggle," and that your last name, Olola, designates the men of your family as "mark makers," those who make the incisions that heal to form the facial scars traditionally regarded as decorative and beautiful by the Yoruba people. "Who made your scars?" we asked.

"My father," you smiled. "He too was an olola."

"Have you made scars on people?" my children asked.

"Yes, I have," you answered gently. "But not so much any more. It's not so much the style now. I made very small marks on my daughters' faces, to keep the tradition. Very small."

We spoke of the provincialism that you encountered here. When you indicated that you were from Nigeria, there were people who asked, "Is that in America?" Others knew that Nigeria is in Africa, but they asked "Do you live in trees there?"

"Truly," you smiled, "They ask this."

You rocked with laughter as we told you that my husband helps with the cooking. We brought out a chef's apron to prove it. "Even though my wife also works as a teacher, my mother would insist that I divorce if such a thing happened in our house," you explained.

You told us divorce is rare in your society, and that is why you could spend two years away from your family because the bonds are so strong. Your mother lives with your family. Your wife accepts this. You showed us pictures of your family, your wife in the Yoruba turban, its bright colors and graceful draping accentuating her lovely eyes.

As you leave us, we are better, fuller, for having experienced your presence. You thanked us, but it was we who needed to thank you. You revealed to us a part of the earth that we knew only through foreign correspondents; you have stamped your image onto a portion of our map of the world.

On my desk now lies a note from you:

Dear Dr. Lynne,

I really don't know how to thank you for all you have done for me, but God will reward you with abundant blessings (amen). Sincerely speaking, I can never forget you in my prayers and for what you have done, any American that comes my way in future would have my utmost regard and assistant. This I promised in God's name.

Yours obediently,

Sola Olola

Babasola Ajape Olola, you told us you no longer make the decorative scars on people. You were wrong. You could not know of the graceful crescent-shaped mark you carved on my heart. It will be there always.

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