A New Home- Jumoke Verissimo

A New Home Jumoke Verissimo Agbowo Art African Art

 

In Ibadan, she was Anuoluwapo Ogunwomoju, an unmarried 30-year-old resident doctor who worked at a training hospital. In Montreal, she was identified as “homeless woman known as Ann Moju” after she was found dead in one of the municipal cemeteries.

Anuoluwapo trudged behind a team of seven doctors and a nurse as they made their weekly teaching rounds. She was frustrated with the workload, unpaid salaries, lack of equipment. She pulled at the gold necklace around her neck until it pinched. Today, her team’s first stop was the bedside of a patient with type 2 diabetes. The consultant cleared his throat, nodded, and signalled for the resident doctor to read the patient’s plans and issues from the prescription chart. The residents, unpremeditatedly, moved as one to form an arch behind the senior doctors, ready to write in their notepads. The consultant was known to call upon anyone who was inattentive to continue the report on the patient but Anuoluwapo struggled to be mindful. She did not scribble in her notepad; instead, she doodled aimless patterns as her mind wandered elsewhere.

Anuoluwapo finished university best in class and got a residency at the best training hospital in the city without much hassle. Despite this, she was now unsure if working hard to be the best meant anything at all. She thought about how she would probably never get to be a consultant even though she was in the third year of her residency programme. She had spent the first three years of her residency tirelessly training, waiting for her exam after which she could be called an attending physician. If she went on, she would spend another three years to become a consultant. But here she was, in what would now be her fourth year, unable to write her examination because of incessant strikes. Since she started the programme, there had been four strike actions––three by the Joint Health Sector Union and one by the Association of Resident Doctors who were now calling for another one as a result of unpaid salaries. Despite knowing they were necessary for good working conditions, the strikes had begun to bother her. To her, there seemed nothing worse than working hard to become qualified without any hope of recognition for one’s qualification.

“That’ll be all,” the consultant said, signalling it was time to move on to the next patient. Anuoluwapo walked slowly behind the group, stopping by an empty bed and sighing. Eight months earlier, Pa Kingsley had occupied this bed. Easily her favourite patient, he was well-liked in the ward by everyone but it was obvious Pa Kingsley bantered with Anu the most. Early on, he had told her she reminded him of his late daughter who died from ovarian cancer. Seeing how her face made him joyful, she was encouraged to stop by his bed more often. “You make an old man happy, Doctor mi. My yellow, yellow doctor,” he would call out as she approached his bed. “Someone with your kind of complexion and brain should be living outside this country,” he would joke.

Pa Kingsley was the one to put the idea of travelling to Canada in her head. The first time, he drew her close to him and whispered in her ear that her yellow skin would glow better in Canada. The next time, he was more direct. He told her she should go to Canada where she could become a “correct doctor. Canada needs doctors—beautiful doctors like you can make a difference.” She would laugh, amused and slightly confused, and move on to attend to other patients that day.

One day she asked, “Why Canada?” “That is where I know everyone is going now. In my time, it was the UK. I think Canada is the new UK of your generation. It is abroad. Everyone is going there. Go, then come back to reign in this country,” he said to her. They conversed regularly and he preached Canada to her until it started to sneak into her thoughts whenever she felt frustrated with work. This was how things were between them until he was discharged from the hospital. A few weeks later, seeing his empty bed, she remembered the possibility of moving to Canada that had been buried under the pressures of the unequal ratio of patients to doctors and daily bullying from consultant doctors who left the residents to do the work.

One day after he had been discharged, Pa Kingsley came to the hospital to look for her. He had come to see her to give her a sewing-thread thin gold necklace with a chickpea-size heart-shaped pendant with a small inscription. His wife had given him the necklace when he was unsure of travelling to the UK to further his education in the 70s. When she died, he returned to Nigeria to set up his architectural practice. He wanted Anu to have it.

“I’m retiring my life in the city and moving back to my village and I thought of you,” he said with a sad smile. “I used to wear this chain all over the place like it was magic. Take it, Yellow Doctor. You made an old man happy when he was sick. I want you to have my magic.” He pushed the necklace into her right hand and as she resisted because she could not understand why she mattered to him, he found a way to tuck it neatly in her palm.

“It is real gold-o. Worth a lot of money,” he said with his signature laugh, a cackle which rang long and stopped suddenly. “You know, the next time you’re wearing this chain, it would be in Canada. Use it to remember me.”

When she began to seriously consider travelling to Canada she would think of Pa Kingsley and stroke the necklace. On some days, she hoped he would return to see her. In their haste, they never exchanged contacts. But after months of no visit and continued stress, she forgot him and their Canada talk. Now, with the threat of another strike, Anuoluwapo felt the necklace on her neck, thought of Pa Kingsley and considered once again Canada as a place she could move to.

She had once considered selling the gold necklace Pa Kingsley gave to her and using the money to buy a new television set for her mother, who housed and fed her, and complained only when she threatened to venture into a new profession—like tailoring, fashion design, or farming–– as the Minister of Health had recently advised. “It might sound selfish, but we can’t all be specialists. We can’t. Some will be farmers; some will be politicians.” Perhaps, she could put her intelligence to something else to make money for herself and her mother. But before she could decide on selling the necklace, salaries were paid. After, she considered giving the necklace to her mother as a gift. The heart-shaped pendant would show how much she appreciated her sacrifice over the years. But the moment the government gave in to the demand that doctors be paid, she found herself walking into a bank to open a savings account with the gold chain hanging down her neck as a witness to her decision. This was how she began to set money aside to travel to Canada. Slowly, she began to pay serious attention to the advertisements in the newspaper that offered information on how to apply for the Permanent Residency, a PR card, to Canada. She spent countless hours on the internet looking at any websites that could tell her how to get that “perfect” score that would get her into the “pool” of candidates picked to apply to become permanent residents. She read many online Canadian PR-focused groups of people who were applying, had applied, couldn’t apply, wished to apply, and tried to apply. It was in one of these groups that she learnt that the province of Quebec was easier to migrate to; they needed doctors, desperately.

When she got her PR to Canada, she placed a notice in the newspapers: “I, formerly known as Anuoluwapo Ogunmowoju, will now like to be known as ‘Ann Moju’.” She took the publication along with her passport which carried her original name to the immigration outsourcing service VFS to pass on to the High Commission of Canada. She did this following the advice of a former high school friend she reconnected with on Facebook who now lived in Saint John, New Brunswick. Her friend always posted pictures of himself with big, fancy cars. She admired his success but more so was simply glad she had found someone outside Nigeria with whom she could share the application process and make sense of the surplus information on the internet. He had advised her not to use an immigration consultant. “I did it on my own. I’ve been here for one year now—and I am very, very, very thankful. Nigeria is not it. You have to move to Canada to understand what I’m talking about.” On the day she called him, her friend had been taking a break from the grocery store Sobeys where he worked as a cashier.

“It’s better that you change your name. I changed mine from Gbenga to Ben, and you know, it makes it easier to make friends. Ann is gentler on a white tongue than Anuoluwapo—I mean, that’s a mouthful. It’s better to have a name familiar to Canadians. You know, Ann is from Anuoluwapo, it’s from the shorter form, Anu––without the U and with an extra N.” When she called, her friend was standing in front of the retail store, gobbling a BLT sandwich and checking his watch to know when his five minutes were up. He munched slowly. “Let me know how it all goes,” he said and swallowed the rest of the sandwich. “I have to drive away from this place now or else I’ll get a ticket.” He leaned against his 2015 Honda Civic parked outside the store, took a selfie, and sent Anuoluwapo the photo on Facebook messenger as he drove away. Anuoluwapo thanked her friend profusely for the advice and prayed that he continued to prosper in this strange land.

Ann Moju loved how the people in Montreal asked her where she was from because they couldn’t tell from her name and then, there was also the question of her orange skin, the only reminder of her father who died when she was 11-months old. She liked how her black body did not get lost in a white crowd, like other blacks who had disappeared in a sea of white bodies in this city.

Ann hit the ground running. She attended the Premières démarches d’installation session, where she learnt the first steps of settling down. She enrolled in French courses for non-francophones and attended all the employment-related workshops at the centre for immigrants. Anytime she returned from one of these sessions, she dreamt of when she would start working in a hospital with decent infrastructure. “I’m here to take back the years the locust has eaten,” she told herself. She called her friend in Saint John and he told her things would be better in a few months—just like they were for him. She continued to receive advice from her friend, grateful to have someone familiar in this strange land, until one day, calling from the retail store he worked at, he asked if she could forward a picture of her breasts to him. She dropped the call and deleted his number, regretting that their friendship had to end this way.

In her first year in Canada, she would take the subway to the Montreal Children’s Hospital and smile at how equipped and “child-friendly” it was. For the first time, she wished she had shown more interest in paediatrics. “Can you imagine? A hospital just for children!” Whenever she spoke with the few colleagues at the teaching hospital in Nigeria she still kept in contact with on Facebook, she wrote, “Get out of that country now that you can!” And when she would speak to her mom on the phone, she would say, “Very soon, I’ll bring you down to Canada. Once I get my licence to practice, I’ll bring you here.” Her mother on the other side of the line would suppress her desire and laugh gaily into the phone, showing how pleased she was. Remembering Ann was still unmarried, she would then plead, “Find a fine husband there—O!” following this with a long prayer that always required Ann to cut off the conversation, apologizing the next time for a poor network connection.

Ann Moju got a survival job while she waited to write her medical exams. The first survival job was at Dollarama, a retail chain store across Canada. She worked seven days a week and never went on break. She saved, eating mostly rice and beef in tomato stew, which she cooked at home, and only buying clothes from thrift stores. She needed to save as much money as she could. Not to survive but to write her medical examinations, which were very expensive. For her, writing her medical examination and passing them was what would make her become fully Canadian. And she took this very seriously. She practised good interpersonal relations with colleagues, already imagining the need for this skill as she interacted with her future patients. She spoke in a low tone and checked herself to make sure she was polite, even when people were unkind to her. She became so polite that if she hit her leg against a wall, she would tell the wall “I’m sorry”.  Whenever she returned to her room in the two-bedroom apartment she shared with a Haitian tailor she was introduced to by a colleague at work, she listened to a motivational podcast about preparing for a bright future. She woke up each morning telling herself to be thankful for everything because things were working out gradually. She believed the survival job she currently had would only be for a while and that she must try to take pride in it before she got the big one. “Here, every job comes with dignity,” she thought. She had already passed the English Language Proficiency Testing Standard and was now about to write the Medical Council of Canada Evaluating Examination (MCCEE)—the big hurdle she needed to jump before “arriving” she thought. As months passed, she spoke less and less of Nigeria except to think of how she would go back—if she did—as a world-renowned endocrinologist.

In her second year, she moved out from the shared apartment into a single bedroom to focus on her MCCEE—the first part of her medical examinations. She passed and began to prepare for the MCCQE1 and NAC-OSCE. It didn’t matter that Canadian medical graduates only needed to qualify for MCCQE1 examination to get a residency or that she had already had three years residency in Nigeria. “This is Canada. If our leaders did things the right way, would I be here?” She assured her mother that soon she would have to prepare to join her in Canada. She spoke glowingly of winter in Quebec. She told her mother she was thinking of applying to the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS) so that she could train as an endocrinologist once she passed her medical examinations. No labour strike could stop her now. Each morning as she stepped out of the house, Ann bumped into her neighbour, a small man with a mouth like a beak, who introduced himself to her each time they met. “My name is Bryce. Let me know if you ever need anything.” She always nodded and rushed off to the bus stop to meet her bus, shaking her head at this anomaly. When she got to work and resumed at the cash register, she told herself that this was what it was—a survival job. A story she would tell her children one day if she ever got married. As much as she angrily ignored her mother’s annoying reminders of how age was telling, her biological clock was ticking, she did sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a child of her own.

In the third year, the day she passed the second medical examination––the MCCQE II–– she jokingly told her mother, “It’s almost over. Almost. I will get a man from Nigeria. Do you know I’ll be a doctor in Canada?” Her mother was awake despite it being 3 am when she called. She sat up on the bed with her fist rested on her chin sighing into the phone as she spoke, “It is well. It is well. It is three years. It is well.” She did not laugh gaily as she did once, even though Ann had sent her $250 the previous week.

In the fifth year since arriving in Canada, Ann qualified for all the examinations and started hunting for a residency position where she could fulfil the required one-year of medical practice needed to be a medical practitioner in Quebec. She got seven interviews. Though this required much travelling around the province, it gave her hope. For the first time, she went to a store that wasn’t a thrift shop and bought two suits for the interview: a black skirt that hit right below the knee with a jacket and a Navy half-sleeve sunlight-pleated neckline A-line long dress. She wanted to cover as much of her body as possible to show only what needed to be seen. Who would want to be remembered for what she wore, she thought?

She was certain she would get a position. As she walked into each interview, she began to recognize what was at first an unreadable surprise on the faces of the interviewees and then, began to remember how the first rejection had felt. Each time she got a rejection letter, she felt a hot flash run from the top her head down to her spine: “…your application was not accepted in endocrinology because it did not seem competitive enough.” She wondered what “non-competitive” meant. Was writing her medical examinations for six years not competitive enough? At 36-years-old she was no longer competitive. Of course, Nigeria had its own social problems but she knew that her professors competed with the best in the world. She had been the best student, although it was difficult to explain or prove, considering she had spent the last five years at a retail store cash register and not in a hospital. She remembered how the doctors had once described her as a “young, bright mind” and for the first time, she missed Nigeria. She remembered that one of the interviewers had asked her if she knew that malaria was not in Canada, how the small smile had danced around his lips. “I’m not a malaria doctor.” And rather than explain to him that today’s medical science meant that students were exposed to different forms of illnesses, she explained in the low, polite tone she had practised since she got to Canada, “I’m interested in endocrinology, as my application says.” By the time more rejections came, she had learnt to understand that she would probably get a residency but just couldn’t tell when. She had met a black doctor at one of the hospitals she went to for an interview and who had said “You’re Nigerian. I am Nigerian too,” so they got to chatting. She complained about the difficulty in getting a residency and he gave her that jaw-dropping look before smiling to say, “stay dogged. It is a long road but it will lead somewhere. It took a while for me too.” He then handed her a card saying he could introduce her to other Nigerians in Montreal and she lost the card soon after.

It was a few more interviews before Ann began to understand that the small voice, the polite handshake, the nodding she was offered weren’t always friendly. Rather, they were small signs that soon she would understand her place in the system. By this time, she had been applying for a residency in Quebec for two years straight and it was in her sixth year in Canada. She had stopped saying hello to her neighbour––Bryce. She had stopped going out, except for long walks in the evenings. Until one day, her phone rang.

“Where are you?”

The voice was familiar but distant. Something that belonged to a past she knew but no longer visited.

“Why?”

“Are you sitting or walking or standing?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I need to know before I say what I have to say.”

“I’m standing in the middle of the road, on my way home—who is this anyway and how did you get my number?”

“It is your Aunty Remi.”

The pictures of Aunty Remi, her mother’s only sister flooded her memory that instance, followed by the realisation of why she could be calling.

“Is it what I’m thinking?” she asked, her voice quivering.

Silence. And then slowly, “Yes, she’s gone. You have to come home.”

Ann didn’t wait to hear the rest of Aunty Remi’s voice. She hung up and when it rang again, switched the phone off. She thought to herself: “Will I go home?” She stopped by a bus stop and leaned against the sign and repeated to herself several times, “Will I go home?” She took one step, and then another, and started to walk down St. Dominique without thinking of where she was going, until she arrived at the metal arch with Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery etched on it. She walked into the open grounds, her eyes scanning the grey and brick red headstones, the trees standing like sentries around them. She walked around for a while and then departed. She then began to visit the cemetery every day. She would walk by each head stone, until she could recite the names and positions of each one, sectioning them into left and right rows in her head. As she walked between the graves, she wondered if she could talk to the dead. Soon after she wondered no more, and talked to them.

“Tell my mother, I will come to Nigeria to pick her. Tell her I’ll bring her here.”

As she sat by one of the headstones, picking out weeds, a man with a bouquet in his hands smiled at her, his eyes twinkling with what was an awareness of her obligation, a knowledge of something he believed they shared. Ann saw how his eyes scanned her shoes then her jacket to rest on her eyes. He smiled again and then departed. Ann didn’t stop to wonder if the man considered her sad over the loss of a loved one or was showing the pity given to someone devoted to something lost. This would be the same man that would, not much after, find her dead, frozen to the bone.

Winter arrived and she continued to make the trip to the cemetery. The cold was severe as if each day’s temperature drop was an attempt to outdo the previous day. Ann woke up each morning, packed her lunch, and made a list of the headstone she wanted to spend the day with. When she would arrive, she would sit by the head of the gravestone and tell stories of her plans to be a doctor. One day, she found a headstone marked––Dr Williams. She squatted by the headstone, shivering yet uncaring, and talked to him. Sometimes, she would stop to listen, as though she was waiting for someone to speak to her. For Dr Williams to talk to her. When he didn’t, she did the talking. She told him of how she was a qualified doctor, a hardworking one, one who was meant for Canada. She had come to Canada because they needed her here. She told him of her mother who she would have loved to bring her to Canada in a vase if she found a way to cremate her. She told him how her mother’s people would be horrified with cremation: “We don’t burn our people. We bury them. Proper burial—with a good, befitting party.”  As she did this, she curled around the snow as it fell and tightened the flimsy coat around her. The temperature fell and the grip on her coat became tighter. Her heart raced and she shook like a palm on a windy beach. Her bladder had constricted. It wasn’t long before she peed herself. She wanted to get up but couldn’t. She looked up and saw all the names she had memorized. They were now asking her to join them. To come over so they could take her to her mother. She rested her head on Dr William’s headstone and, as if whispered to her as an order and a secret, started to take her clothes off. She dug into the earth with her two hands, preparing to enter the grave and meet Dr Williams.

When they found her frozen body in the morning, she was wide-eyed and bare to her skin, except for a necklace with a heart pendant hanging firmly on her chest.

 


Jumoke Verissimo Agbowo Art African ARTJumoke Verissimo was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of two books of poetry, I am memory (Dada Books, 2008) and The Birth of Illusion (Fullpoint 2015) and a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Films Studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Jumoke has won and been on the longlist, shortlist of a few prizes, including the NLNG literary prize. Her first novel, A Small Silence will be published by the Cassava Republic in 2019.
twitter  @awapointe

 


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