In all my teaching experience, in Suruleria University and elsewhere, I have never heard of the chronicles of an academic career to rival that of Andrew Zubair in its ability to inspire. It is the story of a young man who found out that doing what was just enough was never going to be sufficient but going for the extra notch leads to astounding scores.
I remember when he first came on campus, with all his worldly belongings in a nylon bag. He was dressed in what might have been military extras, a khaki trouser that was once black but was now light grey, leather hand me down shoes that might have had battlefield experience and a black t-shirt. Over the next four years, this costume he wore always till you began to wonder whether they were really clothes or body paint tattooed on him in that peculiar design. The son of a soldier father and itinerant trader mother, he had an important goal in mind. Even before he completed his admission process, he was at my office to extract the fulfilment of a promise.
In those days, the government of the city of Suruleria instituted a scholar scheme for outstanding students in the university entrance exam. The first five best students get to receive tuition free education and a yearly honorarium, sufficiently generous to cover other essentials, for the entire period of their degree course. That year, A.Z as I came to know him, had come fifth in the entrance exams and came calling to claim his entitlements. There four others like him but they were so unlike him, in poverty, in single mindedness, in tenacity.
It was my first year as Student’s Affairs Officer and those were trying times for the funding of education in Suruleria. How was I to tell this indigent scholar, that he had been sold on a myth? For then, there was a new government who did not care much about honouring promises. In the blink of an eye, all in the name of economic reconstruction, a hunk of funding was cut off from the education sector. Over the next few years, the austerity measures were tightened till soon it became tough call getting sufficient funding to pay salaries; at the end, the academic staff had to be right sized. Endowment of scholarships was a luxury we could not always afford.
Somehow, I was able, with accustomed tactfulness, to convey to this skinny young man with small head and big bulging eyes, that the scholarship he won had been scrapped. I remember he told me that he had postponed his further education twice when he got previous admission offers without a scholarship, so this disappointment was a pathetic. But I found the verve to advise him that if he could somehow come across a way finish the sophomore year, he could compete on merit basis for a yearly scholarship for the best three students in each class in the coming year. His eyes lit up like huge megawatts fluorescent bulbs when he heard these. Yes, he would go for that challenge. He had a little cash saved over the past few years; he would be able to pay for the first semester. If only he could get a job on campus. I promised to help. Two weeks later, Andrew Zubair accepted appointment as a janitor.
I dispatched the other four also but they were not so indigent, had parents who could sponsor them. I never saw them again. For some time, I forgot about AZ also. It was all part of my job to tell them (students) the fact as it is. If in the process, I am able to inspire a few and solve some problems, I am just doing my job. But during the preparation for the next annual budget, I had the presence of mind to ensure that three annual scholarships were provided for in each class set as was the custom in previous years. Well, we get to propose but top management dispose. Five scholarship slots were eventually approved but they would be competed for at each level by all the departments. The news of this slight change in the modus operandi of the scholarship scheme was not disclosed to the student populace until the beginning of the next year.
Our good friend, A.Z, by the way, by then had topped his class but was sixth when graded across departments. The disappointing news (for A.Z, that is) about the change in the structure of the scholarships was announced via the Student Affairs Department notice board. The also-rans were advised to strive harder as henceforth, only five scholarship positions will be available across all departments each year.
So we started another new year with new conflicts, new challenges, and new problems. Only we strive to cure them with the same old solutions. AZ was now in his second year, and as I learnt, was doing well at his janitor job. He even got promoted to Janitor grade II. Being a janitor is not exactly sexy but it kept him in the school. I was amazed that he could juggle his fulltime job with janitorial responsibilities but a guy had to do what he had to do. At some point, I would sometimes wonder how AZ might have felt about all the disappointments meted to him. Whatever were his misgivings, he did not allow them to affect him as he once again led his class, this time coming fifth across departments.
Unfortunately, the trustees of the endowment fund set up to finance the scholarship did not live up to their promises. They claimed that the funds were invested in stocks which had performed badly in the capital market. As a result, it was prudent to limit the scholarships to the best three students, instead of five. The University management accepted these recommendations in full and implemented it. Thus, no scholarship was offered to AZ in his third academic year.
I was at the staff club, nursing chilled beer and hot spicy pepper soup with my colleagues when I heard of his third year results. His head of department, who was elated, ordered a round of drinks for everyone. AZ had scored all A+, a perfect 5.0 GPA for that year, in some cases scoring 100% in some courses. It was a first time in the history of Suruleria University. I told myself that was no stopping AZ; he will finally get the scholarship he deserved in his final year.
I heard that when the news first reached the students, there was a “spontaneous procession” through the centre of the Campus, with AZ being carried shoulder high. He had become an unlikely hero of some sort, an icon of resilience. The Campus Press Corps interviewed him and AZ was guileless enough to declare that he was motivated to achieve the feat by the desire to earn the annual scholarship so that he could quit his janitor job. That month’s edition of The Campus News carried a banner headline, “He Got All It From A To Z!”
You can imagine my peculiar discomfort when it became my lot to announce that there was a suspicion of fraud in the management of the university treasury department and moneys endowed to fund the annual scholarship, amongst other such funds, might have been looted. A panel of enquiry was set up to determine the circumstances involved in the purported disappearance of the funds, whether due process had been followed in the management of the funds, to identify persons culpable in the matter and to make recommendations for better management of such funds as well as to suggest action to be taken against officers of the University that were found to be fraudulent or negligent. In short, there would be no scholarship for Andrew Zubair in his fourth and, as it was, his year.
The Student Union took up his case and threatened to boycott lectures if the scholarship was not granted. In response, I was directed to inform the student body that the full weight of the University’s byelaws as well as Suruleria’s criminal legislations will be brought to bear on any one who foments trouble. AZ was smart enough to disassociate himself from all planned protests. There is a lot of wisdom in the sayings that an orphan should not get wounded at his behind, where his arms can not reach to nurse it and that one does not ask for who killed his father until he has learnt how to wield a cutlass deftly. Personally, I suggested that the Student Union put its money was its mouth is by sponsoring AZ for a year but they appeared unmotivated so to do. So AZ kept his janitor job.
If a man could embody temperance, it was AZ. As if the emotional effect of his failure was not enough, he became the butt of disparaging comments from all sides. It was his bad luck, ill fated ness, negative karma that was his undoing. Why would someone named Andrew not come to church? Imagine; if he was a prayer warrior, all the hosts of heaven would have come down to fight his cause. The Muslims washed their hands off him; after all, it must have been his secret sins that he was now making penance for. Even the Kegites Society, Ilya Suru added a new prayer to the coterie of their customary rites: “May your case not be like that an uninitiated student, who passed his exams A to Z but never got the prize on prize giving day. Mayan!”
AZ was not distracted by all this. Indeed, it somehow seemed to strengthen him. He finished his final year on top of his class, and as the overall best graduating student. He continued to report at his janitor job until he went for youth service. I did not see him often after that and we did not converse person to person till the graduation ceremony.
On the graduation day, the crowd was agog. The legend of Andrew Zubair, of a young man who did what he should do but whom life dealt unfairly with in return, had spread abroad by word of mouth. A few days before, a soft sell magazine had carried his story with a front page rider. The report was made up of half truths and bare faced lies because the editor relied mainly on hearsay and popular rumours but the naked facts were still evident. So all of Suruleria came to see this myth-i-fied man they had read about.
As the class valedictorian, he expressed the usual courtesies to the dignitaries present. If he felt awkward about the crowd gazing at him like he was daemon, the paparazzi snapping away ala rock star, his comportment did not show it. In his speech, he thanked the school, perhaps tongue in cheek, for educating him, not only in academics but also in life, and expressed a desire to be part of the future history of the school, as well as he was part of its past. Done with his speech, he walked towards his Excellency, Prime Minister of Suruleria to collect his scroll, graduating with Bachelors Degree in Mathematics, First Class. I did not pay much attention to that part of the ceremony; it was a boring rite. I expected that the usual handshakes and a short photo session. So I turned on the radio on my cell phone and listened to the latest premier league result via my Bluetooth earpiece.
But I noticed the clapping did not subside. Indeed, the crowd had risen in excitement to give a standing ovation. Many were snapping away with the camera on their cell phones. I could not see the dais through the standing crowd so I asked my partner, who was also standing, what had happened. Excitedly, she replied with a smile from here to there,
“The Prime Minister has just announced the appointment of AZ as a junior minister for youth development…