Talking about money is awkward at the best of times. But I like being awkward, and this certainly isn’t the worst of times. So here goes.
Coming to University my finances weren’t great. Like many, my family faced the middle class squeeze. When you have three children all in the same year at elite institutions and Student Finance only reads what’s on the paper and doesn’t take account of whats in your actual pocket, sometimes you fare worse than those termed the ‘poorest’. But I have been very privileged to attend a college that is proficient if not exceptional in financial support. The only problem however, is timing. By my second week of University I had run out of money. My loan didn’t cover my room bill let alone food and though I knew that grants were hopefully coming, they weren’t coming any time soon. In real time my savings were wiped with 32p being all that I owned in the entire world. Seriously. I’m not kidding, it looked as mournful to me on the screen as it does to you reading.
I was open and honest about my financial situ with my mother who kept reminding me (sometimes very forcefully) that if needs be she could make it work, she would make it work. But that’s a parents job. To put their children before them. However, I think when you’re a child of the economic crunch you start to learn how to add pretty fast, and you know that even as they scrimp and save here and there, a massive deficit is looming – and as you get older your parents become less capable of hiding it from you. Unlike the Bogeyman, debt, poverty and financial limitations really do exist, and they don’t hide in the shadows. So I refused. I told her i’d hold out. I had enough in my fridge, I had all my essentials, i didn’t need money per se, what I needed was some kind of financial security, but seeing as I wasn’t going to get evicted anytime soon, we could wait. When she came up by my third week of Uni to watch my play, my mother brought a box of instant noodles and some homemade food. I shelved and froze it all, and as the days went by salvaged a limited variety of meals from that hamper. There’s a lot you can do with instant noodles if you have to.
I wasn’t the only person struggling in my house. One of my closest friends was in a similar situation, and so together we worked to make ends meet. Last year when she was in particular difficulty I had the means to support her. It was ironic this time round, 4 weeks into term when she returned the favour. How quickly positions and situations are flipped around. But I was extremely, extremely grateful. However, 2 weeks ago, bar about 12 packets of noodles, I ran out of food. Nothing, unless you count half a dried leek, 3/4 of scotch bonnet pepper, and 1/4 of butter. Realising that All Purpose Seasoning, Salt, Pepper, Basil, Oregano and Dried Chilli Pepper don’t constitute a meal, hunger loomed expectantly before me. Said friend and I had taken to eating dried granola at night as I boiled yet another pot of hot water for instant noodles. We hadn’t had breakfast for about a month. I’d taken to going to Chapel on Sunday mornings not just because it was a great space to worship in, but, and I won’t lie, because of the more or less free english breakfast served afterwards. That meal would also make up for lunch, while extras were packed into a container for later and then we’d be back on the noodles in the evening.
I have a PhD student living in my house from India. His name is Rajesh and i’ll write about him at a later period, but for now, just know that he is an official legend. After seeing me eating yet another packet of instant noodles (thus depleting my limited stock, which at this point only consisted of 2 flavours – Chicken and Stir Fry), he took to feeding me the fresh vegetarian curries he made every day. In an 8 week term Rajesh has fed me 6 times. Every time I tell him that before the year is up i’ll cook him some real Nigerian food. He aways replies – I don’t need your food, I just want to make sure you’re eating well. He reminds me of a father figure, except he’s too young and too funny. So maybe an older brother. He cooks really well, and luckily he’s always let me have seconds.
Considering the 32p in the bank account wasn’t accumulating any interest and there’s only so many noodles any one person can eat in any given week, I had, I admit, also taken to common thievery at my church. Every Tuesday before student group they have a Student Dinner, with a required £3 donation. There were a number of weeks when I turned up and ate without paying. I also took left overs. That made up dinner and a good 4 subsequent meals for the coming week between myself and my housemate, carefully rationed but eaten with gusto (and sometimes more salt than necessary). I will pay my church back the difference.
It’s not so much that I was walking around hungry. Luckily I don’t get that hungry. And it’s not so much that I was in dire, dire, straits. I had chosen to refuse my mums offer of money, not because I wanted to be a martyr, but because I wanted to exhaust all possible avenues. I figured, once I literally had nothing – had finished all the noodles and had gotten round to eating the frozen container of egusi soup – then I’d reach out for help. Because to be honest, food is food. Sure lack of variety isn’t great, but I wasn’t starving. Some people have it much worse.
But it was still a pretty shitty experience. I’d been in a similar situation in my first year and had managed to write a funny (in my opinion) post about it (read it here). But this time round Sainsbury’s basics wasn’t even on the cards. Just a lot of water…and noodles (i’m going to start a thread called Broke Friday with ingenious recipes for times like these).
I say all this because last year, and for all my previous years at Uni, I was known as Miss Hospitality. I cooked meals for my friends, if people were in a bad way, they new my room always had a fresh supply of tea, probably even some form of home made vegetable soup (and even homemade bread if you were lucky). My mother’s love language is service, so all of us know how to be excellent hosts. So, I think I sowed a lot of seeds, fed a lot of people, definitely made a lot of herbal tea.
And this time round, during these past 6 weeks when I couldn’t even afford to buy asthma pumps and discovered that the placebo effect is a real thing because if you press your empty inhaler and inhale normal air, somehow, your lungs wish themselves to relax – and they do (mind over matter) – but this time round, I had the privilege to reap.
None of my friends, bar my housemate, knew about my situation. There was no reason for them to know, I was too busy writing essays and doing my thang to even think about it till I got home. I’m only writing about it now because the situation has been rectified, and I can now look back and see that I was blessed. Because over these past 8 weeks, for random reasons, friends have, out of the blue, offered to take me to lunch. Or bought me apples, oranges, lemons. Made rice, stew and chicken and just because, have handed it to me in the library (you know us Nigerians at Uni, we gotta stick together when it comes to home cooking). Little, Random, Acts of Important Kindness. ‘Cause those random meals weren’t just feeding me, they were feeding my friend too. And they all tasted so good. They kept us going.
There’s a saying in the Bible which is applicable to all life – you reap what you sow. Most people relate it to good and bad deeds, and I guess that’s the general gist. But I think it’s even more than that. I believe in a God who provides, I really do, and I have seen God provide for me in fantastic ways, and often in financial ways too. Some might be skeptical, but i’m not preaching a prosperity gospel here. I’m talking about a God who doesn’t turn his back on those in need. See when I had much, or at least enough because grants had come through on time, having been raised to share I shared. And there were times i’ll admit last year when I was like – all my friends do is take, take, take. They come, they eat, they don’t wash up, they leave. Sometimes I got tired of doing the right thing, of being aware that said neighbour needed food, or had had an awful essay week and maybe some hot choc would pick them up. And now here I am, a year later, being the one that can’t feed herself sufficiently. But I had the privilege to reap, to receive. See, I don’t think God (and for those of you that don’t believe in God, let’s call it Universal Kindness,or Goodness whatever suits your fancy), I don’t think God always provides by dropping a cash sum at your doorstep. But I do believe that God provides through the little acts of kindness. Through people buying you tea, or buying you apples, or bringing you left over food. I believe God, through friends, strangers and neighbours has sustained me over these past 2 months when I was in need. And it’s really humbling.
Obviously I interpret these things from a place of faith. For those that don’t have faith, I do hope however you can recognise similar instances when you’ve been helped at a time of need – maybe you put it down to Human Goodness. The thing is, however you see/interpret/understand it, it’s important to pay it forwards.
Tonight I shared this, somewhat embarrassing experience (because money is always embarrassing) with members of my student group. It was weird being that vulnerable. But after the service a guy by the name of Dave came up to me and said – this is for sowing – handing me an envelope.
This is for Sowing.
We always have something that we can give and we can share – even a packet of noodles can go far between friends. This morning, my friend and I ate our first breakfast at home for the first time in a month – cereal and bananas never tasted so good. I also went on a “massive” (as in, in comparison to the nothing I had before, boy!) grocery spree and my shelf is now flooded with vegetables – you don’t know how much you miss greens till they’re gone! But, saying all that, now I have food in my fridge I will make Rajesh a Nigerian dinner. I will pay back my church for the ‘stolen’ meals. I will keep sharing my food with my housemate. I will keep my eyes open and my heart ready for others who are in need. And sometimes it doesn’t have to be overt, you don’t need to put your name on the envelope so people feel ‘indebted’. You can sow quietly. You, the receiver and God know – that’s enough.
So Dave, thank you – it will go to sowing. To everyone else who has helped me in the little ways, my family, my friends and the strangers – I look forward to the day when I’ve helped pay it so far forwards it makes you smile when it comes back round again.
For those that know me in real life – i’m OK. Don’t feel obliged to now overwhelm my doorstep or pidgeon hole with goods. Honestly. There’s someone you sit next to everyday in the library who needs it way more. There’s someone on your corridor or in your lecture hall who would love you to take them to dinner, because they’re really hungry and can’t face another bowl of cereal without milk (that’s if they even have any more cereal). So sow into them. Pay any goodness you’ve experienced this term to them. And #payitforwards with gusto, that’s the only way you grow big trees.
This is for sowing. Life is for sowing. And quiet joy is found in an unexpected reaping.