“Write your obituary”. The bespectacled old lecturer barked the order at the students. The response was not unexpected; shocked looks with incoherent murmurings.
“Write your name, your matric number, your obituary and your signature. You have five minutes.”
The students began to make moves, tearing sheets of paper out of their books, and holding their pens in the way they would when writing. But neither was sure what the other was writing. How does a lecturer ask students to write their own obituaries, and worse still, ask them to append their signature? But Akin who caused this was already writing, and he could feel his classmates’ eyes feeding on him with confusion. He could care less if they all began to curse him.
But how did this happen?
Akin looked out through the window next him in the lecture theatre. He saw another egret swoop down and perch on the newly mowed lawn. There were five altogether, the egrets, projecting their necks to and fro while helping themselves to a lunch of insects.
Akin beamed a benevolent smile at the birds. The scenery was a welcome distraction from the boring Philosophy class. The vast lawn was a tender, vegetable green which extended metres away from the classroom and to the edge of the road. The egrets were marked out by striking white and long pink legs that looked too thin to withstand the weight of the birds. When one of the bird beaked an insect, it swallowed in such a dramatic manner, ran after another insect, picked it, swallowed, and then stood at a point, its neck, the shape of a question mark.
Question mark. There were so many questions running through his mind, especially about life and human endeavours. If only one of these egrets could answer them, just, if only. Three years ago, he had applied for admission to study Law, but he was offered Philosophy. He took it with joy, having stayed at home for so long after secondary school, yet his parents would not let him be as they always reminded him their plans for his life; get a degree in Law, go to Law school, graduate and practice.
It was a triangle of confusion; on each edge was an interest conflicting with the others. His parents had it all planned out, ObafemiAwolowo University where he was a student countered his parents’ plans, but above all, his idea of himself was an adventurous fine artist. Life really is a complex question. And he might never find its answer.
He found himself asking the egrets so many questions, without speaking a word. Do you egrets ever have to wash to be this white? If I make a painting of you, will you appreciate it? Why do you feed on innocent insects? Is this some kind of power? Why does my girlfriend toy with my feelings? Why have I never had an A in any course? Isn’t this like my lecturer feeding on my grades? Do you think I will make it as an artist? What is the answer to life?
He must have said the last question aloud, angrily perhaps, because everyone in the class, including the lecturer turned in his direction, as if controlled by some supernatural force, their eyes peering quizzically at him.
“What did you say?” The lecturer asked, his face a somewhat squeeze up expression of hunger for an answer.
“Sir?” Akin turned away from the bird, but he caught a glimpse of four of the birds leaping into the air while the last one was on the ground. He registered the scene in his mind.
“You just asked a question. It is besides our discourse. Why did you ask that question?” The PhD holder adjusted his spectacles so that the frame sat firmly on his nose. He peered through the thick lenses, waiting for a response.
“Sir, what is life?”
“What is life?” the lecturer struggled to hide his confusion, it was a futile effort.
“Yes sir. I mean. You are here teaching us abstract topics. Aren’t you wasting your time? Aren’t we all wasting our time?”
Other students were taken aback. One would adjust her sitting position, another dropping his pen and then some were focused on the lecturer, others pensive about the turn of events in the class.
“Yes sir. This is my third year in the university and this discipline is still very abstract to me. Yes, I mean, what do we hope to achieve with Philosophy. True sir, we engage in arguments after arguments. You call it critical thinking, but I don’t see the point. I have never had an A in any course.”
“And how is that my problem?”
“Well, sir, because so many times, I have been torn between choosing what I believe is right and what the lecturers want. Including you sir. Perhaps you are frustrated too.”
“Have you lost your mind, Akin?”
“I think I will find it when you answer my question sir. What is the answer to life?”
“And you think a frustrated lecturer would be able to answer you?”
“Well, sir, I think your coping mechanism with frustration is to frustrate us too. Maybe this is a societal structure.” Tears were beginning to drop from his eyes, nobody, not even the lecturer understood him, or why he cried. “Sir, there are so many questions, and no answers. For example, what do you say to that bird?” he pointed to the bird. “Why didn’t it fly with its mates?”
“What is wrong with you?” The lecturer questioned calmly, went to Akin and made to touch his head. But Akin stood to the table and retorted with a deafening yell; so loud that the lecturer backed down.
“Tell me, I say tell me, what is the answer to life?” And he broke into a loud wail.
The confusion was tense, and written all over everybody except Akin, whose cry was now in fitful pitches of acoustic syncopation.
“Okay, I will answer your question.” The lecturer said after returning to the lectern-like table upon which his course materials were placed.
But before he could say another word, a fair-complexioned, petite female student raised her hand.
“Yes, Sola?” the lecturer prompted.
“Sir, I think we need a doctor.”
“Well, goes without saying. Have your sit. We need a doctor, but first, we need an answer to Akin’s question.”
The lecturer then instructed that everyone, including Akin should tear out a sheet of paper, write their obituary and append their signature.
“This is the answer to life.” Dr. Femi said after the students submitted their sheets. “Life is a complex question with a simple answer. Man is too caught up in the question’s complexity than to trust the answer’s simplicity. Many puzzling questions of life have very simple answers.”
He pursed for effect.
“But the ultimate answer to life is death. This is the essence of life, as long as you leave, these questions will come. Usually, as challenges. But death answers them all, because the day you die, you do not have to worry about these questions. I just hope you understand this. See me in my office, Akin. Good day.”
This was three days ago. And Akin was now in a pair of black suit and red tie. His lecturer looked at him, eyes behind lenses. Akin’s classmate, who had opined that a doctor be called, was also present. His parents were also present, and their only son looked what they had always wanted him to look like, a lawyer, dressed for the profession and making them proud. Only now they were not proud of him having embraced the ultimate answer, wearing his suits, shoes and tie only to be lowered into the source amidst wails and sobs between every measure of sand, every movement of the shovel and every word of the cleric in black; “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
Sola shoved a piece of paper into Dr. Femi’s hand. “He sent this to me. We could have rescued him, but we were too late.” She broke into tears.
Dr. Femi opened the paper. It was a painting of the lawn beside the class in which Akin asked his question. Four egrets were airborne; on the ground was one with a broken leg and a withered wing. Below the painting were the words; “when your dreams are the objects of a requiem, you embrace the ultimate answer.”