Always in mind: Was God obligated?

By Mamadou Amirou Sall

In 2009 I obtained my baccalaureate. Through it I got access to university. My oldest brother was my advisor in making the choice of Civil Engineering, which became my major field of study later. I didn’t know the exact meaning of this major at that time, but I trusted him and his judgment, as it has always been so helpful. He has always given me useful advice. I started this field of study with enjoyment and confidence, determined to work hard to honour my family. This meant a lot to me.

Months earlier, while preparing for the baccalaureate, I had been struck by an illness that made me feel troubled. Little by little, under the effect of the pain, I grew to feel disgust for my studies and I could not keep my focus. My motivation for the title of “winner” had faded. I was bruised inside, but I didn’t want to express it. I wanted to make my family feel proud.

Pursuing the title of laureate was one way to open the door to study in Morocco. I wanted to leave Guinea and study there. But I never made it. Instead, I continued my studies in Guinea, where I had the chance to meet teachers whose students were the most distinguished in the national exams. The Yanick-Vakaba-Albert trio demonstrated their proof of voluntarism to me. Forever, these three people will always have my respect and consideration. Beyond their commitment as teachers they offered to help me  to be the top winner. I wanted to be among the top five in the Republic—yes, one of the five and, if possible, the number one among them.

With the ambition of getting the laureate title, I dedicated most of my time to study. I alternated between SIMBAYA High School and home. I studied restlessy. My mother was sometimes frustrated. She wanted me to take time to rest. I even remember that during some evenings in the living room where I used to work, she would say to me in Fulani, our local language: “ankadi Amirou, yahounon walodha!” which means “Please Amirou, go to sleep!” She wanted me to take the time to rest. She called me out to go to bed! In order to make her smile again, I often replied to her: “mi nataye djoni. Moggho migayni.” Through these few words in Fulani I promised her I was going to finish shortly and that I would rest soon.

Between the consultations with Mr. Tangali Baldé, Mr. Chekna Konaté, Mr. Zézé Goépogui, and the Yanick-Vakaba-Albert trio at SIMBAYA my timetable was very tight. I had practically no vacation after the twelfth year of study. I had spent more than two months obsessing over Mr. Checkna’s pamphlets, in addition to my maths and physics books that I had bought before the holidays. Failure wasn’t an option for me.

A few weeks before the examination I was struck by a painful mix: malaria coupled with typhoid. This situation did not surprise me, the two diseases were everywhere. How could it have been otherwise? We lived in unsanitary conditions with practically all infected water. The examination day arrived while I was still sick, but out of respect for my family and for all those who believed in me, I agreed to go sit for the exam which was held at Lynaso School, in Conakry.

My father volunteered to accompany me to the exam center. It must be admitted that he had previously gone with me to the university. In his mind I couldn’t fail; but we had a different conceptions of the word “failure.” We didn’t discuss anything that day and he said nothing beyond the prayers that he formulated. I could see in his face is great happiness and confidence. I entered the room exhausted, although I had hidden it from my father. I did not want him to worry about my condition. I moaned inside where he could not hear it. I had many thoughts and doubts, but I knew that I could succeed. Maybe not by the way that I wanted, the top spot, but passing the exam could do a lot for my family and for all my teachers who had supported me.

The first day was painful. I did very little, much less than I would have expected from myself. At the end of that day I understood that my dream of a laureate title had passed with the rain. I will not be a winner, at least not that year. I had to face facts: all my hopes had gone up in smoke. Deep down I didn’t want to continue; I just wanted to give up. Internally, I wanted to wait until next year, but suddenly a contrary thought stopped me: I can’t make my parents suffer who had given so much to prepare me for this exam.

I had to make a choice: my ambition or my parents. God knows how many times they had prayed for me. When I had the opportunity to pray with them, I saw them raising their hands to the sky and asking God to help their child succeed in this crucial stage of his journey. By “succeed” they simply meant “survive.” This irony brought a smile to the corner of my mouth, as I answered them silently, God has granted you your wish according to your understanding of the word “succeed.”

What about my understanding of the word “succeed?” I wanted more. Did I have the right to question God? If so, why would I have done it? In discussions with my brother, Alpha, I often heard him say, “Africa’s human resources are victims of a tangible reality: disease and hunger.” That was the case with me. I had no illusions anymore: I had failed to be “winner,” but I could still pass the exam. I was left on the spot with no answer, torn between helplessness and shame. It took enormous courage to decide to continue the examination. I wasn’t going to be a laureate and I knew it, but I was definitely going to be admitted. With whatever effort and talent I could muster I managed to cross the finish line and I earned my entrance to the doors of the university.

I had taken this resolution not because I wanted to, but above all out of compassion for my parents and for all those who had supported me during this period. It was my brother Alhassane (peace be upon him) who asked me first about my exam. I told him my poor result, and he soon announced it to our older brother.  I knew with them I could be nothing unless I earned the title of “winner.” I was in the third year of my school, Lycée Lambanyi, and I could enjoy it only by smiling to my parents. I’d had the loftiness to imagine myself greater than my test results. And now with my laureate, and In accordance with the schedule that had been established by the authorities, I started the Civil Engineering course at Gamal University that Fall. I had found a way to forget the pain of failure.

I saw myself becoming a great engineer like Gustave Eiffel, the one who designed the most visited monument in France: The Eiffel Tower. My lofty dreams were of France, but a few months into the program at Gamal I encountered a new possibility: to study at German university. Gamal offered a program with the university in Bremen, Germany, but I would have to master the basics of the German language, enough anyway to pass the “B1” examination. My Civil Engineering program already consumed most of my time. Between “structural calculation” and “strength of materials” courses the schedule had become too punishing for the dream taking root in my heart. I was forced to make a radical decision: I gave up Civil Engineering in favour of the German language. My brother and my father were paying for all this, and now I was studying German.

To supervise my training and follow up on my application file for the University of Bremen, I had to register at the German language training center with Dr. Touré Mamoudou, a physics teacher who had once done his doctoral studies in Goethe’s land. I started the training determined to master the basics of the language in a short time. I had the chance to meet very motivated and ambitious students. Like me, they wanted to finish their studies in Germany. Like me, they didn’t see any opportunity for success in Guinea at that moment. Indeed, so many people graduated without having the chance to find a way out that Guinea was filled with the well-educated and unemployed. For me and my new friends Germany was the ideal destination for tomorrw’s great engineers. In the homeland of Einstein and Weierstrass we foresaw something great.

My attendance at Civil Engineering classes became a secondary thing and I spent most of my time reading German books. I bought several in double French-German versions. Through a classmate I was even able to obtain the much sougt-after, German in 90 Lessons. I read it every single day of the week and kept ahead of the language course at the center. Curiously, the teacher himself used the same text to shape his lessons. Over time I developed a passion for the language of Goethe equal to the pleasure I already took in French. I was learning a third language, which was enjoyable for me. But contrary to what I thought, this new language was more complicated than the language of Molière, and the absence of interlocutors outside the classroom created an additional challenge. By the force of reflection I developed a method to preserve my achievements: the recited monologue. Through months of study and recitation I acquired an advanced knowledge of German. I had sacrificed my ambitions to become an engineer for the benefit of the German language.

Weeks earlier, my older brother had assured me that his “Boss,” the man who employed him, was going to support me financially with a subsidy of more than seven thousand euros. Such a huge amount! I couldn’t imagine it in my dreams. I was a young boy from a modest family with somewhat unusual ambitions for success and enough self-delusion to believe that such an amount was simply my due. I had faith, not in this boss, who I didn’t know personally, but in the word of my brother. I could already see the signed and stamped financial support letter. My brother organised a short interview with his boss on an afternoon that will be kept in my memory forever.

We went together with one of his great friends, Grand Daye. I had organised my file with great care, firmly convinced that I was going to get the money, this big missing piece of the puzzle. Te boss was sitting in the courtyard of his factory, and my brother introduced me to him. He looked like a person of great intelligence, no doubt forged by years of pain, both physical and moral. I fumbled with my papers because I was in a hurry to deliver my message. With supporting evidence I made my plea. Days later, my brother informed me that his boss explained to him the financial difficulties that his company was going through, and said that he was unable to help me with the support.

I saw myself so close to Germany that at the announcement of this news, I felt struck by lightning. An intense coldness came across my back. The consequences of this failure were so disastrous on the moral level, that I soon lost a lot of weight. The young boy who was always “bulboul” (fat), found himself puny. I had to face the obvious: I had sacrificed two years of my Civil Engineering license for nothing. I returned to Gamal University despite the ardent desire I had to leave at once for Germany.

In the classroom my eyes were empty, plunged into the shackles of remorse. I tried in vain to catch up with my exams, in the hope of getting the ridiculous, but passing, mark of five out of ten. The teachers didn’t want to give me their time, they were apparently busy with other things. In their eyes I was hopeless. It was too late. The only one who deigned to give me a chance was the technical English teacher. A few months earlier he had given us a brochure to read. With my English at the time it was hard for me to understand. I sought assistance from a neighborhood friend named Souleymane, who at the time was giving English lessons in high school. I went to his house late each evening, around nine o’clock. But despite his assistance, I was unable to pass the test. I had to face reality: I could no longer validate my courses. It was too late.

The following year, my friends went to the upper class “License 3”, and left me hanging out in License 2, a class that inspired me only with disgust. I was frustrated by the fact of having failed the exams. For me it was unacceptable to stay in License 2. People who once received instructions from my mouth now saw me as below them. Sometimes a friend and competitor from high school even made fun about the difference in our levels. You could read the pity and superiority in their eyes, which was just how unbearable the atmosphere had become. I decided to abandon my classes and leave Gamal University forever, and with no member of my family to ever know about it. 

For my family, I was doing well, and my parents saw a great future for their son. For them I was till going to become a great engineer. I used to show my father drawings that he received with a smile. He was proud of me. My son will soon be a great engineer, he probably thought to himself. He was probably happy inside. Days passed, an hen weeks and then months. My parents saw me always at home. They didn’t ask me any questions, because in their minds I loved to study and would never abandon school. The only one who in my opinion understood that there was a real problem was my mother (rest her soul), she knew so much how to read in me what was bothering me. She didn’t know what the problem was, but her gaze hurt me. I hated to see her sad.

By a stroke of luck, I had contacted an old friend of my brother who had become the director of a private school in Kiroty. I had a talk with him one morning and he told me that he urgently needed a mathematics teacher. He mentioned that the titular professor had an assignment at a public school. On the spot, I accepted the offer and began teaching mathematics classes the next week. Now I spent my time teaching, and it was a temporary tranquiliser for the pain of my failure at Gambal. Through a fellow I had met through the “Daawa” (a Muslim group that invites non-Muslims to embrace Islam), I had the opportunity to enter the General Lansana Conté University in Sonfonia. I chose the banking and finance department, where Mr. Touré Ousmane taught. He agreed to help me. Under his cover I timidly began classes, unofficially. Months later, I was officially accepted onto the student list, and the trick was played.

In reality, behind the smile that I displayed, a heavy secret was hidden—three years lost. The road was going to be hard, but I was not going to have the luxury of choice. The choice at that time was: finish successfully or die. In my mind, a descendant of a scholar (on my mother’s side) could not end his life debased, doing common tasks. This was unimaginable even in my worst nightmares.

This degree seemed easier to me than the one in civil engineering. I remembered the tedious explanations of the professors of structural calculation and of resistance of materials. Dr. Novikov Vladimir and Dr. Klokov Alexander were the best in their discipline. By their mastery, they had earned the respect of all the students. Without any bragging, I have been comfortable with calculations since my last years in college.

But in my new university, the only class that seemed tedious was Algebra. Since the courses were given by Mr. Touré himself, this gave me additional motivation to do well. I had rediscovered my taste for studies and quickly shaped a new ambition: to be the valedictorian of my class. The goal was set. And I was going to pursue it doggedly. Over time I had the opportunity to meet teachers who were ready to help. Unlike my teachers in Gamal, who were difficult to meet, those in Sonfonia were more accessible. Indeed, those of Gamal were too difficult for my taste; meeting a professor was a real headache. The Russians were just trying to teach their courses, and the only contact was in the amphitheater, which was so overcrowded that students sat on the floor to follow lessons. My brother told me at the time that students fought at the doorway to enter and the violence of the clashes sometimes made them scream in pain. The old classrooms had not been renovated for years.

In my new university I had the opportunity to meet the professors who marked me. Among them was Mr. Diallo, whom the students in my promotion called “GOP,” as an acronym for “Gestion des Opérations et de la Production.” He was the most relaxed teacher of that time, and all the students felt at ease with him, all those who were serious. He made me responsible for the class at times, because I often provided teachers with chalk. Indeed, I always had chalk in my bag. I took some from the “Mama Kalidou” School where I was teaching mathematics.

Our head of department at the time was an outgoing person who wanted his students to be role models in the faculty of economics and management. Newly appointed to this position, he wanted to distinguish himself and he often motivated us. He was also one of our best teachers. Indeed, he taught us several subjects, Microeconomics among them. I was fascinated at first by this course. I had a certain attraction for the curves he drew during his lectures. The “indifference curves” and the budget equation reminded me of the graphs from Mechanical Engineering at Gamal University. The following year, I met the professor who would be my role model, Dr. Balla. He alternated between calligraphic beauty and mastery of the content of his course. Dr. Balla awakened in me a feeling of “perfectionism.” I often wondered how a harmony could be created between calligraphy and the mastery of the discipline to be taught.

A few years earlier I had met one of Dr. Balla’s former students, Facinet Camara. Like me, Facinet was often among those hypnotized during the lessons of a professor whom he considered to be one of the best in the faculty. He told me that Dr. Balla had been first in the Republic at the Baccalaureate level, and that he had studied in university in Morocco, France, and Canada. My fascination increased tenfold. I saw in Dr. Balla the embodiment of everything I wanted to be at the time. I attended many of his classes, and over time I caught his attention and a certain closeness grew between us. Apart from his official lectures, he gave private lessons on a variety of subjects that interested me as a student of finance. He showed mastery in everything he taught. The fascination could be read in the eyes of the participants.

The way he worked reminded me of Mr. Kisto (soul rest in peace), one of my high school math teachers whom the Lord had called to him years earlier. Like Mr. Kisto Dr. Balla had a methodology that amplified my interest in the course. God only knows how much his way of teaching pleased me. He was hard working and had been able to develop teaching techniques that left no student indifferent. I remember one day I even told a friend at the time that even if Dr. Balla gave a course on sanitization, I would take part. And when today, despite the wounds of the past that are still only beginning to heal, I confess that I thank Heaven for having created the brutal conditions for our meeting. I would be eternally grateful to him for having made me love economics, for having made me understand the close links economics has with politics, and for making me have a broader vision.

12 October, 2022