Series, The Maid's Son

The Maid’s Son: The Moscow way and mastering heights

By JJ Mponye:

When Tricia declared “Well then, you'll just have to survive the Moscow way,” she must have meant that I needed to realize I had no more privileges and therefore needed to take personal responsibility. But to me the word Moscow also stirred up other memories. Moscow, in fact Russia, is like a scar that always reminds me of one of my significant battles in life: my conquest over the fear of heights.

I studied for my Masters in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the prestigious Tver State Medical Academy in Russia. That was more than eight years ago. I am an OBGYN: 'the ladies' man' or a 'plumber', as some retards in med school used to call us because we specialized in women's issues. I love my job. I think I do to a great extent. And it has nothing to do with what I spend most of my day looking at or touching. It has got more to do with the feeling that I have made someone's life better. That is what I call satisfaction! Besides the fancy titles and fat pay cheques, it is what everyone ought to get from their job no matter what their role in society is.

Studying abroad always comes with its challenges for most guys, especially those that grew up as useless ill guided princes. You know the kind of boys that only go to the kitchen to deliver dirty plates or to ask their mothers why the food is taking so long to get ready. They know what good food tastes like but they haven't got a clue how to produce it given all the necessary ingredients. To them stuff like cooking and general house work are absolute pink areas. I met a couple of such unfortunate chaps at Tver and was later to share stories of their kitchen disasters with Tricia.

While at Tver I saw several young African men (incidentally most were African!), hopeless bachelors and married men, that didn't know the inner workings of a kitchen. I witnessed them graduating from boiling water for coffee, through boiling and frying eggs and all the way to preparing delicious dinners. All because they basically had to! There was no mum, no wife, no sister and no maid. Fast food life was way too expensive. One simply had to take personal responsibility lest they starved. Many started off by eating half cooked rice while others unintentionally made rice porridge. Some burned their food and set off fire alarms. Others put way too much salt in their chicken soup. Each one simply had disasters of their own to tell. When I first shared the stories with Tricia she coined the experience the 'Moscow way'. Now, Tver and Moscow are two separate areas but Tricia christened that unfortunate experience for adult guys 'the Moscow way' simply because “it sounded better than 'the Tver way' ”. It could as well be referred to by any other city's name depending on where one got their experience from.

In my life, Tver is an important reminder about conquering personal fears. We all have fears. Some fear simple things like little harmless insects. Others fear strangers, crowds, heights, disappointments, commitment or failure. And most of us fear death. At the bottom of most of our fears is the feeling that we will get hurt in some way while for some it is sheer uncertainty of what could happen as a result of confronting whatever we fear. These fears often hold us hostage by standing in the way of pleasure or blocking our paths to a more successful and fulfilling life. Unconquered, they slowly rob us of some of the things that would have made our lives brighter.

I had an immense fear of heights right from childhood. This fear was rooted in the memory of seeing a friend fall off a tree. On that fateful day, we were on our way from school when the sight and aroma of ripe succulent mangoes hanging temptingly in a compound without a fence overpowered us. We branched into the homestead. Three of the boys that were good at climbing immediately crept up the tree and started shaking down fruit. Upon seeing someone from the house walking towards us with a stick, Paul – the chief coward of the group – shouted, “Tufudde! Tufudde! (We are (“dead”) in trouble!).” I vividly remember seeing Tony fall head first through the branches like a sack of charcoal. Although he rolled in pain, unable to get up and run, none of us stayed behind to help him. At assembly the following day, our headmaster announced that we had lost one of our students. “Tony Mukibi fell from a tree and died shortly afterwards!” From then on, climbing always meant the inevitable result was falling. And possibly death!

Fast forward to Tver. Summer 2001. I badly needed a part time job. The opportunity came through my classmate Sasha. Her fifty year old mum, Natalya, needed someone to paint the outer walls of her house. Part of the painting required getting up on a ladder way up to the ceiling! Sasha's boyfriend, who Natalya despised for being lazy, had promised to do the painting but always gave a reason for not being able to. The fact that Sasha often talked negatively about Stepan, and I had a crush on her, gave me the feeling that this would be the right time to make an impression: as the dependable guy. But I had my fear of heights to deal with first!

I learnt that the only way to conquer our fears is to face them squarely and to keep on asking ourselves why we actually fear whatever we fear. I feared heights because I feared I could fall and die. But does every climber necessarily fall? Does falling always result in death? Of course not!

I thought about missing the job opportunity. About how much money I would lose! I thought about losing the opportunity to impress Sasha. I knew Tony fell because he was scared. He panicked and slipped. I wasn't going to panic. I took the job.

I nearly chickened out when Natalya pointed up to the roof on the second floor, a height of about thirty feet, saying “You paint up there. My bedroom!” I just could not imagine myself, as a medical student, in fact a medical doctor, falling to death from a ladder while painting. That would have been such a demeaning death. I started off by painting the walls closest to the ground. I later set the ladder in place and attempted to climb it without my tools, just to test the waters. A few steps up the ladder I looked down and noticed that all was well. I climbed further until I felt the ladder wobble a little. I looked down and was hit by a slight wave of dizziness. Then Natalya showed up from out of nowhere, almost scaring me off the ladder. “Good! Good! That is good”, she encouraged before walking back into the house.

I descended, picked up the brush and paint and then slowly but confidently ascended to the very top. I had climbed the ladder without incident and was carrying on with the painting when I heard a deep masculine voice from down below. As far as I knew, there was no man around or in the house. Looking down, I saw what was a visibly well built six foot Russian block adorned in black leather bikers' garments. He stepped on the ladder, momentarily offsetting my balance. He took a long, almost erotic, pull at his cigarette and then proceeded to utter what I presumed were complaints in Russian.

“Hi sir, I don't understand Russian. Could you please speak English”
“Eeh? Me. English?! F***! What you want with my girlfriend? Sasha. F***!” he shouted furiously while hammering the ladder with his right hand. He dropped his cigarette and seemed to get even the more infuriated. With the ladder wobbling at the foot of the crazy Russian guy, I knew it was just a couple of seconds before I would drop dead to the ground. My pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears.
I think Stepan must have thought I was getting down for a fight when I decided to climb down gently. “Aha, so you come fight. Yeah?”

When I finally came to my senses, and struggled to open my eyes, all I could see were a billion multicolored little stars orbiting around my head. I heard the sound of a thousand crickets ringing through my ears and I felt like I was about to throw up.

Stepan spat out the word 'shit' a couple of times as he walked away unbothered that I could have fractured my frame. Sasha followed while screaming insults at him in an exchange that marked the end of their relationship and the beginning of ours. I was later to learn that Natalya bragged to Stepan saying, “Sasha has got a more useful boyfriend. He is now almost done with painting the house!”

I know I did not fall just because I climbed the ladder but rather because some irrational son of a bitch pushed the ladder in a fit of misguided anger. I had climbed to the top and made it there without any catastrophe. And I knew I could do it again and again without falling. In fact I later climbed that ladder in the subsequent summers and also painted other houses without falling.

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