Everyone has problems; including ten-year olds like me. My problem, that rainy Sunday afternoon in 1997, was separating those filthy beans from my precious rice. Sometimes I wonder why God created some things; things like beans, mosquitoes and flies – they are good for nothing, if you ask me.
Even though mama was well aware that beans and I don’t mix, she, for some reason, could not get enough of them. If it was not beans and rice, it was yam and beans or beans and fried plantain. As my mum got more creative with new ways to prepare beans, I got better at my skill of separating them from whatever combination she came up with. On the days she cooked beans pottage or beans soup, I’d be stranded and father, when he was around, would provide an alternative meal for me (which usually riled my mum) but when he was not, I would starve till the next meal.
Little boys are usually cats and mouse with their sisters; I had two brothers (one elder; one younger) and no sister. However, I wouldn’t say my mum took the place of my sister in my life, as regards the cat and mouse thing but she and I – we knew how to get on each other’s last nerve without much effort. It was her nerve that was on the receiving end that Sunday in August.
“Get out of my sight!” she exclaimed. “Go and pick those beans somewhere else.”
Once mama got started, she always found it difficult to finish. “Everybody in this house eats beans, except you. I don’t know where you learned that useless habit from. You think you’re doing me. Don’t worry it’s just next month now,” she fired at my back, as I retreated to the boys’ room. “In one month’s time, those seniors would begin to deal with you for me and teach you how to behave.”
Following my graduation from primary school, whenever I was out of line, mama would gladly remind me of my impending introduction to boarding school. Oddly enough, I sort of looked forward to it because my elder brother, Ugbede, enjoyed a celebrity status I could only dream of. His entourage, whenever school resumed, included two packs of cornflakes, three mudus of garri, a tin each of milk and Bournvita, a mudu of kwili kwili and some pocket money. Also, Ugbede always got a wonderful reception when he returned home at the end of a school term – neighbours would cook special meals for him, mama would sing his praises and pay him special attention, relatives would pat him on the back and offer him money, “use this to cut your hair later,” they would say. I needed that in my life, and mischievous seniors were welcomed to deal with me, if that was the price I had to pay. If Ugbede can survive them, I can too.
“Are you not the one I’ve been calling?”
I ran to the sitting room to meet my mother. My fantasies had drowned her berating voice. I had no excuse for not answering when she first called so I just stood, motionless.
“My friend pack those plates and go and wash them!” she squealed, startling Ameh, my younger brother. “You are now deaf abi? You can’t hear me calling you.”
I wasn’t done eating yet and it was Ugbede’s turn to do the dishes but I knew better than to challenge mama at that instant.
My Independence Day or day of reckoning – if you saw things from my mother’s perspective – finally came, and I was overjoyed and proud of my accomplishment. Mama helped arrange my belongings which included all those exciting beverage-making ingredients, I could not wait to devour. While she was arranging, she instructed and advised Ugbede and I, and when there was nothing else left to say, she kept talking anyway, repeating herself a thousand more times until father, eventually, snatched us from under her wings and drove us, in his Peugeot 504, into the wilderness, also known as Federal Government College, Jos.
“Where is your second pair of check shirt?” asked my clearing officer, at the gate.
I dug into a pile of clothes in my rectangular metal box and produced it. Satisfied, he gestured for me to put it back.
“What is that?” a different clearing officer screamed at a boy. “Bring it out now!”
From his sudden jumpiness and the agitation in his voice, I half expected the boy to produce a kilogram of cocaine or a pistol from his box; it turned out to be an electric boiling ring. I would later learn that Mr jumpy, Haruna Atekpa, was the Senior Boarding House master as well as public enemy number one, especially among male students, for his ability to smell a misdemeanour even before it happens.
“Sir,” Mr Atekpa said to the boy’s father. “This is contraband. We do not allow it in our hostels; please take it back home.”
The boy’s father collected the smuggled item, twisted his son’s ears a couple of times and reprimanded him.
Ugbede and I had no such trouble. Mama, our home clearing officer, made sure of that. We were cleared, in no time, and proceeded to pay our tuition fees and other levies, after which we waved goodbye to father and ferried our luggage to our separate hostels.
“What’s your name?” asked Gabriel Amadi, my hostel’s House Captain.
“Agba,” he said, smiling and I smiled back.
Amadi wrote down the information he needed in an eighty leaves note book, after which he showed me to my room and new room mates.
Later that evening, Ugbede came over to Naraguta Hostel; the hostel for Junior Secondary School 1 (JSS 1) male students – my new home – and we made biscuit pudding with a lot of milk and sugar, not because we were hungry but because we could, and it tasted like independence.
By exactly 5.45pm someone struck something that sounded like a gong, repeatedly and I was told it was dinner time.
“I’m not hungry,” I announced to Ugbede but soon learned that dining with my new family was not a matter of choice.
It took about fifteen minutes to get everyone inside the dining hall and seated. Twenty students to a pot was the arrangement.
When I found out dinner was beans and garri, I immediately pictured mama resting on the 3-seater sofa in the sitting room, seriously grinning, and for good reason, because the beans pottage was no ordinary beans. It looked pale – perhaps lacking sufficient palm oil, and it smelt like panadol. I was not curious enough to find out what it tasted like so I gave my share to the table’s glutton, who had already accepted two plates from non-beans eaters like me.
The JSS1 end of the dining hall was a circus – the girls were chattering non-stop with new acquaintances, the boys were having food fights and cracking jokes and laughing absent-mindedly. The dining hall prefect, senior Bala, had already shouted a few “JSS1 students, settle down and compose yourselves,” to no avail. His next announcement was “all JSS1 students, move to the dining hall square now!”
The square he was referring to was actually a rectangle. It was formed by two long parallel dining halls, whose perpendicular sides were made up of stores. The rectangular space in the middle had no covering and provided an avenue to gaze into the sky. These facts counted for nothing when his hard, quality skin belt made contact with our virgin backs. I did not need a Red Cross member to confirm that the warm substance running down my back was blood. If senior Bala’s intention was to achieve absolute calm and silence, he failed because our cries were much louder than our chattering.
The next morning, as early as 5am, our fresh wounds were refreshed by the Naraguta hostel House Captain and his allies, as the only method they could come up with for waking us up for our morning chores was lashing backs with belts and sticks, while shouting instructions like crazy people.
First, the Christian students were led through a short session of prayers and choruses while the Muslims congregated at the school mosque, afterwards, portions for early morning duties were shared. The lucky ones got to sweep hostel rooms and surroundings or cut grasses; the unlucky ones got the toilets – asthmatic students were automatically unlucky (as toilets were the only alternatives to dusty portions). Every toilet bowl, before dawn, was usually filled to the brim with different colours, sizes and textures of human manure and unlucky students were required to pound them in and flush them down, among other things. My portion was outside the hostel; I was required to sweep it daily and cut grasses were necessary. Though it was usually dark and I could hardly see what I was doing, I was grateful.
As time went on, I learned that water was a highly valuable commodity in the school – taps never ran, wells were quick to dry up because of the massive number of users, school tankers irregularly supplied insufficient water; probably because of the cost, and the rains were almost gone as it was mid-September. It was not uncommon to find ten junior students queued up behind a single bucket of water, in first come first serve order, and take numbers which would be relevant in determining who would wash his school uniform next after the owner of the water was done. The result of using a bucket of water to wash and rinse ten pairs of uniforms was disastrous; the further one was from number one, the more the number of unpleasant, brown lines that zigzagged carelessly across your outfit. The school tanker showed up on my first morning in boarding school, though; perhaps a first-day courtesy.
After the completion of morning chores and baths, it was time for a breakfast of pap and three balls of beans cake which we liked to call akara, and then it was assembly ground time. The manner in which every activity was timed was impressive – time to wake, time for breakfast, time for class, lunch, sports, manual labour etcetera. Everything was orderly; sadly, everything was compulsory as well – even siestas. But as long as one carried out his duties diligently, respected his seniors and avoided truancy, he was safe, or so I thought.
One very bright Saturday morning, senior Amadi, assembled the occupants of Naraguta hostel after morning chores to address us. The atmosphere was relaxed and lively as Amadi cracked a few jokes and bobbed his head, at the same time, to the Bob Marley tunes that seeped out of the speakers of his battery-propelled stereo (which was contraband). He appreciated us for cleaning the hostel to a “sparkling” level that day. “But,” he added. “I just feel like flogging you guys.” There were a few laughs because it sounded like another joke. Moments later when the surrounding mountains echoed, loudly, his “everybody lie down flat!” all doubts were erased and subsequently, every buttock was in sufficient distress. It took the entirety of three days before I was able to sit without writhing.
Two weeks into boarding school, I was able to establish one fact from experience – there was no avoiding trouble; you could only control how often you got into one. Determined to reduce the frequency to the barest minimum, I made a mental list of Do’s and Don’ts.
- Write name on all properties; it discourages half the thieves.
- Be up in the morning before whips give you a hand.
- Be sick as often as you can because the dispensary is the only safe zone.
- Be smart; finish your provisions before someone breaks into your locker and assists you.
- Do not padlock your bucket to your locker. It’s a waste of time and a thief magnet.
- Do not go to any hostel’s tank to fetch water, unless you’re in the mood to offer free labour to ambush laying seniors. Beg for or steal from room mates instead.
- Do not gallivant around senior’s hostel; they are looking for whom to devour.
- Most importantly, do not come last whenever you hear “last to come.”
September 30th 1997 was the day I first knew what it was like to lose someone dear. It was a Tuesday and boarding students had just finished having breakfast and were filing out of the dining hall to join their day students counterparts in the classroom. I had a big smile on my face and a little rumba in my strides. I was excited about two straight periods of English language, which meant eighty minutes of Mr Wilberforce Galadima.
“Good mooooorning ma,” we chorused and rose to our feet as Mrs Ibekwe strolled into JSS1C. “Sit down,” she said before we finished responding to her “how are you?”
I could hear the clicking sound of several hearts breaking when she informed us that she was our new English language teacher.
Mr Wilberforce Galadima was an important comic relief in the tragic, tragic drama called boarding school. His favourite word was “In Toto” – “who can explain, In Toto, any figure of speech?” he would say, or “God will bless, In Toto, anybody that can answer the next question.” Anthony Ejimbe, the class clown, would, every now and then, get up ask a silly question like, “Sir, I’m confused. Please can you explain, In Toto, the difference between an adjective and an adverb?” The whole class would snigger and laugh, but not Mr Galadima. With a straight face, he would duly simplify his explanation without any complain.
His eyes were often red and his lips dark and dry. Every class had its hilarious highlight; once, Mr Galadima had sat on our form master’s chair, in front of the class, and slept through his period.
Mrs Ibekwe, on the other hand, was straightforward and boring. A breakfast of pap and akara plus ten minutes of her lessons equalled to a handful of dozing students.
Time can heal, and so twenty five days into my first term as a boarding student, I had graduated from having chronic homesickness to participating in sporting activities. Our sporting area was very close to the school’s gate and only the school’s fence separated students from the express way to freedom. Usually, in the past, I would isolate myself from the group and go very close to the fence to listen to the sound of the passing cars and imagine that one of them was my dad’s Peugeot; coming to my rescue. And when that didn’t happen, I would shed abundant tears.
“Fall back! Fall back!” I shouted at my defenders but they were a few faster than Ukolo, who outran everybody and placed the ball beyond the goalkeeper’s reach; beyond my reach, which meant that my team would have to wait for four separate teams to concede a knock out goal before it would be our turn to play again. We traded blames, needlessly, as we wandered off the pitch.
Ernest Azobu, my room mate, who was also a member of my team, called me aside and whispered a very bad idea into my ear. Though it was a bad, it was better than waiting that long for our next playing time.
No one noticed us as we strolled, leisurely, towards the maize farm behind the basketball court. Ernest then, suddenly, ducked between the maize stalks; I followed his lead and soon enough the hole at the base of the fence was obvious. About four blocks had been deliberately smashed out; the opening was large enough for any fit body to pass through but too small to notice, if you’re not looking for it.
Everything felt different when we emerged at the other side of the fence; even the wind gave me goose bumps when it tumbled against my skin, and why wouldn’t it? The penalty for unauthorized exit from the school premises was a month of suspension, 100 blocks of cement and a bag of cement.
We were sitting ducks with our red checks and brown trousers and it wasn’t until we crossed the road and entered the game shop that my heart beat slowed down. I was relieved to see three other red checks and brown trousers inside the shop, even though they were all JSS2 students. They did not bother us when they turned and recognised us.
Twelve minutes of video games later, two SS3 students in mufti walked in. one of them blocked the entrance, the other slowly moved in our direction and applauded us dramatically. After a few threats of turning us in to the school authorities, they marched us to their hostel, unofficially known as “Dodan Barracks,” and made us hang, with our hands, on the cement platform (which served as an extra luggage space) above their wardrobe. They positioned their mattress underneath us, spread their bodies on them and dared to us to land on their heads when our hands got tired.
Soon enough, there was a mixture of tears and a scowl on my face as well as sweat and anguish in my armpits. I was shivering but I wasn’t alone. Just when my arms were about to yield, Ernest’s did and senior “Danger” had his reflex to thank because it was his head that was on the line. The rest of us used the opportunity to land on the empty space, and that did not go down well with Danger and his pal; they trashed us till their hands hurt and we had to massage them. Afterwards, they forced us to sing and dance with a smile on our faces.
The first four days of October 1997 did a very nice job of giving me a break. October 1st, Nigeria’s Independence Day, was a Wednesday and a class free day; the government graciously declared the 2nd and 3rd of October as public holidays as well.
Parents/Guardians visiting days were usually the first Saturdays of every month and so October 4th happened to be another great day. Kick off time was 12pm but as soon as breakfast was over that day, students, especially of JSS classes, hung around the vicinity of the school’s football field (the official venue of the event) with anticipation.
My friends and I sat on the pavement of an uncompleted building and shared jokes and laughs, with one eye each on the school gate.
I had not seen Ugbede for over a week. He was a JSS3 student, which probably meant, three times of all the wahala I’d been facing is what he’d been dealing with, so I cut him some slack.
Very slowly, the 12 o’clock hour drew near and eventually, a few cars began to steer into parking spaces around the field. Immediately I recognised the Peugeot 504, I could not resist the impulse to sprint towards it and hug father’s lanky legs fiercely. Moments later, I heard a “baba olaleh” from behind. It was Ugbede; he did not look fine but said “lafia” nonetheless when baba, while stroking his back, asked “Oma awelle?”
Excitedly, I jumped into the back seat of the car and my brother eased in after me. Mama couldn’t come because she was looking after Ameh who had a fever, father told us, as he produced the large food flask which smelled of home-made jollof rice and plantain. I discovered chicken laps, as well, amongst the delicious commotion when I opened it.
“Oh oh! Your mother forgot to include spoons,” father said. “What do we do now?”
I sniggered, Ugbede smiled and father was confused until we both produced a spoon each from inside the pockets of our brown trousers.
After the meal, baba asked about our performances in class and other things. On cue, I pleaded with him, with a teary eye, to convert me into a day student. He laughed and said I would adjust with time, but I would not stop pleading so he assured me he would consider my request. My older brother made no requests; he was quiet all through and only spoke when spoken to which surprised no one because he was an “introvert” – a word I learnt in one of Mr Galadima’s classes.
The larger portion of the pocket money went to Ugbede because he was older (I knew that but it did not stop my displeasure). Soon after, father had to go, and the moment his car disappeared into the highway; beyond the gate, a splurge of homesickness overpowered me.
The happy hour trend was brought to an end on October 5 when, after church service at the Fellowship of Christian Students, I decided to play football with friends in front of Naraguta hostel, pending when the dining hall gong would be sounded for lunch.
“Last to come!” senior danger called out.
My side was winning and I was excited and carried away and that took a toll on my reflex as I was last to react.
“You again,” he said, recognising my face from the other day. My reward for coming last was a blanket. “I need this back, clean and dry, latest tomorrow morning. You know my room right?” I nodded. “If you like, try me.”
As soon as he walked away, the familiar sounds of the gong echoed from a distance and jollof rice and fried fish – my favourite – beckoned. After one month of paltry meals (the result of twenty students to a pot), every meal had become my favourite, including beans and garri, but there was something about the Sunday rice and fish. It tasted like a little bit more time, effort and ingredients had been invested in it, compared to other meals; perhaps as a Sunday treat. I was not ready to miss it for anything so I dumped senior Danger’s blanket on my bunk and waltzed to the dining hall.
When I returned, the blanket was, suspiciously, gone. I searched the entire hostel meticulously but unsuccessfully, and repeated the process again with the same result. Every passing second fuelled my anxiety. I knew I had to find the blanket or write myself a will because a second visit to “Dodan barracks” as an offender would kill me. Reporting the situation to a staff was out of the question, because the last time senior Amadi thrashed us for no reason and some genius exercised his right to report, Amadi was let off the hook, and armed with a real reason to thrash us again, which he did.
5am the next morning, when I woke up, I wondered how I managed to get any sleep at all. After an hour of cleaning my portion and brainstorming with myself, I decided the time was right for me to join the “one man journey” community as it was called. This community prioritized individualism because it was easier to be a ghost when you’re alone than when you’re in a group. So without a word to anyone, I put my tooth brush and tooth paste in my bag pack along with soap, Vaseline, a pair each of my uniforms and all my books. It would be a while before I would be seen again, around the hostels.
Although members of the “one man journey” community do not congregate or socialise, it was not uncommon to find people you know trying to find sleeping space, just like you were, in a classroom or an uncompleted building, after “lights out.” However, it was unwise to sleep in the same place for two nights in a row, or show up for games or manual labour. Dining halls weren’t safe either but some risks must be taken.
Everyone had lessons at the same time, so a classroom was the least likely place a member of the community could be caught. That statistic did nothing to calm my nerves, one Monday morning when Mr Atekpa showed up in my class with a whip in hand and four prefects for company. They had an air of certainty in their eyes, like they were sure they would find who they were looking for in my class. My heart stopped pumping blood for a second when one of the prefects pulled me by my shirt’s collar and ordered me to go outside the classroom, where Mr Atekpa was waiting. I managed to carry out the order without collapsing midway, and was later joined by seven other boys and a girl. It turned out they were on a hygiene inspection and the nine of us selected did not pass. I had come in contact with very little water in my travels, and so, with incisiveness, the whips in their hands taught us a lesson or two about the dangers of a lack of personal hygiene.
I was in pain when I returned to the classroom but with great effort, I was able to keep the tears inside for my pride’s sake until Adesua the class nerd, for no reason, came over to my seat. She said “Sorry,” rubbing my back. And then to everyone’s delight, it seemed, the tears came flooding out.
Later that afternoon, during lunch, the prefects on duty for the week were announced in a rather dramatic fashion, by the Labour prefect.
“Listen up,” he said. “For this week, you have the Head Boy, the Games prefect, the Dining Hall prefect and my humble self on duty.
“Now, it’s possible you misbehaved last week and got away with it, but this is a new week and I am on duty. If I find you at the right place at the wrong time, I’ll cripple you. If I find you at the wrong place at the right time, I’ll cripple you. And if I find you in the Chapel when it’s time for siesta, I swear to God I’ll cripple you. Please if you think I’m joking, try me.” With that, he brought out a sheet of paper and said “If you hear your name, step outside.”
Four names later, Ojone Abutu was mentioned. I stood up to join the rest and then heard my name again. This time it was Mrs Ibekwe, my English language teacher. She was the staff on duty that week and had just exited one of the dining hall stores with a ten litre gallon of palm oil and a polythene bag full of garri and needed help to convey them into the boot of her car. I happily obliged and was sensible enough to get lost afterwards.
Against my better judgement, Adesua and I got closer with every passing day. Friends and classmates would not stop teasing with their “woman wrapper,” etcetera. We would, often, sit and read together during “prep,” go to art club meetings together, and our assignments were almost word for word. Once in a while, she would pressure me until I gave her my dirty uniforms, which she usually washed and ironed at the staff quarters’ residence of her guardian. She was like the sister I never had. Junior students usually had school fathers and school mums; I had Adesua.
Incredibly, father did not show up on the first Saturday of the following month; neither did he send a messenger. I was angry and wondered if he was too busy for us or just didn’t care. Ugbede, from experience, advised me not to expect another visit until vacation – our father’s way of toughening us up, perhaps.
Characteristically, Adesua came to my rescue and introduced me to her parents as her “friend,” and it felt weird for some reason. Thankfully, Mr and Mrs Adebayo were as gracious as their daughter and did not mind me partaking in the consumption of Adesua’s home-cooked jollof rice. Afterwards, they harassed us with a lot of parental counsel and no pocket money, or at least one we could touch with our hands. That privilege was reserved for Adesua’s school guardian/banker, who regulated all her spending, which never went well for the poor girl, according to her testimonies.
The next day, Mallam Garba, a cook in the school’s kitchen who lived near our family house, summoned Ugbede and I, and handed us a letter each from mama. I was delighted to find a few naira notes attached.
Her letter to me inquired about my well-being and my grades; mostly about my grades. Mama wanted me to study hard so I could be a doctor – her doctor. At that point in my life, I was not quite sure what I wanted to be but my response was “okay ma” in my corresponding letter.
The last Monday in November ushered in the harmattan season as well as a police truck into the school premises. After the National Anthem and Pledge had been sung and recited, Panshak Bulus, the labour prefect was led from the truck to the assembly ground’s podium. Our Principal, in humiliating fashion, condemned Panshak’s act and informed us that the Labour prefect had been duly expelled and was now in the custody of the Nigerian police. I couldn’t believe it; it turned out Panshak had fulfilled his crippling threat and had actually fractured a junior boy’s leg, leaving him unconscious.
Later that afternoon during lunch, Tamar Bitrus, the Head Girl, chose her words carefully as she announced the prefects on duty for the week.
With the notion that all senior students were back in their right minds, I returned to the hostel and found that a number of my belongings were missing – blanket, mattress, bucket, hoe, cutlass, broom; I was absolutely confused. I carried out a futile search of the entire hostel and eventually retired to Ernest’s bunk, where I squatted for a few days until I could no longer take the whooping I received during manual labour, for not having a single working implement. This led to a return to self-exile. I checked back in to the hostel, about a week later because of the fierceness of the harmattan and the upcoming examinations, although I was more concerned about the cold and most concerned about going home – I had had enough.
It took some time but eventually, the examinations were over and I couldn’t have been happier. What I could not understand was why we had to remain in boarding house as opposed to being released to go home, like the day students, and return when our results were ready. It appeared, some genius thought it would be nice for us to cut some more grasses and wash some more toilets while we waited.
The Principal’s final remarks at the assembly ground on vacation day were greeted with joyful noises, indiscriminate hugs and farewell choruses.
Ugbede and I had already gathered what was left of our belongings, so we made for the waiting area, straight from the assembly ground.
When Adesua’s dad arrived, I helped with her luggage and shortly after her “Ekaale sir” and my “good afternoon sir,” Mr Adebayo demanded to see our results. Adesua was third in the class and I was 15th out of 46. His counsel was snappy; like he couldn’t wait for me to leave so he would instruct his daughter to keep away from me.
If father was disappointed by my 15th and Ugbede’s 25th, he did not let us know. A Hausa man would say silence is also a response (a bad omen, if you ask me). The only sound in the Peugeot was a baritone voice from the car stereo which reminded us that it was “the most wonderful time of the year” – in more ways than one, he was right.
For a moment, I fast-forwarded to second term, in my head, and wondered how I’d cope. I wasn’t sure if senior Danger would ever forget about me; I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to muster up the courage to tell father I’d lost almost all my possessions, and there was no telling if Adesua would hearken unto her father’s instructions about me or not. I resolved to make the most of the present and quit worrying about the future, so I hummed and sang along with the Christmas carol on the radio and thought about all the chickens that would sacrifice their lives to decorate my Christmas rice.