The first time I stumbled upon the word karma I was eight years old, on long vacation and rather unprepared for such an adult word. Uncle in Lagos had just stopped over at our house in Bendel Estate, as he often did on his way to the village. During his last visit, five months back, he made me and my brothers a promise. Whoever came first position in class would get a BMX bicycle. So when I heard my mom in the living room degwe-ing for him as he entered, and his deep voice vrendo-ing and laughing saying, It’s okay, it’s okay, I couldn’t believe my luck.
Not only had I come first place, I’d gotten a perfect score in all my primary three subjects, but this was not the chief reason for my excitement. Chuka, the new boy from B65, owned a bright red Chopper bicycle that he never let anyone else ride. Along with all the other boys who had bicycles, he would ride off down the road, screeching, pretending they were all members of some cool biker gang. Yesterday, walking up to him, I asked if I could ride. He looked at me, blinking like I was a centipede. “My friend, go and buy your own.”
“I will,” I said, as he made to ride off, “and it won’t be a cheap one like yours. Bet me, when my BMX comes you will throw this rubbish Chopper away.” I shouted as he rode away laughing, “Bet me, bet me!”
Now that Uncle in Lagos was here I wished I had said more. From the folder where Dad had them stored, I swiped my report card and marched off to claim my prize. Uncle pored over the white sheet that held my perfect exam scores, nodding gravely, mumbling his trademark, It’s okay, it’s okay. Finally, he said, “Karma is your best reward, actually. Much better than any bike.”
I looked at him, puzzled, suspecting as only a child could, that a major lever had been pulled, the dynamics of our conversation altered — as usual, in favour of the adult.
“You, my boy have just reduced your karmic load,” he said.
“Well, my boy, that’s the balance that determines your luck in life. Everything one does, if it’s good it attracts the good, if it’s bad, well bad things tend to happen.”
“But Uncle, since I took first, shouldn’t a good thing happen to me now, like a BMX?”
He seemed to think on this a moment. Perhaps I even had a chance, but I would never know now, because right then Mom walked in and announced lunch. “Komeno, stop pestering your uncle. Let him eat, okay. He has a long journey ahead.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” said Uncle in Lagos, resting his large hand upon my small shoulder. “Don’t worry my boy, you’ll understand one day. It’s okay.”
After a laughter-filled lunch, with Dad and Mom talking politics in the way that adults always seemed to do, with part-excitement, part-anger, part-fear, Uncle in Lagos departed for the village, leaving me with thoughts of faces. Chuka’s when he said, Go and buy your own, and mine which clearly I could not show on the street again.
The next day the biker gang showed up, Chuka and co riding their bicycles down the slope, and hitting the brakes hard so that the back wheel rose up. They did wheelies on the staff club road, competing to see who could stay up the longest. Femi Egbagbe went first, but he just kept hopping and couldn’t do it. I don’t think anyone was surprised. Femi was incompetent at everything. Nat was next. He managed to stay up for about three seconds. We all cheered. When Chuka’s turn came, he went up the road first, all the way to the end. Trust him to make a show of a simple thing. Twisting his hands around the handles, miming the revving motions of a motorcycle, he set out riding. He was fast. Bullet fast. Breezing past us, he turned, to me, it seemed, and smiled, and then lifted the front wheel, pedalling hard, for one, two seconds, three, four, five. At six seconds, wild cheers broke out, at nine, we heard a snap. His chain broke and he swerved off the road, crashing into the bushes by the staff club, where earlier the gang had stood and, in unison, peed. When Chuka emerged his knees and forearms were badly scraped, the handle of his bright red chopper bent out of shape. “It can’t go straight anymore,” he said, with much exasperation. “It can’t.” He seemed to take no notice of his injuries, engrossed with trying to straighten those bars. They were too strong.
Watching him roll his bright red bicycle home, limping, the tyres flat, skipping every few turns, I remembered what Uncle in Lagos told me, and when Chuka looked back one last time, I could not resist a smile.
The following term I came thirteenth. No one said a word. I could see how nervous they were, wondering if it was rebellion or if I had simply not studied enough, or the horror of horrors, if I was dull. No one ever knew though, because the term after that I was back in first place again. Same with the next, and the one after, and in the Federal Common entrance exams, of all the primary five pupils who sat that year, nearly three hundred, I came third. I even beat the girl in my class, Ifeoma, who sometimes tied with me for first — she caught typhoid or something, and was now tumbling in the hay somewhere around seventeenth place. Life was great, especially the being smart part. To my (smart) mind the only thing better than being smart was being smart and having the rest of the world know it too. And I seemed to have that, also.
When my cousins had a problem with a word, Mom would say, “Ask Komeno, he’ll teach you.” When my aunt needed help calculating she’d come to me. “Komeno, I bought this and this, and the man gave me one hundred Naira, is my change correct? Is he trying to cheat me?”
It was now commonplace for Dad to take me with him to the staff club and buy me a bottle of Coke and a plate of pepper soup, telling all his friends how I had not only passed the Common Entrance, but had done so in flying colours. His son! And colours did fly everywhere in my head in those days, especially when I imagined my name up there on the admissions list of King’s College. Located in Lagos, it was the best Federal school in the country, and my first choice. Second choice was Federal Government College Warri, but I had doubts, having come to hear things about that school, frightening things that ultimately compelled me to reconsider. It was now King’s College or nothing.
When the Common Entrance results first went up on the notice board, my mom had asked the school secretary to make us a copy of the first page where my name appeared. She then made several copies and kept one in my file with my other results. I imagined that when my name was out on the King’s College list Mom would make copies too and hand them out like fliers to all her friends. She would have one framed, and kept next to Grandfather’s picture in the living room, the one of his induction into the Police Force. I imagined that there would be some kind of a parade too in my honour, with different people called upon to testify to my superior intelligence, sort of paying homage to it, really. I imagined many things in the weeks before the list came out.
We were at the Ministry of Education when Mom saw the list. She pursed her lips and said nothing, staring dazedly for several moments before saying, with a firm shake of her head, that she wasn’t surprised. Not in the least. Only big men’s children ever got in, or people who were ready to give bribe. Dad’s position when it came to bribes was all too clear. One December, several years back, some students had brought bags of rice to the house. Christmas presents, they said. There was even a Christmas card. Dad was out of town, and Mom accepted the “gifts” on his behalf. On his return, Dad was furious. “While I attend ASUU meetings to discuss our fate, some numbskulls try to corrupt my name … with rice?” Mom probably just wanted food on the table. At that time things were tight. We were children, but we knew these things. Dad wasn’t having it; he dragged the bags of rice outside. The next day they were gone, carted away by other students.
My little heart ached for someone who could fight for me, bribe for me, Dad, Mom, anyone, but I began to see that this was not going to happen. Was I to watch my dream of attending King’s College burn to ashes without so much as a struggle?
I did what any child would do. I refused to leave the office. I yelled, I fought, I cried. Perhaps if I remained, the nightmare would be less real, perhaps things might change at the last minute. Perhaps some other boy would drop out, or fall sick, or die. Perhaps …
Mom had to drag me out. “It is over, let’s go!”
I was inconsolable. It wasn’t simply that I had lost King’s College. In what I spotted instantly as a scheme to punish me for my earlier haughtiness, I was not posted to my second choice, which I would gladly have accepted considering the circumstances, but rather sent to some obscure school I had never even heard of. I tried, I really tried, to visualise myself in the other place, FGC Ugwolawo, the paper said, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t get past the name, its crudeness on my tongue, and besides how could Mom ever tell her friends about it now? Surely not in the same tone as she might, had it been the prestigious King’s College. I pictured another woman, fat and dirty, tomato stains on her clothes, sweat streaming down her face and underarms, and I gave her the word Ugwolawo to say and she was glad, this other woman, glad to say the name, glad that her son had gotten in. I almost broke down a second time.
Shuffling out of the building, lagging behind Mom, the entire world seemed empty and dark. Empty of fun, promise, a solid future which, I believed, was the entitlement of every good boy. I looked at my mom, trudging on through the grass of the parking lot as though nothing monumental had happened, as though the world had not indeed shifted from underneath us. How could she be this calm at such a time? As we reached our car, a Peugeot 504, I said to her, “Mommy —”
Just then, there came a shout. “Stella! Mrs. Stella Egurefa!”
My mother turned around. “Oh … Mrs. Manobo, how’re you? What a pleasure. Long time.”
“Yes, indeed. So nice to see you here.”
I was smarting from the shock of Ugwolawo when the woman came over, stood close and began to touch my mom’s blouse in subtle appraisal. She was good looking, dark, with clear eyes. She wore large earrings which suited her, as did her voice when I heard it, soft, buttery, and even though she spoke fast like my Aunty Monrovia, I found myself listening to every word.
“What brings you here? I love this blouse, the fabric, where did you get it? New Benin Market? Oh, I don’t go there yet, honey, that place is way too rough for the likes of me. Oh yeah, we’re here for the same thing, my son and I. He got admission into, what’s the name again, yes, King’s College, that’s the one. Yours? Oh, what a shame. Anyway, I’m sure it’s equally a good school. They all are. Listen I’ve got to run, okay? It was nice seeing you, bye.” She blew me a kiss, and walked slowly away, like someone who knew the world was watching. Or perhaps it wasn’t slow at all, perhaps my mind froze it, knowing that in the days and weeks to come I would need help getting over my pains, and the help would be that slow walk, played over and over and over till I had no choice but to heal.
I wasn’t so young that I did not know what to watch, but at that age the strangest things held interest. Mrs. Manabo wore a pair of blue jeans. Not many women wore jeans, except those who had lived in America and just returned, like Mrs. Coker, and of course Mrs. Manobo. As time passed, even they would stop and switch back to dresses, like the many others, who were clearly not Mrs. Manobo. She wore her jeans proudly, walking suggestively, like a young university girl, over to a Mercedes Benz that sat, shiny and black as a cat. She slipped into the back seat, the owner’s corner, and as I rushed to trace her figure beyond the tinted windows, I noticed, pressed against the glass, a nose and, above it, a pair of eyes. Although startled, I was determined not to show it. They were watching me, those eyes, and so I stared back, hard, harder than I might have had I gotten King’s College. It took a reprimand from Mom to tear my attention away. “Komeno, Komeno, have you gone deaf? Get into the car this instant! I’ll leave you here, oh! I’m not joking oh!” It was probably in that instant that I was struck by a fever which would hold me down for three days and nights, shivering, disgusted by food, the only respite being the occasional smile spurred by the memory of her calling our crumbling wreck a car.
After a minor wrestling bout with the door, I managed to climb in, fuming because the eyes behind that glass had blossomed now into a full face. Through the window, I turned to glare at the owner of the eyes, whom I could no longer physically see, since the Benz had swivelled around, and so easily, so crushingly, overtaken us. It was Chuka Manobo, that punk. “Go and buy your own Mercedes Benz,” the scorn in his eyes seemed to say.
Mom and I remained silent for a while. “I’m sure they paid bribe, I’m sure,” I murmured.
Mom didn’t even ask who. She said, “Surebanker. But that’s not who we are. We have principles.”
That year, I stopped writing to Uncle in Lagos. It was bringing no gains. I had also stopped calling him that childish name, preferring instead the more accurate Uncle Oreva. The writing started when we were little, encouraged by Dad. The truth was we were manipulated into it because Uncle Oreva had no children of his own. The letters were Dad’s way of sharing us with him. Each time he was to travel to Lagos for Doctorate Assessments or ASUU meetings, he’d call us one by one. “Are you going to write to your Uncle in Lagos?”
My brothers continued to write, greeting my uncle and his wife, asking when next he was coming over, or whatever else it was they wrote in those stupid letters. I couldn’t care less. I dodged into the room at those times, denying to myself that all this had nothing to do with the BMX incident, three years old now, that something had not changed that day, some treaty between boy and man nullified. I felt betrayed and the aura I had always painted around him I now withdrew, replaced by a bland, vulgar background. He became to me like any other uncle, no different than Uncle Obaro who lived in our Boy’s Quarters and who, with a mirror and a pair of scissors, would lock himself in the toilet doing God knows what, or Uncle Festus who sometimes banged the toilet door at midnight, shouting “Out, out, I want to do something there!” Uncle Oreva was just an uncle who happened to live in Lagos.
So that morning when Dad announced that he was travelling to Lagos, to return the following day — Dad always let the household know when to expect him back — asking if we wished to write to our Uncle in Lagos, my reply was a firm no.
“You should actually,” Dad said. “You know why? Your Uncle in Lagos spent some time in Benue.” He then gazed at me as though his words were laden with some secret message.
“…and,” continued an exasperated Dad, “Benue is where your new school used to be. Before Kogi state was carved out of it, of course. Now Idah is capital. From what I hear, Ugwolawo is not far from Idah.”
His fluent use of those names made me cringe.
With perfect timing, like a dance troupe, the trio of my brothers emerged from the room, letters in hand. Adaigho had composed a song in my honour, and because he was the eldest, he didn’t need my permission now to sing it.
Agwo, Agwo Agwolawo
He shrugged his shoulders as he danced, flailing his arms, miming what appeared to be a dancing baboon. Emamode and Omo did not join in — even though I silently willed them to dare — but held their sides, and for a long while my ears were filled with the squeaky sound of their laughter.
The past week had been one of constant taunting: I was going to school in the bush. Were there desks and chairs there, or would I need to carry some from Benin? What, please, was the name of that village where the school was, again?
Agwo, Agwo Agwolawo
That was it. I’d had enough. Ugwolawo, Agwolawo, it was going to be my school. I marched into the room and, to spite them all, penned a letter to Uncle Oreva.
Later that evening, myself and Mom would pay Granddad a visit. In the Force, he was once posted to the North and was familiar with, as Mom put it, “all those places.” Granddad was tall and would surely have made a fine officer in his day. While his height had only diminished slightly, his face was riddled with deep wrinkles; a pair of glasses, round and thick, hung off the edge of his nose. I think his ears rather than his eyes were the problem, because he began regaling us with tales about someplace else called Bida. Mom tried to correct him several times, but he just wouldn’t listen. “Bida is a great place to go to school. You will not regret it, no way.” There was a fragile determination behind those thick glasses as he spoke, as if to say, “Don’t you dare, please!” and Mom had not the gall to seize the moment from him, so she made her peace and let him think he was helpful. If she couldn’t interrupt, who was I?
“Bida is a good place, very good, good people.”
Dad returned the next day. Uncle Oreva had replied to my letter. I tore it open and hid in the bathroom to read it. It asked how I was, congratulated me for doing so well in the Entrance examinations, adding that Ugwolawo was as suitable a school as any, with a decent academic record, though the last time he had gone by that road, many years ago now, the school sign board had collapsed, but all in all he was sure I would find it a great adventure. Then he veered off and began to ramble about Karma and me behaving myself, most of which to be honest I did not read, and then he signed his name. Your Uncle in Lagos.
I crumpled it and flushed it down the toilet.
A crumbling beauty, the school was much older than I had envisioned, with high formidable walls — the paint long faded — that would, in the coming years, be scaled with impunity, as borders are often crossed. It was like a country in that way, and in other ways too. The buildings being scattered across like afterthoughts, much land still lying undeveloped, the bushes from which all were carved out encircling, almost, it seemed, waiting to reclaim its due. The lawns were the best things, low and neat, with paths through which no student must ever be caught crossing. “No thoroughfare!” seniors always yelled. “No thoroughfare!” juniors learned to say. Still, it was hard to resist, and sometimes thoroughfares were made where none existed.
I no more recall how exactly I met Ismaila, (perhaps it was on the first day, on the field. After waving goodbye to Dad, I turned, and there he was) my first friend, who taught me Hausa, Me se nanka? and bunked with me that first year. His father was a pilot, had travelled the world over, flown through clouds, was terrified of nothing. Ismaila couldn’t stop talking about him. What about his mother? Married to a pilot, she had to be a beautiful air hostess, I reasoned aloud. Ismaila, in that deadpan manner that he had sometimes, replied that she was dead. I had no friends with dead parents then. Shaken, and somewhat intrigued, I said, “Sorry,” and then demanded to know how she died.
“I don’t know,” he said. “She was very sick, and then they rushed her to the hospital and then she died.”
And I thought, So that was it then, sensing the hand of adults in his ignorance. When did they ever tell us anything real?
Although Ismaila had said nothing to suggest a struggle, with my intelligence and keen powers of insight, I imagined that there probably was. A thing growing inside her, desirous of her body; she refused to surrender, but it wanted it so bad, in the end she said, “Take!” and left the body behind. I’d seen it before in the film Who Will Love My Children, in the part they started to show but then wisely didn’t, because the world would have cried too hard.
Afterwards, Ismaila smiled. “Hey, have you tried that thing they call Okpa?” And then we both ran to the tuk-shop to try the beans cake.
I had other friends. Jake, a half-German boy, who was miserable here, and Nathan, whose mother was a Customs Officer and who, as a result, had no shortage of imported provisions in his locker. Most of them, he boasted, were contraband seized at the border.
But Ismaila was different, slim — kpangala I called it, using home slang that I learned impressed them — with sharp handsome features and chocolate brown skin that shone, especially after Vaseline and rub and shine. As if to counter the one area in which he remained wholly in the dark, Ismaila knew things, things I didn’t, things he shouldn’t have known. Like rub and shine, the dark art of deceptive bathing, and how to converse with girls so that they giggled but remained slightly wary of him. He seemed the custodian of some substantial pot of knowledge, like the mat of gold that bush babies were said to have, and offer to those lucky enough to capture them, in exchange for their freedom. The pot of knowledge, like that mat, could never be confirmed per se, but it could exist in my suspicions, and it did. To put my position into clear perspective: the girls at this, or any, school were never wary of me.
There were also the disappearances.
Mostly at night, but sometimes during the day, Ismaila went off and no one could say where he was. It lasted an hour or two, and then he was back, smiling innocently as though nothing had happened. One night in prep, he came up to my window. “Psst, let me show you something.” He took me into the bush, through a narrow path. It was dark. The night was alive with groaning and creaking. Every now and then a gust of warm wind rushed against our necks, as if somewhere nearby a grotesque creature had exhaled. I heard a rustle of leaves and although I kept on walking obediently, I was frightened. Where was he leading me? I had heard strange stories about initiations that took place deep in the forest. Supposedly rusty razor blades were involved, and one was made to drink bitter concoctions. My worries ended when we emerged from the bush, and stood facing a block of houses that I recognised immediately as the Teachers’ Quarters. Ismaila’s interest was in a brown house. Larger than the other houses around it, it stood a distance away, with fresher paint and two cars parked in front instead of the usual one, and in some rare cases none. We gazed at it a long time. “That’s where she stays,” he said.
Stephanie. The girl he had a crush on. The Principal’s niece.
On our way back, walking in silence the whole time, we would take a different route. The school was empty at this hour. Students were at prep, a few teachers lurked around, visiting, but in groups it was easy to evade them. The guards were asleep. Ducking through the bursary offices and the admin block, we snuck into the lab. It was an old biology lab, where during the day we would go, delivering up lizards and frogs for dissection, standing by the door like lackeys because it remained, despite our immense contributions to science, out of bounds to junior students. At this hour, it was out of bounds to all. Ismaila brought my attention to a wet stain on the floor. Blood. It could be anybody’s, anything’s, but he knew two seniors had been here. He whispered their names. Samson Ekije. Ijeoma Mbonu. Legends, to us.
“Why blood?” I whispered. “He’s beating her?”
“No.” Smiling, Ismaila leaned forward and told me.
I couldn’t sleep the whole of that night. Glimpses of sex from all the movies I had watched, and the books I’d snuck and read, flashed before my eyes, but in usual fashion I understood now just how much truth had been stripped out. These adults, what else had they lied about? And just how had Ismaila known where to look for the truth? I wanted to know where this was, and more: why anyone else, knowing how bloody it was, would ever ever want to have sex.
“Because it’s sweet. Very sweet,” said Jake, the following morning, mimicking the motions.
“Kai!” Nathan said. “Not every time. You have to know what you’re doing.”
It was six a.m. We were on refuse collection detail, and were supposed to be combing the grounds around the dorm, picking debris.
“Have you done it before?” I asked Jake. This drew chuckles from him and Nathan.
“Shh!” a JS2 boy hissed behind us. “Shut up and work.” He strode away, all of us making faces at his back, but then another soon showed up, this time a JS3 boy, then another, and there were soon four boys standing before us. One of them had broad shoulders that gave him the appearance of a small, underdeveloped man. He stepped forward and snarled. “Idiots, busy talking when there’s work.” He pointed to Jake. “You! Bring your white nyash here. What’s your name?”
Jake told them.
“I remember you, uncircumcised prick.” They laughed.
“You don’t want to be circumcised?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know. My parents wanted it this way.”
“Your parents wanted it this way. Which one, your oyibo father or your prostitute mother?” They sniggered again.
“Just leave him alone,” Nathan said, the words barely out of his mouth when someone gave him a sound slap. It happened so suddenly that Jake flinched. A second boy stepped forward and there was a brief struggle, but ultimately he seized Nathan by the neck of his shirt, and both boys rained blows until they had him on his knees, shielding his head, crying, “Enough, enough, please.”
“From now on,” they announced to Jake, “your name is no longer Jake. It’s Bastard, you hear me?”
Jake stared back, his lips curled in defiance.
The one who first slapped Nathan told him, “Say it, say, My name is Bastard.”
Jake grit his teeth, and remained silent.
“It looks as if he wants trouble.”
“No, no,” Jake said, his hands in the air. “I was just, just clearing my throat.”
“Say it or we beat you like your boyfriend here!”
“My name is Bastard.”
After that incident we decided to get school fathers. The problem with getting school fathers was selecting the right one. It had to be someone strong, preferably feared, not too greedy, most importantly someone not already taken. I chose a senior called Jossy. Nobody wanted him, it seemed, but he was perfectly useful. Light skinned with a mole near his mouth, Jossy was a Warri boy, and I was sort of from Warri, sort of, so I acted sharp and fetched water for his bath twice. He accepted and it was done. From then on, every day after class, I would take his uniforms, which always reeked of cigarettes, soak them in Blue, and, when they were dry, press them with a coal iron. Nathan pretty much paid the same price to a senior called Chuba, except he fetched bath water morning and evening, which still was much better than getting beat up.
Try as he did, Jake couldn’t get a school father. No one would do it. “Let me help,” offered Ismaila, who didn’t have one either, famously declaring that he could do without. Something had changed about him. He seemed larger somehow, carried himself like he was something now. Perhaps he had had sex, and bled too.
“How?” Nathan asked.
“I could be your school father,” Ismaila said to Jake, who let out a long hiss.
But I was angrier than Jake. “And what will you say when a JS2 boy comes to whip both of you?”
Ismaila laughed. “I’ll say try it, try it first and see what happens.”
“The only reason they don’t hurt you is because they don’t see you enough and the only reason that is is because you’re always off hiding in the bush, dreaming of your girl.”
Ismaila rushed me to the wall, his hand over my mouth. “Shh! That’s between us. I don’t want anyone eyeing my girl.”
Our little spat saw to it that we did not speak for days. I kept company with Nathan and Jake. Our recent challenges had seen us draw closer, and in those few days for the first time I felt a semblance of stability, filled with a hopeful expectation that all my days would be so. But there was always some uproar or other, and when a landmine explodes, the shrapnel is what hits those standing afar. On our way back from class, we ran into a group of boys gathered around, watching some spectacle. We were surprised to see the JS3 boy, the broad shouldered one who had slapped Nathan. He was stripped naked, tied, and was being whipped, it was said, for having the audacity to fight and almost beat up, of all people, an SS1 boy. Twenty-four hard lashes, and using the head of a belt. A warmth flooded inside me. I wanted it to be Ismaila next.
“He’s a big fool,” Jake said. “He’s always been a fool. Too proud. It’s only because of you I talk to him.”
“He feels he knows too much,” I said. And out of nowhere, “All because his mother died, he feels he owns the world.”
“Well,” Nathan said, “who wants some garri and milk, who wants some G4?”
They had both heard me, but had chosen to not address that last remark. They knew I had only meant it in the most innocent and natural way one comes to envy friends, thinking, rightly, that they ought not possess everything. Except I wanted him stripped, humiliated, whipped, brought down in a flurry of punches as Nathan was.
One early evening that very week, a group of seniors would storm our dormitory, and not those fellow juniors who were senior to us, but actual senior seniors. Towering over us, their muscles beneath white singlets invoking the fiercest envy and fear, they came breezing through the room, strutting in the manner of military inspectors. It was indeed an inspection. A pre-Saturday inspection, a preparation meant to weed out those responsible for our failure to win Best House. Seven of them walked by, like hunting dogs, looking this way and that, eyes trained to spot anomalies such as shirts improperly hung, bed sheets with creases. God save you if it was yours. They were near done when suddenly one of them stopped. He sniffed in the air. “There is something smelling somehow here.” The search started off mild, more sniffing, people looking behind their backs, lifting clothes. Soon they were turning over mattresses, going under beds, demanding lockers be opened. (Nathan’s contraband was declared contraband and confiscated.)
Yet none were able to locate the source of the odour.
Was there even actually a smell? Was this another ruse to instill fear in young hearts? I couldn’t smell anything myself, but I was a junior and our sense of smell, as cleanliness, was unreliable, highly biased. Lurking around, one of the seniors paused beside Ismaila and asked him if he could smell something. Ismaila, confident as ever, replied that he could. “Smells like shit.”
“Exactly!” That confirmation, I believe, inspired the seniors to devise the novel idea, which they soon announced to us. “Everybody, fall out, single file, right now!”
There was a commotion as we fell into a straight line. The seniors were gods, their words law unto us boys. And to hear one of them then say, “Now begin to off your clothes, everything. Now, now, fast! You, stand here. When it is your turn, you hear me, you bend there, use your hands, open your nyansh wide,” it was as if God himself had spoken. I was trembling, we all were, but we could do nothing but ease away from our shorts, all thirty or so of us. We could do nothing but, one after the other, go and bend over.
Nathan was third on the line, then Jake, Ismaila and me. When it got to Nathan’s turn I felt the tiniest tremor in my chest. His bending was awkward, shy. His feet were planted apart all right, but his stomach prevented him from bending further. We had just had dinner and he had eaten two plates, his and Jake’s, the latter complaining about being served beans and tea. Nathan executed his strange bend and with much strain was able to bring his hands all the way back to his buttocks to pry the cheeks apart. The seniors took a look; we all took a look, afraid and yet intrigued. We were going to show to others a part of ourselves that we had not seen for ourselves. It was like revealing a secret that we did not know. When Nathan’s anus came into view, the shadow of it at least, there was nothing memorable, just a tiny pink flash and a peculiar collection of hairs surrounding like a circle of guards. They pushed him along. “Next!”
I feared for Jake. Jake, who already had much to answer for. But his turn came and, but for some lewd jokes about his foreskin, he went through as well. As he left, he received a smack on the buttocks by one of the seniors, a hard thwack that elicited no laughter.
It was down to just ten of us. Ismaila was to go next, then me, then eight other shivering boys. With a jaunty shake of his head, Ismaila had stepped forward when a voice from outside cried, “We’ve found it!” Apparently, some idiot, too lazy to make it to the pit latrines, had done his business in a bag and left it by the dorm window. Jake was dispatched to dispose of the bag while those of us yet to reveal our unknown secrets clutched our chests, letting out sighs of relief. It was like attending one’s own execution and being saved by a late stay. A wave of elation swept through our lean naked bodies such that I leaned forward and whispered to Ismaila, “I almost thought it was you.” Standing behind him the odour had seemed strong.
He found this hilarious, and together, naked, arms around each other, we laughed. What was strange was that in that moment I gave no thought to how I came to be without clothes, or about the girl in the principal’s house, or Ismaila and my growing envy. I was simply glad to not have to bend and open my buttocks for anyone. I was glad it was over.
As the seniors prepared to leave, the one whose bony face, come to think of it, resembled a dog’s, decided to carry out one last round of sniffing. To our surprise, he pronounced the smell still very much around. We were ordered back in line. Quick! Now, now!
As Ismaila stepped forward, I felt weak in the knees. My penis shrank. Joy had beaten me hollow, a space now inhabited wholly by terror. Ismaila turned and cast me a look. I noticed two separate streams of sweat run down his face. With a slow hesitant arch, he bent over, and there was a sense that he was expecting something to happen, another paper bag, perhaps, discovered outside. No such luck. As soon as he spread open his buttocks, pandemonium broke out. Everyone covered their noses.
The rest happened quickly. Switches appeared from nowhere, and the seniors began flogging him. A hundred hands, it seemed, went up in the air and came down hard upon Ismaila’s chocolate brown back. They observed no rhythm whatsoever, as did his screams. The question they kept asking over and over was that if he knew he was the one why for the love of God hadn’t he just gone out and corrected his mistake, why wait to be caught? From where I stood, not ten feet away, still naked, watching the beating of my first friend, the impression was that they didn’t want to hurt him. They had to. And what went through my mind then (so important it is to recall these details) was not only that he deserved it, but that somehow so did I.
Did this guilt arise from having not risen to his aid, spurred by a child’s belief that had I done so, I might somehow have prevailed against eight seniors? And why at that moment did I feel so much like taking a pen and writing a letter? Why did I so suddenly, so furiously, yearn for the quiet solitude in which I had collected, many times before, my thoughts and presented them, like gifts of paper boats and birds, to my Uncle Oreva? Why did I think of him at all? Why did I think of home?
I knew the answer. I was staring at the answer.
I did not immediately begin. Another incident would force my hand as Ismaila forced the hand of those seniors on that fateful evening, or so I chose to remember it. Ismaila was no longer himself after that night. Who could blame him? He was named Stinko, a name which gladly entered into every mouth, and in turn every sentence. Overnight, he became the most popular junior boy in school, relieving Jake, who could not be happier. Ismaila even returned to his usual size and could often be seen walking down the paths between classroom block and the dorm, his arms at his sides, shoulders stooped. We seldom spoke. Perhaps it would be accurate to say I avoided him; perhaps he did most of the avoiding, but the truth is when we had occasion to come face to face, he was too eager to duck into some corner, was always skunking off on his own, or with either one of the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, day students to whom absolutely no one ever spoke, seeing as they were day students, and second, like most twins, were clearly more interested in being with each other.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Jossy, who so far had proved an excellent school father. He never bothered me beyond the customary services I rendered to him. Rather, he gave me more than I could expect. He found a way to receive extra portions from the dining hall and after eating he would take me to the section for seniors where I would have my fill. One evening, after eating, he called me into a corner and said to me, “Your box, make sure to move it out of the box room. Don’t wait till tomorrow. Do it this night. Take it and slide it under your bed.”
I didn’t understand. Then again there was much I didn’t understand about Jossy, and perhaps I didn’t have to. Perhaps we didn’t have to understand anything here. As Nathan would say, “We just need to get what we can from them. We need to survive.” I did as I was told. I went up to Nathan and Jake and, thankful for the news, they too did as they were told. But when I approached Ismaila, shooing away some boys who were trailing him, singing, “Stinko, Stinko,” he growled at me. “Leave me alone. Haven’t you done enough already?”
After prep that night, we returned to discover that the box room had been raided. Clothes and empty tins lay strewn on the dormitory floor as boxes were cracked open and some of them, especially the Echolac ones, had been carted away whole. Among the unlucky was, of course, Ismaila. His was one of those taken, to be broken into in a calm, conducive space, its contents divided carefully amongst the thieves. His stare, when his eyes met mine, was an indictment. It named me if not the overall mastermind then at least one of the partakers.
The very next morning I pulled out a sheet of paper and scribbled a letter to my parents.
Inside, I made a list of all the things that had happened in the school since I started there. I asked to be withdrawn and placed in a more civilized school, a day school, like the one my brother Adaigho attended. I cared nothing for shame. The day I posted the letter, a junior boy was beaten up for daring to recognise his watch, a birthday gift from his mother, on the wrist of a senior, and the following day I wrote another letter, bringing my parents up to speed. I posted letters home every day for two weeks, each containing vivid descriptions of atrocities that would surely have caught the interest of any serious officer of the law, or any parent.
By the end of the two weeks I had received not one reply. Not one. At first I thought my letters had not made it to the address. But that could not explain why they had not sent me any letters of their own. Not even a note. Meanwhile my friends and classmates received letters every day. One conclusion alone was left to me: I was not cared for, not truly; not trusted enough to be believed; not loved.
Time passed (a week, two weeks, three) and gradually the unimaginable happened. I accepted the silence, accepted the fighting, the stealing. I even came to enjoy the cold of those five a.m. mornings, stepping into the fog, into a welcoming darkness where I was not just some worthless junior picking cartons of cornflakes filled with shit, but an unknown champion, living in the now, a listener of bush babies who knew that, more important than any maxim, any scripture, was the fact that he was not alone here. I missed my family, the safety of being amongst them, but I learned that I could find that elsewhere and rely on it, that warm safety that came from numbers, and was abundant even in the prisons.
First term exams began and were quickly ended. English had posed no difficulty. Mathematics and biology, however, had proved a pleasant surprise, with Nathan teaching Jake and I, right there in the hall, without rehearsals, how to spy, how to keep concealed an open textbook with minimal flinching, how to share scripts by distracting invigilators whilst switching seats. We looked forward to topping the class.
A message finally arrived after exams had concluded, on a Saturday morning when students were getting their bags ready and Frogface, our housemaster, was taking his weekly prisoner. A dark, stocky man with bulgy eyes and a thick, short neck, Frogface frequented the dorms, usually at dawn when we were still taking our baths, and always he found some reason or other to accost a boy by his penis. He either threatened to take him to the girls’ dorm so that they could see what he was hiding, or to the principal’s office, in which case an offence had earlier been committed, the punishment escaped. It was all fun though, as Frogface always released his “prisoner” before reaching the dormitory gates. On this day, he had Jake in his grip. “Your thing, they must see it in the girls’ dorm.” Laughter broke out as Jake was being dragged away, squirming, and cheers soon after as he ran back, naked, looking every bit like an escaped prisoner. Sometime during the mayhem, just as I pondered the rationale of writing another letter, so close to vacation, confessing this time my change of heart, that I was no longer to be moved, that I could indeed survive here, even better, excel, one of the twins, Kehinde I think, or Taiwo, shuffled up to me. He looked me straight in the eyes. I wondered what he was doing in the dorm on a Saturday. I smiled at him, but he did not smile back. “Someone is here for you. Admin block.” It was all he said. No names. Just someone.
I found Uncle Oreva peering at the notice board, reading the memos stuck to it, most of them outdated. He took a few steps towards me and gathered me in his arms in a surprising and uncomfortable embrace and he mumbled something which struck me so much because there was not among them those cherished words of his, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” which he had flattened and made meaningless, and which he uttered again and again like they were part of him, and something made me look up into his face, and I don’t know how I knew, the moment I saw his eyes, but it came home to me instantly that there had been a death.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said finally, much too late to bring me any calm.
On the drive home, I watched the trees, tall ones, short ones. The outline of the forest appeared like a shadow of undulating hills. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. I kept seeing things, curious furry shapes, creatures hidden inside the bushes, poking their heads out, disappearing when I stared too hard. But they were there, I knew they were, watching the whole way. Three trees would run behind us with almost levitating speed, some faster, others deeper in the bushes slower, watching us with a bold but curious wonder. It was them I latched onto, imagining them as posts to which my invisible thread was harnessed, such that no matter how fast, how far I went, I could always swing back, could always return. But I went on and on and on, wishing, but failing to return.
I knew I was responsible. Whoever had died, it was my fault. It was me, my demands, that worsened an ailment under control; my eager descent into malpractice; my silent celebration of theft; the gradual undefended loss of myself. My sins had colluded to cost me everything. One question burned in my chest. Why me? Why this Karma, this flaming sword, this angel devoid of forgiveness, why had it risen from deep in the past to chastise me? Why me?
Was it because I had not been mortified enough? Had I too uncouthly asked questions about death, was that why? The other night, standing by, watching Ismaila take blows and blame, it really should have been me. He was guilty. But so was I. If he had only stood behind me that night he might still have been Ismaila, not Stinko. I would have been Stinko.
Watching the forests, with an air of sombreness and mourning, I made my negotiations with God. It seemed the express intention of the wind to break trees. Did they feel as I did, standing as we did on the assembly ground, holding hands, together and yet afraid of that very togetherness? When an old tree tilted and fell, dead, did they mourn, or did they simply continue as before? Who would I find absent when I arrived home? Father, Mother?
Let it not be my mother, please, because, I said to myself, Father is stronger. But I know now that this is not true, and that it was really because if Father died it would hurt less, and thus not be Karma, but simply death, an accident, not something I had set in motion.
“You can sleep if you want,” Uncle Oreva said.
How can I? I wanted to snap at him. With his face appearing everywhere like that, in the woods, on the faces of animals, in between the trees, ducking, and when the light began to retreat, up in the sky like a fated moon.
Sometimes I am tempted to believe that I was asleep and dreaming, but perhaps I wasn’t. Perhaps the face did follow me even to the house, for when we arrived, I stepped out of the car and there it was, planted insecurely upon my father’s neck, his body trembling, tears flowing as he held me for a long time, speaking no words. And I couldn’t help it that the question would cross my mind, which was to fuck me up for years to come. What had he done to deserve this? What had Father done? But boys my age were never told such things.
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