Sixteen thousand applications received by the new school; two thousand selected to write the entrance exams; three hundred ten-year-olds invited for the admission interview; me finally getting my turn after waiting six hours. These are the numbers I remember.
Three of us at my primary school wait four months for the list of successful applicants to be released. We argue who’s most likely to win the bet money from an initial pool of twenty-one candidates who wrote the exams. My nose gets bloodied for saying the only girl in the group, skinny Jessica Wambi, isn’t smart enough to make it. My mother sneers at me when she learns it’s a girl that beat me up.
The University of Port Harcourt Demonstration Secondary School, UDSS, offers provisional admission to one hundred and twelve candidates to form its first batch of students. Tears sting my eyes when I don’t see my name in the list published in Daily Tide. My mother comes over to the table by the window of our parlour, her left hand holding her veil in place. With her right, she takes hold of my webbed fingers, points at my name in the middle of the list, Se anye mi, See it here. Number 062, Seno LongJohn.
I would go over that moment a thousand times in my mind.
A thousand times I would want to feel again the intense joy I couldn’t describe but will never forget; the relief that flowed out of me like air from a balloon, how I jumped up to give my mother a crushing hug, tears wetting her blouse.
I remember going over that page, breathing every word, taking in the names of those who, like me, had been deemed worthy. I saw Jessica Wambi’s name and resented having to share the bet money with her. I made a note of the commencement date: 22nd November, 1982. It’s been three decades, but I don’t need to look it up to see the ‘Mon’ on the wall calendar where I marked my first day of secondary school.
I couldn’t sleep the night before the first day.
The leaking tap in our backyard, under which we’d placed a basin, dripped water in a random pattern that tortured me as I tried to guess when the next drop would go plop.
A cloud of ghosts danced on the ceiling of my room. I played with them such games as a preteen boy would play with ghosts while constantly checking the digital Seiko watch Mum had given me for my tenth birthday. I asked them who among the other one hundred and eleven students would be in my class. Would the two named Ifeanyi and Nkem Peterside, whom I suspected were twins, be there? Would they be my friends? I already knew who I wouldn’t be friends with — Jessica Wambi.
I got up at five o’clock, showered and put on my new uniform — white with a single thin blue stripe running along the sides of the shorts. Food did cross my mind, but only because I imagined I would throw up if Mum forced me to eat. She didn’t.
She did insist though that I carry my suitcase myself. She’d bought it just that weekend, a brown Echolac made of hard plastic. It smelled of newness and used a number combination.
Can you guess the number I’ve set to open it? I asked.
She shook her head.
She gave me a little smile. Ame nam afon. You’ve done well.
The smile made my eyes moist. Since the fire that burned her face, the same fire that fused together the three middle fingers on both my hands, she’d taken to wearing a veil and all but stopped smiling. I hugged her again just so I could shut my eyes tight and not cry.
We got to Dodo Motor Park before seven o’clock. The day had a tinge of harmattan in it. Nothing obvious like misty skies, just that slight chill in the air that said in thirty-three days it would be Christmas; in forty a new year.
The touts hassled us, the way they hassled everybody else, barking Port Harcourt, Benin, Calabar, Lagos and the names of other cities. Mum put a firm hand up and told them she wanted to charter a taxi to Choba where the University had its main campus.
A tout suggested we go with a nearly filled bus to Port Harcourt, then charter a taxi there to Choba.
Mum shook her head.
I whispered to her that I thought we should go with the tout’s idea.
She said making the seventy-kilometre trip to Port Harcourt in a bus before looking for a taxi to take us the remaining thirty kilometres to Choba would take more time. She explained that the touts were reluctant to arrange a charter service because they got commissions on the number of passengers they attracted to a bus or taxi. A Peugeot 504 could take four in the back and two more in the front passenger seat, giving them a headcount of six. If they merely arranged a charter service, they would only be paid for the two of us.
The tout reluctantly arranged a 504 for us. The car leaned a bit to the left side and the faded blue paint looked uneven, like something a kid had done with crayon.
Mum shook her head again. I want a better car, she said.
A stocky man, who looked like he might be pregnant, abandoned a breakfast of steaming ekoki, cornmeal, wiped his hands on his trousers and hurried out of the drivers’ shack. He came over to us and bragged about how his car made the six-hundred-kilometre trip to Lagos on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and returned to Dodo on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He said as a Christian car he allowed the taxi to rest on Sundays.
As a Christian woman, Mum said, I allow you to rest today. I will go with another taxi.
Woman, this park is not your house. We follow turn by turn here.
Since this park is your house, don’t you people treat visitors well in your house?
The stocky man sneered. If you won’t enter this motor, just go, ugly witch.
In her deepest hospital matron voice, made rough by years of shouting warnings to nurses and uncooperative patients alike, Mum yelled, YOU’RE MAD! KEEP TRYING ME. I WILL SOON JOIN MY WITCHCRAFT WITH YOUR MADNESS!
Some other drivers came around and tried to reason with the stocky man. They told him a charter customer had the right to choose the taxi she would pay for. He wouldn’t listen. He and Mum kept shouting nasty things at each other until his mates dragged him away.
I felt sorry that Mum got into an altercation with the stocky man. I didn’t blame her though. Since my father’s disappearance a couple of years earlier, she’d often said that people took delight in taking advantage of women they thought wouldn’t have anyone to step forward for them. She had to be extra tough, never back down. I wished I could step forward for her, but I only had to think of Jessica Wambi to remember I still needed time to be ready.
We were shown another 504. This one stood level and the metallic grey paint still shone.
Mum walked around it, looked at the tyres and talked to its driver, a tall man with thick shoulders. He smiled easily and spoke with a rather feminine voice. Mum quickly agreed to a costly fare and we set off.
The highway from Dodo to Port Harcourt had a new layer of tar and the tall man drove fast and smooth. Mum sat in front with him and they talked, but the breeze made so much noise around us I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I rolled up my window and settled back.
I tried to imagine the classrooms in UDSS. What kind of blackboards would they have? What would the air smell like? What sounds would I hear in the school compound? What sports would they have — football, boxing, taekwondo? I needed something where my fused fingers would be an advantage.
I’d heard that UDSS had been designed in the USA and that an Italian company had been given the contract to build the school somewhere quiet, though still within the Uniport campus. The classroom and dormitory furniture would come from the UK and even the teachers would either be imported from overseas or they would be Nigerians who had trained and lived abroad for years.
Even at age ten, I knew some of what I’d heard had to be lies. But which part, that I didn’t know.
I also didn’t know how to feel about showing up at UDSS with Mum. Would the other kids have their parents with them too, or would I be the unforgettable baby brought by his mother on the first day of school? I half-wished I’d asked Jessica Wambi if she would be going with her father.
Over and over I thought about these things while looking out the window and enjoying the speed at which we were moving.
If I leaned forward a bit, I could see the dashboard from the back. The driver drove at a steady one hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. The radio, tuned to Radio Rivers 2, FM Stereo, played some Bongos Ikwue, Fela, and Cool and the Gang. We were sailing on air with the tarred road beneath us just a route to follow.
At first we passed some villages and farmers with plantains and bananas tied to the back of their motorcycles. Then the Niger Delta spread out in a vegetation of thick rainforest green.
I guess the monotony wore me down and I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I checked my Seiko. 8:14 a.m. I looked out the window, hoping the scenery would be different. Nothing had changed, except for the darkening skies. It looked as if it might rain. But then the skies would brighten up again. So it went in the Niger Delta. The skies could dry you or soak you. Sometimes they did both at the same time and the older people would say it signalled the birth of a lion cub in the forest.
Mum and the driver were no longer talking. The sound from the radio became unclear and the driver turned it off.
We had just gone past a milestone that read ‘31 KM to PH’ when the car began slowing down. At first I thought the driver wanted to stop to pee or something. But it soon became clear the car had gone off and he couldn’t restart it.
He pulled over to the gravel shoulder and drew up the handbrake.
What’s wrong? Mum asked.
I don’t know, the driver mumbled. He reached under the steering wheel to pull the thing that opened the bonnet. He and Mum got out at the same time. As he raised the bonnet, I saw steam rising.
I looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere. After about fifteen minutes, a car sped towards us from the Port Harcourt end of the road. Our driver tried to flag it down, but it simply zoomed by.
That pattern played out time after time, no matter which direction a passing car came from.
The driver got a big spanner out of the boot and tinkered about under the bonnet.
At nine o’clock I went to see what progress he’d made. I’d barely taken a glance when Mum said, Go sit inside.
I went back inside the car.
9:30 a.m. We were still there, driver still tinkering.
Just before ten o’clock he came back inside and tried to start the car. Nothing.
At noon my heart began to race. Without me even realising it, tears were rolling down my cheeks. No wailing, not even sobbing, just the tears coming down as if my eyes had become leaking taps. Still, Mum must have sensed it somehow because she came over then and gave me a hard, cold stare.
Why are you crying?
I looked away.
Can’t you see I’m doing everything I can here?
I still didn’t say anything.
Is this how you’re going to behave in secondary school, the slightest thing, you cry?
I tried to speak but just couldn’t. My heart beat so fast it felt like I’d been in a race.
Is today the first day that you’re realising things don’t always work out the way we want?
I had nothing to say to that. But somehow the rising sound of her voice unlocked the taps and the tears really came pouring out.
Unbelievable, Mum said. What do you want me to do?
I don’t know, I finally said, trying to ignore my thumping heart. I just want to get to school.
That annoyed her. She reached out and raised my chin. Is it my fault that the car broke down?
Of course I knew the answer to that. I wanted to tell her no, it’s not your fault. I wanted to apologise, but I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even meet her gaze. I didn’t speak because I thought anything I said would only make her angrier.
She let my chin droop and hurried away, back to the front of the car, back to where the driver stood bent over, still busying himself under the bonnet.
The next thing, she and the driver were yelling at each other. As they yelled, my heartbeat pounded in my ears. The shouting and my heartbeat became deafening until I couldn’t separate one from the other and I jumped out of the car just in time to see the driver hit my mother with the big spanner. She fell to the ground and for a moment I didn’t know what to do: go to her or jump at the driver? But he stood there glaring over her, like a heavyweight boxer who’d just knocked down an opponent, spanner still tight in his grip.
I went to my mother and helped her up. Other than a cut on her left ear, she seemed to be all right.
We left my suitcase behind and began walking towards Port Harcourt. We walked for maybe six or seven kilometres and then my mother said she needed to lie down. We were both too tired to take another step. Still, none of the passing cars stopped to help. And the skies chose to soak us.
At about five o’clock, a farmer on a motorcycle coming from the Port Harcourt end stopped to help us, and we went with him to his family compound in his village.
Seventy-two hours in the farmer’s village.
Nine concoctions fed to my mother in that time to break her fever.
Five relatives camped outside our house when we eventually make our way back home.
The police arresting thirteen drivers and the chairman of the Dodo Motor Park Drivers Union and still holding on to them even after the tall man with thick shoulders surrenders.
Fifteen wives and forty-seven children kneeling outside our home, wailing and begging my mother to forgive and forget while the skies soak and dry them for three days.
Twenty-five thousand naira offered as compensation by the Drivers Union at a time when one naira equals one US dollar and eighty-one cents. Anger welling up in me when my mother rejects the money, insisting that when she says the tall driver should pay for his crime she doesn’t mean money, because ukpono akan okuk.
Me showing up at UDSS a week late, my mother having to get down on her knees so my spot can be given back to me; and me surprised to find that though there’s a Fine Arts teacher, a Nigerian, who has returned from the US to teach there, nothing else is like I’d heard it would be. The school buildings are the same as those in Dodo; there’s a football field in the centre and the only boxing we do is that we students arrange by ourselves when no teacher is around to watch.
I will have a hundred nightmares about that day on the Dodo-Port Harcourt Highway. In each one, I’m the one who gets knocked down by the tall driver with thick shoulders.
I will never feel at ease at UDSS. Ifeanyi and Nkem Peterside, half-brother and half-sister, will be just the same to me as the other twenty-five students in our class, 1C. To my surprise, Jessica Wambi, class monitor of 1A and captain of the handball team, becomes my pal and brings me chocolate and cake when no one is looking.
I dread every trip to school and back home. I feel worthless. And even though I excel in boxing, getting so good that even boys who are taller and bigger are afraid to take me on, I remain only an average student. In the first term UDSS experiments with a system where no hierarchical positions are awarded after exams — either you pass or you don’t. Everybody passes. Parents are unhappy with the experiment, and for the second and third terms I place sixteenth and seventeenth respectively in my class. Jessica comes first in her class both times.
After only one year — in which time the school brings in more foreign-trained teachers and sophisticated equipment for its laboratories — and even after Jessica pleads for me to stay, I feel UDSS has taught me all it would ever teach me. I feel ready to step forward for my mother. So, I tell her I would rather attend a school closer to home. And when she argues that I’m giving up a school that I fought hard for, a school with a higher standard than most, a school that can help set a richer course for my life, I remind her that ukpono akan okuk, dignity is greater than money.