“Deboy, that our headmaster’s son is a big liar! There is no way anybody will give children eggs and tea. I wonder what adults feed on, elephants?” Pako asked with sarcasm as we left for home that day.
Since the boy would not stop talking about going to Federal Government College, two weeks later Pako nicknamed him Fedra Gorment. The alias caught on like fire on dry grass, we soon forgot he was called Ajebi.
Pako was notorious for nicknaming pupils, even teachers. I remember when he first called our headmaster, King Pharaoh. This was after the headmaster taught us a marching song when he first arrived; telling us it was in the tradition of British education. The headmaster ordered us not to walk silently to class anymore, we had to sing and swing our arms swiftly. He started singing at the top of his old voice in front of us.
O king Pharaoh leeet my people go
To deh promised land”
He marched up and down like a goat attacked by soldier ants: all the while telling us to march smartly like British pupils. We chuckled and covered our mouths with our tiny hands. Whenever our headmaster wanted to teach us new things he did not care if we laughed or listened. When it was time for us to repeat what he taught us, and we started stuttering like idiots, his cane would remind us of our laughter and inattention. So we laughed but learnt.
Fedra Gorment told us that the things his father was teaching us were already practiced in city primary schools. And Pako told him we had our ways of doing things that he too did not know and reminded him of his inability to cut grass with a cutlass or even sweep a path clean because he had grown up in the city. Fedra Gorment did not even know how to split the bamboo used in fencing out goats from our school garden. When he tied bamboo fences they fell apart as if they were sticks gathered by a small girl. Even ordinary ikekonogbo, the simplest acrobatic stunt we all executed by holding a branch of a low tree, looping our legs through our hands and landing on both feet without falling, seemed magical to Fedra Gorment.
“Ajebi, I am sure this is the only place you will have to tie fence and cut grass, because in Federal Government College laborers cut grass for you and the fences are made of cement-blocks and barbwire,” Pako had said one day and we all fell on the freshly cut grass, laughing. Fedra Gorment turned red with anger and embarrassment. He went to his father’s office until recess was over.
We became suspicious of Fedra Gorment’s city tales when one day he started telling us stories from his books without pictures. Every storybook we had came with pictures. Primary Two Reader had David and Mr. Dauda driving a lorry from Ibadan to Lagos. Primary Three Reader had Mr. Giwa the trader standing in front of his store, and our own Primary Six Reader had the dubious Mr. Ali selling ashes instead of sugar to strangers. So where did Fedra Gorment get his two small books called Eze Goes To School and Chike And The River?
Fedra Gorment spun story after story from the books, claiming that his elder brother in St. John Bosco College, where white men and Indians were teachers, told him these stories. Though we did not believe him, the tales were interesting. That was until the day the albino stepped on a sore by narrating to us the story of a boy whose father was killed by a leopard in a thick forest. The story sounded similar to how a snake killed Pako’s father. From then on, Pako warned me to avoid the headmaster’s son for good.
“Very soon he will tell us he eats rice everyday and plays football with white children,” Pako grabbed my hand and dragged me away from Fedra Gorment’s court.
We left behind other gullible pupils whom Fedra Gorment had caught under his spell. I was not too enthusiastic to leave with Pako; I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear Fedra Gorment’s unfolding strand of tales about “kindergarten and private teachers.” I could hear Fedra Gorment’s whiny voice, “It is not like your cassava and yam school here, we wore uniforms when I attended kindergarten.” The wind took his voice, and I lost the heart of the matter.
Just as Pako predicted I began to yearn for Fedra Gorment’s outside and unreachable world, beyond my village. I could not get his tales off my poor head. I started thinking of the places he had named, places where I didn’t have to struggle to speak the English language. Some beautiful city names I had never heard of until he came to Uwessan Primary School, names like Kano city, Port Harcourt and Lagos. I began daydreaming of going to grammar school in a big city, where students did not have to cut the grass and have sores on their palms. I yearned to sleep on a Vono bed with a foam mattress instead of the hard mud bed in my mother’s hut. Fedra Gorment said some beds had another bed on top. He called it “double bunker”, and I could not imagine a bed on top of another bed. When I started dreaming of school that had white men as teachers, I knew I had gone too far and I stopped dreaming. But I secretly
prayed for the day Pako would not come to school, so I could ask Fedra Gorment more questions about city life. With Pako around, I couldn’t risk associating myself with the headmaster’s son..
Luckily, I did not have to wait long before I had the chance to ask Fedra Gorment more questions. Pako’s mother took ill and he had to stay at home and run errands for her. I was elated when he said I should inform the teacher that he, Pako, was the one down with malaria. I couldn’t wait for our first recess, which was around 10.30am. I was so carried away formulating questions to ask Fedra Gorment that when the teacher called my name from his big blue register, I did not hear him to respond “Present, sah!”
As the recess bell went off from the headmaster’s verandah, I cornered Fedra Gorment by the golden-bell flower. I wasted no time in asking him questions.
“Ajebi, how can I enter Federal Government College in the city?” I asked.
“You Deboy, enter Federal Government College? What has this world become? How can you go to school in the city when you still eat with your bare fingers?” He bared his pinkish gum and yellowish teeth in laughter and started to walk away.
I was not angry. I ran after him. He could laugh all he wanted: he who must shit in the night does not mind the darkness, I reminded myself.
“I know how to use fork and spoon - I just prefer to use my fingers,” I said.
“Na lie!” My lying was obvious to him, “Do you know how to eat Rbelle with fork and spoon? Have you ever tasted fried egg and beans since you were born?” He gave me a look that made me feel like a cockroach that had wandered into his plate of fried eggs.
“What is Rbelle?” I gave up my lie.
“You see what I mean…Rbelle means rice and beans. You are a proper villager Deboy, true true!”
I ignored his insult one more time as he squinted and black dots saturated his face. I knew he would never say such things in front of Pako. Pako would re-arrange his face with blows, damning the consequences.
“I will learn. My mother has forks and spoons we use every Christmas. I will take one egg from my grandmother’s chicken and cook it to learn,” I was almost pleading.
“Ok, first thing first. You need to fill an enrollment form for the West Africa Common Entrance exam and choose any Federal Government College you like. If you pass the common entrance, which I doubt you will, you will go through oral interview conducted in English. Finish!” He explained with an impatient flourish.
“But Annunciation Catholic College doesn’t take you through all that long process,” I told him about a college not too far from our village.
“That is why it is not called Federal Government College!” He looked at me, angry.
He was not happy at my stupid observation, which seemed to cast a doubt on his assertions.
He walked away from me as if I had a contagious disease. That night I did not have my recurrent dream of attending any Federal Government College or drinking a bottle of Coke all by myself. As my father would say, a poor man should tread with care where rich men dance.
After midterm I asked Pako what city college he would like to attend when we finished Primary Six. His look seemed to be saying, “I told you to stay away from that liar.”
“I am not going to any yeye city school; I want to be a soldier. I would whip people on the road and shoot that dirty man that killed my father,” Pako said and twisted his mouth.
We’d heard that Nigerian soldiers whip people at bus stops and the post office in towns and big cities. We heard they had lots of power, and nobody talked to soldiers anyhow. Our headmaster said they are the ones ruling the country.
“I don’t like soldiers,” I said, “and I want to go to a big city and see electricity instead of kerosene lanterns. I want to watch television, and I want to drink tea in the morning before I go to class. I want to see city girls that wear trousers like the ones Fedra Gorment talked about.” I reeled out my reasons as if Pako was a benefactor who would grant my wish.
“I told you to stay away from that stupid boy; you are not the same as Fedra Gorment. His father is a headmaster and your father is a village farmer. Do you see any resemblance in that?” The old Pako would have slapped me senseless, but instead he walked to a flowering shrub, plucked a yellow golden-bell flower and sucked the nectar dry.
That evening after supper a full moon emerged from behind tall trees and Pako came to collect me for moonlight play. It was my first time of venturing beyond the confines of my grandfather’s big compound in the night. I tied one of my mother’s old wrapper around my neck and knotted it at the nape of my neck. I tightened the rope of my knickers so it wouldn’t fall off my waist while running. My grandmother was adjusting herself in a chair when I ran past her.
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