I watched the car drive away. It was all I could do as I fought internally to control my emotions and hold the tears within me.
My initial feeling was one of absolute abandonment. And fear. But mostly it was that strong aching feeling of abandonment that truly plagued me at that moment. I kept thinking – this would be the first time that I would be separated from my family in my entire lifetime. I had always had them, even when I used to think that I didn’t want them or even hated them. Sometimes I had even fancied running away from home and just disappearing with the faint hope that they would miss me so much and thus realize how much so I really mattered to them. Even then I worried that ‘what if they didn’t notice or care?’. And so I never ran away from home for fear of not being missed or being absolutely lost to my roots and myself.
The car was now far off in the distance and in its wake it had caused a cloud of dust to trail behind it. I wanted to cry out in that instant, begging my father to stop driving and take me away from this strange place. I also wanted to drop my set of shining metal buckets with long stemmed brooms in them and run after the car, abandoning my provisions locker and fake leather suitcase which contained my school uniforms and books. I wanted to. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew it would have made no difference. Papa wouldn’t have stopped, and even if he did, he would have gotten out of the car and given me a good spanking.
When the car finally disappeared from the horizon, I took a moment to study my environment. There was an unusual quiet that prevailed. I can’t quite explain what this quiet was, but it wasn’t exactly a silent quiet. It was a quiet that spoke a language of its own, whispering natures secrets with such urgency that if you didn’t listen carefully enough you may miss it. But it was certainly there, potent and unmistakable. The first sign of this quiet was the buzzing of the bees. One flew dangerously close to my ear that I yelped in fear and swatted it away with my hands. I jumped back in a panic as a huge lizard ran past me and crawled underneath the door that stood to my left, into one of the rooms in the boy’s hostel. In total there were four houses that made up the entire boys hostel – Zik (red), Balewa (green), Awolowo (blue) and Lugard (yellow). This particular hostel was called ‘Zik House’. I knew this because when my admission letter finally arrived, welcoming me to ‘Hope College’, the Federal Government’s attempt at a Co-educational Unity Secondary School, it had stated that I was to be a member of ‘Zik House’ and a sample of the houses’ after-school wear was attached to the letter – a red chequered material for short sleeve shirts. The shorts were to be the same as was worn with the school uniform – navy blue shorts for juniors and navy blue trousers for seniors. And thus packed in my suitcase neatly were four sets of school uniform – four short sleeved white shirts; three red chequered shirts and three navy blue shorts (I was wearing one of my red chequered shirts and a pair of navy blue shorts), four white vests for P.E (physical education), four white shorts, a full weeks supply of underwear, two sets of white bed sheets and pillowcases, a red stripped grey blanket, four pairs of white socks, a pair of new rubber flip-flops and a brand new pyjama. I remember how excited I was when I bought the pyjama at the Kingsway stores with mother. It was a dark blue shade with a thin gold strip at the collar, the breast pocket, the wristbands and the ankle bands as well. I loved it because it was my very first adult looking pyjama; papa had a pair just like it.
All around me was the buzzing sounds of bees and flies and unnameable insects I have never seen before – beetles and bugs; lizards and frogs. There was also the unmistakable stench of old urine and rotten excrement. I felt like I was in the middle of a forest. It looked very much like one. Zik House was situated at the far end of the school bordering a vast stretch of bushes and wastelands and in the distance one could see mountains and valleys resembling giant pairs of a woman’s breast. There was no fence separating the hostel from the wilderness, just a small clearing at the back of the structure. Zik House like the other houses I was later to discover was built in a U-shape with ten rooms on each opposite block while the adjoining block that linked both sections was built into bathrooms and toilet stalls. Adjacent to Zik House facing east was Balewa House, a twin structure. Zik faced north. Both Lugard and Awolowo Houses were on the other side of the school closer to the female dormitories and the dining hall I was to find out later.
The bees buzzed passed me and sand flies settled on my bare arms and sucked on my blood and as I hit them off, it suddenly hit me that for the next couple of weeks this was to be my new home, along with hundreds of other boys and girls. This was to be the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
I heard something. It was not a noise associated with the quiet of the wilderness, it was a real sound. A sound that was deliberate and man made. Not the hushed sound of nature that was not quite quiet. The sound had come from behind me. I turned around and focused my stare on the huge red plastic water tank that sat close to an identical one of the same size. It seemed peaceful and deserted. The only movements now were of debris being tossed about by the wind. Yet I felt I was no longer alone. It felt like a marauder was watching me. I felt uncomfortable and scared and forsaken.
Moments later I heard the shuffling sound from behind the tank again and this time saw movements. Before I could cry out in fear, he jumped out from behind the tank. He was an extremely skinny boy. He was light skinned with a huge oval shaped head with a mass of thick uncombed dusty black hair. He had bushy eyebrows and seemed to have a permanent scowl on his lips. He was wearing an off-white singlet that had once been pure white and a pair of dusty navy blue shorts. I guessed he was around my age, but he looked taller than I was. He was watching me, much the same way as I was watching him, curiously with a hint of suspicion and distrust. The first thing that struck me was how generic he looked. There was nothing sophisticated about him. He looked ordinary, like a common village boy or one of them unfortunate street boys who hung around derelict neighbourhoods with pitiable parents who were either unemployed or earned below the stipulated minimum wage. I don’t know why all these thoughts had crossed through my mind and in my momentarily guilt, I knew that he was not the sort of boy I would like to have as a friend. Not by any fault of his, it was just the way I was.
He began to approach me after it seemed he had read me enough to know I was harmless and somehow a little afraid of him. He walked with a swagger – like a proud hyena. Though I had never known hyenas to be proud creatures, this was simply the way my mind perceived him. It could have been the way he was leering at me. He seemed to have a hundred tiny teeth stuck to his gum. He stopped directly in front of me and tilted his head to study me closely. When he was finished with my front he walk around me in a deliberate slow circle, taking in my whole stature as though I were some show piece. I followed him with my eyes until he was no longer in my line of vision. I silently resented my inability to turn round and scrutinize him the way he was scrutinizing me. Finally he was back in my face again. If I thought he looked bad, he even smelt worst, like someone who had skipped a few baths.
‘What is your name?’ Smelly boy asked in a voice that certainly looked like him – toneless and unsophisticated.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I had heard him but I didn’t understand why he felt the need to address me at all.
‘You deaf?’ He said. ‘Wetin be your name?’
‘Chuka.’ I answered.
‘Chuka,’ he repeated savouring the name. ‘You are Ibo. Just like me. That is cool. We will be friends then. My name is Jovi.’
He spoke so fast that the words rolled out in quick successive torrents. He wasn’t looking at me any longer but was curiously checking my things. He removed the brooms from one bucket, looked inside the bucket and quickly lost interest and was fishing inside the second bucket. He withdrew a cutlass and wooden hoe from inside. He replaced the hoe but studied the cutlass with more interest.
‘You should keep this machete safely,’ Jovi said shrewdly.
‘Cutlass.’ I said defiantly. ‘It is a cutlass. That was what my admission letter stated.’
‘Whatever!’ Jovi sighed. ‘Cutlass o, machete o, it’s all the same. Keep it well. They steal stuff here and this machete will come in handy when the time comes.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked. His last statement had been said with a hint of intrigue.
‘Soon you will see.’ He said knowingly.
A silence followed, which I welcomed. I wanted him to go away and leave me alone. I kept thinking he was going to steal something from me. His eyes seemed to hover hungrily over my belongings.
‘Why are you joining us at this time?’ He asked. ‘School started four weeks ago.’
‘My letter didn’t come on time.’ I answered reluctantly.
‘Why did you choose to come to ‘Hope’ of all colleges?’ Jovi asked. ‘Why not King’s College?’
‘My father chose it for me.’
‘Why?’ He asked. He was sitting on the pavement and had plucked one of the bananas in a bunch, which I had in one of my bags without asking my consent. I hated that, but I didn’t complain. I ignored it.
‘My father says Hope College is going to be a model college for the blue print of what Nigeria would be in the near future.’
‘What else did your father say?’ Jovi said sarcastically.
‘He says,’ I answered stupidly and in a low voice. ‘We would be the leaders of tomorrow and that King’s College has lost its edge on being the best school.’
At that, he bowled over and laughed a scratchy-hiccupy kind of laugh and bits of banana dropped from the corner of his mouth as thin trails of tears rolled down his cheeks. I wondered what was so funny to make him laugh so hard.
‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked.
‘You,’ he said. ‘Do you always live your life according to what your father tells you?’
I was confused by his words. This was what good children did; listen to their fathers. Why did his question make me feel foolish and weak?
‘No.’ I answered. ‘I don’t always do what my father wants.’ This was a lie but I had to let him think that I was as tough as he was acting.
‘Really,’ Jovi said testily. ‘Prove it. When was the last time you defied your father?’
His question threw me off guard. I had not anticipated that he would call my bluff and hard as I tried I could not think of a single episode when I went against my father’s wish. I caught his eyes for an instant and saw clearly that they mocked me. I went hot with embarrassment.
‘I didn’t think so.’ He said with some satisfaction.
‘Like you defy your father.’ I added boldly. How dare he judge me, I thought.
‘I don’t have any father.’ He simply said. ‘I never knew him anyway. He didn’t stick around long enough for me to know him, but even if he had I am sure I would do as I pleased regardless of what he says.’
He didn’t have a father, no wonder he was so uncouth and rude and common. We could never be friends. His type was trouble.
He looked at me funny as if assessing me once again.
‘Your father is not rich.’ He said.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked in embarrassment.
‘I can tell that you are not rich.’ He simply answered. ‘You don’t look like a been-to even though you talk funny – through your nose. Fake phu-ney!’
‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘Phu-ney.’
He rolled his eyes incredulously. ‘PHONETICS!’ He said. ‘You are trying to speak like an oyinbo, but I can tell that you are not a been-to. You have never been to London or America before, or have you?’
I was tempted to lie, and I did.
‘I have been to London before.’ I said.
‘Liar!’ He said.
‘How do you know that I haven’t?’ I asked hotly.
‘Your cloths and your things.’ He said. ‘All the been-tos here all have their uniforms bought from London and also their shoes and boxes. You, your sandal is locally made, your box is common, almost everyone here have a similar type and your uniform looks like it was sown by an Obi-òma.’
I hated him more that very moment. He had seen right through my façade and this made me feel cheaper than the sandals on my feet. I had wanted at least a pair of Bata shoes but my mother had said that we could not afford it and so I had to make do with one of those sandals crafted by local shoe cobblers. It was a beautiful pair of shoes but its only disadvantage was that it was easily recognizable as a Nigerian made shoe. This factor thus made it cheap and common.
‘What has my uniform and things got to do with my father being rich?’ I asked slowly.
‘If your father were rich then all your things would have been bought from overseas. I don’t think that you are a been-to but you are an àje-butta to say the least, you know, a spoilt brat.’
‘You have no rights to call me that.’ I said with a touch of anger.
‘My guess is that the house prefect will put you in one of the other rooms with the regular boys and not the room with the special boys.’ He said ignoring my last statement.
‘Special boys?’ I repeated in my confusion.
‘Yes. You know,’ he explained. ‘The been-tos stay in the same room with the house prefect and the regular boys are scattered round the other rooms.’
I wanted to be one of the special boys. In my mind I was special and not common like Jovi was and looked.
‘We will be best friends.’ He announced as he pranced up suddenly. ‘I have to go.’
He ran off and soon disappeared as he had appeared, behind the tanker before I could say anything to him. It was still again and I was left with the sound of the bees and the flies. Now that he was gone, I found myself missing his callous company. The loneliness frightened me once again.
I didn’t have to wait for long before I heard the sound of approaching feet. I was using one of my buckets as a stool and when I looked up I saw another boy approaching. He was taller than Jovi and was wearing a trouser instead of shorts. When he got to my side, I realised that he looked old. Not old like an elderly man, but old like a twelve years old boy would regard a man in his twenties. He was wearing the school uniform of white and blue and a badge with the school’s crest pinned to the pocket of his shirt. On his wrist was a G-Shock metal wristwatch and I quickly noticed that the nail on his little right hand finger was very long, at least two inches long. He had traces of a moustache that was not fully formed and also some hair sprouting from his chin.
‘You are the new boy.’ He said without really looking at me.
He was backing me now and fiddling with the locks on the door to the room the lizard had crawled into.
‘What is your name?’ He asked.
‘Chuka Onyema.’ I replied very much aware that I had said it in a similar way a foreigner would pronounce my name. It wasn’t quite deliberate; it was simply the way I spoke. It came from living in a home where vernacular and Pidgin English was banned and speaking English the queen’s way was not negotiable. Jovi had called it fake ‘phu-ney’ but it was simply good home training.
The man-boy turned round to look at me properly for the first time. As he did so, I kept thinking he was trying to place me based on my verbal modulation; was I special or common?
‘My name is Emeka Alor. House prefect, Zik House.’ He said. ‘You will call me Senior Emeka.’
‘Senior Emeka.’ I repeated his name.
He looked me over again and sniffed slightly.
‘I think I should have a spare bunk in room three for you.’ He said.
As soon as he said this, I felt crushed. I was to be in room three or so, he wasn’t sure, which only meant that room three was not his room, the room for the special boys. He had looked at me and had judged me common like Jovi. It must have been my cheap sandals and fake leather suitcase.
‘Are these yours?’ He asked pointing to my belongings.
I nodded. I noticed his eyes had zeroed in on my wooden provisions locker. He hesitated for a fraction of a second but I had noticed how his tongue had jutted out quickly and licked his lips.
‘Open your locker.’ He said sternly. ‘I want to make sure you have not packed any contrabands from home.’
I fished my key chain from my pocket and quickly identified the correct key for the locker. As soon as I unlocked it, I threw the door open. Stacked inside like a mini superstore were my provisions; three packets of cabin biscuit, two regular tins of Nido powdered milk, two tins of Bournvita (I had wanted Milo but my mother had said it was more expensive), two packets of Nasco cornflakes, three packets of Tates sugar, a little bag of garri, two bottles of groundnuts, a tin of blue band margarine, one bottle of Three Top orange squash and one bottle of lemon squash, some tins of geisha and sardines, two massive loaves of bread bought by the Benin toll gate, a container of fried meat my mother had prepared and a small cooler containing jollof rice. Also inside were my toiletries like bars of bathing soap, toothpaste, body cream, deodorant spray and hair pomade.
When I looked at Senior Emeka again, I could see he was smiling self satisfactorily. I figured then that I was not carrying any contraband. I felt pleased that he seemed happy with me.
‘We don’t usually allow students to bring in tin foods.’ He said solemnly, pointing to my sardines and geishas. ‘But don’t worry, I would let you keep these, ok!’
‘Ok, Senior Emeka.’ I said grateful for the favour he was offering me.
‘I think it would be better if you stayed in my room.’ He said almost to himself. ‘It would be safer for you. I have a space underneath my bunk bed you can use.’
I took a deep breath and my sigh of relief was almost audible. I was to be among the special ones. I grinned widely and watched as he pushed the door open. I glimpsed a row of black metal bunk beds pushed against the far wall.Five in number with spaces in between each for a wooden locker much like mine. Some corners had two lockers instead of one for the two students sharing a bunk bed and space. Each bed had been laid out immaculately in white bed sheets with a strip of a separate red piece cloth of about two yards covering the foot side of the bed and tucked in neatly by each side. I entered carrying first my heavy suitcase and then I saw that by the opposite side of the room, the side with the door, three more bunk beds stood pressed to the wall immediately preceding the opening of the door and another bunk bed was directly behind the door. This bunk bed had the biggest space area in the room and an empty bunk space below the bed. There was also a centrepiece Persian rug by the bedside. I knew instantly that this would be my corner as well. There were three ceiling fans in the room as well as three florescent tubes, all switched off.
I dropped my suitcase and was heading out to bring in my other things when I noticed Senior Emeka lifting my provisions locker into the room. The veins on his arm swelled tautly against his skin. I saw he was also sweating somewhat on his face, neck and sweat stains marked the armpit area of his white shirt.
‘Thank you, Senior Emeka.’ I said to him.
I got outside and brought in my remaining things like my buckets, brooms, farming tools, mattress and pillow and a nylon bag containing some snacks and odd bits.
While Senior Emeka watched me, I set up my bed on the vacant space on the lower bunk. I opened my suitcase and carefully removed a bed sheet from underneath my neatly ironed and arranged clothing that lay inside the suitcase. My mother had helped me pack my bag so that I could make the best use of space and also fit in some other items I would need like the big coal iron for ironing my uniform. I had never seen a coal iron prior to that moment and had wanted an electric iron instead, but my mother had insisted that it was best I get a coal iron as it was inexpensive and could be used at any time. She had explained that all I needed was to lift the top of the iron, fill it with coal, and add some kerosene and light with a matchstick. When the coal had burned to a sizzling red, I could then replace the lid and use the iron like any regular iron. I had been intrigued by her explanation and a little fascinated with the whole concept of the coal iron, but at the back of my mind, I kept thinking it was still a primitive way to iron and probably more suitable for the poor and common. Also packed in my suitcase were my mosquito netting, two breakable serving dishes with two complete sets of cutlery and my schoolbooks.
When I finished laying my bed, I looked up at Senior Emeka, waiting for instructions of what next to do. When my father had arrived in Hope College with me in the car, we had first driven to the administrative block to see the school’s Principal, an old dowdy looking man in a pair of old fashioned styled English looking tweed suit. He wore a thick pair of oval shaped eyeglasses with thick brown plastic rims that gave him an appearance of an old professor. Behind him had been several shelves with stacks and stacks of academic books, dusty files and volumes of encyclopaedias. Directly in front of his desk was the legend in a gold plated plastic nameplate ‘Principal Oyewole Olanipekun, B.A (Edu), M.A., Msc.’ My father seemed to have been pleased with him (he found out that they were both alumnus of the University of Nigeria) and Principal Oyewole informed us that he would make sure the Zik House prefect met me in the hostel and then tell me what to do. So I looked up at Senior Emeka now waiting to be told what next to do.
He looked at me briefly and then at his wristwatch. My eyes were drawn to my own rubber digital G-Shock wristwatch; it was reading 02.17pm. I looked at him again expectantly.
‘It’s dinning time.’ He said. ‘You have to follow me to the dinning hall so you can be assigned a table.’
I simply nodded. I didn’t know what to expect when we got to the dinning hall. I wasn’t hungry and even if I were, I had more than enough food in my locker. I said nothing though to Senior Emeka, I just waited for him to lead the way.
‘You need to carry your plate and spoon.’ He said to me as he headed toward the door.
I opened my suitcase again, withdrew my glass plate, which was white with tiny designs of purple grapes and vines in the middle and took a set of fork and knife. I locked my suitcase afterward with its key and joined him outside.
‘Follow me.’ He said.
We had to trek through the bush paths created by constant movements of people in and out of their hotels to the classrooms, dining hall, guardians’ homes or school clinic. I was quick to note that there were no tarred roads in Hope. Apart from the general clearings around buildings like the hostels, classroom premises, assembly ground, offices and homes, roads and paths were simply weathered red earth, which grated with rough marbles and stones in the dry season and would become predominantly muddy during the rains.
We walked through the clearing that accommodated both Zik and Balewa house. Walking in the direction my father’s car had disappeared from, north through a narrow clearing and busted out onto a makeshift motorway that separated the classroom blocks from the path leading to the hostels. We crossed over to the other side and then cut through a block of classrooms until we reached another makeshift motorway, this one was narrower with more red gravels. Ahead of us was a large field with a metal football goalpost on each extreme that were missing their netting. On the upper left side was a barn like structure with two huge smokestack discharging clouds of cooking smoke. Next to the barn was a very big hall. I could see uniformed boys and girls trooping in and out of this great hall. Some boys wore shorts like I was wearing while others wore trousers like Senior Emeka. Some girls where in blue pinafore draped over white blouses while some wore blue skirts underneath their white blouses.By the barn were giant cooking pots atop burning firewood stoves. Huge framed and heavily breasted women with dirty aprons moved in and out of the barn carrying smaller pots across to the next building.
There were a group of seniors standing at the foremost entrance of the huge hall, I could tell they were seniors not only because they looked older than me, but also because the boys among them wore trousers while the girls were in skirts. One particular girl caught my eye; she was short and stocky and wore thick-rimmed eyeglasses. For some reason she reminded me of miss Piggy of Sesame Street. Senior Emeka stopped to chat with them. I stood not too far away, but not close enough to be considered a part of the group. I was conscious of the fact that Senior Emeka was probably telling them something about me – he kept whispering to one particular boy in the group and they both stole glances toward my direction and kept on whispering. After a while they all engaged in short discussion after which the short stocky piggy girl walked toward me.
‘My name is Bola’, she said sharply. ‘I’m the food prefect. Follow me.’
I glanced toward Senior Emeka again but noticed he was backing me and speaking with the other seniors, I was no longer his responsibility for now. I felt the need to cough as the choking smell of food being prepared with palm oil wafted through the air. Prefect Bola turned round and entered the great hall and I followed her.
Nothing prepared me for what I encountered. It was a long hall that had two layers. The part we entered through was on an elevated platform with series of huge dining tables on either side creating a clear section in the middle. I counted at least ten tables on either sides and each table had at least ten to fifteen occupants sitting round it on benches. On the tables they had lined their plates in rows with a space at the top of the table. Everyone on this platform wore trousers and I quickly guessed that this part of the hall was reserved for seniors. There was a lot of noise going on here, as it seemed everyone was talking all at once. There was a hush when I entered, but the hush only lasted long enough for them to look me over once, sigh and then continue with their noisy banter. Some looked at me far longer than the others and I soon felt myself burning with embarrassment and timidity. I hated being the centre of attraction and my newness made me the focus of interest.
I looked down the podium and my eyes were assaulted with what seemed to me a sea of a million more faces all sitting around tables similar to the ones the seniors occupied on the platform, with their plastic plates or funny looking aluminium plates. As I followed Prefect Bola down the five steps that descended to the lower level with the juniors, I couldn’t help but feel frightfully intimidated by all the eyes that gathered in unanimity to ogle at me. As she walked a hushed silence of either respect or fear descended across the hall. She stopped by a table that was close to the middle of the hall and surveyed the occupants of the table fleetingly. Scrawled across the dark brown wooden table as if with a sharp object was the number ’32’.
‘You can join this table.’ She said and casually turned round and walked away toward the direction we had come from.
I stood still for a moment longer as if I was shell-shocked. I tried smiling but my lips only quivered. I scanned the ugly table and felt superior that my plate would be the only glass plate among the collection of plastic and aluminium plates that were arranged on the table. I dropped my plate at the very last end of the table since that was the only place left and scanned for a place to sit. My fellow table members all seemed to glare at me and no one shifted to create a space for me. I counted six boys and eight girls in total. I finally squeezed myself between a scrawny looking boy who had veins protruding from his forehead and a neat looking girl who looked almost as uncomfortable as I was feeling.
‘I’m sharing today.’ One of the boys on my table declared. He was sitting at the top end of the table. I heard the girl who sat opposite sigh quietly and roll her eyes.
There was a loud bell. I looked up and saw that Prefect Bola was ringing a bell from the top of the podium. The ringing must have been a signal, a recognizable code of conduct. In a split second two persons from each table sprang up and dashed out of the hall. I noticed in a flash the girl at my table who had rolled her eyes moments ago spring up like a prized athlete along with the girl beside her and they sprinted out of the hall in such a hurry before the boy with aspirations for sharing our food could jump into action.
‘See me see trouble!’ The boy exclaimed to no one in particular. His eye was darting from one face in our group to another. I wisely avoided his stare. ‘If they are smart, they better share the food wisely.’
He got some murmur of support from other boys on the table. All the while I was surprised and shocked at the whole drama being played out in front of me. I did not belong here. I told myself. I wanted to go back home. This place was not good enough for me in spite of the high regards my father had for this institution.
The two girls returned carrying two pots. Each girl carried a pot and a serving spoon. They stood in front of the table and waited just like the others who had gone outside were waiting as well.
What were they waiting for? I was tempted to ask but just then Prefect Bola rang the bell again bringing the entire hall to a deathly silence.
‘Grace.’ She said in a loud drawl and like programmed soldiers everyone in the hall except me was singing:
Some have food, but cannot eat
Some can eat, but have no food
I looked around me watching the celestial transformation that had suddenly taken place. They looked almost heavenly as they sang even though many of them sang off key. Some notes rose so high, while some voices cracked but kept on dragging the scratchy note nonetheless.
We have food
And we can eat
Thank you Lord for everything
As soon as the grace was over, the animal electricity returned. On my table, the girls dug deep into the pots with the serving spoon and began dishing out food on the plates. It was rice and stew. The rice looked swollen and dry and I noticed tiny brown bits mixed inside. The stew was very watery and smelt of palm oil and the pieces of meat being dished out looked no bigger than Maggi cubes.
The girls finished serving in no time and quickly everyone around me made a grab for their plates. Some boys looked unsatisfied with the portions they were given and subsequently made verbal complaints to everyone’s hearing with a vow to revenge during supper. Most people deserted the table as soon as they got their food to join their friends on other tables. Soon I had enough space to seat comfortable and I pulled my plate nearer to myself so I could examine its content. It looked pathetic and if I were hungry I probably would have been mad at the girls who had dished out the meal as well. My serving of rice was less than a hand full, much lesser than everyone’s portion. It may have been because I didn’t raise my voice to join while everyone else tried cajoling the girl food servers to add a bit more to their plate. The stew danced round the plate; a display of red oil on light orange liquid with tiny flakes of tomatoes skin wedged between strands of rice. I was afraid to touch the food in front of me.
‘Are you doing iyanga for food again?’
I looked to my side and noticed Jovi was sitting next to me and eating from a plastic plate with a generous portion of rice and about five pieces of meat. He was dressed now in a red chequered shirt just like me, but his shirt was rumpled and not exactly clean.
In a strange way, I was relieved to see him again. Though I was sure I couldn’t like him, he was still the only person I knew in this school for now.
‘I’m not hungry.’ I answered hauntingly. ‘I wasn’t doing iyanga.’
‘Na you sabi!’ He said and without asking permission he lifted my plate off the table and emptied its content into his already full plate. When he replaced my plate, his plate looked like a mini mountain. The boy sitting across from us eyed him wickedly and it occurred to me then that he may have wanted to ask me for my portion had Jovi not turned up.
‘When I woke up today, I knew it was going to be a good day.’ Jovi said with his mouth full.
I turned away from him, as I could not stand the sight of the mixture of rice, bits of meat and saliva in his mouth as he chewed openly and scratched his head.
‘You have a lot to learn.’ He said to me.
‘Only the prefects and some seniors use breakable plates’. He continued. ‘This may break before the month runs out and then what will you do?’
‘I have another one.’ I replied.
‘And when that one breaks too?’
I didn’t answer him.
‘You have to listen to me.’ He said. ‘I’m always right, you know.’
I sniggered sarcastically at his last comment. He raised his eyes to look at me.
‘Why are you laughing?’ He asked. ‘You don’t believe me?’
‘No.’ I said boldly. ‘You told me earlier on that I would not be in the same room with the house prefect and you were wrong. Not only am I in his room, I also share a corner with him.’
He shook his head pityingly and smiled a secret sort of smile.
‘Do you have a lot of provisions?’ He asked.
I nodded slowly.
‘He would ask for your spare keys, you wait and see. I’m always right.’
He spooned more rice into his mouth and chewed with his mouth half open. I felt disgusted by him and looked around me to make sure no one was looking at us and thinking we were friends or something. Now I wished he would simply go away and leave me alone.
I was irritated by his avowal that he was always right. I hated the way it had sounded when he said it. It had a certain conviction to it that evoked nervous feelings within me. But I didn’t believe him, he had been wrong the first time after all and he had not explained to me why his earlier prediction had not come to pass.
I looked at his plate and he had already gobbled up more than half of its content. This was surprising to me. I looked round and observed some other boys and girls still nibbling on their paltry portions. I wonder how he could eat so much and still be so skinny.
‘Will you be eating tonight?’ He asked me, joggling rice, saliva and mashed meat in his mouth. I was disgusted.
‘I don’t know.’ I answered.
‘Let me book your meal now before someone else does.’ He said.
‘Book my meal?’
‘You will soon learn.’ He said. ‘I traded my dinner tonight because I knew I would be eating two portions this afternoon, well three portions now, if I add your rice which I just ate.’
‘Why are you trading meals?’
He rolled his eyes and smiled.
‘Some àje-buttas like you are choosy about what they eat. Some hate eba and would trade their eba for rice. Some hate yam porridge and would trade it for bread and tea or rice. On the other hand some people love eba and would trade their rice for eba. So two days ago I arranged to trade my dinner tonight for someone’s rice this afternoon.’
‘What are we having tonight?’ I asked curiously.
‘Eba and eguisi soup.’ He said.
I squeezed my face.
‘Are you eating then?’ He asked.
‘I don’t think so.’ I replied.
‘Good.’ He smiled. ‘I will have your food then and not starve tonight. I knew today was going to be a good day.’
I remained quiet. I watched him take the last spoon of rice and put in his mouth. There was not a single grain left on his plate.
‘You are a good man.’ He said shortly. ‘We would be best friends.’
Most certainly not, I said to myself. I noticed that people were beginning to stare toward our direction especially now that most of them had finished with their meal and I wanted him away from me. I noticed quite a number of boys looking at me dead in the eye and whispering amongst each other. This made me nervous and homesick. I wanted to be in the comfort of my home, enjoying my mother’s cooking, and our decent dining table, I wanted to be in my room I shared with my two brothers and a sister and finally enjoy the company of my best friend, Ikenna.
The bell rang again to signify the end of lunch. From the top podium the seniors got up to leave but many remained to socialize. I noticed boys in groups of threes and fours chatting up girls in groups of three and fours as well. Some of the girls were extremely pretty as they gushed and fluttered their eyelids at the boys. Most of the boys reminded me of young men, real men and not boys who were in a college.
I also noticed that quite a number of seniors left their plates on the table and some juniors strutted up to retrieve their plates. I noticed some juniors picking up as much as three plates, while some took only one. Some of the plates had untouched food in them, which were covered up by the junior responsible for the plate and then whisked away.
‘Those are school sons and school daughters.’ Jovi said, referring to the junior boys and girls who were retrieving the plates.
‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
‘Well, some seniors claim responsibility for you by proclaiming themselves your school parent and in return for their protection, the unfortunate junior does all sorts of errands for them.’
‘Yes,’ Jovi said. ‘Unfortunate. They simply become slaves.’
My mind took that piece of information and stored it securely somewhere in my heart. I don’t know why it was important to me after all he had told me to suddenly want to keep that piece of information. Maybe it was the way he had said ‘slaves’ and ‘protection’. I couldn’t read his mind but his voice had dropped while he said it and his eyes seemed to have clouded as if blocking out an unpleasant memory. I wanted to ask him, but I didn’t. Asking was what friends did. I was not his friend. I was the new boy and he was a stranger. A stranger who called me names and ate my food without asking. A stranger who called a cutlass a machete. A stranger who dared me to defy my father. A stranger who had no father of his own to defy.
‘Come lets go.’ He said as he grabbed my arm and pulled me up. ‘I will take you back to the dormitory.’
Without arguing, I followed him but I was determined that after today, I would have nothing further to do with him.
©Jude Dibia 2005