I remember a time when I wanted to get tattoos. I was sure I was going to have them done when I got older. Then I had this conversation with my fellow ten-year-old friends about God being angry at people who had tattoos. I paused then. We had a whole lot of conversations back then; some of us just hit puberty and the changes were not unnoticeable; a new boy in school, a girl who let an insect bite her breasts so they could be bigger, a teacher who we claimed embezzled the funds our class contributed for an art project. It was a lot of conversations like this, fueled from juvenile inquisition that shaped my childhood, which in turn moulded the teenager I grew into. Among these supposed insightful conversations included ones about university. Now, for me, university was some kind of world where over-protected kids like me got to venture into the real world and experience the life I had been shielded from my whole life. I looked forward to staying out late, partying, having a boyfriend and even attending lectures. It was an ecstatic blend of varying emotions I could not control. So when I printed out my coloured JAMB admission letter like OAU required at the cyber café down our street, I felt like and knew that I finally had the world in my hands. Me, sixteen-year-old little me, university!
My grandmother had queried my parents, asking why they were rushing my education, stating that just because I had sprouted breasts that were bigger than my mother’s was not enough reason to send me away to the university. They laughed her off, saying she needed to know ‘what’s up’. Grandma’s protest did not shake me because I knew my parents (my mum especially) were more than eager for me to graduate at nineteen, complete NYSC at twenty-one and leave the country to join my two brothers in Canada when I was twenty-two. She also expected me to come back at twenty-four for my traditional wedding. She restated all these the night before I left for school. She cried, prayed for me and promised to send me money even though my father would do that monthly. It was odd that she was being dramatic and I wondered why. My father only laughed and excused himself when he saw us.
We got to the school’s gate around one p.m., the following day. A security man gave a brisk “welcome” and handed my dad a red plastic card as he drove past the gate. A long road stretched before us just like the four years I was to spend here. Most vehicles had mattresses tied onto their roofs and the backseats brimmed with bowls and boxes and cartons of foodstuff. New students (I later became acclimatized to the word ‘fresher’) peeked out of car windows, and as we drove past, I saw a woman laden with a suitcase while her son carried a Ghana-must-go bag filled with kitchen utensils cross the road quickly to join the pedestrian lane. “Call your mother to let her know we have arrived,” my dad cut in, breaking my reverie. I tapped my phone to call mum.
I still remember OAU’s scent from that day; it was fresh, the kind of fresh that made you know the air was not always fresh and that its true scent would be revealed once we settled into the school. I embraced it still and pictured myself walking along one of these pedestrian lanes the following day, with my newly installed purple braids swinging on my back. We had to park the car metres away from the hostel due to the gridlock other cars had caused. My new hostel was still in view though. “Mozambique” I said aloud the closer we got.
“You know I never came back to this area after my first year,” my dad said next to me and smiled, probably from the awe with which I stared at everything. Pale-yellow walls. My heart sank. It was true, I was going to share a tiny room with eleven girls, more if we had squatters. I consoled myself with the new-found freedom though. There was a bustling crowd at Mozambique’s entrance and a woman was shouting, “Only females can enter”. I was thankful I had not argued with my dad and carried my boxes because it would have been hard since now, I had to go in alone. “Go ahead, just check your room, pick a locker and lock it. Don’t stay long”, almost immediately he went back to the car while I wiggled my way to the front of the crowd, presented my accommodation slip to the shouting woman, uttered a shaky “N104” when she asked for my room number and disappeared through the gates when I was verified.
A scrawny-looking girl hurried towards me. “Have you paid your hall due?” I almost spluttered a sarcastic comment about her just seeing me arrive so why was she asking a stupid question but I refrained remembering my mother’s strict warning about keeping a low profile. Instead, I asked her where block N was located and promised to come back when I settled in because my daddy is waiting for me. She gave an understanding smile and pointed to the building behind the one we were in. I skipped a narrow gutter, crossed through a bushy lawn and saw 104 over a door that looked like it could fall apart any second. Two girls were already in there. Yes, there were six bunks and the walls had been defaced with names and signatures and obscure words like dick written all over it. After a stiff hello to the girls, I approached the middle bunk on the right, confirmed that the lower bed was labeled 5 before claiming it. I picked a locker after inspecting both in the corner and locked it – the one I picked was hardly any better than the other, it was only the lesser evil. One of the girls, despite my cold demeanor, offered to put her things on the bunk for me, so that my bunkmate would not claim the space when she arrived. We exchanged numbers and I left announcing I would be back later.
Back in the car, my dad stated that we would go to his friend’s house on campus to while away time till it was 4pm when he could enter my hostel. Dr. Akin. He was the one who was to handle my admission had I not made the cut-off mark. The drive to quarters (I later got to know it was called that) was short and trees and bats filled my vision. My dad pointed out the Faculty of Arts to me as we drove by, telling me that even though my department was located there, many of my lectures would be spread across different locations on campus. He showed me his own faculty, the Faculty of Agriculture, and kept showing and telling me names I forgot just as we drove past them. I made a mind note to go on tour before classes started, maybe with that Mary girl in my room, I thought.
After he handed me over to Dr. Akin to be my guardian and the said man demanded I appeared in his office at least twice in a month, and was offered a delicious plate of Jollof rice that his wife prepared, we took our leave and this time, I was able to settle into my hostel with my dad staring unnervingly at the walls. I laughed internally when I imagined he could be considering paying someone to repaint the room. After he took his leave and reality set in, a huge lump sat in my throat. The musky smell from my locker put me off and I refused to store my provisions in there, shoving them all under my bed. The next day, rats had bitten holes into my sachets of milk and biscuits. My bottle of groundnut was not spared either. On my second night in Mozambique, I cried myself to sleep with one Wizkid song playing loudly from the car park outside and chatter from my roommates.
Image: Nick Fewings on Unsplash (modified)