A HUMBLE BEGINNING
The Cock crowed to announce another new day. At No.17, Bakuru Street, Off Badiya Street, Ijora, an old man was sleep-walking out of his house to the street. He looked to his left hand side, and then to his right hand side. There was nothing. He did not expect to see anything at all. He looked all the same. In his twenty years sojourn in this pride of Lagos slums, he had come to expect nothing. Especially at this ungodly hour. He was scantily dressed in a loosely tied wrapper. The wrapper had seen many better days. With his right hand he held a piece of white native chalk and kolanut. On the other hand, he clenched a bottle, half filled with Akpeteshi and one uganasie. He took another look again. To and fro. He still did not notice anything strange except papa Ufuoma’s “mad dog,” down the street, barking as usual, at nothing in particular. He walked a little further from his dark compound, just to be sure there was nobody there. ?Which time these people go remember say we dey live for here and give us light?” He wondered. As the thought crossed his mind he looked yet again down the street. This time he concentrated his attention on a particular house. “Wetin be the use say Baba Moruf na him be the Chief Supervisor for NEPA if he no fit do am make we dey get small light at all? Anyway, that na him office. One day dem go bring am come my own too and I go tell them say no vacancy yet. I go come put am for waiting list.”
Having so decided he smiled to himself and put down all the items he was carrying on the ground, except the white chalk. He looked up to the beautiful early morning skies and smiled away his sorrows and bitterness with nature. He looked older than his age. His face and body had all grown wrinkles, yet there was some traces of handsomeness on his face. He was once a handsome young man. He could have had any woman his heart desired. He only had to ask. But, that was in those days.
He raised the chalk up to the skies as he continued to smile. “Osanobua, Ogheneme, Orunmila, Me Nyazino, I don come again.” As he called them one after the other, he continued to turn and twist his arm in the air, while he peeled off particles of the chalk into the air. “Na dat my pickin Onome. Yes, na him. As I don promise una before, make una just help me to put am for the better school for this country. Hmmn hmmm.’ His smile became even broader. “I go sabotage una, one time. Make una just try me this time. Na me dey promise una. Make una never vex too much say una give am to me with him brothers and sisters and since then I never once come sabotage una as I promise. Una put am for school, and I still never do as I talk. Make una no worry. This time go different well, well. I go really really sabotage una this time. Just try me first. Try me this time and see.”
He went on to salute his gods for their sustained kindness to him. He offered them all kolanuts and then akpeteshi. After taking his fair share of these, he went into his house.
The house is a large single room, demarcated with a curtain at the middle to give the erroneous impression that it was a double room. The chairs were always pilled up every night to make room for the children to sleep with their mats on the floor. In this part of the room there was a set of very old chairs which had been piled on top of each other in a corner of the room. Beside them, there was a bold sticker that declared, “I am God’s miracle , believe me.” He looked down for a second as he slowly and carefully picked his way to the other side of the room. “Na these ones be my hope for tomorrow,” he mused softly to himself, “and na Onome go show them the road.”
He opened the curtain and crossed to the other side. Just as he had expected, she was up. As usual, she was kneeling down lacing the altar she had insisted that the Reverend father must come to enthrone one day. Yes, one day. As soon as she can afford a crate of soft drinks and a packet of Cabin biscuits.
Without saying a word to her, he turned to the ‘pot’ that was lying at the opposite side of her. It was almost filled with water. The front side of the ‘pot’ was smeared all over with animal blood. Sacrificial animal blood. He carried up the jerry can beside it. The jerry can was filled with sea water. As he poured this water into the pot he recited the necessary incantation.
“Pale! Pale!! Pale!!! The one whey you do for outside never do you? which day na him you go stop all this devil work for this house Eh, Pale?”
He continued to recite his incantation as if she had nol spoken. When he had finished, and chewed the necessary kola, and drank his share of akpeteshi he turned. Raising his hands and face to the air he shouted, “Ogheneme, Ofone!?
“Mama Onome, so you call my work devil work? If my gods don hear this thing wey you talk eh! If dem vex and because of am no let Onome go the good school for this country eh. Or if dem no let am go for oyibo land go chop oyinbo wintch eh, Ofone. Mama Onome, I say Ofone e don finish.” As he said this, he began to turn away from her.
“So you think say na all that akpeteshi wey you dey drink go carry my pickin go the better school? Make I tell you, na the Living God wey I dey serve na him go carry my pickin go oyinbo land.”
The argument continued for a while until the children who had grown accustomed to such quarrels had to get up to go and prepare for school.
Just before the children left for their school which was just around the corner, their mother left for the market where she sells tomatoes, pepper and onions.
On his way to the cemetery where he worked as a grave digger, Pale could not get himself to forget the morning’s incident. “So this wintch woman dey look me for outside eh?” He wondered aloud. “One day I go degrade am for that house.” Na that day she go know sey name be the oga wey dey for the house.”
* * *
Moruf was waiting for Onome at their school gate when he arrived there with his younger ones. The headmaster wants to see him, he told him, grinning mischievously. Onome did not reply nor did he go immediately. He thought over the headmaster’s invitation for some time. when he concluded that he had not done anything wrong, he went to the headmaster’s office, in response to the call.
“My boy, you are in primary six now, aren’t you?” He asked without looking up from the papers on his table. In his mind he was wondering at the trend of the discussion. “Of course I am in primary six. But, he knows,” Onome thought to himself. “Forms for the common entrance examination will be closing today. why have you not bought yours? Or do you not want to go to school anymore?”
“I want to go to school, Sir; my parents even want me to go to a very good school, but…”
At this point the headmaster looked up. He gave him the benefit of a painful and searching look that seemed to go right through his body, to his soul. “But?”
Onome who was still standing, turned his face down. He did not know why the headmaster had chosen to torture him like that.
Still looking steadily at him, he asked, “well?” Raising his eyebrows. when Onome made no further comments, and did not look up he asked him to go back to his class.
THE ENTRANCE EXAMINATION
Very early in the morning, after performing their usual morning rituals and prayers, Pale and Mama Onome took him to the park at Bale Street near Boundary market, Ajegunle. He would take a vehicle that would carry him to Ughelli, in Delta State for his interview. When they arrived at the park, they met Mr. Omene, his class teacher. He had been waiting patiently for some time, before they arrived.
“Teacher, what are you doing at the park, so early? Are you travelling too? Where are you travelling to? Is it Ughelli too?”
Mr. Omene only smiled indulgently at the excited young man, until his mother came to his rescue. “which one you want make him answer you for all the question wey you don ask?”
“It’s alright. I know he was not expecting to see me here so early. That’s why he is so excited. Anyway, to answer all your questions together. ‘Our’ school sent me to give you these things. You were the best student in the school throughout your stay. Congratulations. We hope you will do us proud in your new school too.”
Smiling shyly, he stretched out his hands and received them. A small brown envelope and a very large one. His parents joined him in showing their appreciation. When he opened the envelopes he saw that there was a thousand naira in cash in the small one and a very beautiful coat of many colours in the other one. He could not hide his joy. He had admired that coat everyday on his way to school. He knew that he would never be able to afford it and now God has sent it. Mr, Omene was touched when he saw Onome take out only two hundred naira from the envelope and handed over the balance to his father. “This young man has a future. I hope I live long enough to see it come to pass,” he thought.
* * *
The bus arrived Ughelli in good time. Though the driver was fast in his driving, he was also careful. As they had been told by their headmaster, Onome reported himself to the head of the Ughelli Motor Park Association. The dark complexioned and heavily built man walked him a little distance down the road and pointed the school gate to him.
Onome was overwhelmed by the school that was sitting behind the gate. The inscription on the gate read “Government College, Ughelli.” The sight of the beautiful, tree lined walk way from the gate to various parts of the school brought an unending smile to his lean, but beautiful and oblong face. He was later told that the road was called “appean way.”
Some members of the academic staff were on hand to help pupils who had come for the interview locate the accommodation which had been reserved for them.
When Onome got to Ashaka House, he thought it was a very beautiful place to live in. The lawns and hedges surrounding it were well taken care of. Their beauty shone all over and they were well trimmed to the same size. Inside the dormitory, he was not sure which of the double beds he wanted to occupy. They were all well dressed. They looked like a princely “dormain.”
After he had walked around Ashaka House and its environs for a while, he came back to have his bath. He later went to the dining hall, to have his dinner with other pupils who had also come for the interview. As soon as dinner was over, he walked back to the dormitory for a brief revision of his notes before going to sleep.
Onome was among the first people who arrived the venue of the interview that morning. While he was looking around and taking in the scenery, another boy joined him. “Is it not a beautiful school? I will do everything I can to be admitted here.”
Onome turned to see a boy that could have been his age and height. He was equally handsome and gap toothed. This made him even more handsome when he smiled. “Yes, it is a very beautiful and big school. I hope to put in my best to be admitted here too,” Onome replied.
“Have you been to the sports pavilion yet?, his friend asked him.
“Sports pavilion? where is that?”
His new friend pointed in the general direction of the pavilion and told him about the facilities there. They also exchanged views on other parts of the school they had each been to, before they were called in for their interview.
“If you have any problem locating your number or your seat, report to the man in charge of the class nearest to you.” This was the man who had introduced himself to them as Mr. Barter, the vice principal talking.
It was not until Onome who had finished first found himself whistling to his new friend, that they both realised that they had not introduced themselves.
They introduced themselves, while laughing over the issue. They discussed their written interview and their family backgrounds.
From Onome’s account of his family, his new friend Yusuf Banks was able to tell that his grandfather has a special place in his heart. He had talked well about everybody and glowingly about his beloved grandfather. They discussed more as they left the venue of the interview.
The next day, they rushed early to the notice board to see how they had fared in the examinations. They had both passed very well. As they were happily singing and dancing, they noticed that while some other pupils were also doing the same thing, many others wore sad looks on their faces. Yet some others, after wondering how they would leave such a beautiful school behind broke down and cried. ?What will I tell my father now?” One of them wailed. “No, I did not fail. They have to check the papers well,” another one moaned.
They walked up to some of them and tried to console them. They encouraged them to apply to some other school or wait till the following year to re-apply to Government College, Ughelli.
By the time they went in for their oral interview, number had been reduced by more than a half.
“Please come in,” his interviewer invited him, when ii was his turn to be interviewed. “Sit down.”
He asked him various questions about himself and his family. He also asked him why he wanted to go to secondary school at all and why he chose Government College, and not another school. To this he answered, “because it is the best school available.”
“why do you have to attend the best school, like you say, ‘available’?”, he asked further.
“I want to help my family. I want to be the best too,” he replied.
All the while, the interviewer was scoring him his points as he answered the questions put to him. At the end he thanked him, asked him to go, and called in the next person.
When the final interview was over, the initial two hundred and fifty pupils who came for the interviews had been reduced to a hundred and twenty pupils.
Onome was sixth on the list. Banks was the eleventh person on the same list.
Onome was surprised to see his old primary school classmate, Moruf, as they were celebrating. He too had passed the interviews.
They were all given letters for their parents. The first ten pupils had been awarded scholarships. They were told what day to report back in school.