A cow drawn cart

The family house was full of people, mostly women relatives, known and unknown, waiting for the arrival of father’s corpse. Loud cries and wailing on every side, each comforting one another with no one comforted.

At the back of the house, mud bricks were arranged in triangular forms with logs of woods stacked in between the spaces, kindling, the rising smoke mixed with the aroma of the food being cooked on these emergency cooking stoves. Hunger was not to be added to the sorrow that enveloped the house. While those old enough to understand the tragedy were being consoled and urged to eat, as little children, we needed nothing of such. We ate and asked for more and so did the horde of mourners whose numbers have a way of magically increasing at mealtime and reducing thereafter.

When night came, the rooms were not enough for all to sleep, and the passageways were taken over by raffia matts only to be folded up and made way for human traffic in the morning. We slept directly at the entrance to our grandmother’s room from where we had an unobstructed view of the wooden staircase that leads to the upper floor. At midnight hours, father’s apparition would be seen standing on the middle landing of the staircase, beckoning to me with his right hand to come. A few times I had woken up those sleeping next to me, pointing at the staircase and shouting “Daddy is here”, but like those with Paul on the road to Damascus, they saw nothing and cautioned me to stop disrupting their sleep.

To stop what was seen as an unhealthy relationship between the living and the dead, a native doctor was invited. Without anaesthesia and being firmly held in the grips of a few hefty men, the Babalawo with his sharp knife burrowed into the scalp of my forehead in quick but measured cuts, making incantations while rubbing a dark paste he had taken from a nearby calabash on the incisions. Each incision was with throbbing pains and I sobbed throughout the ordeal.

The next day, free of much of the pain, I looked at the framed picture of my grandfather hung in the parlour. He was captured seated on a wooden chair, resplendently dressed in a flowing Agbada with matching pair of shoes made with brocade. His ‘Baamu’, the deep lacerated cuts associated with our family, was clearly visible.  Given the pains I experienced from the incisions I received, I was grateful that it was not the ‘Baamu’ that was forced on me. I could not imagine how excruciatingly painful that experience must have been for him, especially the slanting one that ran to the ridge of his nose.

But life must go on. With the mourning period over, I got enrolled at Olubi Memorial Primary School, the third school I would be attending within the space of three years. Olubi was nestled in the “Agbo Ile” that were immediately across the road from us. It was not your Corona or Omolewa as it had virtually nothing else to support education apart from the few classrooms that formed an L shape and the grass-barren playground in front of them. What our eyes had not seen and had not entered into our thought, we never missed. So, the absence of green grass fields, swings, swimming pool, assembly hall and the likes, none of which we had in Olubi did not matter to us, Olubi was good enough for us.

Our classroom furniture was the same – wooden desks and chairs, with circular holes in which we placed our ink pots. It was in Olubi that I was introduced to writing. We had our “Apex” writing notebooks on which we learnt to write capital I’s distinctly from small i’s on its wide horizontal ruled interspersed black and red lines denoting from where to start capital and small letters. Learning to write with ink also meant that we went home, on some days, with ink soiled uniform. Quink Ink was what we were to use but why spend money on such when ‘Aro kaun’ can do? Aro kaun is a bluish, stony like substance that dissolves and yield an intense blue colour when dropped in water.

At break time, a pupil went around ringing the brass bell, something that we really looked forward to with excitement. Our excitement was not for the bell but what comes after it, the arrival of the ‘Iya Olounje’. Smartly dressed in deep blue gowns, they come into the different classrooms and set down their food trays right next to the blackboard. As she opens the food, the scintillating aroma fills the classroom and not a few of us would start salivating. Our food containers which we had deposited at the start of the day would be taken by the woman and filled with whatever food was for the day.

Lunch could be any of Asaro alata, Ẹwà riro or Dodo ati iresi, all with smallest piece of meat or fried fish you can imagine. We never cared about the meat anyway. Once the plates are served, as the ‘Iya Olounje’ leaves the class, we rush to the front to pick our meals, eat, hide the empty plates in our lockers and take to the open ground to play some football before the bell rings again.

Classroom Furniture with Ink Pot Holes

For those of us attending Olubi, we had one thing in common – poverty. But our poverty was not about food to eat, where to sleep or clothe on our backs, those necessities were well taken care of.  The lack of shoes, arising from our poverty, was not enough to stop us from playing the ‘felele’ balls during break time. Shoes or no shoes, we played on the sun scorched, hardened brown clayey soil upon which nothing grew. We stared danger in the face and dared her. Broken bones, peeled toes, bruised hands and feet were all common, yet we played with an urgency to get as much fun as we could before the bellboy goes around the second time with the gong.

Dip pen
Quink Ink

Olubi was not where it all started, and thank goodness, not where it ended. St. Andrews Demonstration School in the ancient city of the Alaafin owes the honour of introducing me to my first lessons in formal education. This was a special school set up for the students at the Teacher Training College to demonstrate their learnings in real classroom settings. We were their guinea pigs used to hone their skills before they moved on to different parts of the country to take up permanent roles. Father was one of the tutors at the Teachers’ college and we lived in a rented apartment close to the school grounds. The compound was calming with a family of white swans living in the pond, the pond itself surrounded by lush green, well-manicured grasses.

One faithful day, I was mocked by my classmates and ran home, wailing, to complain to my no-no sense African mother. With tears in my eyes and water dripping from my nostrils, I arrived home panting, telling her how I was mocked and abused by my classmates. I expected empathy but got something else. A slender piece of cane emerged from nowhere and with whips she sent me back to the classroom. Instantly the fear of my classmates was replaced with a tremendous fear of her. Her words, which still echoes in my ears till this day, were “If they abuse your mother, you go and abuse their mothers too”. That lesson has stuck with me till date.

Leaving the well-kept grounds of St. Andrews and my mother’s “Wine & Beer, On and Off Licence” shop was a watershed moment in my development. It was this epoch-making event that spurred my appreciation for the geographical entity called Nigeria. A lorry showed up at our house and through the evening the few belongings we had were packed into it for the journey to Daura. The journey was long, and we travelled through the dark cold nights and most part of the following day before finally arriving at the ancient city, the seat of the emirate.

My sibling and I were enrolled at Daura School 2. In the few years we spent in Daura, we watched the Durbar, one of the greatest shows on earth. In front of the Emir’s Palace was an open area where colourfully decorated horses, along with their turbaned riders in flowing white garments show up, in procession and then in short bursts of speed showing the war power of the old Fulani aristocracy. It was not a sight to be missed by any, the shops and schools would all close on such days dedicated to honour the Emir.

There was no place like Daura. Everybody lived peacefully with each other and knew each other. Each evening, the streets came alive. To usher in the evening, were the sounds from numerous transistor radios carried around by indigenes listening to news from around the world, Then the kerosene lanterns get lit and different stalls like that of the ‘mai tea’ and the ‘mai suya’ become active. The suya, thinly sliced cow meat on sticks, arranged around a charcoal or wood fed fire burning in the middle of a circular clay mound, give up sweet aroma that float into the nostrils.

Daura had neither electricity nor potable water. We made do, mostly, with water supplied by the ‘mai ruwa’. He went from street to street with his donkey pulled cart loaded with twenty litres cans of water that he sold. Whatever water we could not get from him, we drew ourselves from the deep wells.

In Daura, we learnt enough Hausa words to get us by, of course the abusive ones like waka, shege, banza were the ones we got to know quickly. We learnt about the legend of Bayajidda and the Hausa and Banza Bakwai.  We had field trips to the Kusugu well where he slaughtered the Sarki. We made trips to the bustling Kasuwa, passing through the historic city gates of Daura. With the arrival of the Red Lada, we crossed the border into Niger Republic on several occasions to buy fresh milk and yoghurt from farms in Niger Republic. We ate the best Fura dé nunu, our cheese and cow milk were fresh and delicious.

When it was harmattan in Daura, there was no one ‘toto gbangba sun l’oye”, anyone that dares it was surely knocking on heaven’s gate. Cracked lips and running noses was our lot. Robb first and in its absence, Mentholatum, ointment becomes indispensable. It gets rubbed on our chest, stuffed into our nostrils and spread on our lips to keep the cold at bay.

When it was hot, the land was heated up. Being in the savannah, the whole city was almost devoid of trees hence no cover to protect from the intense rays of the sun.  Sometimes, steams of hot air rose from the scorched ground, swirled upward to form destructive tornadoes.

A couple of months in Olubi and I had to change school again, the fourth school I would be attending. One fateful day, my paternal uncle arrived in his Corolla, and I was told to pack all my belongings. Off to Bódìjà we went, then a new suburb of Ibadan. The Bódìjà of those days was well laid out comprising only single-family dwellings. The compound edges were neatly adorned with flowers. Anyone who was someone lived there, and it was pretty much the address of choice for the many Nigerians that just relocated back to the country following years of training abroad, infused with national ideologies.  My uncle and his wife were one of such. They had returned back from the United Kingdom to take up positions of responsibilities in the Post & Telecommunications Dept (P&T) and the University College Hospital (UCH).

Bódìjà made a great impression on my young mind. Neat, orderly and quiet. To a boy from Oke-Labo, the change was massive. How to use the fork and knife, etiquettes around the dining table, observing siesta, tiding our room and mopping and washing the floors weekly soon became things I learnt.

I needed to re-learn how to live. While I was free as a bird in Oke-Labo, I was a bird in a cage in Bódìjà. The few trips we made out of the house were only to school and back, to church with the occasional birthdays and celebrations for Christmas etc. We were truly ‘ajebota’ kids, no neighbourhood friends as we seldom left the confines of the gates of our house. Our playtime were only when my foster parents have gone to work and when we hear the engine of the Brown Toyota Corolla or the Blue Renault 12TL making the corner of the last stretch of road to our house, we drop everything we are doing and hurry back inside in a manner similar to crabs running into their holes. Life was a strict regimen of rules and forced obedience.

My new school was Methodist Primary School. I walked to and from school on the rail tracks that ran a short distance from the back of our neighbourhood to the school, the more reason another name for the school was Methodist, Oju-Irin. At Methodist, I was part of the school band, responsible for instrument accompaniment to the singing of the national anthem and school songs during assembly. The three years at Methodist went by very fast that I cannot recollect several of the events that transpired. I know that I took part in football sessions during break time but not the darling of anyone. When chosen, it was usually to man the post as the goalkeeper. I can also recollect being waylaid and beaten on oju irin for being a tell-teller.