TOOBS: Before the Beginning

She glared at the culprits like a brooding judge presiding over a murder trial before addressing the rest of the class. “When lessons start, I expect you to sit at your desks and pay attention. Everything should be done at the right time, or you’ll find yourselves in big trouble,” she declared, pointing her cane at me. She’d never regarded yours sincerely as one of her pampered teacher’s pets which included Felix Fadare , Nigeria’s answer to Perfect Peter, or her daughter Ijeoma, now my classmate, but belittling me in front of a whole classroom? None of her current whipping posts deserved this abuse tirade when we hadn’t committed any crime. Especially me. “That big Mama over there, no shame at all,” she sneered, and the pupils snickered at my crestfallen face. “Just look at her do you want to end up like that?”

“Nooooo, Auntie!”

***

Three years ago my siblings and I waved the UK a tearful goodbye and boarded a Nigerian Airways aircraft headed for our homeland. Nigeria – the giant of Africa where the sun blazed eternally, and where every neighbour regarded each other as a brother. After a two-month sojourn in Lagos where my Nigeria-based father had resided a few years, we moved again, this time to Port Harcourt. I’d never thought I’d ever missed sitting among twenty-four other kids with a strict educator checking our spellings, but after months of wallowing in idleness, I longed for my return to the classroom. Mum and Dad enrolled us in Military Primary Port Harcourt, an army-owned school with unsympathetic teachers, no windows, no brightly-coloured artwork adorning the walls, and no toilets. Tears welled on my first day when I witnessed a teacher flogging a fellow pupils for eating a mango in class. Our absent waterworks system left us with no choice other than urinating in the bushes when we felt the urge. No music lessons, unless you counted the rare classroom singalongs. No school dinners? My Nigerian classmates had never heard of fish fingers and rice pudding, poor things, and I sometimes caught the poverty stricken kids watching enviously as I tucked into the meals I’d brought from home. My sister and I quickly learned to keep an eye on our packed lunches in case the poorer kids helped themselves behind our backs, which happened often.

This was the school Dad had chosen for two Naija-Brit girls fresh off the plane? A bush school in the middle of the Garden City?

Only two years remained until I left Military Primary for the next level, and after my months of horror, I expected secondary school to meet my own personal standards. God forbid my folks bundled me into a dormitory – the tales I’d heard about those places beggared belief. Three tiny akara balls for breakfast, ten lumps of gari for lunch, and leftover scraps for dinner? As if anyone could survive on those crumbs. And don’t get me started on that ‘school mother’ rubbish – no senior student, however kindly and gracious, would ever match up to Kate Nicholson, the older girl who’d taken me under her wing at my UK primary school. I missed her terribly, and hated myself for losing her address, although I still cherished the Girl Guide blanket badge she posted a few months after I arrived Nigeria. No Naija school mothers for me – as long as we got on as equals, we’ll be fine. No ifs, no buts. My new fellow student would also have to accept my slight accent, articulacy, and proper pronunciation without poking fun – what I spoke mattered more than how I spoke.

Not everybody shared my sentiment, especially my old man who’d selected the institutions without asking my opinion, and refused to purchase the Rivers state common entrance exam form. Any opinions I expressed were met with a curt “You’ll end up going to Oyigbo if you don’t shut up there!”  My friends Anthony, Benjamin, and Ikenna, three Naija-Brits brothers who lived in the house across our street, had the dreaded Community Secondary School unaffectionately known as ‘Oyigbo’, a rundown secondary school where tall, light-skinned, and well-spoken brothers with thick accents were treated as a novelty. It later occurred to me he didn’t want me schooling nearby, and was determined to send me away. Why?

***

A year had passed since the last common entrance exams, and I’d earned a place in…Military Primary? As a non-Imo state resident, I hadn’t made the priority list after submitting their common entrance form. Had money changed hands, I probably would have found myself studying in a decent secondary institution, but my father, an accountant by profession, detested bribery, and insisted I repeat the whole class instead. I’d never failed an exam throughout my time at Military Primary; why had my old teachers implied I’d carried the whole class the previous year when I’d actually taken the fifth position? How dare Mrs. Agim call me out in front of everyone for helping my new classmates scrub out the store room after some random idiot left their stinky business after school ended the previous day? Referring to me as “Big Mama Primary Six” for carrying out a job her beloved pets had turned up their snobby noses. Complete blockheads had mysteriously gained admission into secondary school, and she’d never complained. I’d worked my fingers to the bone to pass those entrance exams, only to endure her degrading cruelty when my old chums in London had already reached year seven without resorting to some quantitative aptitude test…

Life wasn’t fair.

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