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Story Line

Story Line

Green, White, Plain

One of us fell into the gutter on our way back home. He heard the familiar sound above and looked up to watch the bird, and imagined the rich that must be in it until he fell clear into a gutter with stagnant water.

He looks so filthy and all now. There is a smutch of green on his white uniform, making  Ehim look like a flag, a flag of beauty smeared with a small but wide patch of something that should be good(since spirogyra is a useful part of the plant system) but has turned out bad.

I lead us to our community like that, with the joy of going to find our mothers and food.

But our mothers are all seated on the platform, with a few of our fathers, on plastic chairs; all looking somehow.

I go to my mother and ask her what is wrong. I look around the platform again. “Where is Iya Risi?”

When my mother starts to wail, and other women follow, I know what has happened. I just know, and I leave the jetty and our community and run away…I just run, air filling my lungs till I can’t breathe well, and I start to feel like I will fly like the planes we trail with our eyes. I know it can’t change anything, but I keep running.

Mr. Tunde brings me back home around “radio time”. Only my mother really notices and doesn’t even have the strength to scold me well.

The children have joined them too on the platform, looking morose and old and hopeless. I hear Iya Risi’s wailing voice inside, and other consoling voices.

No radio is on.

Mr. Tunde sits with me on one side of the platform, our legs dangling over the smelly water.

“Her baby just started to crawl,” I suddenly say.

“Hope you aren’t one of those who would blame it on the parents?” He asks.

I look at him. “I am sure most of us do but never say it out for anyone to hear. We act as one in this place.”

“The poverty and degradation binds you.”

“Yes.”

“How many have fallen into the water like that?”

“About 5, I think.”

“Then why don’t you people do something about the water?”

I look at him.

“Maybe for this, you all should stop playing the victim card to the environment and government and whatever, and just try to do something worthwhile to change something.”

“Can anything change?” I wave my hand across the water and the platform.

“It’s where you are. You might not be able to fix Nigeria and its problems, but you can change where you are so you can, at least, struggle to survive better there.”

I look at him again. “After all, we are all just struggling to survive…” I say it like it is my own revelation.

“You function as one here—that’s a great power available that you all haven’t harnessed. If this community was Nigeria, it would have sorted out its problems by now.”

“But the whites are part of our problems.”

“I never taught you that.”

I am confused.

My head and stomach ache…

I wonder if it is from hunger or the fact that everything about Mr. Tunde is always so contradictory.

But I can’t ask him to go over school lessons here.

“Talk to your mother tomorrow when she has finished crying; tell her to tell everybody that it is time for solutions.”

My head continues to ache, and now, I know it’s from thinking too many things at once.

“But, sir…what is the thing you want us to do when we see whites and planes?”

He looks hard at me and my soul… “Tell them ‘bye-bye’, and really face your own business!”

Someone puts on the radio…

The news is over; a woman is singing the national anthem.

I look at the white stars and green trees—I can’t really see—and imagine Lilian Williams and Benedict Odiase talking in a plane…

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Story Line

Green, White, Plain

He looks like he was smuggled in from a zoo where he was the baboons’ interpreter, given an excellent brain (maybe for the fun of an experiment), and then driven into our school to show just how one shouldn’t judge a man’s knowledge by his appearance.

His name is Tunde -Tunde Jenrola.

He really looks like the baboon’s interpreter with his high afro and bent shoulders, and perpetual faded, inappropriate clothes, and the rubber fishing boat of a thing he calls a shoe.

He is so constant in the way he looks that even the shadow of his absence is familiar to everyone—whatever that means.

I wish he had taught me all my life and not just in this last Primary school year..

When I close my eyes and picture God, I think of him as the one standing next to Him, writing down the list of noisemakers on the earth.

The relationship between us is quite intriguing; almost gay, in fact—if you look at it from a certain perspective. But from my perspective, I am just the student who is quite interested in things, and he is just the shabby teacher who is very interested in students who are interested in things.

So we are friends in a kind of way.

Today, as he comes into the class just after we all chatter ourselves in from assembly, I see, again, that part of his constantly present presence is his frailness, the one that joins with his dead clothes to make you believe that his brain too must be begging for help, must be seeking to escape from a certain mental awkwardness. But we…I know him. I know how rich and beautifully dressed his mind is, and it irks me some that those who don’t will think he has nothing to offer.

I watch him move across the class and sit his stooping form in a chair. The class is silent by now, of course. He never canes us, but then maybe we are all so scared of him appearing in our dreams to scare us, that we behave like we have sense around him.

I watch him arrange his table systematically and carefully, the way he always does. I am not quick enough in the business like my mother, and so he catches my eye before I can move them to my board.

He holds my eyes and “speaks” to them. My heart skips a bit, and I stand and move to him.

I stand before his ironically beautiful face and say,”I am sorry, sir, but I couldn’t do the assignment.”

He nods slowly. “Did you think about it?”

His voice is like music—another irony—and I wish he would just start teaching us social studies or whatever so I can melt into its rhythm while he feeds our minds.

I can feel various pairs of eyes on my back now.

“Yes, sir… But how can I possibly know what Nigeria’s problem is?”

It sounds like I am mocking him with his questions, but I really am just being honest. I hear a snigger and a chuckle, and then the silence lifts until there is a din of whispering voices that turn into background noise…steady, undistracting, mature background noise.

Mr Tunde is looking into my soul, I am sure. The noise behind us is like a wall; it shields us and our discussion in—I feel good already. My tongue feels freed.

“What is my problem?”

My heart begins to race again. “I don’t understand, sir”

“You do. Why do I appear the way I am?”

I am silent.

“Does the way I appear have anything to do with what I know…what I can offer?”

“No. On the contrary, you are the most intelligent person I have ever met. Your mind is so rich and…”

“Ah ha! That means you believe there is a problem with me and the way I appear.”

I am silent again.

“Now, see me as Nigeria. What is my problem?”

My tongue gets on its marks…

“You don’t have constant light and water and good health care…” My head swims. “Food is not enough and there is so much money you hear about but don’t see. And there is so much you want to do but can’t because your environment is flooded and dirty and limiting and…” I look at his eyes. “There is too much you see but can’t change.”

His eyes stay on mine for a while, and then he smiles. I see his rotten tooth. “You just described Nigeria as me…and you. Mostly, you, though.

“But everything shouldn’t be all negative. I have good things aside my problem, right? What are they? What have we?”

“You have the greatest teaching skills on Earth; you have knowledge beyond compare…” My voice sinks. “You have too much to give with no adequate space for you than this.” I wave my hand across the classroom.

“Nope…No negative notes. What are the blessings you have?”

I rack my head a little, then I find.

“I have a great, doting mother; I have a community that helps me through my fatherlessness; I have friends that value what I have… I have a great teacher.”

He smiles. “Good. We must count our blessings to really live. We are really all just trying to survive in this country, and that’s why the place is as it is.

“Let me tell you what those people did apart from colonizing us – oh, alonside, actually—they colonized our minds with our own feelings of nostalgia, contempt and hatred for them, so that when they left us to ourselves, we couldn’t function without division and greed and corruption and what not. We are all just trying to grab as much as we can carry, because our minds are so bugged by the ills we believe we have.

“So, if they had stayed, we would still be crying—maybe another kind of tears—but much sweeter than this, I continue to believe… Maybe we would have been one in suffering and nationalism, at least.”

I want to ask him what can be done about the problem now—that’s the question, right? But he has already dismissed me and turned to the class.

“When did Nigeria gain Independence?”

“October 1st, 1960,” we chorus.

“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane now?”

“Stare at it,” some of us answer while the rest giggle.

He doesn’t ask “why”; he just smiles and looks at me.

“Are you truly free?”

The giggles stop. They look confused.

I answer “no” in my mind.

“Did the whites cause the wars Nigeria had?”

“No!” They chorus.

“But they prepared us for it,” I say when they are done, and look at Mr Tunde. I know they are all staring at me because I sound dumb, but I glory in how he looks at me, a knowing smile on his lips. “Our minds were prepared for it.”

“Is Nigeria independent?” He asks again.

“Yes,” they chorus.

His eyes are on mine

“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane?”

The giggling again…

The chorus comes…”We stare at them!”

His eyes never leave mine…

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Story Line

Once Bitten, Twice A Story

The oyinbos are every Nigerian child’s god. Well, maybe not all Nigerian children, but then, it is “unNigerian” to see an oyinbo and not stand and stare and point. That is how much damage we…I have been born into.

Oh, we stare too long and get madly excited at the sight of a plane too—the one that looks more like a bird in the sky. We run around and sing for it—or the people in it; the oyinbos we believed are in it, we don’t know which, but the bird in the sky really always gets us worked up.

As a child in Lagos, in the ghetto part of Lagos, anything other than the filth, and makeshift substitutes for the expensive, fascinates us to the point where we fell into clogged and smelly gutters just from looking; dreaming hasn’t even thought to enter the equation yet.

Our bodies have grown resistant to the contaminated water sold in sachets; the mosquitoes feasting on our bodies nightly, because we practically live on water, water that rarely goes down and whose origin is untraceable, the unbalanced, insufficient meals; and, the heart-breaking  things our parents murmur after they listen to their battered radios at night.

We always sit around them too and listen… It’s night after all, and the oojuju stories and dramas we usher into our plays during the day, rise up in flesh and shadows to haunt our minds at night; so we join the adults to  huddle together at night, listening.

Ours is a community not government made, but circumstances-made. We stay together in moments of joy, usually from the addition of another baby to the poverty stricken condition of a home of seven kids already, all with parents in one shabby room and in moments of mourning which constitutes the death of a child mostly, the cause usually being cholera and diarrhoea; cases of a crawling baby with negligent watchers falling into the water and drowning after a heavy rainfall.

Our little community of batcher houses is built with planks leading from the houses’ entrances, to a platform raised above the water; to which the planks are nailed. The batchers are built close to each other, and in something of a circular fashion.

The middle ground where the planks meet on the wide, firm platform is fondly called the “T” junction, and most times serves as jetty for us the children, and a meeting ground for the adults.

We all listen to the radio at night, it is somewhat like an unwritten constitution of our unfounded communit, we even tagged it “radio time”. Our mothers serve the night meals thirty minutes before it begins, so that we have eaten by then, and the fear of ojuju  has come on all the children, and fathers’ have turned the radio up, causing every human and ghost to go silent and listen.

The way the radio solely talks on in the still night, the lone voice being harmonized by nocturnal creatures, and the occasional sounds of disgust and anger and amusement from our parents, is something beautiful to reckon with.

“Radio time” is wonderful, but it is how it leaves our parents that causes us the psychological disturbances we don’t even understand, but get nightmares from when we go to bed with the mosquitoes and horrible smell.

They told us in our overcrowded class that Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the month and date are unimportant, but then, what I think… What I believe the teacher means, is that one woman who had been giving orders from somewhere far away just came for tourist attraction, with flowers in hand, to shake us and tell us “we are on our own now”. Words are cheap; smiles can be cheaper, and so we never should have taken her words to heart, and never should have rejoiced at their prospects either.

They say we clamoured for the Independence…that our nationalism fathers, who were the true leaders, wanted Nigeria to be able to rule itself and have its opportunity to do as it would And so they fought with pens and swords and the white lady came to shake our hands.

But then, years have passed, and there are talks of the mistake Nigeria made by seeking to be autonomous, and it is as if we the children understand the entire delapetic state of things, because when we chance upon those white people reddening under our hot, black sun, and hear those planes flying over our heads, we get this frenzied excitement and…and…curiosity, as if, via the spiritual eyes they say we young ones have, we can discern that we want to be controlled all over again, so that the thieves at least will not be our own black-skinned brothers we trust; so that all our energy can be channelled again at what we will again regard as the “cruelty of outsiders”. It’s as if we know, in my opinion that an outsider killing you is better, and less pathetic, and more “fightable” than when it is your in-house person that should know better.

So we watch these whites and the planes, with a feeling of nostalgia, almost, like we know about the perfect and sweet life we believe they must have just by being white, and  in a plane….we get excited and don’t see the glances we receive from their red faces, faces that wear pity unashamedly, and let you see that you were pitied.

But we never care….I never do, anyway. Mama says you have nothing to close your eyes for when you are naked before a world you need to and can beg for help.

Our parents don’t think about British imperialism, or how much it clouds both our individual and national lives.

We…I don’t really blame them for not thinking any of our issues has something to do with the white folks that had come, gone and now came again to see how good or bad a job they had done in leaving us alone to our devices.

We don’t blame them because we know that many of them did not have a chance to learn… Like, learn completely in a complete system, absolute with a widely read and thinking teacher; classmates that talk and learn; an environment that lets them think and question. We realize they didn’t really learn, because it shows in their behaviour. It’s in the way they blackmail us into doing their bidding; in the way our mother’s keep being very petty; and most of all, it’s evident in the way our fathers crowd the radios grey hairs, casting silhouettes of wonderment and fear on all our souls.

Our fathers fear what they don’t know the tomorrow that’s bleak, and the painful thoughts that cannot be shed in tears. We fear not what they fear, but; who they have become with all this the silent, brooding, rigid beings poverty and frustration has made them.

The next day, I wait at the T junction for the other kids, so that we can go to school…or better put so I can lead them to school.

I am a kid like the other kids, but then, the adults have decided amongst themselves, at a time and date we definitely will never know, that my own “kidness” is ten times more mature than all of theirs put together. I don’t know if it is because I always come first in class even though the stomach I take to school is always just as half-empty as theirs, and the number of my books are just as incomplete as theirs or because I do pretty much too much for my 11 years.

They catch me reading all the time; not my books, of course. I borrow books a lot and spend half the time I should be using to jump off our jetty with the others, pouring over them.

They like the way I talk too. They say I bring out the words from somewhere in my body, the way the white people, they chance upon once in a while, do. They say the words I know are too much and too big for the black, poor head I have. They say the kind of head I have should be for the white people of course who all must be rich.

I never argue with them or correct all their misconceptions about why I am the way I am or how, contrarily, the whites can be, or how we actually could be living our lives, even though we had almost nothing.

I am still a child anyway no matter how much sense or “adultness” they say I have. A child is always a child, and should learn to shut up at certain times this is another unspoken or written constitution.

So I stand on our jetty and wait for children like me who I am being made to shepherd, like they are nothing but sheep under my authority, like I am their president.

 I wait on the jetty and look down at the water, until I hear a sound above me. I know what it is even before I look up. Sure to it, when I look up, there it is a metallic bird in the air carrying people I imagine are white-skinned and rich… I have listened to it too much, that I now think it too.

What more, I imagine them looking down at our community floating on water, and laughing long and hard at the farce we call a country.

I imagine, until I begin to laugh with them too.

I laugh and wait…

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