I was a quiet little girl who loved to dream. I loved my space and books long before I understood the consequences of ignorance. I lived in my imagination and it was really beautiful in there. From those pages, I visited the four walls of this world. Curled up in one corner, I’d stir at the colourful balls (I later learned were planets) in my daddy’s encyclopedia. I’d read story books into the dark hours of the night with dim street lights and car headlights as they sped past.
My mother was scared I’d ruin my eyes and somehow her predictions almost came to pass, opelope Miracle Working God (story for another day). I’d delay going to bed thinking “okay, just one more page,” and then came another and another and another until she comes to warn me two hours later “for the last time.”
Odusote had the best (hard cover) books on display and every afternoon after school, I’d drool over the books from the window, and if the attendant wasn’t looking, I’d find my way into the shelves and stare awestruck. It was the fear of my mum that kept me from stealing. I couldn’t afford them, and as always, destiny made a way; first taking me through the most unsavory path.
It was in Herbert Macaulay Pry School among children who wandered through life like they wandered in; whose meals were few and far between, so they examined old scars to distract themselves from the scourges of fate. Destiny chose this place, not Philomena Nursery and Primary School where I enjoyed life’s benefits among classmates who spent their summer holidays in the abroad.
By the time I enrolled in Herbert Macaulay Primary School, they had finished distributing prefectship. Mary Iyaji was the Head Girl, Tunrayo (the spider-limbed runner) was her assistant, Hakeem was the Head Boy. The only prestigious office left for me to assume was the defunct library, whose shelves held outdated books. But while others got the position by merit, Mary Iyaji got hers by sheer brute force. She was the oldest in the class, a full grown woman whose breasts could nurse a child. She was about 16/17 years, while I was only 10 years.
Mary was an oppressor and I was born a Marxist. Touch not my beloved, do my people no harm was my creed but Mary Iyaji will not hear. When it comes to fighting oppression, I don’t look at size first, I had the fury of hell, young as I was. I thought these children’s lives were hard enough hawking after school hours to augment their family’s income. School wasn’t even their idea, but they just had to be there and Mary will not let them come to school in peace.
She wanted to make me her friend, but me? Hiannnn!!! Even as a child, I’d never be anyone’s stooge like Chizoba. I’d rather stand with the masses. They couldn’t speak English to save their lives, and I couldn’t fight to save mine, what an awesome togetherness. So we outnumbered Mary and her stooge, Chizoba until one fateful summer coaching she started bring her oga’s children. Those pretty dark girls with luminous eyes reminded me of my days in Philomena. I liked to think I was avenging my friends, but deep deep inside, I knew I was jealous of them.
Whenever they came they would humiliate my classmates, calling them all sorts of names. At first, I refused to join in so they’d know I was tush, is just condition that brought me to that school. But I couldn’t mortgage my conscience for anything. I was vexed in my spirit-girl and after exhausting my repertoire of vocabulary on the girls, I remembered one I acquired from China Achebe’s Chike and the River. It was a delicious word – “scaliwag”. Ohhh how I hated that book, I don’t remember the storyline because it made me (sea)sick, but that word stayed with me forever. “You scaliwag…” I blurted at the brat, and that was it, like thunderbolt…
She didn’t know the meaning but it carried more weight than all the “disconnected maggot” and “bunch of fools” I’d called her earlier. (If you grew up in the 90’s you’d have used the term, “disconnected maggot” before. May I never know the meaning).
They stopped coming since the scaliwag incident, and Mary for the life of her didn’t know the meaning of scaliwag. So she called a truce and the class was united. Me that didn’t like factions before. Mary was bent on impressing me o, bringing choiced “abroad” books from her oga’s children’s shelves. Since no one read them, and that happened to be my food, so she kept feeding me those books and my mind started expanding.
I looked forward to school knowing Mary would keep up the supply. I read Greek/Roman, Norsemen, Egyptian mythologies, legends, adventures, encyclopedia, Merlin, fairy tales, King Arthur and the 12 Knights, etc. After reading, I’d pass to my siblings to devour. Once I returned that copy, Mary was ready with another. My evenings and weekends were lit. Back to back reading. I read so much I finished all the books in their house, had to reread some. If only those children knew…
But every day for the thief, one day for the owner. It was Mr Andrew again. He asked me to go and collect something from Mary (forgotten what). Meanwhile, the girls had stopped coming since the “scaliwag incident” and my spirit-girl was screaming, “BAD IDEA! BAD IDEA!!!” But I knew better than disobey Mr Andrew. And so I went with my heart in my mouth and eyes scanning the compound for escape route, just in case. The maiguard had bolted the gate immediately I entered. So I settled into a seat beside him and waited for Mary. But guess who showed up.
My brain froze over.
“Daddy, Daddy, this is the girl that called me a scaliwag.” She never forgot that word. I was sure I’d faint just then.
Her stud of a dad towered over me, his soft eyes like Cupid’s, voice so fluid I could melt. His first words pouring like syrup, would stay with me forever. “Young lady, where did you pick that word from?” He had the kindest eyes I ever saw, eyes that told you it was okay to call his daughter the vilest of names so far you pronounced it correctly. I mentioned the book I picked the word from and just then, he extended his hand for a shake. Since the world was spinning around me, I groped at it with both hands, more for support than a show of courtesy.
That man couldn’t have been Nigerian. He patted me in the back and told me how impressed he was. And my English, where did I learn to speak so beautifully? I told him I attended Philomena Nursery and Primary School (I just had to stress that part) before I was brought to Herbert Macaulay.
His daughter stood at the corner with seething eyes, broke my heart to look at her. He went on to stress the importance of reading, not forgetting to add how impressed he was at my smartness (me that I was just wanted to leave the compound so I could breathe). And since his daughters won’t read, he said he had a collection of children books he’d like me to read. He said I should feel free to stop by on weekends to read any of them. “So that your children will pour me acid abi,” I thought. “Me that av read all the books in his house.” I acquiesced mechanically knowing I won’t be so lucky next time.
I was grateful it wasn’t her mother I saw, surely, the girls must have gotten their sassiness from someone. She would have shown me who the scaliwag was avec beaucoup des slaps…
Mary gave me what I came for. I told the man my last goodbye and stepped out of the gate. Sad, I’d never get to see him again, but deep inside of me, I knew great things awaited me in life. And if I could just read one more book, my mind would “romp” like the mind of God…