Recap: Indeed my parents made a lot of sacrifice for me and my siblings that make me wish they had tarried a little bit more to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
PART 11: College Days (contd)
The first casualty of my father’s determination to send me to boarding school, come rain or shine, was his Singer sewing machine. Although he was no longer using it for business, he still kept it and it came in useful to patch our school uniforms and other attires when they needed to be repaired. That was quite often as these were few and overused and we were very playful and showed them no respect. But something had to give when the terms’ fees needed to be paid. For boarding students then, it was 30 naira (about two rand, forty cents or ten US cents) per term while day students paid 10 Naira per term. Yet some parents had to wipe sweat off their brows to get that. Mine, obviously, were in that category. The pressure was much because sometimes you were not allowed into the classroom or even the dining hall without proof that you had paid your school fees. So, off his precious sewing machine went for whatever flimsy amount he sold it to the lucky buyer.
To make ends meet, though they never ever met, he kept cultivating yam and making plots of farmland available for our mothers to cultivate cassava and melon. Incidentally, our Unohio farmland was on the Ubiaja axis. Once or twice a week, he would ride his bicycle to work at Ubiaja, ride it through Udo to the farm, do some farm work and ride back home through Eko-Idemudia, Ualor, Ebheibe and Afuda. He was literally riding in circles on his bicycle – all for our sakes. Weekends hardly existed for him. They were almost always spent on the farm.
My mother on her part offered whatever assistance was within her means. To complement my father’s efforts, she kept on harvesting her cassava and sold them raw or processed into garri to add some value before selling. Like a typical African woman, she would tie one of her younger children on her back and walk the long distance to and fro after washing her ripe and fermented melon in the farm which was later dried for sale and for domestic consumption. Sometimes, it would be a baby on her back and a basin of cassava on her head. The children (including me, during the holidays) helped out with farm work grudgingly. We would pray for rain to start falling before cockcrow which was the time we were often woken up to start going to the farm; so that we might be told to stay at home. What we did not know, or knew but cared less about, was the fact that each time rain fell and we stayed at home, we had more weed waiting to welcome us to the farm the next time we went there. But who could blame us? Our peers used their weekends and holidays to play soccer and other fun games and we were expected to spend ours with yam tendrils, thorns, the wickedly itchy devil beans (otue’e) and smelly fermented melon. It did not help either that we often left in the dark and walked through some lonely strips of the road to the farm before dawn, amidst the fear of witches and wizards holding their nocturnal meetings on top of some of the many big trees that littered the road to the farm. Owls were regarded as evil birds and we were scared of them. Sighting the shining eyes of an owl in the distance gave you goose bumps and made your head heavy. Such a spectacle was automatically interpreted to mean that a witch or wizard was waiting for you and sometimes we ran back to some house along the way and waited for daybreak or for a group of other adult farm-goers before proceeding.
But owl or no
owl, we loved going to
the farm during harvest season, especially when the maize was ripe and the yam ready to be harvested. Equipped with pear, particularly the big fat Onitsha variant (olubhun-Onitsha), we would volunteer to go to the farm where it was also a blessing for rain to start falling so that we could remain in the farm hut roasting corn and demolishing them with pear. The same went for yam season when our mothers would bring along bitterleaf sauce (oriwo) or just palm oil and salt to enjoy the roasted yam. There were different types of yam but we did not discriminate. If it was the yellow yam (ikpein), so much better. But it could be the regular white yam of which you had alebun, onoguba, asukhu, akpe, orii, etc. Water yam (obhie), considered to be in the second division of yams, got automatic promotion to the premier league when the others were scarce. Roasted red cocoyam (pink actually) was a delectable substitute in injury time when all that was left were tubers and seed yams reserved for the next planting season. We did not mind helping with tying yams in the barn (eruu), as some nice tasting seed yams that were too small to be tied became our booty.
My mother was also into trading. What trade did she not try in order to raise money to help out with school fees and to feed the ever hungry mouths around her? She sold cooked rice. How we used to love the semi-burnt rice (ikpakpa-ize) left at the bottom of the heavy metal cooking pot after she had packed the one that was going to be sold at the market! Then she sold corn and groundnut cake (amumun) which was garnished with sugar and teamed up nicely with garri in cold water on a hot afternoon. She even sold firewood, mangoes, and oranges which were bought on trees, plucked when ripe, and taken to markets in as far away places as Ekpoma and Iruekpen. My favourite commodity that she traded in was smoked ice fish. They came from cold rooms in different shapes and sizes. They bore names of no known origin such as sarvenda and meluza (as pronounced). The smooth skinned ones were called Paw Paw. These ones came out of the local grill over smoky fires shining like well-oiled brides ready for the groom’s house – and they were very delicious, eaten alone or in a soup or stew or even used with that most adaptable culinary product; garri. We helped with preparing these products for the market. We de-scaled the scaly fish and helped to modify them to round shapes by joining their tails with pieces of pointed sticks that went into their gaping mouths and exited through their opercles. But the help was not always for free. Most times it was on commission basis whereby you got one smoked fish for a given number that you helped to prepare. And that was unparalleled motivation.
When things got really rough, like when they couldn’t find the fees for me to return to school after a mid-term or term-end holiday, I would embark on a hunger strike to underscore the urgency of my need. But it was always a fake hunger strike though it worked from time to time. My mother knew and would keep some food for me which I devoured as soon as my father stepped out of the house. My father was so unlike some so-called fathers in the neighbourhood who sometimes got so drunk that they had to be led home from their stupor on the street by their wives and children. Such fathers would not give a hoot even if you embarked on dry hunger strike for forty days and forty nights. I can’t recall ever seeing my father drunk. School fees probably left him no change to stake on booze. He took the occasional kain-kain with root widely believed to be of therapeutic value for a variety of ailments.
Things would have been much tougher for my parents if not for the support structure that I had within and outside the immediate family. My stepmother stepped in from time to time with financial and other assistance. She too was a very industrious market woman who was among the veterans selling roasted corn and plantain along Mission Road, right opposite the location of the popular Villy More Boutique in those days. Then, it became part of my routine to stop over and greet her at her stand each time I was in town, knowing that such greetings were always replied with a parcel of roasted corn or plantain. My eldest sister, Sister Grace, was on standby to replace all my missing items that were either stolen or lost out of recklessness. These included lanterns, plates, cutlery, pillow cases, and even buckets (I must have used at least three buckets in those five years). Sister Grace has remained the same generous big sister and now a mother to me and all my siblings ever since then. Her younger sister, Mrs Vero Irianele, was married to a hawker, as those itinerant traders who travelled away from home to sell medicinal products were called. She had a provision store and I’m sure I must have contributed to the instability in her balance sheet then as she would ‘dash’ me some provisions whenever I came calling. And that was not a few times. The one following her, my immediate elder sister, Elizabeth, grew less aggressive and more helpful towards me as the years rolled by.
Other members of my support structure included my uncle’s wife, Mrs Mary Eichie of blessed memory, a kind-hearted and diligent nurse who boosted my supply of provisions with some tins of milk, packets of sugar, cabin biscuit etc, while her husband, Mr. Matthew Eichie, my mother’s younger brother who owned a chemist shop near Okoh’s Supermarket, threw in some pocket money from time to time and some aspirin and tetracycline when the need arose. My paternal uncles, Godwin Ekata and Francis Ejodamen-Ekata also played their part from Lagos where they were both based at the time. Uncle Godwin, a soldier, has since retired from the army to his Uromi country home while Uncle Francis is still in Lagos till today. He, it was, who bought me my first alarm clock that helped me to wake up to read at night (awoko), particularly in my final year. My late cousin, Gabriel Ekata, filled the gap of a non-existent elder brother. As he was some four years ahead of me in secondary school, I inherited some of his used books, clothes and shoes. He finished from Esan Grammar School and went to Auchi Teachers’ College for a pivotal course. I spent a couple of holidays with him when that qualification landed him a job as a TC 2 teacher. I also looked up to him and some of his friends, such as Julius Ebuade and Ephraim Okosun (now a pastor) in matters of style. We used to imitate their guy way of walking that left you with one shoulder raised, the body bent to one side, and arms swinging diagonally like some special breed of physically challenged crab. We envied their high-waist trousers with fancy suspenders, in sharp contrast to the weird sagging of trousers by youths of today, some of who do not bother to wash the cheap boxers revealed in the process.
I also found assistance among my schoolmates and seniors. Marvelous Esogban, a son to my father’s friend in the village, Odigie Esogban, was a senior and a mentor to me, along with my namesake Anthony Ekata. I had some classmates that were always willing to share both their provisions and their knowledge as friends. These included Christopher Iyoha, Godwin Ebewele, Christopher Obode, Anselm Addeh, Joseph Oshoke, Ernest Ebekine and Matthew Usigbe, to mention just a few. It was Matthew’s elder brother, Charles, who was among the very first set of young Uromi boys I knew to migrate to America, that I had in mind when I told the lie about the source of my boogie shoes. With all this support, I was compelled to bend down my head and study hard. But most of the time, I was reading instead of studying and I did not quite realize this until recently. How did that happen?
Again it was Nicholas. Until about a year ago or so, we (my wife and I) had a running battle with him over his studies. Whereas his female siblings needed little or no prompting to do their homework and read their school books, he would wait until the very last moment before doing his. And if you asked him, he would tell you that he was not wired the same way as his sisters and that he performs better when under pressure. Although that resonated with me and seemed to be true with the quality of results he sometimes came out with, yet we continued piling pressure on him to read. One day he responded in a pseudo-philosophical way:
“Daddy, life is not all about reading and school,” he told me. “One also needs to have a life”
“Exactly! That’s why we are on your case so that you don’t end up having a wayward life,” I replied.
“But I do read all the time,” he retorted. “Don’t you see me reading all these?” He asked, waving to a pile of Property magazines and Gadgets journals littering the dining table. He is a gadgets buff who wants to become an architect someday.
“Is that what your mates are reading when exams are so near?”
“Then maybe you should ask me to study instead of all the time accusing me of not reading,” he said whimsically.
“Whatever!” I said, as if that was an acceptable way of conceding defeat in an argument.
Talking about arguments, who was that child that would open his mouth and tell his father that he needed to have a life when told to read? He would surely get a life – a very miserable one for the next few days after receiving some venomous flogging.
Now here we are today in a society where you have to look over your shoulder before shouting at your child so you won’t be seen as a monster subjecting your child to verbal abuse. And shout we did, although that too became a source of friction. Since we have managed to refrain from beating them in order not to breach the laws of the land, the only recourse is to shout when you give an instruction that you expect to be obeyed with ‘immediate alacrity’ as in those days but all you get is ‘okay dad’ and a continuation with Playstation, for instance. And then you shout the instruction again and this time you are told, “But daddy you don’t have to shout.” The senior one particularly hates to be shouted at. I recall when I was teaching her to drive, if I was alarmed at her speed and told her to slow down, she would reply, “But daddy, you don’t have to shout.” Being guilty as charged, I would keep quiet and say in my mind, ‘You’re lucky you have a daddy who is teaching you how to drive. I had to ‘steal’ my father’s bicycle to learn how to ride’
My bosom friend, Robert Order, has a story he likes to tell about my daughter’s attitude towards shouters which dates back to when she was just a little girl. Back then, taking the children to St. Aloysius Primary School Garki Abuja was not my favourite way of beginning the day. That was mainly because of the hectic situation around the school when parents hurrying to get to the office would park their cars anyhow and horns would be blaring in anger and invectives flying about. When I was posted to South Africa as Bureau Chief of Voice of Nigeria in 2002, Robert inherited the unenviable task of taking my children to school. One morning, after successfully parking his car, he took the children’s hands to cross the road to the school gate. A car was coming in the distance and Benedicta, my eldest child, pulled her hand back, leaving him to cross with Nicholas. For the next five minutes or so, cars kept coming until such a time that there was a pause and he called on her to quickly cross the road.
“Is that why you are shouting?” was the reward she gave him for his effort. She was just six years old!
Somehow, these Diaspora children have got this funny idea of children’s rights deep into their subconscious. When I complained of this attitude to a family friend she said to me, “Your own is even good. My son once told me, ‘Mum if you beat me again I’ll call the police for you.’”
“So what did you do?” I asked curiously.
“Nothing. I left him alone for that day. The next day, I asked him to go get me my phone from the bedroom. As he was about handing it to me, I gave him a very hot slap and told him to use the phone to call the police and see whether he won’t find himself in the village the following day.”
“Did he call the police?” I asked with laughter in my mouth.
“Police ko, fire brigade ni,” the Yoruba woman said, meaning he neither called the police nor the fire brigade.
She went on to explain to me that her way of silencing them when they got into that mode was to threaten to take them back to Nigeria. That was because, for them, the fear of the village is the beginning of wisdom. She said the only time they went to spend Christmas with granny in the village, the children vowed never to return there because of what they experienced. According to her, on the first night, as they were watching granny’s tiny TV, the electricity went off.
“Mummy!” all three of them had shouted simultaneously in the pitch darkness that ensued, as if the world was coming to an end. All their lives, they had not once experienced a sudden blackout. If there ever was a power failure, which never really occurred in South Africa until the recent past, there would have been sufficient notice to enable people make alternative arrangements. For the next six nights out of the seven they spent in the village, NEPA (as the power utility is commonly called) went on sabbatical. The power generator that was put on standby for their sake was useless as the time coincided with a period of fuel scarcity. They could hardly stand the heat and the mosquitoes. To make matters worse, there was a pool of stagnant muddy water near their house, which the little one among them described as chocolate swimming pool because of its colour, and which seemed to be a maternity ward for anopheles mosquitoes. By the time they returned to Johannesburg, their skins had all sorts of mosquito-designed tattoos.
Did anybody ever tell you that you were reading instead of studying? Looking back, I admit that I read more than I studied. I loved reading and still do. I enjoyed reading novels in and out of the curriculum more than I enjoyed reading….well, studying my Mathematics textbooks. Some of the popular novels we read in school those days include……
To be continued in Part 12.
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