24 Apr March 1987, The Housewarming (Part 1).
The earliest memory of my childhood begins with tripping into a roadside gutter in front of my late grandfather’s house. The gutters in my neighborhood were never covered from the public, so they were constantly littered with all forms of rubbish you could imagine. It was the same with many parts of Nigeria especially those on residential streets and local roads. Sometimes, only the driveways were covered for vehicles and pedestrians to cross.
I should have been three or four years old to have a faint memory of the incident, but my mother insists I was only two. I don’t remember much about the accident, but the picture in my mind begins from when my mom snatched me from two burly men that probably rescued me from the detritus-laden gutter.
“What happened to him?” she screamed!
“He fell in the gutter!” the men replied, almost in unison.
Completely submerged, I was covered in sewage from head to toe, which was very much expected for a city deprived of an efficient sewer system, even if there was one in my town when I was born. As much as I can’t remember how I fell into the gutter, the part where the bleeding from my forehead became apparent remains the most striking of this memory.
“There were lots of broken bottles in the gutter,” Mom explained. “One of the glasses had cut deep into your right forehead. The bleeding was initially concealed by dirt until your face was almost wiped clean. I was taken in horror at the sight of blood spurting out uncontrollably from your forehead. Our effort to control the bleeding was unavailing, so we hurried to the hospital. Given the severity of the skin torn away from your head, the doctors had to graft before stitching the laceration.”
My scar turns out more evident on my right forehead than I am aware of. After all, what does a child make of a thing like that? For years, the other children made fun of my scarred face. I always let their taunts roll off my back, maybe they thought I was weak. As I grew older, I endured the early mockery of my scarred face, especially by classmates. Although the stitches were gone, I needed to be reminded of it until after the incident that occurred on my first day in primary school.
My first day in primary school which was equivalent to first day in first grade wasn’t exactly what you would expect from a typical five-year-old. I showed up to school with my brother, Abey. At this time, I had no idea Abey was in fact, my half-brother. For some reason, I thought we were twin brothers and he thought the same. My brother and I are only a month and half apart, and my mom had raised both of us as twin brothers. We found out two to three years later that Abey and our then kid brother, Lateef, were from the same mother. She and my dad had separated when Abey was three years old and Lateef was only eleven months old. Sometimes, I am surprised by how I had a vivid picture of my “gutter-accident” when I was about the same age as when this woman left but completely had no memory of her.
Hence, I had four siblings, two from my mom and two from the other woman. Biola, the only girl, is two years younger than me, and Tunji is five years younger than me. Both of them are from my mom. My half-brothers, Abey is a month older than me, and Lateef is a year younger than Biola.
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Primary School had a great reputation for excellence and discipline considering it was an all-male school. Most mothers also seemed well attracted to the white shirt and khaki short uniform along with a ball cap. The school badge was tailored on to the left breast pocket while the ball cap also had the same badge sown to the front-piece. I can’t remember what our sandals were called at the time, but it was in-vogue for primary school pupils in mid-eighties Nigeria. Our socks rolled all the way up to just below our knees just like the soccer players do.
Abey and I couldn’t wait every morning to get in those uniforms, at least for the first few years in primary school until later years when we figured it was because we didn’t have to do our own laundries back then. There weren’t washers and driers in Nigeria in the mid-eighties. Considering how neat and sharp we appeared every day of the week for kids in white uniforms, my mom and my much older cousin must have done an unbelievable job handwashing and ironing our uniforms, even if they had to use a coal iron.
My dad often came down from his building every morning just before he left for work to scan through our uniforms in almost a military manner. I remember grandma requesting him to drop us off in school on the first day of school, but he declined. “They will have to get used to walking to and fro school by themselves, come rain, come sunshine. They need to learn to be independent, otherwise, they will expect me to drop them off every morning. Besides they are boys!” My father said. Grandma seemed disappointed, but she knew her son well, not even in the rain would he drop his kids off in school in his car.
As my brother and I walked to school, my father drove past us on the street. I remember neighbors paused to wave at us. “You boys look so clean and sharp!” They yelled. Although I didn’t know much about what it means to start school, I loved being in my uniform and more importantly the proud look on the faces of my family members.
We got to school at about 7:30 a.m. All the kids were dressed up the same. I admit it was very military looking back to my primary and secondary school years in Nigeria compared to the education system in the United States. In Nigeria, students mustered at a designated assembly spot every morning 7:45 a.m and close of school at 1:00 pm for primary school and 2:00 pm for secondary school. Formations on the assembly ground were by class – designated in alphabets, grades, from the most junior to most senior, and respective student heights; from the shortest to the tallest. It was amazing how every student knew exactly where to go, in front of whom and behind whom. You could easily tell if someone was missing at the assembly. After the prayers and announcements, students sang to the drums as they marched off to their respective classes, one class after the other. New students were directed to their respective classes and fortunately, I ended up in the same class as my brother. Two students were assigned to each desk and bench. My brother and I were excited, but we weren’t allowed to sit on the same bench. The class desks were somewhat designed to satisfy the same requirements as lockers in developed countries.
Abey was a lot different from me, in fact, quite the opposite. Though we very much had the same daily routine, dressed the same way, and made the same friends; he was more introverted, calm, quiet, and gentle. On the contrary, I was very curious, energetic, and fearless. Earlier in the morning on the first day in school, I noticed some students in slightly different uniforms from ours mustered separately, so during lunch break, I tried to walk around the school, attempting to figure how many schools were within the same compound. I noticed my brother walking away, about a few meters from me, crying. Someone must have hit him I thought. I ran up to him and asked what happened. He told me a bigger and older pupil had bullied him. I asked him to show me who it was, so, we walked around for a few minutes while he searched for him. It didn’t take long for him to point at one of the students. He was truly bigger and looked much older. Later, I found out he was a class ahead of us. Apparently, John had a reputation. My brother wanted us to turn around and walk away. However, he was surprised when I walked up to John, tapped him on the back, and asked why he attacked my brother. He pushed me away and took a swing at my face before asking “So what? What will you about it?” I don’t have a vivid picture of how the fight started, but I do remember that it took two male teachers to get me off John. When the teachers pulled me off John, I watched him bled profusely from his nostrils. His white shirt was stained with blood. Later, I found a few blood spots on my new uniform as well, but it wasn’t my blood. I was taken back to the class while the young bully was attended to at the sickbay. My brother tried to explain why I defended him, but the principal handed me a letter to take home to my parents a few minutes later.
All the members of my family were scared of my father. He was a tough disciplinarian and we never wanted to cross his path. “You must be punished when you misbehave,” was a slogan of his. No magnitude of pleading by anyone else, not even his mother could change his decision once it was made up. My father could be unpredictable so that when you expect the worst from him sometimes, you barely get a warning.
My mother and grandma read the letter after we got home. As much as grandma tried to be mute about the incident especially because she believed in her grandchildren standing up to defend one another should the occasion arise, my mother made it clear there had to be consequences for being involved in a fight. It wasn’t my mom that I was worried about, it was what my dad would do to me when he returned from work. I was only five years old, but old enough for punishment; after all, I was old enough to fight a bigger kid. Shockingly, my father read the letter and was completely indifferent about it. He was more interested in our side of the story. He later dismissed Abey and me without saying much. A few days later, we found out that dad was glad I stood up for my brother though he would have expected Abey to defend himself being the older one. As I got older, I would understand why in my culture, fathers would more than anything love their first sons to turn out tough and strong, so they could take their place someday. Not that Abey was weak; he was a very patient kid who tries to avoid violence at all costs. Many years later, many kids in school will come to fear Abey after we witnessed his anger first-hand with another bully in school.
For the rest of my time at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Primary School, I became famous for breaking John’s nose; no one poked fun at my scarred face, neither did anyone tried to bully my brother and me. John and the rest of the bullies in school became scared of me and simply attempted to make friends with me.
To be continued …
Copyright © Deji Ayoade 2020