“Cha cha cha, we march together
Cha cha cha, we march away
Cha cha cha, we march together
(Any day of the week is applicable, though I usually preferred Monday or Friday)
Mood tracks for this piece:
“Chibuzo” – Phyno
“Souvenirs” – Switchfoot
It was the mid-1990s, when coins still had value, Nigerian movies still had really good scripts, kids had Tom & Jerry rather than Ben 10, and virginity was more about dignity than lack of opportunity. Sure, it was the military era and freedom of expression could be likened to a poor man’s dream about fried rice, but at least petrol still sold for less than thirty naira, Goldspot and Krest (and even Lucomalt) still lay in retailers’ refrigerators, and the Nwosus could still live peacefully with the Harunas in Jos. For those in my age grade, life was all about eating, mumbling the few words of prayer we could comprehend, getting whisked away to and back from school by parents or by an older relative, being assisted with homework, building houses from sand and mud, comparing toys, asking silly questions, mimicking the adults around us, eating some more, and getting tucked into bed (which we would eventually pee on) when nature got the better of us.
Life was pretty simple growing up in that tiny neighbourhood at Ugborikoko in Warri. (There were those relocations to Orhuwhorun, and ultimately to Asaba, but this was pretty much where Life kicked off.) I wasn’t quite sure as to the type of spoon I was born with, but at least there was a spoon, one which did enough to keep me from malnutrition. Neighbours too played their part in making things a lot less boring. There was Mr. Henry, whose wife often let me play with her mammary glands. There were Samuel and Daniel, two brothers skilled with the catapult and who loved playing silly pranks on everybody. There was our perennially drunk landlord, and his daughter Mary whom I enjoyed playing Hide & Seek with. (I wonder where she is now.) There was Igho on the next street, with whom I (innocently) bed-wrestled on two consecutive Christmas day visits. And yes, there were the “ninjas” who formed a habit of stealing those wrappers belonging to my mother (God bless her soul.)
I had pretty much begun to walk and I had long quit breast milk, but beyond that, not much progress had been made as a child. My speech was still incoherent, and academic progress was pretty slow. Yea, I was made to go through KG2 for a second consecutive year by my father, who felt that I had learnt nothing. The fact that I continually stared into space and showed no signs of grasping anything equally gave my mother cause for worry. That didn’t stop me however from enjoying James Bond movies like “Goldfinger”, or those Jackie Chan cassettes (yea, cassettes!) which my elder brother Steve borrowed from his peers every other week, or the old Bollywood clips like “Mard” or “Gazab” which Aunty Oby got from one of those video rental stores. My life seemed to be in circular motion, with no real direction, but it was all going to change that fateful year.
Yes, that year. The year when I first heard the F-word being used in a movie, the same year when a class teacher asked the “who wants to go to Heaven?” question and I was the only one in the classroom without their right hand raised. No, it was not the year when my mother disciplined me for putting an unlit cigarette stub into my mouth. That had been the year before. Nor was it the year when I lost more than half of my milk teeth, and had to settle for “Akamu” (pap) for over two weeks. That had been the following year, the same year my brother’s safe was burgled (by those aforementioned “ninjas”), and all the money he earned from Nintendo video game house bets, plus visits from friends of our parents, gone with the wind.
It had been my typical kindergarten school day: hum a few Queen Premier rhymes (“I go up, up I go” and all that), get my uniform messed up, get caned by the class teacher for disturbing the peace, never mind that it was her son who instigated it, and of course spilling some rice from the lunch box. On this day however, my mother had elected to come pick me up herself rather than delegate the task to Aunty Oby. We wouldn’t go straight home though; she was a teacher at a primary school five junctions away, and a PTA (Parents-Teachers’ Association) meeting had been scheduled, so she put me in one of the classrooms and instructed her favourite (and ultimately negligent) pupil to look after me. I didn’t yell or cry in insistence to go home. What was the hurry anyway? Home from late noon to bedtime was predictable; get spanked for coming home dirty, wait until 4.00pm for Delta TV to commence broadcast for the day, welcome a late-returning father whose Health Officers’ uniform I couldn’t distinguish from that of a policeman (I used to tease my KG2 peers that my father was a cop and so they shouldn’t mess with me), and scurry to my bedroom once my eyes caught one of those scary Nollywood movie trailers. Yeah, the trailers for “Sakobi”, “Karashika” and “Captives” would still give me goose bumps today.
“The Devil tempts us all, but an idle mind is what tempts the Devil.”
True that. If my mind was preoccupied with something much more constructive than the piece of doughnut my mother left in my tiny hand, I would not have been tempted to join the pupils jumping from table to table, exploiting the absence of the teachers. Well I joined them, and for those few moments I felt like a stuntsman in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. It’s said that “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt”, and when I tried to negotiate my way through the air to the foremost table on the front row, the distance proved too much for my (then) short legs, and I fell head first to the floor, the pool of blood wasting no time to take shape around my skull.
If the screams of the pupil supposedly looking after me rang through the entire school, then those from my mother, who got to the classroom in less than a minute, must have echoed through that street. (Yes, never undermine a mother’s instincts and reflexes.) All I could feel as I went in and out of consciousness was a pair of hands lifting me, and in about fifteen minutes, I found myself on one of the beds in the hospital where it all began; Family Clinic.
While the nurses did all they could, stitching the skull and all that, I kept losing and regaining consciousness like an electric bulb with fluctuating current. I eventually went off air, and thus began a battle to keep me on this planet. Legend has it that my mother wept for every minute of the thirty-six (or more) hours during which I refused to move or open my eyes. The medical team eventually came out on top, and after days of plaster-changing and injections from a syringe-happy doctor, I was free to go. Two weeks passed during which I was unable to move my head or neck comfortably, and when the bandage went off, a scar was born.
In the end, the injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Maybe the fall caused my brain to shift or properly mould, because my recovery coincided with an increased coherence in speech, an increase in cognitive ability, and even a positive change in family fortune. I became what you could call a “bright schoolboy”, reading my brother’s JSS textbooks and narrating Bible stories to my folks, and God has preserved that state of affairs ever since. (Oh, and a double promotion years later made up for the slow progress in kindergarten.) Of course the outcome of that long jump was far from my last serious childhood injury; there was the arm-breaking at D.S.C Model Primary School 1 car park, the bike accident that almost split my knee in half, and the bite to my neck that caused boils all over, but that was probably the most defining of them all, and the one whose scar remains to this day, never mind that nearly two decades have passed.
“So I close my eyes, and go back in time
I can see you smiling, you’re so alive
We were so young, we had no fear
We were so young, we had no idea
That Life was just happening, and
Nothing lasts, nothing lasts forever.”
(P.S: Mum, I am sorry for all the stress I put you through back then. The boy whom you feared would never speak is a lawyer now, and it should be us enjoying that money which the Rules of Professional Conduct have warned about, but Heaven knows best. Thirteen years, six months and twenty-four hours it’s been since Black Christmas, and yes, those undone dishes from the night before still haunt me to this day. While I don’t want it to be so soon, I look forward to meeting you again, and I hope I’ll get another chance to wash for you up there. Rest easy!
And to my baby sister Onyinyechi, here’s to an injury-free childhood.)