R. B. Ejue has had stories published in Red Fez Magazine, and Work Literary Magazine
BREATHE OR SUFFOCATE
I am the first of four daughters. My father kept trying to have a son, until a doctor informed him during my mum’s fourth pregnancy that she might die if she got pregnant again.
We lived in a slum, an old neighborhood in my city, where the windows of bedrooms overlooked latrines, and people bathed in outdoor shacks. There was no state sponsored electric power supply, and cats and dogs battled everyday over every scrap of food they could find.
My father was a taxi driver. This meant that he always left the house early and returned late. He used to drink great amounts of kai kai to help him cope with the early morning and late night cold. While this habit didn’t make him pugnacious, he had a bad temper, and he was always frowning. So my younger sisters and I didn’t befriend him, in fact, we rushed into our bedroom whenever he returned from work.
I never saw him engage my mother in a fruitless conversation. They didn’t trade jokes. They didn’t waste words. They only spoke to make certain enquiries about duties they were meant to fulfill.
My mother was a big woman – she’d been slim until she gave birth to my last sister – with a plain face. I always tried to see if I could read her emotions through her face, but she had everything hidden behind a somber mask. I was very frustrated with my home. I didn’t like the fact that the two adults there never looked happy.
For a while I believed that things would have been different if my mother had given birth to a son, but the shabbiness of this idea was its own undoing. I couldn’t think of my father being cheerful, whether he had a boy running around the house or not.
I was put to work when I was nine. I street hawked water in small sachets, sold for ten Naira each. My mother bought the water in bulk every weekend, and paid a cold room to freeze it into ice blocks. I went to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, while I hawked Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. On these latter days, I would go to the cold room after breakfast with a plastic bucket, and arrange the blocked water inside it. I then balanced the bucket on my head and left. Because of their frozen state, the sachets of water remained cold long enough for me to sell them. I sold out the first bag by midday, returned to the cold room for another one, which I finished selling by evening, and then I went home.
There were many street hawkers, boys and girls with bright smiles and disgraceful manners. We played games when business was slow, sometimes chasing each other in our threadbare clothes. Some of us sold sachet water, others sold soft drinks, pastries, confectionaries, and seasonal fruits. We dealt with tempting goods, but none of us was ever seduced into pilfering our merchandize. The thoughts of the beating we would receive from our parents if our accounts didn’t add up at the end of the day kept us in line.
My father was always quick to unbuckle his belt and flog us; he prided himself on being a disciplinarian. After beating us, he’d ramble on about the rightness of caning, about how his father had caned him, and how those beatings had shaped his future. Whenever he said these things, I wanted to poke him in the eyes. How couldn’t he realize that his future was no future? That the canings weren’t worth it? We lived in a two bedroom karaboot that made breathing difficult, and our veranda doubled as a neighborhood dustbin.
I didn’t miss going to school on the days I hawked. School was a place where teachers and senior students flogged us for the merest slight. When we weren’t being flogged, we were either enduring the equivalent of a six hour lecture on advanced psychology, or we were being made to cut grass, wash toilets, and scrub staffrooms, in an enactment of a farce called extracurricular activities.
There was nothing encouraging about the place. It was a government run primary school, and all the children who graduated from there went on to attend a government run secondary school, since they were never able to make the cut-off mark in the First School Leaving Certificate examination, necessary for getting admitted into a private school. And all students who graduated from a government secondary school – those who lasted until graduation – couldn’t get into university, since they were unable to make the cut-off mark in another school leaving exam, the Joint Administration and Matriculation Board Examination.
But when I was on the street, I could flirt with the open windows of buses, taxis, and private cars that slowed down at the junction, my headquarters. Sometimes a parched passenger would shove a beckoning hand at me through a car window, and I’d run up, making sure to match the pace of the slow moving vehicle, then I conducted my business and disengaged.
The most challenging thing that happened to me was when a passenger gave me a big currency note, and bought only a few sachets of water. I had to calculate the change, search for the money in the purse strapped around my waist, and hand it over, all before the bus cleared the junction and zoomed away.
They were some passengers who let me keep their small change. Anytime this happened, I either saved the money, or used it to buy treats from fellow hawkers.
My day slumped when it was evening and I had to return home. It didn’t help that there were two boys on my street who ambushed me most times, and mocked my limited English vocabulary, and verbal skills. They were boys whose parents could afford to send them to missionary schools – not as expensive as the private ones, but able to give a comprehensive education nonetheless.
At home I helped my mother prepare dinner. And then we sat and waited for my father to return from work. It was taboo for either of us to be asleep when he came home. My mother was expected to warm and dish his food, and I, as first daughter, was to serve and wait on him until he was done.
I spent lots of nights watching my father push balls of garri and soup – it was the only meal he ate at night – down his throat without pausing to savor them. He ate like it was a punishment. His shirt unbuttoned, his trouser slack at the waist, smoke from our kerosene lantern stinging his eyes, beads of sweat cramming every space on his forehead, I almost pitied him.
But then he’d finish eating, and grumble with his foul breath about the soup being too salty, or spicy, and I’d wish he would go back to work, so that my younger sisters could return to the cubicle we called a sitting room, to listen to me or my mother tell stories about the wily tortoise.
Telling stories was a practice my mother started when I was four, though I believe she’d started earlier when I was a baby, and I’d only realized what she was doing when I began to develop memories at the age of four. I loved listening to her stories, and I began to contribute mine when I was six. These early efforts weren’t good – in fact they weren’t even comprehensible. Whenever I tried to tell a story, I got caught up in the narrative, and spun tales that had meandering, unending, fabulous plots.
Later on, my stories became better. But this didn’t stop my father from deriding me because of them. He said it was a complete waste of time for us to indulge in telling stories at night. He said that if he had a son, the boy would have been too serious minded to tell stories. He’d have instead been looking for any opportunity to improve himself.
I remember that a lot of sweat was running down my neck, and the plastic bucket balanced on my head wobbled every time I tried to wipe it off, the day a taxi pulled up at the junction.
Traffic that day was a bit jammed, and the taxi driver was trying to sneak out of the bottleneck. Someone wound down the cab’s window, and stretched out a hand with a book, at me. But I wasn’t the only one selling sachet water in the vicinity. Other child hawkers noticed the gesture, and began a frenzied rush for the car. I had started running before them though, so I got there first. The passenger with the book turned out to be a boy not much older than me.
I gave him the one sachet he ordered. He paid with a high currency note. I searched for change in my purse, and had just counted out the exact amount owed him, when the taxi driver pumped the engine, and began to speed away. I gripped the bucket on my head with one hand, and then used the other to shove in the money through the window, just before the car kicked dust in my face.
When I’d finished coughing and wiping away the dust, I noticed something on the ground. It was the book the boy had been holding. It was yellow, and the bright color appealed to me. I went closer and picked it up. The letters on the cover were bold, and easy for me to read. MOVIES THAT CHANGED THE SECOND HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
I left the sun and went under the shade of a kiosk, where I flipped through the book. It had a lot of pictures and movie posters. The text was printed in a bold and pretty font. I had never seen any book like it. My school textbooks, which were the only books I saw, didn’t come close. I took the book home, and although I felt a mild form of guilt knowing that someone somewhere was mourning its loss, I still guarded it like a patent. I studied that book with an intensity that was missing in my juvenile academic pursuits, discovering movies such as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Batman, and Indiana Jones.
As I went over and over the book, rereading the text so many times that soon I could quote most of the pages by heart, I developed a familiarity with English that neither my parents nor siblings had. I got tired of rereading the same book, and I started looking for something else.
I bought my next book myself. I saved all the change magnanimous customers left for me, and bought a pirated novel from one of the stationary shops along the junction. After I finished reading it, I realized that I lacked the patience necessary to save for another book. So, I decided to be bold and ask my English teacher for a book. The woman threw me a sharp look for my daring, and told me to face my studies.
And so I did. Devouring all my textbooks except mathematics, since it didn’t have much text, and the little it had was determined to confound me.
My test scores improved, but that didn’t interest anyone. I attended a government primary school, and here, teachers were too interested in finding out whose father was a raging alcoholic, whose mother had birthed children for two different men, who had been raped by her father, to give a hoot about whether I could pass the First School Leaving Certificate Examination or not.
At night, my mother stopped telling us fictions. She began to lament about how she’d been unable to pass her secondary school final exams, which was the reason why she hadn’t gone to university, and had now ended up living in a karaboot.
She stared at the wall when she told us these new stories, the kerosene lantern distorting her shadow, but I felt her eyes burrowing into me. I was in my final year in Primary School. Final exams were approaching. I didn’t think about passing the exams, no one had encouraged me to try to pass, no one had as yet noticed my high test scores.
Over the passing weeks, I became confident enough to read aloud, and although I found certain words difficult to pronounce, and I had to take my time through every line, I still felt good. I also started trying to write like the textbooks – copying how they punctuated their sentences, and arranged their paragraphs.
I was returning from hawking one evening when the two missionary school boys attacked me. They kicked dust at me, clapped their hands, and danced around me. They asked me if I knew how to spell dictionary, if I knew what discern meant. I told them to leave me alone, and tried to escape the mobile circle they’d formed around me, but they refused to go away. So I got angry, and spelt dictionary for them, told them what discern meant, and asked them if they knew what the head of the judiciary arm of government was called.
I’m not sure if the boys were stunned by the fact that I answered their questions, or because they did not know the answer to mine, but I know that they went away, and I went home, and for the first time I felt hopeful.
If I could pass the cut-off mark in the final exams for a private school, and go on to get enrolled in one, then I would have the kind of education necessary for me to get into a university, and if that happened, there was every chance that I could improve the scholastic skills I’d just learnt.
I began to study for the final exams, something unheard of in my school. I wasn’t good in mathematics, but I felt that if I could make my bullies go away, then I could make mathematics stop bullying me. I studied all the time. I no longer contributed to our nighttime story telling at home. And my mother asked my younger sisters not to bother me when I was studying. My immediate younger sister was now made to serve my father his food at night, while I read in the bedroom. My father complained about this new development at the start, but he soon quit when no one listened to him.
On the day of the first exam, I sat at my desk in the classroom, and waited for the examiner to bring the question paper. I tried to keep my breathing even. I was nervous because I knew the change in my life would be drastic if I was able to pass these exams. I knew that this period of my life would become a fond nighttime story. To be enjoyed not only by my family, but by a lot of other hopeful boys and girls in the world. If only I could pass.