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Poster source: Every square centimeter of open space at China Town primary school served as a playing field during r...

Poster source:

Every square centimeter of open space at China Town primary school served as a playing field during recreation. Nzo preferred the game on the main football field. Often, the most senior students in primary 6 played among themselves, with different classes (often A-C) competing against one another. Today seemed different. He could see primary 5 pupils preparing on one end of the pitch and primary six pupils on the other. This will be interesting, he thought, hardly waiting for the game to commence. In a few minutes, his conjecture was confirmed. Primary 5 pupils were about to play primary 6 pupils. He could make out the figure of his football hero, Bomboy popularly called Isi okiri (tiny head). 

In Nzo’s opinion, he was a prodigy. Bomboy was about five foot nine inches tall, with a truly small head, and an average build.  His left foot was a killer, and his dribbling skills which inspired Nzo were wicked. On a good day, he could dribble the entire opposition team including the goalkeeper before passing into an empty net. Bomboy was the captain of the primary 5 team, and Nzo immediately decided to root for his hero’s team. He could tell however that it would be an enthralling match. The primary 6 team boasted of the school’s best players overall. Their captain, Oduko commanded great reverence amongst football fans in the area, stretching past China Town primary school. He was a huge, tall and physically strong player. His physical approach to the game was a contrast to Bomboy’s sleek and silky style, which Nzo admired more. 

By the time the referee, the school’s health and physical education co-coordinator Mazi Egbu blew the whistle for the start of the match, the area behind Primary six pupils’ goal post was totally crowded out, obscuring Nzo’s view.   Having come this far, he was not going to be denied. He thought of leaving his hideout to join the crowd but he still worried about being seen, which might end his freedom. Looking around, the cashew tree on the boundary between their farm and the Nnamdi’s, their neighbors to the left (in block 57) caught his attention. Without dithering, he hopped onto the tree risking being spotted by his mother. He straddled a branch strong enough to hold his weight. From there, he savored the game. The view was perfect. He joined in the occasional cheers and jeers. It was a pulsating, end-to-end game with both sides throwing all their irons in the fire in an effort to break the deadlock. Oduko had hit the crossbar a couple of times with his trademark shot, but it was the primary five team that took the lead through their talisman, Isi okiri. 

He was having a frustrating game thus far, but towards the end of the first half, he picked up a pass on the left flank and waltzed his way through the primary six defense. Despite rough tackles and shoving, he dribbled his way through, with only the goalkeeper standing between him and goal. Nzo was shouting his lungs out as Isi okiri ripped the opposition defense to shreds. He lost his composure amid the excitement, but his voice had been drowned out by the crowd whom Isi okiri had got to its feet too. Isi okiri opened his body pretending to aim a shot to the left. The goalkeeper, Chuka could see his intent. He dived accordingly, anticipating the ball any moment but Bomboy slowed down for a few seconds. He swerved to the right and chipped the ball to the top right corner. “Goal!” The crowd yelled in excitement. Primary 5 pupils were thrown into utter frenzy…euphoria. The goal was greeted by commotion as the pitch was invaded by cheering primary five fans. The desire to join in the celebrations was strong but Nzo held it off. 

A few minutes into the second half, Bomboy struck again. It was an absolute beauty. This time, he arrowed an unstoppable shot from outside the eighteen yard box. “Isi okiri di egwu (Tiny head is wonderful).” The crowd extolled the ingenuity of a classy player. “I bu Pele…you are Pele," someone shouted from the crowd, comparing Bomboy to the Brazilian legend.   Primary 6 team however, began to press for a goal afterwards. Their leader, Oduko, to whom they often looked, lacked the dour flair of Bomboy, so they opted for long, more direct balls. More than midway through the second half, Oduko was released by an inch perfect pass by Ekwerekwu, and their captain did not disappoint. He took a quick shot which hit the upright before crashing into the post for a goal. They pressed further with an increased sense of urgency. Their passes were far more accurate and they chased down the opposition much quicker when they lost the ball. It was not long before their efforts were rewarded. 

Oduko had crashed another thunderous shot off the upright and Joel, the closest to Bomboy in terms of flair on the primary 6 team was on hand to tap in seamlessly. Primary 6 pupils were driven into a euphoric celebration. “How could these young boys beat us?” They asked in sheer relief. “Now let’s show them who is boss,” they yelled, urging their team to wrap up the game with a killer goal.   Both sides attacked and defended with grit, refusing to be on the losing side, but tragedy struck the primary six team moments before the final whistle. Bomboy had cut in from the left once again drawing two defenders out of position as they rallied to stop him. That left a hole in the defense for Nnamdi to slot in. Bomboy raised his head and sighted him from the corner of his eye. He made a quick through pass to Nnamdi who rifled home without hesitation to hand the young warriors of primary 5, victory over their senior opponents. 

Primary five pupils carried Bomboy shoulder-high, singing through the streets of Atiza quarters.  Nzo ambled his way back to the streets via the same route and headed home. He could not fully savor the excitement stemming from the game he had just seen. He was far more preoccupied with the prospect of explaining how his day had gone. His slate was still lying at school. He hoped his mother would not ask about it. “You are late Nzo,” his mother pointed out when he arrived home. Iheoma was a particularly thorough woman; adroitly observant and meticulous to a fault. She could almost read the minds of her children. 

Having grown up in a family of eleven children, her instincts and attentiveness had been honed in an effort to survive sibling rivalry and form much needed alliances amongst her siblings, while operating in sync with her parents as the first child. She had helped in taking care of her numerous younger siblings, which imbued in her with motherly instincts way before she had her own children. She was washing a pile of clothes in the back yard. Her ebony dark skin glazed in the sun as she squeezed and rinsed. “I was playing football with some of my school mates,” he lied. 

I hope Uzor has not told mom I ran from school again, he wondered. He stared hard at her trying to fathom what might be running through her mind. “Uzor has been home long back Nzo. You were supposed to be home soon after school. Where is your slate?” His heart sank into his stomach. “I left it at school,” he lied again, stuttering through the interrogation. “Why would you do that? We are supposed to see what you did at school today. Now that you left your slate behind, how are we supposed to know that you did your work at school today?” She got up and hung some clothes on a line that ran parallel to their apartment building. 

“I forgot it at school ma,” he continued to fabricate lies in desperate effort to assuage his mother’s curiosity and avoid potential punishment.  “You will have to run back to school, find your slate and bring it home.” “But the classes are locked ma. I cannot access my classroom at this time.” I am sure Gorgi will be very pleased to let you in. She lives in the same building, doesn’t she?” Why does mom have to act like a police woman? He thought. “Mom, I am really tired. I promise mom, I will bring my slate back home tomorrow, please,” he begged, looking for a way out of his immediate dilemma. “So how do we know that you did your work at school today?” “There was not much to write down, we counted with stones and bottle tops for addition and subtraction problems.” “You promise that if I had to see your teacher, she would confirm that you stayed in class and did your work?” Iheoma pressed further as though she was sure that Nzo was concealing something. His throat went dry. 

He could not make such an empty promise. “Mom, Aunty Gorgi whipped me again today. This time with the help of other teachers, so, I ran when I could not take it any longer.” “You cannot keep running away from school. Everyone gets punished for refusing to do their work or something like that. You should concentrate on learning, improving yourself and getting better at class work. That way, you will not be overly worried about being whipped because there’d be no need for that.” “But mom you do not understand. They make me look like…like a nobody; an animal. They call me all sorts of names. I cannot stand the treatment. No one can.” “So, how come all the other pupils do not run away from school?” “I don’t know ma, but I don’t see anyone else get treated as myself.” “You need to stop complaining and do your work like others. I can’t believe that after begging you to stay in school today, you still absconded from class. Ngwa gaa sekpuru ala n’ime ulo…Go and kneel down inside.” 

He was emotionally drained. No one seemed to understand his position and experience. Once again, tears flooded his eyes as he went inside. Uzor was having lunch while Mma and Orjiugo were sleeping. “Did you tell mom I ran from school?” he asked his Uzor. “No, I didn’t. I said I did not know where you were.” Nzo knelt on the floor, but rested most of his bodyweight on his lower legs to ease the pain on his knees. He considered running from home too, but he had no idea where to run to. The intensity of the sun was at its peak outside and the sweltering heat was nearly unbearable.  “I am sorry, Nzo. I didn’t like what they did to you at school today,” Uzor sympathized with his brother. He was gentle and thoughtful. He would hardly share his food with anyone though, but he hated to see people go through pain. “That’s what I go through nearly every day, yet I am expected to stay in school and learn.” “Aunty Gorgi is very wicked. I don’t like her.” “Well, me neither obviously,” replied Nzo. “Sorry,” Uzor registered his sympathy once again. Nzo said nothing this time. Chukwuma, Ibekwe and Onyeoma returned from school shortly afterwards. “You absconded from school again, Nzo?” They echoed as they walked into the living room. He ignored them. The answer was apparent. 

About an hour later, Iheoma walked into the living room and Nzo scrambled into an upright kneeling position. “Come and get your lunch,” she ordered and Nzo happily followed her to the kitchen. “You should go back on your knees though after lunch, until your dad returns. He has to decide what to do with you.” Nzo was pleased to get his lunch. He ate as slowly as he could despite his biting hunger to delay his impending punishment.  He finally gulped down his last morsel of yam porridge, had a cup of water and returned to the living room. He sat down rather than kneel. His mother was in the front yard with his siblings. They could not see him, so he took it easy on himself. 

He knelt down properly the moment he heard his father’s voice outside. “Daddy Nnoo…Welcome daddy!” Echoed Nzo’s siblings. “Thank you,” he replied. “How was your day?” Iheoma inquired further. “Same old,” he replied. “We were told today that the government’s budget for the Railway Corporation and other federal parastatals will be shrinking in the coming years. We are expected to be more self-sufficient, so train fares will rise soon. I am not sure the Corporation can survive without adequate federal funding though, no matter the price of rail travel.” The children had heard their dad talk about imminent gloom in the Railways but they had little understanding of the consequences it would have on their lives. “Where is Nzo by the way? Did he skip school again today?” “Yes,” Iheoma replied. Uzodika was enraged. “I warned him not to run away from school. Where is he?” “He is kneeling down in the living room. You should get your lunch first and calm down before dealing with Nzo.” He was no longer listening to her. 

He rushed into the living room, whacked Nzo in the head and pinched his ear. I naghi anu ihe…you are hard of hearing,” he complained. He walked into the bedroom and returned in a flash with his ana (whip). “Saa aka gi…stretch forth your hand and open your palm,” he ordered. Nzo complied with fear written all over his face and he flogged him six times. On the seventh one, Nzo offered his left hand, but he ordered him to stretch forth his right hand. “No, the same hand stubborn boy.” Nzochukwu was crying profusely by now. “Please daddy…please! I wanted to stay in school but…” “No buts and ifs any more, you stay in school period. Now go into the bedroom and find something to read. You will not be playing football or any other games until you improve your performance at school.” 

He wished he had the opportunity to tell his story; a chance to explain his ordeal at school. He felt a gnawing desire tugging at him to share his travails at school but the order had been given. He retired to the bedroom and sprawled out in bed. Even if he wanted to read, he could not decipher even the simplest of books. He kept one beside him though, just in case his dad decided to check in on him. What a day! He sighed in relief. Hopefully, I have seen the worst of this day, he thought to himself. It saddened him that he was not like other children. He felt an asphyxiating fear that most other kids had never experienced. 

He knew he was different but having no one to understand his predicament hurt more than all the inadequacies he knew he possessed. He often wondered if he would ever get better at school, read, write, solve math problems, or be accepted by his peers even if he remained poor at learning. He could hear the sound of football around the corner. Their neighbors must be getting ready for a late afternoon game. It was one of his favorite activities; not today. He wondered if mom and dad loved him as they loved the rest of his siblings. He was a constant thorn in their flesh. They could not possibly love him as much, he thought. Perhaps if he did better at school, they would. The thought that he may be loved less than the rest left in in a very lonely place. He dozed off to sleep letting go of a dreadful plethora of thoughts that besieged his young mind. 
This story was written by:
Victor Chinoo

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