THE TRIALS OF NZOCHUKWU - EPISODE 5

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                                                                  It made no sense to Nzo. He w...

                                                                 

It made no sense to Nzo. He was convinced he could not pick out the word ‘Ali’ from the page. “Nzube, what is the first word on the page you are reading from?” “It is Ali aunty Gorgi,” she replied. “Now you look at the first word on that page and spell it, Nzo”. He looked at the page to please her even though he had no idea how to spell ‘Ali’. “You still can’t?” Nzo nodded affirmatively. She knocked him in the head severally. “You are the dullest pupil I have ever seen.” “Just look at it and spell it off the page,” Udochi suggested. “Yes, it is right on the page, Nzo,” said Nzube. “He is terribly dull. He can never spell it even after you’ve told him the answer,” Ikem taunted. “Now look at the first word on this page mumu (buffoon).”

 Gorgi pointed at the word on the page, yet Nzo could not spell it. Nzo could only partly recite the twenty six alphabets if he sang along with the rest of the class. Doing so by himself was impossible. More so, he could not recognize the letters, so spelling a word, for him (even when as in this case it was right in his face) was akin to rocket science. Gorgi stared at him for what seemed like eternity. She was nonplused and exasperated. Bereft of ideas, she employed the only strategy she knew, ‘beating’. She slapped and knocked him in resentment as if to drive some knowledge into his head. “So, you cannot spell what I am pointing at?” Nzo ignored the question, which infuriated her more and she slapped him even harder. “I know you are quintessentially blockheaded, but it seems you are becoming deaf and dumb too. Go to the front of the class and kneel down.” Nzo dragged his drained body to the front of the class and knelt obsequiously. Gorgi proceeded with the rest of the lesson.

At recreation time, the class thronged outside to play and munch on their lunches. Gorgi had told Nzo that he was banned from recreation as part of his punishment. He was directed to keep kneeling down. A few minutes into recreation, the urge to walk away from school heightened. No one was watching, apparently. He craved another ball of kpof-kpof. He dipped his hand in his pocket to make certain that his fifty kobo was still there. The feel of it was very reassuring. The length of this punishment is too harsh, he thought. I wish I could read, but I cannot. I am not as smart as everyone else, yet I can’t see the point in dishing out such severe punishment to me for that. It is not my fault that I am not able to read; he tried to rationalize his academic impediments. He was making far-reaching efforts to justify absconding from school again; the only thing he could think of. It was his only solace. It was his place of tranquility without the tortures of Gorgi and her teachers.

The times he spent away from them and even from home were his most treasured because they offered him time to roam free in the streets; to watch football without being smothered by fear and a dogging sense of inadequacy. The biggest impediment to his intent was his father’s rare gesture in the morning. However, he felt the punishments he had had to face midway through the day far outweighed every other reason. I have to leave, he thought. His heart was trembling. The prospect of running away was alluring especially with the promise of a delicious ball of Mama Thankgod’s kpof-kpof, but the consequences were dire. He was convinced his father would be equally merciless, should he abscond. It seemed recreation time flew by. He was still struggling with the thoughts of an escape when his classmates swarmed back into the classroom. Nzo felt a tingle of hunger stalking his intestines. Perhaps his hunger was exacerbated by the characteristic sight of Udochi ravenously wolfing a luscious-looking ball of kpof-kpof.

“Nzo, if you answer two questions correctly during the next lesson, you will go back to your seat,” Gorgi announced as she readied herself for the next lesson. Nzo was deflated by the announcement. His knees hurt and he was thirsty and hungry. He had expected her to release him from the punishment after recreation. He rued his missed opportunity to run when he had the opening. “Class recite states and capital,” She instructed. The class transformed into an orchestra as the pupils sang away. “Nineteen states and capital are, Anambra – Enugu! Bauchi – Bauchi! Bendel – Benin city! Benue – Markurdi! Borno – Maiduguri!...” Even Nzo could recite the states and capital of the country by heart. They had sung it severally that it had stuck to everyone’s memory. “Who can tell us the capital of Bendel state?” She asked.

Fingers sprung up in the air. “Aunty I.” “Aunty I.” “Abuchi,” she said pointing at him. “Benin city!” Abuchi yelled. “Correct. And the capital of Sokoto state is? Tell us Chilee.” “Sokoto.” “Correct. What is the capital of Cross River state, Nzo?” He had not been paying attention to the questions, having been engrossed in the thought of relieving his hurting knees. The mention of his name jolted him back to the class. He was sure he had heard Cross Rivers state. He vacillated for a brief moment as he tried to double check his impending answer. “You do not know?” Gorgi asked in sheer disbelief. Nzo ignored her, he was quickly reciting the nineteen states and capital in his mind, and he had not tracked Cross Rivers yet. Gorgi took a step closer to him, perhaps to deliver a slap or knock. Before she could accomplish her intention, Nzo shouted “Calabar!” She stepped back, somewhat surprised. “Correct,” she responded rather dispassionately.

After they had exhausted the states and capital of Nigeria, she changed the line of her questioning. “Who is the governor of Anambra state?” Not everyone knew the answer. Some fingers were down, so Nzo felt less lonely not recalling the answer. “Tell us Nzo” she said. “Eeeeem! Eeeeem!!! I…I do-not-remember,” he stuttered. He was sure he had heard the governor’s name in class and at home, but he always felt serious subjects like this one were reserved for parents and not children his age. His dad and his friends often complained of the state of the economy. He was certain they had mentioned the governor’s name severally but it would not come to mind at the moment. “Well, you will keep kneeling down if you don’t know.” “But I am not the only one who does not know. Please can I sit now? My knees hurt a lot!” “Shut up!” She retorted. “If you do not know the answer to a question, do not go pointing fingers at others.” She turned to face the class again. “Tell us Onyenachi.” Chief Ifeanyichukwu Jim Nwobodo,” Onyenachi answered. “Fantastic! Good job Onyii,” Gorgi replied. “Clap for her,” she instructed, and her pupils applauded Onyenachi’s brilliance. She continued to spin off questions making no efforts to release Nzo.

Nzo decided he had enough. He would make a run for it. He would wait until she strolled to the other end of the class allowing him enough room to speed of before she could react.  A moment later, Gorgi ambled to the back of the class. Nzo rose to his feet and sped off as fast as he could. He mustered all his energy to sprint, striving to evade being caught. He was too quick. Before they could mobilize themselves, he had reached the end of the street. He swerved briskly to the left and headed in the opposite direction to his house. He was convinced he had lost them. Gorgi ran to the front of the school not sure which direction he had gone. “He is not worth our time,” she thought. It was a good riddance. She did not bother to organize a search team to look for him. It was too risky to go to Mama Thankgod’s shop, so Nzo headed for Ugwu club section of Atiza market. He knew a woman who sold kpof-kpof and similar snacks at Ugwu club. He had walked past her shop numerous times with the aroma of snacks tickling his nostrils. Armed with his fifty kobo he had every intention to treat himself to a good snack.

Atiza market was bubbling with business. “Goo nu ugu!” A young pumpkin hawker was canvassing for sales. He was about twelve years old. Nzo knew him, so he made sure the hawker did not see him. His name was Igwe. He was the house help of a couple near their apartment, Mr. and Mrs. Udeh. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl who went to school, but they refused to send their house help to school. The Udeh’s were unpopular with other residents in the area, particularly for their unsavory treatment of their house helps. They once had a girl as a house help. Her name was Obiageli, who was also horrendously treated by the Udeh’s until neighbors contributed money and put her on a bus back to her home town. It was said that Mrs. Udeh once poured hot water on Obiageli resulting in severe burns and thus, forcing the neighbors to act, since Mrs. Udeh had refused to listen to any form of advice to treat Obiageli as she treated her own children. Rumor also had it that Mr. Udeh was a weakling. He lacked the guts to stand up to his wife who had a voracious penchant for maltreating their house helps.

Nzo decided to avoid the main street that ran between the front of the market and Atiza quarters. He sensed he was less likely to be spotted inside the market where traders and buyers were more absorbed in bargaining. He strolled through the rice stalls, meandering his way between shops, traders and buyers. He sighted Agbo from afar. He was perhaps the most popular butcher in the market. Nzo had been to his meat stall a few times with his dad. He was sure Agbo was too enthralled in making another sale to notice him from a distance. Besides, he was unlikely to remember him. He must see a lot of faces each day, Nzo concluded. He could not help but wonder what it felt like living in Agbo’s household. Pictures of numerous dishes garnished with several lumps of meat flitted through his mind. His children are definitely lucky, he thought with a wrench of envy. When he reached the snack shop at Ugwu club, his mouth was getting more watery. There were numerous snacks on display. The blend of aromas oozing from kpof-kpof, meat pie, fish roll and moi-moi left him bemused. He wished he could get a taste of everything on display but with his fifty kobo, there was very little he could afford. Having had kpof-kpof in the morning, he decided to try something else.

Meat pie and fish roll were a delicacy in Nzo’s world. He could not remember eating any of them before. “Gini ka I choo? (What do you want?),”the proprietor of the shop asked. She had a baritone voice that could pass for a man’s. She wore a money bag around her waist. As she stepped away from the counter, Nzo could see that she was largely built. It did not take much to deduce that she feasted regularly her products. She carefully regarded Nzo for a moment. “So, what do you want?” She asked again. “By the way, shouldn’t you be in school now?” What is your business? Nzo thought to himself, but he dared not ask the question.   Such question would give him away seamlessly. It was normal for people to inquire why a child was in the streets at this time of day and not in school. It was said that “Ora ana azu nwa… no one raises a child in isolation from the community.” “Can I get one meat pie, please? It is for my teacher,” Nzo lied. “And she sent you? Which school do you go to?”

She seemed determined to unravel why a pupil that young was sent out to the streets by a teacher to buy snack for them. Nzo was cornered. If he told her the name of his kindergarten, she might probe deeper. He was worried that she might even go asking questions around his school. He did not want such complications. Then, another customer handed Nzo the exit route he needed. “Madam, please give me my usual.” He was a thickset man. His arms alone were nearly as big as Nzo. As soon as the snack seller bent over to grab some snacks from the display box, Nzo stepped out of sight and made a quick turn into the next line of stalls. He walked further away from the market, along Ogui road towards the New Haven. After a few meters, he turned right and headed back towards the quarters.

He had to find somewhere to spend his precious fifty kobo. He had to contend with avoiding everybody from school and anybody else who might know his parents. He remembered a shop by Mrs. Moto’s house. Mrs. Moto was a popular teacher at China Town. Both parents and pupils loved and revered her for her firm, yet loving approach to teaching. She disciplined pupils proportionately while assuring them of her love and desire to impart the right values and norms. Some students had said that you could not possibly feel any anger for being disciplined by Mrs. Moto, because she would help you understand your infraction and never used excessive punishment in disciplining pupils.

Nzo was convinced that the owner of the shop would not recognize him.    Unfortunately she did not sell meat pie or kpof-kpof, which he preferred. On reaching the store, he looked through the display glass. It was full of wraps of roasted ground nut, packets of assorted biscuits and kwini-kwini. Although popular with most children, Nzo disliked Kwini-kwini. It was made from ground nut paste rolled into sticks and fried in cooking oil. It cakes into a strong, almost stony stick upon frying that one could hear the cracking sound of a piece of kwini-kwini between a munching set of teeth nearly miles away. It was this difficulty in breaking kwini-kwini that partly inspired Nzo’s distaste for it. There were rumors that during the making of kwini-kwini, in an effort to roll as more sticks in less time, some workers performed the rolling on their bare laps. Each time Nzo saw makers of kwini-kwini, he imagined what their laps looked like. 

The thought that they might have rolled those luscious-looking sticks of ground nut paste on their laps was too revolting. “Please can I get a packet of Nasco biscuits?” He inquired. The shopkeeper did not recognize him and did not seem interested in his business, which spared him another tirade of questions. She fished out a packet of Nasco biscuits and handed it to Nzo, who finally parted with his fifty kobo. “Ka o di (bye),” the shop keeper said as Nzo walked away, ripping the packet open. “I meela (thanks),” He replied. He munched on the first piece. He took another bite and then another. It was delicious. He let each piece melt slowly in his mouth. As the biscuits disappeared, a cloud of sadness hovered over him. The consequences of his yet another escape  from school began to play on his mind as he loitered the streets aimlessly, taking solace and satisfaction only in the exquisite taste of his reward for the day, a packet of Nasco biscuit.

He needed to find somewhere to hide until school was over. He recalled a big mango tree at the far end of block twenty six. They had gone to play a football match there before. It was usually quiet during work and school hours. He dragged his tired body to his destination and slumped under the tree. From his position, he could see a chaos of activity far away along mmiri ani, the river which runs from obiagu to the Ogui end of town, and then through Asata and towards Bisala road leading to Independence layout, bordering Chime Avenue at New haven. There are two rivers by the same name in Enugu even though both have entirely disparate origins. They merge around Bisala road. The other mmiri ani river cuts through New market and Okpara Avenue before reaching Asata. Bisala road, the confluence point of both rivers was a stone’s throw from Nzo’s house.

Hausa goat traders often walked past their house carrying loads of grass for their goats on their back or head. The river banks were a consistent supply of grass for goat traders at Atiza market. They were also a magnet for farmers who grew corn, an assortment of vegetables and cassava nearly all year round. It was corn harvest season in particular. He watched as green corns plants tilted and fell under the spell of machete-wielding farmers. He could smell the stench of the river. This end of mmiri ani reeked like a skunk, mainly because of the never-ending deposition of dirt into the river from one end of the city to another. The slaughter house at the meat section of Atiza market lying between the market and the beautiful St. Michaels Catholic church was a constant supply of animal waste, which ended up in the river. He did not like the smell, but the scenery was immaculate.

A swarm of mosquitoes that inhabited the farm nearby detected his presence. They wafted over his head looking for bare skin to attack. He got up, jumped into the farm and broke off a few cassava stems and beat forwards and backwards over his head to stave off the marauding mosquitoes. He remembered his last bout with malaria. He was not nearly half as worried about the debilitating fever as he was of the side reactions of the antimalarial drug, chloroquine. The knifing itches had kept him and the entire household awake all night and offered no respite at day for three straight days. He had seen his brothers and sisters suffer the same reactions following malaria treatment. He looked up to make sure he had rid himself of the unwanted guests.

He stretched his arms and legs and leaned into the mango tree. For the first time, he wondered what he might do when he grew up. It had been drummed into his head severally that if he had no education, he was destined for failure. He wanted to believe that there was some short cut for him, but the eerie feeling that his parents, teachers, siblings and friends might be right superseded his self-invented consolation. But I could play football? He wondered. He was very good at it but his dad had once said that football was for dropouts. They earned very little and were predominantly poor, after a short career. “What if an injury cuts your career short? With no education, what would you do afterwards?” His father’s words rang out in his mind. He hated school and he was convinced it was not for him. He dozed off, woken by a mosquito bite a few minutes later. He had been very tired. He thought he had slept for up to an hour. He stared around. Farmers were still cutting away on the river banks and the neighborhood was still wrapped in serenity. He continued to savor the scenic view of the river banks. 

 Written by:   
Victor Chinoo

Image source: www.flickr.com

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Moofyme.com: An African Literary Blog: THE TRIALS OF NZOCHUKWU - EPISODE 5
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