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                                                                       There was no one in the backyard when he got home. The door was ...

 There was no one in the backyard when he got home. The door was ajar, so he stepped inside. He saw his mother, the twins and Uzor under their mango tree. He went into the bedroom and changed. He joined them outside anticipating the usual questions from his mother. “I understand you ran from school again Nzo,” Iheoma remarked. Uzor had broken the news to her. “Yes mom,” he replied. “So what is your excuse today?” “I don’t like school mom. My teacher and classmates hate me. I get punished mercilessly at the least infringement. Today, Aunty Gorgi would not let me out on break with other pupils. She had me kneeling down for hours.” “What offence did you commit?” “I could not spell a word.” “I am sure she must have taught your class how to spell the word severally, so she must have been infuriated by your inability to remember anything you are taught.” “I don’t remember if she had taught us the word before but mom, was that enough to smack me repeatedly? Make fun of me as always, and keep me kneeling down for hours?” “While I am not convinced that she kept you kneeling for hours, it seems you and Gorgi do not see eye-to-eye.” She does not like me mom, and I hate her!” Iheoma could sense the rage quaking in his little boy.

“It is wrong to hate anybody, Nzo. So where did you run to?” “I found a mango tree and sat there most of the afternoon.” “You should have come home to report the situation to me. I could have gone back to your school with you to find out what went wrong.” “I was not sure you would believe me, besides, I was more afraid that you might take me back to school and I did not want to go back there.” “Next time, you should come home to me, okay?” “Yes mom.” “Go and shower and I will get you something to eat.” “Okay mom.” He was overly surprised at his mother’s attitude. Could it be that I am being left off the hook this easy? He pondered. He was relieved by his mother’s understanding.

Uzodika listened intently to Iheoma as he cleaned out the last morsel of his garri and egusi soup. “He obviously does not like his teacher and I can’t see how any student can learn from someone they hate and fear that much,” Iheoma continued. “Maybe we have to be gentler with him.” “Are you suggesting we condone indolence? A total lack of appetite for hard work?” Uzodika shot back at his wife. “No. I am only saying that if he is not going to learn under the circumstance - beating him and calling him names will not help. From what he told me today, that is all he gets at school.” “Well, if he refuses to perform, I guess they have to drill it into him somehow.” “Perhaps, he would do better in a different environment.” “I take it you are not encouraging a transfer to another kindergarten. Aunt Gorgi’s is the most affordable around. We cannot afford to send him to a more expensive kindergarten.”

“Yes, we cannot but rather than have him stay there for another year because he has performed terribly, we might let him join his siblings in elementary school come next academic year.” “He barely learns a thing at kindergarten; do you think he can cope in elementary school?” “If he is happier there, he just might do better. He has a pathological fear for his teacher and I do not blame him. A new learning environment might do him some good.” “Hmmm!” Uzodika breathed heavily as he digested Iheoma’s suggestion. He took her opinion seriously. Iheoma was a woman of few words but her opinions were often saturated with wisdom. “Let me think about it,” he replied. “Okay my dear. I know you did your best in the morning to coax him into staying in school, please do not be mad at him for absconding again today. He needs a break.” She took her husband’s empty plates and left for the kitchen.

It had been a torrid year and Nzo had made generous contributions to the dramas of that past months. His excitement was complete. His father’s words resonated in his mind, “If you can manage to stay more in school for the last few weeks of this session, we will have you registered at China Town primary school for the new academic year.” He looked his dad straight in the eye looking for additional confirmation of that statement. “You will let me go to China Town?” he asked, bristling with sheer exhilaration. “Yes, only if your attendance improves.” “I will stay in school daddy, no matter what happens!!!” Uzodika could hardly believe the eagerness radiating off his son. Nzo hugged him tightly for several minutes. It was a moment of unspoken deep gratitude from a son to a father, and Uzodika understood that. He was pleased to see his son excited about school…for the first time since his first day at Aunt Gorgi’s nursery school. He had never seen him like ever since, so he sensed a change of environment might make a difference.

Nzo sped off to break the news to his siblings. He found Ibekwe in front of their neighbor’s house. He was playing with Kele and Muche Ndukaku, sons of their neighbors, Mazi and Oriaku Magnus Ndukaku. They were playing a mock football game, where bottle tops starred as popular football players. The game was overwhelmingly popular with children as it proffered the opportunity to live out their playing and coaching imaginations with the inclusion of their football idols. The inner sides of the tops were engraved with the names of the player each child wanted them to represent and they were placed inside out on a plane surface. The tops were controlled with the fingers by pushing them against a mock ball often fashioned from chewing gum, round-shaped buttons, small stones and the likes. A nudge on a top against a ball pushed the ball in the direction aimed at by each player. The player who gets the ball past the goal line in a mini post manned by a motionless bottle-top-goalkeeper the most times won the game.

Ibekwe was a ferocious competitor. He was aiming for a shot when Nzo rushed in screaming, “I will be going to China Town next year!” “Really?”  asked Kele. “Yes, my dad just told me!” He was literally yelling. Ibekwe and Muche were deeply engrossed in the game, attacking each other fiercely. Nzo tugged at his brother’s shirt repeating the news, this time shouting into his ears. “You have not even passed a single test in kindergarten let alone China Town. Dad must have been kidding,” Ibekwe mocked, but Nzo’s enthusiasm would not be dampened. “Come, let’s go ask daddy. He would not lie about that. He just told me,” he affirmed with vehemence, pulling at his brother. Ibekwe shook him off. Rapu m biko! (Leave me please!) I have a game to win here,” he replied to his younger brother with a tone of finality. “Gbaa Ibekwe, ka mu gosi ebe a! (Play, Ibekwe so I can finish you off),” Muche said.

He dashed off to find Uzor. He headed up the street and ran past Mama Maumau’s house and veered right. He found Uzor waiting for his turn in a button game. This game was a mother’s nightmare. Children amassed buttons first by tearing them off their shirts and by invading their siblings’ clothes, ridding them of nearly all buttons. They would compete with other to enlarge their button collections. Usually, buttons were pushed towards a wall with the thumb on bare ground and the player with the button nearest to the wall (farthest from the players) won the game. Children spent time honing the technique required to apply enough pressure on the button to send it towards the wall, yet gentle enough to avoid a major bounce off the wall, and back towards the player. Uzor could see the anticipation scribbled all over Nzo’s face as he raced towards him.

“I will not be going to Aunt Gorgi’s school next year,” he announced, buzzing with raw euphoria. “How do you know?” Uzor inquired. “Dad promised me. He said if I can spend more time in school for the rest of the term, I would have earned my ticket to China Town.” “Yea!” Uzor yelled, happy for his big brother. “There, that ugly witch will not be able to flog you anymore,” he added. “Yes. I will never have to see her again.” “You are going to China Town?” Smart Onyiaa asked. “Yes.” Nzo answered without hesitation. “But they say you always run away from school Nzo. You will do badly in Primary school Onye ujo akwukwo!” He teased. Without warning, Nzo landed a head butt on Smart’s face sending him down. He leaned over him and landed ferocious blows on his face and head. Although Smart was older and bigger, the rage springing from his derogatory reference to Nzo’s most hated expression, ‘onye ujo akwukwo’ appeared to have handed him extra physical leverage to launch a decisive attack against Smart. By the time Smart got up, Nzo and Uzor had vanished, probably taking refuge under their father’s bed.

 Later that night Nzo set the household afire during dinner with news of his prospective enrolment into China Town primary school. “I cannot wait to go to China Town!” he shrieked as he packed up his dinner plates for the kitchen. “I have never seen you this excited about school Nzo. You will probably get tired of it after a week and start running away as you have done every week thus far,” Chukwuma pointed out. “No! I will not run. I run from Aunty Gorgi’s school because she beats me all the time.” “If you do as poorly in primary school, at some point you will be disciplined too,” Onyeoma added. “Yes!” Ibekwe and Chukwuma replied in support. “I will not run even if they beat in primary school.” His response ignited a raucous laughter amongst his siblings. “That does not make any sense Nzo,” said Onyeoma.

“Maybe the punishments at China Town are special; so special that they will not hurt enough to make you want to run?” She teased. “You don’t get it. Gorgi hates me and treats me terribly. I just don’t want to go to her school anymore. “She likes to beat Nzo all the time,” Uzor added in support of Nzo. “Ajo nwanyi…evil woman,” Nzo concluded. “Don’t call your teacher names Nzo,” Uzodika warned. “I am sorry daddy,” he apologized. “By the way, I think Nzo will make new friends at China Town. He is overly excited about it. I think his excitement will translate into a liking for school when he makes the switch” Uzodika added. “Ezi okwu (very true),” said Iheoma. “Before that though, he has to make more effort to stay in school for now. You can do it Nzo, can’t you?” “I will mom,” he replied.

He tucked away a vivid picture of that very day his father had broken that life-changing news to him in the deepest recesses of his mind. Inadvertently, Uzodika had given his son a new lease on life by freeing him from the manacles of an extraordinarily stunting environment. Come January, I will be a pupil of the best school around, China Town primary school, he thought to himself. He could barely contain his exhilaration. He pictured himself in green shorts and white top with a bag full of interesting books. He could smell the dust in the air. He liked the unique smell of December dust. It reeked of Christmas. The prospect of Christmas before a new era in his life - China Town - was thrilling. He licked his lips repeatedly to douse the cracking effect of dry harmattan breeze. A delightful smile streaked across his face as he walked to the front yard. “On whose side am I?” He asked his friends, salivating at the opportunity to kick off the usual holiday football games; the last before life at China Town Primary School.


Written by:
Victor Chinoo

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