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Nzo and Ibekwe sat on the mat beside Onyeoma and Chukwuma. Uzor sat by himself, enjoying his meal without perturbation. “You have to st...

Nzo and Ibekwe sat on the mat beside Onyeoma and Chukwuma. Uzor sat by himself, enjoying his meal without perturbation. “You have to stop now,” Nzo whispered to him, indicating that it was time for Ibekwe to leave the rest of the food for him. Ibekwe was still hungry, but in fear of the likely consequences, he got up, and walked into the kitchen to wash his hands. He hated Nzo for squeezing his arms. No recollection of his similar treatment of him was left in his mind. “Are you alright Ibe?” Iheoma asked. Odikwa na mma? (Is everything okay?)” “Yes mom, I am full,” He lied as his stomach revolted. Iheoma looked at the plate of garri. She could see that   a bit still remained. “I guess you are enjoying yourself destroying the rest of the garri, Nzo,” she remarked. “I am, mom. I really am,” he answered gleefully.

Nzo dug his elbow gently into Onyeoma’s ribs. He could see that their garri was fast disappearing from the plate and she had not paid her dues. “Remember, I’ll tell dad and mom,” he whispered to her. Onyeoma wanted to whack him in the face. How can you be so mercenary? She thought. She scooped a big ball of garri and rolled it in her fist for what seemed like eternity. She waited until the perfect moment to slip the ball to Nzo. He gladly added it to his fast depleting bowl of garri. “I am not eating with you again, and I have no intention to pay any more ransoms to you. You can go ahead and tell dad and mom that I disgraced them by parading myself as a hopelessly hungry son of paupers,” Ibekwe raved later that night when he found himself alone with Nzo on the porch. 

“I am surprised you are this angry. I learned this game from you,” Nzo retorted, smiling malevolently. “But things have become different lately. We have had to eat much less than before. Could you not be considerate?” “You were not considerate of me Ibe. Why should I be considerate of you now? You have only had it once and you are complaining. Enyezina m nsogbu…Stop badgering me.” “Okay, I am not offering my portion to you anymore.” “Be ready to suffer the dire consequences,” Nzo threatened, relishing every moment of his older brother’s frustration.

Like feudal slave masters, the government finally announced that it had released money to pay railway staff the salaries they were owed. The minister of transport appeared on television to recount his ministry’s efforts at alleviating the plights of its workers. He lavished encomiums on his far-reaching strides to revitalize the ailing corporation. His chubby face and impeccably sown brocade shimmered gracefully, completely belying the harrowing agonies that railway workers had come to symbolize in recent times. He spoke with a smile on his face, intermittently, perhaps unwittingly rubbing his colossal pot belly, which had colonized most of the space between him and his interviewer. The announcement, engendered sheer   euphoria amongst railway workers, only to be slightly dampened when they realized that just two, out of the five months they were owed were to be paid. Like beggars deprived of choice, they accepted what they were offered. 

“You will be on podiums in the future, Nzo. I am sure of that because you are getting better by the day,” Uzoamaka said to Nzo. It was the end of the school year, and they were chatting as they waited for Uzoamaka’s father to pick her up. “My dad tells me I am doing well, but I have a feeling he is not truly pleased with my performance.” “He must be pleased, Nzo. He is your father and he loves you.” “I know he does very much. That is why I am worried. Which father would not want the best for their children? Right now, I just come to school because I have friends like you and because I know Mrs. Amadife will not beat me, but I am not getting any better. My father will not complain about my grades, because he is delighted that I no longer run from school, but I’d like to make him proud.” It was the last day of the school year. While he had enjoyed the year making new friends and partaking in sundry adventures, the old feeling of inadequacy had continued to plague him. Watching friends and neighbors mount the stage to receive prizes, with praises showered on them triggered the fear that he may never be like them.

He had consoled himself that if he could not improve at school, he would take to the one thing he was very good at; football. Having scored several goals following deft displays of dribbling skills, over the year, his classmates had come to respect his prowess on the field. For once, he was recognized in some way and he relished every bit of the accolades that poured in during football sessions.  “Well, hopefully I can get better like you said, but I doubt it.” “Nzo, my father always says that if you keep trying, you stand a chance to win, somehow. I used to struggle with reading myself, and each time my dad helped me with my reading, he told me that, and eventually I learned how to read. Ever since, things have not been as bad for me. Keep working on your reading. You will soon be good at it. I can help you with your reading next term okay?”

He wanted to believe her, but he had stacked high mental odds against himself. It seemed improbable that he would learn how to read. “I hope so,” he replied without any iota of hope in those words. “I think that is your father’s car coming towards us. I hope you have a great Christmas. It will be great to have you in my class next year.” “I am going to be praying for that. And, have a good Christmas too Nzochukwu.” “Thanks, and you too.” She looked at him smiled beautifully and hugged him fleetingly.

She hurried away from the school gate where they had been standing, waiting for Uzoamaka’s father to pick her up after the award ceremony. “Bye and have a good Christmas Nzo. Remember, I will work on reading with you next term okay?” she shouted as she jumped into the nineteen eighty two grey 504 Peugeot. “Bye bye,” he replied, visualizing what it would feel like to ride home in a 504. He started for home in the blistering heat. The sun appeared to have drifted closer to earth as its heat the earth. His once shiny, precious sandals had been worn out by the heat and dust. Besides, he played football with them during recreation to shield the soles of his feet from the burning sun-ignited gravel that line the face of the ground in Enugu. He hoped he would get a replacement next year. He wiped sweat from his forehead as he plodded home wondering what his parents’ reaction would be. “Twenty fifth out of thirty nine students,” he murmured to himself. Chisom finished first again! How does he do it? He pondered. I guess his mother, teaches him at home. After all she is a teacher, Nzo rationalize.

“Congratulations my boy!” Uzodika hailed him. I am impressed. You have been promoted to elementary two. I could not be more pleased with you.” He gazed at his face searching for any signs of pretense. He did not believe his father was genuinely happy. “Thank you daddy,” he answered perfunctorily. He had heard him tell Ibekwe who finished twentieth in a class of thirty seven pupils that he needed make efforts to improve. He is just being nice to me he concluded. Uzodika read Mrs. Amadife’s remarks and began to explain them him. “Your teacher says you are always cheerful, cooperative and kind to your classmates. She also thinks you need to work on you reading. So will you work on your reading next year?” “I will try daddy.” “Trying alone is not enough. You have to work very hard at that okay?” “Yes daddy.”  “I will have Jide teach you next term. I think it is important you learn how to read now.” “Okay dad.” “Nzo ma akwukwo! Nzo na aga na clasi ohuru! (Bright Nzo, who has been promoted to a new class!)” Iheoma heaped praises on him. He felt a little awkward, as he was not receiving used to accolades for academic performance.

He smiled shyly not sure how to deal with his parents’ recognition. “Bia ebe a…come here,” Iheoma implored him. He shuffled over to his mother who hugged him tightly. She seemed genuinely pleased that I made it to the next class, he thought. Still scanning her face, he reciprocated the hug. She let go after a few seconds, looked him in the eye and said, “You will be anything you want to be. Just keep working hard okay?” “Okay mom.” Truly, he would have liked to jubilate, but knowing that Chukwuma, Ibekwe and Onyeoma who performed better comparatively were reprimanded by their father put a damper on his mood. Well, it is great that dad and mom are not mad at me, he concluded.

Within weeks, trees began to shed their leaves, heralding uguru (harmattan season). The dry south-east trade wind was making its annual incursion into the country, blowing southwards from the north.  Buildings, plants, and humans received their annual brown coating of dust. Chukwuma and his siblings sat in front of their apartment as a Hausa goat dealer they had come to know as aboki (my friend) walked past their porch. He took a path between their farm and Mazi Ukadike’s, heading to the river bank to fetch grass for his goats. They saw him on this errand at least once a day. The soles of his feet were jagged, ripped by harsh uguru breeze. Barefooted, he walked briskly as always.  

His skin was as dry as a tree bark covered with whitish scales of roughened skin. They could lucidly see harmattan-induced cracks on his lips. His hair was characteristically disheveled; twisted and covered by layers of dust. “Sanu!” He greeted them. “Aboki sanu!” They echoed, jostling over whose voice sounded the loudest. “Yaya de? (How are you)” They hollered at him in their broken Hausa. “With his usual smile and enthusiasm, he replied “Lafia lau walahi (I am fine indeed).” “Sai an jima (Bye)” “A jima de yawa (Bye too),” he replied. They laughed; impressed with their grasp of Hausa language. 

Written by:
Victor Chinoo

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