If you grew up in an impoverished environment where the only prized possession everyone had were promises, you would understand why we behaved the way we did. It always commenced with the Iya Bolas who would come to my mother’s kiosk every day to buy groundnuts or some other things-most times on credit, too. After littering the ground with watermelon seeds, banana peels and groundnut shells, they would begin eyeing all of us Mother had birthed.
“Madam, Ya pikin’ go tall well… See this wan leg.” Excitedly, we would look at ourselves and our eyes would communicate what our mouths couldn’t articulate. At school, the teacher would promise us: “You, Tega, will become a medical doctor… And you, Osapolo, will become a Professor.” We didn’t comprehend what any of those titles meant. Nevertheless, after school, with uniforms resembling a cloth of many rags and sandals wear and tear had gotten tired of, we would run to Mother’s kiosk, simultaneously telling her the promises we got from teacher. She would clasp her hands and thank God for the gift of us.
Living in slums and ghettos forced us to become wanderers by spontaneity. When the last meal of Cold Eba and Banga has been greedily devoured by our drunk father who ignored the movement of our oesophagus and saliva drooping from our uncaged tongues, we would organize ourselves in troops and go about gathering empty cans, bottles, and plastic—just about anything that could fetch us money for biscuits and sweets. On rainy seasons, we would ransack canals and gutters in search of egile(snail). When that disloyal friend called luck sided with us, we would get up to 7 bucketfuls and when it turned its back on us, our egile would barely fill a bucket. We would sell our catch to market men and women without our parents ever discovering. Then like big boys and girls, we would spend the day at Mummy Labake’s, buying Choaba, Coaster biscuits, Pin Pops and peanuts. After we left, Iya Labake would shake her head contemptibly and warn her children never to be friends with delinquents like us.
We developed our entrepreneurial skills during long holidays. The chefs amongst us would prepare mouth-watering soups with sand and stone; artists would draw different items with bare fingers on the ground; potters would carve a village house that falls when the breeze blew; and sportsmen would play football with a bundle of last-term’s notes enclosed in sellotape. On hot and quiet afternoons when adults are out finding money, suggestions would come in. “Let us play mummy and daddy.” Shrieking in the excitement borne from childish innocence, we would go in pairs—male and female— to the kitchen and under the staircase and begin to touch each other. We had taken turns to watch Uncle J on that day he had told us to go and play whilst he speaks to Aunty Veronica, so we knew what parts to explore. Once, we were caught in our theatrical act and hot lashes of koboko descended on our bare backs. We swore by God and the devil never to try such again.
As we began to advance in age, we saw the need for new skins and our Innocence gave way to experience. Mother no longer wanted us at the kiosk because we ate more fruits than her customers bought. We picked up a fresh habit of following Father to church instead. Father had a very big Bible that reminded us of the Book of Life we had once been taught at Sunday school. We promised never to sin against God not because listened to the pastor’s sermon but for fear of the book. As such, we would go to church every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. At times, Father would ask Uncle J to come to take us on days when he was occupied. We liked Uncle J because he told lots of stories. Yet, not once, we had seen him sneak money into his pocket while counting the offering. Osapolo accosted him once and he had said he was saving it up for the motherless baby home.
Our breasts soon started to sprout out from our flat chests like young bean plants from the soil. Hair strands were also beginning to appear in our underarms and the Temple of God. We didn’t understand what it meant and mother did not seem to pay attention to us either. At school, senior boys would touch our chests and we would get an outlandish longing for more. Mother would only examine our breasts five months later when they had become toys to both boys and the men who stopped us at night. When we started seeing red, she would warn us not to get too close to any male except if we wanted pregnancy. We would take her advice literally and avoid guys until our Biology teacher taught sex education to us during a school assembly.
Our Teenagehood ends abruptly and we become young adults. On our long awaited 18th birthday, we would come home excited about the promises from Mother and Father. But in place of the cake, we had been promised, we would find a small groundnut bottle, sugar, milk and garri on the table with a “hapi beday” note from our illiterate parents. Angry, betrayed and hurt, we would examine the tight room and parlour, father’s ageing face and mother’s frail health and realise they would never be rich. Most heartbreaking of all, we would discover the image of Father in a big house–which he had assured us he owned and we would move into soon–was photoshopped.
We are no longer the children who walked pantless and pushed black tyres with sticks, sweating bestially. We are now fresh out-of-secondary-school graduates. Many who see no sense in going back to school acquire tailoring, shoemaking etc. Others try their luck at tertiary institutions. As we register for JAMB, we remember our teachers’ promises to us while we were younger and we pick our course and choice of institution. “University of Lagos, Medicine and Surgery; University of Nigeria, Electrical and Electronic Engineering; University of Ibadan, Law. On Sunday the next week, we see our JAMB results and our hopes are shattered. Because we cannot tell our woeful result to our illiterate parents who have called home that they would soon produce a graduate, we switch to Adult Education, Guidance and Counselling, English language, Yoruba etc. After all, being a graduate was what mattered.
At school, no one knew we were from the ghetto and our parents, miserably poor. It was easy for us to hide and pretend because our secrets were buried in the crowd of 20,000 other undergraduates like us. We began to make friends and lose ourselves. We rolled with the geezers and did everything to capture the admiration of the omo olowos We attended church to quench the “silent voice” and we started to question God. The first time gratification knocked, we peeped and meticulously opened the door. The second time it knocked, we opened our legs.
Like a child who discovers he had been walking blindfolded, we would realise in our final year that we are headed towards a ditch. Only then would we remember our already sunken CGPA and the life of hardship which lay in wait. Slowly, we would slip into depression and the frightening thought of ending up like our parents would encourage some of us to commit suicide. While some of us who remained focused during our university days graduate well, the let-my-people-go geng got a degree after two or three extra years.
The truth soon hits us harder than a missile and faster than a grenade after graduation. We can no longer scam our parents to send money for a textbook we would never buy; no “guys” to run to when the pangs of hunger strike. Now, we seek a new direction. We remember our wretched backgrounds, our frail mother still working her last strength away and anticipating her rich graduate who would build mansions for her. With these in mind, we would make our decision.
In a room filled with different hands each operating a laptop, a black van with Scorpions, Razors and Shadows; at the airport carrying a pseudo-pregnancy; in Baba’s shrine knees crossed and head stooped, we would look back from where we have come and without thinking of what consequences lie in wait, we would say “yes, I am sure”.
Written by Evidence Egwuono