“One nation bound in freeeeedom… Peace and Unity!”
The silence, more profound for its contrast to the bellowing unison of young voices that preceded it, lingered poignantly for a few seconds before the headmaster broke into it with his customary banal announcements before releasing the boys to start their school day.
’Toye, bringing up nearly the rear of the line for his class, headed off in the direction of his class, amidst the pushing and shoving that was ubiquitous when the sharp-eyed class-master was momentarily distracted. It was a bright day, another day of carefree learning and the pupils were in high spirits, mumbling silly word substitutions of the marching song and giggling surreptitiously when they got away with it.
“Wherever you go – here, they’d mutter ‘gogogo-n-go!’
Whatever you see – adding, ‘sisi eko!’
Do not say “yes” when you mean to say “no!” – this they capped with a gleeful whisper-shout of, ‘Baba Ibadan!’
The teachers, either oblivious, synchronously deaf or choosing not to engage, do not interfere with the boys’ rough horsing. In other words, it was just another day – exactly how Eyitoye had spent most days for the last three years since he enrolled in the school.
The boy had never pondered on whether or not he liked school. With the pragmatism he inherited from both his parents, he adapted to the environment as quickly as he could and put his best into maximizing the effects of the efforts made to educate him. Unlike some of his earlier childhood playmates in the village, he had always known he would be attending school. With the examples of his youngest uncle and older brothers – both his maternal and paternal half siblings, there had never been any question about it.
Not to mention that his mother, with her obvious pride in Raufu’s achievements – he was now a teacher in the city – was a vocal proponent of the wonders of the white man’s education.
Eyitoye was enrolled as soon as he was tall enough to pass the ear-reaching test; he took to his studies with the careless excellence of the innately brilliant, and these days, his days had fallen into a pleasant pattern. He woke up early, attended the dawn prayers at the mosalasi, (his mother had started him on that years ago and now it was a habit) helped her transport her wares to the roadside stop where the bolekaja would pick her, then spent an hour with the lemamu for learning to read kewu, before returning home to prepare for school.
School was regimented enough with its insistence on rules and order that all he had to do was be at the appropriate places at the appointed times. With a mother like his, ’Toye had no qualms following regulation. This made him a favourite with the teaching masters, but his natural friendly gregariousness – possibly borne of years of roaming the iga in the afternoons, being raised collectively by the women of his extended family – saved him from the animosity this state of affairs might have otherwise prompted in the other students.
Once school was done for the day, the boys walked back home in clusters of playing, dirt-kicking and tree-climbing rowdiness. In this manner, the half hour trek to Jilete passes in the space of a shout.
Everyone was aware of the talk about the new Nigerian government setting up more schools now that the war was over but to them, just like news of the war, this was just hearsay. Like the independence Eyitoye and his peers were learning about at school, it had no bearing on them. Life at Jilete was as it had always been. Unless they did open the school in the village as had been rumoured, especially if girls were admitted as was being speculated – whoever heard of girls learning book-learning? Maybe in Eko and other big cities, but not in a place like Jilete or any of the villages where the Yewa flowed.
‘Toye, are you coming with us?’ Ajani was of the few boys left from their original posse. Most of them had dropped off as the group reached their respective iga and the turn off into their villages. Since they were was from the same iga – their fathers were contemporaries, possibly second or third cousins if the Yoruba traced their lineage thus (they didn’t!) – he was often one of the last in Toye’s company. He was also, unfortunately, a bit unruly – always seeking ways to cause mischief, always determined to drag Toye with him.
Now, Eyitoye loved the highjinks that boys got into as much as the next village boy. He enjoyed climbing the trees of whatever fruit was in season and gorging himself upon their delicious fruits – oranges, guava, mangoes, agbalumo, there was always some trees to be climbed. He was also known to have, on Ajani’s prompting he might add, undertaken the occasional felling of the banana bunch when the tree was left unprotected by the owner – although his mother marched him to the old man to apologize for that, and he spent a full moon cycle working on the man’s farm to make up for it. Unlike fruit trees, considered a communal property in the village, banana and plantain were a farmer’s crops, products of their toil and a source of their food and an omoluabi does not help himself to another’s sweat.
That incident was Toye’s initiation into a sense of personal responsibility, of holding himself to a higher standard – of living as an omoluabi. At just nine years of age, he realized that fun could have consequences and it was up to him to make sure his idea of ‘just playing’ did not harm himself or someone else. In the year since, the lesson only got better reinforced within him.
‘Not right now,’ he replied presently. ‘I’m going to put away my uniform and do my homework. Then I can come find you. Where will you be?’ What he meant was, what would you be doing? Is it in my best interest to come?
‘We’re going swimming in the Yewa,’ one of the boys blurted out before Ajani’s elbow could jab him into withholding that information. Everyone knew that Mama Rufu and her son did not swim in the Yewa. They never visit the river. Even during the annual weeklong festivities when the village paid homage to the river that sustained their livelihood; Yewa provided with water, fish, transportation and irrigation; Abeke and her son participated only from a distance. Toye’s mother would pay the required levy, usually a lot more than that, she and her son might show up at some dances held in the village, and she unfailingly had someone fill an earthen pot in the corner of her raffta fence with water from the river, Abeke was too pragmatic to test the taboo of what might happen to any household that did not have water from the mystical river during this time. But she, and her son, never went to the Yewa river.
It was one of his mother’s most emphatic rules – she had a number of rules – but Toye never baulked them. Cognizant from a young age of the uniqueness of his mother-son family, Eyitoye did everything in his power to make his mother happy. And if she, for whatever reason, did not want him visiting a river, no matter how famed and central to village life it was, he wouldn’t.
‘I will see you later in the evening then, when I come to check on mama Agba.’ The elderly woman was almost housebound now, frail and weak – unrecognizable from the woman who fed him and his friends delicacies just a few years before. Toye made it a point of duty to check on her, often bringing her the semi-solid foods his mother prepared solely for the matriarch, listening as she told him stories of times gone past.
Ignoring the snickers of the boys’ mocking, Eyitoye steeped into the opening in the fence around his house – only his mother and aunt had such a contraption around their houses in the entire village but Toye loved it. There was an undeniable sense of homecoming he felt when he stepped into that demarcated space – he didn’t have to talk here, didn’t have to be friendly. He could just be.
Toye’s surprise at his mother’s voice beckoning him the moment he stepped into the house – why is she at home? Right, it is Lusada day – gave way to apprehension when he registered the name she’d used. She only called him by his oriki when something was wrong; usually when he was in big trouble. His apprehension morphed into confusion and a sense of dread when he stepped into the receiving room – silence this profound in a room full of women was never a good thing.
‘Come, my son,’ his other made space for him to sit on the mat beside her, between her and Maami Shadia, then peered into his face. ‘Ajani, your father is dead.’