The Yam Po Club – Chapter One
The rhythmic sound of crickets chirping and frogs croaking away on a hot humid night always brought a smile to my face; the creatures were clearly oblivious to the discomfort the rest of us felt as they carried on their routine. I also enjoyed listening to the ridiculous melody that was created when Obioma’s snoring was added to the equation. Thick and bordering on suffocation, the rumbling that came from my younger brother’s small body was fit for the body of a middle aged obese man. But that was one of Obioma’s many unique qualities; if he could do anything wrong, he did it worse than anyone else. I tried not to grin as I heard him slap at a mosquito that had perched on his bare arm. He probably missed as well. That action stopped the snoring for almost five seconds before the room was filled again with the familiar sound.
I tried to close my eyes and return to the sweet land of slumber I had just left but I already knew that nothing I attempted would get me even a fraction closer to falling asleep. There was no way I could sleep feeling as anxious as I did at that moment. My throat was parched, my stomach twisted in painful knots and my back completely drenched in non drying sweat. You know, the kind of feeling you get when you are ill in bed fighting malaria or some other unbearable persistent illness. The big difference here was that I wasn’t ill at all. Far from it, I was as healthy as any other ten year old girl you would find in town.
The problem was that in about six hours or so, I was going to leave my much adored family and friends and head off into the dark gloomy world of boarding school in Enugu. Yes, boarding school. And no, my parents didn’t hate me or want to keep me locked down away from home for the fun of it; it was just what most families I knew did. At the ripe old age of ten or eleven (twelve if you were actually trying to get in at the correct age stated in the non-existent prospectus), parents all over the country prepared to send their children off to boarding secondary schools where they were expected to carry on their education in a safe and conducive environment. As I had skipped two years somewhere between nursery school and the end of primary school, I unfortunately fell into the younger more terrified group of children waiting to be sent away.
I lay silently in the dark, counting the seconds and attempting to make music out of the imposed sounds surrounding me. I always tried not to think too much about the future because I was constantly faced with disappointed when I did. Anytime I convinced myself I might get a positive outcome out of something, some other contrary situation would pop up and completely throw my well balanced world upside down. Obioma said I was negative but what did he know, he was only eight. I was surprised he even understood the concept of negativity.
Slap. Another mosquito delivered a fatal blow by my baby brother. I actually hoped he got it this time because it would probably be on its way towards me next. My father, with his wealth of wisdom, had decided a long time ago that putting up mosquito nets was a total waste of time and money as the blood suckers always found a way in eventually, so we had never had the luxury of cloaking our shared bed with the only nontoxic fly repellent we knew of. Instead we sprayed our room weekly with pungent insecticide and prayed the choking smell would subside by the time we were ready to go to sleep. Of course Daddy knew what he was talking about, he had to. Every decision he made took long painstaking deliberation so nobody could question his commitment to any issue. Did my mother have any say in the matter? Let’s just say Mummy was even more silent and resolute than Daddy when it came to decision making. It was hard to believe that anyone could surpass him on that but we were constant witnesses to this fact.
Back to the potentially dead mosquito on Obioma’s arm; no wait, we were done with that. I couldn’t hear it whining anymore so it had to be dead. That set the pattern for the rest of the night. Not much else happened. The chirping and croaking carried on; Obioma occasionally hit out at something, narrowly missing my shoulder twice as we lay side by side on the springy mattress; the pain in my stomach grew until I thought that my insides would explode or implode or do something else uncharacteristically vile. And then it came. The lovely welcomed sound of our neighbourhood rooster crowing its heart out at the crack of dawn. Thank God Mr Nwankwo had the good sense to keep a mini poultry in his backyard two houses away. I never had to scramble around in the darkness to look for my wristwatch because even from that distance the rooster had turned into my faithful alarm clock.
I rose gently from the bed so I wouldn’t wake Obioma who happened to be the grumpiest little boy in the world if you touched him before he had taken the decision to rise himself. The family bathroom was inconveniently located down the corridor beside my parents’ bedroom and far away from ours. I tiptoed all the way to it and began to brush my teeth. I had to remember to dry and pack my toothbrush when I was done. Mummy had said that if I forgot it, I would have to use my fingers to brush my teeth for the next three months. Having already tried that one morning, I knew how ineffective it was. I did not want to get branded girl-with-stinky-breath for the whole term so I had written myself a list and put that item right at the top, even before my reminder to collect my pocket money from Daddy.
“You’re up early. Are you okay?” My mother’s voice startled me from the doorway. She walked into the room, bloodshot eyes and hairnet in tow, with her brown wrapper tied tightly around her faithful white cotton night dress. I don’t think I had ever seen my mother look any different in the morning.
“Buchi, I said are you okay?”
I didn’t realise I had forgotten to answer her. I spat out toothpaste into the sink. “Good morning Mummy. Yes, I’m fine.” No point mentioning the stomach ache, she would wave it off as nerves which was probably accurate.
Not immediately satisfied with the answer, she came forward and touched my forehead. The funny thing was that whatever answer I had given her would have resulted in the opposite reaction to my response. Mothers!
“Hmm, okay oh. I was just going to wake you up sef.’ She unwound her wrapper and tied it even tighter across her chest. ‘Your father wants to leave at nine on the dot and you had better be ready by then. Anyway you have three hours so you should be okay. Do you want some akara and pap for your breakfast?”
I rarely ever got asked what I wanted to eat. The unspoken rule, one of many, was eat whatever the good Lord provided. Usually the Lord provided amazingly delicious delights like okro soup and plantain porridge but sometimes he decided to drop egusi soup or semolina on us. I knew never to complain because we had three square meal everyday and not everyone had that luxury. The boarding school thing was evidently affecting my mother more than she was letting on. I nodded to the akara offer, toothbrush back in my mouth and foam everywhere.
“Don’t forget to pack your toothbrush when you are done,” were her last words before she left me alone and headed for the kitchen at the other end of the house.
It didn’t take long for the smell of hot oily akara to fill the house. It never mattered how many doors you kept shut in our three bedroom bungalow, anything my mother cooked found a way of spreading its aroma around the house like there was a special food vent connecting every room. By the time the food was ready I had returned to the bedroom following my dutiful bucket bath and was wrapped in my large towel as I rubbed body lotion onto my skin, praying that I wouldn’t wake Obioma.
I have always had incredibly rotten luck. Obioma stretched and yawned loudly just as I began to apply a thick wad of lotion to my arms.
“Have you not left?”
“I thought you were meant to go to school today.”
I sighed with frustration. “So that’s how you greet your elders good morning eh? Silly boy. So you wanted me to leave before you woke up. No goodbye for you. Okay oh, if that’s the way you want it. I’ll be gone for three months anyway so I’m sure you’ll be happy.” I failed to mention that I would be back for the midterm break but the shock on his face when he found out later would definitely be worth it. I had to remember to drop that little piece of information before I left or my anticipated joy would be short-lived.
“Nonsense. Go, I won’t miss you. I will finally have this room all to myself. My own big bed. Go, go, go.”
I shook my head and carried on dressing up while Obioma went to the bathroom. When he got back with clean teeth and an empty bladder, I was dressed in my brand new school uniform. Well, one of many. It turned out there was a uniform for classes, daywear for evenings, shorts and vest for sportswear and right now I was clad in the school’s outing uniform. Navy blue skirt with a baby blue collared blouse, blue beret, blue socks and brown loafers. It looked like someone had thrown up blue fabric all over me. And yes, the other uniforms were also different shades of blue with the odd white article thrown in to brighten the look. I brushed down my recently shaved head with the new hairbrush my mother had bought for me. I was still getting used to the fact that the days of my fairly lengthy braided hair were gone but Mummy had insisted that it was school regulation to have my hair cut down to about one inch off my scalp. Only the girls in the senior secondary years were allowed to grow their hair out. I couldn’t wait to get to that stage but realistically I would have to wait three years; very annoying indeed.
“Ha, ha, you look silly,” Obioma bellowed with laughter from the doorway.
“Blue girl, how come your shoes are brown?”
“I said shut up. Have you seen your own red baby uniform? Don’t you know this uniform is for grown up children?” Grown up children? Was there such a thing?
“I don’t care, you still look silly.” Trust Obioma to throw my insult to the wind like it meant nothing to him. Maybe I would finally learn how to tell him off properly after a term holed up in boarding school. My older brother, Emeka, had been a little too nice to me when I was Obioma’s age so I was not good at slinging abusive words but then I had not been a nightmare sibling so I guess he had no choice but to shower me with warm affection. I had to learn some good insults before I returned for the midterm break.
By the time I got back to the kitchen to have breakfast, my father was already sitting fully dressed at his place at the head of the table with spoon and fork in hand as he lapped up thick white pap and made akara balls disappear with incredible speed. How had he managed to get ready before me? I wondered for the umpteenth time. I hadn’t been in the room that long. Now you could see why I had dressed up so quickly, my early was always too late for my father.
“Look at my little princess in her new school uniform, eh,” he teased as I went over to hug and greet him good morning. I usually didn’t like it when he called me his princess but today, for some reason, I embraced the word. Perhaps it was because I knew I would not hear that word for a long time after today. I was trying really hard not to think about what I would be missing when I got to school so I shook off all nostalgic thoughts of pet names.
“Have you finished packing?” Daddy asked as he practically swallowed two more balls of akara in one mouthful. How many did he have on his plate? The pile seemed endless.
I nodded as I sat down to my own considerably smaller portion and began to pile sugar on to my pap. Nobody stopped me as the third spoonful went in, not today, I was invincible. I could probably get away with anything for this one day in my life, maybe even another spoon of sugar. I stopped short when I saw the look in my mother’s eyes; she may not have said anything but her glare warned me not to push my luck.
“Don’t forget your toothbrush,” Mummy reminded me yet again.
“It’s drying in the room. I won’t forget.” Okay, I had better not forget it, I made another mental note.
As I woofed down breakfast I was aware of my parents glancing sadly at me throughout the meal. My mother was probably wondering why she had only been given one girl and planning how she was going to turn Obioma into her new protégée without scarring him for life. My father was definitely delighted at the fact that his little princess had passed the entrance exams to get into one of the best unity secondary schools in the south but he was equally sad that I wouldn’t be there to rush out and carry his briefcase into the house when he returned from work. So much for not thinking about this too much, I was upsetting myself just thinking about what they could be thinking. I rushed the rest of my meal, washed my dishes quickly but still cautiously enough to avoid water splashing on my uniform and then went back to the room to round up.
Obioma had crawled back into bed. I yanked the sheets off his body.
“Get up and help me carry my things out.”
“No,” he yelled defiantly and reached for the covers but I rolled them up and held them tight to my chest.
“I’ll tell Mummy you’re bullying me,” he threatened.
“And I’ll tell Daddy you’re being a big baby and not helping me.”
“Why should I help you? I’m not going to school with you.”
“Because I’m older than you,” I explained calmly. I didn’t really need his help, Daddy was going to come and carry my luggage soon but this was my last chance to torture, no play with my brother. I was the only one enjoying myself but I was not going to get the chance to do this for a while.
Obioma sighed too deeply for his young age then got out of bed. “It’s not fair, I’m not older than anyone.” I watched with amusement as he went over to the largest and heaviest suitcase and attempted to lift it.
“Please oh, leave it before you die and they say I killed you,’” I laughed playfully and got a much deserved kick in the shin from him. I was in pain for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon but it was worth it.
It was finally really time to pile my luggage into the car. Mummy and I examined the items as they were placed carefully into the boot and on the back seat of our family’s mint green station wagon.
One locked suitcase with my name hand painted boldly on top.
One plastic bucket with my name painted on again.
One hoe (okay everything had my name painted on boldly).
One jerry can.
One custom made provisions locker.
One custom made school desk and chair.
One chain and padlock for the desk and chair.
One small carton of books.
One small carton of provisions.
I honestly don’t know how much money all of that cost but it looked like it could have been a small fortune. Maybe my parents didn’t look sad because I was leaving, they were probably sad because they had no more money left to live on. Somehow everything fit in the car and there was still space for Daddy and I to fit in.
Time for the obligatory farewells came. When Emeka had gone to boarding school five years ago my mother had shed an awful lot of tears for a child she would surely see again in a short while. That was forgivable since he was the first one of us to leave home. Today I felt like perhaps I had not been told that I was never coming back home because my mother began to wail like she was at my funeral. I was too stunned to cry so I stood there while she hugged me and wet my cheeks and shaved head with her tears. Even Obioma was looking a little teary eyed after all his earlier macho act. Yes, I was not mistaken; he joined my mother in crying shortly after. My father and I must have looked like stone cold souls as we stood dutifully by the car waiting for them to finish or at least ease up enough for us to get into the car without worrying too much about their physical state.
The crying finally turned to loud sniffs and we slowly eased ourselves into the car. It wasn’t that I was not going to miss my mum and dad and Obioma, even the house I had spent most of my life in would be missed. No, it wasn’t that at all. This was all I had ever known in my life, these walls and the familiar security I felt when I was with my family; surely I would miss everyone and everything terribly. It was just that I was not used to crying. I had never been the crying sort, which was why nobody found it odd that I had not joined in the sob-fest. Actually I think they would have been a little bit worried if I had.
“You didn’t cry,” Daddy said as he pulled out of the compound and turned out of our street into the dusty main road. It wasn’t a question so I didn’t answer. In fact that was the least of my worries at that moment.
I could picture my toothbrush still lying on the bedside table waiting to be placed in my knapsack which was now safely tucked away behind us. You guessed it, classic incompetent Buchi for you. Bring on the crying scene again. This time I would be the one in need of the tissues.