She ran into the bush and started a kingdom
Ndili endured all she could and one day, she joined a bus and set out with her movable belongings. Not sure of where she was headed; she was just happy to get away. Oh the joy, the sense of mission. She was not going in search of another set of relatives to stay with. No, she was done with that, she promised herself. This time, she would create her own world, with her own rules.
At that thought, a wry smile formed at the corners of her lips. “Yes, my own world, where no one shoves me around, where I don’t have to greet people I hate in the morning or run errands for dense people.” Though frightening, it held the promise of freedom which was well worth whatever-it-would-take.
“Where you dey go Madam? A gruffy voice grated at her. It was the familiar voice of Lagos bus conductors. She immediately stirred alert from her reverie and took in all of him in a moment. With these conductors, you never know, you have to see their eyes, weigh how high they may be before saying a word to them. They always reminded her of the viscous masquerades during Ekpe festivals in the village that made Christmas both active and fun. Those black, scary hunks! She resisted a teardrop as she shook off the long-ago days…
“They all sound like masquerades, she thought. And he might be a thief too from the look of him!” Her eyes travelled from his tattooed arms to the generous array of ring worms down its length to his hands, the overnight smell of sweat and the dirty crumpled clothes, “He must be one of the homeless ones who sleep at the park, they’re usually part time thieves,” she thought. No, this was not the type to speak to, she must not let him see her vulnerability or he would prey on her.
She hastily apologized for bumping into him and walked on as if she was sure of where she was headed. That was when it dawned, “I am at the motor park and I’ve not even made up my mind about where to go ” she muttered under her breadth. She remembered her original goal- to get away and be alone, like Tarzan in the wilds with the monkeys, like the two lost kids who set up a world after they had survived a plane crash and found themselves alone in a deserted town, like the kids in Bunyan’s Lord of the Flies… She kept processing as she wandered, then her mind slipped into the past.
She found herself in those lost days when things were different, and life was certain, or so she thought. In that painfully irretrievable world, dad, mum, Nochieze and Nkene were still there. The arguments with mum and the soft look on mum’s face each time she scolded her for her impetuosity are mental imprints that are not difficult to recall.
She remembered the day she had a word-fight with the oldest boy in the school. Syracuse had said he was 18 years old and that sounded ancient to his fellow primary six pupils who would never let him forget it.
His poorly shaved jaw on his pitch dark skin and his strange name ossified him the more. Some of the kids whispered that his father was a magician hence, the strange name. When the younger pupils were not scared of him, they dared to make fun of him. It didn’t occur to their innocent minds that they hurt him. At the time, life was still light and breezy, unbroken by pain.
It didn’t help that he was not smart either. Some claimed that he had been recruited into the army when he was still very young and now the war was over, he was back in school after he had long forgotten what school work was all about. Each time they mocked him, he yelled back that he was not their ‘age-mate’ and should have finished his secondary education had the war not happened.
Yes, almost every adult around her had given their own gloomy version of the Biafran war at some point. It was a consuming pain that each generation handed to the next. She was too young to remember the throes of that war but she felt every bit of the victory and vanquish of the conquest. The terrors, humiliation and loss it brought to her people was ever on their lips.
According to him, he had spent three years after the war helping his older brother to set up shop as a palmnuts trader, before he could be enrolled in school. His older brother who was responsible for him since their parents had died in the war, told him the school had refused to admit him in secondary school in spite of his age. This was because he had not taken the Common Entrance Examination which every pupil must pass before admission into secondary school.
So, he had to start from primary three, where he had stopped before the onset of the war, to prepare him for the qualifying exam which he would take in three years’ time. But his brother had not been totally honest.
Syracuse could have started in primary five and would have been on his way out of primary school by now but his brother had used that story to detain him further in primary school so he could still help out at the shop and run other errands. If he went to secondary school and became a boarder, who would help to do all the work? The longer Syracuse spent in primary school, the more he looked like an ancestor to his mates.
The day he came to Ndili’s house to report her to her mum for insulting him at school, she had run to hide in terror. She knew her mum would give her a thorough beating for bringing trouble home from school.
Syracuse was not sure of her name so, he had asked some of the boys in the class who knew her well to lead him to her house. They were happy to do that. The boys in her class always felt that their female classmates were very silly and disrespectful of them as ‘men’ . This was time for men’s solidarity and they jumped at the opportunity to make one of the girls pay for their cockiness.
“Which of them? Ndili’s mum had queried.
“I’m not sure of the name ma but she’s very troublesome”
Ndili’s heart sank as she heard her mum mutter, “That can’t be Nkene then, it must be Ndili.”
“Ndili!” Yelled her mum.
“Did I not just call someone? She growled more menacingly.
“If I have to fetch you by myself, it will be worse for you o”
Ndili stuck to her hideout behind the door leading to the staircase , weighing her options. If she turned herself in, she already knew what would happen and if she didn’t? The answer was still the same. How like her mum to expect the lamb to submit itself to the butcher’s slab, all by itself!.
“I’m sorry my son, go home. I’ll deal with her when I find her.” her mum had pleaded, “Please forgive her. I’ll make sure she never troubles you again”
“Thank you ma, Syracuse bowed as he left with the dissatisfied crowd of ‘classmen’ who had accompanied him to see the drama through. They were disappointed. They had expected a bigger show than that.
From her hideout, Ndili observed as her accusers thinned away, her heart thumping heavily. She decided not to hand herself in, to do nothing but wait the inevitable through. Then she slept off.
A gentle tap on her shoulder woke her. It was already getting dark in her little corner and she immediately made to run, but the tender look in her mum’s eyes stayed her. “I’ve seen her!” Mum’s shaky voice shouted to the other members of the family and domestic servants who had been looking for her since after the Syracuse episode in the afternoon.
“You scared us all Ndili” mum complained as she gathered her little girl in her arms.
“Where I saw you was my last hope, I was wondering where next to go in search of my baby girl.”
“As you can see, it’s already getting dark “
“I’m sorry mum, I’ll never do it again, I’ll never make fun of Syracuse again I swear” Ndidi spluttered, still afraid that her mum’s cane would soon start swinging after her.
But the beating never came. Instead, her mum sat her down to give her a soft talk on how to treat other people. She said a lot more that did not make much sense that day because she had not, as at yet, suffered the kind of loss and emotional pain which people like Syracuse had passed through.
She had thought his circumstances were funny and she made jokes about him with her friends. Her innocent mind half expected him to laugh along but like the old man that he was, he was angry instead. It became even more ludicrous when he actually started crying. She and her friends drummed on their desks singing ” Obe always mmee, obe Awka mmee.” Cry baby, good for you; cry baby, good for you.
Like her fellow untouched friends, she was a regular Igbo girl- bold, playful, snazzy and all. It never occurred to her that she was hurting anyone.
“Hmmm now it’s my turn to feel the pain I had caused Syracuse and some of the domestic servants in the house”. Ndidi could not help flinching at the ambush of time, how the onslaught of dispossession and displacement that followed the sudden loss of her parents had brought her heart to her knees. They had come in torrential spate, drenching her spunk and making her a broken initiate of pain.
As she flipped through the pages of the last ten years, she could not help but admit that something good had come out of it all: she could now recall her mother’s admonishment on that day with understanding. It created a strengthening connection with her mum and she answered as if her mum were present, “You were right mum. I now know why you were so angry that day. I now understand those soft words on how to treat people right.”
The sudden loss of her family in a plane crash left her with relations now turned strangers and taskmasters. In the past ten years, they had taken turns in etching the word ‘pain’ in her soul with their version of charity to an orphan. Each time she ran away from one home, she moved into another hoping that things would be better. It never did, they simply passed her from mouth to mouth. The horrid storytelling habit of her tribesmen was such that tales of her ‘ways’ always preceded her to each home.
The good Ndili could make out of it was that she would soon become the founder of a new kin. She recalled the stretches of lands and forests she saw on the expressway each time her family travelled to Lagos by car to shop for Christmas.
She had often reasoned that the dots of villages and towns they swept past on the way were founded by individuals who left their kith to wrestle down remote forests and build new villages. Now it would be her turn to befriend a forest, strip it, and make a new city of kind people. Something good after all, a new life, freedom and an opportunity to create something different. Would that have been possible if the zone she left had been comfortable?