Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Ugochukwu  Nwankwo 



Are We There Yet

By Ugochukwu  Nwankwo 


“Have we arrived?”

This is the question I keep asking my parents on our three hour drive to a remote district in our hometown, where my two eldest sisters are recently enrolled in a boarding school. It doesn’t look as international as the name implies, but it is cheap and native, exactly what my father wants. The journey is endlessand exhausting.


I’ve been sitting at the back seat of our Toyota corolla, with my two hands on my Jaws, tired of listening to Patty Obasi sing about the attributes of an evil marine woman in our local dialect, “ga m na-azunwa mamiwata, nwa arurala ga m na-azu…,” blares from the speaker in the front seat.

It is on this unending three hour drive, that I encounter one of the most horrific sites I’ve ever seen in my life. We have just driven past Hopeville, which is like the capital city of a small town, in Abia state; and we are at the borders of Ukwuwangwu, when I see them – a teeming crowd of angry youths, mostly villagers, obstructing the entire road. At the center of the road, four men certainly in their twenties sit, with flaming tires around their necks, their piercing screams bore right through my soul, and I have to look away from the blinding horror.


Soon, the angry youths converge around our car, slamming the roof and doors, almost tilting our car sideways, as my father try to ease past them. I don’t know what could’ve happened if one of them didn’t recognize my father, because soon, they begin to hail, “honorable! Honorable!” and the virulent crowd soon becomes a brood of sycophants.

I remember it like it is yesterday, but this journey isn’t like the one I had before. My parents are still sending me to a boarding school, albeit a fancy one, and before I can blink, we’ve driven from our home in the boisterous area of Enugu to a suburban community in the outskirts of town. My parents lead me to the portal where one of the attendants, a brief, loquacious woman who pretends to be nice around parents, gives my box a good rummage. She dumps the entire content on the floor, and then picks them one after the other, matching them with the checklist at her hands.

It is over.

My parents hand me over to the matron, they kiss me, they hug me, and then they drive off.

Now, I’m alone.

We’re having dinner, but I don’t feel like eating, so I sit on my bed, suffocated by the array of bunks lining the room, and the primal noise emanating from the refectory. As soon as I ask the question, I know I’ve made my biggest mistake. Even the matron giggles, and by the next day, the entire school knows me as the student who wanted to sleep after dinner. How am I supposed to know there is something called night prep? It becomes obvious to me – I don’t fit into this place, and I don’t think I ever can; but like every other person robbed of a choice, I have try.


I've never used a fork and a knife simultaneously. I'm from a bourgeoisie-family of five, eleven years old, and possess the ingenuous candor typical of one with little or no social exposure, except, a last minute appearance as a page boy in an uncle's wedding. My social behavior isn’t exactly what one can call derigueur. I am what I am, and I know what I know; expecting more from me will be a mocking fantasy.


At my left is a steaming bowl of melon seed soup, soiled with murky palm oil by a desperate cook. Beside it is a flat stainless plate, containing garri, made unattractive by layers of flour, granules, and paste — the result of an uneven stirring.


This is a typical cuisine of eba and egusi soup, which forms the crux of the menu at Wisdom high school. The eba is cold and rough beneath my palms. Round the table, hungry eyes assault me — eyes of fellow boarders who are restraining themselves from devouring the meal before us. I can never imagine myself being like them, the food holds no appeal to me, and I'm certainly more eager to paint a landscape (of course I detest fine art) than eat the filth before me.


I'd later eat my words a few months later. But staring at them now, hungry eyes gleaming like the hideous yellow day–dress we wore, the scenario is amusing.

After we’ve been properly served by the dining prefect, who is at his best — I wonder if the Principals not so impromptu impending visit has a role to play in his perfunctory duties. We rise and bow our heads. Looking at us, our parents will be pleased — decent, religious, and intelligent boys all having a nice lunch together in a serene environment, but nothing could be further from the truth.


They don't know that sometimes, days go by and our bodies remain unwashed, when the two dwarf tanks situated at the backyard runs out of water, and boys cloak themselves with lotions and deodorants to mask their odor — that is for those who can afford it, we mostly squeeze the sap from scent leaves and rub allover our bodies.


Our parents don't know about the John, where a pile of shit dominates, and resists every form of gravity it takes to flush it down; that boys have to use lumber to push down the muck, making way for tense arses to release fecal waste from constipated abdomens. Or the pile of dirty plates under the bunk in each dormitory, plates which gathers an increasing mass of flies daily, plates that are barely washed, in the same pool of stagnant water by an unfortunate boarder, for the two weeks of his hellish assignment. They know nothing, they are far away, but we are here, and we know everything.

There exists a euphoria that titillates the taste buds, a rhythmic harmony of hand, plate, and mouth that is both primitive and inviting. An adventure absorbing from a distance, sometimes it is mocked, until one drops ones candor, and discards the pious ritual of cutleries, and keep in abeyance ones phobia for germs, only then can one truly enjoy the simple act of an African man eating with his hands. But something entirely different is expected of me, and I'm not about to become a laughing stock, again, on my second day in school.


Not only do I lack comprehension of the tedious principle in handling a fork and knife, but I've never seen its action on food before. I'm still holding my breath when the tigers dive in, ravenously wolfing down the food. I feel a nudge on my feet — it is Charles, a plump, short boy, I'd met earlier in my dormitory. I can still remember how I curiously examined the contrast his glistening white teeth made with his very dark face, it reminds me of our Friday routine of darkening the chalkboard in elementary school.

Charles had asked me, "Are you new?"

I'd nodded and quickly left. I hated Fridays.

But now, his eyes urge me on, a form of telepathic guide — the fork goes to the left, and the knife to the right. I gently slice the eba with the knife, I pick up the sliced piece with the fork, and dip it into the sodden mess that is the soup, some of which dribbles onto my shirt, but I don't care, I've learnt something new. I close my eyes and swallow — not everything is terrible after all.


Our English teacher will always say, “Birds of identical plumage never cease to congregate to the highest form of proximity,” which is a grandiloquent way of saying "birds of the same feather, flock together." He rarely smiles, with his khaki trousers and solidly starched white shirt. Most of our teachers don't smile either, our principal to say the least — she doesn't seek respect, she takes it.


The stoic way she moves, despite her corpulent ensemble tell tales of defiance and triumph of male chauvinism. Every morning during the assembly, Mrs Ulochukwu, or Ma P. as she is dreadfully called, will stand on the balcony outside her office and address us, which is a subtle way of saying she reads us the riot act.

"No bullying or fagging is allowed in this school."

"Every male student must bow while the females curtsey in greeting."

"No sagging is permitted in this school."

"Your ties must be properly knot, and shirts meticulously tucked in."

"Every student who flies his shirt will be thoroughly punished." And she does bring down the hammer.

"No vernacular in the classroom..."

Then her eyes will be fixed on us, her formal spectacles adding to their intensity, as if to drill these laws right into our souls. And when we retire into our classrooms, marching in forced unison, like Jigawa state corpers on their parade ground in Fanisua, obeying and silently cursing, under the Sun's pitiless stare. We scamper into our safe house, always with the knowledge of constantly being watched.


My father always says "if a beggar can afford an umbrella, then he should not be begging." Maybe he is right. I have not said how I came to be here in the first place — Wisdom high. It happened like this, Mum drops the phone in excitement, and half screams "K.c you passed the exam."

And Dad asks "which one?"

"What did I score?" I quickly abandon my P.E.S. football, dashing into the sitting room.

"The fancy one, Wisdom something," Mum replied, grinning.

Dad seems out of sorts.

"He wrote the exam with his friend, Kosi," she explains further.

"What did I score?" My voice grows tense.

"Oh, the building is magnificent, and the students are well behaved."

"How do you know that?"

"Know what?"

"That they're well behaved? I was with you the same day, and I remember we didn't see any student."

"Margaret told me."

Dad slightly rebuffed. "Margaret? We're taking her word now?"

Let me catch you up. Margaret is sales agents for some herbal drug organization, who merchandise many of those pills or disgusting liquid, which make bitter leaf soup seem heartwarming. Sometimes I'll see them in market places — Ogbete, Artizan, Garriki, even our local Abakpa market, always in ramshackle vehicles, plying the roads, canvassing local residents. Their recycled absurdum blaring from shrill speakers often announces their omnipresence, "Goko cleanser, cures malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and every form of sexually transmitted infection."

"Do you feel dizzy? Take Goko cleanser."

"Are your private parts itchy? Brother, sister, drink Goko cleanser."

Its universality never ends.

My father can never fathom how one drug can cure everything. Eventually, when Margaret first shows up at our house, clutching that disgusting red bottle, Dad dislikes her instantly.

"It has provisions for boarding as well," Mum rapped on, refusing to be deterred.

"What did I score Mum?" Why isn't anyone listening to me?

"K.c will you like to stay in a boarding school?"


I shake my head, still slightly miffed for being ignored.

"Staying here means no watching of television, no movies, and no games," Dad added, obviously conceding defeat and taking her side. And in this moment, I feel everything I love slip away, the things that make home, home. Like many children who grow up in privileged homes, I’ve been ensnared by the magnetic world of illusion, and technology.


In my lurid naivety, I fail to grasp the simple actions, all too familiar, one hardly notices anymore; powerful sensations dulled by their regularity, drowned, unvoiced in my head — the boisterous amusement our dinner time affords, bolstered by Mums culinary expertise.

I make my choice. I chose to leave. But now; now I long for home, drawn, not by the things of meretricious appraisal, for I've come to learn, and understand, the things that matter. The strangeness of it all makes me long, just once, the smothering familiarity of being surrounded by family.

"Here we're one family," they tell us. One family where my note is stolen the night before a quiz, and my cupboard is raided of provisions. One family where my mates, fresher's, are left lying in a pool of muddy water, and flogged by some school prefect for not having lanterns at night prep, lanterns which could've been stolen by a prefect as well. Of course no one looks at you, or cares for your feelings.


We are tailored to fit in, in zombie like procession, and not to complain. All the while I long to be heard, to make demands, for someone to ask, "K.c come and take your food."

And I'll say, "I won't eat, I told you, I don't like ofe ede."

And Mum will plead and cuddle, "please my son, just take one ball, you'll enjoy it."

And I will make a face while swallowing, like it is sour grapes instead. It is our ritual, our routine, and as I silently walk into my dormitory after classes each day, I miss every minute.


It is cold and still. The harmattan has just set in, and we inhale dusty air, breathing with minute difficulty, as we gaze at the full moon, bathing in luminary adoration. Ebuka is beside me, silent and focused, like he always is on the field each time he plays. Ebuka plays football with so much flamboyance and fluidity, that it is hard not to love him, and he's very intelligent too — the whole kit and caboodle. We are laying side by side, arms crossed, as we warm our toes by keeping them abreast each other. He breaks the silence, "have you ever heard the word homosexual?" His eyes are still fixed above, but I know if I can see them, they will appear scared.


It is a strange word, even for me. Earlier on, I'd been thrown completely off balance when our Basic Science teacher had called Ekene Samuel," Mimosa pudica." I don't know what it means, and neither does the whole class, but we laugh anyway, maybe it is the way he says it.When I come to know what it means, I agree it is an appropriate name. If anyone does not deserve to be in boarding school, it is Ekene Samuel. He is my friend, rather slow though.


He is like one of those chicks that never leave the nest. On his first night as a boarder, he had received a slap from the dreaded Senior Zikora, an attack that had plastered his right cheek with a red Pentagon. In short, he being in boarding school is like putting ice in magma. My reply comes out as a hoarse. I wet my cracked lips with my tongue and swallow. My throat feels parched and dry.


Then he turns and faces me, the way he looks at me is strange, like his life depends on what he will say next. He spends the next few minutes telling me about his ordeal, his first few nights as a boarder, at the hands of a senior student. Then he sobs afterwards. Ebuka is in J.S.S.2, one year ahead of me, recalling that memory unearths a flood of emotions, which spews in torrents. I don't really understand what he's saying, or the sodden details being described, all I know, and see, is his hurt. He looks so small, like a little brother. I place my hand on his back, it is bare, and I gently stroke until he hushes. My English teacher always hails me for having what he calls "an eclectic imagination," maybe it comes from reading too many newspapers which Dad supplies on weekends when he's home.


I read about Niger Delta militants, and terrorists, I read about armed robbers and kidnappers, and how the Naira keeps falling, and on many occasions, I read about abuse, older men who rape children, some seven, some five, and I wonder if that is not exactly what happens in the North? Most times often glaring, when a seventy eight year old senator marries an eleven year old girl. So my thoughts drift, to their parents, their guardians, they're supposed to protect us, to protect him. Why does such situation exist? Why are children always the prey? But then I remember that nothing is being done about the senator, and I shut up.


"K.c will you help me with my Maths assignment afterwards?" Samuel breathes annoyingly into my ears for the umpteenth time. I nod. I don't want anything to upset me. I'm almost done washing my day wear — the shirt is already torn on both armpits, I sigh. If I don't finish on time, then it's dinner, and prep. My chance will be lost. I quickly rinse, and spread my clothes. I peg the short, while I button the shirt onto the rope. It is the only pair I have left. I entered the hostel having four pairs, all the others have disappeared regardless I’ve my name boldly engraved on them. The shirt is a sorry sight, and the shorts are faded, probably why I still have them.


I convince Samuel to give me ten minutes; I have an important mission to complete. I leave the backyard, sidestepping the pile of rubbish behind hostel B., I walk directly to the school building, stopping in front of the classroom with J.S.S.1 written on its door. I pick a white chalk, and mount a seat; it creaks noisily under my misguided erection. And like I've done for the past two months, I write down tomorrow's date at the top right corner of the board.


My feet feels lighter in my torn rubber sandals, carrying me all the way down the stairs, past the teachers staff room, past the stinky female toilet, past two of my friends kneeling in the corridor, past the array of sweaty bodies in the play field, I walk past the dying embers of the evening glow, reaching to warm my skin one last time, making way for dark clouds, and casting shadows. Therein my heart, joyful bells ring, I make the calculations; I have twenty one days to go home.

I sigh.

Home; will always be my place of love.



Nwankwo Ugochukwu Evans is a writer, Evangelist and scientist. He has been featured in, Black water magazine, Active Muse Journal amongst others. He's been nominated for the Rusty Scythe International awards in 2016, and twice for the Writivism Koffi Addo Prize for creative nonfiction both in 2017 and 2019. He adores young minds and young creatures.


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