Growing up in Ibadan, we perhaps had the most sheltered childhood in our neighbourhood, my siblings and I. Children played with sand in the streets, joined mobs to shout ole ole when they caught a robber and took baby chickens away from their mothers to feed them biscuit crumbs. We never did. The farthest we were allowed was the front of our verandah, a long floor space where my mother planted aloe vera in whatever plastic bowls and buckets she laid her hands on – still very well within the compound, barricaded by unpainted walls and a rusty red gate that swung open both by pulling and pushing, where we sometimes played dodging fire with the children who lived upstairs us and few others whose houses were close by. Their mothers only needed to shout their names when playtime was over.
Sometimes, we peeped from the window, the large one that paralleled with the red gate whenever we heard interesting or mischievous noise, our nose and lips pressed firmly on the mosquito netting eager to catch a glimpse of whatever was going on. But all we could see was my father’s parked volkwagen beetle, which seemed to filter the noise before it got to us. I had ridden in it many times before, and grown accustomed to it’s unique engine sound from my father warming it in the mornings, like the sound of indecisive laughter that stopped in the middle of your throat.
I grew up to learn that perhaps what it needed at the time was a valve adjustment.
I was six when I found out to my absolute wonderment that the engine was behind, rather than in front of it like other cars.
I was seven when it suddenly packed up one day, right in the middle of a T junction and we had to walk the rest of the journey home, my mom my brother and I. I never rode in it after that. It was towed back home and stayed parked for many years after. We would later pile stones a few inches away from both back tires to serve as a goal post for our boys vs girls football matches. Matches that happened after donations from every child to buy fake felele balls, because the health ones were slightly more costly. Matches that ended too quickly because boys kicked the fragile ball too hard against the car and deflated it. But even when we moved house eight years later the beetle still remained, an arch of rusty blue, with flat tires that made an everlasting mark on the floor. My father’s pride and dividend of hard work in his youthful years. Inside it was full of cobwebs and a thick layer of dust covered the windscreen such that children wrote wash me please with their fingers.
I discovered the cobwebs when I was seven, on one of the days we played dodging fire outside after I got the brilliant idea to dodge inside the beetle so that I could shield myself and at the same time fire at an unsuspecting enemy unseen from inside the rusty blue fortress, but I entered into a thick layer of cobwebs that caused me momentary blindness. I also spent later minutes detangling cobweb from every part of my body. Needless to say I lost first at the game.
Dinner was at 6’0clock, but the only time we went in at 6 of our own will was if we were terribly hungry. Usually, our help, an astonishingly swift short woman shouted our names from the big window at fifteen minutes to six, and we shouted back that we had fifteen more minutes. One would have hoped she understood that we had wristwatches of our own and we wouldn’t budge till the hour came, but everyday she shouted our names still, and so it became routine. On the day’s our father was home, dinner was at 7. This meant extra minutes of play. It also meant that during prayer time, we had the forlorn duty of reading out a new psalm from the Bible that we had memorised. No one taught us to cram the easy ones first, the ones with six or less verses. And when there were no more short ones to cram, we learnt the opening and closing lines of the longer ones and made up our own lines to buffer.
“Oh Lord my God, l will sing unto you a new song,
but look at my foes, they chase me always, they trample me, my hope is in you, and your mercy is forever,
but why hast thou forsaken me
Blessed is he who standeth not with the ungodly deliver me from my foes,
your mercy endures forever”
It didn’t always feel right but if it saved you it was a good thing.
Often, we would repeat the ones we had previously read about a week before, in the hope that our father would not realise. Sometimes he didn’t. On the days he did however, he allowed us our brief moment of genius, then began a sermon right after the already long prayers, when we were nearly half asleep.
“You are not taking your Bible studies seriously” he always began gently and his tempo rose with each sentence that came next.
“You know all the radio jingles, all of them, we hear your loud voices all the way from orita”
“But to memorise a psalm, just one psalm, is a problem. What is wrong with you all”
Our mom looked on, in a but I -told- you- all -manner. And we shot her back glances that said; beg daddy for us or stay away please.
This was our family, closely knit and for the oddest reason, other children taunted us for it, as though being closely knit was a suspicious character trait, a dubious thing to be cut down for illegally sprouting. For having meal times and play time and TV time. For being unable to play in the dark or rain, and for our skin that turned red from insect bites and walking through grass. Malaria latched on my brother like magnet every other week and all of these gave reason for malicious fun to be poked at us when we played outside. But we generally bore all of this. Infact we mostly forgot about it by the time we began eating on our big brown wooden dinning table. The table under which I stuck yam and eba morsels so no one would notice I wasn’t eating.
Despite the constant jeer, we were the neighbourhood good children. The ones that parents referred to when punishing their kids.
“Can you not see them, how well behaved they are?”
“ Even their small sister is well mannered, and you are older than them all…”
“Can you see how they come home straight after school,
can you see how clean they still look, but look at your socks.”
We were famous for being well mannered, and we got favours for good behaviour all the time. The onidiri made my sisters and I’s hair for free sometimes, and Mrs Odekunle, who our street was named after and who also sold groundnuts sent us free tasting whenever she had just roasted some. We always got jara with sales. A little extra for being well mannered.
On the day we decided to be ill mannered, a certain Biliki girl whose mother we were scared of because we had seen her flog boys with her husband’s belt for letting their football smash her window, had taunted us. I do not quite remember what upset me more. The fact that she was younger than us (my brother and I at least) or the fact that she spoke such horrible English. We had played dodging fire earlier, with other children. The volkswagen beetle was now a good hiding place. The cobwebs had reduced. All evening, children had called us names, made playful but mocking remarks and chief culprit being Biliki, but we ignored her. We played till late and Biliki lost at most of it. She grew angry and called us born by mistake. We usually didn’t feel the need to reply her or any one else, but whenever we wanted to, we had the right words. Well our mother said it was right. She said it made you the bigger person in a fight.
SILENCE … (is the best answer for a fool)
We said the words to Biliki before actually being silent and because she had no clue what it meant, and couldn’t be found not to know it, she continued, with such dangerous venom for a seven year old— oloshi… Silence. oloriburuku… Silence. Aje….
Aje? How? The witches in mount zion movies looked more like her than us, with threaded plaits falling out unevenly.
Before she left our sight that evening, as if to crown the rain of insults for that day, she walked towards us, spread her palm wide into the air and said iya e.
This, was the deal breaker. You NEVER involved mothers in children’s fight. NEVER. On it’s own the word hardly meant anything compared to oloriburuku, yoruba for retarded head, but it was an unwritten taboo to drag mother’s into children insult trade. Mother’s were sacred. Wicked, sacred goddesses. Insulting them stung in places you could not even identify.
The brightness in the sky was sinking fast and the last trail of birds were making their way home, it was getting dark, so we decided to go in too, though we had not been called. We were hurt. Deeply hurt. In a way Biliki had won us. We could still hear her from a near distance saying mean words at us. But nothing could top iya e. Unfortunately, we couldn’t say anything back, neither my brother or I. We were right in front of our house. Our parents would have heard us. I was upset, but I figured my brother was livid when he stopped suddenly in his tracks and went back towards the volkswagen to pick a stone. Without waiting to think it, he flung it in Biliki’s direction, and our anger largely subsided for all of three seconds when we heard her faint cry. It was a fragile fling, completely spineless and I knew his intention was for her to hear the sound of the stone landing so she could leave us alone. But the cry became louder and so we hurried inside. I heard the pounding in my chest as we both washed our hands in silence before proceeding to the living room. Then, there was a furious knock on the door. My father opened it to see Biliki’s mom holding a crying Biliki by her right arm. She had a big swell on the side of her head. Biliki’s mum ranted about what we had done to her child to our father. He listened carefully, remained extremely calm through her report, then told her gently but firmly that his children would never do such a thing. He called us both from the living room, where my brother and I had spoken no words to each other but agreed in our silence not to say a word about what happened. We approached the door and looked at Biliki, she had a big swell on the left side of her head. Father said gently, “Look at Biliki’s head both of you… she says you threw a stone at her.”
We looked at her, the way you’ll look at someone who said she was your sister but you had never met, and at the same time, as though on cue, we both shook our heads.
“No daddy, we did not.”
“Someone else must have done it” my brother added.
My father looked back at Biliki’s mom, told her perhaps if she had said we did something else, he would have believed, but throw a stone at her daughter? awon omo mi ko. Not my children.
A neighbour who lived upstairs happened to be returning home from work and met us all by the door. When the matter was loosely recounted to him, he said very disparagingly madam, I can tell you, not these children. The confidence in our lie soared a little more. We were getting away with this, and easily so.
Biliki’s mom had a slight look of shame on her face. She started to sound like guilt. How dare she accuse us without solid proof. Even Biliki suddenly looked unsure. She couldn’t look at us. My father gave her some ice for the swell, and as they walked away from our compound we heard her mother ask her in angry yoruba tones and a bit of doubt too.
“Where exactly did you say you were when the stone hit you?”
“Oh so the stone hit you from heaven?”
“Haven’t I warned you not to play out late?”
10 minutes later, as we ate dinner in silence, guilt ate us deep inside. We perched on the edge of our seats, and made sounds similar to that of a pet dog getting a cold bath. We had told the lie again, our mother being present to hear it this time and it was consistent with our first story. We did not do it. We thought our parents would see right through us, but they had since moved on to other important things. Mother told father that there was a poisonous beans from the North circulating the market, father grunted about the military government.
The next day, on the way to school, my brother and I didn’t look up to greet Biliki’s mom as she brushed her teeth outside. We didn’t talk about what happened either. But we both knew in our silent hearts that we had won. There was no proof. We were not bold enough to claim the victory, but we won. We would still all play dodging fire for years till we moved house, but till this day only my brother and I know how Biliki got that swell.