Voyage Around Lies
by Ìgbékèléolúwa Sàláwù
One of the happiest days of my life was the day when, while working in a cassava plot under a brutal sun, the cutlass with which I was weeding cut my ankle and blood streamed out like water from a broken pipe. As blood flowed out, the cassava stems around me looked on, dispassionate, uttering no sympathy, like they knew I didn’t need it.
The cassava plot was a semi-bald patch in the purposely forested landscape. Where cassava ended, cacao started. Usurper crops, both of them. Cassava had displaced yam as the dominant staple and cacao had displaced cola as the perennial crop.
My Agricultural Science teacher should have been lazy like the rest. He should have sat at the staff room, should have chatted and teased female teachers and students like the rest. He shouldn’t have come to the class to reveal that cassava came from Brazil and that cacao also came from the continent of America. That revelation changed my life.Thenceforth, going to our cassava plot felt like going to Brazil, and wandering through any cacao plantation felt like walking through the streets of America. Sometimes it seemed to me as if the two continents were visiting each other: as if both had merged into each other.
The aura of cacao and cassava triggered my fantasies: I pictured myself in foreign lands and fantasized luxurious lives, even while working, and that put my cutlass in the perfect condition to cut me.
I would wait until much later to discover that I wasn’t alone in feeling this intermingling, that those who felt it better had even christened it globalization. Then I gained enough confidence to shush the city people who called us bush people, who claimed we were concealed by forests and untouched by globalization. It was in the forest that America and Africa first merged, so we tasted globalization first.
The revelation had its benefits after all.
After blood clotted, I felt like a flatulence sufferer after successfully breaking wind. I sat down, purged of pain, tranquil and blissful. At last I would have enough time to cook enough lies, and my fame at school would soar higher. I badly needed lies and needed time to cook them.
I started lying in primary school, not just for lying’s sake, but to negotiate hard times. In that school your worth was weighed not with brilliance (nobody in that kind of school could afford it) but with your level of conversance with ongoing television series. After break time, those conversant with the latest television series held a council for the narration, analysis and re-enactment of scenes from the latest episodes of ongoing television series, to the admiration of those who didn’t watch television. If no ongoing television series had omitted your view, you were not an ordinary pupil like others; you were a superstar, a member of the cult of the enlightened.
At the time, the entertainment industry in Nigeria was in a transition. The days of the traveling theatre groups were gone, when Hubert Ogunde Troupe and other Nigerian troupes toured Lagos and other southwestern cities staging plays in theatres. Home videos were on the way, but had not yet come. Only series existed—television series.
Immediately after break time, there was an unofficial siesta break for class teachers. During the official break time, they would have fed themselves to lethargy. It seemed like a signed agreement: the food sellers, in order to continue to exploit us pupils, had to appease, with generous portions of their foods, the god teachers, who could send them out of the premises at will. After break, the teachers became too languorous to lift their limbs.
My class teacher was usually the first to go on that siesta break. She started by pasting her sweaty back (there were no electric fans in the zinc-roofed classroom) on the back rest of the wooden chair and her head on the wall—the back rest was too short to receive it. Then she rocked the chair gently. Sometimes her mouth parted first; sometimes her head danced first. If the former occurred, we expected drips of saliva; if it was the latter, we expected a collision of her head with the wall, or even an averted sideways fall, before she finally rested her head on the wooden table for the blackout.
Then we also gave ourselves an entertainment break. The centre of attention shifted from the class teacher’s desk to the aisle in-between our creaky wooden ones. There they performed, members of the cult of the enlightened, spectators sitting left and right. Scenes from the last episodes of the television series were the subject matter. Who could repeat those words by Chief Zebrudaya? (and they would almost bite their own tongues trying to utter some of the polysyllables by Chief Zebrudaya of The New Masquerade) How magnificent the new regeneration of Dr. Who’s The Doctor! How happy the Daleks and the Cybermen didn’t prevail! Why didn’t Abija crush Fadeyo Oloro when he had the chance to do it?
After narrating television series, they acted out scenes from cartoons. To answer What muppet appeared most freakish in Sesame Street? Gabriel would ride on Akeem’s back, playing Lucky, fumbling with the song, ‘Thirteen is my Lucky Number.’ When they got to Voltron you would see them paired, one riding on the back of the other; Peter always played Keith while Toyin, the only girl among them, played Princess Allura. They charged at one another, shouting, ‘defender of the universe.’
Then they forecast twists in future episodes. Who will Fadeyi Oloro kill next and will Abija have any more chance to checkmate him? Who among them will outwit whom? What will the Daleks and the Cybermen be scheming next? How will Isawuru-turned Pastor Paul conquer Ayamatanga the witch? Who will marry whom? Who will be the next to die? They raised stormy noises for hours, but it was not a problem because my class teacher would always be asleep. If coincidence smiled at you and your predictions got actualized in following episodes, you turned a prophet instantly, and you led the cult until your prophecy became stale or another prophet emerged.
The entertainment break ended with mechanical discussions on television sets. Taiwo would re-enact how his father and his siblings had slapped sense into the television set before it came on and before it presented clear sounds and pictures from the Nigerian Television Authority. Gabriel would demonstrate how he was sent to the front yard numberless times to turn the bamboo pole carrying the disused fluorescent bulb improvised into an aerial before the incantations of the hero and that of the antagonist could be audible. Peter would identify the decisive scene his family was seeing when a power cut occurred and how they scampered to their neighbour’s sitting room only to discover that the scene was already gone. Akeem would often lament on how a harrowing blackout cut his family’s joy just one minute to the episode’s start, how they ran to the neighbourhood to discover that the blackout was almost everywhere, how they went back home in agony, cursing the National Electric Power Authority, praying to God that NEPA should restore power in time. He would relate how they killed time imagining the scenes that must be going on until just five minutes remained and the only sensible thing was to stop praying and hoping and imagining. He would rhapsodize on how they mustered a grudge against God for the rest of the day, forsaking their evening prayers just as they had done the day Nigeria lost a decisive World Cup tournament match despite that they had prayed that God should make their team win.
Weeds and wheat had been allowed to blossom together in the cult of the enlightened, so the mechanical segment was purposed to sort them apart. The wheat consisted of those from families who actually possessed television sets and the weeds were those who went to neighbours’ sitting rooms to watch television. However woeful the performance of their television sets, the wheat talked about them—it was better than keeping quiet and being mistaken for weeds. The fate of the weeds was piteously too close to that of spectators.
When the mechanical section started, the weeds, having nothing to say and forced into silence, stared up at the dried palm leaves strewn over the surface where the ceiling should have been, unable to hold the gazes of those who, until then, had been their colleagues in enlightenment, ashamed to look at even the spectators. At times they directed their gaze, feigning seriousness, at the block of classrooms in front of ours, as if its walls had suddenly sprouted some wonders, as if they were not just drab, unplastered and windowless walls like the ones that housed our classroom.
Thanks to the toothlessness of the windows, they could also gaze across several windows and watch the pupils (whose teachers had also gone on a siesta break) playing football on the pitch a little far off. The pitch was sandy and grassless; in the hot afternoon the sand fried until almost sizzling, and the tender unsandaled feet playing football on it had to flit like new-born goats. Away from where it was needed, at the point where the sand stopped, the grass grew. It grew on a soggy ground which inclined gently down to a mudbath into which sugar cane often lured famished pupils, and where several big snakes used to be sighted and sometimes killed. The ground rose gently again after the mudbath, until it reached a tarred road. A signpost stood dutifully beside the road, announcing: A-U-D PRIMARY SCHOOL, ILARO.
If their sights were sharp enough, the weeds could look beyond the children playing football and at the passage of vehicles on the road. At that point, it was generally known—only it was not said—that they had become ordinary spectators like the rest of us.
There were unwritten laws governing the entertainment break. The aisle was ordinarily a no-man’s-land, but the moment the entertainment break started, it turned a no-go-area for us uninitiated ones; it became the stage and the actors alone could strut back and forth there. We were allowed the position of spectators, though, and the classroom became a theatre. During the performance, spectators kept mute. They were unenlightened, unrefined, uncivilized, lacking exposure. What valuable contribution could they give? What television series had they seen?
The only qualification for joining their cult was having a father rich enough to possess a television or being fortunate enough to have a sociable neighbour who possessed one. Among those who desired to join the cult I was foremost, but my only connection with television and luxuries was through recollections of my elder siblings: We once had a television and people gathered in our sitting room to watch series; We once went to school with Geisha, Titus and other canned sardines and pupils surrounded us to have a bite; We once drank chilled water from the refrigerator. I came too late, (the last child) when all luxuries had been entombed under the rubble of total economic collapse.
I was eligible to join the weeds of the cult—we also had neighbours who had televisions—but my parents were the superior type. Living obstinately in the past, they had this proud poverty that allowed neither hunger nor want to dissipate the dignity they used to enjoy when they were a bit comfortable. As such, we dared not embarrass ourselves peeping through neighbours’ windows, as they put it, to watch television.
For a long time I was out of the cult and secretly desirous of joining it. The alienation worsened until I could bear it no longer. So one day, in a gush of impetuous desperation, I suddenly announced that my father had bought a television. All heads turned my direction. From their looks, I read their thoughts: scepticism.
As I teetered to the aisle, my legs wobbled. I didn’t possess the qualification to be there, I was only pretending. I parted my lips, but they only remained ajar. The class had almost given me up as a scoundrel when my speech organs came to life, ad-libbing another lie which purportedly was a scene I saw the previous day from the episode of an ongoing television series: ‘A man was being pursued by another man. He ran; his assailant pursued. He doubled his speed; his assailant doubled his speed. After a long, tough chase, the one being pursued fell down, tired. His assailant stood over him, raised a cutlass, and, and…’ I became confused how to elongate the story, so after the third ‘and’, when hesitation was destroying the certitude with which I started, I took refuge in another lie: ‘A power cut ended it all.’
It was a transparent lie. How come that was shown only in my father’s television set? That was Gabriel’s response. Other responses came. How come I hadn’t seen the series others had seen and nobody else had seen the trash I’d just narrated? Was I not the proverbial impotent man who, when asked of his children, claimed they were across seven rivers and mountains away?
I knew that I’d underrated their intelligence, that I’d failed; but I wouldn’t give up without yet another lie. What did they take my father’s television set for? Did they think it was a black-and-white television like theirs? They had never seen a colour television, or else they would have known that such televisions could get stations from as far as outside Nigeria.
The entertainment break of that day didn’t run its normal course. The actors had never seen a colour television, so I had effectively humiliated them. They spent the rest of the break sitting at my feet, listening to what that kind of television looked like—or what I thought it looked like.
Determined never again to leave my fate to the mercy of ad libs, I stayed awake for several hours at night trying to compose the lies I would later claim were the episodes I had seen. As I scavenged through happenings in the neighbourhood for something out of the ordinary, a mad woman down the street came to my memory, whose grove was a resort to us children when we had too much time to kill. Perfect. Her antics were many: at times she danced to music heard only by her, at times she welcomed unseen visitors, at times she ranted at invisible interlocutors. Just the previous day, she had tugged at the tray of a street hawker from behind, making the latter flee in horror, leaving the tray of snacks for her. After some hours, the hawker’s father had appeared with a machete, aiming to butcher the madwoman to pieces, but was restrained by passers-by.
At school the following day, the lunatic became a homeless orphan who suffered a lot on the streets. His mother had died while giving birth to him and his father had died of grief. After becoming ravenous hungry one day, he stole snacks from peddlers and was pursued till caught. He was beaten. At the moment petrol was brought to lynch him, the episode ended. Though it wasn’t the most entrancing narration, everybody was conned. I felt ecstatic; I had joined the cult of the enlightened. The day after, in what became a cycle, I was back at the grove of the lunatic. Her antics had become my television series. I watched her and her antics proved the raw materials that I would refine to become scenes from television series at school the following day. The madwoman was my first television.
But at times, she did things too quotidian to cook a story, and at times she wandered far from our street. At these times I had to scavenge other happenings in the neighbourhood: the teenage boy who was caught making love to his schoolmate on the sofa in the sitting room, the man whom his wife regularly beat, the layabout who regularly stole his wife’s money, the teenager who became pregnant and was banished from home.
At times, there was nothing spectacular in the neighbourhood, or none that I could remember, or notice. At those times, I concocted something which had never happened.
One day, the lunatic down the street chose to relocate to the market place. About that time, coincidentally, many popular television series were set in the past and concerned wars, sorcerers, supremacy tussles and the like.
Fortuitously, there was Fagunwa, a Yorùbá novelist who outstandingly specialized in that, so I temporarily halted the strenuous nocturnal cookery of lies and read passages from his novels. Each day at school, I mesmerized them with the passage I had read the previous night. The novels were so spell-binding that in a short time, they won me the status of master narrator. Notoriously, Nigerians do not read, so the fear of getting discovered was precluded as I became the top superstar whose narrations were most craved. That was the zenith of my fame. I felt fulfilled. At the same time, I became an avid reader of Yorùbá novels, reading most in existence.
One day, there was a power cut in the streets of some of my classmates. Not wanting to miss that day’s episode of the ongoing series, they congregated and came to our street, where there was still electricity, and to our house, to see that day’s episode. When I saw them coming, I felt like sinking to the ground, or having the power to turn back time and then erasing the lie that we had bought a television.
But I quickly recovered my composure. I had grown too mature in the cookery of lies to be frightened by such a trifle, I thought, and immediately cooked another lie to rescue the former ones. ‘It got faulty,’ I declared, ‘and they took it to the repairer.’ The quality of my narrations was too grand for anybody to doubt that we had a television, so they were incapable of doubting my lie. But Mother broke the egg of word when they got to the backyard on their way back and encountered her. She inquired who they were and what they wanted.
‘Wrong house,’ she blurted. ‘No television here. Can’t you see the house has no wiring?’
With that verbal bomb, Mother shattered the skyscraper of fame which had cost me several wakeful nights to build. All that remained throughout my remaining days in primary school was the rubble of the fame, and shame.
I rebuilt the fame in secondary school. My secondary school was a state and several local governments away from where my primary school was, so I met again none of my former schoolmates, meaning I could cook new lies and reheat old ones. Here they didn’t wait for entertainment breaks before launching into narrations: the principal reason they went to school was to kill time. It was a rural school, so substandard most teachers posted there usually refused to resume duties there; so substandard no teacher got queries for starting weekend on Wednesday; so substandard that their chief concentration—students and teachers alike—was idleness.
Only our Agricultural Science teacher came to class fairly regularly. He taught us about tropical plants and where they came from. Cassava had migrated down here willingly but Britain had forced our yam and cola-planting ancestors to plant cacao. No, they didn’t force them to plant cacao; they forced them to pay taxes in European money (not in cowries or yam) so to get European money to pay European taxes, our ancestors were forced to plant something European bellies or machines wanted; neither needed yam, so they planted cacao.
This was a village; there were too few television sets to float a full-time culture of series narration. To have something commensurate to their idleness, therefore, they supplemented the narration of television series with descriptions of the city, the beautiful houses and the wealthy families in which and among whom they purportedly had spent the last holiday. Embellishing the reality strategically here and there, they rhapsodized about their enjoyment in the city, how they were treated like princes, the city girls who had desperately sought their love, and how wealthy their relatives were.
I was not new to the game, so I simply dug into my brain, exhumed my lie engine, dusted it and oiled it. Before the end of my first term in Junior Secondary School 1, I was the proud owner of the wealthiest relative, whose mansion had the noblest grandeur, whose number of cars was the most numerous and who was so generous as to surrender one posh Peugeot saloon for my exclusive use and one skilled chauffeur to drive me to wherever I wished to go throughout my stay there. The village was small, and I couldn’t lie that we had a television, so I specialized on narrations of sweet holidays. At the end of the term I emerged first in narrative fame and vicarious dignity.
While many of my classmates traveled in reality to the city during periods of school holiday, my own school holiday meant resumption of farm works. Nevertheless, I still traveled to the city, I still had the wealthiest relative to holiday with, I still had the posh Peugeot saloon and a chauffeur to drive me around and I still had the best treatment, but strictly in my mind, strictly in my dreams.
That meant my work at the farm was twofold. I had to combine my daily portion with intensive daydreaming about ecstatic holidaying in Utopia, otherwise I risked losing my first position in narration and dignity to someone else the following term. At the end of the day, I was always the most irked and drawn and miserable. I was combining two tasks: one open and the other secret. I became frustrated because the ecstasy strictly remained in my mind—not for once materializing in reality—and because my secret fantasy made me the most susceptible to disillusionment: I escaped to a Utopian America, rode in presidential cars, waltzed through gold-paved streets, gobbled all delicacies, only to return to a stark cassavaland, to an army of weeds which I must mow before going home, to an expectation of bland dinner.
As if that was not enough, I was always the last to finish my portions, and I had acquired the worst form of abstraction. I often left my work for some seconds or minutes, stood still on the same spot and gazed far ahead, fantasizing. I was usually oblivious of calls of my name until called the second or third time. It was under the influence of this chronic absent-mindedness that I one day cut myself with the cutlass with which I weeded.
After blood clotted, I sat down to salivate what the cut had just procured me—several days to be spent off the farm. This was my own idea of holiday. It would not only ransom the school holiday but would also allow me to travel to Utopia to fully spend it there. For that I was exquisitely blissful.
The cutlass injury was worth two weeks holiday. During the two weeks, I had more time for my daydreaming than I needed. When I became bored, I ransacked the house for books. My search took me to Chinua Achebe and Charles Dickens carefully concealed in the large trunks of my elder brothers who had finished secondary school when we were in Lagos and would not consent to living in the village with us. I immediately took them out and, since I had no real teachers at school, they became my teachers.
It was a great discovery, similar to that of crude oil in Nigeria, gold in South Africa and diamonds in Sierra Leone. The discovery of Arrow of God, Things Fall Apart, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and others was like the archaeological excavations of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt and of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jordan.
My lesson started with Things Fall Apart. I followed Okonkwo through his bravery, rise to prominence and reactionary conflicts in Umuofia. Of course I didn’t understand many words and concepts, but those I wrote somewhere and asked Father at night after his return from the farm while he sat tranquilly alone in the veranda, humming sad tunes, relaxing from hard physical toil that was antithetical to his frail constitution, but which he willy-nilly did as his own portion of the national penalty. And he always knew the answer.
In David Copperfield, which I read next, Charles Dickens took me to a world almost identical to the one in which I lived. For the first time I was reading about human misery in its realistic form. I understood the different twists of the story, but there were even more words and concepts alien to me. Virtually becoming my dictionary and encyclopaedia, Father sometimes solved my queries far into the night, and it was during one such period when I was bombarding him with questions that he prescribed me dictionary. ‘They are the best teachers of vocabulary,’ he told me. ‘Whenever you encounter a strange word, they tell you its meaning. Anywhere you are, even if I am not there, they tell you. You must try and get one.’
It was not clear if Father pondered the words before he uttered them, because I expected a statement like, ‘I must try and get you a dictionary.’ Where did he expect me to get the money? Perhaps he realized it himself, because he soon added an afterthought: ‘When you finish your school and start working, you must get one.’
I was deep into David Copperfield when my wound healed enough for me to outgrow my limp. Instead of being uplifted, I was downcast: I knew starting to walk erect was an indication that I was okay, and would thus signal the termination of my holiday and, resultantly, a separation with my new teachers. To avoid that calamity, I mustered some fictitious pain to replace the real pain which was no more. I continued my limp, sometimes exaggerating it, and I donned a martyr’s look whenever people were around.
It worked. It elongated my holiday, until a day I was sent on a certain errand by Mother. As soon as I was out of our neighbourhood, I discarded my fictitious pain and ran with all my strength. I wanted to come back quickly and resume sessions with my new teachers. On my way back, I doubled my speed, running blindly homeward until my name was suddenly called by a woman I’d almost bumped into. That woman turned out to be Mother. She was going to another place and she passed the same route as mine. She read no treachery to my actions; she only thanked God I’d become fit enough to resume work in the farm, which I did starting the following day. But I wasn’t grieved much, since school resumption was just a week to the time.
When I got back to school the following term, I appeared to have outgrown the idle narrations of my schoolmates. I read novels most of the time. Once in a while I joined them, but my stories, though still of wealthy relatives with monstrous mansions, were no longer of princely treatment but of human misery, the type I’d been shown by Charles Dickens.
During the first term I became David Copperfield. The aunt with whom I spent the holiday had a wicked lover who hated to talk to me. He made me do all the chores. And yet he starved me. He turned my aunt against me. He yelled on me always; he never smiled at me. One day he produced a whip from a corner of the kitchen. He wanted to beat me or what? I would show him that a pepper, though small, was hotter than a tomato; that a needle, though almost invisible, was not to be swallowed by even the mighty elephant.
Applause from schoolmates.
I charged at him and tapped blood from his arm.
More applause and ululation.
The following day, my aunt took me back home.
The following term, I reincarnated as Oliver Twist. Mrs. Mann became the wife of one of my uncountable city uncles. The uncle in question traveled and I was left at home with his wife. A dastardly, blatantly parsimonious woman, she kept for herself the money her husband gave her to take care of me. I was starved, and when I couldn’t bear it anymore, I wrote to another uncle, asking him to come and take me. They came and I went with them, but they were worse; when I couldn’t take their maltreatment anymore, I became rude to them, and ran away. I lived on the street for two weeks, living on cunning, becoming more streetwise and gaining more street cred than even city boys.
Throughout junior secondary school, my various reincarnations at any point hinged on the main character in the novel I’d read during the last school holiday. But I rewrote the stories. The teeth with which David Copperfield bit Mr. Murdstone became a kitchen knife with which I cut my uncle. The plea of Oliver Twist for more food became a bold confrontation with my uncle’s wife: I wasn’t starved at home, I wasn’t a slave. And those uncles and relatives were always strikingly wealthy. To paint them poor would diminish my dignity: it was more dignifying to have my relatives strikingly wealthy and miserly than to have them penurious, even if also generous.
Effectively stealing the brains of Charles Dickens and other authors to wow schoolmates, I acquired the status of grand story teller. This shouldn’t have been: I should have been caught easily. I should have been exposed and shamed, but two things came to my rescue. Nigerians read, the little they did, to pass examinations; reading for recreation was rather non-existent. Among the about two hundred schoolmates who at one time or the other must have sat at my feet relishing those lies, none had ever read a novel. Second, Nigeria of the 1990s had many semblances with the England of Charles Dickens’ tales, so although in fact I was lying I was, at the same time, narrating truths.
At the next school holiday, which, needless to say, meant resumption of full-time farm works, I craved the kind of break I had from the farm during the previous school holiday. My chief prayer then was for God to grant me another currency for a long break from the farm, even if it meant allowing the cutlass to cut me again.
I waited patiently for God to answer the prayer, but nothing happened. When it appeared God was not willing to join my conspiracy, I decided to answer my own prayer halfway into my daily portion in the farm one day. I raised my cutlass up under the pitiless, harrowing sun and fantasized how sweet it would be to resume lessons full time with authors, to resume dialogue with books. There were many novels I’d borrowed, there were many I’d stolen; there were many that I’d borrowed and failed to return, which, by all standards, also meant stolen. I remembered Oliver Twist and thought of how sweet it would be to read again about my fellow citizen in the largest, grandest and oldest existing empire man ever created for himself: Poverty Empire. I remembered The Adventures of Moni Mambou and Return To Treasure Island. I thought also of some Yorùbá novels, those by Afọlábí Ọlábímtán, Ọládèjọ Òkédìjí and even those of Fágúnwà, which I wished to read again. Greed for books welled up in me and I swung my arm down. But it didn’t reach the target—my shin. I couldn’t muster enough callousness to drown the expected pain.
The day I discovered that there were subjects, known as Literature-in-English and Yoruba Literature, which could refine my lies and make them professional, award-winning lies, I ascended with joy until almost reaching the sky. I was told that when I got to senior secondary school, I could go to arts department where I would take those subjects. Suddenly I realized I could make a living with lies, I could become a professional liar.
At the point my joy had ascended high enough to touch the sky, the education sector had also advanced enough to manufacture missiles terrible enough to crash the most dogged ambition, excepting ambitions to become a bus conductor, an agbero, a butcher, a Fuji musician, a Pentecostal pastor, a political thug, a beggar, a pickpocket, a robber, an assassin and the like.
I was aimed at. The first missile hit me when I learned that in the only senior secondary school in that village, there were no teachers for the arts subjects. The second came when I was misled to believe that the science department was the only destination for anyone desirous of becoming not something but somebody in life. If I wanted to take art subjects, there were no teachers for them; if there were teachers for them, the dread of being doomed to become something would bar me; so by all possibilities, the arts existed as a no-go area.
The third fatally pounded me on my first day in a chemistry class, and my joy finally crashed the day I found myself in a science laboratory that was actually a husk of what it was called—a laboratory emptied of apparatus, my presence in which was enough to tell me that I was on my way to becoming something, not somebody.
I took solace in my lies, my towering fame, that Edenic world into which I alone had access. Those wealthy relatives of mine became wealthier. Their mansions became more palatial, the number of their cars tripled; but as I had contracted the Dickensian disease, they had to be wicked and I had to turn cantankerous; I had to run away or be driven to the streets and had to become streetwise, living through cunning. My fame soared more, reaching its zenith.
But even that world, that escapist world of solace, was fated for apocalypse.
In the first school assembly Mr. Owolabi led, we heard English the way we had never heard it. Suddenly we did not know if the principal was around or round, the difference between away and way; suddenly another became nothr, and a mention of thief got us speculating what on earth fief might mean. When he called Hey! That girl, no girl responded because we had all heard gall. When he bade us look at a bird, we all looked at the board, the chipped chalkboard in a classroom near the assembly ground. They’ve been teeeaching you nofing, we heard. Nofing. He paced left, right and back. He was svelte with the colour of dried coconut shell. You’ soakt, soakt in ignrnce; sou soakt you even drip it. He swallowed. But’n end ’s come. All the ignrnce, the lies, ’n end ’s come to it all.
This new English teacher of ours was an incurable critic. He needed only to hear a sentence in English from a student and there would be several things to correct. You instantly emerged an indisputable hero if you uttered two or three sentences in English in Mr. Owolabi’s presence without his having some correction to do. He considered it a must to correct language errors, and soon he was identified as an interrupter in all sorts of matters that concerned him the least. When it had become obvious that no student, however seemingly brilliant, could avoid disgrace from the new English teacher, the presence of him became a signal for students’ speech organs to go on strike. If they must speak in his presence, they did in Yoruba, which they spoke perfectly; and if they must attempt to speak English, it was in his absence. But criticism was to Mr. Owolabi what fuel is to a car: he could not live without it. When he saw that nobody spoke English in his presence and his fuel supply had stopped, he turned mysterious. He would suddenly appear in your class and correct errors you committed in his absence.
Once upon a reincarnation I again found myself as Oliver Twist. My narration that week was so captivating it was serialized. In the first episode, the Sowerberrys became one of those innumerable city relatives who were wealthy but had turned cold and mean. There I had an encounter with Noah Claypole, a cantankerous housekeeper who seized my food and derided me always. The day he scorned my family to the point of calling my father a hopeless farmer, I grew apoplectic, seized him by the throat and broke his bones with blows. In the second episode, I was taken to the police station and detained. In detention I met Jack Dawkins, a hardened pilferer who, after both of us were released, took me home to his guardian, Fagin. I surreptitiously watched the old man as he admired his valuables at dawn, but I did not make him catch me; rather, I noted where he hid the safe that housed the valuables. After he left the room, I went there and emptied the valuables into my capacious pockets. I was preparing to steal out of the house when Mr. Owolabi suddenly appeared.
His countenance had never encoded so much alarm. Fief! Liar! Fief! Liar! He faced my listeners. And you all sat ther enjoying ’is lies. Hasn’t any of you read it? Nobody ’s read Oliver Twist?
He had eavesdropped outside the window. He turned back to me and must have seen, but ignored, the thumping of my chest, my sheepish expression, the fact that I could no longer look my listeners in the face.
Tell me, aren’t Noah Claypole, Jack Dawkins ’n Fagins characters in Oliver Twist?
The response from me was silence. He persisted. Tell me, aren’t they?
I nodded, more to redirect the tens of eyes on me. At what point did I become so relaxed and indolent that I bothered no longer to change the names of characters in the novels I adapted?
I could imagine how grave the shock of my schoolmates would be, but having lost the courage to look them in the face, I did not see how they chose to express it. There followed for a quarter of an hour a clear narration by Mr. Owolabi of major events from Oliver Twist, a quarter of an hour during which I watched the teacher deal an Armageddon to my world, the ethereal world I had spent forty-eight months and several rounds of narration to build. The destruction of that world was sudden, like a thief in the night, decisive and irreversible. I was booted out of my Eden, never to return.
Ìgbékèléolúwa Sàláwù is of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, where he is currently studying for an MA. He holds a BA in English/Communication and Language Arts from the University of Ibadan. He writes bilingually in Yoruba and English. His short story won the first prize in a Yoruba Literature Writing Competition in 2012. He has been published in East Jasmine Review.