Udenka was only four-years-old, small for his age, thin with short arms and a long neck. He was so thin that his siblings always told him he could easily be blown away by the wind. He had a well-shaped, handsome face. He walked delicately, hardly swinging his arms, as if he was going to trip over and fall at any moment. He appeared frail and had developed a habit of walking bent over, looking down to avoid making eye contact with adults coming in the opposite direction, as he was extremely shy. He already knew what the word “disappointment” meant because admission to primary school was nearly beyond his reach. He had tried for two years to be accepted by the head teacher. Admission to the primary school was done once a year. Each time he was turned down, not because he had failed any written entrance examination, for there was none; it was more of a physical examination. The first time Udenka went to meet the head teacher to be assessed for admission early one morning, the teacher unceremoniously swung his right arm violently across the top of his head to touch the opposite ear, but, to his disappointment, his fingers could not reach it. He was summarily dismissed in the most impolite way, which a child could not comprehend.
It was a dreaded sentence of one long year at home while his peers were in school. Udenka’s small size had failed him. His growth was static as he ate poorly because of constant ill health. He often turned away and rejected most of the cooked meals his parents could afford. His parents were not well off and struggled to make ends meet. His mother, Udego, found it most frustrating and had to resort to forced feeding as a means of solving this persistent problem. She eventually became so experienced in this that she could be regarded as an expert. Udego would easily put this small figure across her lap with a cup full of semi-liquid food perched in one hand, deftly closing his nostrils with her free hand, and while he screamed and gasped, she simultaneously put the food in his mouth to coincide with his intake of breath. It was generally felt that there was no way he would live to adulthood if no action were taken, hence Udego resorted to this extreme measure.
Other contributing factors to Udenka’s diminutive figure included irregular and late meals. Unfortunately for a growing child, supper was always very late at night. Udego was very busy during the day and would start cooking late in the evening. It could be six o’clock in the evening before she would decide what to cook and only then would she begin to gather ingredients for making soup. At that point, it would occur to her that firewood needed to be collected to make a fire. Someone was then sent to the nearby forest to gather wood. This process of gathering wood and making a fire would take in the region of one hour, much longer if the wood was wet, as often happened during the rainy season. With the pot on the freshly made fire outside, as there was no kitchen enclosure as such, the items needed to make the soup were added methodically at various stages of the cooking process. This resulted in the cooking taking much longer. Each item was put in the cooking pot at least thirty minutes apart from each other. A completely well-cooked soup containing a full complement of ingredients took an average of four hours. You could hear the pounding of food in the dead of night when most of the villagers were already fast asleep. While the children waited anxiously for the food to be ready, Udenka would by now have fallen asleep on the rough floor, awoken a few times to the loud pounding of yams.
With the food now ready, his problem was not yet solved, for the actual eating of the food was as complex a problem as the cooking and needed determination, resourcefulness and wisdom. The older ones fared better. To begin with, there was poor lighting because the entire family ate at night in the large sitting room that was sparsely furnished, and there was only one functioning lamp that was never bright enough. His parents ate together and all the siblings gathered round a plate of soup containing fish and pieces of meat and another plate of pounded yam. To survive, you must eat fast, and the older siblings were better at it, tending to eat faster than the younger ones. The entire meal disappeared in a matter of minutes. To make the dire situation worse for the younger siblings, the parents would always send one of them on an errand that required the use of the only lamp at the most critical point of the eating process. With one child called away to fetch something unimportant, the rest would continue to eat in darkness, unnoticed. One older mischievous sibling would shift the soup plate from its normal position in the dark. Udenka, not knowing the soup bowl had been shifted from the usual position, would dip the pounded yam bolus into what he thought was the soup plate but inadvertently dipped it on the floor. When the lamp was eventually brought back, the plates were found to be empty, as the rest of the meal had been consumed in darkness. Udenka was worse off at supper, even though he was awake, as he was unable to compete with his older siblings. He was also disadvantaged in other ways. The pieces of meat and dry fish in the soup plate were the only sources of protein, and these were normally left until the end of the meal, to be shared equally among the siblings. Unfortunately, at the end of such a meal, there was not much to share because as they ate fast the pieces would be cleverly wedged unseen between the bolus and swallowed by the older siblings. The younger ones had no chance. They were too young to compete with the dexterity of their older siblings.
Twelve months of doing nothing in the remote village was hell for him. He was left at home most days with his younger sister, who was only two years old at that time, as his companion. Udego would leave early in the morning for the market several miles away and was not expected back until late in the evening. His father, Fidelis, was always out teaching in a school as a head teacher. Both were therefore left at home for several hours to fend for themselves. They would try to see who cried the loudest and longest for most of the day in expectation of their parents’ return. He seemed to blame his parents for the situation he found himself in, and he resorted to mischievous behaviour. One day, while playing outside, a very aggressive hen herding ten-day-old chicks started picking with its beak at a fresh wound on his shin covered with cotton wool. He continued chasing the hen away only for it to come back when he was inattentive, picking at the dressed wound until it started to bleed profusely. With his parents away, he decided on immediate action and he didn’t have time to consider the consequences. He chased the hen, caught up with it, and strangled it. He took the dead hen into the back garden, dug a shallow grave and buried it. He forgot his wicked action until his mum came back from the market to find the young chickens running aimlessly up and down the compound. His mum, Udego, began to ask about the hen that was supposed to care for and protect the young chicks. In no time, she began to suspect an elderly neighbour who lived alone and who was once caught late at night stealing their livestock. The matter did not develop further and he felt relieved. His mum directed all her anger towards her neighbour, and he felt his dastardly action would go undetected and gave it no further thought.
Months later, one early morning, he woke up to the sound of footsteps that he thought, as always, came from his mum, about to leave for the far away market. He dreaded it. The entire time was spent roaming about the huge compound unsupervised. Late that sunny afternoon, everything appeared calm and eerily quiet. The villagers went about their normal business. The young ones were out in the morning for the farm, leaving the elderly at home, and were noticeable as they cut across the mission.
Suddenly, there seemed to be a disturbance among the livestock including goats and cows because they became restless and started making peculiar, distressed noises. Then, in a blink of an eye, they started to run across the yard as if in a panic. When he looked up to the sky, it appeared as if the moon was fighting the sun. Men rushed out of their homes and tried to escape with their goats perched around their necks, cock in one hand, as they started to run. As their speed quickened, Udenka could hear them talking about the end of the world. He could see the villagers move in different directions. Darkness inexplicably descended on the village, taking over the normally bright, cloudless, sunny afternoon. It now seemed to him as he looked towards the sky that the world was truly suddenly coming to an end. To reinforce what he had seen, the normally placid villagers rushed out of their compounds carrying whatever they could lay their hands on at such short notice, heading nowhere in particular. What he was witnessing was too much for a four-year-old boy. At that point, he got frightened and quickly grabbed his younger sister, already crying her eyes out, in one hand, and dashed across the compound where they found themselves in the middle of a dusty but lonely road, which rarely welcomed one vehicle in an entire month. At that same moment, an army jeep painted in brown with a flag hoisted on the bonnet was approaching fast and was forced to make a sudden, unscheduled stop with brakes screeching and smoke rising from its tyres, mixed with the rising dust, to avoid running them over.
It was around the time of the Second World War. Two young men in army uniform jumped out of the vehicle, grabbed the two children, and moved them to safety.
While this was happening, in no time, a crowd of panicked villagers who had initially bolted had surrounded the vehicle and were looking at the two white men, with their goats still perched on their necks. The villagers looked anxious with eyes bulging and lips moving nervously as if asking for an explanation for the events just witnessed. This time, the darkness had lifted and sunshine once again lit up the village. The white men noticed the stark terror in the eyes of the villagers and tried to calm them down by explaining in English exactly what had happened. Unfortunately, the villagers were pagans and had no formal education. All the same, they listened attentively, unsure of what was being said. Udenka could pick out a few English words, for he was taught at home by his father. From what he could gather, they were reassuring the villagers that it was not the end of the world but a natural phenomenon – a total solar eclipse of the sun. At the end of the lecture, the villagers, in their ignorance, turned their backs and walked off. They couldn’t be bothered. They needed no explanation. They could now see it. With the darkness lifted, it was not the end of the world after all.
The following year, the admission process was repeated. The night before, Udenka hardly slept. He dreaded another year at home. At that age, there was no way to know how to strengthen his arms in such a way as to pass the test. He had insignificant growth the whole of that year and he once more failed the test. At that point, he felt he would never go to school. He walked back home dejected and sad, crying all the way. It again meant another one year idling at home. His peers had now been in school for one uninterrupted year.
He lived with his parents in a mission covering a large expanse of well-kept land surrounded by thick hedges. Despite its size, it contained a building standing alone in the middle of this well-kept compound. The rest of the villagers lived not far apart from the mission and they revered, respected and adored Udenka’s family. Education was in its infancy. The villagers were absorbed in their primitive ways of life and young girls and women were scantily dressed. He often stood there watching villagers pass through the mission on their way to the market.
The daily routine was monotonous. He was woken up along with his siblings at first crow around four in the morning, and quickly got ready to fetch water some distance away. With empty clay pots balanced on their heads, they were off on foot to the stream, four miles away. The route was frighteningly quiet and lonely. Not a sound could be heard. Along the way, they said little as it was too early in the morning, and they were afraid of being heard by evil spirits lurking in the dark. The silence of the night was disarming and instilled fear in all of them as they progressed towards the stream. As they got closer and the stream became visible, the leader of their group would start shouting at the top of his or her voice, invoking evil spirits to leave the stream so they could be allowed to bathe and fetch water. Having bathed and with the clay pots full of water well positioned on their heads, they made their way back home. It so often happened that with the heavy load on Udenka’s head becoming unbearable and his long neck beginning to shrink, he would start grunting in pain and soon after dislodged the clay pot from his head, smashing it on the hard surface. Now that his head was free from any luggage, he would cry all the way home, holding on to small pieces of the broken pot to be blamed and at the same time consoled by his caring, sympathetic mum. No matter what length his mum took in reducing the size of the clay pot, the outcome was the same: every pot was smashed on his way home from the stream. He eventually ended up accompanying his siblings to the stream without a clay pot, while his mum counted the cost of broken pots.
His father, Fidelis, broke the monotony of village life by inviting the villagers once in a long while to listen to gramophone records at night. On the appointed day, it seemed that the entire village began to arrive until the front of the mission house was packed full. His dad would then start playing the first record. He always played the “Laughing Scotsman” first. They waited anxiously, whispering to one another, not knowing what music would come on. When the “Laughing Scotsman” record came on, it suddenly brought about endless laughter and merriment. You could see them peeping into the gramophone, trying to get a glimpse of whoever was making the sound they were listening to. It was the first time some of the villagers were seeing a gramophone; Fidelis was the only one in the village who owned such a thing. They stayed far into the night listening to various records before eventually retiring, feeling on top of the world, for night well spent. To the villagers, such kind gestures would remain a topic of conversation, punctuating their boring, repetitive, never-ending tasks essential for survival.
It was on the third attempt that Udenka was accepted into his first school. He realised that his peers had been in school for two years running while he was stuck at home. He was determined to work hard to recover lost time and wrongly assumed that with more effort, he would catch up with his age mates. He was so excited at starting school that he waited in eager anticipation; the night before school resumed, he hardly slept and hardly ate his supper. More importantly, he sat down with his older brother, already in the same school, and bombarded him with questions about what school life was like. He heard nothing to encourage him but tale of dirty and dangerous pranks in the class during lessons and the constant floggings by teachers. He told Udenka what happened one morning in class while he listened attentively to a lesson, with his eyes fixed on the teacher writing on the blackboard with white chalk. One mischievous boy next to him put a matchbox full of deadly scorpions in his side pocket. His brother never realised something was in his side pocket until he was stung by a black scorpion that had crawled out of the matchbox. Udenka was so moved by these stories that he was full of fear and anticipation as his mum took him to his class.
Nothing untoward took place on his first day at school. He began to settle down to schoolwork and the routine.
He started to make friends in earnest. The first boy he picked in his class lived close to the mission and had previously met him on a few occasions. His name was Ndu. Udenka chose him out of sympathy for him because of his home circumstances. He was the same age as Udenka. Ndu’s mother was long dead. He lived with his dad in a clearing in the bush without a single structure. There was no food or cooking utensils for one to talk of cooked meals. What he had for a father was a tall pagan, Ekwensu, who most of the time was seen talking to himself and related poorly to his only child. He dressed shabbily, half-naked, always wearing dirty and tattered dresses, and neighbours generally avoided him. What was most striking about this man was that half of his jaw on one side had disappeared, leaving a gaping hole from where there was a constant drooling of saliva. He was so unsightly that Udenka and other children bolted as he approached. The children could not work out how half of his jaw had been eaten away.
The man with no jaw was a typical pagan who went about offering rituals and scattering idols in the town, to the disapproval of a new Irish parish priest. They confronted each other one evening in the open and the meeting was bad tempered. Udenka watched from a distance but saw everything. They were shouting at each other while a few people gathered around them. The priest was screaming angrily in English, but Ekwensu had no basic education and was responding equally in his native dialect. The jawless man stood his ground and the Irish priest was gesticulating and shouting, pointing his fingers at him. The priest finally told him he would bring the wrath of God upon him. Ekwensu dared him to do this. The two finally parted and the reprimands did not stop Ekwensu from continuing his pagan practice.
Udenka was able to make more friends and everyone rallied round to help provide food and clothing for Ndu. Their relationship to Ndu was based on a good understanding of his home situation and on love. They had so much sympathy for him that they did their best for him, at times resorting to stealing food to make sure Ndu was comfortable. It became an obsession that carried on until they left school.