A story written by Jakemond… If you missed part 16, read it Here
While Grace was revealing her life to us, Winterkpus and I were busy hiding the fact that we were doing our own business: street hawking. It would definitely hurt our reputation if anyone from school found out we were hustling. One day Winterkpus ran out of luck—Emeka was returning from a trip and spotted Winterkpus selling his wares in traffic.
When he got to school, Emeka recounted the incident to his girlfriend, who then told the story to her friends. Ndidi, who could never keep her mouth shut, broadcast the news to our whole class. Winterkpus was furious and ashamed. He thought that everyone in the school would come to know about his secret life and make fun of him—and indeed, he was right. Even I made fun of him, since my own secret was still safe at the time.
One evening I called a meeting for my group to discuss Winterkpus’s situation and how we would deal with Emeka. Barbarossa was reluctant to do anything to Emeka because they were from the same village and lived in the same compound outside school, but we overrode all his objections and decided that we would teach Emeka a lesson. We all headed to Emeka’s house. When we arrived at his compound, Emeka didn’t realize how much trouble he was in and continued to be his pompous self. He asked why we were there, and before I could respond, Winterkpus jumped him, lifted him up, and threw him to the ground, raining punches on him. The rest of us simply stood aside and watched. Winterkpus pounded Emeka until he pleaded for mercy. In a brief moment, when Winterkpus was distracted, Emeka saw his chance—he got up and ran like a mad dog. None of us could believe that the arrogant ladies’ man would run away from a fight. Despite his strong build, he was really a coward.
Word spread about the event, and the whole school saw Emeka for the coward he was. For my group, life couldn’t have been better—but there was even more to come. Two days after the incident, Emeka’s uncle showed up at our school with the police. Emeka was handcuffed and taken home to his room, where the police and his uncle recovered a lot of property and some stolen money. Apparently, Emeka’s uncle had been sent on a four- to six-month training in America, and during his absence Emeka had been stealing from him.
My group was delighted with Emeka’s downfall. After he was released from detention, his whole demeanor and behavior changed completely. He became somber and dejected, and he had no more money to throw around. His uncle had renounced him and refused to sponsor his education any further. Once it became clear that Emeka could no longer afford an extravagant lifestyle, his girlfriend left him—we had always known she was a gold digger—and everybody else in Emeka’s group eventually abandoned him as well. He became a lonely, miserable student and all the people who used to hang around him now made fun of him. On the other hand, my group’s popularity shot to the roof and we became the most popular group in the school.
By the end of third term, everyone was working to pass the finals and move up to class five (twelfth grade). I worked extra hard. Failure was not an option after I had labored to put myself through school and knew that my grandmother had given me all her savings that term. Among my group, I happened to perform the best academically. Ike didn’t care too much about school and didn’t study hard. I always wondered how he passed all his courses. I later found out that he bribed the teachers. Barbarossa wasn’t academically inclined, either, but he was a smooth talker, and would charm the smart girls into letting him sit next to them during exams so he could copy the answers from them. As for Winterkpus, it was no secret that he was the dumbest of us all, but he always passed his exams, too. He would also cheat during every exam, stretching his long neck shamelessly and sometimes even asking people to move their answer sheets so he could see better. We all sat for the exams, and were thrilled when the results came out and we had passed.
I went back to Aba and spent the holidays at my Aunt Comfort’s house. Again, I poured my heart and soul into my business the entire time. Fortunately, business was very good; within a month I had raised enough money to pay my fees and sustain myself for an entire semester. Even after I had made enough money, I did not relent. I continued to take my business to other cities. By the end of the holidays, I had made enough money to pay my siblings’ fees and still had enough to give my mother.
I took a short break to visit my aunt and cousins in Mbawsi. They were very pleased to see me, and I was happy to have the chance to relax before returning to school. The family lived quite a privileged life. Their father been a pastor, and they were obligated to live within the church’s compound. There was never a shortage of people to do the chores in their house and around the church, as the members would often volunteer. Some of the church members were the funniest people I had ever met, especially the Choir Master called J who constantly entertained us with his off the chart jokes. Mbawsi was a typical eastern Nigerian rural town and most of the inhabitants were old-fashioned and very traditional. Almost every day church members would invite us to their houses, or come to ours bearing fruit and food. Sometimes I would follow my aunt to the markets in other villages, riding the bicycle on the unpaved, hilly terrain.
My holiday in Mbawsi would have been perfect except for an unfounded rumor about me. Pastor Raymond Ogbunaeke, also of Faith Tabernacle—with whom I had fallen out long ago, and unbeknownst to me, still held a grudge—had apparently seen me in Aba doing my Dymo tape business. He had then come back to Mbawsi and spread the rumor that I had gone mad. He claimed to have seen me roaming about Aba in tatters, begging for food and money, and given that he was a “man of God,” people easily believed him. He hadn’t approached me or tried to talk to me in Aba, so I knew nothing of this supposed sighting. I tried to convince my aunt and her family that it was all a lie—that if truly he had seen me in that state, why did he not, as a pastor, approach me and try to help me? I don’t know for sure if they believed me.
I didn’t have to take my revenge on Pastor Ogbunaeke; circumstances far beyond my control did this for me. He was implicated in a church scandal that got him stripped of his position as pastor and excommunicated. It was discovered that Pastor Igiri, the presiding elder of the church—the highest-ranking pastor, equivalent to the archbishop of Nigeria—was a member of a secret cult. It was said that Pastor Igiri had killed many of the church’s members and used them for ritual sacrifices, and had also killed other pastors who had tried to challenge him. I had always suspected that Pastor Igiri’s powers were not from God, though many had believed otherwise. It was early during his time as presiding elder that the “pay to play” system, where church members were asked to pay to be ordained pastors, was introduced into the selection process for pastors; my father was one of those asked to pay to be ordained, but he refused. It was also revealed that Pastor Igiri had been embezzling church funds.
The scandal rocked the foundation of the church, shaking the faith that had been placed in the church leadership for many decades. The news needed barely any confirmation because Pastor Igiri himself had made the confession while he was on his sick bed. To me, it had come much too late, and it seemed like he was only trying to bribe his way into heaven with it. He revealed the names of the pastors who had been involved in the whole thing—one of whom was Pastor Ogbunaeke.
I was delighted at this turn of events, and I left Mbawsi on a high. As usual I stopped at Orji Uratta on my way to school and left money for my siblings’ school fees, as well as some for my mother and grandmother Eunice. I paid my fees and bought my books, new uniform, and sandals. All was set for a very promising semester.
The first week at school was without incident. We had a new batch of teachers from the National Youth Service Corps, a mandatory program started many years ago in Nigeria where graduates below a certain age would spend a year doing national service in states other than their own. One of its main aims was to promote unity in Nigeria by exposing the nation’s graduates to different cultures and people. Some of these graduates were posted to secondary schools and, instead of salaries, were given small allowances by the government. Most times they could barely make ends meet with their allowances, and many of them relied on aid from their host communities. Often, the students would bring gifts such as food and fruit to the corps members. Unscrupulous students exploited this vulnerability and used their gifts to bribe the corps members so they would get good grades. Some of the corps teachers lived among the students, renting rooms in the same compounds.
Ike and Winterkpus were very excited to see the corps teachers in our class, and were even more elated to find out that some of them were their neighbors. The boys immediately struck up a friendship with them, hoping it would guarantee them good grades without having to study. My own compound was predominantly made up of students; no corps teacher lived there.
Later, I decided to move out of my compound when I felt that the co-tenants were constantly taking advantage of my generosity and good nature. They would always come to me wanting one thing or the other, and most times I would indulge them, not because I was afraid of saying no, but because I wanted to help. Most of them were from poor families. However, I decided to move after what I considered the last straw.
One of the neighbors, a girl called Ngozi, got really close to me and, like the others, would come wanting things from me. One day she walked into my room unannounced and saw me counting a lot of money. This, I believe, was what really sparked her interest in me. She immediately assumed I came from a rich family to have that much money. To save my reputation, I couldn’t tell her just how hard I had worked to make that money. She spent a long time with me that day, and we ended up having s*x, after which she concluded that we were in a relationship. Soon enough, she came up with a laundry list of things she wanted. I couldn’t say no when she gave me the list, but as soon as she was gone, I balled it up and threw it in the dustbin.
That was when it dawned on me that she must have planned the seduction just to get things from me, and I concluded that I wouldn’t waste my hard-earned money on her. After a few days, she realized that she wouldn’t get anything from me, and then she stopped talking to me altogether. She turned the other girls in the compound against me, too.
Fortunately, in the second week of that term, I found a larger, more comfortable room in the next compound. The owner of the house lived in another city, but his elderly mother and younger brother lived in the house and collected the rent money. I was their sole tenant. There was little noise in the compound since I was the only student living there. The old lady reminded me so much of my grandmother Nwanyi Burunnu. She would spend the entire day on the farm, and when she returned in the evening, she would cook and do other household chores. Her son would never help her, but he kept demanding food from her. He was about forty years old and didn’t have a job. He seemed mentally challenged, but everyone liked him; he was nice and ran errands for everybody but his own mother. Sometimes his mother would cook and offer me food, which I would politely refuse, but occasionally I would share my food or give them money. At the time I was still suffering from fear of eating certain foods made by people other than me, my mother, or a restaurant that I trusted was clean enough. The old lady was kind, but her knowledge of hygiene was questionable.
My issue with food started when I was little. I was always picky about what I ate. I didn’t eat pork, ducks, snakes, snails, or some other delicacies of my tribe, and I normally wouldn’t eat at other people’s houses. Once, when I was in primary six, I suffered a severe dislocation of my right leg. Since my mother could not take me to the hospital because of our religious beliefs, I was sent to another village to see a member of our church who specialized in healing dislocations without medication. I spent about two weeks at his home, and it was the most difficult time of my life because I refused to eat any cooked meal that was offered to me. The man’s wife didn’t do the cooking—I liked her and wouldn’t have minded eating something she had made—but instead, her two daughters had that task. It wasn’t that anything was wrong with their cooking; I just couldn’t bring myself to eat what they cooked. Fortunately, the man also had a bakery and made the most delicious bread I had ever eaten. The family was kind enough to feed me bread, and rather than eat their meals, I lived on bread for two weeks.
At my new place, I hardly ever entertained visitors—apart from the occasional visit from my friends—and was able to focus on my studies as the term progressed. I found the peace and quiet very pleasing, and my academic performance during the term was highly commendable. My education was my highest priority, since I saw it as the route to my ultimate dream: traveling abroad.
As I was returning from a study group meeting at school late one evening, I met a beautiful girl who happened to live in the next village. It was not my first time seeing her, but that evening we struck up a conversation. I found out she was from Winterkpus’s village and was attending a school a few miles away from mine. Nwaurenma was very light-skinned and had almond-shaped eyes. Sadly, she was not the most articulate girl I had ever met. I also suspected that she was academically challenged, but that didn’t matter to me. So after that evening we became good friends, and she would sometimes stop by to see me on her way back from school. Our friendship grew stronger by the day, but none of my friends were aware of it, and we tried as much as possible to keep it that way.
Just a few days before the end of the term, when I was starting to feel a little love for Nwaurenma, Winterkpus found out about her. He immediately discouraged the relationship and suggested I stay away from her, saying she was a slut. I was confused. I liked Nwaurenma so much and believed she genuinely cared for me, but my friends were putting a lot of pressure on me to end the relationship. I couldn’t make up my mind about what to do. Winterkpus was unrelenting in his quest to separate us. He started to insult her behind my back, and told people that she’d had a child out of wedlock and had undergone several abortions.
As soon as I heard this, I decided to confront him. I went to his house and demanded an explanation. Dissatisfied with what he had to say, I lost my temper and we ended up fighting. I had truly underestimated his strength, thinking I could take him down easily. I was wrong. The fight lasted for a while, and when I left, I was even more determined to continue my relationship with Nwaurenma.
The term ended the next day, and I traveled to Owerri Nkworji to help my grandmother harvest her crops. I needed relief—from school, from the village, and from my friends.
To Be Continued…