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Although I knew my parents weren’t very close with their relatives, I was sure I could identify almost all of them, if not all. Aunt Larai, I was sure was someone I’d never seen. Yahaya our house help told me before he left, that she was related to my mother and had married one of my father’s student, one of the many students Abba had put through school. I never dwelt on my relationship with the house helps, but as I saw them all packing their belongings, I truly felt the demise of my parents. The house, their lives and I would never be the same without them.
It never occurred to me that such pain was possible, that I could feel such a yearning and longing in my heart. Despite all the days I’d spent with Abba and mother, with their deaths I felt it wasn’t enough.
My mind reeled countless times I could have spent with my parents, but no, I’d preferred the company of my books. It all seemed like a dream like I was floating through abys, and soon someone would wake me from this terrible dream. It had been two weeks, and no one had done that. The reality was gradually dawning on me. I’d lost my parents for good.
Baby Fatima had survived the bomb last only to die later in the hospital. And mother, I began to cry as I thought about her. Sniffing quietly at the back of the seat, I used my hands to wipe my tears. I didn’t want aunty Larai to see my tears. We met just yesterday, but I knew already that we wouldn’t be friends.
Her husband Habib was nicer. He treated me like a son, something I was sure his wife didn’t like. Already she was sending me to hate glares. To think I was going to stay with this forever, more hot tears flowed from my eyes. Every child deserves his parents.
“Stop crying, you’ll get the car seats”. Aunty Larai’s sharp voice came from the front where she sat beside her husband who was driving. We were on our way to Zaria. Yes, I was relocating. Someone had to care for me.
Already, I was badly missing our semi palace of a house.
“Larai”. Uncle Habib spoke in a whisper. “The boy has just been through a traumatic experience, let him cry”.
She gave a backward glance at me where I was curled up like a foetus, hissed and looked forward. She murmured a few things I couldn’t hear under her breath.
This was the first time I was travelling to Zaria, one of the most populated local government in Kaduna state. I’d imagined with Abba, it would be a beautiful experience, but today I was going there for all the wrong reasons. A few hours later, I noticed the change in the scenery. Tall buildings, exotic houses, and Porsche cars were some of the things I notice. Before long, we drove into a beautiful estate that had large houses. The houses couldn’t be more than two hundred. Uncle Habib stopped at the fourth line, house number 6. It wasn’t very different from the other houses, except the huge purple gate.
I figured this was going to be my new home. It was very different from our house in Maiduguri, but alas, beggars didn’t get to choose. Two beautiful and handsome children ran out of the house once they had the loud honk of the car. They couldn’t be more than 4, when I looked closely I realized they were a twin. Running wildly, they threw themselves at their father, the gesture reminded me of Abba, tears threatened to pour out my eyes. The children stopped short when they noticed me.
Curiosity shone from their little bright eyes.
“Daddy who’s this?” The little boy asked, pointing at me. He was dark and fair, his pointed ears slightly backwards. His thin face spoke of wisdom beyond his age
“Hussain, I’ve warned you not to repeatedly point at people. He’s your brother. His name is Sameer”.
“He’s not your brother”. Aunty Larai sharp response came. She was carrying the other twin, who was busy with the Barbie toy in her hand.
“Larai, let’s not begin this here.” Uncle Habib stated sighing deeply. It was getting late. The calm gentle breeze was soothing to my frail heart. Aunty Larai hissed and dragged the twins away into the house. Uncle Habib gave me a look filled with sympathy.
“Everything will be okay Sameer, your aunty is just been selfish. She’ll come around I promise you”.
But she never came around.
It had been two weeks since I came to stay with Uncle Habib, and I couldn’t say it was a good experience. It dawned on me to get used to it because this was going to be my home forever. It was usually a bit freeing when Uncle Habib was at home, he was much better than his wife in the way he treated me. It was hard for me, it was hard to get used to my new environment. It was like I was torn away from my roots.
My room was an old storeroom with a small bed and one lone chair that had a broken arm. Uncle Habib protested vehemently for days, but Aunty larai refused to put me in the same room with her son Hussain. Every morning since I arrived, I would wake up, say my prayers and get to work. Despite the numerous house helps we had in Maiduguri, I was no stranger to house chores, Abba made us responsible for cleaning our rooms.
Perhaps, the only chore I found difficult was going to the neighbours to fetch water in a heavy yellow jerrycan. It was something I’ve never done till I came to Zaria. I could not understand why she insisted I fetched water when there was a constant supply of running tap water in the house. Well, Aunty larai seemed to hate me a lot.
Since the drive from the car, no kinds words had been exchanged between us. Already, I was afraid of her. The click sounds of her shoes around the house caused me to panic. It’s been two weeks and I missed going to school. To wake up every day seeing the twins get ready for school was disheartening. To keep me busy, I would hide away in my room and read books Abba had bought for me.
Occasionally I would think of baby Fatima and I would feel tears pool in my eyes. She was so young, happy and didn’t deserve the cruel death.
“Sameer”. Uncle Habib’s voice bellowed loudly across the house. I dropped the Oliver Twist I was reading, quickly ran to meet him where he sat on the sofa in the living room. Aunty Larai wasn’t present causing me to feel relieved. I sat on the pristine brown that was as soft as freshly baked bread.
“No Sameer, sit on the cushion”. He said patting a space beside him. Uncle Habib was as tall as my father but very much younger. It was a bit daunting for me.
“This is for you”. He handed me a blue huge parcel that was kept in his front. It had been carefully sealed with a white cello tape mask.
The curiosity in my eyes must have been screaming out, Uncle Habib smiled at me. “Go ahead, open it”.
I hesitated for a while before proceeding to open the strange box. As I did it, I remembered the story of Dele Giwa, who had been killed using a parcel bomb. I tried not to think of bombs and explosions as I used my little fingers to tear the cello mask.
Inside were brand new clothes, what must have been a uniform. Purple shorts accompanied with a white shirt that had purple stripes. I was elated. Uncle Habib was enrolling me in a school. The rest of the items in the box were school materials consisting of textbooks, stationaries, a pair of white socks and crisp good looking sandals. Full of happiness, I profusely thanked him and he put his fingers on his lips.
“Don’t thank me Sameer, your father, God bless his soul was one of the kindest men I’d seen. I can never repay him for what he did to me.”
“Thank you so much”. I said meekly.
“Don’t mention Sameer, have you had lunch?” At that exact moment, Aunt Larai came out of the kitchen. Uncle Habib noticed my hesitation and asked again, this time firmly. “Have you had lunch?”.
“No”. I answered quietly. Aunty larai didn’t allow me to eat lunch until the twins were back from school, that was by 4 pm. Uncle Habib didn’t know that.
“It’s past 2, you should have had lunch by now. Go to the kitchen and get what you want”.
I dropped the large box and walked in a hurry to the kitchen. Admittedly, I didn’t want to get Aunty Larai angry; she’d warned me several times not to enter her kitchen, but I was too hungry to care. The delicious smell of spaghetti and fried fish greeted me the moment I stepped foot in the magnificent looking kitchen.
In a matter of minutes, I was already devouring my meal like someone who hadn’t eaten for a while. That could be true, there was enough to eat, but aunty larai liked to postpone my meal and give me very little when it was finally time to eat.
“Larai, I don’t like the way you treat that boy. How many times do I have to tell you how his father helped me through school? I told you I was stranded and even my parents couldn’t help me. His father was the only one who came through for me.” Uncle Habib’s voice came through from the living room. I could tell he was trying to reason with her.
“Oh come on, don’t tell me that. You know I don’t want that boy here and for that, he’ll suffer. And then, this boy could be a sign of bad luck. How could he have lost his family all in one day?” She almost shouted her voice filling the entire house. I suddenly lost appetite for the food I was eating. So that was it? Aunty Larai considered my bad luck. Could she even be right?
“Larai, look this is not up for debate, you’re going to start treating that boy right”.
“Or what? Look the day peace left this house is the day you agreed to have this boy live here. Where are all his miserable relatives in England? Why do we have to be the ones saddled with his responsibility? We just can’t afford another child”.
“Money is not the problem for me. I would take care of him. I have one request, just treat him right. And why does he have to fetch water from the neighbours?”
“Because he has to start paying for his rent around here.”
“Larai, I think you’re mad. Okay, I’m sorry you’re not. But really, how could you say that. Sameer is our son now.”
I didn’t wait to listen to her reply, using the door that led outside from the kitchen, I quickly put some distance between me and the loud voices. The tears fell when I returned to my small room. This was something I have to get used to; the arguments between Uncle Habib and his wife. With Abba and mother, they rarely argued, if you didn’t know, you’d think they were newlywed. And to think I was the cause of their argument. Minutes later, I heard Uncle Habib storm out in anger and drove off in his car.
Two minutes later when Aunty Larai stormed into my room. “If you think you’re going to put enmity between me and my husband, then you should know that I’ll kill you first in this house”.
Her words put fear into my mind. Was she talking about killing me? Something else made me remembered Abba. “Literally” was the number eighty-nine in my dictionary. It was one of my most treasured belonging. Aunty Larai seemed to understand that her words weren’t having any effect, she smacked me across the face very hard and walked out and that night, there was no dinner for me.
Because it was a Thursday when Uncle Habib got me my school belongings, I waited till Monday to begin school. To think that my first day of school in a new environment would be filled with joy and ecstasy, I was not ready for the gloom that I felt. I’d imagined the ride to school would be like the ones I shared with Abba. It wasn’t completely different but with Abba, there was love and affection.
Perhaps, the only thing I enjoyed about my new phone was the company of the twins. They had taken an instant liking to me despite their mother’s effort to keep me away. I’d noticed that Hussain was more of a talker than Hassana, who mostly kept to herself. She reminded me of baby Fatima, somehow they even look alike. I would teach her few words from my dictionary.
On the ride to school, they told me story after story of their school and how I would enjoy it. Aunty Larai face looked like a storm was building up. Her distaste for me was no longer hidden and she didn’t fail to show it any chance she got. To think on a Monday, I would feel energetic, Instead, I felt so tired that I yearned to fall asleep in the car.
Following Aunty Larai’s directives, I’d wake up by 4, said my prayers and started some unnecessary chores around the house. The house was sparkling clean when it was morning, still, she insisted I mopped the house again. Uncle Habib came to my rescue when he shouted at her to let me be.
“Enjoy your day at your new school, I’ll pick you kids by 4 today”. Uncle Habib said as he parked by the huge school gate. I could see pupils all in purple and white stripes trooping in from all directions. Uncle Habib smiled at me, squatted before me and tugged at my collar. He patted me in the head and said goodbye to us.
Hussaini and Hassana held me on each side of my hand, dragging me inside the school excitedly. The school was nothing like Elites Academy, not even close. Even the colours were distinctly contrasting. There was a huge table tennis lawn amid the school. It was surrounded by tall tropical almond trees. One thing I’d noticed was that the school was clustered and didn’t have much space.
The Dining Hall of Elites Academy would eat up this entire school!
“That would be your class”. Hussain spoke up, pointing to the second class on the row. I peeped into it the see a long row of chairs. Does that mean we were over 20? At Elites Academy, only ten pupils were accepted into a class. I mentally chastised myself, Abba would always say. “Be grateful for whatever you have”. A loud bell rang from a distance.
“It’s time for the assembly, let’s go”. Hussain dragged me to a small open area close to the school gate where other pupils were beginning to gather. After thirty minutes, we were done with the boring assembly, I was so tired even before we marched to our class. When the first teacher stepped in, I was already half-asleep. The early morning chores had completely drained me.
“Is this any way to start your first day?” I was dozing when the sentence which I was sure was directed to me startled me. Looking up, I saw a mean looking dark huge teacher. He was wearing the NYSC khaki and looked like he didn’t sleep enough too.
“I’m sorry Sir”. I replied quietly.
“What’s your name?”. The teacher asked again. All the pupils’ eyes were directed at me. I wanted to answer, but my lips couldn’t make the words.
“I said, what’s your name?” The teacher asked again, only this time his tone carried a dreadful warning. Will, he hit me?
Pupils at Elites Academy weren’t beaten. Even Abba didn’t believe in child discipline with the rod. The way he came close to me made the words hung in my throat. I couldn’t talk, speech departed from my mouth.
“Oh, so you don’t feel like answering right?”. He said folding the book he was holding like he was getting ready for something serious. His tone said, “let’s see how far you can go”
How is wish it was Mrs Martha Smith? She would understand that I was only afraid. How could I tell him that I was not answering out of disrespect but fear? I wish I had the gift of telepathy. Communication would have been much easier.
Almost immediately his phone rang, I was grateful for the timely interruption. While he went out to pick his call, I looked round to see over 30 pairs of little bright eyes looking at me. They must be wondering about the new guy who didn’t know his name.
The rest of the class was uneventful, as time flew by. When it was close to 4, I already knew that the English teacher who’d asked my name was called Mr Okoro, Hakeem was the smartest boy in the class, Grace slept too much and Binta was the most beautiful, at least according to the other pupils. After the bell rung for closing hours, the twins couldn’t wait for me to tell them all that happened on my first day in the new school.
Pupils trooped out like mammoth coming down a hill, the purple colour made me sick. As the twins chatted away while we waited for Uncle Habib, I caught a glimpse of Mr Okoro, the menacing teacher from the early morning class. Seeing him brought back fear in my heart, I tried to hide but failed when he turned and our eyes met.
I wasn’t ready for the surprise that greeted me; Mr Okoro waved at me, smiling even though it seemed forced. I was sure smiling wasn’t something he was used to, because it seemed his facial muscles were finding it hard to give way. Perhaps it was the reason I found it hard to wave back. I watched silently as he shrugged and continued to move.
“Daddy”. Hassana shouted bouncing up and down with joy. She was excited to see her dad’s car. Hussain scampered up and began to pack his school bags. It took only a short while for Uncle Habib to stop his car at the designated spot. It was few minutes past four, and the sun was just beginning to set down. The bustle of the city was slightly down as most of the traders had gone to pray. I never knew it was possible to build a school by the roadside considering how dangerous it could be.
“Sameer, how are you? Did you enjoy your first day?” Uncle Habib asked beaming with smiles, his eyes said he was hoping I would give him a positive reply.
I nodded, even when deep inside I wanted to reply with words. My lips were just immovable.
Perhaps I was beginning to have something similar with Mr Okoro, our facial muscles were acting on their own. And for the first time in a long time, I smiled. The twins both hopped into the front seat even while their father tried to persuade Hussain to give his sister the front seat.
“But she’s a girl Daddy, why would she sit in the front?” Hussain protested beside me, his mouth set in a funny pout.
“Is there any rule that says girls shouldn’t sit in the front seat of a car or do you think you deserve it because you’re simply a boy?”.
Hussain was quiet for a while. The question reminded me of Abba, it was exactly the sort of question he would ask.
“But Dad, are you saying I don’t deserve the front seat?” Hussain started from another angle.
“Do you?” Uncle Habib asked patiently as he manoeuvered the car’s steering.
“I think I do”.”Well, we’re back to the first question. Why do you think you deserve to seat in the front seat of the car?
“I don’t know”. Hussain gave up dejectedly.
Uncle Habib chuckled softly. “When you finally decide on an answer, we’ll discuss it.”
The ride home was different, with Abba it would have been extremely slow and full of discussions about what we’d done in school. Uncle Habib drove fast that it scared me. I remembered how Abba would chastise rough drivers.
“It seemed like these drivers didn’t know the values of their own lives”. He would mutter as he drove slowly.
On getting home, Aunty Larai was waiting for us, all made up, the exotic makeover brightened her face making her look younger than she was. Aunty Larai was a beautiful woman, she was just a bit complicated to deal with.
“Mummy!” The twins squealed excitedly, running out to hug their mother. She attempted to carry them both which resulted in them almost collapsing on the floor. Uncle Habib burst out laughing as he also came out to hug his wife. Looking at the happy family hugging out made me nostalgic, how I missed Abba and mother.
It was so ironic how life could turn over in few minutes. It seemed like it was just yesterday I was out with my parents for a picnic.
Life wasn’t fair.