Monday, May 24, 2010

"Huckleberry Finn"

My high school was a male only Anglican Christian missionary school, founded in 1913. When I was enrolled into form 1 in the mid-1970s the average entry age into such schools was about thirteen and above. So, I was one of the youngest in the entire school. I spoke English with the vulnerable inflection of an 'away', thus, my first school mentors would parade me at school debates. In those days, before the advent of the Hip Hop revolution, the popular songs were Reggae and Highlife. The hard Reggae of U-Roy and I- Roy mingled with the soft sentimental outpourings of Bob Marley and the up tempo sounds of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh. I first learned to sing with the school band, singing mainly Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry.

My tender age did not prevent me from getting into hilarious trouble however. My friends and I would sneak onto the top of the school Chapel on the first floor patio and practice the martial arts we had been learning from our American school teachers. We practised jumping down a storey on to the earth below. Now, when I think back, I believe in the saying that angels protect the young, for none of us ever broke a bone. At nights we would go rabbit hunting at our school farms. After beating around the bushes for hours, we would finally spot a hare, and chase it in the co-ordinated manner that a pride of lions hunt down their prey. After we caught one of the hapless animals, we would roast it on the still smouldering charcoal at the school kitchen. Our group of about six would pierce the animal from anus to mouth with a long stick, scrape off its charred hair, cut it open and wash the blood off. Then it was salted and returned to the burning embers. Because I was one of the smallest I got the neck region while my mates divided the meatier body and limbs. Other delicacies for us were crickets and queen termites. We enjoyed these clandestine meals more than the standard food that the school served us.

Many times we strayed beyond our farms to that of a hunter, who had lost an eye to an animal he tried to capture. One day, the hunter came out suddenly from his hut and started to shoot his Dane gun. My colleagues had obviously expected this to happen sometime and were ready. When the shooting started they ran in scattered directions zigzagging around the trunks of large trees. I stood transfixed for the first few moments, and a pellet grazed my left cheek, just below my left eye, I screamed and ran like a gazelle that had just sprung out of captivity. The scar has also remained till today. Meanwhile, my friends who had earlier abandoned me, started to shout my name when they heard my scream, and then converged around the chapel where they tried to dress my wounds. One of those mates of mine at that incident later in life was elected as a Councillor to the Somolu Local Government in Lagos. We never returned to the hunter's farm again.

But more hair raising moments followed. Another school, just a few miles from ours, had large grounds which included two natural streams. We often went to these on weekends to wash our piles of dirty clothes and to swim. My older colleagues, who had less clothes than I did and were more rugged, would finish washing up in a few moments and spend the remaining periods chasing village girls at the streams. Sometimes, on weekdays, the stream was less busy, and we would sneak out after classes for a swim. On quiet days many animals could be found in the forests around the streams, and sometimes in the water. Once, when I was in the water, a snake swam between my legs and went straight for a toad, which it bit and swallowed. Although I did not panic, my mates screamed and thrashed out of the water like frenzied monks dancing on glowing charcoal. A few weeks later, snakes at that stream bit two small children, and they both did not survive. I never went to that stream after that. At that time, the new Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, had decreed a programme called Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) and our school got each student to plant a ridge of maize, for which we received scores recorded on our school reports. Usually, such plants were inspected by the school authorities and then they would take away all the produce, leaving us farmers in the lurch. So we planned the next harvest in advance.

Usually, our plants were checked and harvested during the early rains, after they had developed over a few months. We all planted corn. We waited for the scores to be given to all of us and knew that by the next day the cobs would be gone, so, that night, we began operation 'first strike'. That night a dozen of us took our buckets and baskets and proceeded to the farms at about midnight. As we neared the farms we heard someone whistling and we froze instantly. The tune was religious and was interspersed with the words from our Songs of Praise. Crouching like skilled Ninjas, the advance party went forward and positively identified the celestial being. It was our new Principal. The short reverend father was wearing brown khaki shorts and shirt and had a large basket tucked under his left arm which was almost filled with corncobs he had been plucking. His right hand held a torchlight with which he inspected the plants while his thick spectacles perched precariously on his small, flat nose. Because he was small, and looked like a student with the gear he wore, it was almost impossible to believe what we saw. We had a muted conference and went into action immediately. Picking up assorted pebbles of stones from the ground we all started screaming in unison like jungle animals while throwing the stones in his direction. The startled man dropped his baskets, his glasses jumping off his face, and he ran shouting in the direction of the nearby Chapel, wherein he locked himself up. The commotion caused the animals around to also run amok, and we chased them until we caught an unprecedented three hares and two grasscutters. The feast of that night was unparalleled.

The following day after our great victory, at the morning assembly, the principal was looking contrite. He announced that the school harvests scheduled for that day had been postponed because the Holy Spirit had directed him so. All the one thousand students in the hall began catcalling while stamping their feet on the floor, our expression of displeasure. When the school authorities did go to the farm a few days later, there were no corncobs left. We had cleared everything.

(c) George Ashiru
From "Iron In The Fire"

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