The principal and the teachers in my school may be the figures of authority, but the SS3 boys were the ones who held the power to terrorize the junior boys. During every Monday morning assembly, the principal, Mr. Iheukwumere would always exhort the student body – the junior students actually – to never fail to report any acts of brutality meted out on them by the seniors. He encouraged us to come forward and tell on any SS3 boy or girl who had done us any grave wrong, and he promised swift justice for whoever the victim was. He talked and talked, and made lots of promises, I’d watched my share of American crime movies, where the police and lawmakers strived to protect whistleblowers from the wrath of the vengeful criminal kingpins. More often than not, they failed.
The law couldn’t always protect you, junior boys knew this. And so, most of the time, we suffered in silence. And when this happened, sometimes, we took pleasure from exactly small acts of vindictiveness against the oppressive seniors. Small acts, really. Like spitting inside the bucket of water a senior commanded you to fetch for him. Or sprinkling dust on your lunchtime meat that another one made you smuggle out of the dining hall to him. I’d even heard of the disgusting but hilarious story of how a JSS3 boy had stolen to a dark corner of the dining hall, forced out a morsel of feaces and proceeded to mix the excreta with the beans – his dinner – which an SS3 boy had ordered him to smuggle out to him as punishment for a mistake he made. The junior boy had no dinner that night, and the senior boy ate his shit. Literally.
Junior boys – only the brave ones, the ones who did not fear the possibility of retribution if the seniors found out their treachery – always found new and interesting ways to compensate for their cowardice in not reporting the meanness of the seniors to the teachers.
“Ginika!” Senior Boma shouted as he stepped out of the dormitory onto the verandah. I stood behind him on the pavement, a bucket in my hand, waiting for Ibuka and Joseph to get theirs and join me on a trip to the borehole.
“Ginika, no be you I dey call!” Senior Boma barked irritably.
The light-skinned, narrow-faced boy with aquiline features and small, pebbly eyes looked sullenly up from the portion of the courtyard he was cutting with his cutlass – his afternoon chore for the day – and started walking toward us with small, reluctant steps.
“Run down here, my friend!” Senior Boma commanded.
Ginika Njoku, who was in JSS3A with Ibuka, increased his pace to a jog until he came to stand before the senior boy. For a moment, Senior Boma, short and stoutly-built, with his arms crossed in a stance that made his muscled biceps bulge, stared at the junior boy with unconcealed malevolence. Ginika stared sulkily back. It was obvious these two had a history, one that probably involved an error Ginika had committed against the SS3 boy to make him his sworn nemesis.
“Eze, let’s go –” Ibuka began as he and Joseph stepped out.
“Shhh!” I shushed him and pointed. They saw who and who I was pointing at and stopped to observe with me.
“I want you to go and fetch drinking water for me,” Senior Boma was saying.
Ginika protested, “But senior . . . I am still doing my duty, and Senior Olumide said we must finish before we go anywhere.” He pointed his cutlass at the quadrangle where three other boys were bent over, hacking with small strokes at the already low green grass.
“I don’t care,” Senior Boma said dismissively. “I want my drinking water now, and I want you to go and fetch it.”
“But, senior, your dorm boys” – he pointed this time at the three of us standing behind the SS3 boy – “are already going to borehole. Please, tell them to fetch the water for you.”
Senior Boma’s eyes flickered back at us, dismissed us and returned to Ginika. “Come, this boy, e be like say you no dey understand me. I said” – he poked at his chest with a finger – “I want you” – he jabbed the finger at Ginika’s head, forcefully enough to make him falter back a step – “to go and fetch water for me. Is that clear?”
“But senior –”
Senior Boma’s hand shot out. Ginika must have known the slap would come, because he weaved his head and body out of the way of the swing just in time. The momentum of the miss carried Senior Boma forward and he staggered, nearly tripping. This infuriated him and he pounced on Ginika, shoving his head down and bringing his palms down in a resounding blow on his back. As Ginika rose, he swung his hand forward again, and this time, the palm connected with the boy’s cheek in a slap that made me flinch.
I saw the boy blink furiously over his the tears that threatened.
“Now,” Senior Boma snarled, “are you ready to go and fetch my water?”
The other boy’s eyes were filled with hatred and humiliation. His answer ‘Yes’ was a hiss of air.
Senior Boma nodded, turned and said to no one in particular, “Go and get my drinking water jerrycan.”
Ibuka hurried back inside our dormitory to do his bidding. Seconds later, he was back out with a 5-liter jerrycan, and was handing it to Senior Boma. At a glare from the SS3 boy, Ibuka shifted his outstretched hand to Ginika. The boy took the container from him, and without a word, turned and started out of the compound. Senior Boma walked away in the direction of another dormitory.
The show was over.
“Nawa oh, I didn’t know Senior Boma is wicked like this,” Ibuka said as the three of us started our journey to the borehole. Several yards in front of us, his arms swinging stiffly by his sides, walked Ginika.
“You don’t know?” I rounded on him. “Which planet are you from? Isn’t it the three of us that are in the same dormitory with him? That guy can be wicked when he sets his mind to it.” I should I know; I was the one junior boy in our dormitory who often felt the heavy hand of his wrath.
“Yes, but that’s us, his dorm boys,” Ibuka countered. “What he’s doing to Ginika is too much abeg. The boy is not even in our dorm.”
“What is too much?” Joseph said. “That he beat him and told him to go and fetch water?” His voice held the unmistakable note of condescending incredulity. “Abeg that one is small jaré.”
“It’s not just that,” Ibuka said. “It’s been some time now that Senior Boma has been targeting Ginika.”
“It’s true,” I added. “This morning, he told Ginika to smuggle his moi-moi out to him.” Moi-moi was the only meal we had for breakfast, a wrapped piece for each student. “That means the boy did not eat anything in the morning cha-cha.”
“Ehen?” Joseph’s brows were lifted. “And so?”
“And yesterday afternoon,” Ibuka said, “when we came back from the dining hall, I saw him collecting a fork of meat from Ginika. The meat Ginika was supposed to eat along with his garri and soup.” My friend sounded outraged at the notion of Ginika – or anyone – surrendering his meat to a senior. He had never been tasked to do that; it would be interesting to know what he would do when or if that happened. Ibuka never joked with his food, especially the delicacies that went with it such as meat and fish.
Joseph shrugged, still untouched by our indignation. “It’s Ginika’s cross, let him carry it. When you do something to piss off an SS3 boy, you have to bear the consequences, or find a way to get out of it.”
“Nawa to you oh, Joe. That’s a very callous thing to say.”
“I’m being realistic. Obviously the boy hasn’t begged Senior Boma well, or lanwu-ed him well enough to stop what is happening to him.”
“Not all of us have all the money to just be lanwu-ing anyhow,” Ibuka spat furiously.
“Hey, why are you vexing for me? I’m just saying –”
“You’ve said enough biko. I don’t want to hear again.”
We continued the rest of our trek in silence, with Ibuka and Joseph exchanging dark looks every now and then. I refused to call a time-out, preferring instead to think about the tricky Mathematics assignment Mr. Okezie, who was also the form teacher of my class, had given us, and how I’d use the night prep to tackle it.
Soon, we got to the borehole. We weren’t paying any particular attention to the boy walking ahead of us, but then he suddenly stopped to talk to a junior girl – a JSS1 or JSS2 girl, I could tell, from the shapeless, almost baggy daywear she was wearing, with a skirt that stretched way down almost to her ankles. You would never catch a JSS3 girl wearing such an unfashionable getup, dead or alive.
“What is he doing?” Ibuka said.
In spite of ourselves, we watched him gesture toward the girl’s bucket. It seemed as though he was asking her to give him the container.
“The boy is just wasting time,” Joseph said. “He’ll do now, and Senior Boma will use this delay as a reason to beat him again.”
We had gotten to the borehole, surrounded as it was by a number of students, boys and girls, talking in loud voices and fetching water. But we didn’t join in the ruckus. We simply stood in a corner, and watched with some curiosity as the girl finally relinquished her bucket to Ginika. Then she crossed her arms and waited, seeming to be in no particular hurry. Ginika took the bucket and approached another student, a boy, who already had a bucket of water with him. The boy stopped to listen to him and then tipped his bucket forward to slosh some water over into the one Ginika had taken from the girl.
“What is he doing?” Ibuka asked again.
Joseph did not answer. Neither did I. We simply watched, our curiosity mounting.
Ginika walked to a large cluster of bushes, a part of the extensive vegetation that flanked the environment of the borehole. He leaned toward the underbrush and gingerly began to tug at some of the wild plants with his hands on the stems.
“What is he –” Ibuka began again.
My eyes narrowed. “Wait, he’s plucking Devil’s Beans.”
“Why?” Joseph sounded bewildered.
He carefully pulled a few stalks of the plant from the soil, holding it away from his body so the treacherous thorny pods would not make any contact with his skin. Devil’s Beans was famed for the horrific pain it was capable of inducing on anyone who touched its pods. I’d seen only one student affected by it – an SS1 girl in Dignity House. It was during labour when we returned from the holidays last term. The girl had gone inside a grove of underbrush to ease herself, and moments later, she ran out, screaming in anguish and flailing her arms about as she scratched at her tortured body. It was horrifying incident to witness, and I swore to stay out from the bushes.
Ginika proceeded to shake the pods loose into the bucket of water, and thereafter, raised the bucket and twirled it around gently, as though to mix properly its contents. Then he tilted the bucket toward Senior Boma’s jerrycan and tipped the contaminated water inside it. The pods didn’t follow suit.
“Oh my God . . .” I gasped. “This guy is –”
“A genius!” Joseph burst out.
“Wicked!” Ibuka choked out at the same time.
They turned to glare at each other.
“What do you mean he’s a genius?” Ibuka snapped. “He wants to poison Senior Boma and you’re calling him a genius?”
“Oh, will you relax, Ibu,” Joseph scoffed. “Devil’s Beans will not kill Senior Boma. It will just make him wish he was dead.” He seemed amused by the thought, and the grin on his face was infectious. I found myself chuckling.
Ibuka turned on me. “You’re laughing, Eze. I can’t believe you’re laughing.”
“Haba! Why won’t I laugh again? I for one wish I will be there to see the outcome of Ginika’s plan.”
The boy had discarded the pods and was rinsing the inside of the bucket with some more water he had asked from someone else. Then he returned the container to its owner. The junior girl looked at him with some bewilderment as he walked away from her. She’d observed him do what he’d done and was probably wondering at the peculiarity of his actions.
“I will tell Senior Boma,” Ibuka seethed as we watched Ginika approach the borehole. He didn’t seem to notice us.
“Ibu, better mind your business,” Joseph said sharply.
“So you want him to drink that water?”
“Yes!” Joseph and I chorused.
Ibuka shrugged, as though he was dismissing the issue and started toward the borehole. We followed after him, and the next several minutes were spent fetching water and returning to the hostel, chattering as we went. This time, we were ahead of Ginika, and so were already settled and waiting by the time he handed over the jerrycan of water to senior Boma, who he me standing on the pavement.
They did not exchange any words; the container simply moved from one hand to the other, and Ginika went back to his chore. Senior Boma began to turn open the cover.
From inside the dormitory, three pairs of eyes watched him.
The cover came off and he lifted the jerrycan to his mouth.
My breathing hitched as I looked on expectantly.
His mouth yawned open. The narrow opening of the container tilted further.
Clear liquid poured out and sluiced downward into his mouth.
Joseph sighed. Ibuka shuddered.
Senior Boma’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he drank.
Each swallow was accompanied by a gurgling sound.
And then, he had drunk his fill; he brought down his hand and let out an ‘Aah’ of satisfaction.
He simply stood there, glancing at his cuticles, probably contemplating the need to clip his nails.
The seconds ticked by.
Then he gave a start. His hand flew up to clutch his neck and the fingers began to scratch at the fleshly column. Small jerky motions at first. Then they quickened. He started gasping. The jerrycan slipped from the other hand and plopped down on the ground. Both hands were scrabbling frantically at his neck. He staggered about on his feet, gagging and choking, and the pitiful moans coming from his mouth sounded like his handicapped attempt at speaking or screaming out proper words.
We stared, at once fascinated and petrified by horror.
“Boma! Boma! Wetin dey worry you?!”
A number of senior boys hurried from different corners of the hostel to his side. Concern was etched on their faces as they struggled to calm the distraught boy. He tripped and fell, and started thrashing about on the ground. His hands were still digging into his neck, the nails scratching and lifting bloody welts on the skin. And his face was contorted with pain.
“Boma, wetin dey do you . . .!”
“Water! Carry water come. . .!”
“E be like say na epilepsy. . .!”
“No touch am oh, e fit be say they don possess am. . .!”
“Boma. . .! Boma. . .!”
In the ensuing pandemonium, the jerrycan was knocked over, and the poisonous liquid inside it spilled out onto the ground.
All the junior boys in the immediate vicinity of the fracas, which included my friends and I, were marshaled into action, jumping about to attend to the instructions from the senior boys. They ordered us to get this and get that. A mattress to make Senior Boma comfortable. Water to soothe him in case it was a fever. Or a spoon in case he was being epileptic. Someone was sent to get Senior Geoffrey aka Pastor from Unity House, in case it was prayers he needed. There was so much confusion, every moment of it heightened by the anguished mewling of the suffering SS3 boy.
At some point, I caught a glimpse of Ginika. The boy was standing on a far corner of the courtyard, a spot shadowed by the Guava tree towering next to him. He was still, very still, and he was watching the chaos. He was also smiling, just a small twist to his lips, an expression that revealed how much he relished what was going on.
Senior Boma could die, and he wouldn’t feel an iota of guilt, I thought, feeling a chill at the realization.
Senior Boma’s pain began to recede about an hour later. And several minutes passed before he began to make any semblance of speech, intelligible enough to answer the questions his mates anxiously had to ask.
No, he wasn’t epileptic.
Yes, he was fine and free from any demonic attack.
No, he didn’t know what caused all this to happen.
One second he’d been drinking the water one junior boy fetched for him, and the next. . .
It was awhile before the SS3 boys put it all together. But put it together they did. Then they hunted Ginika down, and the evening atmosphere in our hostel was rent with the cries of the boy as they beat the living daylights out of him.
Before class was over the next day, his transgression was what every student was talking about. The JSS3 boy who almost killed Senior Boma – that was what everyone was calling him. He quickly acquired a new notoriety.
“But why did you do it?” Ibuka wanted to know. The three of us had accosted him during break-time to let him know we saw what he did with the Devil’s Beans.
He stared flatly at us for a moment, before saying, “To send Senior Boma a message. Now, he’ll no longer bother me, because he knows that I have the mind to do anything to get back at him.”