Both of my friends were very good swimmers. They both had the luxury of the opportunity to learn at very young ages. Joseph learned to swim when he was 5, in Lagos, where the affluence of his parents and the presence of older siblings made available access to all the hotspots in the city which had swimming pools. For Ibuka, it was at age 9, during season vacations and weekend trips to his village, where he spent joyous moments splashing about in the village river with his cousins.
Before I became a student of this school, I’d never learned to swim. I hadn’t visited any venues with swimming pools, and my hometowns had no rivers or streams. The closest I’d come to submerging my body underwater was during the rare bath when my parents were not home, and I filled the bathtub with water so I could soak inside it. I’d dunk my head underneath it for seconds, during which I’d flap my hands and twirl my feet and pretend I was an Olympic swimmer, before coming up, gasping for air. One time, Ada teased me that if I continued doing that, I would turn into a merman. I asked her what a merman was. She told me it was a husband of mammy-water. I thenceforth stopped soaking in baths.
Because my school was riddled with pockets of water bodies here and there, by the time I got to JSS3, and under the tutelage of my friends, I was something of an accomplished swimmer. I couldn’t beat swift strokes in the deep ends, with the fish-like agility that Ibuka and Joseph had, but I could hold my own.
Swimming, however, wasn’t a skill that came easily to me. It was a consequence of an incident that occurred in my JSS1.
Ibuka and I had just become acquainted with Joseph then. Our friendship with him was two weeks old, and in that time, we’d come to know what a daredevil the boy was. He introduced us to all the ways we could break the school regulations; like skipping the early morning jogging, and breaking into Hope Housemaster, Mr. Ndubuogu’s orchard, taking illicit trips to the staff quarters, and helping ourselves to Senior Maxwell’s boiling ring for warm water baths, and iron for smoothened clothes. These experiences were exhilarating, and the more we got away with each escapade, the more endeared Ibuka and I were to him.
“So what are we going to do today?” I asked that hot Saturday afternoon. We’d had an early lunch and the rest of the afternoon lay ahead of us, empty and void of any activity.
Our House Prefect, Senior Maxwell had barricaded himself inside his cubicle for a sound nap. And either he was deeply asleep or determined not to be bothered, because the JSS2 boys in Dorm 2 were creating quite the ruckus with their noisy argument of which girls in SS3 were the finest, and the senior boy hadn’t stormed out of his room to yell at them yet.
“Let us go to staff quarters,” Ibuka suggested.
“To go and do what there this hot afternoon?” Joseph queried.
Ibuka shrugged uncertainly. “I don’t know . . . just to go and. . .” His voice petered out when he realized how uninteresting a stroll to the staff quarters sounded.
Joseph leaned forward and said in a low tone, “Why don’t we break bounds and go to town?” His eyes had that gleam that was fast becoming familiar.
“Joseph!” I gasped.
“Are you out of your mind!” Ibuka choked out.
“Come on, it will be fun –”
“Yes, until SS3 boys will catch us and beat Jesus, Mary and Joseph comot our body, then you will know,” I cut in.
“We won’t let them catch us, trust me –”
“No, we’re not breaking bounds biko!” Ibuka declared flatly.
We lapsed into silence, with Joseph letting a sulky expression settle on his face for a moment.
“We could go swimming,” Ibuka said.
“Yes!” Joseph brightened again.
“No. . .”
“Yes! Let’s go and swim.”
“But I can’t swim,” I protested feebly.
“That’s not a problem –”
“What do you mean it’s not a problem? I fit drown – that’s a big problem.”
“Eh, we’ll teach you. Ibu, shey you can swim.” Ibuka nodded. “See? With me and Ibu there, nothing dey happen. Oh come on, Eze, this one will be fun.”
I stared from him to Ibuka, and felt my hesitation give way to the stronger pull of excitement. “Oya, let’s go,” I said with a sudden smile.
The three of us jumped down from the bunk, and skipped out of the hostel. Our destination was the borehole. Beside it was the spring, a cascade of water that eddied downwards to a tributary, which journeyed over algal-covered stones and slimy water floors to the river, Ugwu Mmiri, in the town. Beyond the spring was a dirt track that cut a path through bushy farmlands to the staff quarters. It was a shortcut often plied by students.
We chattered as we strolled past school buildings and other students in various forms of Saturday activity. We passed a group of giggly JSS3 girls returning from the borehole, and could hear the roar of the boys playing soccer in the school field.
Soon, we got to the spring. From a distance, the sound of the waterfall had been inaudible. But as we drew closer, the noise increased steadily until we were standing on an elevated ground, a few yards from the fall. It was a gentle waterfall, made torrential by the rain that fell last night. The water cascaded down a series of rocky outcrops, giving the effect of many waterfalls rather than just one. Then it flowed on its way, nonchalant, into the stream that lay further down like a broad belt of black and silver brocade. The turbid stream, swollen by the heavy rain, rushed on rapidly below; and all the other sounds were lost in the noise of its splashing and eddying against the green and slimy piles.
From the top, as I watched, even though it was something I’d seen several times already, the sight was at once awe inspiring and terrifying, more the latter because I realized that we were about to go down there, into the water. The water moved with currents that made it appear formidable.
“Come on, let’s go!” Joseph said enthusiastically, as he started forward, slithering down the rocky incline towards the stream below.
I hesitated, feeling dread crash through my insides with a surge that held me rooted to the ground.
“Eze, relax,” Ibuka cajoled as he moved forward after Joseph. “You’ll be fine. You have to learn how to swim one day, and today might as well be the day.” He began to heft himself down the declivity with a nimbleness that belied his bulk.
Wow! These boys sha – even Ibuka sef . . .
I suddenly felt emboldened by the sight of my friends swiftly making their way down to the stream. If they could do it, so could I. I took in a deep fortifying breath, and followed after them. I twisted my body around when I got to the edge, went down on my haunches and grasped the edge before starting the climb down. It wasn’t a sharp drop, and as the sun beat down on me, accompanied with the strong gust of the winds and the plume of water vapour, I felt my exhilaration surge inside me.
Halfway down, I heard a splash followed by Joseph’s excited squeal. He’d made it down.
“God, the water is cold!” he gasped. “Not very cold sha. Hurry up, you guys!”
I turned my head to look down at him as he executed a sharp turn and dunked himself into the water. The stream around him flowed, seemingly endless, tireless, effortless, with a fluid grace, eddies of it curling and vanishing into the ragged grass banks. I wasn’t acrophobic, but as I stared down the minimal height of the incline, past the torrents of spring water that poured over rocks hard enough to crack one’s skull and mash the brains on the way down, a wave of vertigo swept up from the base of my skull. My eyes crisscrossed, and the clasp I had on the rock felt rubbery. I suddenly felt sick.
And then I was no longer holding on to anything. I was airborne.
I had just a moment to feel panic at the fact that I was falling, just a moment to hear my friends’ concerted shout of my name, before I hit the water. Hard. The force of the fall pulled me down below the surface. Water rushed into my nostrils, and stung my eyes before my reflexes kicked in and I shut my eyes and held my breath. In a quick moment of lucidity, I expected to pop right back up, and I did, bobbing to the surface with a sharp counteractive momentum. But I didn’t stay afloat. I was pulled back in, and this time, I remained so, surrounded by torrents of water which I didn’t see because my eyelids were tightly shut.
As cold water slapped against my nostrils and my legs kicked up stirred mud, I suddenly began to feel panic. A ball of fear and terror crashed over me. And I started thrashing.
I opened my mouth to shout: “Help!” The word came out as a gurgle, and water rushed in and down my oesophagus, choking me. I quickly clamped my lips shut. My lungs were getting squeezed by the pressure of the water, and I choked and gagged on nothing. My throat burned with trapped air and my ears started pounding. My heart was beating against my chest, and all I heard was the rumble of the liquid surrounding me.
Beyond that, I could hear something else: the frantic cries of my friends. Despite my terror, I could make out the words.
Eze, swim up! Swim up!
Have you forgotten he doesn’t know how to swim?
Why are you shouting at me? Is it my fault?
Eze, be turning your hands and your legs like this –
Like WHAT! My head screamed. Just help me! HELP! I continued thrashing about, not knowing which way was up. The current kept flipping and turning me. When I opened my mouth to scream again, my mouth filled with water. I started to cough it out but more water entered my lungs. My life didn’t exactly flash before my eyes, but I thought about my parents and my sisters and my friends and Anulika, the girl in my class who I’d just developed a crush on.
I wanted to live. But I could not tell which way to go, which way was death and which was survival.
Darkness, a different kind from the one that hung before me behind my closed eyelids, buffeted me. It threatened to envelope me, to bear me away to another place, where I wouldn’t feel the pain I currently felt. But the darkness was scary too, so I fought it, even though my strokes were becoming feebler and less vigorous.
HELP! Wait – that wasn’t me. HELP! HELP! HELP US! It was the clamour of my friends’ voices as they yelled frantically for assistance. HELP US PLEASE!
No one was coming. No one. It was time to give up. My hands felt heavy, and everywhere inside me burned. My vision started to turn blacker, and my body began to drift, carried along by the water’s currents.
Just then, I heard a splash break through the water. There were several more splashes and moments later, I felt my progress down the stream halted as a hand grabbed a hold of mine and I was jerked forward. My body hit someone else’s, and I was lifted up.
The heated touch of the sun was the first thing I felt as we came up to the surface. My eyelids started blinking rapidly and my mouth opened to a series of wet coughs that racked my body. Water spurted from my mouth with each cough.
“It’s alright, you’re safe now,” a male voice said. Its owner was swimming forward, no doubt to solid ground. It was precarious climb, seeing as he was bearing me, but soon, he had maneuvered the both of us up and onto the ground beside the spring.
It was only as he laid me down on my back that my vision righted and my eyes were able to focus on his face. I didn’t know him. He had his clothes on, and they were drenched – a Dignity House day-shirt and trousers, which told me he was in either SS2 or SS3; I may be in JSS1, but I already knew who the SS3 boys were, some of them by name, and most of them by face.
“Th-th-thank you. . .” I rasped. “Thank you. . .very much. . .s-s-senior. . .”
“Donald. My name is Donald,” he interjected warmly. In spite of the incident we’d just overcome, his eyes appeared to smile at me. They were eyes that seemed strikingly familiar, like I’d seen them somewhere, on someone else. The face was handsome and the sun highlighted the fairness of his complexion. “And what’s your own name?”
“Eze! Eze! Are you alright?!” The relieved shouts of Ibuka and Joseph crashed over us, preceding their rush to my side. “Thank you, senior – thank you very much!” That was Ibuka and I could detect the wobble of tears in his voice.
“Not a problem,” the senior boy said. “You boys should be more careful around these waters.” There was some sternness in his voice now.
“We will, senior – thank you!” Joseph gushed. I felt their hands gingerly touching me, prodding me, their relief evident in every touch.
“Okay then.” He got to his feet and glanced with some dismay at his wet clothes. “I’ll be going now. You’re okay to walk back to your dormitory, right?” he asked me.
“Yes, senior. . .” I croaked.
“Good, because I have to be at my form-teacher’s place, like five minutes ago.” He paused and those strangely-familiar eyes smiled down at me again. “I’m glad you are okay, Eze. I do have a feeling we’ll meet again. . .”
Of course, we would. We were in the same school.
“In another spectacular way,” he added.
And I didn’t doubt that.
Now I was in JSS3, I had accomplished two things. I could swim. And I knew Donald was in SS1 when he saved my life that fateful afternoon, because he was now in SS3. Senior Donald Kanu, one of the house prefects of Dignity House. I still didn’t know why he seemed very familiar to me, but I had a feeling the time of my enlightenment was not far off.
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