FOREWORD: Guys, if you haven’t heard about or gotten Immanuel James’s new novel, Under Bridge, you just must have to go get it. It’s the kind of read every Nigerian would enjoy. You can get the digital copy now on Amazon (click HERE), and by April 11, the hard copies will be made available. Do endeavour to get a copy. 🙂
The two senior hostel Peace House prefects were absent from school. Senior Ifeanyi traveled home in Onitsha to see his ailing father, and Senior Olumide went to Abeokuta for his elder sister’s wedding. He left first on Thursday, and the next day, Senior Ifeanyi was gone. It was the first time both authorities were not around at the same time to make sure the affairs of the hostel were kept in order. Their absence was good for us; it meant that there was no Friday afternoon cleanup, and we slept soundly, uninterrupted, until daybreak on Saturday morning, because there was no cleanup exercise that morning either. There was a certain sense of liberation that pervaded the dormitories of the two prefects. The junior boys there were a tad noisier, their demeanours more relaxed. Sure, there were SS3 boys and other prefects in the hostel, but when it came to the matters of Peace House, the only thing that counted was the fear of Seniors Ifeanyi and Olumide.
And so, in a way, it was understandable that when the hostel came awake on Sunday morning, it was to discover that someone had had the effrontery to defecate – not on the toilet floor or at the backyard, both serious but not unexpected offenses – but right smack dab in the centre of the quadrangle. The front yard. Under the orange tree, and right next to one of the clotheslines.
Chibunna was the first person to see the small mound of faeces. Dirt-brown in colour, it gave off its characteristic odious smell. Houseflies buzzed and flitted about on top of it, evidently delighted by the provision.
Chibunna gaped. I gaped too. Beside me, Joseph and Ibuka were gaping as well. The four of us had come out of our dormitory to do a quick laundry before breakfast. And what had our attention arrested was the first in the history of Peace House senior hostel. I wasn’t sure about the years before I became a JSS3 boy and came to live here, but defecating in the front yard of the hostel seemed like something no student had either the gumption or inclination to do. No student, that is, except for the person who had dumped this.
“Jeezuz!” Chibunna choked.
“This is not good,” Ibuka muttered.
“Senior Ifeanyi will just kill us if he was around,” I added.
“Thank God he’s not around,” Joseph said in a low tone. “Let us just quietly go back inside, take our plates and rush out of this hostel before any senior will see this.”
Our heads bobbed up and down in concurrence, and we turned and hurried back into our dormitory. In tiptoes we moved to our respective lockers and began rummaging for our breakfast things. When Chibunna’s aluminum plate slipped from his hand and clattered on the floor, we flinched and turned to glare at him. The room was relatively quiet, with our dorm-mates still sleeping. One or two simply lay supine on their beds, staring off in space and probably contemplating the day and week ahead of them. We had no such long-term concerns; we simply wanted to get the things we needed and get out before Peace House senior hostel would turn into a hellhole once that shit was discovered by a senior boy.
Finally we were ready and hastened out of the dormitory. We darted past the pavement and skittered across the yard. The gate was just a few yards away. Beyond it was freedom. Freedom to –
“Where do you boys think you are going?”
I froze in my steps. I spied the expressions of dread on my friends’ faces as I turned around, with them, to face the SS3 boy who had called out the question.
It was Senior Solomon Nnorom. A tall, languid boy with a complexion that was so light it bordered on albinism and a face that was heavily freckled, he had an unhurried attitude that made him one of those seniors you couldn’t quite categorize. He didn’t have the fearsome brutality of the likes of Dignity House’s Senior Edozie aka Negrito, or the provocative pestering of the likes of Senior Maduka whose aggravation was made worse by the fact that he treated it like playtime, or the easy friendliness of a rare senior like Senior Emmanuel Udoh, a house prefect of Hope House. Senior Solomon was taciturn, sometimes broody, and generally treated the world around him with silent disdain, as though he was suffering through the unfortunate condition of dwelling amongst us. Often times, junior boys didn’t know whether to fear him or take him for granted.
“Did you not hear me?” There was no bark in his voice; even raised in a shout as it was, the voice retained its soft, mellifluous timbre that made him one of the best singers in the school choir and a favorite student of Mrs. Elendu, the Music teacher. “Come close, the four of you. . .” He beckoned with his right palm and we shuffled toward him. “Where are you all going?”
We stammered through our responses before Joseph finally answered, “Senior, we wanted to go and get ready for food.”
“But the bell doesn’t ring until 7.30, and it’s just” – he glanced at the leather watch strapped around his right wrist – “6.30 now.”
I interjected, “Yes, but we said let us go and get ready beforehand. . .” My voice trailed off when I realized I was just repeating what Joseph had said.
“Get ready how?” He rested his quizzical expression on us. I suddenly had an impression that he was toying with us. “Well?” he urged.
There were more stammered responses, before Chibunna offered lamely, “W-w-well, senior. . .you know, to wash our plates. . .and, em –”
“But your plates are already washed.” Senior Solomon glanced pointedly at the dishes in our hands.
I saw Joseph shoot Chibunna a glare that seemed to say: If you don’t have anything better to say, just shut up!
“Or are the four of you running away before anyone will notice that someone had the audacity to jagwalize* on the hostel front,” the senior said with a sudden hard expression.
Our outburst of protestations was instantaneous.
“Senior Solomon, it wasn’t me o . . .!”
“We just saw it now-now, senior . . .!”
“We were not running away, I swear, we were not . . .!”
“It was even Chibunna that saw it first. . .!”
“That doesn’t mean I’m the one that shit the shit. . .!”
He raised his hands to cut off the onrush of words. We were immediately silenced. He had just opened his mouth to say something when a loud yawn preceded the presence of Senior Felix, the Protestant prefect as he stumbled out of his dormitory, one hand rubbing his face and the other slipped into his boxers, no doubt clutching his penis, hardened by the morning pee that was straining to be released. He lurched to the edge of the pavement, whipped his member out, and with a groan of satisfaction, he began urinating. The piddle cut a straight line through the air, and fell in small splashes all over the ground beyond the pavement and the gutter. As the jet lost steam, he groaned again and shuddered. Then he secured his boxers around his hips, turned and stared blearily at us.
“Wetin dey happen for here?” he grunted.
“Someone jagwalized in the front,” Senior Solomon said blandly.
“In the where?”
Senior Solomon pointed. The prefect followed his gesture, sniffed the air and gave a start. He appeared to inflate, and his eyes which had been narrowed by sleep suddenly widened with outrage. “Na who do am?!” He turned to us. “These boys? Na them do am?” He was already moving towards us, one hand lifting to strike. We bunched up together, and recoiled away from his advance.
“No, no, no, Felix, relax,” Senior Solomon interjected. “I was just asking them and they said they are not the ones who did it.”
“But of course they are lying,” Senior Felix roared.
“Felix, no dey shout nau! Person still dey sleep!” someone grumbled loudly from inside the closest dormitory.
“Sharrapdia! You no see say junior boys don jagwalize for here!”
“Jagwalize for where?” The voice had instantly lost the languor of sleep, it was more alert. I recognized it to be Senior Darlington’s.
“Here! Inside our quadrangle!”
“Chineke! Who do that kain thing – who be the idiot!” This was another SS3 boy’s voice.
Bunks began to creak inside as bodies rose from them. My heart sank. The very spectacle we had been intent on dodging had caught up with us. The SS3s were awakening to the news of the abomination, and their combined wrath was about to fall on Peace House senior hostel.
It wasn’t long before a small cluster of sleepy but indignant seniors were out on the pavement. Seniors Elijah and Lotanna got in a few slaps on our cheeks and drew tears from both Ibuka and Chibunna, before Senior Solomon pulled us away from them, insisting that because we were the first ones on the scene of the crime didn’t mean we were the culprits. Immediately after that, Senior Felix began to shout, “ALL PEACE HOUSE BOYS! RUN OUT TO THE QUADRANGLE NOW! I DON’T WANT TO GET TO YOUR DORM AND SEE YOU STILL SLEEPING! RUN OUT NOW!”
While Senior Boma moved to the gate to stand guard, a deterrent to any junior boy quick and clever enough to slip out, Senior Felix moved to the orange tree and pulled at one of its low-hanging branches, tugging until he had peeled off a sturdy cane. From his vantage point beside the tree, he could see the excretion, and his face contorted at the stench.
“PEACE HOUSE BOYS!” He sounded further incensed. “AM I NOT TALKING TO YOU IDIOTS!”
Other SS3 boys rushed inside the dormitories, eliciting cries and sharp squeals of pain from their juniors, as they pummeled, kicked and slapped them out of their beds. Boys, in varying degrees of wakefulness, tumbled out of the dormitories and on to the courtyard. While most of them stared around, baffled by the sudden provocation so early in the day, some others sniffed the air, caught sight of the excretion, and gasped, exchanging horrified glances with those closest to them.
Within a few moments, the dormitories were emptied, and the courtyard was filled. While we stood, a small crowd in the quadrangle, the SS3s lounged on the periphery of the gathering, a menacing presence that held us caved in.
Senior Felix took center stage. His face was grim as he began, “Someone among you” – he jabbed his cane in the air before him – “someone God finished creating and gave common sense –”
“Common sense?” Senior Lotanna interjected caustically. “These goats don’t have common sense. See as their face be sef. Goats!” He swept a seething glance over us and spat irritably on the ground.
“Mumu boys!” added Senior Elijah angrily. “C’mon will you stand up straight!” And he whipped the belt in his hand forward; the leather caught the SS1 boy standing closest to him on his back. The boy gave a sharp wince of pain and cringed from the SS3 boy.
“Someone!” Senior Felix roared, pulling the attention back to him. “That someone had the mind to overlook everywhere he could go and jagwalize, he had to choose our front to do it.” Hisses of disgust from his mates punctuated his remark. “That someone should provide himself this second or else all of you will hear nwii this morning.”
“Plus, all of you can just forget about going for morning food,” Senior Chidiogo, one of the Dining Hall prefects cut in. I looked at him in despair, and heard a sorrowful whimper beside me that I knew just had to belong to Ibuka.
“That person had better come out now – ONE!” He pinned us with a hard stare.
We shuffled about our feet, and mumbled pleadingly for whoever the jagwalizer was to reveal himself. No martyr stepped out from our midst.
“Before I count to five o – THREE!”
The tension thickened. Someone started crying softly. In the distance, the loud sound of the bell for breakfast began to jangle through the air.
There was a stir amongst the SS3s, as they became more alert and clenched their canes and belts tighter in their hands. They were bracing themselves to attack us.
“Wait, Felix, wait first!” Senior Solomon’s voice was like a knife cutting through the buttery thickness of the tension. Some of the other seniors shot him quick angry stares as he walked toward Senior Felix. The prefect himself didn’t look too pleased to have his momentum so abruptly cut short. But Senior Solomon wasn’t perturbed by his obvious irritation. He came to stand close to him, and angled his head so he could whisper something to him. Senior Felix listened and gave a quick shake of his head. Senior Solomon whispered some more, this time more insistently. The seconds ticked by.
“Na operation una wan do there?” Senior Maduka called out. Some of the other SS3s laughed.
Oddly, Senior Felix was looked cheered. He chuckled at Senior Solomon and nodded, obviously pleased and agreeing with whatever he’d said to him. Then he moved away, and Senior Solomon faced us.
“Okay, since none of you has decided to own up to this offence, we will handle this in a different way. There will be no flogging.” A collective sigh of relief trembled through us. “No beating either.” The tension lightened further. “But we’ll punish you in a different way.” We stiffened again. What is it to be this time?
“You!” Senior Solomon pointed. Kalu flinched before patting himself hesitantly on the chest in a ‘Me?’ gesture. “Yes, you. Run and go and bring me your broom.”
“Better be fast!” Senior Lotanna snarled. He didn’t sound happy by the prospect of not getting to discipline us with brute force. ‘Beat a la Junior Boy’ is off the menu. Sorry, senior.
The SS1 boy nodded and peeled himself away from the crowd, hurrying to his dormitory and rushing back out moments later with his broom. Senior Solomon took the broom from him, undid the black band around its top and released the bristles.
“Oya, all of you, start coming forward one by one. You will pick one stick of broom, cut it, give one half to your neighbour and then go and line up here.”
The cluster of Peace House boys surged forward. I was thoroughly perplexed now. What was this boy playing at? What were we going to do with broomsticks – poke at each other? That didn’t seem like grievous penalty. I noticed the other SS3 boys staring curiously at Senior Solomon. Only Senior Felix, with an expression that betrayed his struggle to hold back his mirth, knew what he was up to. The fact that he looked amused however comforted me. If he found whatever Senior Solomon’s plan was to be funny, then it couldn’t be that bad. I picked up a bristle, snapped it in two and handed one half to Ibuka. Joseph shared his with Chibunna. Moments later, we had formed three long lines that stretched nearly from one end of the quadrangle to the other.
Senior Solomon nodded satisfactorily and began in a sudden steely voice, “I want every one of you – Everyone – to walk up to that shit. One after the other. Dip your broomstick inside it. Scoop out a small amount of shit. Smell it with your nose, and then touch it with your fingers. That’s all. And then you can go.”
The silence that came after his words was complete. It held for three seconds, before it was shattered with the eruption of incredulous laughter from the SS3 boys. Most of them doubled over, cackling away at what seemed to them a fitting punishment.
I could not believe what I’d just heard. Walk up to shit. Smell shit. Touch shit. JezuuzChristOfNazareth! I felt nauseated. Bile clenched inside me. Saliva rushed into my mouth, and for an awful moment, I thought I was about to throw up, but I somehow managed to control the spasm.
“Oya! Hanlele!” Senior Maduka crowed. “Start marching forward, one after the other.” He appeared to relish the task ahead of us. All of them did.
I was on the second line. I watched the first line move reluctantly forward. I looked with no small amount of pity at Amanze, who was the first in that line. The SS1 boy trembled as he drew close to the faeces.
“C’mon, will you do it!” Senior Lotanna roared, and lifted his arm to strike. His cane hovered threateningly.
“You’re lucky you were not told to taste it as well!” added Senior Boma with maniacal glee. “Oya! Osiso! Get to work!”
Amanze gazed miserably at the crap for a moment before bending forward resolutely. He dipped the stick he held into the excrement, disturbing the houseflies swarming over it. Then he pulled it out, took it to his nose and sniffed.
My stomach clenched.
His face contorted with disgust as he pulled away the stick, and rubbed his thumb and forefinger over the stain on it. As he tossed the stick jerkily away from him, the senior boys broke out into an ear-splitting scream of delirious delight. Through the din, I saw Senior Solomon standing apart, his arms crossed, and a placid smile on his face. In that moment, I didn’t know of anyone I disliked more than I disliked him for what he was making us.
One after the other, the students in the line progressed with the loathsome task. Jisike sobbed so hard, and had to be thrashed by Senior Lotanna before he tackled his. Chilaka’s asthma came to his rescue; his breathing hitched when he was three boys away from the excrement, and he dropped into a faint seconds later. Hassan doubled over when it got to his turn, and threw up everything that hadn’t digested in his stomach from last night’s repast. Eseosa broke out into a flurry of curses, heaping eternal damnation on the family of the unknown person responsible for this, roping into his condemnation both the perpetrator’s ancestors and descendants.
We inched closer. The stench hit my nostrils the closer we got. My legs felt rubbery. I suddenly bent over slightly as though reeling from a kick in the stomach. My breathing came in short, fast gasps. And then I began to retch as the breath I drew in became tainted with the foulness of the faeces in front of me. I quickly held my breath and tried to breathe through my mouth. But I felt my insides recoil as I imagined the airborne fecal micro organisms floating uninhibited into my open mouth. And so I went back to breathing through my nose, and retching again. It was pure torture.
Finally, it was the turn of the last person, Barry. As he drew up to the shit, Senior Solomon gestured for him not to proceed. Just as a look of intense relief was starting to spread on his face, the senior boy ordered him to get rid of the excretion. The boy’s face crumpled.
In that moment, the bell pealed again. It was time for Chapel Service. Catholics and Protestants were to congregate in different venues to worship the Lord.
“Time for chapel!” the Protestant prefect, Senior Felix roared. “Oya, everybody, go and bathe and start going to the chapel!”
And so it was that several minutes later, washed and dressed and strolling to the Protestant place of worship with my grumpily-faced friends, amidst other students who had been well fed on the morning’s breakfast of cooked yam and fish stew, I swore I was going to pray down the combined wrath of Heaven and Hell on the person whose shit ruined my Sunday morning.
*jagwalize: hostel slang for passing out excrement
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