“Write a reported essay on an event you witnessed,” I said for what might be the umpteenth time. Mrs. Nduagu’s English assignment from this morning was proving to be trickier than I’d expected. I tapped my pen on the notebook that was open on my lap as I reclined on my bed. “A reported essay on an event you witnessed…Hmm…”
“You know, repeating the title of the assignment won’t work the miracle you are looking for,” Ibuka said as he puttered about in his locker. He was putting his things together in the pristine order he was known for, while simultaneously getting ready his laundry.
“I wouldn’t have to look for a miracle if you would just help me,” I groused, while looking imploringly at him.
He shook his head at me. “You’re good in English. You can do it.”
I hissed and turned back to my blank-paged notebook.
“What about me?” Joseph piped up from his bed. He’d been playing a game on my GameBoy, and leaned sideways on the bunk to peer at Ibuka with a grin. “I’m not good in English. Does that mean you get to help me with my assignment?”
“You’re beyond redemption,” Ibuka retorted. “I’m not Jesus Christ. I don’t go after souls that are beyond saving.”
I snickered, while Joseph let out an indignant ‘Hmmph’ before returning to his game.
“A reported speech on an event you witnessed…” I murmured to myself this time. Rosary beads of memories dropped through my mind; I considered them, contemplated some and discarded the others. I vacillated between writing on events experienced at home and those lived through right here in school.
“I wonder if I should write about that kwanta we entered with that cat evil spirit last term,” I spoke up.
The negation came swiftly, and I looked up to confront the impressive reproach on Ibuka’s face.
“You cannot write about that,” he declared.
“I can’t?” My gaze flickered behind him to where Joseph lay on the top bunk. On his face was a neutral expression so deliberate, so carefully worn, that I suspected it was a cover for an inner self that was still scarred by the events of that night.
When he noticed me staring at him, he shrugged and attempted a smile. “Don’t look at me. Ibuka is the one with all the objections.”
“That’s right, I am,” Ibuka said primly. “First of all, we have just managed to get past all that. Everybody must have forgotten all about it. Write about it now, and it will make people start talking about us and” – he lowered his voice to a fierce whisper – “how Joe was possessed.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ibuka, it’s a class assignment, not a piece for the Press Club editorial.”
Joseph sniggered as Ibuka barreled on to his next point. “And secondly, remember that there could still be others – other evil spirits – out there in this school. Writing about this now will be like poking for trouble. You don’t know who is who when you write and submit that as your assignment.”
“Yes, Eze,” Joseph said, smirking, “please don’t write that and submit to Mrs. Nduagu. She might be mammy water just waiting for students like you to look for her trouble.”
I rocked backward in laughter. Ibuka fought to remain stone-faced, but gave up after a few seconds to a grudging smile.
“Idiots, that’s what the two of you are,” he muttered, as he slammed the door of his locker shut.
“Have you finished?” I enquired.
“Yes. And now, we have to go to borehole for me to fetch the water I’ll use and wash.”
“We?” Joseph groaned. “Seriously, Ibu, do we have to follow you to the borehole?”
“No, of course not. But whoever doesn’t go with me should not expect me to wash whatever singlet or shirt he’ll want me to help him with.”
Joseph and I promptly got down from our beds. Ibuka Onyekwere does not make idle threats when it comes to laundry.
The afternoon sun that blazed down on us as we trekked leisurely across the assembly ground, away from the senior hostel, was mild. There was an abundance of breeze drafting about to give it a balmy feel. It was Wednesday, and the afternoon prep was supposed to be in session. But with this still being the second week into the start of the term, the benign spirit of the just-concluded holidays had yet to founder to the astringent reality of the boarding school.
“I won’t even wait until we get to SS2,” Joseph began, “before I stop going to borehole. I don pass that level, and by third term, I will start showing myself.”
“By third term, all SS1s will start showing themselves,” I said. “But be careful how much you show yourself before these SS3s will forget that you’re an SS1 boy and start dealing with you the way they will deal with their direct juniors.”
“They born them well? After all the lanwu I have used to settle the main senior boys, the others can go and hug transformer.”
“Just don’t antagonize them,” I counseled.
The errand to the borehole was a speedy one. The characteristic crowd that usually avalanched the water source in the afternoons was diminished, and within minutes, Ibuka had filled his bucket, hefted it to his head and joined us in our trek back to the hostel.
We were chatting as we walked up the gentle gradient that led away from the borehole. Students moved this way and that past us, full of caper and contributing to the carefree afternoon atmosphere.
Ibuka’s head jerked slightly forward as he laughed at something I said, and a swathe of water tilted forward from the bucket balanced on his head and splashed to the ground.
Joseph moved quickly away from him, a tiny frown wedged on his brow. “You see? This is why I cannot be fetching water anymore. To be carrying water on your head is just de-repping yourself.” He gave a reproving shake of his head.
“See this one o!” I chortled. “Since when did you become this much of a big boy?”
“I told you – person dey pass something. And I have passed that.” He gestured snidely at Ibuka.
“I’ve heard. But woe betide you the day you will want me to fetch water for you. Or the day a senior boy will tell you to fetch water for him.”
Ibuka chuckled. “Leave am. He’s forming big boy. Form o, just don’t carry it to my side.”
“Besides,” I continued, “what is wrong with carrying your water on your head as an SS1 boy? Even girls have started doing it now. Just look at them. And they are not even sending anybody.” As I spoke, I waved at a flock of girls who were walking a few paces ahead of us. There were six of them; their water containers were balanced on their heads with an adroitness that didn’t even require them to hold the containers steady. Their hands were free to swing by their sides and clap occasionally as they gossiped and laughed.
“Since when did they even start carrying water on their heads?” Ibuka queried.
His observation was with merit. In the past three years of my existence in this school, the transportation of water vessels on the head was considered a male prerogative. Girls absolutely didn’t do that. Whether it was some sort of unspoken rule amongst the female folk, or a collective disdaining of what they deemed unladylike, the girls were only ever seen carrying about their water containers in their hands, often times, a bucket in each grip.
But that changed last week. It started the afternoon after school on Friday, when I went on my water errand. Chizoba Ochiagha, an SS1E girl, was with her hostel mates; they’d just finished filling their pails and were about to set off back to their hostel.
Then Chizoba, a slightly-built girl with a thick head of hair she’d pulled back in a chignon, beckoned to one of the boys standing idle by the borehole. I watched the junior boy approach her, and my astonishment fountained when she spoke to him with gesticulations that told me she intended for him to help her lift the bucket to her head. For a moment, the boy stared at her, puzzled, clearly wondering at what practical joke the SS1 girl was playing on him.
“Stop looking at me like a moron,” her waspish voice carried. “Will you help me or not?”
Her irritation snapped the boy out of his bewilderment and he bent forward to assist the girl in raising the bucket to her head. In the seconds it took for the task to be done, the crowd milling around the water system gaped at them. Even Chizoba’s friends stood and watched, aghast, as she settled the bucket to a convenient angle on her head.
“Oya, let’s go,” she snapped at them when she caught them staring. “You girls really should try this though. It’s better than carrying the buckets in your hand all the way from here to the hostel.” And then she waited, brows raised at her friends in a ‘Well, get on with it’ expression.
Before the astonished gazes of everyone around, the other girls began helping each other hoist their containers to their heads. One girl whimpered when she realized that the dirtied underside of her bucket was going to come in contact with her elaborate hairdo; her uncertainty was squelched by a glare from Chizoba.
Thereafter, the sight of the bevy of girls moving away from the borehole, buckets settled on their heads, their derrieres undulating in tandem with the swing of their hands was indelibly etched on my mind.
In a few short hours, the news spread like wildfire throughout the school that there were girls who carried their buckets on their heads – a statement that defied the norm and was instigated by a mere SS1 girl. Everybody soon began talking about Chizoba, some with mocking disdain and others with appreciative amusement. Realizing the convenience that the male student body had been enjoying for years, over the weekend, more girls were seen fetching water and leaving the borehole with their buckets on their heads.
“Look at them, just look at how they look like mgbeke,” Joseph sneered, as we walked behind the group of girls.
“You don’t approve?” Ibuka asked.
Joseph gave a firm shake of his head. “It’s not classy. Only village girls carry their water on their head. We’re not in the village abeg.” As Ibuka and I began laughing at his indignation, he said, “What? It’s true nau. This is somehow abeg. They should wait till they go to visit their grandmothers, then they can fetch water from the stream with the water pots on their heads.”
“Do you have any idea how painful it is to jack a bucket of water all the way from borehole to hostel in your hand?” I asked.
“No, but –”
“And sometimes, when you do it too much, do you know that that pressure can cause blisters to your fingers?”
“Well, it’s just –”
“So, if that Dumebi girl that you’re tripping for should start carrying her bucket on her head, you’ll stop chyking her because you’ll think she’s a village girl?”
“Abeg free me joor!” he hollered, bristling at my goading. “I just don’t like it, that’s all I have to say.”
Ibuka chuckled. “There’s an English word for guys like you who think this way about girls. I can’t remember that word now, but I will find it in my dictionary once we get to the hostel.”
“Good for you,” Joseph said dourly. “When you find it, maybe you can give it to Eze. He may need it for his English assignment.”
“Our assignment, Joseph,” I corrected with a laugh. “We are in the same class, remember? Guy, you can like to vex ehn…”
“Uh-oh,” Ibuka said then.
“What is it?”
He pointed. We followed his finger to the sight of a senior girl walking with purpose down the road toward us. As she drew closer, I recognized her to be Ugochi Edeko, the Unity House prefect for the girls’ hostel. She was one of those female prefects who didn’t say much, always managing to look proper and well-put-together every time she was on duty. But there was nothing decorous about the senior girl as she barreled in our direction like a virago. It took just a few seconds for me to realize that it was the group of girls in front of us who were in her crosshairs.
“You stupid girls!” she screeched even whilst she was still several yards away.
Her shriek sent the girls into a dither, and they stopped to hurriedly begin bringing down their buckets to the ground. In their haste, water splashed from the containers to the ground and their bodies.
“You absolutely stupid girls!” Senior Ugochi shrieked again, this time as she drew up before them. She swung her hand in a blow that struck girl who was calling to one of her mates to help her with her own bucket. The girl yelped as Ugochi’s blow sent her careening backward. The bucket slipped from her head and grasp, and spun to the ground. It was a plastic container, and the force with which it struck the ground caused the plastic to split with a loud thunk, and the water in it to splash about on the ground.
A sob escaped from the girl’s, a sound she instantly raised a hand to smother when Senior Ugochi stabbed her with a glower. The senior girl’s hands slapped onto her hips, and she swept a glare over the rest of the girls. “You!” she hissed, rounding on the one girl who still stood with her pail on her head. “What do you think you’re doing!”
The girl stared coolly back at her. She was none other than Chizoba Ochiagha herself.
“I said, what do you think you’re doing!” Senior Ugochi screamed, the junior girl’s quiet insolence fueling her rage. “Will you put that bucket down immediately!”
“Why?” Chizoba replied.
Senior Ugochi rocked backward as though the one word had been a slap in her face. “Excuse me?” she hissed. “What did you just say to me, Chizoba?”
“I just want to know one good reason why I should not carry my water the way I want, senior,” Chizoba replied, clearly unfazed by the prefect’s dilute rage.
Ugochi’s eyes narrowed in shock. The other girls shuffled nervously away from their mate.
Ibuka moved closer to me and said sotto voce, “Remember that reported speech about something you’ve witnessed?”
A slow smile began to spread across my face as I turned open the notebook I’d brought along with me, and began jotting into it, my attention divided between my writing and the mounting tension.
“Are you questioning my authority?” Senior Ugochi snarled.
“No, senior –”
“Are you telling me I can’t tell you what to do?”
“No, senior –”
“Then take the bucket down from your head!”
“BECAUSE I TOLD YOU TO!” Ugochi roared. Her eyes sparkled and her mouth worked. “What you’re encouraging these girls to do is improper! You’re a girl, Chizoba! A girl! You don’t do things because boys are doing it! You should know your place! I have warned you about this back in the hostel, and you still don’t want to listen! Stop this nonsense right now, and take that bucket down from your head!”
For a full moment, the SS1 girl stared resolutely back at her. Clearly the prefect had not given her a good enough reason to obey. A small crowd of onlookers began to collect, staring with rapt attention at the unfolding drama.
“Chizoba, please…” one of the other girls entreated.
“Just put the bucket down now…”
“Chizoba, I will not repeat myself,” the prefect said in a steely tone. “Take down the bucket from your head.”
When the other girl remained immobile, silently defying her, Ugochi lashed out. Her hand streaked through the air, and the palm smacked Chizoba across the face, jerking it one way. Ugochi followed the slap with another from her left hand, this one striking Chizoba’s face with a sound that made me flinch. The blow also unseated the bucket from Chizoba’s head, and the pail tumbled down, dousing the ground upon which it fell with a splash of water.
Senior Ugochi waited a moment to make sure the SS1 girl saw the consequence of her rebelliousness in her eyes, before hissing, “I will see you – all of you” – she divided the glare between the other girls – “back at the hostel.” And she whirled about and stalked off.
The next few moments were spent with the crowd dispersing as the offending girls, teary-eyed and very shaken, trailed after their house prefect to an indubitable fate in the hostel.
“Where you writing about what just happened?” a voice asked behind me.
I turned. Standing there, his eyes flicking from the notebook in my hand to my face, was Gregory Bassey, perhaps the most well-known SS2 boy in the school. He was a good-looking boy with heavy-lidded eyes and a dimpled smile. He shot to his popularity when he became the youngest student, at SS1, to be a Press Club newscaster during assemblies, a happenstance that came to be because of his distinctive baritone. And now, he was the Press Club vice president. The boy had such an impressive resume.
“Uh, no,” I answered. “Well, yes…”
“No, yes, which is it?” His lips twitched into a smile.
“Yes,” I said, his infectious smile eliciting one from me. “I was writing it for my class assignment.”
“May I?” He stretched out a hand to me.
I handed him the notebook. I could feel the inquisitive stares of my friends centered on us. His eyes skimmed over the page of my unfinished essay for a few seconds, before he looked up. He was wearing a very pleased expression.
“You have a keen sense of the narrative. This is an impressive work. Mrs. Nduagu, right?”
I nodded, feeling flushed with pleasure at his commendation. “Yes, she’s our English teacher.”
“Well, perhaps you’d consider joining Press Club, and putting together news items like this for us. And then perhaps, who knows…” He shrugged.
My eyes widened. I was being asked to join the Press Club?! The most exclusive association in the school, and by its vice president, no less! A bubble of excitement and delight began to surge through me. “Yes, oh yes of course. I would like to be part of the Press Club, to organize the news and stand before the assembly and update the school on the happenings –”
“Ok, slow down, Cyril Stober,” Gregory said with an indulgent chuckle. “One step at a time. Our meetings are on Thursdays and Saturdays. I’ll run your membership by Lawrence and then on Saturday’s meeting, we’ll see.” Lawrence Ojukwu was the prep prefect and Press Club president.
I nodded my thanks, my eyes shining. He nodded back at me, handed my notebook back to me, and walked away. Ibuka and Joseph crowded me at once.
“Oya tell me thank you for causing this opportunity to come for you,” Ibuka said.
“Thank you, Ibuka,” I replied with a grin.
“So, Mr. Eze,” Joseph said, bringing a fist to my face with all the briskness of a journalist, “now that you’re being considered for Press Club membership, could you tell us what your first order of business will be once you make it?”
I drew back, falling into character as the pompous politician. “I will first of all ensure that all the girls in this school will carry their buckets on their heads without fear of any penalty.”
“Hian! Eze for president!” Ibuka hailed, and the three of us began laughing as we resumed our walk back to the hostel.
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