I’ve been pretty run down this week; fever, headaches, cold and cough. I thought that after yesterday morning when I had the last bout of fever that we’d simply parted ways. I was on the mend. The fight was over. I rarely get sick anyway, so, you win this one viruses! We were done.
Not so, friends.
I woke up this morning with a left eye that refused to open and when it finally did, would only budge in the middle – the ends of the eye still held fast with yellow gunk. Through this ghastly, spiky curtain, my blackened eye peeped out at the world, like a demon in search of a soul to devour.
It only took all thirty-ahem! years of my life, but finally, finally friends, I have experienced the dreaded Apollo. (That’s conjunctivitis to you non-Nigerians). Dreaded because kids that dared contact Apollo when we were growing up were shunned and heckled by other kids in school. Home would have not been much fun to be in either, my parents were very strict on what we were and were not allowed to catch. I only had chicken pox at twenty-two, living in London, far away from their disapproval.
It’s hard growing up with two doctors in the house; I never had the sweetness of wearing a filthy, itchy cast because I was not allowed to break any bones, never had lice until I was in boarding school and quickly got rid of that myself (ground camphor in the hair, combed through and washed out. Someone taught me) or boils that required that special inky-blue liquid dressing that never seemed to repel flies. There were plenty of scrapes and bruises but they never allowed us to have plasters, just wash it in stinging soap and water (ow!) and leave it open because the air made it heal.
“But I want plaster!” we’d wail, when our mother was out of earshot.
“Com’ on, mechie onu gi ebe ahu osiso! You want plaster, that’s why you wounded yourself,” she’d say from upstairs, listening in with her bat hearing.
I never ever got out of doing homework.
Having such knowledgeable parents was a bother. We never got to stay home from school even if we had malaria – they’d inject you with chloroquine and send you on your merry way. I can only remember being home from school once and by the end of the day I wanted to live in school, I was so bored. No TV, no getting up to go to the toilet (you had to shout for one of the maids to come and bear witness that you were not really playing), just a lot of sleeping and hallucinating and sweating as the chloroquine kicked the shege out of the malaria and out of you.
.Being ill was never as fun for us as it was for other children, so we simply stopped. I simply stopped falling ill until I could find someone to pet me. Except, I found out how much I loved being well. As a ‘habit’, it stuck. It doesn’t mater what The Hubster and Tot catch, I never seem to get it, mainly because I avoid them, starving them of hugs and kisses until whatever they have is gone.
Easier to do with the Hubster than the Tot. Which is why I’ve had this cold and cough kicking the shit out of me for the past week. But I cannot help kissing the little petri dish. It’s those damn cheeks!
Anyway, turned out to be good training my mother was giving me because life is really about about taking your chloroquine like a good girl, and just getting on with it, if you can.
And I might have the flaming eye of Sauron, but I also get a rather lovely drawing of myself from Tot, which is not bad going at all.
I got this comment from Vivi Wei, a PhD student of Lingustics in Fudan University, Shanghai. She needs native Igbo speakers to help out in her research. See the original comment and link to her survey below.
Please tweet this, Facebook it and email it to your Igbo-speaking friends and family. Thank you.
Hey, This is Vivi Wei from China. I am doing a PhD program in linguistics. I really need some native Igbo speakers to help me to finish a survey on Igbo resultatives, which is a sentence expressing an action-result concept. It is an intuition test which basically only requires you to translate some English sentences into Igbo and check the acceptability of some Igbo sentences. It only takes 10-15 minutes for you to finish the survey online. Your participation would be very helpful for my PhD dissertation and it means a lot to me! Thank you very much.
Before I went to Nigeria this time around, I was always on the Hubster’s case about Tot going to school there. I spoke often and longingly of my own experiences in primary and secondary school in Nigeria; the ultra-strict teachers, cutting the tough elephant grass with a machete as punishment, the classrooms with no doors or windows, all that open space to play in, that one time my friends and I found a bullet as long as two index fingers in the sand around the smouldering rubbish heap outside Primary 6A…
“Hang on,” said the Hubster, his unibrow creasing up in one giant mark of concern. “None of that sounds very pleasant.”
“It wasn’t,” I replied.
“So why do you want him to experience all that?”
“Because…” I was confused. “What kind of question is that? Can you not hear all the things I have been saying?”
Sometimes, it is as if he doesn’t listen to me when I am talking.
Anyway, he finally gave in and the day before we left said “Well, when you get there, look around and see if you like any of the schools,” which made me very happy until I got there and realised that of course it was ELECTIONS followed by EASTER and all the schools had closed in anticipation of violence* followed by insane amounts of bingeing. But perhaps it did not matter because being home disabused me of the notion of Tot going to school in Nigeria, at least for now. Here, in order of increasing importance, are three reasons why this is the case:
3) The discipline, my God the ‘discipline‘: By the age of eight/nine when I left primary school, in addition to the aforementioned grass-cutting, I had been flogged with a cane (several times), flogged with a switch (there is a difference), had my mouth flicked (painful!), been knocked on the head with knuckles (Hey! I can smell my brain!) and flogged on the calves (discouraged for girls, because you know, we have to maintain that hot-leg thing for future spouses). All this and I still do not know maths so it was pointless.
I am smiling to myself as I think about it but I admit, that reaction cannot be normal. However, it was part of life then. Everyone got flogged by their parents and teachers; for being cheeky, for not doing homework, for having a dirty uniform, for even looking at a teacher funny. This was just a fragment of life, there was A LOT of good. But tough preventative and disciplinary action was a big part of school where learning was by rote. No one cared if you knew why the sky was blue as long as that was the answer you gave when asked. It’s the Victorian way and as at the time I was in school, it had not changed.
There are a lot of Montessori schools in Nigeria now and a lot that do not employ corporal punishment. They were some of the latter when I was growing up as well. But, I would want Tot to go to a normal,non-ajebo school, like I did. One in which I do not have to pay through the nose for my kid to be treated as a human being. It’s the general culture of teaching we have that has to change, not just that of a few, choice schools. I’m all for discipline but it has to be equal to the misdemeanour.
Not like the time my sister was flogged on the ear for innocently asking a teacher how old she was. Or my baby brother, flogged to get him to start writing with his right hand instead of God-ordained left. My mum went ballistic on the teachers in both cases but my brother now writes with his right. It was probably easier to avoid trouble – his mum wouldn’t be around all the time to fight his battles after all. For a while though, he used to write his letters backwards because his brain could not keep up with the switch.
(My kid is a leftie. Flog him for this and I koboko you right back.)
2) Paying through the nose for the level of education considered ‘basic’ here in London: Which is frankly ridiculous. Some schools charge exorbitant fees because they follow the ‘British curriculum’, but they have no flipping clue what they are doing. The poor parents who will do anything just to see their kids get the best are sold all kinds of nonsense.
Case in point: I have a set of cousins whose training my father is responsible for . Their mother was always demanding these sums for each child, close to the same amount which my father spent to put TWO of his own children through university per term. So he asked her “What on earth are they teaching them in that school?”
“It’s a very good school she said. They give them DVDs and uniform and all their text books are printed in Cambridge…”
“I don’t care what it is they give them, there is absolutely no reason it should cost this much. In fact bring their reading materials when next you’re coming and let me see,” he said.
The next time she came, we looked at the so-called material. It was full of Disney DVDs. The school was making money selling the parents ‘The Lion King’ which they could buy in the market for a fraction of the cost. It did not matter if they kids had it or not, it was compulsory to purchase from the school.
Now, said Aunty could have been lying of course, taking the opportunity to try and get more money from my dad, yes, it’s possible. But I am inclined to believe it because it is the sort of thing we do in Nigeria. You want a ‘British’ education? Then you must do everything that goes it with. And buy this. And that. Or else.*
Or consider this: My sister Whatsapped me last year, complaining that her kids’ school had introduced compulsory swimming lessons. All well and good, right?
“So they have a swimming pool now?”
“They don’t. And they said we have to pay NXXX for both costumes and lessons, if we don’t have ours.”
I asked her to take a photo of the letter. The thing did not make any sort of sense to me. Was there a provision to ferry the kids to the swimming pool? How were classes arranged? How were they going to assess the kids’ skill level? None of these things was covered in the letter. It was just going to be by age, so you could have proficient swimmers in with kids who have never swum a lap in their lives. Add to this a line which made me see red: ‘All teachers are to accompany their students to the pool’. Were they qualified instructors? No. Would they know what to do if a child was drowning?
“How many children per class?” I asked my sister.
“17,” she said.
One teacher to seventeen pupils. In a swimming pool.
Bonus confusion: They’d told parents the swimming classes were compulsory but still gave them consent forms to sign. Consent for what again? I rest my case.
1) My kid has SEVERE food allergies. Here in London, a lot of food items on allergy lists are forbidden for kids to bring into school, as some kids might have contact allergies as well (inflammation of the skin when you come into contact with an allergen). Teachers are trained to respond in cases of allergic reactions, are trained in first aid and schools have certificates to prove it. Cannot say the same for back home, and I’m quite unwilling to risk it.
In the case of Tot, his soy and peanut allergies lead to anaphylaxis. The response has to be as quick as the reaction is and then you need to call an ambulance and he has to be monitored for an least 8 hours in hospital afterwards. We are simply, NOT EQUIPPED.
It is still my dream for him to be soaked in Nigerian culture. There was/is a lot of bad, but there is good as well. So of my best days were spent in boarding school (especially when I was no longer a Ju – junior girl) and the experience still features heavily in my writing. I learnt so many life skills that if the apocalypse were to befall us, I would most likely survive. I’m not bragging. I just would.
However, for now, the challenges are overwhelming and so this may remain a dream for a little while longer.
Good memory: In the photo above, the PE teacher made some of us take off our socks and trainers so that those who could not afford any for sports i.e. had only sandals, did not feel inferior/left out. The girl still wearing hers arrived just as the photographer was about to click the button and was allowed to stay. We learnt football that day. I sprained my toe and never played again.
* Election violence luckily did not happen (or happened in a very small number of areas in Rivers State when some idiots tried and failed to hijack the process). We conducted our elections beautifully!
* My sister, Pastor, had to have a baby in a Lagos hospital. She had her delivery bag packed months ahead, checked and updated it regularly and was sure to carry it when it was time for her to go to hospital. When she got there, they made her buy the hospital’s ‘Delivery Pack’ never mind that hers had everything, otherwise they said ‘she would not get a bed’. She had to take the receipt to another nurse before she was finally admitted. This is the sort of shit we do in Nigeria.
Don’t get me started on her ante-natal classes. Say you were in labour and you showed up at a hospital, they would make you pay ante-natal fees for all the classes you missed (even if you had done classes at some other hospital) before they let you in. Not all hospitals behave this way. But A LOT of them are insane like this. What are you going to do? Not have your baby?
I often have to force myself to go to bed at night because it is at this time that my brain seems to want to be awake. This time, it is preoccupied with clarifications.
At the end of my talk titled ‘Different but Equal’ yesterday evening, a very nice professor from UNILAG approached me with her concerns. For one, she thought I was being general when I said that our culture is preoccupied with marriage, especially that of females and that women were often complicit in the mild coercion of other women in this vein.
“I never pushed any of my daughters to get married,” she said.
Later during a panel discussing Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ speech, she took the opportunity to reiterate her point, adding that she was ‘shocked at some of the things which people are saying here today’.
I take her point. I did say during my talk that it was a certain kind of Igbo person, woman or man that I was referring to. Being in that lecture hall, at that conference, many of us already declared our interest in equality of the sexes. I was among my people. Perhaps, that did not come across clearly.
My own mother is very much like this professor. I was in my twenties when I married, armed with two degrees and a post-graduate diploma and my mother when I told her I was engaged said “But why do you need to marry now? What about your PhD?” or words to that effect.
However, this is my mother. This is the kind of person she is; a woman who believes that all women should aim to achieve their full potential before marriage – if they desire to get married, of course. And she is this way because her parents were the same. But this is not everyone’s reality, not in this generation or in our mothers’. This has certainly not been my reality with our Nigerian society in general and to assume that everyone is like my mother or like the aforementioned professor, would be very narrow-minded indeed.
Just because the truth makes us uncomfortable, does not make it any less true.
Secondly, I mentioned I had not – prior to my recent Nigeria trip – been home in six years. A friend, in jest, told me I should be ashamed of myself. Ha ha. I had my reasons, including a cancelled trip in 2012 due to ‘extenuating circumstances’ (ha ha again. There’s a show on telly right now). I would not have thought more of it if the lovely, worried, professor did not pick that up during her comment at panel as proof that I was out of touch with the times. “You need to ask us what we at home are doing,” she said.
Again, agreed. I hate to think that I implied that there was nothing being done by women at home with regards to feminism, womanism or whatever other ‘ism’ out there is being used to describe the movement for equality among the sexes.
But this is not the 1970s or 80s. Being away from home these days, no longer entails waiting weeks or months for a letter or sitting by the phone at an appointed time for a 3-minute phone call down a crackly line. no. Now, when we are not at home, we take home with us; a look on social media will reveal to you the general thought processes of people regarding anything you want to know. Social media is good like that. It cuts across all groups; gender, age and literacy. My entire family – bar one sister and I – still live and work in Nigeria. One is never more than a Whatsapp message away from what is happening. Anyone still in doubt of the power and effectiveness of social media in and amongst Nigerians, need only consider its impact on this year’s presidential elections.
Then of course, there are friends and family who travel to and from Nigeria frequently, of which my husband is one. This year alone, he’s been to Nigeria three times. It is pretty difficult to be as far removed as once was, from simply not being ‘on the ground’ in Nigeria. Not unless one is plagued by technophobia or is some sort of Luddite.
The number one topic at any gathering of the diaspora here? Nigeria.
Finally, I would hate if my talk came across as an attack on men and manhood. That was not my intention. I will reiterate: there are certain men who would give their right arm to uphold the status quo. You know them. They are the ‘This is not the done thing’ men or the ‘It is against our culture’ men or the men who try to use religion to justify their perceived superiority. Then, there are the ignorant ones, who have never really thought about it. They’ve never had to put themselves in the shoes of women because it just has not occurred to them at all. Out of this group you might eventually get resistance, understanding and change or just plain indifference.
Then there are the men, who are already getting it right. Those men were all at Igbo Conference yesterday and will be today. To those men, I say ‘Deeme’, you are on the right track.
I hope I have resolved any misunderstandings. Now my good people, you have the knife and the yam; you may cut it into whatever size is easy for you to digest.