I felt ashamed for students to see me with bundle of wet clothes on my head coming from the fish pond, where the washing was done or standing in the open behind one of the dorms arranging wet clothes on lines, with both male and female students watching me, while they go to the dining. I tried all I could to avoid it to no
avail. There was nothing I could do about it. And like a stroke of more shame coming my way, the work with Musa in the college, which I thought would be brief soon turned into what seemed like a permanent affair, when Musa suddenly took ill with a swollen right foot, cut off from work and needed someone to take his place at work for him to continue to have income to take care of his home. The mantle to keep Musa’s work fell on me because I was not in school or in any employment. My decision to leave the bookshop became a blessing in disguise
Working as a Washerman
I took over Musa’s role at work. Every Sunday morning I went to the dormitories; boys’ dormitories first in the order of nearness to the laundry building, and would finish up with the girls’ dormitory. It became compelling to go to the girls’ dormitory, where I had avoided so that the girls would not see me involving in the laundry work. I was forced much against my will. I did not plan to be there for that period. I took over Musa’s bicycle, his sole mean of transportation and the Cadillac in the family. I often felt it was to take care of the bike that Musa wanted me to be a bike repairer. It became my lot to ride the bike to his customers’ homes around the town, collected what they had for laundry early in the mornings before they go to work.
There was a time I looked at the bike and I asked myself, “What is in this that I have to go and learn other than how to repair the tubes? Is this what Musa wanted me to learn to do for a living?” Without anyone to answer my questions, I turned my attention back to the work fate had placed in my hand at that moment.
On Monday and in the morning, we took delivery of laundry soap that came in solid soda form and starch in its raw whitish form . Water is boiled on a fire made of charcoal in a metal box used for heating heavy iron metals for ironing. The raw starch would be mixed in cold water, and after the boiled water had been poured into it would turn into a solid grey colored like dumpling sitting in a bowl. Washing was done on Mondays and for a whole day. Any day the weather was fine without rain, we washed in the fish pond, and in the water closet in one of the male dormitories anytime there was rain.
It was not difficult to covey all the materials: the large white washing basins, the washing soap, the starch in a bucket and the bundles of bound clothes to the pond, about four hundred and fifty meters away from the laundry building. But washing the clothes, standing all day in the sun, with torso bent from the waist, two hands squeezing dirty clothes massed in a big bowl in large numbers, and returning wet washed clothes to the laundry building through a steep and hilly part of the road between the fish pond and the human populated area in the school compound was extremely hard.
After conveying wet clothes bound in bundles through the steep hill to the school compound, putting them on lines of wire for drying would follow, before returning to the pond for another round of the journey. Wet clothes returned to the school after watching in the evening would be kept in the laundry shed till the following morning before going on line for drying. Ironing started on Tuesday, and terminated on Saturday or Sunday evening; students collected their stuffs on Friday evening. On Saturday, I would bike round the town delivering finished laundry to their owners. All money realized went to Musa for the upkeep of the family.
It was not so much a burden that it ought to have been under a normal routine for a boy who had not been initiated into such a hard labor. I had watched Musa and his colleagues went through the ordeal, and had thought about how their aging bodies did not slump under such a difficult exercise, believing that I was able to
do it because I was young. There were times Musa strained himself in the circumstance that moved me to tears. But yet, it was what he did years round to sustain his family. He showed us the way. So it was not a strange phenomenon that I found myself doing it with my lean shoulders. I had mastered the routine before the mantle fell on me.
Musa's Swollen Foot
Ironically, no one knew the cause of Musa’s swollen foot other than that a local itinerant medical man came home, checked the swollen right foot, discovered that the foot was already in the process of decomposing and cut it open. It was a miracle that the foot he It was a miracle that the fo ot he a led during the long duration it took the medical man daily check up and dressing. Once the foot was healed, Musa returned to work, and I continued working side by side with him as an assistant with school admission still in my plans.
Little did I know I was already learning the hard way, how to crack a rock with my bare hands, a nearly impossible task. From the moment I was of school age, my life was an uphill battle for my future, for the education I knew I would need to achieve greatness. The memory of Musa’s suggestion to me about whether I would like to learn bicycle repairing did not abate from my memory. I did not hold it against him. I knew Musa was a loving and diligent father, and If there was anything he lacked, it was education and that was responsible for his having remained a washer man and a subsistent farmer all his life.
Musa's Embrace of Polygamy
The same was responsible for his ignorance, and his inability to see the danger inherent in bringing two women to live with him under the same roof. He embraced the dangerous aspect of polygamy compared with those who shamelessly had wives or concubines scattered around. Musa’s decision was informed by a wrong notion based on the culture of his people that said a man must buy an Aamin- a second wife in his lifetime.
No one in the household grudged Musa for his choice. How could we, when in the society in which we were born, and far away from the society our parents hailed, there were kings and chiefs as well as peasants who were living in the same woe. There were kings who had uncountable number of wives and chiefs to whom it was alien to have just one wife as well as peasants who did not know money was the new king; and managing the limited amount of money you could access-to meet needs-was more important than two wives in a home. They did not know that having two wives would not only worsen a poverty situation, it outrightly set backward any progress a man may have achieved before the decision to embrace a marriage concept that could best be described as a poison and a death pill not only to the man, but as well to the children from the strange unions who could only be united by miracles.
A king in the ancient city where I was born and grew up was one of the highest educated fellows of his time. Yet he had many wives. It was his choice. Whereas, there were uneducated men who had the common sense that a wife was enough. I believe it was a matter of choice and not culture. One might choose to divorce and remarry; divorcing and remarrying all over again. Both polygamy and divorcing and remarrying have their negative impacts on the products of a family. But could not these negative trends be totally avoided? It is one of the mistakes in humanity that no one has an answer. How sweet it will be if every man can stick to just a woman and every woman to just a man?
Musa’s embrace of polygamy affected his household and the only objection my eldest brother raised was that if Musa did not stop his wife from periling our mother, he would one day opt to take care of his mother, and allow him to continue to savor the sweetness of the new wife.
Amidst a household journey that had lost its sweetness, a letter arrived from Ai’s nephew- a member of the Nigerian Army stationed in Asaba. He wanted me to come over for him to enroll me at St. Patrick College. I read the letter to my father. The letter apparently a solution to my problem gave me a renewed joy, and bolstered my dream about a wish to go school. After I read the letter to him, I expected him to tell me to get ready for a journey to Asaba. I thought it was an opportunity we had awaited. Instead, he kept mute. And I waited for his response.
Meanwhile, I already believed that I was going to attend school in Asaba, and my joy was boundless. I imagined myself a high school student, imagined the type of transformation my life would undergo. Without having heard Musa’s decision on the matter, I put plans together for an eventual journey to Asaba. Rather than speak to me, Musa continued with silence about the matter, and that made me to ask him one week after I had read the letter to him.
“When am I going to Asaba?”
“It is not a good idea for you to go to Asaba for Felix to pay your school fees.”
“We did not ask him. He had volunteered to help. Is anything wrong in allowing him to help out?”
“It is improper for my wife’s brother to take over my responsibility. If he had asked you to come for holidays, it would have been alright.”
“So, if he had asked me to come over for holidays, you would’ve allowed me to go; and if I allow him get me into a school, it would not have mattered?”
Musa was silent again. I too decided to keep sealed lips. I felt I was becoming too troublesome for him. I observed I was advancing in age and believed that I had done my best by refusing to learn a trade and tying him to my need to attend school. Ai who could have been able to turn the argument in my favor, that there was nothing wrong in her own nephew helping to pay my fees in a high school was far away in the village for reasons of ill health.
A Brother's Kind Gesture
I suddenly found I was almost alone with Musa and El. Dele was away in Ibadan from where he had moved from Lagos after he left the bank where he had worked and joined the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation. Tunde was away in a boarding school. I was left with my two younger sisters Awa and Fatima still in the elementary school. Awa was struggling with the elementary education having problem to adjust to dialect change since she
returned from our parent’s village where she had lived with our paternal grandmother.
I would look at Fatima; light skinned like Ai, Dele and Tunde, but had Musa’s slim physique. I had always thought in my mind she would not be engrossed in the problem that I and Awa were trapped about high school. Awa’s problem had its origin in her movement between Yoruba land and Etsako in Edo State. But this problem hardly affected her humanity; robust like Ai, dark complexioned like Musa and me, she was one of the most boisterous persons with most captivating smile I had ever seen.
At this time, another message came for Musa, but it was from Dele. He wanted me come to Ibadan and live with him, so that I could help him take care of the house when he was at work. I welcomed his request. I had put my bag together for the journey and my father had no problem with it. He was happy like I was for the planned journey for me to go and live with Dele in Ibadan. But like other proposals before it, it hit the walls. Dele sent back another message in which he told us his plan had changed. He was instead coming on a visit to bid us bye, because he had a plan to travel abroad for further studies . I planned to discuss my predicament with him. I did not mean to ask him to pay my fees, because he already had Tunde in a boarding school. It would be expecting too much of him to add me to the burden of charting his own future and paying my other brother’s school fees. I intended to discuss with him a possibility that he could help sway Musa to allow me travel to Asaba. I intended to reiterate my determination not to be apprenticed to learn any trade. I was determined to revisit the possibility of going to Asaba, a plan I had temporarily shelved.
Respect in the Family
Dele was noted and respected for his caring attitude about our future. It was not just because he was the eldest child in the household. We saw him as selfless and always ready to lend a hand of support. He did not force the respect out of us as worthless leaders would do their followers. Having returned to the ancient town, wrote his high school final examination which he passed in flying colors; got a job in a bank, later moved to a radio station, and he was already shouldering the responsibility of one of his brothers high school education, were assurances of the hope and light in our darkness that he became in the family, and a path-finding position he had that our friends found delightful.
In the course of his discussion with Musa in the evening of the day he arrived, he asked questions about my attempt to gain a high school admission and spoke gloriously about how good I wrote letters that were sent to him from home written by me. And then he called for me to join him and Musa where they sat in front of the house just a stone throw from where I stood talking with my friends. He asked me about my effort to get into a high school; the circumstance that had kept me out of being shortlisted, and I told him about all the entrance examinations that I wrote. I mentioned the circumstance that had kept me out of being shortlisted for
admission. I stressed the factor I believed was the wall between me and school admission: money and the lack of it. He looked at me and asked if it was true that I passed the examinations. I did not make a mistake in the reiteration of my submission that I did. Again, he asked if I passed the examination at Oduduwa College, his alma-mater. I replied in affirmation.
Navigating a Tunnel
Then, he told me to be ready for us to go together and see the principal of the college the following morning on a Saturday. He was certain to be able to convince the principal to give me admission, and that he would be the one to pay my school fees. I felt like I was at the end of a tunnel and that a light had at last emerged in my darkness. I could hardly believe what I heard that he would be the one to pay my school fees. Would he be able to shoulder the responsibility for my school fees along with that of Tunde, while he charted his own future?
The question begged for an answer which no one could instantly answer. I was still uncertain about what was happening to me. I could not turn to him and ask him, if he was certain about what he said. I decided to do a wait and see. My case had suddenly turned to a case of a step at a time to see where it would lead and to follow the flow. The first step would be to see the principal and hear what he would say. The next step would be for my brother to pay my fees for me to be given admission, and then see if the fees would flow for me to remain in school. I was ready to follow the flow and see where it would lead in the dark tunnel that my country represented.