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LIVING TWO WORLDS
By VERONICA BEGWU
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Veronica Begwu
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAina sat daily in the front of the house where she had her kiosk for selling provisions while she cared for her kids. This way, she supplemented her husband's income. Their zinc-roofed house of three rooms and a parlor was among other thatched and smaller, round huts. This community of people spoke different languages, and they had different religious beliefs. They set aside time to call in at each other's homes to encourage relationship. People were not afraid to let their kids play out of their view.
Dika was thirty-five years old when he married Aina, Helen's mother, and they lived together at Tin-tin near Jos Plateau. They were blessed with their first three daughters, the last of whom was Helen. When Helen was born she bled a lot from her navel, and her parents feared that she might die. Medical provisions were minimal, and neighbors urged them to dip her in cold water, which stopped the bleeding. The couple was full of joy for their new born baby, who was well and hearty after that.
Dika's mind's eye held high expectation for his kids when he chose the catholic school instead of the public one that was free. The public school focused on Arabic studies, where the children recited verses from the Koran and the girls dropped out of school for early marriage. Sacrifice for his children was Dika's priority. The headmaster at the catholic school, Steven Garba, visited from time to time to discuss the children's progress at school. Soon, a private teacher came home Tuesdays and Thursdays to help with homework. At first it was weird to have a teacher in the house, as teachers had some intimidating qualities at that time.
The school band played "We are the Children of St. Joseph's Catholic School, Ropp." As the students arrived, they fell into lines according to classes. No one wore any shoes, their hair was cut short, and the simply designed blue school uniforms needed to be clean. In classes, the students marched around the school field before lessons started, swinging their arms and quick-stepping their legs in unison. The lessons started with "mental" arithmetic; the students answered questions verbally without using pen and paper, which, according to the teacher, warmed up their brains. This was followed by English then other subjects, and writing was emphasized. Other children gathered around to watch every morning on their way to their school. Children who were top in their class received a loaf of bread from their mom immediately after their names were announced on report card pickup day. Every child wanted to do well in school. The school went as far as primary four.
Dika did not realize that the school stopping at primary four would be a problem until his daughter got past primary four and had to trek three miles daily to school. Some mornings were really cold, and stepping on the stony ground was painful on the bare foot. From time to time, the cry of a hyena split the morning air, though no one ever saw one. Still the fear that the hyenas were there existed. Dika and the headmaster discussed this matter as a special concern, as Dika reached his hands into his pocket intermittently and chewed on the split kola nut, which he shared with the teacher.
It did not take long before Steven Garba came back one day looking exited. He carried with him news that the family had to listen to. Dika had been sitting on a chair relaxing, as it was a Saturday on which he wasn't working. "You won't believe this," said the headmaster. "I have just received the news that there is a new boarding school starting in Zawan."
"Tell me more,' Dika replied, placing his calloused hand over Steven's shoulder and bending over to offer a chair.
The school started from primary five and went through seven. It was forty miles from Ropp. Steven and Dika would both visit the prospective school the following week to seek admission and check out the facilities.
This would be the first time anyone in the family had left home. At first, Aina did not like the idea but she managed to accept it, particularly after she visited the school. That is how it came to be that their first four daughters attended Zawan Convent School, a foundation for future schooling and personal organization.
The school was located on a hilly topography with a cactus fence, whose thorny spikes prevented any intruder from passing. The compound had four levels at different heights. The uppermost level housed the five nuns who ran the school. Daily, the clinging sound of the morning bell summoned the children to the chapel, also on the top floor, as early as six thirty in the morning. The path leading to the chapel was lined with sunflowers, bougainvillea, roses and Queen of the Night that gave off their fragrances freely.
The next level held six classrooms in a single row of buildings parallel to the fence. Beyond the fence, two hills and an enclosed valley met with the horizon to form an arc that merged with the sunrise. A path led to the dining room that smelt of boiled beans most of the time. A complaint about the food always received the same response from Dika. "You did not go there for food." And that ended matters.
The dormitories and playground were on the lowest level. Everything ran on a schedule, including classes, prep time, playtime, and work time. The bell rang at five in the evening, and everyone would run, some tipping over, on their way to the playground. "Gada" became the most played game. Twenty girls would form a semicircle. They'd hold their arms down in front, palms open and facing outward, as they got ready to hold up someone, who would soon fall on them so as to be thrown high up in the air—this amid singing songs of praise that included the name of the person whose turn it was to fall on the waiting arms. All the children loved Gada. Everyone took at least four turns as they sang in different dialects. The dust went up, but that was the least of the girls' concern at this time. This was a way to fight homesickness.
Parents visited every month with lots of provision, but Elizabeth's dad came weekly with lots of garri (processed cassava), which he carried on his bicycle all the way from Kura, twelve miles away. He did not have to see Elizabeth each time he visited but left anything he brought with the cooks. Sometimes the items developed long legs, but no one said anything.
After one's child had spent three years at Zawan Convent School, any parents thought they had done the right thing and expected good results. The pupils learned to speak English, though the tenses went to hell. But Sister would not let up; she stopped each time she heard the wrong usage of a tense to do some correction, along with some whipping. Everyone worked daily; each student performed assigned chores in the morning, and the nuns would inspect the work before classes.
In primary seven, entrance exams into secondary schools all over the country were conducted. Satisfaction followed, as parents saw that their sacrifices pay off.
Dika knew that the best future lay in better education for his daughters, and this at a time when society frowned upon sending a girl to school. The choice of schools was scanty in the immediate vicinity, so he sorted out the options of schools in Southern Nigeria. Again, Dika chose which school to send Helen to based on the school's educational philosophies. The culture of the south emphasized Western education, unlike that of the north, which had a more Muslim outlook. At the top of the list of schools at the time were Saint Maria Goretti Grammar School, in Benin City and, Mary Mount College, in Agbor. Helen would attend both schools, moving from one to the other as a result of the Biafran war of 1967 to 1970.
* * *
The Biafran—Nigerian war of 1967-1970 started when many Ibo were slaughtered in Northern Nigeria, following the killing of the premier of Nigeria, a northerner. Dika lived in Gana Ropp near Jos, the capital of Plateau State, Nigeria, with his family. Just like many other heads of households, he sent his entire family—wife and children—to a village in the south called Illah, located along the west bank of the Niger. Two years earlier, Dika had spent his leave putting up a four-bedroom house in Illah, so that his family would no longer squat when they visited.
Helen was not affected by this move because she was attending schooling in the south at Saint Maria Goretti Grammar School in Benin City.
Dika, continued to live in Gana Ropp, where he worked for a tin mining company, Amalgamated Tin Mine of Nigeria (ATMN) owned by the British.
He had friends who were natives of Gana Ropp who visited with him, so it was not so lonesome for him after his family left for Illah. The community at Gana Ropp had been a place where both Christians and Muslims lived. Before the family was separated as a result of the social unrest, at Christmastime, Helen and her siblings would struggle to see who would deliver the gift to their Muslim friend, Mai-Kunu.
* * *
"Helen, come and take this food to Mama Mai-Kunu," Mom said.
"Yes, ma," Helen replied joyfully. A gift of money or a bottle of kunu awaited any child who delivered the plate of rice and stew.
"How come Helen is always the one to go?" Nde, one of the younger sisters asked.
"It will be your turn next time. You know that Helen will be leaving soon to her faraway school."
Mai-Kunu had become a family member since the triplets were born to Dika's family and she had volunteered to babysit. With no child of her own, she said that they would become her children too. She spent a lot of time with Dika's family, as her work of preparing breakfast for the company's workers was over when a driver picked up the food by 9:00 a.m.
* * *
April was the warmest month in the year, and the Northeast trade wind brought a lot of dust from the Sahara Desert, along with whistling, dry leaves. The smell of burnt cow dung that served as fuel for cooking filled the air. At nighttime, the temperature fell to the sixties, as the acacia tree blew slowly. The absence of television left no option other than listening to the radio after dinner. With the wave of social crises that burst out around surrounding towns, daily news became very important. As the intensity of the riots increased, it became a matter of when it would happen in Gana Ropp.
Bedtime came, and Dika lay down after a hard day's work, but he could not sleep. He tossed and turned. He was all alone in a four-bedroom house. A sound seemed to be somewhere in the distance, and he opened the window to hear more. Then he ensured that his door was locked. The sound grew louder and louder. As Dika moved from room to room, he turned off the lights, hoping that this would hide him. The sound metamorphosed into voices, and the voices grew louder.
"Araba! Araba!" echoed in the air.
Dika crawled under his bed, realizing he was hearing an approaching mob.
The mob arrived at the gate, armed with bows and arrows, cutlasses, hatchets, and sticks. The crowd hit and banged at the door. Dika did not answer; he was thinking of how he would be killed and no one would take care of his children. He was very afraid. He sweated, and his perspiration blinded his eyes. As he tried to wipe them off, his head banged against the springs of the bed. He felt numb. It was as if that awakened him to what went on outside his gate.
"I will get the car!" someone shouted.
"The chairs are mine," called another. "I'll have all the beds."
"I'll have the fridge."
And so they went on and on for nearly thirty minutes.
Could that be Isa or Yusuf or Ismael? Dika wondered.
All of a sudden, a commanding voice said, "Stop!"
Everybody kept quiet to hear what the speaker had to say, and Dika tried to make out who the voice belonged to. Up until then, thoughts of what would become of his nine daughters, particularly in a world where an orphan had a very little chance of success, had occupied his mind. Dika's parents had died when he was twelve years old, so he knew how hard life would be for his children after he died. Dika served as bread winner for both his family and that of his younger brother, who lived in the village to administer the community affairs.
Back when Dika's parents had raised them, the main occupation for the people centered on subsistence farming. A farmer needed many hands in the farm, as the tools used were hoes and cutlasses, which required physical labor. The greater the number of children, the bigger the farm, and this gave rise to polygamy. Saint John's Catholic School had just been built, and the building served as both an elementary school and church on Sunday. Only a few parents had entertained the dimmest thoughts of sending their children to school. Dika's parents were not in the least interested in education, but Dika had always admired the schoolchildren in their uniforms as they came out for recess.
One day, a short while after cockcrow, on the way to the farm, Dika had found a book, which he'd picked up and taken to the headmaster of the school. After giving the book to the headmaster, Dika did not go away. Instead, he kept staring at the pupils admiringly. As he was of school age at the time, the headmaster asked him whether he would like to register at the school. Enthusiastically, Dika mentioned the idea to his father that same day, but his father was nonchalant about it. This would mean one fewer farmhands.
The headmaster followed up with Dika's interest in starting school by visiting with the family on a Saturday, which was the day of rest. Dika offered the headmaster a chair, and he sat on the floor with his wide opened eyes and seeming not to blink while the negotiation went on between his parents and the headmaster. His father agreed, but it would be his mother's responsibility to pay the fees. His father would have preferred that Dika helped him on the farm because he had only two sons. At that time, parents did not send their children to school.
Down the road, young Dika would show himself to be very hardworking as he continued to do his share of farm work, and after school, he would go searching for palm fruits. He would climb the six-foot tall palm trees to cut down fruits, which his mother would turn into palm oil and sell in the market to pay his fees.
His schoolwork had shown his interest and drawn him closer to his teacher.
When he'd had his own children, Dika had vowed to do his best and educate them as long as he lived. At a time when sending girls to school struck the wrong chord with most parents, Dika did not discriminate between his children—nine girls and one boy. The present situation would definitely be the end of a long hope.
It was nearly midnight. Dika knelt down by the door, and the cool breezed blew over his face. The sound of the mob had died down when that shout had blared into the air a short while before.
Dika had recognized the voice of Dauda. The company's driver had brandished a knife in his hands and barked at the crowd, "Nobody can touch anything that belongs to Dika." With that, Dauda had moved around the car, looking from side to side at the now quiet mob.
Elsewhere, a voice cried out in pain, speaking something in the Ibo language. Then a gunshot rang out, followed by a silence. The mob suddenly left, leaving Dauda alone in front of Dika's house.
A lot of Ibo men lost their lives that night, but some, like Batuel, managed to escape. An employee of the tin mining company, Batuel was stout and dark complexioned.. He practiced boxing after work and was well known in the area. In order to escape, he disguised himself by being naked and acting dumb and deaf or trying to speak the Berom language, the local dialect, until he could catch a train to Enugu the capital of then Eastern Nigeria.
At this time, the political leaders in the country became a burden, as they looted with impunity. A group of soldiers led by an Ibo man, Nzogwu, planned to eliminate leaders from the four regions of Nigeria—namely the north, the east, the midwest, and the west. In the long run, only the man from the northern region, Sardona of Sokoto, and his premiere, Abubarka Tafawa Balewa. The two men were the only federal government leaders from the then Northern Nigeria, and they were both killed in the Nigerian coup of January 15, 1966.
After a long while, Dika slowly opened the door for Dauda and gazed at him with the door ajar. But Dauda managed to come in. He placed his hand on Dika's shoulders and gently they sat down next to each other, looking into each other's eyes for a while without a word.
Excerpted from LIVING TWO WORLDS by VERONICA BEGWU Copyright © 2012 by Veronica Begwu. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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