By Uzoma Chukwuocha
In my tiny little mind, I thought the sun used to be hotter those days. The road would stretch for miles, and you could see it stretching to no end. You could see the sun rays as they reflected off the hot earth like invisible smoke dancing just above the scotched surface. It seemed like the trees, the big trees that could shade us from the sun, had all conspired to keep away from the edge of the road, just to make sure that we got a good dose of that searing sun.
We were little scrawny kids, all in that fun bracket between ten and fourteen. We used to trudge on that road, all along, with our school bags slung on our shoulders. Making stupid jokes about stupid little kids topics and issues, on our jolly way home from school. School ends by 2 pm, and if you know anything about Eastern Nigeria you would understand that that is the time the sun earns his full pay.
We didn’t mind it in the least, because in our little happy cluster we had all that we needed. We will tell little stories, some real some made up. Just laughing along and being happy.
There was this headmaster or school principal, I don’t even know which one he was at the time. He used to ply that same road. He would drive along in his big white car. I think it was a Toyota Crown or something similar. He always had his kids in the car.
Whenever he drove past us we would scream “please carry us” “Give us a lift please we beg you”. He would just speed by, leaving us in the eddy of brown dust in his wake. Then we would happily rain curses on him “oh it will never be well for you” “you are such a mean man” “may your tires burst into splinters”.
It became kind of a fun game for us every school day, especially on Fridays. We would be happier because the weekend is here and there is so much fun to be had. From playing tag on tree tops, to endless football games with the neighboring villages. This has been going on now for say months, almost every single school day.
Now I admit, yes, it might have infuriated him, I think, but I thought maybe one good day he would grow a heart and stop to pick us up. I enjoyed the game; the screaming of curses at an authority figure. It also held a slightly different tinge of guilt in it for me, because he was my father’s friend. I had seen him on many occasions stop by at our house for some short meetings with my father. He was a serious looking man. As serious as my father was convivial. Now I wonder what common interests held their acquaintance or friendship together. I always put it down to some boring grown up preoccupation.
On this Friday like all the other days, he sped by, vrrooooom, and we hurled our curses after our now halfhearted pleas for a lift was obligatorily ignored by Mr. Principal. “Oh it will never be well for you this mean mean man” “you are such a wicked man” and he drove on. But on this day, after about two poles he stopped. We stopped. I didn’t notice that the other kids took a few steps backwards and sideways closer to the bush, when he started driving back in reverse. I had stood there, partly in hope of a change of heart, and half in the security of the knowledge that he was, after all, my father’s friend. I had forgotten the curses. So there I stood, with my friends a few paces behind me. His car stopped right next to me. The driver’s door flew open, and this towering figure of a man jumped out with feline agility. Before I could blink, he grabbed me, then I saw this long thick cane he had behind him.
Over and over and over again that cane came down on me with vicious adult anger. On my back, on my legs, on my head, everywhere he could find skin on my body he laid that cane. I did the best I could to shield my eyes from the strokes and lashes of his venom. I was thrashing about, screaming, screaming at the top of my voice “please let me go” “please I beg you in the name of God” “I’ll never do it again, please Sir” but on and on he went. He had a full day’s work on me, and when he was done he left me on the floor. He got in his car, screeched his tires and sped off, leaving me in that now all too familiar plume of brown dust that we have even come to even like, because we had got used to the routine of he-drives-by-we-enjoy-the-dust. The dust was still the same today, as I baked in the hot sun, marinating in wheals, bruises and blood spilling gashes that crisscrossed my trembling body as I sobbed curled up by the roadside. My friends were still in the bush.
One after the other they came back, picked me up, dusted me up and told me “it’s ok, we won’t tell your mother”. I could’ve laughed had I not been crying. You won’t tell my mother, of course you won’t. The marks on my body will do that with more eloquence, and then I will have the shameful job of explaining what I did to merit this. I was filled with guilt, shame, and a lot of self pity. We went on home, now in silence, except for my occasional sniffles as I tried to ‘bear it like a man’ and repeatedly failed.
They all dispersed and went to their separate houses and I walked home to face my mother.
Who did this to my child, she screamed when she saw me. Speak up. Did they also harvest your tongue? I told her as best as I could. I was expecting the worst. Another corporal reprimand maybe, but instead she pulled me closer and held me tight to her bosom. I could not see her face, but I could imagine the pain she must have felt. She gave me a warm bath, cleaned up my wounds and applied some Okuma (local soothing balm) to my wheals and bumps. The rest as they say is history. She might have gone to Mr. Principal or to my father, but I never heard anything more about that incident as is typical in most households in the village. The adults take care of (or ignore) issues, and they are not to be discussed with children.
I bore my marks and healed from my stripes. From that day on we never asked him for a lift again. We never cursed him out again. Matter of fact, now whenever we saw his car we would dart into the bush and wait until he was far gone and we would come out to enjoy the dusty air.
So back to today. I live in a quiet corner of California with my wife and daughters, where we started and run a small non-profit that we use to help women and children who are less fortunate back home in Africa. We buy them back to school materials; backpacks and all. We organize free medical missions, where I see patients and treat some common ailments. We give them health education and social awareness.
I want to buy some umbrellas to shield them from the sun and rain. Someday I want to get a van and drive down that endless road by 2pm, and maybe I would see some kids on their way back from school. I would like to stop, dash out and flash a smile, and tell them to hop on in and we will take a little ride home to each household to drop them off. I would never tell them this story. Maybe someday some of them would grow up enough, make something of themselves. Developed a taste for reading, maybe writing, literary work, science, anything. Maybe someday they would see this story and it might stir something in them to go back home, get school materials for young kids, get a van to pick kids home from school. Maybe they will do better. When that day comes, I might not be there. I wish this ripple continues as each African Child returns home along their own endless roads.
We have all embarked on our individual journeys, and our quests have taken us far and wide. Our fortunes have differed, but our hearts share a common root. We all, to a degree, pine for the dusty roads of home. The joyful screams of the kids. The hearty embrace of aged parents who are barely hanging on for our return.
On my travels through the Americas, Europe and other lands, I see us. Toiling day and night, trying to fill up our harvest baskets so we can set out and head home.
So, in the words of Tobechukwu Nwigwe, “I pray you catch a wave that doesn’t subside………I hope you make it home”
Uzoma Chukwuocha is a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com