Tag Archives: boarding school

Boarding School…In the Beginning

Here in the UK, when one mentions boarding school, you evoke the image of an old stately building sitting in vast manicured lawns with the occasional 200-year-old oak tree and outdoor tennis courts. The sort of private institution attended by the children of the wealthy and the odd scholarship working class kid. I went to boarding school. Of a totally different class. In Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, I was in Queen’s College Yaba (QC or QCY we fondly call it). QC is one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria. It is also infamous for a breed of QC girl – stereotypically loud, someone who puts on airs and is into their material wealth. In reality, most of us are normal down-to-earth girls. However, there is a certain QC-factor many of us carry with us for life.

My mama is an ex-QC girl but my (older) sister was in a reputable military school in the north so we all expected that I would join her. I was all geared up for it. I sat their specific entrance exams and went on a week-long interview. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make the grade (my parents weren’t military enough apparently). Luckily, I did well enough in my national common entrance exam to have been offered a place to Queen’s College. As my mama considered whether to appeal against the decision of my sister’s school to change the rules after a gruelling recruitment process (which I excelled at), I had one of my vivid dreams where I saw me checking into QC. Weird because I had never been or even seen any photos of the school. It felt like a vision of my future and I told my mama I was happy not to fight for my place at the other school. I was going to Lagos.

We got to Lagos a week before and had to go through a series of tedious administrative processes…full medical, bank tellers, school uniform outlets, book purchases. Mama even braved the markets (she hates markets) to buy the endless required items on our many lists. I was excited and nervous and already, I missed my sister and home. A big positive was that my grandparents still lived in Lagos then and their home at least felt familiar. On that first Saturday, we all had to get to QC before 6pm. We left home after lunch (which I barely ate) and as we got onto the 3rd mainland bridge, we hit traffic. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt a darkness descend over my soul and I thought I was going to be sick. To make matters worse, the traffic was all headed in the same direction so the agony of anticipation was prolonged.

It was utter chaos. Have you ever been on a farm when cattle have to be corralled and branded/tagged? Being the granddaughter of a farmer, I have and I can tell you it’s not a nice scene. Cows are not docile like sheep and I think they are cleverer too so once the first lot have been through, they moo a message back to the herd and the rest all go a little wild. They start to struggle against the humans try to feed them through the metal paths. Their nostrils flare and dribble and their eyes take on a wild rolling look. It is not pretty! Combine that with all the shouting men, the mooing, the smell of branded flesh, cow pee and poo…you get the picture. This was how the scene I was faced with felt.

Parents were giving up waiting in the long traffic queues leading up to the school gates. There were people everywhere in the streets surrounding QC as everyone but the drivers disembarked and grabbed luggage, buckets, school bags, brooms and mops. Irritable drivers honked as people staggering under all that load wandered in and out of traffic. Older students spotted returning mates and there were squeals of joy and excited chatter as friends were reunited after the long summer holidays. In the middle of all the chaos were the newbies. Me and my fellow JS1 girls. Silent, quivering wretches whose young faces bore expressions of doom. In our shiny new uniforms and shoes. Taking it all in, dragging our feet, praying for salvation. At least, that was how I was feeling.

First, we had to find the administrative block and queue to submit bank tellers, get registered. All JS1 queued to get to a marquee to be allocated a house (I drew orange for Obong House and not the blue for Obasa my mama had been in). Then we had to find our House station where we had to hand over the cleaning supplies, sign in and be told our dorm and then the senior girls had to root through our bags to fish out any contraband. This process took ages! By the time I was fully processed, it was approaching 6pm and the dean had reached a climax as parents/siblings said goodbye and tired senior girls continued to check everyone in.

I had to make two trips across (dormitories, dining hall and library were separated from the administrative, class rooms and staff quarters by a gated wall). I found Obong 6 (dorm 6 in Obong House), dumped the first lot and hurried back to find my mama. It was time to say goodbye. I gave my mama the longest hug, inhaling her familiar smell and fighting back the tears the threatened to fall. Mama was misty-eyed too as she kissed me and promised to be back on visiting day 3 or 4 weeks later. I gathered up my bits and pieces and with leaden feet turned and crossed over, using up all my will power to stop myself running back and begging mama to take me home. At the gate, I turned and waved one final time and I swear I felt like a dead man walking to his execution. I made my way back to Obong house, claimed an empty bunk and sat on it.

I don’t know how long I sat there for before Zara, my lifesaver found me. Zara is actually my mother’s second cousin but for ease of explanation, in QC she was my cousin. She was a senior girl, in SS1 when I started in QC. She found me in all that confusion and gently guided me through the process of finding a mattress for my bed and making the bed, finding an empty locker and arranging all my belongings in it and putting my bathing things together in my bucket. She sorted out my life and earned my eternal gratitude and then she disappeared back to her House (Obasa, on the opposite side of the dorms). I can’t remember if I had dinner that evening but I remember meeting the other junior girls. The JS1 girls all looked as lost as I did and that made me feel a tiny bit better. I was relieved when it was lights out. As I slid into bed onto my crisp new sheets in my crisp new nightie, I was overcome with sadness and homesickness. I didn’t think I could bear it. I wept into my pillow until sleep swept me into oblivion. I wonder how many other JS1 girls did the same?

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The Cycle of Life Part 2

Mamie, my late grandmother, was from Mubi and Ribadu. Mubi is a large town in Adamawa State, even in the old days a thriving commercial town with good links to many other towns (that is until Boko Haram decided to move in). I understand that Mamie’s father was one of the successful merchants there and her home in Michika only came about long after her father died because Grannie, her mother was from Michika. Anyway, through one of her parents, she is partly from Ribadu too. My memory of Ribadu is of a little diversion on the road to nowhere, little more than a collection of huts that we got to by using dusty dirt roads off the main highways. Most Nigerians will recognise the name though because of the famous Nuhu Ribadu, arguable Ribadu’s most successful son. He was EFCC’s first executive chairman – Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency and suffice it to say, he went about his business fearlessly, bringing those previously seen as untouchable to account. He was loved by the masses and detested by the ‘elite’ who had enjoyed incredible daylight lootery for so long in Nigeria. He had to go on exile when he left office because of fears for his life. I digress, Nuhu Ribadu is a relative. Of course he is I hear the Nigerians cry. Everyone in Ribadu is related so therefore, he is definitely a cousin of some sort. My point is that before Nuhu Ribadu, Ribadu would have been a name no one except its indigenes noticed on the map of Nigeria. Now it is one of the household names in the country and no Nigerian should wonder about its origins.

The girl I want to write about was called Aishatu Mohammadu Ribadu. We called her A’i for short (pronounced Ah-ee). I don’t know how the arrangement came about but I remember vividly when she moved in with us. She was about to start secondary school. I suspect my mother offered to bring her cousin to Yola where there were more education opportunities. She was the oldest girl and named after Mamie so who better? She was as you would expect a little village girl to be at first. Timid and as quiet as a mouse. Pretty Fulani girl with her long curly natural hair. She was soon enrolled into GGSS Yola (Girls Government Secondary School) and on the first day, we lugged all the usual paraphernalia to the boarding school to check her in. I remember us walking around the dorms trying to find her allocated one. We did and when we had her things moved in, we said our goodbyes and left. I was in primary school then so it didn’t occur to me how hard it would have been for her. Not only to leave the shelter of her little village and move in with us but to then go straight into boarding school with girls from all corners of the State. She never complained about it.

She remained quiet for the first year or so and then by JS2, she came into herself. She joined the cultural club in JS3 or SS1 and flourished more with it. She came back after the first term of being part of the group and started to sing us their songs in her lovely voice. One chorus went:

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

(Translates roughly into: We are the Hausa cultural girls from the school of GG. We are here to entertain you, in the Hausa cultural way).

We particularly loved the bit where they introduced themselves and when she got to Aisha Mohammed (the Hausa-nised version of her actual name), we would grin out loud. Over the next year or 2, we learnt many of her songs (some by Sa’adu Bori, very X-rated for our age but who knew?). In the evenings when there was no electricity, we would lie on mats out under the stars and moon. She’d tell us stories about boarding school and we’d sing her songs. Her love for music grew and the first album she absolutely loved was Brandy’s Never Say Never in 1998. We all loved it to be fair but she learnt the words to the songs ‘Never Say Never’ and ‘Have You Ever’ early and would sing those songs so hauntingly that I can’t hear now even today without thinking about A’i. Just hearing someone utter the words ‘never say never’ evokes memories of A’i to me. I suspect looking back she was going through puberty and probably was in love for the first time. Being a shy Fulani girl, we never heard or saw the object of her affections. In fact, in all of her time, I only knew of one ‘boyfriend’ before she met the man who would be her husband. I cannot for the life of me remember him but I know she suddenly relaxed her hair, started to wear makeup and took extra care when getting dressed to go out.

When she graduated, she met Hamma Z (his nickname) and we all knew this was different. She would light up when his name was mentioned and although she was shy about it, she never hid that she liked him. I barely knew him then because I was in boarding school in Lagos myself and he wasn’t resident in Yola but visited periodically. I heard she was getting married shortly before the event and as it was the middle of school term and we had moved to London then, I could not be there. I spoke to her though and she told me how excited she was. She sounded it. After the wedding, they moved to Ashaka where her husband worked. It is a little removed so it wasn’t on the road to anywhere we would normally go when we visited. I never made it to her marital home (this I am still sad about). One summer holiday, I contacted her to say I was coming. She promised we would see each other as she was planning a visit to Yola and Ribadu in that summer.

One day, there she was. I think this was in 2002. She looked beautiful. She was always pretty but she was glowing that visit. When she spoke of her marriage and her new home, her eyes shone. I was very happy. I wondered if she was pregnant and asked her the question. A little bit of the light dimmed. She clearly wanted a baby and it had been over a year. She was worried. I remember telling her not to worry. ‘These things are written,’ I said. Her baby would come when it was meant. She smiled and said ‘You are so grown up Diya’ in Fulani. I hugged her and we sat by the car parking bays at home in Yola, sharing a private moment. Once again, the two Aishas reunited under the stars and moonlight. Before she left, she told me about how quiet it was in Ashaka but that she had made a few friends. She told me about her small business venture and how she was now making some money for herself and her plans to make it more than a hobby. She told me about her husband and how he was kind and worked very hard for them. When she left, I promised when I came next time, I would make the trip to Ashaka especially.

That next visit never came. I saw her when she came for Mamie’s death. Then I got a call from A’i a few months later excitedly telling me that she was pregnant and to tell my mother. Her voice was exuberant and I was ecstatic for her. We rejoiced briefly before she had to go. Call charges to the UK in those days were astronomical but she clearly wanted us to know because she was over the moon. It was very un-Fulani of her to call and talk about her pregnancy so early. Traditionally, Fulani girls would normally never say a word until their pregnancy was obvious to everyone. I guess she knew with us being abroad, we had to be told to know. It was the last time we ever spoke on the phone. We texted from time to time and she let me know everything was progressing fine. She said she had never been happier.

One morning, I got a call from my mama who had moved back to Yola. She said ‘A’i has a son’. Her voice sounded sombre so I immediately asked ‘and how is A’i?’ Mamie had died the year before and since then, we had lost a few other people. I suspected the worst as soon as my mama began to speak. She said Hamma Z had been informed that A’i was taking a little longer than expected to recover from her general anaesthetic. You see, she had had complications which meant they had taken her into an emergency caesarean section. Although my heart was still heavy, I was a little relieved. I was a medical student then so I looked it all up and was a little reassured. Chances of dying from a general anaesthetic are slim in a healthy young woman. Looking back, I think she had pre-eclampsia or something like that but as usual, in the Nigerian healthcare system, information is restricted so all we heard was that she hadn’t quite woken up. My mama promised to call when there was news.

I sat by my phone and waited. When the call came, it was what I didn’t want to hear. She had died. We found out later that actually she had died pretty much straight after the baby was born but that was kept from her family. In a panic, they pretended she was still alive but unconscious. I was in the UK and she was buried according to Islamic rites so I never got to see her. My mama went for the ‘funeral’ and reported Hamma Z was devastated but their son was healthy and beautiful. When the next summer came, I went to Yola and asked to be taken to him. He was living with his grandmother then and was nearly 18 months I think. He was beautiful, like my mama had told me. Quiet like A’i was at first. His aunties and cousins told me how he didn’t talk much or take to strangers. He came to me and sat by my side all visit, leaning into me when I wrapped one arm around him, despite not saying a word to me. They looked at me in wonder and said ‘he must know his blood’. I smiled and agreed. Yes, he must. I felt an intense love for him at that moment and I wanted to steal him away. I also wanted to burst into tears. I knew how proud his mum would have been of her little boy and was devastated she never got to meet him.

His father remarried after many years and A’i’s son was reunited with his father for good. Although I have only seen him a few times over the years because they do not live where I go on my short visits to Nigeria, his father and I keep in touch and I am told he is happy. He is an adolescent now and he is so much his mother’s son. I looked at the most recent picture of him I have and saw his smile. A’i’s smile. He has her eyes, her nose and her mouth. His colouring and demeanour is very reminiscent of her. I still well up at the thought he will never know her just as she never got to meet him but I am comforted by the fact that she lives on in him. If I ever get a chance when he is older, I will tell him his mother wanted nothing more than to bring him into this world. That I have never seen her so happy than when she was with his father. Nor heard her so excited than when she announced he was in the making. That he would have been the centre of her world. That she would have done anything for him. That he would have been the most loved little boy, the apple of her eye. I hope I get the chance to tell him all that. Life!

Neglect Has A Lasting Legacy

I was 5 years old when my sister and I went on a road trip with Baba, our Grandad, up North in Nigeria. It was not normal for just the two of us to go with him. There was usually my grandma too or maybe my mama. However, this time we got to go solo with him. I suspect it is because we begged and it was the holidays and my mother was busy at work with no better plans to entertain us. Whatever the case, we got to go and I remember my sister and I getting bored quite quickly (probably an hour into the 6.5 hour journey). Plus my grandad had taken to listening to boring traditional Hausa music (Mamman Shata and the like). So we sang every nursery rhyme and Disney song we knew. We sang for hours until our throats were sore. Must have driven my grandad and the driver mad but they bore with us.

When we got to the town we were staying the night in, my grandad took us straight to my ‘aunt’s’ home. I say ‘aunt’ because this is not my mother’s sister, my favourite aunty in the whole world aunty Bilky. No, this is someone who grew up with my mum and her siblings and is therefore considered a ‘sister’. I will call this aunty ‘Auntie’ henceforth for easy reference. Now, we had spent quite a few holidays with Auntie and her many daughters in the past so we knew them well enough and were quite happy to be taken to hers. One of her daughters is very close in age to my sister and the youngest was a year older than I was but we usually got on pretty well. I couldn’t tell you if there were any special circumstances at the time we visited but I think not because we would have known. My mama was always upfront if anything major was going on especially if she was going to let us visit. Anyway, out of the car we tumbled, tired and excited. It was well after lunch but not dinner time yet but we were already feeling the first pangs of hunger having had a late breakfast on the road but not stopped for lunch. We were all shown into a living room in their sprawling home and someone showed us to the ‘bedroom’. I use the term ‘bedroom’ loosely because although the large room had beds (I think it was 3 single beds), most of it was clearly a dumping ground for dirty laundry and other clutter and it looked like no one had slept in there for a long time. My grandad left whilst we checked out our lodgings.

My sister and I waited for what seemed like ages for someone to come and tell us what to do with all the mess if we were actually going to be staying in that room. We also waited in vain for someone to offer us a drink or give us a snack. Nothing happened so we eventually picked one bed and cleared it and the area around it. We lay on the bed listening to the noises of muted conversation until all we could hear was our tummies rumbling. The sun began to set and we were soon left in darkness. One of us hunted for the light switch and we resumed our waiting game. We might have dozed off or maybe just lay around in a hungry tired trance but eventually I remember saying to my sister that I needed something to drink. That spurred her into action and she led me hesitantly out of the room and we wandered down the corridors of the seemingly empty house, most of the lights off. We found a kitchen but our hunt turned up nothing to eat. We had some water and sadly found our way back to the bedroom and eventually slept on empty stomachs.

We awoke to the sound of voices outside, going about their morning chores. We could smell breakfast frying…I am not sure now what it was (because we didn’t get any) whether it was fried yam, potatoes or bean cakes (kosei) but the smell was right under our noses and we were so famished we looked at each other in hope. No one came to get us and being nice Fulani girls, we stayed put. I remember asking my sister if she thought they had forgotten we were there. ‘How is that possible?’ She replied so we waited and waited. We waited some more as all the noise died down and the house fell silent again. Had they all gone out without so much as a word to us? Were we home alone in this house we didn’t know, in a town we had maybe visited a couple of times before? We finally ventured out and explored the section of the house we were in. No one was there. We returned to the kitchen, probably assuming that they might have saved us some breakfast. We found evidence of breakfast in the dirty dishes in the sink but not a bite left for us.

At this stage, I thought I was going to die of hunger. It was getting close to 24 hours since we had breakfast on the road with Baba and there was no adult to be seen. We went back to the room and my sister rummaged desperately in the backpack we had brought with us. ‘Look’ she cried excitedly after searching for a while. She brandished a N5 note. N5 (five naira) in those days (around 1990) was actually worth something. We could certainly have breakfast on the street with that. Remember this was a town we were not very familiar with so it was with trepidation that we ventured out of Auntie’s house and into the busy street. Thankfully there was no one out to cause mischief and we were left alone. We followed the smell of kosei to a street corner nearby and found a lady frying the delicious bean cakes seated on a stool by the fire over which she was frying. We gave her the N5 and asked for kosei. ‘All of it?’ she asked and we nodded hungrily. She scooped the freshly fried kosei out into the traditional newspaper wrap, sprinkled on a generous helping of the chilli powder that comes with it and handed it to us. We walked a few metres away before we gave in to the hunger in our bellies and we tucked in. After a few mouthfuls, we felt good enough to continue walking and we ate as we walked back to the house. The portion was decent and we gobbled it all up within minutes. Finally satiated, we chucked the paper in the bin and went in to have a quick wash and get dressed.

When my grandad came for us around lunchtime, we were happy again. Still left to our own devices but happy because my sister had fed us. We looked clean and my grandad was none the wiser. Lunch was served with my grandad so of course we got fed. I remember picking at the food because I was still stuffed from our late breakfast and also because I was so disappointed my Auntie had been so mean. But we said nothing. Just very happily jumped back into the car for the 3 hour trip to Kaduna where we knew we would be treated by my aunty Nafisa like princesses. I was not disappointed!

For many years after that, I did not forget or forgive that episode. The daughters I didn’t blame so much because half of them were young like us. But the 2 older girls were certainly old enough to know that young children visiting should at the very least be given a drink and food. Auntie should certainly have known better. I made up my mind that she was no longer my auntie but only my sister knew this for the next decade or so. I found every excuse not to go back there and mostly, I didn’t.

The next time I went was unavoidable. My mama and I were on the way to Kaduna and from there were to catch a flight back to Lagos where I went to boarding school. I wasn’t really given a choice of itinerary because she wanted to say hi to her ‘sister’. I knew anyway that I would be treated well because my mama was there but the hypocrisy grated. I clenched my teeth and said not a word. The visit was ok-ish. It turned out her daughter was getting married and we had been invited but my mother neglected to mention it. I had nothing to wear for any occasion as I was on my way back to boarding school and being a teenager, it mattered to me. Bearing that in mind, the youngest daughter and her cousin/half-sister on night 2 were in the same room as I was but I was lying on the bed, my head buried in a book as I was usually found in those days. They were whispering loudly about the pre-wedding party they were going to the next night and how much fun it was going to be etc. Being close in age to them, I would have expected them to have the courtesy either to invite me or not to talk about it in front of me. They did not have the courtesy to extend an invitation to me. Party night came and they snuck out when it was time despite being chummy with me all day. What sort of a fool did they think I was? The morning after, they were giggling over events at the party but would fall silent if I walked in a room or turned in their general direction. What grated wasn’t that I didn’t go because to be honest, I wasn’t one for parties at that age and I certainly did not have anything to wear. What sucked was their meanness of spirit and being treated like a fool.

Since that visit, I have stayed well away from most of that family. Although I have forgiven them their neglect and meanness, I doubt I will ever forget. That amongst other things are major character flaws I really wish not to be associated with. I have not considered Auntie my aunty for very many years to my mama’s consternation. I have since told my mama about that episode and several other incidents not talked about in this blog. I know she was dismayed and even sad but perhaps a small part of her is hoping that me and my sister’s account of that incident is overly-dramatized as remembered by our young immature brains. Regardless, I sincerely believe that if we had been her actual nieces, she would not have treated us so carelessly when we were so young. And she would not have allowed that mean spirit to rub off on her daughters.

When I think of her, I think of two quotes:

“When someone would mistreat, misinform, misuse, misguide, mishandle, mislead… or any other “mis”… to others, they’re obviously missing something from their lives.”
― Donald L. HicksLook into the stillness

“I know it’s painful growing,
I bet the changes was painful too.
But nothing is as painful as being somewhere you don’t belong.
Obviously.”
― Touaxia Vang

Sports Day in QC

I was in Abuja 2 weeks ago and took a cab to my friend’s house in a neighbourhood that apparently can befuddle even the best cab drivers in Abuja. My friend, let’s call her Nana, sent a text with directions and when I read them out to the cab driver, he was impressed. I laughed and said ‘she did go to QC so of course, she can give directions!’ His turn to be impressed as he appraised me. ‘You went to QC?! And I thought you were an oyinbo!’ Oyinbo (Yoruba) a.k.a bature (Hausa) is a white foreigner to you because I do not sound like a home-grown Nigerian anymore. I shook my head and smiled.

My husband carries the passport photograph above in his wallet or car as the mood strikes him. He claims to love the photo. I happen to love it too but for purely sentimental reasons. As an SS1 (year 9 equivalent) girl, I was finally loving being in Queen’s College (QC) and even liking a lot about the boarding house when my mama dropped the bombshell that she was relocating with my sister and I. The photo was taken for my British passport application when I was 14 years old. I remember my mother taking me out of boarding school to go and complete all the processes required to get a British passport. Medical tests. Passport photograph and I am sure something else too. I was excited, never having been to Europe and nervous because I would be leaving my friends and home and going somewhere that I didn’t belong. 

The picture was taken at the midway point of the middle term of the year just after Inter-House Sports Day. I can tell you this day was one of the annual highlights for most students in QC. It was a day of sporting competition where all the top talent in the school would be on display. There was calisthenics for SS2 girls. There was show-marching for all the 6 competing Houses complete with sexy cheerleader-type outfits, twirling batons, ribbons galore and some very sharp moves. Our families and friends were all there as this was an open day at QC. This also meant that the boys from all the big Lagos secondary schools came to check out the QC girls and play. KC boys especially felt entitled as they were King’s College and there was a bit of relationship between the schools for historical reasons.

The end of the 1st term was when all the excitement began as the calisthenics routine was planned and the girls began to audition for the marching. By the beginning of the middle term of 3, rehearsals would be in full swing and we would all sneak a preview of our Houses as they perfected their showpieces. Rumours about special twirl pieces would fly about. Girls would whisper about how the girl up front House A’s marching band had the highest knees and best pointed toes. Yet more whispers about how synchronised House B’s moves were and other whispers about how maybe House C was the dark horse that would triumph over the usual winning Houses. By the time the pom-poms were being fashioned for the calisthenics using plastic bags cut into strips, excitement was at fever pitch. None of us was able to sit through a lesson without whispering about some aspect of Sports Day. In the days before, half of the classes were put on hold as athletes, SS2 girls and marchers put the finishing touches on their game plans, their costumes and performances. We all got in the game on the Thursday before the Saturday.

In 2000, periwinkles (like the snails) were all the rage in QC hairstyles. That is what I have in my hair in the picture. Basically, you either braid hair or take a small section of hair then curl it about itself to resemble the shell of a periwinkle shells. I remember wanting that hairstyle all week and I was saying to Nana that I had no one to do my hair when she said she would do it. ‘Can you really?’ I asked and sure enough she could. I bought the small colourful rubber bands we used to secure the periwinkles in place and off I went to her dorm in Obasa House where we got to work. It took several hours to get it done but it was all worth it when she put the final band in place and let me look. I was ecstatic and I thought I looked great with my periwinkles and my brand new white sneakers with orange shoelaces in tribute to my beloved Obong House.

The day is a bit of a blur now but I remember the highlights. There were thousands of people all over the school ground, walking where they normally would be barred from, saying hello to missed family and a lot of excited giggling coming from us teenage girls. There were little cliques of boys strolling ‘coolly’ about, pretending not to check out the preening girls. There was the addictive smell of roast chicken and other foodie delights being prepared for sale by the vendors that were for this day only invited into our school grounds.

The first event was always the show-marching. I remember finding a spot where I could watch the marching unhindered and the butterflies of excitement as I waited with bated breath for the first of the girls to emerge. The 1st sighting of the marchers, previously well hidden in an undisclosed secure location would send a ripple of chatter across the Sports field. As the Houses came out in alphabetical order and more outfits were spotted, the chatter grew louder and I oohed and aahed with everyone else. I shifted from foot to foot in admiration of the beauty on display and watched as the marchers wiggled in anticipation of the marching they were about to do. I could also see the pride with which they held themselves. The way they walked taller and turned their be-ribboned braids from side to side as they checked out the competition and the admiring crowd. I caught 1 or 2 girls giving flirty looks to nearby boys. Then the call to order came and the marching began. I could have heard a pin drop in those minutes with the exception of the small segments where the baton-twirlers did their thing and drew gasps of admiration and clapping from the audience. This year, there were no dropped batons and every House it seemed topped the previous until it came to my House which surpassed all others. That year we won. For real. I took it as a personal reward for my loyalty and absolute belief in my House. Lol.

The calisthenics was another highlight which came towards the end of all the athletics. The SS2 girls strutted their stuff to a popular pop song, pompoms waving in unison. It was received rapturously. As the athletics continued, I joined other girls in the queues for peppered chicken then frozen yoghurt then meat pies. I stuffed my face unable to control myself as all the options beckoned. I ran around and took photos with other girls and admired each other’s hair and shoes. As the final medals were presented, we all started to mill about and congratulate those who took part and did well. Then the House that won the overall competition was announced  and given the trophy and the winning girls showed off in their house colours and celebrated loudly. As the day drew to a close, we all began to find our families and friends and say our goodbyes as the teachers and school Prefects began to round us up and return us back to the safety of our boarding House. Another sporting triumph!

Na’ima*

*not her real name      

I was sitting on my praying mat, having a quiet moment of doing nothing when I spotted my old Quran and thought of Na’ima, wondering how she was. Just the week before, someone had forwarded a piece via Whats App talking about the significance of ‘Attahiya’, the passage we muslims recite whilst sitting after  every 2 raka’as of prayers (sallat). Again, I thought of Na’ima and what she was up to. Then an hour ago, she facebook messaged me to ask if I would be in Nigeria at the same time as she. I regretfully said no. So we wont be seeing each other anytime soon. But I have not forgotten…

We met in 1996…10 year olds in brand new uniforms in JSS1, the beginning of our secondary school career. In the 1st year, we talked mostly in Hausa language or IRS classes.  Funny thing about school, ‘someone’ decided quite early who your ‘bestfriend’ was and us girls felt compelled to hang out with this best friend even if we had more to say to some other people. Anyway, we were only 10 years old so we obeyed the unwritten rule.     

Fast forward one year. We were now in JSS2 – no longer babies. 11 years old. Subconsciously, that rule was bent then broken. Somehow, Na’ima and I started to spend most of our time outside of classes together. We didn’t share a seat so we could only sit together in the optional classes Hausa and IRS. Our friendship was on.

She was to become my 1st true friend. The first friend to know my flaws and my strengths and love me for it. Before that, my sister was probably the only 1 to be privy to the real me. I dont remember how this all came to be but there are instances I recall with clarity.

One of the many things I didn’t like about boarding school was the food. I would have breakfast maybe 3 days a week. Lunch and dinner, I ate more of but I hated amala so atleast 3 meals a week, I had biscuits in place of a meal. Naima was a day girl so when she realised this was happening, she offered to buy me snacks from Mr Biggs (sausage roll or meatpie plus scotch eggs were my favourites). I would give her money the day before an amala meal and she would faithfully buy my snacks and deliver each time. She never let me down.

I was praying one day and realised I didnt know how to recite the ‘Attahiya’ properly. I think I knew the first and last couple of phrases with alot of nonsense in between. Who did I turn to? Na’ima. The next time I saw her, I took her aside and with some embarassment admitted I didn’t know how to recite the ‘Attahiya’ properly and would she teach me? Of course she would. She recited the correct words and the next day, she slipped me a piece of paper with the words on it. I asked, she gave.

She got me a Quran from the Sudanese embassy where her dad worked at the time. I think I was inspired by MSS to read the Quran for myself so I mentioned to her that this was my intention. Some time later, she placed a brand new shiny Quran with english translation in my hands…this is the same Quran that seats on my prayer mat today.
                   
My most lasting memory though is break times with Naima throughout JSS2. We looked forward to every break time with the excitement a footballer would look forward to the World Cup. We had sooo much fun every weekday. As soon as the last lesson before break was over and the teacher had stepped out of class, we would stuff our books into our lockers, shoulder our backpacks and race towards the tuckshop. Tuckshop was what we called the group of small wooden shack shops and tables all selling a variety of snacks aimed at satisfying 10-18 year olds. Naima and I would decide what drink we wanted (pepsi/mirinda/7up was sold in a different shop to coke/fanta/sprite to limca/something orange). I preferred Limca and Naima was a coke girl so we did Limca shop 1 day and coke shop another. We would also decide on meatpie, sausage roll or samosa. All this as we hurried towards tuckshop to try and beat the crowds. Inevitably, there would be lots who made it there before us (how did they do it?) so we had to divide and conquer. I would take the drink shop and she would tackle the pastry shop. We would squeeze into the front of the queue and return in minutes triumphantly holding out our goodies. Then we would each buy a dolly (3cm square plastic tub of chocolate to be eaten with tiny plastic spoon) and dodo (small bag of squeeshy plantain chips) and find the corner inhabited by JSS2y girls (our class, even here we stuck together). We would have our drinks and pastry between chitchat, making sure we had 5 minutes to spare before the end of break.
We would wander off to the huge fallen tree trunk we nicknamed dolly station where just the 2 of us would sit and savour every morsel of our dolly. Without fail, as we jumped up and walked to rejoin the other girls all going back to class, something would set us off laughing. I remember a few girls coming over to join us at dolly station but they never came long-term because they got bored of us sitting in silence, observing our dolly ritual. 1 or 2 asked us why we always laughed on our way back to class. I remember Naima’s and my eyes met when the question was 1st put to us. Our response was to dissolve into more laughter. Those girls walked away confused. Naima and I did ask each other ‘why do we laugh here?’ Neither of us ever had an answer. It didn’t matter.

Looking back, 17 years later I think it was because we were happy. Happy to have found a friend we could sit with in silence, a friend who would always be there to teach you things she knew better, who wouldn’t judge you for your failings, who would listen when you had something to say, who would laugh because you were laughing. A true friend.
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