Today Ichendu fell. It was a long way to school and she had not eaten. Yesterday she had been lucky. Mrs. Bula had bought her a ball of kenkey with one finger of fried fish for lunch. Mrs. Bula was kind to her.
Ichendu could never tell what endeared her to Mrs. Bula. And she wasn’t even her teacher. Mrs. Bula taught in upper primary just a block away. Ichendu could always see Mrs. Bula teaching from where she sat under the tree. Yes, under the big tree that was her classroom. Ichendu was in KG2, kindergarten two, just a step away from primary one, P1. There were no walled classrooms for kindergarteners – just the big neem tree. The children sat facing a blackboard, which stood on three legs. Ichendu couldn’t wait to get to P1 so she could sit in a proper classroom. She longed to sit in the mud walled classroom with coconut frond roofing. The walls were only half way high. The agor beams extended from the walls to support the roof. And while the children in P1 could sit on a bench, Ichendu and her classmates had to make do with sitting on the red earth under the neem tree.
Yesterday had been Ichendu’s lucky day. As she sat eating her kenkey with fried fish, Mrs. Bula kept an eye on her. She was surprised that Ichendu had managed to eat the entire ball of kenkey.
“Good girl Ichendu, you have finished your kenkey,” Mrs. Bula had said.
Hah! Mrs. Bula paaa. Wasn’t she a funny one? Could she really have thought Ichendu would leave some of the kenkey? Well then she did not know Ichendu’s household, where one ball of kenkey and fish, yes fish would have been a feast to war over.
“Ichendu, won’t you eat your fish?” asked Mrs. Bula.
“Oh Madam, I will send it home. My mother will be happy; she can put it in the soup for all of us at home.”
Mrs. Bula covered her mouth with a palm to stifle a sigh. Tears welled in her eyes. Ichendu was surprised. What could make this beautiful woman sad in this moment of Ichendu’s joy? She did not know what to do.
Thankfully, Mrs. Bula regained her composure. She smiled at Ichendu.
“I could buy you another one to take home, Ichendu,” she offered.
The little girl looked surprised. “You must be very rich Madam.”
Still Ichendu did not touch her fish, even after Mrs. Bula bought her one more. Mrs Bula watched her she wrapped her two fingers of fish and slipped them into the pocket of her oversized school dress.
Ichendu was grateful for such a friend as Mrs. Bula. She remembered her first day at school. Her mother had dressed her in an old school dress that had been used by two cousins through their subsequent school times. Ichendu’s mother’s elder sister had brought it as a gift. It had been used by her daughters in turns – the first girl and the second when her turn came. Now it was Ichendu’s turn. She thought her aunt so kind. Ichendu’s aunt had taken her time to mend all the tears but her mother had to work on it some more. She had worn that dress with a hundred patches all over, some done in khaki, some in blue. Many colours. Her mother had made use of any spare clothing she could get.
On her first day at school, Mrs. Bula had given her an affectionate smile and invited her to talk. Mrs. Bula had asked her name and made her feel good in school. At the close of school Mrs. Bula had sent Ichendu to the headmaster’s office where she was given a new school dress. Oh how she loved it. This one had no patches, not even a single one. It was all new and came in sealed rubber.
“A gift from the government,” the headmaster had said.
“Gover,” Ichendu had repeated. “Oh how can I thank Mr. Gover?”
The head master had tried to get her to pronounce government. He explained that the government had provided free school uniforms and even made school free, which was why Ichendu was in school.
All this was too much for little Ichendu. Anyhow, she was grateful in her heart to Mr. Gover. As for the issue of not paying for school, she understood straight away, recalling the day that the farmer her father worked for had come to their home.
“Send Ichendu to school,” the big farmer had admonished. Her father had laughed and laughed. The money the big farmer paid for his son’s fees for one school term, could feed their family for a year, Ichendu’s father had pointed out.
“Oh no, you don’t have to send her to a private school. I know you can’t afford that,” the farmer had said before going on to tell them about the free education scheme. That was how Ichendu had ended up in school.
Yesterday Ichendu had been lucky. When she got home, food was already prepared. It was a surprise. Normally she would come home, go pick wood for fire and help her mother cook. That was if there was any cooking to be done at all. When there was no cooking and everybody was hungry, which was more often than not, Ichendu knew what to do. She walked the neighbourhood, picking palm kernels. When she had enough, she’d head home and heap all at one place. Then she went to work cracking the shells. At least the nuts gave some guise of a meal. But yesterday was different. Ichendu had come home to a full meal. The big farmer, her father’s boss had driven by and given the family some cassava and vegetables. He was good, this big farmer. They all knew this big farmer was not like most of the farmers in the village. He had gone to school and was the only farmer to own a tractor. Ichendu’s mother had prepared soup with mushrooms. She had pounded fufu. Ichendu hugged her mother, then she gave her the two fingers of fish and told her how she had got them. Her mother added the fish to the soup. They had a great meal yesterday.
But today there was no breakfast. The soup had fed the whole family yesterday. Ichendu had to go to school on an empty stomach but she was happy she was going to school. In her pocket, she had some palm nuts, already cracked. She planned to eat those at break time.
Ichendu did not feel strong this morning as she walked the long dusty path to school. She tried not to listen to her stomach. She did not hear the sound quick enough. Sirens, wailing in the distance, approaching. The dispatch riders on big powerful motorcycles waved their hands menacingly as they sped past, spreading the dust like nobody’s business. People dashed quickly out of the way into the bushes on the roadside. But Ichendu did not hear the sirens. Too late, the lead dispatch rider threw his hand, almost hitting little Ichendu. The full blare of the sirens and horns from convoy of vehicles hit her hard. She felt the hand almost hit her. Ichendu fell down. She did not see the line of solid sport utility vehicles that swept through. The Minister was on his way to give a speech. He most definitely sat in comfort with his friends, on full stomach. But Ichendu had not eaten. She was weak. She could not stand. The hunger and the shock pinned her to the ground.
She could not tell how long she lay there but finally she felt herself scooped in powerful arms. The Good Samaritan had waited till the convoy went its way and the dust settled. Then he had gone to the aid of the little girl who had fallen in the onslaught of the Minister’s emergence.
So today Ichendu could not go to school. She was brought back home to her mother, her stomach still empty. As she lay on the mat, her mother used the last corn flour to prepare porridge. The flour was to be used for supper. Ichendu’s father had promised to get some salted fish on his way back from work. The plan was to prepare akple and have it with tomato and pepper sauce, garnished with salted fish. Now that plan had to change. Ichendu’s mother had prepared porridge with the corn flour. Everyone had to have porridge for supper now. If Ichendu’s father brought the salted fish, it would be kept for another meal another time.
Today, there is celebration in Ichendu’s house. All the neighbours have contributed in one way or the other. It is Ichendu’s happy day. Even Mama Le, the old corn pito brewer has brought a huge container of corn pito. Mama Le retired many years ago. But today, she brewed her special pito, just for Ichendu, who has completed junior high school. Sweet non-alcoholic pito.
Those gathered know Ichendu’s parents have done well. Yes, the education was free. But they had to provide food, books, stationary and shoes as Ichendu went along year by year. Ichendu’s father is bent now. Although he is only two and forty years, the years of heavy labor on the farm have taken their toll. Ichendu’s mother is barely eight and thirty but she could pass for sixty. Today, they sit proudly, all smiles and radiant.
Ichendu’s siblings have all gathered around. Boys, all. They are proud of their sister and they all had a hand in this success. They labored to bring food home and money so their only sister could go through school. Now they have an educated person in the family. This is as far as Ichendu can go, or as much as her family can afford. To shoulder her through senior high school would be a folly too great. They know their limit.
Today, everyone is happy. They are all happy for Ichendu. She is about the only educated woman in that whole big market. And now, she has her own stall. Good Mr. Johnson has seen to that. Mr. Johnson is the new town planning officer, who was recently posted by the government. He liked Ichendu from the onset. Mr. Johnson provided the stall and bought all the ware Ichendu was to start with. And he has even hinted he might marry Ichendu.
Ichendu sits, happy. She daydreams again. About how she would continue school, even to the university. The new health center in town has helped fuel her dreams. She looks at the pretty nurse and dreams about becoming one. Why not? She loses herself in the dream. Perhaps, she will go on to finish university, and marry a young man her age – not Mr. Johnson, who is fifty two and 38 years older than her.
Ichendu laughs at all those dreams now. She dare not dream too much. She is content. She will do well in the market. She is happy. Ichendu is happy.