At Maria Gorretti Convent Primary School, there were rules for everything. Your shirt had to be immaculate white – like the heart of Mary, according to our headmistress, Sister Josephine. Your shoes had to be shiny black. Your nails had to be low enough that your fingertips were clearly visible from a distance. And you had to score at least fifty in every exam, otherwise your parents would come and take you on a weekday and your classmates would never see you again. It happened to Moji, the ugly, black girl in my class who always smelt of pee.
There were also rules that Sister Josephine did not read aloud on assembly from the MGCPS code of conduct in that her high-pitched singing voice. For example, she did not need to tell us that there were only two sets of boys that could have girlfriends. It was either you were a Big Boy, meaning that your father was a Big Man (your mother’s money did not matter because she belonged to your father anyway), or you were a class prefect. Big Boys had money and could buy Fanta and Frunas and Okin biscuit and the occasional sticker or hair clip for their girls, from Mama Bomboy’s kiosk at the gate which sold close to everything in a primary school girl’s fantasy. Class prefects had power, and could delay homework submission for their girls, and keep their names off noisemakers’ list and so their buttocks could be saved from caning for the entire school year. You either had money, or you had power.
So when Moji’s parents took her away on a Wednesday, and on Thursday, a beautiful new girl with fair skin and pink lips and long hair like oyinbo joined our class, I decided that when Sister Beatrice, our class teacher, asked who would be class prefect, I would stand up, because I wanted to be the new girl’s boy, and my father was not a Big Man.
Her name was Mildred. Mildred Ekeh whose mother was Lebanese. And because of her, I stood up to be class prefect, even though I saw Richard, the class bully, standing up too, and I did not sit back down. Then Sister Beatrice wrote both our names down and told our classmates that in six days, they would choose their prefect.
It was easy for Richard- he was a Big Boy and he was the biggest boy in the class. All he had to do, was buy hair clips for the girls and tell the boys that he would beat them up if they did not choose him.
By the time break ended on the first day, Richard had won the hearts of all the pupils in Class 3B. He came to me after school to tell me this.
“Everybody likes me, and I can break you with one hand” he said
“Just give up.”
But I had five more days to make them like me more than him.
At the end of every year, my parents, represented by my father, used to give some of their savings to St Vincent de Paul society in church, and from the way Uncle Bosco, the President, always smiled and shook Papa’s hand, I knew that it was a large sum. But my father did not know that I knew this, and he did not also know that I knew that they kept the money at the bottom of the wooden flower vase on our peeling centre table.
That term was in September, and there would be nine months’ worth of charity savings in that vase. I ‘borrowed’ some of it to fund my class prefect ‘campaign’, and while Richard was buying hair clips and lollipops for girls alone, I was buying entire crates of soft drinks and sharing to the whole class.
“Eh, we did not know that you too were a Big Boy oh!”
“Chuka Chuka. Tell us where you got the money now”
Elevated by the praises, I was spurred to do more.
Richard too raised his game. By the fourth day, I was certain that some of our classmates were having diarrhoea, poo-pooing every now and then because Richard supplied lollipops in the morning before class, and still supplied another crate of drinks after school, in addition to my crate of drinks at break time. And between chasing after their running stomachs and trying to choose between Richard and me, they were all confused.
Day Five did it. I was ‘borrowing’ some more money from the ‘money vase’ when Papa, my father, who had since left for work, had to return home, and barged in on me stuffing naira notes into my long, immaculate- like the heart of Mary- white socks. I do not know which happened first, the fainting, or the slapping, but I remember the flood of shame that drowned me as my father lashed me in front of the entire class, Mildred inclusive, and I cried like a baby and willed myself to die. Sister Beatrice too stood in a corner, shaking her head, and saying,
“So the corruption has also infiltrated our young”
I did not like that she said ‘corruption’. It was too drastic a word. It was what the President and the Governors did, what we prayed against in church, alongside bribery. It was definitely not something that we the masses (that was what they said in newspapers), would even be able to do. And yet, she said it, describing me. I wondered if it now made me a Big Boy, doing things that rich people did.
I did not know what ‘infiltrated’ meant. But I felt as though the definition of loss was in bold typeface on my forehead when at break, I sat alone inside the classroom, while Richard took the rest of the class on a spree to Mama Bomboy’s kiosk. Even Mildred came back smiling, new hair clips in hand. I started counting the seconds to the moment of choice.
That night, I did not sleep well. After my mother gave me her own version of the cane, I saw in my dreams, Mildred, following Richard to the kiosk, eating jam doughnut and drinking Fanta and laughing, and saying over and over,
“Richard is my boyfriend”
Something about her laughter haunted me, and made me wake up to day six with a resolve to win Richard. I did not go to school early. When I was sure that assembly must have started, I jumped over the school fence and entered the classroom. Even if my classmates did not trust me, they could trust Richard even less. I buried my beautiful black wallet at the bottom of his schoolbag.
My classmates returned from assembly to my crying, sweaty figure. Sister Beatrice called me aside to ask what the matter was. I quivered.
“My- father- my-“
“My wallet, Sister Beatrice! I got home yesterday and it was not in my bag. It is black and new and it was a gift and my father says he will flog me. Sister don’t let him flog me again!”
Some of the girls who stood nearby, eavesdropping, had already carried the news to the rest of the class. Richard was laughing.
“Maybe he sold it to add to the money he stole!”
I could not wait for his joy to dissolve, like tissue paper in water.
Sister Beatrice made everybody pour the contents of their bags onto their desks. If anything, Richard was a dummy. Shocked at the wallet tumbling out of his upturned bag, he scrambled to hide it. Sister Beatrice caught him.
The whole class turned to face him, and snickers started to emerge from every angle.
“Richard I’m disappointed in you!”
“No sister. It wasn’t-“
“You will explain that to the headmistress. Class, write down the name of your class prefect. Let us know who we think is the holier thief.”
The scribbling started and ended almost as quickly. Just before break, Sister announced,
“Chuka is the class prefect of 3B”
It still surprises me.
Outside, at break, I walked up to Mildred.
“Sorry about your wallet,” she said. “Everybody knows that Richard is a bad boy. He is just a spoilt, Big Man’s son.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I held out a bottle of Fanta.
“Will you be my girlfriend?”
Mildred smiled, collected it, and took my hand in hers.
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