It was on a muddy path between Iya Kike and Iya Morayo’s Coca-cola kiosks on Araromi Street,that Atimore walked,neck bent,collar upturned against the drizzle of the rain,cold hands warmed in the pockets of his faded green knickers. He tried to hurry past before Iya Kike’s sharp eyes spotted him.He wasn’t so lucky.
“Atimore,moti mu e loni,I have caught you today.Tell your good for nothing father who feels he has to impress his visitors from Lagos with Coke,so fun ko fun mi lo wo mi,let him give me my money”,she said in a thick Akure accent,her large breasts bobbing up and down under her royal blue Ankara.Atimore thought it was funny that one of the breasts seemed to be smaller than the other,but he liked that one better—it was more pointed!
“He will pay soon”,he replied in Yoruba,his eyes looking down from the smaller breast to his muddied socks.He worried that the little Omo that Mami rationed for him and his five siblings would not do any good to this socks.And it was the only one he had.”Mo n duro de”,I am waiting for him,she spat,as she turned into her kiosk.He shuffled on,hopping over pools of brown water,determined not to soil his socks even more.
He remembered with dismay Mrs Lamilisa’s announcement today.She had said they were all to bring new raffia mats to school the next Monday.He had wondered what Form four students would be doing with raffia mats,but teachers of Omolere Secondary School in Akure town had taken to the new method of using teaching aids.He knew because he had heard Mrs Lamilisa telling her NCE assistant that it was the new thing in Lagos-this teaching aid thing and since it was 1978,they needed to move with the times.But a raffia mat?
“O ti de”,his father greeted from the rectangular frontage where he was perched on a cane stool that was supported on its fourth leg by a broken plank.Gbaja had begged the carpenter down the road to reserve a broken plank for him,so he could use it to support his old cane stool.He didn’t bother asking the carpenter to repair it,because he didn’t have fifty naira.
Atimore mumbled a greeting,hastily prostating before his father and then ran to the back of the house.He was looking for Mami.
“Oko mi”,she hailed,wiping her gnarled hands on her wrapper.Atimore embraced her,his nose catching a whiff of the white powder she always put behind her ears.She once said that if she couldn’t afford proper perfume like women in town–she didn’t need to let anyone know.
“Mami,they said we should bring a new raffia mat to school”,he said in Yoruba,his eyes expectant.Mami looked away,her eyes sad,hands shaking uncontrollably.Atimore had told her first because he knew she had been saving some money since the school term began.The other day,when Gbaja asked her to bring money for them to buy Coke,she had said the three hundred naira was for more important things.Atimore hoped a new raffia mat was a more important thing.But the way her eyes looked away and watered as she looked in the distance,told him that a mat,raffia or not was not Mami’s idea of important.
At break time, the next day,Ajayi and his group were gathered at one corner of the sandy field cackling loudly,their knickers the right color of army green.
”Eh Atimore,do you people have raffia mat in your house”,Ajayi said,bursting into laughter, the others joining in.Atimore hurried on,wishing his fathers crops hadn’t failed.He couldn’t stand this ridicule anymore.How dare they,he thought,his breath coming in short,heavy gasps.I will show them,he swore,the pride that all Temionu men seemed to have ;coursing through him.Perhaps it was that same pride that had made Gbaja offer visitors Coke that he had to buy on credit.He had said it was a thing of honour—People who had come from such a far journey needed Coke.
When Atimore got home that day,he prostated before Gbaja ,but didn’t try to get up too hastily.He stayed on the floor for some extra seconds,that Gbaja had to ask ” Kini?”
After telling Gbaja his problem,his eyes averted downwards as he studied the weak,lifeless shadow Gbaja’s sillouette made on the dirt floor.Gbaja grunted in response and promised to do something about the matter.
When Sunday came,and Gbaja returned from town with a parcel rolled under his armpit,Atimore thought there really was something to this Temionu pride.
He and his five siblings all hurried out to see Atimore’s new raffia mat.
Gbaja unrolled the mat in a slow,calculated manner ,his leathery brow drawn together in painstaking concentration as if unrolling hurriedly would somehow spoil the mat.He revealed a mat—made not of raffia,but of fresh,green,palm fronds.
Gbaja looked up,his eyes shiny ,his shoulders square.”Won ma gba,they will take it”,he said.
Atimore stood there,looking down at his green mat,fighting hard the tears that pooled in his eyes.He almost forgot to prostrate.
That night,when Mami was at the back of the house,Atimore was in her room shaking off wrappers and upturning calabashes.Ajayi had said his own raffia mat cost fifty naira.If only he could lay hold of Mami’s stash.As soon as Atimore heard the slap slap sounds of her slippers on the corridor, he quickly put everything back in its place and slipped out of the room.
He went back to his own room,and lay on the floor,looking up at the dusty ceiling.He imagined Ajayi’s laughing face when he saw Atimore’s green palm mat.
Monday morning dawned with the cocks in Oba-Ile clearing their throats rather loudly.The shadow of the moon still lingered,when Atimore and his siblings stood outside at the side of the house splashing water on their slender bodies.
Atimore bathed slowly,absentmindedly scrubbing his limp organ,the muscled hands of sleep fighting to press his eyelids shut.He thought of the moment when Mrs Lamilisa will ask for everyone’s raffia mat,and he wished he would just disappear at that time.
Gbaja was chewing on a large chewing stick out on the frontage,his brown sokoto hanging precariously on his waist ,his left hand on Atimore’s green palm mat which was on the three-legged cane stool.
“E karo,good morning”,Atimore said,as he prostated on his way out to begin the three mile trek to school.
He eyed the green mat with the corner of his eye,deciding that his pride would suffer less if he went to school with nothing.
Gbaja lifted the mat gently from the stool.He held it like an egg that was about to hatch and placed it in Atimore’s hand.
“Ma gbe le o,Dont drop it”,was all he said.
When Atimore got to school,he stood behind the school gate,his eyes on the ground,his feet making circular patterns on the sand.It was until the stocky,sixty year old gateman discovered him that he went into his class,head bowed.
Mrs Lamilisa’s shiny jerry curls was the first thing he saw as he entered the class.He then shuffled quietly to his seat,his heart thumping like a new Dundun drum,his green palm mat under his sweaty armpit.
Mrs Lamilisa was writing on the chalk board,her meaty arms swaying from side to side.She soon turned round and asked everyone to bring their raffia mats to the front of the class.Ajayi shot to the front,a smug grin on his face.All of the other students moved to drop theirs.Atimore huddled at the back,his legs suddenly feeling like leaden weights.
“Atimore,don’t waste my time”,she said,tapping her feet.As Atimore walked to the front,he felt the laughing gazes of Ajayi and his group pierce his back.
On seeing his mat,Mrs Lamilisa screamed,”Atimore,raffia is brown –not green!”
Atimore swallowed,his knuckles white.
Someone laughed.It sounded like Ajayi,and soon the whole class joined in.
Atimore felt something wet trickling down his faded green knickers.
Just then,Mr Adesanoye,the huge,stern faced principal strode down the corridor.He came in through the door of Atimore’s class.Mrs Lamilisa curtseyed while the class chorused a greeting,her fingers shaking,her face the mask of pure adulation.
“Beautiful mat you’ve got here”,he said,fingering Atimore’s green palm mat,it would look just right hanging up on my wall.
“E sir,you can take it,Mrs Lamilisa said stammering,it was made by one of my students”,she continued, pointing to Atimore.The principal patted Atimore on the back ,his eyes never leaving the green,palm mat.
Ajayi thought that surely it must mean a whole lot more to have the huge stern faced principal pat you on the back than to have Mrs Lamilisa keep all the brown raffia mats in her house and use only one as teaching aid.The principal ordered that Atimore bring it at once to his office.
Mrs Lamilisa who had been looking for a way to make the principal notice her and her class couldnt send Atimore on his way any faster than she wanted.
When he returned,Mrs Lamilisa asked him how his journey went as if he didn’t just go up the stairs and down the corridor and if the principal’s wall looked better indeed.The whole class just stared at Atimore as if he had just grown another head,and as he was about to take his seat,he caught Ajayi’s gaze fixated on his back—a back that had just been touched by the hand of the huge,stern faced principal.
At the close of school,Atimore skipped all the way home,carefully avoiding Iya Kike’s kiosk.He whistled a tune that Gbaja usually did when Mami was scratching his back.
As soon as he got to Gbaja’s frontage,he fell flat on the floor and stayed down for a whole minute.
When he wouldn’t raise his head, Gbaja had to ask–”Kini?”