“Tell me how sweet it is…”
These were the first words I remember her say to me and I remember looking up at her thinking, is she speaking to me? This was back in 1980, some 30 odd years ago when I met my friend Amina, our second year in secondary school. Friendships are legendary, in fact there are some that have stood the test of time and some quite famously known; Amina’s and mine, was just one more in the long line of friendships. Back in those days, everyone I knew was in a boarding school and our school was in the southern part of Nigeria. In those days the federal government had special colleges, and these were the creme de la creme of schools back then, and yours truly happened to be lucky enough to secure a place in one.
Amina was a strange girl. She did not talk much and when she did, she had a pitch in her voice that sounded almost comical… you couldn’t help laughing at the sound of her voice; maybe that was why she did not talk much. The day she said “tell me,how sweet is it?”, she held a bowl to my face and pointed at its contents which happened to be some garri. Garri can be prepared and eaten in several ways but students in boarding schools liked to drink it like a cereal soaked in water in a variety of ways: with sugar and some with salt; in a mixture of condensed or evaporated milk with sugar to taste, while others drank it mixed in with roasted groundnuts and sugar. Whatever manner chosen, it was a popular snack in many a boarding school. It was cheaper and much more accessible to get than Cornflakes or Weetabix.
I remember thinking that this girl must be mistaking me for someone else, but as it turned out, she was not. She just wanted another’s opinion as proof to her room mate that she was right, the garri was not sweet enough. Reluctantly I spooned a little into my mouth, and was appalled by the taste that immediately took over my senses… sugar! It was as though there was nothing else in there but sugar. I could not stomach it, I spat out the garri and gasped saying “surely that is a bit too much! Nobody can eat this much sugar.”
There was a collective chatter of replies all echoing the same words…”You see!…Only you Amina! Your sweet tooth go kill you one day”. These were girls in her room all reprimanding her for her insane desire for sweet things. She just chuckled and quietly sat down beside me and said “I’m not putting it in their mouths am I?” There was this calm in her voice that made me turn and look at her. At that same time she looks at me, and we both smiled and just sat there by the common room hallway and watched our dormitory girls go crazy all afternoon, until it was time for evening sports.
This was my introduction to Amina… the following day we met in the showers. She had some hot water which was a rare commodity especially when the taps were off or the power supply was off, which was a very frequent occurrence in our case. This was our Nigeria and it’s going to take another chapter bringing you up to date with the domestic side of things in our country because corruption and greed had over ridden good governance. Basic services and utilities you would expect as standard in most civilized societies was a luxury, only a privileged few were guaranteed to enjoy in those days (sadly, this is still the norm in our country).
The hot water was good…courtesy of her illegal boiling ring, a contraband like many more you will become acquainted with as you learn more about my friend Amina. The shower was always a quick in and out thing because then as a junior, if you wasted time in there, some hot shot senior would use you as their morning maid that day…this was not a good way to start the day, so we never lingered. I left the showers, got dressed quick enough to make it to the refectory. Being served that morning was bread and fish sauce; one of my favourites. Amina left her table and came to mine, so we sat and had our meal together. She must have taken permission from her table captain, you just don’t leave your table, that will result in punishment…but with permission you are alright!
I suppose that really was the beginning of our friendship. And as friendships go, it was a very peculiar one. People tend to believe that in order for two people to have a successful friendship, they had to have certain things in common, share like passions etc. In our case, the complete opposite was the situation. I can honestly tell you that we had nothing in common. She was quiet and shy, spoke more of her language Yoruba than English which was the main language used in school and the country as a whole. She liked a different genre of music and definitely had better taste and class than I did back then in clothes, jewelry and boys. These were the main things that mattered to 13 and 14 year old’s after all.
Amina felt like a second me but in a different way. It was as though we had been forever, and I really did not need to speak much in order to communicate my feelings to her and vice versa. She could somehow tell just by looking at me, when I felt joy or sorrow…when I was enraged or up to mischief. I remember now that so many times, I would stand by her classroom door and wait till I had eye contact with her and would somehow let her know that something was wrong. She would immediately put up her hand for permission to leave, and as soon as she got out of class, she would ask “What happened to you?” I would tell her one story or the other but it always involved me getting into trouble, and her coming to bail me out.
Amina was shy, but she was not a coward or stupid. She always found a way to make you hear her. Even if it meant shocking you into paying attention, she would do it, but in such a way only she knew how to. I was the scatter brained carefree one, who spoke too much grammar and knew all the lyrics to the latest songs. The very unimportant things, I was really master of, but things which had meaning, I was ignorant of. Like remembering to water my plot on the school farm for our agricultural science projects, or making sure I went by the biology lab after school to pay the lab assistant for my practical mock exam fee. Responsible behaviour somehow eluded me, but Amina made sure all these were done; by reminding me over and over until it got done.
We shared moments that nobody could really quite understand, they expected to hear the chatter of our voices and laughter ringing out occasionally but in many cases there was none of that. What did happen was silence…and an occasional giggle from either one of us, or a quiet question from her perhaps about what she’s reading, or from me for one reason or the other.
Our time together was calm and peaceful…and if it was a day that it involved a physical activity, we would shout, laugh and scream all depending on where it took us.
Amina had a younger brother. He was really cool and had lots of senior friends. I hardly spoke to him. Heck! He and Amina hardly spoke. We would sometimes run into him at the refectory and he would just nod and smile… that was it. The only other contact with him would be on visiting days when either of our relations have come with goodies and we have to go to give him some or when their relations have come and he has to come to Amina. It was weird, but it worked and for all the years we were in school, we never once saw each other outside school term.
Holidays came and went but the significant holiday was the long vacation between July and late September. This was the longest holiday, and it was only at this time you would see any emotion from either of us. When it was time to go, we would hug so tightly as if we would never see each other again and then the tears would flow.
It was usually a really traumatic thing for me back then. It felt like I was leaving a part of me behind. Amina never said much… between tears and gasps, she would keep repeating “Perhaps we will come to Lagos and I will visit you” and I would reply “It never happens that way, so why do you say that every time.” My dad’s driver would of course shout at me “Miss Tessa make we go oh!, ooga go sack me if i no reach Lagos before 6pm oh” my name is Theresa by the way….everyone used called me Tessa… only Amina calls me Theresa.
“Bye Theresa…” her voice would say squeakily. And I would laugh through my tears.
“Bye Minna, see you September okay…” Once in the car, I would turn around and watch as we drove off, until her figure became a blur.
Those days seem so far away now. I’m 42 now…Amina was 1 year older than me. Often I wonder what ever became of her, and her ultra cool younger brother. Perhaps some day somehow, our paths will cross again… I’m sure she’s still the same quiet person, but now in a woman’s body, ready to take on anything but never losing herself in the process.
I like talking about Amina… it takes me to a very hidden and almost forgotten place in my life. A place where everything seemed possible. A place where I find so much comfort and safety in; perhaps because of the innocence of that period and age. Like so many things in life, our friendship had it’s ups and downs, but the beauty of it was the way our differences were resolved; the willingness to forgive and to move on. It did not really matter what the reason was, there was the desire to make the hurt go away, so it was always okay.
This was not my reasoning back then mind you, my present state of mind is a result of years of stock taking and reaching a sounding resolve that really, nothing was that a big deal after all back then. We had insane adventures, both within and outside the walls of our secondary school; many near misses in either suspensions or expulsions. So I will continue with this story at some point. Personally, I’m finding some serious pleasure in reliving those days of raw freedom and carefreeness.