As a result of all the suffer-head (slang for suffering, hardship) that’s part and parcel of our way of living in school, there is one day – apart from the start of mid-term breaks and end-of-term holidays – that every student looks forward to.
The visiting day.
That one day – the first Saturday of every month – when family members bring with them a replenishment of resources for the famished students. Coolers of steaming home-cooked meals. A fresh stock of provisions. More pocket money. Affection. Laughter. And the general presence of home. Any student who was lucky enough to be visited knew what it felt like to be in heaven in that one day. In that time, you are the center of attention, fussed over by your visitors and gorging yourself with all sorts of delicacies that had been lacking from your life for the previous several weeks.
Not every student, however, is lucky to have visitors. Since the school is in the east, this unlucky lot is usually made up of those who live in such faraway places like Lagos, Abuja and Benin. And you know them by the glum expressions they wear on their countenances in the face of the exuberance of the majority. Some others effect a forced nonchalance, as though shielding themselves against the joy of their fortunate friends, and that usually works because they always have forewarning from their families not to expect any visitation. There are yet others who didn’t get to know the pain of not having their families around, because they had friends who included them in their repast.
My friend, Joseph, belongs to that last category. Even though his hometown is in Imo State, Joseph is a thoroughbred Lagosian. Middle child of a father who works in NNPC and a mother who owns a textile business and frequently shuttles between Dubai, Italy and the like. Super-busy parents. Too occupied with the amassing of wealth and the pursuit of security. No time to visit. After all, Joseph usually left home at the start of every term with more money than most students would spend in an entire term. Or two. The first time – in our JSS1 – that Ibuka and I went with him to his guardian’s house to snack on his provisions, my jaw dropped when I saw he had enough to feed all the students in the four dormitories of Peace House Junior Hostel in one day. He always claimed he didn’t care that his family never visited, because he had everything he needed. But Ibuka always disagreed, arguing that there was more to life than material things. Such things like family togetherness, nurturing of bonds, steadfastness, sharing.
Sentimental one, that boy.
And he must know what he’s talking about, because his people never failed to visit him. Every first Saturday of the month. They were predictable that way. Mine also came, but infrequently. Whichever was the case, because of the absenteeism of Joseph’s parents, the two of us always insisted on having him present with us, sharing in both the affection of our families and whatever goodies had been brought for us.
On this visiting day, the car park was a sea of people and cars, and a cornucopia of enticing smells and a thousand conversations, interspersed with ringing laughter, screams of delight and the occasional sharply uttered reprimand. Some families visited with their wards in the hostels, but a lot more preferred to stick to the car park, usually at the insistence of student who they had come to see. We junior students always strived not to make obvious the good fortune of our visitations to the predatory SS3s. if they knew you were one of the lucky ones, there were all sorts of deductibles that were imposed on you, which usually was paid in the form of money. Lanwu, we called it. I don’t know how that catchword came into existence, but I’ve been lanwu-ing since Senior Shola decided he must be my school-father in the second term of my JSS1.
“Do you know if your sister came with your parents?” Joseph asked, as we waded through the crowd in the car park, like pieces of flotsam moving with the tide. I had gotten word that my folks were around, and Joseph and I were here to find them. We had just left Ibuka and his parents – with their well-garnished fried rice and succulent chunks of chicken; and his mustached father who would laugh uproariously at any joke Ibuka said and then thump him on the shoulder and boom ‘That’s my boy!’; and his dumpy mother with her heavy musculature that made me wonder if fatness was hereditary.
“I don’t know,” I answered as I craned my neck this way and that. “Why do you ask?”
I knew why he asked. Ever since he spent last term’s mid-term break at my place, Joseph had developed a crush on my older sister, Ada, who attended a federal girls’ secondary school close to my house, as a day student. For some reason, the school was well-known for its plenitude of beautiful girls who were always groomed to the teeth and had hourglass figures. Ada always strived to be well-groomed and…well, had an hourglass figure, I suppose. I wished Anulika had an hourglass figure too, all the better to fill my arms with when I cuddle her.
If I’ll cuddle her. The jury is still out on that one.
“Nothing,” Joseph replied, attempting a nonchalant shrug. “I was just asking.” He was always just asking. He would rather forfeit the prized egg of his Monday breakfast than admit to the possession of any sentimental feelings.
“Ezenwaka!” I heard my mother’s voice before I spotted her.
Ezenwaka! Jeez! And with all her Igbotic accent on full throttle! I grimaced in disgust. I saw Joseph smirking at me.
“Ezenwaka, hmm?” he needled, chuckling.
“Shut up there, Nkemakolam,” I retorted, stressing all the syllables of his own Igbo name.
The smirk disappeared.
We approached where my father’s Mercedes was parked, with increasing anticipation. My mother was standing beside the car with her hands akimbo. She is a diminutive woman with soft, pretty features and tortoiseshell glasses that always seemed too wide for her face, but somehow managed to underscore the unflinching acuity in her eyes. Seated behind the wheel with the driver’s door open was my father. But all I could see of him were his feet and his huge sausagey fingers clasping the edges of the newspaper hiding his face.
“Brother Eze!” With her incomplete milk dentition on full display in the most charming seven-year-old smile I’d ever seen, my little sister, Ola, skipped toward me and grabbed my thighs in a fierce hug. I hugged her back.
“Nna, how are you?” asked my mother when I managed to extricate myself from Ola’s hold and walked up to her. Joseph lingered two steps behind me. “Look at you, all bones, eh? Are they even feeding you in this school sef?” She tsk-tsked as she tapped my cheeks lightly, as though trying to gauge just how much flesh was left there.
“Good afternoon, ma,” Joseph greeted.
“Eheh, good afternoon, nwa m. How are you?” Without waiting for his response, she barreled on, “Look at you too. Nwa oma like you – see how they are starving you boys to death. Did we parents tell these people that we sent our children here to be starved, eh?” She turned back to me. “Ezenwaka, you look sick sef. I jikwa ahu? Are you well?” She grasped my chin and turned my head this way and that, her bespectacled eyes seeking out whatever pathologic microorganism that was foolish enough to remain attached to the skin of my face.
“Mummy, I’m fine,” I replied, cringing inwardly at her attentiveness, yet loving every minute of it.
“Are you sure?” she questioned with a tone that suggested doubt.
What could I tell her? That yesterday, I spent lunchtime lying down on the cold hard floor under Senior Boma’s bunk because I didn’t remember to wash his briefs the night before? That thereafter, I made six trips to the borehole in an errand where I fetched water for three seniors? That for one week, I’d been forfeiting the meat in my lunch of garri and soup, smuggling it out for the Labour Prefect, Senior Adindu, to eat, as recompense for missing ground-work last Thursday? That, two days ago, I suffered the indignity of shuttling between our hostel and the female hostel, transporting messages between the Social Prefect, Senior Anderson and Senior Chinazo, the SS3 girl in his class who he was chyking?
No. I couldn’t tell her any of that.
So, I reiterated, “Mummy, I’m fine.”
“Really?” She didn’t seem convinced.
“Eliza, leave the boy alone,” my father growled. His newspaper rustled shut and he was revealed.
My father is a formidable-looking, broad-shouldered, broad-chested, heavy-featured man in his mid-forties, with a receding hairline. Thick eyebrows over stormy dark eyes enhanced the aura of authority that emanated from him. He stood from his seat and instantly towered over us all. I always harboured the hope that I would grow to be as big as he is. I’d also often wondered how mismatched my parents seemed – my mother, petite and sweet-natured, and my father, hulking and oftentimes prickly. But they made their union work; I never knew of any two people happiest and content in their marriage.
“Jonas, leave me, biko!” my mother snapped back, unintimidated by her husband’s bark. “If I don’t worry about my son, who will? Ngwa, boys, come and eat! We brought plenty to fatten you both up.” Suddenly remembering something, she looked around and asked, “What about Ibuka? Kedu ebe o no, where is he?”
Anxious to get started on my own feast, I replied that he was with his parents. Soon, Joseph and I settled down to a heavy meal of fufu and a thickly-prepared, meat-infested vegetable soup. There was Five Alive waiting in the wings to wash down every morsel. My mother clucked and hovered all around us, while my father scanned his newspaper some more, pausing just long enough to ask Joseph and me questions about the progress of our school work. Ola chattered incessantly to us, not minding that we never responded. The visitation lasted about two hours, before my mother packed a small cooler of jollof rice (‘Make sure you don’t misplace my cooler oh,’ she chided gently), my father handed over a wad of cash to me (‘Give that to your guardian first thing tomorrow morning,’ he warned sternly), and my sister hugged me fiercely again (‘You will come back for mid-term break, won’t you?’ she urged teary-eyed). Soon, the Mercedes was started, backed out of the car park and vroomed away, leaving Joseph and I standing with packages of the sustenance that was supposed to last me till the next time I would see my family.
As we made our way to the classroom block – we would remain there until nightfall, before sneaking back to the hostel, to avoid detection by the seniors – we spotted a junior student sobbing fervently in a corner against one of the trees dotting the car park. Remember when I said most students usually had forewarning from their families not to expect any visitation? Well, not all of them are that lucky. Some of them were usually expectant, and then suffered the rude shock of waiting and waiting and waiting, and having no one come to visit them. Tough, right?