In the late 70s and mid-80s, it was wonderful to be a kid in Northern Nigeria. We had a pleasant childhood. You know all those adventures you read and day dreamed about? We had them all. Now, if all the adventures you read about were all Enid Blyton, flying broomsticks and brooks and meadows and snow and Harry Potter, then we are not talking of the same kind of adventure. I am talking real adventure. In the bush kind of adventure. Swimming in the dirty Chanchaga River, digging up and roasting yams from a Gwari farm, milking Fulani herdsmen’s cows, stealing mangoes and cashews from the Nupe village, throwing bangers, smoking hollowed sticks, hunting bush rats kind of adventure. As little boys, such adventures were the sole bane of existence.
The downside of growing up in that era was our parents. Our parents were mean. Very mean. They never used words where a whipping would do. It seemed like their whole purpose was to make our childhood dull and filled with koboko, homework and school uniforms. They didn’t succeed, but they tried. They really tried.
Do you know what a koboko is? It is a two-pronged whip made from donkey or camel skin. Its major attribute and only market value is its ability to inflict pain. And our parents loved it. They bought it more often than they bought toys; they presented it as gifts to other parents. Our parents were a cooperative society of meanness. They helped each other in the execution of disciplinary measures. If a parent was late for an outing and happened to catch her child doing something that necessitated instant chastisement, she would simply drag the child over to a neighbor and report the matter, going as far as pinpointing body parts the child finds most sensitive.
On Saturdays, a variety of cries and different wailing patterns would erupt all over the housing estate. All the parents somehow agreed that Saturdays were house cleaning days, which meant that most children would be flogged for not scrubbing or sweeping like they were paid cleaners. A lot of other things were agreed unanimously by our parents, like a food timetable. Monday: porridge yam with vegetables; Tuesday night: beans and yam or plantain; Friday night: rice and beans; Saturday morning: akara with pap. I swear, it was like that in every home.
Some parents were worse than others. It was my unfortunate circumstance to have a Holy Christian Mother. You know the type: old time religion practitioners, no earrings, no permed hair, no trousers. Everything I did was sinful. It didn’t help that I had the appearance of evil. My mother had no idea that to spare the rod and spoil the child was a proverb. Pity every child who has a Holy Christian Mother. Right when the evening play was at its most merry was when we were slapped all the way to evening fellowship, where we never understood a word except for “Hell fire.” At Sunday school, they showed us pictures of a bleeding white man nailed to a cross and told us with angry eyes that our sins put him there.
Vengeance is a dish best served cold, and our parents knew how to let the dish get real frozen before they struck. They would wait till that unguarded hour, which for children was mostly during sleep. We would be having important conversations with friends in dreamland, only to have the discussion interrupted forcefully by whip lashes. Many times our parents would be halfway through the whipping session before we were fully awake. We would find ourselves crying and writhing in pain and not knowing when or how the whole thing started. Our parents wouldn’t remind us that we were being flogged for that precious chinaware we broke two days earlier, or for deflating Baba Junior’s Passat tires that night. And we dared not ask. On rare occasions, however, we would be sat down and lectured on the dangers of “Hell fire,” and how we were going to receive these twelve strokes so that we would not end up there. “Hell fire” usually seemed more inviting than the whipping. I wish we had cameras back then to take pictures of the smug satisfaction on our parents’ faces after a successful vengeful whipping.
Our parents knew how to train children right. They beat us to nonsense. See, if we were white kids, we would all have slit our wrists or called the police on our parents. But we were Nigerian kids. We showed off whip scars in school. We were tough. We didn’t suffer depression, or borderline this or that. We didn’t see shrinks. There were no shrinks. We knew no doctors. We take Chloroquin when we have malaria; if symptoms persist, our siblings are sent off to cut dogonyaro and ugu leaves, bitter leaf, and lemongrass to be boiled together for the ultimate healing concoction. If symptoms further persisted, then it was an ogbanje, and in that case, we were in serious trouble. If ours was a Christian body, we would be taken to the nearest Deliverance Ministry and the prayer warriors would proceed to cure us of every hanky-panky ailment by flogging us over the head with pigeons or spitting in tongues all over our face. If our parents were Muslims, the marabout would make us drink concoctions mixed with Quranic verses washed off the wooden slates used in the makaranta Quranic classes. It was even worse for children from families where the religious affiliation was not well defined: those kind of homes where the children were allowed to join other kids at Jesus Club and Sunday school and still got to observe the Muslim Ramadan fast. For such kids, persistent ailments were handled by everybody, from pastors and marabouts to Maigida, the neighbour whose grandma had just returned from Bida with traditional reinforcements.
White kids get angry at their parents and run off from home. We tried that. We lasted only two hours. Hunger drove us back. When we returned we would be fed, but nobody would meet our eyes. Later that night or two days later, the koboko would address the issue. Chiedu lasted a whole night away from home. He achieved hero status. But if you see what was done to him the night after he returned, you would have wondered why he bothered to come home. He told us it was because he was adopted.
Not that we often got to run away by choice. Our parents wouldn’t let too much time pass before pronouncing disownment. I was disowned over a hundred times, especially on Saturdays and almost always on the day I presented my school term report card.
Ah, school! They killed us in those days, parents and teachers. They were cohorts – evil people and kid haters. Parents even told on their own children! Simon was flogged naked in front of the whole primary school because he apprehended a stray ten naira note at home. This was after his parents and the next-door neighbours had taken their turns with the koboko. What of the time Uncle Sam gave me twenty-four koboko strokes in front of the whole school because I punched Chioma and she faked a faint? Imagine a whole me, school band captain and class monitor of primary 4A, flogged like a nobody. I shed no tear, to the awe and admiration of the other pupils. I marched home to report the unfairness of the matter to my mother, and she beat me like she did not know me. She beat me like I tore her Bible. And all the while I kept screaming that Chioma didn’t die but that she only faked a faint. The next morning she came to school to thank Uncle Sam.
Our parents didn’t know we were kids. How could they not expect boys to play football? How could they not expect kids to come home with torn school uniforms? What is so terrible about pinching the fried fish from the fridge? Why should we not deflate Baba Junior’s Passat tires when he seized our felele ball? Why should we not go swimming? We were children.
Still, our childhood was pleasant. We had much more fun and experiences than the over-pampered kids of today who do nothing, know nothing, and say “Hi” and “Hello” to their parents. Many of them have never even climbed trees, not to mention breaking a bone. They shower everyday and have expensive haircuts; they go to fast food restaurants by themselves to buy ice creams. We had our hair cut only during festivities; the rest of the time, ringworms shaved our heads free of charge. The only ice cream we had was the ice we scraped from the fridge, and we even got whipped for that.