I heard a beep from the phone nestled in the pocket of my trousers, and instinctively knew who was trying to get my attention, and why.
It was Sewuese.
But, until that moment, I did not know her last name.
Eager to know what she had just said, I jumped to my feet, dipped my soapy hands in a bucket of rinsing water, wiped my hands on my black trousers and pulled my phone from the safety of my pocket. One glance at the screen confirmed my suspicion: Sewuese wanted to tell me something. It was urgent enough to require a ping.
So, she pinged me.
As I glanced at the phone screen, my lips parted in a wide, sheepish grin. Even though I knew I was alone in the backyard, I still looked around cautiously to make sure no one heard the laugh that escaped from my mouth.
Not that there was anything wrong with laughing, but my over-sensitive self did not want anyone lurking in the backyard to think I was crazy.
Was I crazy though?
Maybe I was ….
Crazy about Sewuese, at least. How could that be? I had known her for just two months, if chatting back and forth on Blackberry Messenger, otherwise known as BBM, counted as knowing a person. If it did, then I knew her. Quite well.
That was her last name. That single word, “Uchi,” was the opening line to our BBM chat that evening. I stood there, wearing a pair of rubber slippers and the black trousers, which used to be a staple in my wardrobe but was now too shabby for work and had been converted to house wear. I wore a white singlet too, although in the orangey light that fell across the city of Lagos, it did not look white.
As my fingers moved deftly across the keypad of my phone, all I could think about was this person I was chatting with. It did not matter that she was miles … no, hours away in Makurdi, the capital city of Benue State.
Just two months earlier, I did not even know where Makurdi was, much less know the surrounding states, its people and how different it was from Lagos. I myself had been born and raised in Lagos, and except for Ibadan and Abuja, I had never really been to other parts of the country I called my own.
But that was going to change.
By the time we finished chatting that evening, one thing was clear to me: I had to meet Sewuese in person. Yes, I had fallen in love with her personality, sense of humor, her mind and her voice. In that order.
I met Sewuese through one of those BBM chat groups. You know, the group that that random friend on your contact list, the one who is always changing his display picture every five minutes, randomly invites you to join on a random day.
This particular day must have been at least three months after the fuel subsidy palaver. I remember this because the said friend, Olujimi, had just put up that “Omoge wa gba petrol,” display picture with the guy wearing bell bottoms and a pair of shades, looking very much like Fela. The accompanying status update simply read:
My DP three mths ago
I was itching to slap the foolish fellow for no other reason than the fact that he chose to abbreviate the word “months” to the highly-irritating and in my opinion, completely senseless shortened version, “mths,” as if writing the word in full would have cost him a pint of blood.
But all thoughts of temporary bodily harm, coupled with insults yelled in my mother tongue, were suspended, but not forgotten, when the same guy sent me an invitation to join a group.
Ordinarily, I would have ignored it, but the name of the group really fascinated me.
SCRABBLE SAVED MY LIFE
I read the group name and laughed. My co-workers did not find my loud, minimal-spit-diffusing laugh funny, judging by the unkind glances they shot at me. But since most of them were busy either Facebook-ing or Twitter-ing anyway, no one bothered to ask me why I was laughing.
Without further hesitation, I accepted Olujimi’s invitation and joined the group.
Before I joined, there were only 12 members. I was Number 13, but Olujimi who had invited me in the first place, left just a few days after I joined.
So, once again, there were 12 of us in the group.
Within five minutes of joining, I learnt that the group consisted of people who were forced to learn or invent new words during games of scrabble they had played in the past. They, therefore, decided to share their love for words, or the invention of words, as well as harrowing tales of narrow escapes and pure deliverance. All this from a simple game of scrabble.
I had no wildly amazing stories to share, but I stayed on anyway because of one person. Her display picture was rather curious: an intricately designed white ceramic mask with bright colors. It was one of those masks from New Orleans. Thinking back now, I wonder if I would have approached her if her display picture was the mask of an Eyo masquerade or some similar traditional being.
But it was not just her display picture I found intriguing. Her name captured my attention.
Was it Nigerian? It looked and sounded so beautiful to me, a Yoruba man. I was curious. So, I watched her and waited for my opportunity.
Without a picture of her face, I fell in love with Sewuese through her words. They were few, but well-chosen. Apt. Thoughtful.
I liked that.
She shared her story with the group: she grew up playing scrabble with her twin brother and cousins, but never took it seriously until one day when she lost because of one word: Decare.
She never forgot what it meant and as it turned out many years later, at an engineering job interview, the same word re-surfaced.
The interviewer, a senior executive at a small, but prestigious engineering firm in Makurdi, told her point blank that there was a tie between her and the only other candidate, a young man who Sewuese had seen at the reception. He told her:
“If you get this question right, you get the job. Simple. So, what is a Decare?”
It was like the question she had been waiting her whole life for and just like that a random question would decide her future.
“A decare is equal to 10 acres.”
That was Sewuese’s answer.
” … And just like that,” she wrote, “I got the job.”
That was the story she shared with the BBM group.
I did not know why an interviewer would ask such a random question or why that question would be a “tie-breaker” or why an interviewer in Nigeria, for that matter, would even let an interviewee in on recruitment or hiring decisions that only upper management would have been privy to. No clue.
Yet, I found this girl intriguing.
Ironically, four days after she shared her story, the group disbanded. But, before it did, as a sharp guy, I sent Sewuese a friend request, with one motive: to get to know the woman behind the mask.
At first, when my friend request went unanswered, or in my own apprehensive mind, “unacknowledged” for two days, I thought maybe this girl had fashied my side. Perhaps, she thought I was a jobless lurker or worse yet, a stalker. After all, I had not contributed actively to group discussions aside from the occasional “Wow” or “Interesting” or smiley face emoticon.
My excuse, of course, was that I did not have any mind-blowing, life-changing or straight up weird stories on how scrabble saved my life. I had never been good at expressing myself in words anyway.
Even my primary school class teacher knew this, and wrote it on my Primary 3, 2nd term report card. She wrote:
He needs help expressing himself in writing.
Need help? Your fada! God punish you, Miss Gbadebo!
But maybe I should not be so harsh. Tolu, the boy who always came last in our class, must have had something much worse imprinted forever in his own report card.
Back to Sewuese.
After two days had passed and there was still no reply, I made plans to ask the other group members one by one to find out her last name, at least, so I could seek her out on Facebook.
Things stalkers do …
I was still strategizing in my mind, when I decided to take a bathroom break at the architecture firm where I worked. By the time I arrived back at my desk, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Sewuese had accepted my friend request.
Even Barnabas, the colleague who always showed up when nobody wanted him around, commented on how I was “shinning teeth like person wey don tiff im neighbor fowl.”
Ordinarily, I would have retorted with a smart mouth comment, but at the time, I did not even care if Barnabas was the neighbor’s fowl which had been snatched from the said neighbor. There was only one thing that mattered: Sewuese had accepted my friend request. Heaven had answered my prayer.
The ball was now in my court.
– to be continued –