I am a rebel. That is just the way I have always been, and that is the way I will always be. And let me be clear here; when I talk about being a rebel, I don’t mean someone who challenges authority for the sake of it. I am talking about righteous rebellion – challenging hypocritical and corrupt authority.
My crusade – if you can call it that – started from when I was very young. My father and mother were typically conformist – even down to their jobs as branch bank manager and teacher, respectively. I wouldn’t say that they strove to keep up with the Joneses, but they definitely tried not to fall too far behind. So wherever my desire to rebel came from, it was definitely not from my upbringing, even though there were many, many events that led many people to wonder whether I had had any sort of upbringing.
One of those events occurred when I was much younger, around seven or eight. My parents, my older brother and I were in church on Sunday, as all respectable Christian families were expected to be. The pastor had chosen to preach about the vice of drunkenness, and he was warning that those in church who loved the bottle too much were in mortal danger of burning up alive in the fires of hell. He was really getting into his stride, with his descriptions becoming increasingly graphic, when my young, indignant voice brought his sermon to an abrupt halt.
“Pastor, how can you be preaching about drunkenness when you regularly buy drinks from Mama Suwebat’s provision store? That is wrong – you yourself are always preaching about people who say one thing, and do the other. You should not just say that we shouldn’t drink; you too should also not be drinking.”
There was a stunned silence, followed by a cacophony of outraged voices. Who was this insolent child, who not only did not know to keep quiet in church, but dared embarrass God’s ordained minister? The pastor himself had recovered from his initial shock, and was now patronisingly suggesting that it was just restlessness that had led me to say what I had, and nobody should trouble themselves about it. However, as my parents hurried us out of church, utterly mortified, I knew that I was in for a sound thrashing, but what did I care? I had made my point; if the congregation wanted to play deaf and dumb, that was their own look out.
Things did not change as I grew older. My parents and my brother tried a mixture of reasoning, cajoling, pleading, threats and physical punishment, but none of this made any difference. Instead, my reputation within the neighbourhood as a stubborn and contrary child grew, and with it grew the number of floggings and suspensions I received at school for my many protests. The main thing that prevented me from being expelled outright was that I was a very smart student, and was often chosen to participate in a number of competitions. If the school administration expelled me, it would no longer be able to bask in the glory of having won those competitions.
In addition, I think that the school administrators realised I usually did have legitimate reasons to protest. For example, there was our chemistry teacher, Mr. Tijani, who was really stingy with marks. For reasons known only to him, he never gave more than six out of ten. Most students were grateful to get whatever pitiful grades he disdained to dish out. But not me. One day, after having received his ‘top’ mark of six one time too many, I decided that enough was enough.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, showing him the paper that he had just handed me.
“Yes?” he replied, warily. I had a history of asking many uncomfortable questions in his class, so I guess he was on his guard.
“Can you tell me what I should have written in this assignment to get ten out of ten, sir?”
Mr. Tijani adjusted his glasses and smiled condescendingly at me. “Why do you want to get ten? Is six not enough for you? At least, you passed.”
“But I don’t just want to pass, sir. I want to get the highest possible mark, sir,” I persisted. “If you were writing an answer to your assignment, what would you write, sir?”
All of a sudden, there was silence in the class. Everyone was staring at Mr. Tijani expectantly, wanting to know the answer to that very pointed question, and he began to feel very uncomfortable. As I expected, he resorted to bluster.
“What is this nonsense?” he barked. “Since when did you students start knowing more about Chemistry than me? Until you have gone to university and earned a B.Sc. like me, you should all shut up, or else I will have all of you flogged!”
There was more silence. Then, “OK, sir. I notice that you did not answer my question, sir. When I go home tonight, sir, I will go to a cybercafé and search for sites visited by people who know Chemistry, sir. These will be people who have B.Scs, M.Scs and even Ph.Ds, sir. Then I will find out their emails and I will email then this assignment, and I will ask them to help all of us, because nobody – not even you, my teacher, sir – knows what we need to do to get ten out of ten in this assignment, sir.”
There was a stunned silence. Then Mr. Tijani cleared his throat and said, “Let me take another look at all of your papers. I may have been using a grading sheet different from the one I usually use.”
Eagerly, everyone rushed to the front to hand back their papers. All the while, Mr. Tijani fixed me with a look. I knew that look; it spoke of a severe flogging to come. But as always, I didn’t care. I didn’t even care that after the lesson, nobody came up to thank me. I had done what I set out to do, and from that day, we never had our marks limited to a ridiculous six out of ten. And if Mr. Tijani didn’t like having his hand forced in that way, he could go and hug a faulty transformer with all the effort he could muster!
I finished secondary school without being expelled (to my parents’ great relief) and went on to start a mechanical engineering course at the University of Ibadan. Coming from secondary school with all its rules and regulations, the relative freedom of university was like heaven. I didn’t have to wear any uniform. There were no prefects or housemasters to harass me. Nobody cared if I was late for lectures; in fact, I could even miss some lectures altogether, and the sky would not come crashing down.
Perhaps because of this, the rebellious side of me became less and less evident, but it didn’t disappear altogether. There was an incident this male student who informed me that as a girl, I might find this engineering course too difficult, and maybe I should reconsider. I shrugged and remarked that his instead of expending his massive brain power worrying about me, it might be better spent on other worthy challenges, like figuring out whether his advice was actually sought after in the first place. Then I walked away leaving him speechless, not knowing whether he had been stung by my remark, and not caring if he had.
Other than minor incidents like this, my life was relatively serene. As was my practice at secondary school, I kept to myself, not joining any particular club, group, fellowship or clique. Instead, my usual destinations were the lecture halls, the hostel, and when the fancy took me, some remote location in the countryside around the city, where I could be at peace.
In the course of my goings and comings, I made friends with two young boys, Diran and Niyi; they were children of one of the maintenance men who worked on campus. I’m not sure how it started, but one day, I realised these rascals started following me around while on one of my solitary walks. At first, I affected indifference; I didn’t care to have my solitude disturbed. But after a while, they began to grow on me, with their cheeky behaviour and their incessant questions: “Aunty Kemi, come and see me do som-a-sault!”, “Aunty Kemi, how far is America?” “Aunty Kemi, where are we going today?” I earned their undying love one day when I handed them my old mobile phone, which I no longer needed; I had just been given a new one by my brother, who seemed to be always updating his phones every ten minutes.
And so my life continued until one evening, when I was studying for an upcoming test in a lecture hall.
“I figured it out.”
Startled, I looked up. A stocky, muscular boy stood gazing levelly at me.
“Excuse me, do I know you?” I said, feigning ignorance.
“I figured it out,” he repeated. “I devoted my not-so-massive brain power to the issue, and I quickly realised that my advice had actually offended you. But before I could recover from your rebuke and scramble an apology together, you had walked away.”
I arched my eyebrows in response.
The boy smiled apologetically, showing two rows of brilliant, well-formed teeth. “In my defence, I had a sister for whom mechanical engineering was a big struggle; eventually, to everyone’s great relief, she changed to another course. But I also now realise that not everyone is my sister, and not everyone likes hearing unsolicited advice. Sorry.”
I softened a bit; I’m not sure whether it was because of his candour, or his very white teeth. “I was expecting something more dramatic; after all, you’ve had a few weeks now to prepare that apology. But I’ll accept it, sha.”
“Oh, I could have done much better than that,” he replied. “But my brain power has been engaged in other matters, like working out the right time and place to even deliver the apology in the first place. And trust me, that has been a lot harder than it looks. Most of the time, you were either in a hurry to get to somewhere. Or you were so deep in concentration, focusing your massive brainpower on your books, that it would have been criminal to interrupt. But tonight was my lucky day, it seems,” finishing with another of his gigawatt beams.
I laughed out loud, causing a few people to turn their heads in annoyance. “I’m sure I’m not that difficult to get ahold of. But see o,” I said, gesturing at my books. “I have a test coming up soon, and no amount of brainpower will save me from failing if I don’t return to these.”
“OK o. But we shall see again in class again.”