“OPEN THIS GATE!” a shrill female voice yelled.
I stood and stared at the sea of humanity that stretched out before me. We were amassed outside the gates of the Government Secondary School, our center for the University Matriculation Examinations (JAMB, to most Nigerian students) and those in charge of the center had locked the school gates from within. We saw them standing about in the school’s compound, ignoring us (the) as if they couldn’t hear the buzz of pent up frustration emanating from the teeming crowd. Some candidates intended to let them know firsthand.
GBAM, GBAM, GBAM, GBAM! One of those at the front hammered on the rusty gate whose eventual demise was imminent.
“Una dey craze o!” he yelled in that particular accent we know as wafi. “We look like sey we come here come watch dat fat man dia were im dey play champions league with dat woman wey her head be like the trophy? Abeg come open gate!”
And with that, a cacophony of “come open gate” and hammering on the gate (whose relatives must be printing obituaries) erupted. Unknown to them, a couple of soldiers, drafted in as security for the examinations were seating, unseen in the security post attached to the rusty gate. After a few seconds of hearing the bedlam going on outside, they decided to make their appearance, wielding truncheons. One of them brandished a gun.
“Who dey knack this gate?” demanded their leader. The man looked so mean, that Arnold Schwazenneger would cringe in his presence. And his face was the type that would give Segun Arinze hope in a beauty contest.
As his voice rose inside the compound, silence fell outside it.
“I say who dey knack this gate!”
A large space appeared around the gate where, a few minutes ago, no one could tell what surface the ground was.
“Make who dey knack am come knack am again, make I see!”
By this time, the gate knackers had made it to the back of the crowd.
I stood apart from the crowd, fascinated. This was the first time I was going to write the UME. I had heard stories of people writing this examination ten, twelve, thirty (by which time, the person should be on first name terms with all the invigilators and recognizable by the chairman of JAMB himself) times! For that reason, I had spent the last week in church, made peace with all the people I had quarreled with (so they won’t “winch” me on exam day) and held a fast the previous day. I was spiritually and academically prepared.
Not quite so for the people around me. The milled about either singly or in groups, discussing in low tones either amongst themselves or on the phone, finding out “how e go be” from unknown persons. I walked up to one of such people just as he disconnected the call and asked him (in my most polished Queen’s English, of course. We’re here for an academic exercise!);
“Excuse me; are you here for the UME?”
“Ehn?” the guy responded.
“The UME, are you writing it?”
“Which wan be UME?” he replied. “Na JAMB we dey write for here, no be UME. E be like say you miss road. No be here dem dey write UME, na JAMB dem dey write here.”
I left him well alone, with thanks.
The side gate was soon opened and they started letting people in first by announcing the person’s examination number, then searching the person for calculators, phones or other prohibited items. Four guys standing in front of me were planning how to smuggle their phones in.
“Okay, the first pesin dem call go enter, go stand for the side wall. If the person here my whistle im go know say we don set. Den we go throw our phones over fence then the person go wait for front of dat yellow building dia. We go come meet am, una hear?”
They all nodded in agreement.
“243567LE!” the person with the list called.
“Na my number be dat!” one of the boys said.
“Ehen,” said the ringleader. “You know as e be na.” the boy nodded, handed his phone over to the ringleader then started to make his way through the crowd while the other three headed to the side fence. After a while, the ringleader whistled and a respond whistle rang back. Then he tossed a phone over the fence. No event. He tossed another. Nothing. He had just tossed the third when we heard;
“Hey, hey!” followed a few seconds by the sound of terrific slaps being delivered and three phones flying down the road. I saw the guy frog jumping beside a soldier when I was admitted into the building.
I finally made it to my hall and located my seat I was seated beside a door that was permanently shut but was on the same side of the wall as the entrance door. However, the entrance door was at the front of the hall and I was at the back. Seated behind me were three girls who, from the moment I had stepped into the hall, were whispering, giggling and sometimes, laughing quite loudly and maniacally. In my mind, I nicknamed them the three witches (because that was what they sounded like!)
The hall soon filled up and soon, the exams were about to start. A young, fair man with a funny face came in and asked us to pray before the exams, lest he saw any of us the following year, a remark that was followed by the most emphatic “GOD FORBID!!!!”
“Can someone led by the spirit please pray for us,” funny face said.
Most of us in the hall were young and, of course, none of us wanted to be the one to pray. However, a well proportioned lady, in a well cut suit, also a candidate writing the exams arose and asked us to shut our eyes. My, did she look like a pastor’s wife. The three witches took note of this fact and burst into laughter.
First she started with the usual; “…..Lord, we thank you for today, you’ve been so good to us. We worship you, we adore you….” However, in about a minute, she was into this “……ribobobobobo, shabababababa, riboshibabdamasha, yes Lord, yes Lord….”
The three witches were about to die from laughter.
We were quite sure the woman was about to launch into full time prophecy when the funny faced man cut in with;
“….and we pray that none of us, even after our communication with spirits will be here for this examination next year, in Jesus’ name.”
The “amen” must have made everyone living close to the premises wonder who was holding a crusade at that time of the day.
“But come oh,” said funny face. “If you are not here next year, it could mean you’re dead o.”
“GOD FORBID!” everyone yelled (and the people around must have wondered what crusade it was that first they shout “AMEN!” that loud by 11:00 am, then follow it up with “GOD FORBID!”).
“If you know you are here with a phone or a scientific calculator, bring it forward now. I will keep it till the end of the paper and then you will come to me to get it back, any unclaimed phones, I will sell. If, however, any phones or calculators are found after this, it will be seized and, again, I will sell it.”
A few phones and calculators made their appearance.
As it turned out, funny face was not our invigilator. Our invigilator was an unsmiling woman with a large white scarf (so large it would be considered a turban if she were in the North) wrapped around here head and clutching a large bible. She was dressed in those long skirts that sweep the floor and a coat that must have had at least four shoulder pads; a fashion that is associated with certain churches alone.
“May God help you all.” were her first words. We instantly began to seek divine protection from this woman.
“I don’t want to see any phones or hear any calculators” (what!?) “If you think you can come into my hall to cheat, forget it. Anyone caught cheating will be handed over to the soldiers downstairs.”
The hall fell deathly silent as she began to distribute the examination papers, English Language first. By 12:30, the paper started. By 12: 35, someone’s ringtone went off.
“Whose phone is that?” Madam turban asked. Nobody budged. The phone continued to ring for all it was worth.
“I say, whose phone is that?”
No answer. Madam turban began to trace the ringtone to its source by its sound. After a while, it stopped, and she lost track. Then it started up again and she finally traced it to a big black handbag, the handbag belonging to our unofficial spiritual leader and pastor’s wife look-alike.
“Who owns this bag?” turban woman asked. Madam Pastor meekly raised a hand.
“AH!” squealed the three witches in unison. “PAAAAAAAASTOR!” and burst into uncontrolled mirth. Turban woman seized the phone and the little hubbub that trailed the event died down as people began to look itchy. There was no way any runz was going to happen under this woman’s eyes. She had eyes like a hawk and spotted every tiny movement. I, on the other hand, having actually prepared for the exams, began tackling questions. Around me, guys were chewing pens, counting the blocks in the ceiling boards and drawing cartoon characters on their question papers. Even Madam Pastor was staring at the open sky outside.
“Wetin you dey look?” one of the three witches asked.
“She dey wait for divine inspiration!” another replied and all three promptly surged into; “ribobobobboboshabbabbaba, yes Lord” before bursting into laughter. A steely gaze from the invigilator sent them to sober silence. Everyone returned to grim contemplation.
They needn’t have bothered. She was soon summoned away to a larger hall by the chief invigilator of the center and replaced with a younger woman who also declared that she was incorruptible but looked less like it.
“I don’t accept bribes or anything of the sort,” She let us know. “You must write on your own.”
The misery continued. However, she looked across at the opposite hall where the invigilator, also a young lady like her was counting a wad of N500 notes.
“Well,” she began “It is also in my policy to help people in need. However, most people don’t show appreciation. You know, from time to time, a gift of N500 or something, you know, show gratitude. It makes people like us more willing to help you.”
A mad rush of people rushing to hand her N500 ensued. Then we began to hear phones vibrating on desks and see people punching away on calculators. The invigilator even went a step further by getting the “expo” for all the types, photocopying it and distributing it to everyone, me included. Astoundingly, I compared them against the answers I already had and they were right.
Terror fell when she suddenly dashed into the hall from the corridor where she had been standing, keeping watch, and a look of abject fright on her face.
“Hide everything!” she shout-whispered. “The chief invigilator is coming with soldiers! If they find anything, I don’t know anything o!” and promptly left us to hiding everything. The papers soon began to disappear and I began to see the creativity of the human mind. Some people folded theirs and put it in the shoes, others using defective desks folded it into small flat squares and fit it between the joints of the desks. Some disappeared into bras and boxers. Some ladies folded theirs into tiny squares and hid them in their hair! And just as the chief invigilator approached with his whip wielding soldiers, some were hastily squeezed and thrown, through the window, into the neighboring compound.
“Hey!” a man’s voice rang out. “Hey, make una come pick una paper o! Una jus dey troway doti enter pesin domot, make una come carry una paper o!”
A N500 note was hastily squeezed and sent over the wall as well.
“Ehn, Akin,” we heard as the chief invigilators and his soldiers arrived the hall and went over to know what paper was being talked about. “Go bring dat newspaper wey I tell you make you go carry for papa Christian domot. Go carry am come. And sweep dat doti wey dey for backyard.”
The chief invigilator hiss, muttered something about noisy people, looked over the hall and saw the mass of serious candidates tackling their exam questions with complete focus (though if he had been the breast staring type, he would have noticed that some girls’ breasts were looking flatter, squarer or sharper in some places). He nodded his approval and left.
One of the three witches looked up and said;
“You go fear where N500 make papa Christian leave im newspaper for domot na.”
We all burst into laughter.