|Print | Back||October 13, 2015|
African VoiceLessons from a Soiled Uniform
by Imo Eshiet
It was the beginning of my third year at primary school, so Mother took me to a local tailor to fit me out.
“Don’t make your measurements too exact. I want him to fit into that uniform for the next three years,” she said as the village tailor wound his tape around my wasp-like waist.
“Don’t worry, just trust me. Have I not been making uniforms for the village kids and ought to know my job by now? The kids of nowadays grow like tendrils on a good soil. I have no clue what folks feed them with,” the scrawny old man replied, his withered hands shaking.
He continued to talk as he worked. “My only concern is that though they grow so tall so fast, yet they have no idea how we suffer to provide for them. If only they were as prodigal with common sense as they are with growing tall like the okra plant. He was as shriveled as a dehydrated yam, and he spoke with disappointment in his eyes and voice.
Mother agreed, her head bobbing up and down like the head of an agama lizard warming itself in the sun. She was especially happy when he assured her he would tag on a sash so I could tie up the loose pants around my waist.
“And remember to make the shirt just as big,” she reminded the tailor. But he could only be persuaded so far. “Akon, I thought you’re a seamstress yourself, so instead of getting into my hair why not take your boy home and fit him out the way you want since you know better than me.”
That was how I got my oversized uniform. From the tailor’s workshop we went to the shoemaker’s store. Mother picked a pair of shoes several sizes larger than my foot. When I slipped my feet, it seemed as if I was inside a dugout canoe. Attempting to walk with my new shoes, my feet simply came out of them.
Not to worry — I would grow into them, Mother said. The thing to do was to squeeze in some of the packaging that came with the shoes so that my toes could wedge against the stuffed shoes. When the trick worked I was ecstatic, for most of my mates came to school barefoot.
I was over the moon when the tailor sent his apprentice to deliver the finished uniform to my mother. On my way to school, however, my joy soon turned to ashes. Some wags said I was such a perfect scarecrow I could frighten crows away and send eagle soaring into flight with panic.
I arrived at school in a sour mood. Kids whose uniforms were even more outsized than mine called out, “Papa dash me!” meaning my uniform was a hand-me-down from my father. I flew into a rage at the insult and whacked the face of the first dingy-mouthed boy who taunted me.
The kid, sturdy and heavy and his mouth wide open like a hungry alligator, his face set and determined like the bow of a regatta boat, barreled at me with the fury of an enraged rhino. Soon as he locked in, he held me in a vise-like grip — but I was equally ready for him. My kid brother Mfon was a master wrestler, and sparring together had taught me to plant a foot between the legs of an opponent and throw him back- first in the dirt.
Fortunately for me, the bully was bowlegged so I had enough room to dig in a foot. The tactic worked and soon I was on top of my challenger I drubbed him with my tiny fists to the cheers and jeers of those who egged us on.
A haunt for domestic animals, the dirt and mud into which I felled him was generous with the foul odors of billy goat urine, fowl dung and rotten grass so that by the end of the fight both of us stank like a waste treatment plant.
A teacher hearing the commotion rushed out and tore us apart. To my bewilderment, most of the buttons on my white cotton shirt now turned the color of rust had been ripped off. My brown khaki pant was no less disheveled.
Worse, the shoes that made me so proud I almost walked on air was badly messed up. In my fury I had used it to kick and trash at the boy so hard that the sole came off and I had to hold it in my hands and walk to the principal’s office when the teacher stopped our fight.
Ruefully I recalled my mother’s warning any time I acted impulsively. “A man who throws another in the mud,” she often said while pinching my ears the better to forcefully drum in her advice even though she knew her words entered from one ear and got right out through the other, “was bound to be bespattered by muck himself.”
At the principal’s office I was punished for starting the physical fight and the boy I mauled, for bashing me. Both of us were to cut grass after school on a portion of the soccer pitch. That, however, was the least of my worry. How to explain my messy uniform and ruined shoes to my parents weighed heavily on me like a monstrous incubus.
While I had sauntered in the morning with a spanking trot to school, all puffed up with pride, now my feet were leaden and my feeling flat and dejected as a deflated as a flat tire. Soaking with sweat after the grass cutting and bedraggled like an owl after a rainstorm at night, I miserably slinked home like a wimpy dog.
My mother, who had heard of the incident long before I arrived home, was waiting for me.
Though her eyes burned holes into what was left of my new uniform, surprisingly she was not as explosive as I had feared. Usually a bellowing tigress, her normal behavior would have been to lather me up with haranguing before finally swallowing me up like a famished python. Instead she was momentarily speechless.
Perhaps it was the sight of my head hanging down in remorse like an overcast cloud that made her so.
To my walloping disbelief, I got a hot bath rather than slaughter. As she scrubbed me hard with soap and the sponge, she said I should not have fought that rascal. “Didn’t you know,” she asked without necessarily expecting any answer, “that the offspring of a snake usually has a long tail?”
Her remark was an unveiled reference to the seedy background of the boy I had fought. After scrubbing the grime from me she surprised me again with a warm chicken broth.
As I greedily gulped down the soup, she shook her head as if remembering what the tailor said about slow-witted kids who grow tall in a hurry while their minds crawled at sloth speed. Looking at me with pity she remarked, “A child that does not heed its mother’s advice sells itself into perdition! I made you food and served it on the table but you chose to eat on the dirt like a pig.”
That last remark was a not-too-subtle hint that since I preferred going to school in rags, so would it be for the next three years when she was convinced I had outgrown the one she had made earlier.
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