Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ikot Ekpene

Ikot Ekpene. The Canadian technician who worked in the Water Engineer's Department with my husband, Balan, called it 'He Got a Penny.' The slight contempt in his voice and the idiotic grin that went with it enraged me. Two years later he drove his car into a tree on the side of the Uyo road and all I could think of was what a racist he had been.
   Work for my husband, indeed for all workers, started at seven -thirty in the morning and finished at two-thirty in the afternoon. Schools finished at one, but my children were still toddlers. For the dedicated drinker there was a whole afternoon to drink away.
   What was there to do in this little town, which had one small street around the local market? No cinema, no retstaurants, no friends yet to socialise with. Not even a good road to saunter on and definitely no shop windows to stare into. As for the white families, of which there were all of two then in Ikot Ekpene, they drove to Aba, thirty miles away, or Port Harcourt, even further. Sixty miles was nothing for a man who wanted his Becks beer and like-minded friends to drink it with.
   For me there were no book shops, no magazines, not even a newspaper. Come to think of it, no electricity either. After dusk we, my family and I, congregated round the tilly lamp and waited for a reasonable hour to go to bed, mostly around nine at night. Through the long day, I wore a sarong and took a scythe to the long grass in the huge front garden. I planted cannas in never-ending lines and talked to the tall hibiscus trees in front of the living room window. My boys fought over the one tricycle they owned and played in the soil I dug out for the cannas
   Then I hit on a great idea. Work. Why could I not teach like all the Sree Lankans and Indians scattered across Eastern Nigeria, teaching everything including Religious Education to Nigerian children. I persuaded my husband to approach the nearest school for a job for me. I fancied teaching English and Mathematics.
   The nearest educational institution turned out to be a College of Teacher Education run by American nuns. They told Balan I could start immediately, if I was all he claimed I was, but could we see her first.
   So Balan sat me down and explained how to get to the College. 'Down the bush road to the left as you leave the compound and when you reach the main Aba Road, cross, and the College is in front of you.'
   'How do I know the Aba Road? I asked. 'There is no other road within miles,' he said, a trifle impatiently. So off I went the next day in search of the Aba Road. I had picked out a blue handloom sari for the interview and there was red hibiscus in my hair. The bush road turned out to be a slope down which rain water gushed when it rained and by the time I had walked the ten minutes to the College, I was drenched and my sari was wrapped inelegantly round my ankles.
   The nuns didn't lose a beat when I turned up, wringing water out of my sari end and the hibiscus crushed into my kondai. My teaching assignment was Julius Caesar to year 1 and Arithmetic to the whole school. Easy peasey, I thought. But I had not bargained for the humungous culture shock - on both sides.
   First working day in my young life: This time I wore an orange sari and as I walked along the long drive from college gates to classroom, I plucked orange-pink bougainvillea and stuck it into my hair. When I wear flowers in my hair there is an immediate surge of self-confidence. I am no longer ordinary. Much later I would think, Aung Sang Suukyi is the only one who comes close to understanding flowers-in-the-hair magic. Pity I don't look like her, though.
   The forty girls in front me in my first classroom stood up to greet their Principal and the new teacher. 'Good Morning Sister, Good Morning Miss,' they sang in unison. A brief introduction and Sister floated away, white habit swishing down the parquet floors of the corridor. The girls stared at me, my sari, my hair. They had never had an Indian teacher before.
   All the girls had plaited hair, which stuck out from their heads like crowns of thorns. The uniform was white blouses and dirt-brown pinafores, which did nothing for their smooth mahogany complexions. In my mind I whisked that brown away and substituted emerald green. And perhaps, that hem could be a little higher, but school rules said the dress had to skim the floor when they knelt for prayers.
   They prayed often: at the start of each lesson and at the beginning and the end of the school day.
   That College was a revelation and I spent some of my happiest days teaching there. Watch out for the next blog for a different Nigeria than exists now.

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