I was late leaving my dormitory again, so that by time I had reached the Methodist High School, the Assembly had already begun. They were singing. The voices echoed along the Assembly Hall, and reverberated against the grey walls between the front of the school and the yard opposite. Everywhere there were young voices; everywhere there was the determined military tune, the tune that was making the khakied uniformed girls inside into pilgrims of Christ.
It was a little odd – a little nostalgia-making – standing outside, late, listening to an orthodox church hymn. The girls sang in tune – Miss Davies, their Welsh Music Mistress, saw to that – but you could tell that the voices were African. You could hear in these voices something of their grandparents: the grandparents who had once used their voices in village music – singing ballads or stories – or possibly in forest calls to accompany the rhythms of the cone-shaped talking drums. These girls, the modern girls of twentieth-century Africa, still possessed their grandparents’ voices. They were voices full of strength and vigour, but they were also voices full of hope and pride. It was the hope and pride of believing that they were going to be the new women of the new Africa. They had been told that they were special, that one day they would be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Miss Davies from Wales, Miss Osborne from Scotland, Miss Humble from Oxford, Miss Walker from Australia, plus many, many other white missionaries who had left their own countries to come to Lagos to teach the girls here to value their own importance. There were a few black mistresses – one in the needlework department and the other in the domestic department – but you could tell that they really didn’t count.
I, though, was not really among these new women. In part it was because I was shy and sensitive – too shy and too sensitive to be able to forget myself among a crowd of people. Even though I craved company, I always seemed to act like a fool when with people. And so I lingered or walked alone or read or memorized what I read. In part, it was because I was different. Although I could recite works by Shakespeare or Keats or Rupert Brooke, I was the daughter of parents who had scant education, who had simply emerged out of their innocent (and yet exotic) bush culture. They were innocents in the so-called civilized world. Maybe a little crude. But in their world – in terms of communal caring and support, in expressions of language and in the making of music – they could not be surpassed in their sophistication. But they had to leave all this, my parents, in search of this New Thing. They left their village homes which had been the homes of their ancestors for generations and generations, and they came to the city. And it was in the city that they had me, and they said I was clever. They said I was clever because I won something called a scholarship and which my mother called ‘sikohip’. I was to be brought up in the new way. That was why instead of being in the village – claying the mud floor of my ancestors – I had to stand in front of this school compound feeling guilty for having read too late into the morning, hearing the voices now of my already assembled school friends singing.
I often gave the village life a good deal of thought. My people made sure I never lost touch with it. I had to go through all the rituals: tribal marks on my face, clitorization at the age of eight so that I would have sexual self-control as a young adult and would be kept on the straight and narrow. Even so, even then, I knew that, like my parents, I was already trapped in this New Thing. But of course to all my friends and even to me, it wasn’t a New Thing any more. It was becoming a way of life.
However much I may have admired or thought about village life, I knew that, just to survive, I had to make a go of the education I was being offered. I was at a school where all the girls had to pay, but I was going for free. And because I was not paying for my education I ended up spending more and more time by myself, without friends. I was not of course given a scholarship out of charity but it made no difference. Although I was also aware that my parents could not have paid the high fees if they had been asked to do so. How could they? My father had been dead for some time. And my mother even though a Christian, had to return to being a native in our village town Ibuza. She had to return for survival. So I was, in a funny way, guilty for being on a scholarship, and grateful for being on a scholarship.
That morning I was late, and I knew that I was in trouble. I was a Christian girl of fourteen behaving like an irresponsible ‘bush’ girl. But inside, I knew it was more complicated: I knew I was both – a ‘bush’ girl and a civilized Christian. I could also play both to perfection. That morning, it was obvious that the humble, quiet Christian was called for.
I ran in, stopping by the door, my eyes lowered, my fat navy blue Methodist hymn book clasped to my flat chest. But then I walked straight into my form Mistress, Mrs Okuyemi.
This morning Mrs Okuyemi sat on the outside of our row. She made way for me, but not immediately, keeping me waiting just long enough for all the subject teachers to see me. That stupid Ibo girl, with the marks of ‘10’ on her face, had done wrong again. I stared at the cement floor. I would not look at anybody’s face. The other girls were pretending to be disturbed by my lateness. Then I collided with Bisi, and her chair clattered on the floor, and Miss Davies stopped the piano, and the Head, Miss Walker, lowered her glasses, and Miss Humble, a giant of a woman, always in sneakers, stood on tiptoe. She was the physical education Mistress and also the head of English and literary studies. I tumbled to the end of the row, making for the empty seat. Why didn’t they allow the empty seat to be near the door?
The morning service resumed, after Miss Davies had put her glasses back on and tossed her head back. We soon knelt in prayer and finished the morning assembly by singing the school hymn.
Lord grant us like the watching five,
To wait thy coming and to strive,
Each one her lamp to trim…
I always felt this hymn was having a go at me. I was the foolish virgin who did not trim her lamp and was late and unprepared for the wedding feast.
Some people said this story of the foolish virgins in the Bible was symbolic; some of us believed it was real. I remember during one of my school holidays I was explaining the meaning of our school hymn to a distant cousin in Ibuza. She was at school too, but not in a ‘big school’ like mine. At the mention of the virgin she gasped. ‘You mean Jesus Christ refused women, even though they were virgins, simply because they did not trim their stupid lamps?’ she asked.
‘Not just their lamps, Josephine. They were not ready for the wedding….’
‘I wish I was there. I can trim and fill twenty million lamps if that is all it will take to be a good woman. Not like this rotten place. You have to be a virgin, a virgin all the time.’
I looked at her, too scared to say a word. We were coming to that age when we were not allowed to say everything that came into our heads. But I suspected that my cousin Jo would be in a big trouble on her wedding night. She did not say it: she did not need to. But as if to make me sorrier for her she did say, ‘You can kill a fowl and pour it on the white cloth you use on your first night with your husband.’
I shook my head. I did not know, but went on, ‘My mother said that any other blood would go pale before morning. But the real thing would always be red.’
After an uncomfortable silence, Jo said, ‘I can trim lamps. I think Christianity is better. Think of all the beatings and humiliations one would have to go through otherwise. Trimming lamps is easier.’
Jo and I were clitorized on the same day, when we were eight, because we belong to the same age group. That was now years ago, and here she was saying this.
I was asking about her the other day, twenty years after this conversation. And I was told she was a nun. Jo went into a nunnery because she probably thought God would accept girls who, by mistake or curiosity or sheer ignorance, had become rather adventurous. That it needed two people to become adventurous but that it was the girl who was penalized makes you think sometimes. But it was just this kind of adventurousness which they said clitorization was supposed to prevent. I’m not so sure. But I am sure that, even with a clitorization, I managed to have five children in five years and all before I was twenty-five. Imagine how many I would have – imagine what I’d be! – if I hadn’t had one.
Like my cousin Jo, I was taking the school song literally.
It was, as I think about it, a rather strange life I had then, and it is no surprise that I had a number of escapes. My greatest escape was into literature, or, if not literature, into stories. I remember the first English story I read by myself: Hansel and Gretel. I used to imagine myself lost, like them, in the bush, and imagined then that my relatives would be kinder to me and stop beating me. I believed that my mother would return and stay with me and my younger brother – as she did before my father died. And I dreamed that she would leave her new native husband, who was living with her only because he inherited her, not because he married her, as my father had.
I used to live for stories. During the school holidays, we used to come home to Ibuza. And there I virtually drank in everything the old ladies told us in the village.
Later I used to dream stories, and this was when my work began to suffer. It was because of one of these dream stories that I got into so much trouble on the day that began so badly with my showing up late at the Assembly.
I had always guessed that Miss Humble did not like me. There was nothing to like about me, anyway. I was always too serious looking, with formidable glasses, and was not particularly clean or clever. My class work was steadily going down, and this was making life more difficult.
Anyway, the tall and broad Miss Humble never liked me. But because I wanted her to like me as she liked my friend Kehinde Lawal, I used to really try in her literature lesson.
But it didn’t help: Miss Humble did not like me and that was that. On this particular day, a rather strange thing happened. Miss Humble was reading Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, when she reached the part that goes,
Tu – whit! Tu – whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.
I did not understand what I was hearing. My mouth was agape in wonder. I was no longer looking at a young English teacher with an MA in English from Oxford, but I was back in the village land of my ancestors. I was listening to the voice of my father’s little mother, with her big head covered in white woolly curls, and saliva trickling down the corner of her mouth, and her face sweating and shining in the sweat, and me sitting by her feet, and the Ukwa tree shading from the bright moon, and the children who would not sit still for stories because they wanted to play Ogbe. I was there in Ibuza, in Umuezeokolo, in Odanta, where all my people came from. I was there in that place and I was no longer hearing the young English woman born in the Lake District and trained at Oxford, calling me, calling me. Suddenly somebody nudged me. Then Miss Humble’s voice came through. Sharp. Angry.
‘Florence! Florence! What are you going to be when you grow up?’
‘A writer,’ I replied.
She stretched herself, standing on her toes as if she was determined to reach the ceiling, and pointed stiffly at me. Then she said in a hoarse voice, her protruding teeth looking as if they were going to fall out: ‘Pride goes before a fall!’
I was now fully awake. ‘I said I would like to be a writer,’ I began again, just in case she did not hear me at first.
‘Go out, out, and straight to the chapel. Go there and pray for God to forgive you.’
‘Eh?’ I said.
‘And take a bad mark!’
I then knew this was serious. I was by the door, ready to run for it. Bad marks were added up and shown in one’s school report. Nevertheless, I was confused. I did not know what I had done. I hesitated, my eyes not leaving her face. I saw that her mouth started to make the shape of another ‘bad mark’. It was then that I ran and did not stop until I was sure Miss Humble could see me no longer. I started to walk slowly up the stairs towards the chapel.
My mind was at first blank, with only Miss Humble’s voice ringing in my ears. The voice of authority. Then as I neared the chapel, my own voice, little and insecure, started to express some doubts. ‘What are you going to tell God, eh? What, Florence, are you going to tell Him, when you go inside there to ask His forgiveness? Are you going to say, “Please dear God, don’t make me a writer” …. And then at the same time say, “But, dear God, I so wish to be a writer, a story-teller like our old mothers at home in Ibuza. But unlike them, I would not have to sit by the moonlight because I was born in an age of electricity, and would not have to tell my story with my back leaning against the Ukwa tree. I have learned to use a new tool for the same art; I have learned a new language, the language of Miss Humble and the rest of them. So where is the sin in that?’”
My voice suddenly grew increasingly more bold until it covered up the voice of Miss Humble, and by the time I reached the chapel door, I decided to walk past it. God had more important things to do than punish me for saying my dream aloud. I have thought about this episode for many nights, and I have finally come to the conclusion that Miss Humble probably felt that her language was too pure for the likes of me to use it to express myself. Hence to her it was a matter not just of pride but arrogance to say what I said. But why – I keep asking myself – did she take the trouble to leave her island home and come and teach her language to us in the first place? It makes my head ache so much whenever I try to puzzle this out.