By Llord Aidoo
I MUST have been seven, or six, when Mother first took me to school. None of us knew what fortunes awaited us. In that sprawling slum, school was this horribly ramshackle, low-ceilinged structure that had once known glory as a church. The moth-eaten interwoven bamboo walls and doors and windows, the rotted tin roof that provided multiple openings to the high heavens, everything was in advanced dilapidation.
Mother stiffly held my limp hand on one side, while her other hand clutched my chair for use that year. Entering the portal I noticed the broken floor exposed the bare cold earth here and there. A neighbor had informed us the brown sand crawled with ticks and monstrous jiggers that wreaked havoc on the pupils’ miserable unshod feet. I’d myself very soon realize you were truly at that school when your toes, and sometimes fingers, turned feasts for multiple jiggers. But my most immediate concern that morning never involved children’s limbs as feasts for invisible monsters. For half that entire week I had lain awake mulling over what Mother was about to do to me in that school. I resented her plan so much, but not having the power to dissuade her disturbed me even now.
Nailed above the entrance was this pitch black plaque with neat gold lettering that read: REVEREND MUFFET SCHOOL. This inscription seemed the only intact object about.
In the raised “sanctuary” separated from the remainder of the interior by low railings of decaying rafters Reverend sat writing in a large gold journal behind an enormous mahogany table piled high, on both sides, with dusty leather bound tomes. Seemingly endless rows of assorted books lined angular shelves ringed round the long-shouldered chair that dwarfed the old principal’s smallish stature. From what I’d been long lectured of school, I didn’t know what to make of the cobwebs over the clutter and the air inside that hung heavy with freshly swept dust. These lent the place a time-forgotten feel quite contrary to the image I kept of school being a place of extraordinary order.
At once upon our mounting the sanctuary stairs, an old grandfather clock lose its tongue to chime the hours in deep guttural tones. Looking up the novelty against that wall, I convinced myself the time master had contrived to sing me welcome. So appealing was this idea I secretly responded by mimicking the mechanical vernacular under my breath.
About six women, all about Mother’s middle age and similarly clad in worn, half-faded wax prints with old rubber flip-flops for footwear, occupied the only chair present, so Mother edged my tiny chair by a grand antique organ, sat me upon it, and herself stood silently by to await our turn with Reverend.
Sitting there I stole nervous glances from the clock to my new environs while my former woes hammered me with a plethora of fresh concerns. For one, I calculated that that bevy, some of whom I knew at the market where Mother worked, were there for similar purpose as ours. I noted that most of them restlessly tapped or fanned themselves with folded pieces of papers. I knew, from Mother’s intimations over the previous days, exactly what it was they so dearly cherished by those folded papers. And as much as I tried to cast it off, this knowledge returned the weight of my old perturbations about what Mother was going to do to me.
One of the women rose and gestured with gentle curtsies that Mother rested her legs a bit. To this opportunity Mother promptly made herself comfortable as the lady walked across where I sat with the delicious odors of her wares trailing her. It was so with these womenfolk—they all radiated the scent of what they dealt days without fail at the market: the fishwives smelled ever of salt and ocean; the used clothes sellers, of powder and medicine; the bitter bulbs and pepper traders, of earth and fire. Because she sold kala for our upkeep, Mother herself wafted of burning vegetable oils and fresh dough, even when fast asleep at midnight.
A heavy perfume of charcoal smoke and roasting onion skins soon reminded me the gentle soul who had just surrendered her place to Mother was one of us children’s favorites in the market’s confused din; those aunties oozing this heavenly sweetness were the food, or cold bowl, sellers with whom no child ever starved so long that child remained in their good books!
For a long second, the regurgitated taste of charity food nudged my main turmoil aside. Then I began to quietly shiver on account of an unusual inertness that had come over Mother. She’d assured me long before she would give the universe itself to enroll me at the famous St. Mary’s. Somewhat I felt her spirits shattered that some strange fates had finally exchanged such nook for the object of her greatest promise.
With nervous hands Mother made fast the knot keeping her wrapper in place, rolled up into a tight ball where she sat and sighed rather despondently. Seeing her this way began to unnerve me because I was aware she hadn’t one weak streak to easily abandon any quest without real struggles. I wished I knew, in the misty dawn, exactly what had thwarted her strives so much so her dreams about my most important sojourn was at last commencing in such lowly form.
Reflections of St. Mary’s flooded my mind. St. Mary’s, the great Catholic primary school run by quiet nuns in blue habits over across the tarmacadam road before Duala Market, was every parent’s highest pride to send their ward. At the time of this story’s telling, the first Liberian Priest (and later on; first Liberian bishop) Father Patrick Kla Jewle, was principal there. And what legend existed throughout our borough Father Jewle was one tough disciplinarian. Of course at that time nothing told me I would, by dint of unexpected shift in fortunes, very shortly experience this unremitting virtue of the honorable religious pioneer.
My eyes could not disengage from Mother’s strained face. Now her gaze, hard and indecipherable, met mine. My good friend Old Pa’s mom always shot similar look at him, if he refused to complete his dishwashing chores, and told him: “I wish you didn’t exist!”
I squinted at Mother, thinking if she ever thought what Old Pa’s mom thought of him, my scowl should let her know the feeling was very mutual! But her eyes were glazed; to me she only seemed secluded in her one-dimensional world where only the dark plans she was about to execute mattered. So in my mind I hastened to master what I’d planned to reveal as counter to her move! Perhaps it would have sent us clashing in that corner of the slum when our turn came with the registrar; perhaps it would have crashed our world down, and thenceforth eternally ruin our enjoyable lives together…
I don’t now recall myself considering any such point other than that Mother must finally cooperate with the inevitable of forever desisting from her plans about me!
Presently Reverend looked up. “Nine clouds, great morning!” the greeting startled the lot of us in that drab sanctuary. He shoved his writings beside a framed blown-out portrait of folks in an open-topped American carriage with uniformed men in the background. The black and white portrait bore lines I understood several months afterward as:
Elizabeth Alexander Mary,
Queen of the Commonwealth Realms.
William V.S. Tubman,
President of Liberia.
As I hadn’t known Her Majesty had visited years back in 1961, the portrait made the event appear like just last weekend. Straining my eyes I recognized our Tubman, in all his cigar and tail coat glory, beside the white clad, gloved hands, umbrella-wielding personage alright. But for my worry of what Mother would soon be about, the other thought never immediately cease upon me there and then: that live rumor gleamed from adults’ drunken chitchats that the Queen was after all just another consort of the President’s! In New Kru Town there hardly was any kid my age and above who hadn’t heard that oft repeated but dimly understood myth about the benevolent William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman.
Reverend saw to one or two ladies, and was fetching another pad and bookmarking a page or so, his gap-toothed grin turning Mother’s way. “Nine clouds!” He was rising from his seat and squeezing round a little space about the table, his kind eyes and measured way of speaking snatching my interest from the portrait. Presently a shiny disc tied to a long black and white string round his neck possessed my fascination.
“So this is our new scholar, eh?” The voice was smooth and joyful, almost caressing.
Mother quickly rose and motioned that I stand as Reverend approached.
“Young man,” he observed, “all the shaganboans are way ahead now. You’re one whole month and half late, eh? Tell me, do you want to be a MANOBLANCO or PSYCOBLANCO?”
Now, here’s real book man speaking! I mused; forgetting I’d previously heard Reverend employed rather unusual languages when addressing his unlettered patrons and their little tots. Never mind I understood absolutely nothing of those queer manoblanco or whatever, I was about to lay out my counter as preemptive assault to disrupt Mother’s plans way beforehand—but Mother suddenly restrained me in a rough hold I shuddered. Was she aware what I was up to?
“It’s the malaria, Old Teacher,” she said shakily. “We wanted to come but the fever starts over.”
“Ah, the only shaganboan not tropicalized…I see. What did you say your name was again?” This was my first ever close physical encounter with the old man, never mind his iconic renown, and my mind engaged the odd familiarity implicit in his manners. When the full meaning of that question soon dawned on me, I became immediately edgy, for here was the exact question Mother had warned me of, for which she’d lately made me rehearse that funny name my interior confusion couldn’t now let me recall. The name that was the cause of my deep ire the first day I ever stepped inside the walls of school!
Somewhat embarrassed, Mother blurted, “Old Teacher I remember I brought the paper with his school name. I remember you wrote it down in your book. That one…” she pointed at the table, “the big book. That brown one over there! Just please look in it again.”
Like her remembrance was peeling back layers from my memory, I pictured Mother’s frantic rehearsing with the piece of paper on which our neighbor had written out this indecipherable script as my school name. Though in bold letters, point was neither she nor I could read the script any better even if she had been lettered. Other than this practical deficiency, I sensed something else that was in truth quite dumb: Firstly, what was really wrong with my traditional name everyone, including the sweet cold bowl aunties who sang me spider songs, called me by? Secondly, I disliked the odd ring to this other one; for if even Mother pronounced it with such dissonance, who else would make it a low joke much later? Thirdly, the name woke red hydra-headed demons inside my being…
I steeled my nerves for what was coming, not knowing how else to behave.
“Alright, leave any bother with me,” Reverend eased Mother’s miseries after taking the Brown Book and flipping couples of leaves. But of course any newfound ease of Mother’s meant such devastation to me I felt like collapsing.
(Much later I learned this other journal Reverend flipped through kept records of fees-paying pupils at the school. And by then I questioned myself if Mother could not have easily settled me in the Golden Book that recorded more than half the students on Reverend’s personal sponsorship. Pretty much everyone knew he combed on foot those areas of our township arrested by dreadful penury, searching for out-of-school kids in order to enroll them at his own expense—the only duty of their natural parents or guardians being to prepare their targeted ward for school each morning. Just what cryptic logic made Mother scoop her paltry means to enroll me when help lay just within easy reach, I haven’t understood to this day.)
Turning again, Reverend put out a hand and playfully tilted my head. The balmy touch mysteriously ran fires down my spine I cringed and shook together. A force overcame me, words caught inside my throat! Sparkles of fires twinkled before my eyes as sometimes happened just moments before my regular fevers knocked me unconscious!
“Nine clouds, this boy’s eyes!” Reverend exclaimed. “Well, these eyes Sister, you see these kinds of eyes are…” He turned repeatedly as he spoke but, for my sudden state where I feared I would faint again, I couldn’t prime my ears for whatsoever was coming. In truth I’d have loved to hear something, any diagnosis at all, for objects blurred outside my field of vision when my gaze concentrated just a bit harder or longer.
Mother was distraught. “It’s the same fever,” she cried mournfully. “Always he’s troubled with fevers. It’s reached those eyes, then. My God it’s reached the eyes of my heart’s love?”
A different pair of hands quickly replaced the old man’s and Mother’s large brown eyes loomed closest to mine. As with Reverend’s calm touch, the change of hands left me buoyed, almost ecstatic.
“At last you’ve gone blind, my child?” sang Mother’s grief-filled voice. “Then it’s all over. School is over. It is useless parting with all this school money when you’re blind? We have nothing left now! And business nowadays is so slow.”
I wasn’t fearful of Mother’s prognosis: in our life together there were myriad of even ominous ones. I was eager anew for Reverend to say outright what in particular he saw in my eyes apart from that odd-sounding he might go blind one day if nothing is done Mother’s important book friends always prognosticated.
“Nine clouds, woman!” Reverend snapped, turning to the others present. He grabbed a book from the table and wielded it in their faces, a clear note of fury shaking his every word. “By the witness of the sun, learning has value far beyond mentioning! Who told you the blind don’t need this light? Don’t you know only literature has the power to expand the human mind? How else will darkness in our world be forever vanquished? How else will we build paradise here in our land…in our entire world?” He paused and heaved in few deep breaths.
The boom of his voice confused me I didn’t know what Mother would think as she had this high sense of self-worth that didn’t take kindly to being contradicted or lectured to.
Reverend replaced the book and faced us as if about to bow in amends for the outburst. “But I don’t mean your boy…what’s his name again?”—Ah, here was it; my object of disdain now clearly demanded! Here, I felt recovered enough to want to shout my real traditional name. I quickly recoiled, however, remembering once again Mother’s stark warning never to ever mention that country name anywhere in or near school.
“What’s his name?” Reverend repeated, as though wishing our mother-and-child conflict could commence just then.
It was lost on me that by just raising my voice even a half octave higher I could speak in my own defense in such matter that meant the most to me than any other soul alive or dead. Mother cleared her throat and shot me a wicked look, like daring my mouth to produce a sound—any sound!
“I think it’s…it’s Theo-phi-lus that’s on that paper?” Reverend reconnected, tittering. “Theophilus Em-ma-nu-el K. Am I remembering right?”
I felt the bile of rancor climb to my chest! The prank of a so-called name was out!
“Theo-phi-luz Em-mun-nu-eel K. Peterzoon,” Mother repeated, turning victoriously to her colleagues from the market. They all complimented her new “civilized” progress by smiling and nodding in total acquiescence, and repeating the name to themselves in various odd forms of phonemic carnage.
“But that’s not my name,” I complained in a voice rather too weak to count for even a cowardly protest. “My name is K—” But I stopped short without completing. And good I didn’t, for Mother alone in that bestirred crowd must have caught wind of my complaint going by her new glare that threatened another of that filth and it’s the very last time you’ll ever hear yourself speak!
I winced at her reaction, meanwhile sulking and inwardly shouting at the top of my lungs: Reverend, no one has ever called me by that name! Ask Mother well, she knows my name! Yet I dared not whisper another word for fear of never again hearing myself speak.
Facing the women, Mother beamed in triumph. She stood on the top of her strange world. “That was his father’s exact civilized name right there,” she reported. “Theo-phi-luz Em-mun-nu-eel Pe-ter-zoon.”
I hated everything for that. School, the other ladies with their dumb pieces of paper obviously carrying their sons’ funny names as well, Mother herself…Everything!
“Alright, it will be settled then,” Reverend wrote in the Brown Book. “Theophilus Emmanuel K. Peterson. It will be.” Then, to my complete amazement, he asked in his measured and caressing way, “And may I ask what could this letter K stand for, Sister?”
This single question to me equaled peals of seven thunders tied together. Could Mother’s idea withstand seven thunders without shattering? Seven exploding thunders…
“This K should mean?—” Reverend punctured my reverie uncertainly.
Great! I thought, priming my ears. Let her tell you. Let her say my reaaalll name!
Mother mumbled something wordlessly; a dark grin creeping to her face. “Kkk?” she stuttered and looked away as though about to name some bad taboo. “K ha-ppens to-to be his-s native name, Old Teacher. He surely can’t use such name here? It’s bush! Country!”
“Country,” Reverend cajoled with his gap-tooth out. “I don’t understand you right.”
“It is not a civilized name, Old Teacher. He can’t use no bush name in school?”
“I see,” Reverend fetched my head again. He took my hands in a solemn, feathery hold and drew me a bit back so that our eyes locked sternly into each other’s. “K,” he mentioned mystically, determinedly. “K.—K.—K…” The tremulous pitch went on and on and on as though summoning all our ancient glory from the black Saharan depths; as though I was being christened anew. The multiple beams from the broken roof shot through me as the syllabus rang on and illumined the depths, enveloping me in this calm I’d never before, or ever again, experienced! Outside, the ricebirds sang angelically among the early mangoes while a lone dog howled forlornly in the distance. A while longer I was at peace with myself: with all the naked earth waving now beneath my feet as though I stood on time’s endless rivers; at peace with the dust from which I later learned was storehouse for man’s soul; at peace with a school broken and unknown to order, or so it seemed; at peace with Mother…
I fetched her from the corners of my eyes; her face bathed in tears she continually wiped with her worn wrapper’s tip. The other market aunties stood round in close circle, looking on semi-stunned, their “important” papers crushed between their hands! I halted my vision from wandering, for nothing else mattered in my mind than to remain in that sacred place under the tutelage of an ancient sage.
Then the sage turned, took out the Golden Book and a pen. He wrote long and hard with serene and purposeful bearing. Afterwards he announced gravely to Mother, lifting the fresh writing for all to see. “To this testimony of light,” he intimated a little louder than I thought necessary. “I Reverend Saykajepo Muffet, second servant of the poor under these stars and moon…I have added our son’s name here to those who will go forth and build memorials to our duty in those long days when all our bones and names never can bear us witness to other winds.”
Reverend went on and on at that exact noonday period as the tower over at St. Mary’s chimed the graceful Angelus. Then he clasped his Golden Book shut and rested it on the mahogany clutter. “It is done,” he proclaimed while the bell’s faraway twangs rose still and fell, and rose again. “So our ancestors decree, it is done.”
Now, with large arms outstretched like a mighty bird, he embraced Mother over an extended while. It was then my mother’s whimper like a long lost child tore through my little childhood heart.
*“Not My Name” is the first part of the manuscript Winning the Medallion, an autobiographical reflection of the author’s early childhood experiences at a slum school.