It was the opening day of the term and Elkas was curious to meet his new teachers and class mates. He was always curious for knowledge was not going to acquire him; he had to acquire it. He was aware it was not going to be a walk in the park for him but he had enough inspiration and courage to sail him through. He had on many occasions been reminded that the Prophet had had to suffer to learn to read under the tutorship of the Archangel, Jibril who commanded him: Proclaim or read in the name of your Lord and Cherisher, who created – created man out of a mere clot of congealed blood. It is this courage that enveloped him that morning. His courage did not always roar, but sometimes it was a quiet voice telling him to push on.
He wore his new school uniform, a purple short-sleeved shirt and a pair of kaki-shorts, neatly pressed. For the first time in his education career he was going to school in school shoes. His father had bought him a good pair of black closed shoes. He looked immaculate, his equally new satchel slang on him back. At Bugo Qur’an School, he carried his books in a polythene bag. He felt so good about himself and very proud of his father for the life changing decision of bringing him to school in Banu. He salaamed Nyanya who instead called him to her cassava frying spot.
“Take this. You’ll buy something for lunch,” she said as she handed him fifty shillings.
“Thank you Nyanya.”
“Be careful at school. The Banian kids aren’t like those of Zarai! If anyone beats you, report to your masters.”
He folded his fifty shillings note and pushed it into one of the interior side pockets of his bag. He did not know its worth, but it was better than packing food leftovers that he had gotten used to back home. Although his father had quite some good money, he never gave his children money to spend at school. Elkas and his siblings did not find need for any money either. Whenever they felt hungry and it was a market day, Monday or Thursday, they would walk to Bugo town, look for their father, with some flimsy excuses such as their pens had run dry or their books were used up, and he would buy the items and take them to a restaurant for lunch. At home, one needed to work for the money – you would have to either dance or play football well to get money from their father. This would buy pancakes and roasted groundnuts or avocados or sweet bananas at morning break or lunch break.
He still remembered the route he had taken with uncle Bin Baaz to reach the school. Or so he thought. When he had walked half a kilometre along the tarmac road to the north, he came to a Y-junction. He was stranded. He did not know whether to branch off here or to carry on. It was still early and there were not so many people on the road to ask. He increasingly became frightened and his heart went into a fit of break dance for a moment. The last time he had felt this way was when his cousins had left him at Bugo Qur’an School in the evening. He had had a terrible splitting headache and could not keep up with their pace. The road home involved a bushy isolated valley through which ran a wide river. The slopes on either side of the river were steep. He practically crawled downhill for he could barely lift his feet off the ground. All the way, he had been reciting, by heart, Surat Nas (Mankind) 114: 1 – 6: Say: I seek refuge with the Lord and Cherisher of mankind; the King of mankind; the Judge of mankind – from the mischief of the Whisperer of evil, who withdraws after his whispers; who whispers into the hearts of mankind, - among jinns and among men. He always did this whenever he had an eerie feeling. After he had crossed the river, a rugged man appeared before him from nowhere.
“Have you met anyone crossing the river, young man?” the man asked him.
“No,” Elkas meekly responded.
“Haven’t you met an elderly woman carrying a bundle wrapped in a lesu?”
“No,” he said this while walking away.
He felt all hair strands on his entire body stiffen. He intuitively turned round towards the stranger. The stranger had drawn a sharp machete from the bush and had stretched his hand toward Elkas. His headache forgotten for a while, Elkas took to his heels, running for dear life, and the ruffian in pursuit. He only stopped running when he got to the main road and fell into the arms of a pedestrian.
“What’s the matter?” asked the pedestrian.
“A – a – a – a man is chasing me!” he retorted, panting and gasping for breath.
The ruffian disappeared into the bush and the pedestrian led Elkas home which was about three hundred yards away. He was, consequently, warned against walking alone for there were child kidnappers all over beheading children for wealth rituals.
He was worried that the same would happen to him in this strange land. He was relieved to see an averagely tall girl approaching him. She was in a purple uniform, too, and he figured out she was his school mate. He found her uniform design fascinating. He had never seen anything of its kind. He was later to learn that it was called bauza, a loose pair of pants and a long-sleeve top that stretched up to the shins with a slit on either side going up to the hips. This was complete with a white veil. It was how the female pupils of Kudufi Islamic School dressed up. When she got closer to him, he salaamed and inquired about the directions to the school.
“Come, let’s go together. That’s where I’m going,” she politely invited him.
“Are you a new student?”
And so they went talking about their backgrounds. Elkas learned that his new acquaintance was called Rehema, a Class Six pupil who lived about one hundred fifty yards away from Nyanya’s grocery. She knew Nyanya well. Actually, Nyanya was popular in the whole town. When they arrived at school, she took him to his classroom before proceeding to her own.
Elkas was surprised there was no much cleaning to do. At Bugo Qur’an School, the opening day of the term was a day for slaving from morning till evening. The pupils would have to slash the bushy compound, refill the holes in the walls of the semi-permanent classrooms with mud and wattle and sweep the bare patches of the compound on top of fetching water from a nearby swamp to water the dusty classrooms. Here, all the classrooms were cemented and clean. Everything was in apple-pie order. Then went the gong for assembly at 7:30am. All the pupils rushed to the open assembly square that stood in the middle of the U-shaped school block.
The pupils queued up according to their classes and gender. There were two queues for each class. The short boys and girls stood at the head of the queues while the tall ones were at the tail end. Ultimately, for his tender age and natural physical appearance, Elkas ended up at the fore of the Class Five queue. The school head and a few teachers stood in the veranda in front of the pupils while the rest of the teachers patrolled the verandas around the assembly ground to monitor who was being a nuisance. The over five hundred pupils were led into an Arabic school anthem and prayer by the teacher on duty before the head teacher addressed them.
The head teacher addressed the school in a mixture of English and Arabic. Arabic was the official language in the morning hours while English was for the afternoon hours. He welcomed back the entire school community and read out the schedule to be followed that term. At the end of his address, he called out Elkas and introduced him to the entire school as a transferred pupil from a sister Islamic school from far away. Elkas was startled and wished his gods would come to his rescue. A million eyes stared at him. It even worsened when the head teacher mentioned that he had enrolled in Class five of both Islamic Theology and secular education. An uproar of disbelief swept across the assembly ground. He kept his eyes riveted on the floor. He was shy. He felt a heavy load taken off his shoulder blades when, finally, the head teacher released him. This marked the beginning of his popularity in school. He became well known in the whole school from the very first day of his life at Kudufi Islamic School.
The school routine was not different from that of Bugo Qur’an School. Morning classes were for Islamic Theology and afternoon classes were for secular education. At morning break, the pupils got involved in different games. The girls played a strange game of running around while dodging a ball. They would make stop-overs in four different circles in which it was against the rules for one to be hit with the ball. Anyone who the ball hit while outside the circle was taken out of the game. It would be game over whenever one of the girls made twenty-four stops in the four circles. This would bring back all her team mates into play. The boys, on the other hand, dribbled balls while counting to the agreed tally. Elkas was amazed by the skills exhibited by the boys. Some boys would dribble the ball on their thighs and then on the outside of the foot. They would change feet and dribble comfortably with any foot. Some would dribble the ball five hundred times nonstop while tactfully pretending to go the nearby hedge to take a short call or holding their waists or even akimbo. Such was Saki and Kiraza. These two immediately became Elkas’ friends.
It was punishable missing any prayers. Class prefects were stationed at either entrance of the school mosque equipped with class lists to mark whoever entered for Dhuhr and Asri prayers. Whoever missed prayers was subjected to ten lashes at the assembly the following day. The school had an account of lashes for each pupil in case one could not take all at ago. The bigger boys in Class Seven led prayers at school, including Juma prayers. Elkas envied them and looked forward to his opportunity when he would be in Class Seven. It was unthinkable to him that one would disgrace themselves by not attending prayers and let themselves be punished. To him, the true meaning of religion was not simply morality but morality touched by emotions. It was hypocritical for one not to worship the Creator. And how long would prayer take? Only five minutes or so. Was that too much of asking for all Allah had bestowed humanity? Indeed humans were ungrateful.
At lunch break, after prayers, those who came from homes neighbouring the school, went home for lunch. Others prowled through the neighbouring gardens for fruits and sugarcanes. Elkas took his fifty shillings and went to the market stalls outside the school. His money could only buy him two pieces of deep fried sweet potato or five slices of cassava chips or a sugarcane. He never liked sugarcanes because they would always hurt his gum. So, he would either buy cassava or potatoes that he would accompany with water from a borehole at the school mosque. With time, his friend, Kiraza, who came from nearby school, began taking him home for lunch. If there was anything that Banians were well known for was their hospitality and generosity. They welcomed everyone, especially children, to their meals. Because of his magnetic character, Elkas earned himself a couple of friends. Good behaviour can cover the lack of good looks, but good looks can never cover the lack of good behaviour. But Elkas had both. His friends were Ozunga and Saki with whom he walked to and from school; Kiraza and Rama, two very brilliant boys in class; and then, the naughty Lagu, Ahmed and Karamagi.
Elkas enjoyed the morning Islamic classes more than the afternoon secular classes. This was partly because, in Islamic disciplines, he had been well taught at Bugo Qur’an School whereas in the secular disciplines, he was struggling. His spoken English and pronunciation were a source of laughter for his class mates. He particularly had issues with the pronunciation of Egypt, district, south and thousand. He loved mathematics but hated English and science. On many occasions he was punished for not handing in his assignments of English and science. His dislike for English language was not made any better by the scar-faced teacher. Teacher Album hardly smiled during his lessons. When he did, it was a snarl. Most students dreaded him for he spoke and loosened the pupils’ hearts in tears. He laid them as they lay at birth on the cold flowery lap of the classroom floor whenever he was to punish them. He believed in the old Roman way of dealing with rioting; flog the rank and file, and fling the ring leaders from the Terpian rock. The fact that young children would soon be allured by love than driven by beating to attain good learning was lost to him. He was oblivious to the school of thought that there was no such whetstone to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning as was praise. spring evening gowns
Teacher Album was the major reason Elkas began dodging afternoon secular classes as encouraged by Lagu, Ahmed and Karamagi. Unlike Lagu and Ahmed who had been pupils of Kudufi Islamic School from Class One, Karamagi was a new student recently transferred from a school in the Capital. He had been advised to try another school because he had led a group of pupils from his class to attack a rival school and stole books as well. He and his colleagues had stoned the pupils who were set after them before fleeing with the books. When they were reported to their head teacher, in his wisdom, he decided to punish them in front of their class mates in the presence of the head teacher of the rival school. The other boys accepted the punishment except Karamagi. He instead jumped through the classroom window not minding the fact that his classroom was on the first floor of the storeyed school block.
One Wednesday afternoon, Teacher Album furiously entered the classroom. He had been infuriated by the persistently decreasing number of books he would receive for marking. Close to half the class had not handed in their assignment the previous day. He called all the pupils to the front of the classroom. One would only go back to their seat after receiving their exercise book from the teacher. Elkas was among those who had not handed in.
“Enter in the cell,” Teacher Album commanded.
Each classroom in Kudufi Islamic School had a cell, on the left of the blackboard, meant to detain naughty pupils. The cell was soon filled to capacity. Elkas stood by the foremost classroom window as he watched the brave pupils being spanked first. One fact about lashes in school is that they will psychologically hurt more those who delay to take theirs. The middle aged Teacher Album betrayed his age and frail body with the intensity of his lashes. The echo of the lashes as they fell on the little behinds of the pupils caused ballyhoo in school. Elkas felt blood freeze in his veins and immediately decided he was not taking this punishment. It was as though his mind was in a discussion with the minds of his three naughty friends, Lagu, Ahmed and Karamagi.
One after the other, the boys jumped out of the classroom through the window. As an afterthought, Elkas watched the teacher keenly before somersaulting backwards out of the classroom. The four boys took off like wild deer fleeing from a predator. They ended up at a swamp that was a hub for bricklaying. A very big and deep pond, used by the village children as a swimming pool, had been created here. As they could not go home early for fear of being questioned, the boys spent the whole afternoon swimming in the muddy pond. When they thought it was time for the end of afternoon secular classes and time for Asri prayers, they rushed back to school lest they be punished the following day for dodging prayers. This became a routine as most of the English classes became history.