In 1990, a thirteen year old boy was summoned by one of his teachers to the staff room. He had just finished writing his Junior WAEC exam.
The staff room was empty. The teacher asked the boy to sit down on a chair opposite him.
“Young man,” the teacher said in a calm sensible tone. “I have been wanting to tell you that you are not supposed to be here. I picked interest in you the moment you formed the press club and began to deliver news on the assembly ground. You are just a child but it amazes me the way ‘you do these things. I just finished reading the story, The Beautiful Witch’ and if not because I watched you write it, nothing would have made me believe that you did. You are gifted and I must confess you are not in the right place. This isn’t the place for you. No teacher here can write the things you write. No teacher here has gone beyond NCE. We can’t help you. I want to advise that you seek admission into a school in the city where you are very likely to meet your kind and where you are likely to find more competent hands to guide and encourage you. If you have a relative in the city who can help you, please hurry to him or her. Don’t stay here for your senior secondary class. We can’t take you to where you want to be.”
The boy thanked the teacher and quietly took his leave.
That night he wrote a letter and addressed it to his sister’s husband pleading that he should be allowed to come spend the long holiday at his place. If I get there, he had reasoned, I will be so hardworking to the extent that they will plead with me to remain with them and school there.
He was full of hopes. All that he wanted was to read and write. Some of his classmates had already nicknamed him ‘Chinua Achebe’ because he’d read all of the writer’s books safe for ‘Anthill of the Savanna,’ which he’d just borrowed. At his age, he was not expected to be that exposed.
Two weeks later, with the assumption that the letter he’d written had reached its destination, he set out to Abuja where his sister lived with her husband and two children. She was definitely going to be pleased to see him as the last time he saw her in flesh was half a decade before she got married.
As for her husband, his brother in-law, he too was also going to be happy to have the pleasure of having his wife’s relation around for the first time since he got married to her. He thought. The transportation fare had come from proceeds of group farming, which he and some boys his age had frequently engaged in. He arrived Abuja around 4pm and his sister was indeed glad to see him again. She acknowledged that he had grown rapidly and asked about everybody she’d missed.
“You must be hungry my brother,” she said and hurried to the kitchen to make a fast meal after handing the younger child to him.
That was when her husband arrived from the office and gave the thirteen year old the shocker of his life. Hate, naked as a newborn was visibly registered on his face the moment he walked into the house and saw the unexpected guest.
He snorted and dashed out of the house like an eagle without replying his greeting. The thirteen year old was destined for doom certainly for minutes later, the man came in again and kept four notes of twenty naira bills on the table in front of the guest.
“You will get ready at once and take the night bus back to the village this night.” It was his first and only comment since he arrived. “That is your fare on the table.”
Shortly afterwards, he left again to God-knew-where. When the boy’s sister walked into the room and saw the money on the table, she inquired how it got there.
“It’s my fare back to the village,” replied the thirteen year old. “Your husband wants me to return tonight.”
Flaring up, the mother of two said it was over her dead body. “He should kill me first before I will let him do that. Was that why he came to the kitchen and poured the food I was cooking away? I will not be alive and watch him treat you like that. No, you are my brother and he ought to respect that. After all, this is the first time you will be visiting me since I got married to him.”
With that, the young mother bursted into tears.
The guest’s heart went up in flames and he bled there. “But why is he being irrational?” He inquired coldly. “Were you guys having problems before?”
“No,” she shook her head. “He’s angry that you didn’t write him before coming.”
“But.. but I sent him a letter two weeks ago.” He cried helplessly. “Perhaps it hasn’t reached him yet.”
She heaved a sigh. “You are my brother. Letter or no letter, you are very free to walk into this house as long as I am still married to him.”
She went out to get fried groundnuts and minutes later made her brother snack in the shape of garri soaked in chilled water.
In the meantime, the husband returned with all the fury in the world.
“Why haven’t you gone to the park yet?” he threw in a fit of rage.
“I don’t know the road to the park,” replied the teenager.
His sister who was breastfeeding the child in the inner room walked in. Her beautiful face shinning from the tears that had flowed down her cheeks. Tearfully, she said; “I will not let him leave my house tonight but if you insist, then I will be leaving with him.”
There was a minor argument which lasted for several minutes. The time was now past seven.
The guest was now very willing to leave that hellish atmosphere and return to the village. Return to poverty. Return to his fate.
“You can go with him for all I care!” The man barked finally.
Soon, all members of the house were heading for the park in a taxi. There, he passed the eighty naira to the teenager again asking him to join one of the buses boarding.
“Pay for two,” insisted the wife, “or else he goes nowhere.”
But the man would none of it. Only the guest must leave! It was all that he wanted. All that he craved. When it was past ten and two buses had already gone, the wife took her brother’s bag and left with her kids.
Turning to the teenager, the man said; ” This is the last bus. You must not let this one go without joining them.”
Then for the first time, the younger man chuckled. Smirking, he said; “Sir, this is all folly. I can’t travel without my bag which you let your wife take away with her.”
Soon, it dawned on him that he’d flunked in his feeble calculation. He cursed and vituperated. He dragged down hail and thunder with his tongue. In frustration, he left moments later in a maddening fury. Alone and all alone like an ant in a bottle, the thirteen years old craned his neck hopelessly in all directions of faceless people. The time was now past eleven o’clock.
How Chinua Achebe managed to trace and return to his sister’s house that night remains till this day a miracle. The next day, his sister’s husband returned home from the office with the letter which he’d sent two weeks before. That was the vindication that enabled him to spend a few more agonizing days in Abuja.
And when he was to return to the village, the teenager was glad to leave with the eighty naira given to him by his brother in law for fare. Eighty naira was the exact amount that would take him home. Nothing more or less. It was his First Missionary Journey – an experience he was never going to forget. Certain things can’t be erased from our memories even though forgiveness has taken over us.
The thirteen years old grew up to become a writer that he had always wished to become. He grew up against all odds to become me!
An Excerpt from THE WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE by Japheth Prosper