Nine years a boy in Enugu


The older you become the more you learn about your children especially if you were a strict parent and your children can now talk to you. In Nigeria, the father is generally the enforcer and the mother is the appeaser, the one with compassionate understanding. Often you see an irate father breathing fire and brimstone and the children run and hide behind their mother. So there are things children tell their mother or she comes to find out which the father never hears or knows about.

It is possible that later in life both mother and children may tell their father or he may come to know when the children are old enough to recount their escapades without fear of repercussion: how they break out and go to parties, sometimes out of town with your car etc.

In my own young life, I must have been a complex schizophrenic showing different aspects of my personality to different people at different times. To my parents, I was a little rascal but since I did well at school, I could get away with quite a bit, after chores had been done at home, and my homework was also done.

Old Saro/Lagos/Brazilian/Yoruba families tended to live in nearby clusters in Enugu and discipline was liberally dispensed by all who know your parents. These homes were generally sparkling clean, chair covers were washed regularly and the floors were parquet floors, or covered with linoleum or some rooms had floors painted in red. Regardless of the type of floor, all these floors had to be buffed and polished.

In those days we did the polishing with coconut husk and Mansion floor or linoleum polish. We had to polish until we could almost see our faces. It was not an easy work. But there were many hands, including boys and girls whom their own parents found too rascally or disobedient. The latter were sent to “mama Saros” to get good home training. They got good home training but often their rascality rubbed off on some of us.

The dining room was the centre of activities in the homes which had a dining room. Otherwise, the centre of the home was the parlour, usually with HMV gramophone and 78-inch records playing Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters songs to which our parents and their friends danced.

All children have an uncle or aunt who was usually obnoxious and we believed hated us. One such uncle was Mr. Pratt: To my young eyes in the late 40’s he seemed enormous: He never passed me without pinching my ear or “konking” smacking my head while telling my parents what a useless rascal I was and that I would end up in the reformatory school on Milliken hill, just outside Enugu. Not only did he do this to me, he seemed to have a great nose for my mother’s food and was there too many times for food. Children in those days, waited eagerly for food of their parents because invariably, what the parents ate was different from what the children ate. Or at least we thought so. Moreover, no food is as sweet as that given to you by your mother or father when they were eating, especially at weekends and even more especially at Sunday lunch.

Uncle Pratt always arrived at these times in his immaculate starched white suit. When he came there was no hope of getting a morsel for any of us. One day I hid under the table which was my normal hiding place when my father wanted to send me on some errand to bring his Golden Guinea cigarettes and Ronson lighter. Lunch had been served. My parents, Uncle Pratt and another visitor came into the dining room. As they pulled their chairs to sit down, I suddenly rushed out from under the table pushing Mr. Pratt’s chair further back as he was about to sit down. He crashed on the floor to everyone’s embarrassment and hidden laughter. My father started shouting, you stupid gnat, how often have I told you not to hide under the table. He went for his belt but both he and mother and guest had to first try and get Uncle Pratt up. I seized the moment and ran out, to bring the Golden Guinea cigarette and lighter, pretending that I did not know what had just happened. By the time I came back to the dining room, Uncle Pratt had been helped up. My father, furious though he was, could not help smiling: my mother and friend were all sympathetic about Uncle Pratt’s discomfort though they too could hardly hide their mirth. I dropped the cigarette and lighter and fled for dear life.

Enugu was then the capital of East Nigeria; very few Nigerians had cars, two doctors. Dr. Grillo and Dr. Akingbehin and one lawyer. As doctors, they were entitled to Government Quarters, but they could not live there because it was still called European Quarters. We lived at No. 3 Owerri Road which was on a small hill. The road snaked around the hill. We lived in the same home with Dr. Grillo. I cannot remember the make of the car but the cars then did not have kick starters: they had to be cranked up before they started. Since there was a slight incline in front of our house, Dr. Grillo car was packed on the incline; so when he wanted to go out, he let down the handbrake and the car would gently roll down while Dr. Grillo would engage the car in 2nd gear and release the clutch pedal. The car would cough and start. As you can imagine one of the children’s greatest thrill was to be driven around. Dr. Grillo did not have a driver. I had studied Dr. Grillo’s action step by step and I was convinced I could drive his car.

So one day I took his keys, opened the car and let out the handbrake. I was too small for my feet to reach the clutch or brake pedal so the car rolled gently at first, gathered momentum and only stopped in a gutter on the other side of the road, near the tinker’s market. I leave you to imagine what happened to me thereafter. The reformatory school was a distinct possibility.There was a cinema theater just up the road but our home was also at a small bend on the road. That was why the car ended in the gutter on the other side of the road.

There were street lights in Enugu but not very bright. Myself and some of those sent for “home training” decided to buy a raffia snake made by the famous craftsmen of Ibibio. We tied the raffia snake on a rope and hid at the darkest part of the road. Enugu is hilly, full of rocks and in 1949 heavily infested with snakes and scorpions. (We used to collect scorpions for all kinds of crazy pranks, but that is a story for another day). People returning home after watching a particular, popular films would be busy describing scenes from the film – hardly aware of where they were going. As they were going home we would start to draw the raffia snake slowly across the road. The cinema-goers would see the raffia snake and believing that it was a real snake, they would take off screaming snake, snake. We would quietly draw our raffia snake to the other side, pick it up and run back into the house!

My nine-year-old grandson has just published a book on football for kids. He is extremely clever and incredible fighter surviving the most serious liver operation with a 10% chance of survival. What was I doing at nine? Now you know.

In this article:
Patrick Dele Cole
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