Somewhere in Bida, Niger State. It is evening.
The child beside me clutched a piece of bread in one grubby hand, and looked forlornly at the small pink ball held up to his face. He is learning English Alphabets, and not voluntarily.
“What letter is this?”, I would growl, rotating that alphabet covered ball slowly. The child leaning on my lap has not learned to be fond of learning in the least bit. His preferred activities span roaming the lodge occupied by students, slippers on feet remaining a very flexible option. That in itself is a form of learning, although arguably not very constructive. He was master out there, but very much at sea with letters.
I was holding him down through pure blackmail and threats; blackmail, promising biscuits if he cooperated, and threatening him with a non-existent soldier’s wrath if he didn’t.
“What letter is this?”, I repeat.
“Number one!”. Tap, tap, goes my censory pen on his palm.
“Try again. A for Apple and B for…?”
Sulkily, the little darling mutters, “ball”.
Me: “So you knew all along and you just wanted me to talk abi? Okay. Good boy. Now what is this?”
Just then, the gate swings open and we both look up.
“Buy puuuure waaater!” The voice rings out, too loud and practiced and strong for the tiny body accommodating it. First comes a large food warmer(Cooler, to we Nigerians), balanced on a tiny dark head wrapped around in a bright yellow hijab. Then comes a pitifully small body, dressed in natively sewn Ankara, and propelled by flat dark feet covered in dust and shod in slippers a bit too large.
The little hawker of satchet water shuffles towards my student and I, and she stands entranced at the sight of the my rotating ball and my elaborate hand drawings of:
A for 🍎
B for ⚽
C for ☕
D for 🐕(my drawing really was this nice)
E for 🥚
She wants an education too. I seriously debate for a moment about dropping that heavy cooler off her head and adding her to our small class.
But to what end? I might not see her again tomorrow. I could pay for all her wares (a full bag of satchet water is #120 naira). But she might tell her parents, and in this part of rural Niger State, strange students who wear glasses and give girl children unsolicited education are not welcome.
I’m too different. I might put “civilized notions” into her head. I might put her off domestic chores, hawking to assist family income. I might encourage lofty ideas of full schooling, University, and perhaps a struggle up the corporate ladder. And who’s going to pay for all that?
She will probably be married off in about five, six years.
The moment of awe passes and she breaks eye contact with the hypnotic lure of the Alphabet ball I haven’t stopped rolling between my fingers.
“Buy puuuure waaater!” She turns and trudges out the gate, thoughtfully shutting it behind her. I watch the tiny yellow and green figure — barely visible between the gate slots except for the tall cooler on her head— drift down the street.
She wanted to learn. I could feel her eagerness, her passion as it burned for that precious brief minute. Then inevitability and a world-weary tiredness too large for that tiny body dimmed that light.
The child leaning on my lap wriggles impatiently and taps my arm to get my attention.
My little darling: “I’m tired. There’s heat. I want to drink water.”
Me: ” Don’t be lazy. I won’t let you play this evening if you don’t tell me what letter this is.”
It is evening here in Bida, Niger State. Some have food but cannot eat. Some can eat but have no food. We have food, and we will continue to share. Glory be!