Shola Asante is a former broadcast journalist with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. In 2010 I my story ‘Dinner For Three’ was one of the winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Since then I’ve had stories published in Cleaver Magazine, The Linnet’s Wings and Pangea, an anthology of stories from around the globe. The recently released anthology, Singapore Love, also includes one of my short pieces.
Her name was Lucy. She was sent by the RTE Charitable trust to replace Gwen who left a year before. Armed only with a four-week TEFL course she was little more than a volunteer. At twenty-four years of age she was the youngest staff member with a mop of golden ringlets and apple red cheeks. Slim and flat-chested, she had a thin clear voice, the sort of sound that emanated from a crystal bell. Her eyes were wide and inquisitive, and she had a habit of leaning forwards when walking, as if rushing headlong to meet the world. She had never lived outside of England and this was her first visit to Africa.
On her first day she wore a peach Gingham dress and ballet flats while Caroline Lawal, the head teacher, gave her a tour of the ramshackle buildings; squat cement structures, corrugated iron roofs, holes in the walls where the windows should be. Ceiling fans were installed five years previously but without a generator they scarcely got much use. Lucy took it all in her stride, saying after poking her head into every room, well this will do just fine or it’s not really as bad as they made out in London. When the moment came for introductions, you could see her looking at their tired, sweaty faces, thinking it was probably about time for some fresh blood. The others came over to shake her hand, offering words of advice, at which point she smiled, revealing a chipped front tooth, holding both hands up and saying, thank you so much and I hope you won’t think me rude, but I’d rather figure things out on my own. Caroline and the other staff looked at her bemused, this wisp of a girl in a party dress, transferring supplies from her rucksack into her locker – tape, chalk, staples, paper clips, pencils, erasers. So much stationery, as if stockpiling for a siege. But because she spoke so beautifully and had such a disarming smile they did not think her rude, just that she was greener than they had first imagined. Let her have it her own way. None of them saw her lasting long.
The one person who had a problem with Lucy was Gail, the senior English teacher. She didn’t care how many how-to books Lucy had read. Gail only cared that they had a curriculum to follow and follow it they must, because they did not want to give local government officials any excuse to poke their noses into their affairs, hamper their work with calls for backhanders and bribes. Gail wanted Lucy to focus on the basics; nouns, pronouns, prepositions, verbs, because they were the building blocks of language, because their task was to make these students functionally literate, no more. She wanted Lucy to work on handwriting but forget D’Nealian script. Who had the time for that? Focus instead on getting them to practice their print, construct simple sentences and if they could learn to punctuate along the way then that was a bonus. Lucy listened but her eyes glazed over and she nibbled on the inside of her cheek. What about creativity, she asked. How are we going to inspire these children if we expect them to learn by rote? Which elicited a huge sigh from Gail, shaking her head to keep her temper in check. Caroline and the rest told her to relax, urged her to be patient.
Lucy’s just young they said, naïve. She still had lofty ideas about changing the world. We were like that once, remember, Caroline said. She’ll see things for herself when she’s facing a classroom of seventy plus children, with no air-conditioning or a barely functioning ceiling fan; when she discovers the shortage of textbooks, many already out of date; when chalk runs out just as she’s managed to get them all to pay attention, or the toilets back up just when her students need to go. She will readjust her expectations and get used to teaching African style. Gail didn’t like it, not one bit, but she told Lucy that as long as they met their targets she didn’t care what methods she used. It was her own time she was wasting.
Lucy threw herself into her teaching with the confidence of a seasoned diver, in spite of stomach bugs and diarrhoea, prickly heat and sunstroke, and her voice could be heard trilling up and down the corridors. She spent her own money photocopying sections of her favourite childhood books – Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Richard Adams – which she asked them to read aloud, a paragraph per child, so that perhaps they could feel the beauty of language, experience the power of words. She forced them to prepare speeches about their tasks at home, what they wanted to be when they grew up and no subject was too ordinary or boring, so that they would know that their voices could be heard. Weeks passed and Lucy was tireless, her enthusiasm constant as the rising sun and it came as a surprise to discover that she had her favourites. Nine year-old bespectacled Solomon, who stammered when he spoke but give him words to read and the boy was an orator. Eight year old Tope, class clown, but first to keep the others in check, making it impossible to stay mad at him for long.
Then there was ten year-old Jummai, scrawny as a plucked bird, who guzzled knowledge greedily, like water on parched, thirsty soil and whose mind, Lucy was convinced, could move mountains if given the right tools. What blossomed for Lucy, she had no words to describe, no points of reference. She saw in the fragile, malnourished body of the girl a luminescence that bordered on the holy, an extraordinary gift that she had been chosen to nurture. She asked the girl to stay behind during break times and after school, gave her extra tuition, lent her books to read. She offered her food too, which Jummai refused at first but eventually accepted with lowered head, eating only when out of Lucy’s sight.
Nothing escaped Gail’s attention and she pulled Lucy aside, told her, to be careful. Don’t be getting too attached. But there was that smile again emblazoned across Lucy’s face, like a hazard sign and she explained that she was just showing an interest in a bright student, as she did in all her promising students and that everything was under control. Gail, who quite frankly was fed up of dealing with Lucy stomped off, but not before saying, you’ve been warned.
Some weeks later, on a day like any other, Lucy and Gail bumped into each other at the post office, deciding for convenience sake to share a taxi back to the school, on the outskirts of town. A glossy sheen of perspiration lay on Lucy’s skin, her cheeks rosier than ever but she was still a slip of a thing, could have done with gaining a few pounds. Gail would have preferred they journey in silence but Lucy chattered mindlessly, saying this was the best experience of her life, that she hadn’t realised what it meant to be truly alive before she came here. Gail nodded in sympathy for she remembered uttering those very words when she first started teaching and opened up, just a little, about working here in Nigeria and before that Zambia and Tanzania, and how she feared becoming jaded, that she had already begun to wilt in the sub-Saharan heat. The car moved slowly through traffic and Lucy turned her head to stare out the window as the brick houses and office buildings in the center of town gave way to roadside stalls with their pillars and pyramids of fruit, vegetables and spices. And just as she remarked to Gail how it never ceased to amaze her how local women could function in the heat with their headdresses and hijabs, she spotted on the other side of the road, a child standing next to an old blind man, the two of them begging. There was no mistaking Jummai’s big doe eyes and absurd lashes, like palm fronds resting on her cheek. They passed each other, eye to eye, for little more than seconds but this image would imprint itself on Lucy’s memory; man and child, still as statues, set against the burnished light and scorched earth.
Minutes later something stirred in Lucy and she screamed at the driver to stop the car, stop the car, and she swung open the passenger door before he came to a halt and the taxi driver was shouting too, in pidgin English, You dey craze? You dey craze? Gail didn’t know what was happening, only that Lucy’s belongings were scattered and they were still some distance from the school, so she begged the driver to pull up and wait on the side of the road while she charged after her.
If Jummai saw her teacher she did not flinch, did not show surprise. She held the old man’s hand and together they wove through the traffic, she tapping on windows, casually, as if already familiar with the passengers on the inside, while he held his arm outstretched for alms. Lucy ran jerkily, calling out Jummai’s name while the cars, buses and okadas beeped and swerved to avoid ploughing into this crazy white woman racing like a person possessed, through one of the city’s busiest roads.
Lucy would remember how liquid her legs felt, hurling her body too close to oncoming traffic, and how it did not feel like slow motion at all with her heart thudding like a jackhammer in her chest and the world taking on a grainy hue, as if she were running through a sandstorm, chasing a moving target. She would remember the little girl barefoot, her lean, stunted frame in a grey smock, standing so erect, a human cane for the old man, whose hand was planted on her left shoulder and the fluid ease with which they moved from car to car, waiting, expressionless for a few coins or notes to be flung out windows. And how too soon, the man and the child pulled away from the traffic and walked towards the vendors lining the edge of the road and no matter how fast she moved, Lucy could not reach them. She would never forget how Jummai turned, catching her eye for an instant until the girl and the man were swallowed by the mass of bodies; two more brown pixels in a landscape photograph of a Lokoja market.
Gail caught up, grabbed Lucy by the shoulders though by now she had stopped running and was staring at the other side of the road, saying, It’s her. I know it’s her. Gail’s only thought was to pull her back to the waiting taxi, back to safety and she wedged herself between the young teacher and traffic, just as Lucy’s body went limp. Gail guided her gently, her arm firm as a harness around Lucy’s waist, her body a crutch, her voice calm, saying, there, there, we’re almost there. All around them they heard the honking of car horns, the choke and sputter of engines, the shouts and bellows of traders. Such everyday sounds, as if nothing untoward had taken place.
In the car, Lucy sank into the backseat, telling Gail she was okay, that she just needed a minute to get herself in order but really, she was alright. In the rearview mirror, Gail caught the eye of the driver, who snorted and shook his head and she asked him if he could make a quick detour, drop Lucy at home before heading for the school, that she would clear things with Caroline. Lucy, slumped and quiet, didn’t argue. The next morning, many of the teachers were in the staffroom long before the students were due to arrive and they asked Lucy how she was doing and did she get any rest and she said, bright and breezy as always, yes, I slept like a baby.
But perhaps they each had things to get off their chests because they lingered and began to talk, Gail first, about a student that she had thought so special and how powerless she felt when the girl’s father whisked her away one day, to work on the farm. And Caroline said what about the Bello sisters, three of them, smart as whips but at the first sign of their periods, each forced to leave, move into the homes of the husbands to which they had been promised but never met. And Kadiyat, one of the local teachers said it had happened to her too, a boy, who’d been all ready to take his common entrance exams and the years she spent battling with his father, begging him to keep the boy in school, to find a way, that the boy’s success would be his reward, to have faith, but in the end, people said he succumbed to Boko Haram and spat in her face when she went to his house to beg once more. They each poured out their stories and when there was nothing else to say, they gathered their belongings and made their way to their classrooms in readiness for another school day.
Lunch in the staffroom, and a radio played in the background. The newscaster talked about the parlous state of education in the country, with more than half of primary school girls out of school nationwide. Lucy grew fidgety during the report, couldn’t stand to listen to the whole thing and said to no-one in particular as she left the room that she hated these statistics, because no matter how bad the numbers got, the bloody government never did anything about it. She walked past the children playing in the compound, squealing and yelling like puppies and she wished she could rewind, go back to when this sight was all she needed to get through the day. Later, in the classroom, a spark of enthusiasm because she had a big lesson planned. Solomon stood next to her, in front of the class, because he was always first to read, when she realized that her notes, most of what she prepared was gone, most likely left in the taxi the day before. But she kept checking and rechecking, her forehead furrowed in concentration, sifting through her papers with determined ferocity.
When Solomon stepped close, lifting up some papers because he was trying to help, she shrieked at him, don’t touch that and pushed him away, so hard that he fell on the floor, his spectacles clattering onto the ground beside him. Lucy’s face was the colour of beetroot, and she patted Solomon down, apologizing over and over again and he said, it’s alright Miss Lucy, it’s alright. But Lucy was not alright and she was still talking about it during break time, in the staff room, getting herself worked up and Gail told her, these things happen, but she said, no, they didn’t happen to her, these things did not happen to her. She’d never been so unprofessional, losing her rag, manhandling students, she didn’t know what had come over her.
And she couldn’t seem to stop talking at all and told Gail that the worst thing about it was that she never had a chance to say goodbye, to tell the girl how brilliant she was, that it was never too late, that if she ever changed her mind or circumstances changed, Jummai could come back and now, already, after just a day, she could hardly remember what Jummai looked like. When she closed her eyes, all she saw was just another street urchin and it just broke her heart because the girl was extraordinary, she could have been so much more. Lucy looked as if she was about to cry and the teachers all glanced at her, then each other and one by one left the room till it was just Caroline left, who sat Lucy down and told her in a tone that was firm but kind, enough. She asked if Lucy had any friends, some other volunteer perhaps. Go home, she said. Have a drink or two. This job, this place, took its toll and maybe Lucy needed to think about whether or not it was right for her. But today Caroline said, no thinking, just go home.
Another day of dry heat and scalding temperatures. All the teachers filed into the staff room but everyone was smiling because for once there was a constant electricity supply. Male staff skipped to the bathroom to change their dripping shirts, while the women stood with their arms aloft so the breeze from the ceiling fan slid beneath their clothes. The water cooler was working too and they guzzled cupfuls as if it were nectar. Kadiyat passed round the plantain chips her mother-in-law made; Gail offered sticks of chewing gum, a pack of mints. Lucy took a sip of water, then with a bashful look and timid voice asked if they still had some advice for her. The teachers turned to one another, taken aback. In truth,
Lucy’s attitude had so baffled them at the beginning, but what was there to add now that she had broken every piece of advice they would have offered. Saying it out loud though, didn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t how things should be done but Lucy was packing and unpacking her bag like she did that first day, mumbling that it didn’t even really matter, she was just curious, that’s all. The teachers mulled it over some more, as they drank their ice-cold water, chewed their chips, sucked on mints. Kadiyat stood by the window, looking beyond the school gates at the vast red earth and grassy plain. A group of children, little more than bowling pins in the distance, bobbed into view. She turned to Lucy, cleared her throat and said, you’re doing just fine.