The Room That Leads Out There
© Copyright 2020 by Eunice Oladeji
Even if fate did not want me on that plane in 2000, my mother would have pulled mountains and called forth fire to defy fate. With prayers.
Prayers moved mountains. Speaking in tongues meant fire. My mother had proof that prayers worked. I was proof.
When they got married, my mother and her beau, they had agreed on opening the portal into this world for only three children.
"Three is just enough for the backseat of any average car. Any extras would have to stay in the boot."
Not like they had done tests or anything but they were fairly certain that infertility would never be the issue. Bringing forth children too many to account for was a higher, riskier and more frustrating possibility. On my mother's side, she was the last of eleven children. On my father's side, he was the last of eleven children. Any hint of infertility must have been lost along the way.
So, only three.
But, my mother loves girls. She so wanted at least one little, giggling, cooing replica of her running round the house. A girl she could take with her to the market, have with her in the kitchen and sit to pick vegetables with while the sun goes down. Not that a son would be excluded from those things. My brothers were not. But, it could never feel the same.
Boys don't menstruate. Boys don't have breasts that would blossom and flourish and gynaecomastia was not an option for my brothers. And boys didn't have boy troubles. Ah, well, now some of them do.
Point was, when her second trip to the labour room ended with another squealing male child, my mother knew she had to take matters into her hands. She had just one more shot at this and she was not going to let my father and his stubborn chromosome have their way again. She loved and still loves my father, don't get me wrong.
Her love for her unborn, yet to be conceived but about to be prayed into existence daughter just weighed more.
I wish I had been born just as we were about traveling to Kenya but I had come five years early. After intense prayers with the necessary copulation, of course, my mother's girl child arrived in 1995. It was time to close the portal.
But, you see, I think those prayers got too hot for the handling angel and before he knew, or she knew, what was happening, the stamp had been slammed on two female conceptions to be awarded to the fair skinned, tall and bespectacled woman from Osun state, Nigeria. Just with four years between deliveries.
So, my baby sister was born about nine months before we traveled.
As we staggered and struggled with travel boxes and what nots, I had no idea what was going on. It sure seemed like an important day as we had woken up very early and my brothers had upped their excitement levels by like hundred percent. They laughed, I laughed. They started playing, I joined in. And when little sister started crying, we all pitched in to pacify her.
We sat down at a waiting area for a long time. A wait that led us all into the temptation of eating little sister's baby food. Wheetabix. I do not know how that name stuck but till date, I have not forgotten it. Of course, that's obvious. I just typed it.
Well, the joy of sharing in her baby food was wiped off the face of my brothers when our parents started walking away from them towards a room, taking along their sisters who they were just beginning to know and understand. I remember looking back and seeing my second brother crying openly, loudly and refusing to be comforted by the relatives who had come along just for that moment. To hold them back. To take them back. To lead them back to their own home where they would live. Without us.
My parents had desired that all of us would travel at once. But, that was not going to be. Not with a missionary bank account married to a government teacher's bank account. I am sure the Nigerian naira had even more value at that time, still, international travel was no joke. The plan was therefore adjusted.
The four of us would go first, as John the Baptist went before Jesus, to prepare the place in Nairobi, Kenya. Then, when things settled and extra cash had been made, my brothers would be sent for.
Man proposes. My mother prays. But God disposes.
So, we walked into that room, four of us, sat in these extra comfy chairs, strapped on belts and when I woke up, we were at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport. It was dark. It was quiet. And it was cold.
Terribly cold. My mother had to wrap little sister even closer to her bosom to keep her from the harsh weather.
We were not prepared for the cold. Somehow, my parents had mixed up the seasons. I am not entirely sure how that happened. But, traveling out of Nigeria came with a lot of excitement and adrenaline. They probably thought the heat from those would be enough.
A taxi took us to the accommodation that had been secured for us prior to the journey. I am sure we must have woken up the whole block with just our chattering teeth. Soon enough, neighbors poured in to save us from ourselves and the cold. Mugs of Chai, thick blankets and warm jackets were passed round.
Who knows how long the neighbors stayed for?
Next thing I know, I'm becoming Kenyan.
Regular mugs of Chai in the morning. Mounds of Ugali and vegetables. Chunks of meat enough to feed us for a week back in Nigeria being consumed daily. Fresh milk straight from the udder. And Swahili.
We had a few months before schools resumed. In that time, we made friends, explored our neighborhood and made peace with the newness of our lives.
According to my parents, I took in the Kenyan vibe as if I was made for it. I was in my element. Before long, I was speaking Swahili fluently and helping my mother and father catch up. They were in Kenya for postgraduate studies. While English would not be absent there, being able to speak the native language was definitely going to be an added benefit.
Little sister was doing great too. She had found her sweet tooth in fresh milk and meat. Other foods could as well hug the trash can. They meant nothing to her so long as her daily dose of those proteins stayed true. I did not know it when we entered that room at the Airport in Nigeria, but I was going to be eternally grateful to have a sister with me in a strange land.
As soon as she started walking, we found adventures that took us far from home. Don't get any lofty ideas. We didn't hop trains and change buses. Or slide down ramps and constructions setups like in Baby's Day Out. (Although, we did all those in our heads.) But we had fun. And our parents had no worries about our safety.
The thing is, the community in our neighborhood looked out for all the children. Every child belonged to every body. It was just like the community back home in Nigeria where all hands were on deck to keep the children in check. Anything concerning one family concerned the whole neighborhood.
Like the day one of our adventures led to a missing key.
Our parents had been at school all day. I and little sister had been at play the same time frame. While it was okay for them to be home late, we were meant to have gotten home way before them. But, kids would be kids. And time wasn't something I had learnt to babysit yet.
When a panting kid however mentioned that my parents were at home, stranded at the door, two things dawned on me. The first was that I was in trouble. And the second was that I was in trouble.
We were out late. And worse still, I had misplaced the key to the house.
I spent another hour or so trying to trace my way back through the routes of the day, eyes out for a single key with no key holder. I was anxious, desperate and in tears, so, the search was less than coordinated. By the time I got home, I was a sniveling, terrified wreck and all I wanted was to sleep and forget.
But we had to find the key first.
Neighbors came out. Torchlights were gathered. Search parties arranged.
The key was eventually found less than three feet from our door, snuggled into green grass. A key holder was immediately assigned to it and a lesson imprinted in my head from that day on. When it is time to go home, it is time to go home.
St. Hannah's Model School had blue and white uniforms. The girls wore pinafore and the boys wore shirts and shorts or trousers. I think the senior girls wore shirts and skirts too but I never experienced that.
The day started with a general assembly during which we sang the national anthem.
"O God of all creation, bless this our land and nation. Cause us to be her defender..."
It was barely my second week in school when the principal called me out to sing the national anthem. Mumbled and jumbled do not adequately describe what my performance was that day but I felt insulted. Didn't she know I was new? I wasn't asking her to sing the Nigerian national anthem, not like I knew even that one then. But, I took it upon myself to learn the anthem and show her. Of course, I never got the chance.
Again, I was able to make friends fast and that's how I met Goodness; Nigerian, funny and unashamed.
She was darker than me. Laughed freely. And made no attempt at trying to be liked. Yet, I doubt anyone didn't. Goodness was good.
Just like mine, her family did not have the luxury of enrolling her in the school's lunch system. I liked the aroma of chips, ketchup and sausage that the 'rich' kids got from the kitchen with their lunch passes. It was hard watching them munch away while I ate whatever my mother had packed for me. Some days, I would get a lunch pass and tag along to the kitchen, returning with a wide smile plastered on my face. But, Goodness?
She would proudly bring out her lunch pack, settle comfortably in front of it and eat with gusto. One time, she actually brought and ate eba and ewedu in class. I admired her courage. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. But, at that time, I just did not see why we had to be different from the others. Why we couldn't have the same things and spend money the same way.
I started stealing from my mother. A shilling or two once in a while. A trip to the store. Salty chips and some sweets hurriedly eaten on my way home. And an innocent look when asked about missing money. One day, I was at the store with my stolen money again but they were out of salty chips and sweets. Rather than not spend the money, I decided to buy exercise books. You'd think that I loved studying that much but I assure you, that wasn't it.
I just needed to spend the money.
Clutching my books under my armpit, I started walking home. Then she saw me. And I saw her. Guilt was written all over my face, slumped shoulders and suddenly full bladder. I took off running and in the bushy path, someplace, I let go of my stolen cargo.
When mother returned, she simply asked me to take her to the spot. We retrieved the books and took them back to the store. The beating came from my father but I was thoroughly reprimanded by the disappointment in mother's eyes. That was the last time I stole.
School was all fun and learning but everyday saw me looking forward to picking up little sister from her playgroup. From there, we would run, skip and laugh our way back home. We watched cartoon network together and skipped channel O as quickly as we could with the remote. I'm sure she didn't understand either but it was my duty to explain cartoon network to her and shield her from the other.
I soon learnt her special language and turned interpreter for my parents and others who had reason to communicate with her. I held that position with integrity. When my mother asked little sister if she would like chapati or ugali, I would pick chapati on her behalf. Not because I preferred one to another. Not because one was definitely more stressful than the other. But because my toddler sister just wanted chapati. Simple.
Being Christians, we must have attended church while in Kenya. But, we either did not go frequently or my little mind zoned off or the children's church was just too much fun to be registered as church in the long term memory. Besides, what we experienced as church in the first few months of being back in Nigeria was enough to even wipe those memories off.
What I experienced of Kenya was all things bright and beautiful. The people were loving, caring and trustworthy. I saw the Masai group and they were fascinating. I fed a giraffe. We attended picnics and bonfire nights. All bliss.
Then, one night, the whole community was awakened by gunshots.
My father carried us from our room to theirs, shushing our sleepy complaints and tucking us in beside mother. We waited. At least, three of us did. Little sister had no worries. In the morning-morning, people gathered round to exchange details of what had transpired.
Someone had been shot. No, he was just beaten. Is he dead? Maybe he is dying. Were they armed robbers? They were armed, I know. Could they have been targeting just one person? Assassins? In Nairobi? No way. But there's some politics in this. Isn't there politics in everything?
Lots of talk. I got late to school that day, as many others did. The teachers were finding it hard to concentrate on lessons as everyone kept talking about it. The injured or dying or dead person happened to be the father of one of my classmates. A classmate I think I really, really liked. We were all worried.
He didn't die.
But, I realized, maybe Nairobi was not so much of a cocoon.
We were getting closer to the end of our sojourn in that land. Our parents had done excellently well in their studies. I hadn't done too bad at school either and little sister was not so little anymore. She who had arrived the country with only two upper incisors and a shiny bald head was now two years old, full of hair and perfect teeth.
This time, I knew we didn't step into a room. It was an aeroplane.