Or, Forgiveness Part II
I don’t remember why I was walking through the library of my new boarding school in England, with a guitar in my hands. I’ve never known how to play one. It was close to bedtime and there were a few girls from my year sitting in the carrels. Somebody asked me if I played the guitar and I said yes. Then I encouraged everyone to come out and sit around me.
I was the new, 15-year-old girl from Africa. During those first two weeks, I had been mostly quiet while I took in my new surroundings. I can’t say what I was thinking that night. Maybe it was simply time to break my silence. Once everybody was sitting politely in a semicircle around me, I dramatically put one foot up on a chair, took the guitar out of its case, perched it on my knee, and strummed away.
As I played discordantly but enthusiastically, I also sang. “When I was a scholar in London, I played on my Spanish guitar. I used to make love to those ladies, as I played on my Spanish guitar.” This was a song I’d learned at 7, whilst visiting cousins in Kinshasa, Zaire.
My small, dedicated audience looked stunned at first. Then a look came across their faces as they realized they’d been had. Soon everyone was literally falling off their chairs, laughing while I soldiered on. I managed to keep singing despite my own laughter. In the middle of this raucus, a teacher walked in with one of the angriest faces I have ever seen. Somehow, by the next morning at breakfast, the whole school seemed to have found out about my being thrown out and banned from the library.
Within a few months at Benenden School, I began to notice something really strange. I was feeling stronger and healthier than I knew was possible. How could this be? I couldn’t quite allow myself to believe this and kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I realize now that I was getting to be the child I was, for extended periods of time. I was no longer spending most of my energy navigating the emotional minefields between mother, father and stepmother.
Returning to Nigeria for that first Christmas was a shock to my system. It was wonderful to see everybody but I had become unaccustomed to the daily toxicity of managing my parents. Over the next few years, Christmas became the one holiday when I was always flown to Lagos. Other than that, my parents didn’t appear to know when my school terms began and ended. This forced me to become more and more independent which I didn’t mind, except when school breaks approached and I had to sort out where to go.
Planning my school holidays was a harrowing experience. Sometimes the answer was no, I couldn’t stay. Other times there would be a change of plans and I would have to find a second place to stay in the same holiday. If a teenage girl were to begin showing up and asking to stay with me, I hope that I would call her parents. Perhaps the various aunties, uncles and family friends with whom I stayed in London couldn’t fathom the extent of my abandonment. After all, the difference between the image and reality of my life couldn’t have been more stark. Talk about overwhelming stress …
During my first year at University of Edinburgh, I was in Nigeria for Christmas as usual. Both my parents had threatened me if I didn’t spend Christmas Day with them. It was their way of dealing with the end of the court-ordered custody arrangement. Each believed my job was now to shun the other. The night before Christmas, my cousin Idunnu and I sat in the main lounge at Ikoyi Club, trying in vain to come up with a solution. Finally, I made a declaration. “I’m never going through this again. Ever!” (This ended up coming true. I never again set foot in Nigeria until my mother died unexpectedly, almost 15 years later.)
By the time I was graduating from University, I had decided not to participate in the ceremony. This was my attempt to reconcile myself with my parents’ apparent disinterest. I had been offered a scholarship at Syracuse University for a master’s degree. I would simply spend one last summer in the UK and leave for America. Nobody would know the difference.
Wrong! After each parent called and said they were flying in for my graduation, I was in shock. Why the sudden interest? And how did they know? I couldn’t be alone with the two of them, so Idunnu agreed to come to the ceremony in Edinburgh, which I survived with difficulty. Arriving in the States a few months later, I felt like an emotional refugee. Sorry if this sounds cheesy, but I was desperate to be free and had unknowingly come to the perfect place for me.
Next week Forgiveness III with a few words from Sefi Atta, winner of the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (2006). I can’t wait.