It was the last day of the school year. The pupils of Methodist Primary School, Okiti had gathered in assembly hall waiting to hear the results of their final examinations. They sat in class groups. The headmaster, Mr. Taiwo stood up and addressed them.
“For the first time in many years”, he said, “Nursery one pupils have performed better than the other classes in this school. Out of forty of them, only one person failed. The class yelled with joy. The master then began to call their names one after the other. As they heard the names, they came forward to receive their report cards. The names were called in alphabetical order, and as such the first name called was Femi Abiola. Most of the children including Femi himself concluded that he was the first in order of merit. As they got hold of their cards they leaped out into the open shouting and yelling like excited monkeys. They dashed into the road leading out of the school.
Femi’s parents lived closer to the school than his other mates. They all accompanied Femi home. As they got nearer the house a few of the children ran ahead of Femi and the rest to report the good news to Femi’s parents “Mama Femi”, they shouted, “Femi was first in the class”. His father Mr. Abiola heard this from inside the room where he was having lunch. He left his plate of food and ran out asking, “what did you just say?”“Femi was first in the class”, they repeated. “Where is he”? he asked. “He is coming behind” answered one of the children. As he said this Femi ran in with a broad smiling face. He ran straight to his father who received him with both hands lifting him up above his own height, with both hands under Femi’s armpits. Then he brought him down again, and took his report card from him and looked at it. His face which had hitherto been broad with smile contracted sharply, and immediately wore a look of disappointment and anger. “What do you all mean”? he asked. “Fortieth out of forty” he read aloud. He paused for a minute and read again “failed”. Must work harder. Plays in class”. “Where did you see the first”? he asked. All the people including Femi’s mother broke into spontaneous laughter. Femi looked at his mother and laughed too. He could not understand what had happened. He remembered hearing about forty. He had never heard of fortieth. He remembered that whenever they started counting at school, they never got to this word forty until they had counted for a long time. As far as he was concerned, forty was much more difficult to get than one. These thoughts made him happier. He was not able to recognize the significance of the two words “Pass” and “Fail”. He was not the only person in his class of forty who could not do this, though he was the youngest. He was only 3 years old. His disappointed father seeing Femi smiling burst into laughter himself. He called on him and said, “Femi, you failed woefully. Do you hear that? Stop telling anybody that you passed. You failed”. One of his classmates broke in and said, “The headmaster said that only one person failed in our class”. “That one person is Femi”, added his father. It was-then that Femi started to realize that ‘to pass’ was a better thing than ‘to fail’. They all dispersed and his mother called him to have his lunch.
Femi had to repeat Nursery One before going over to Nursery Two. After Nursery Two he went over to Primary One before he came to Primary Two. It was in this Primary Two that he had one of his worst experiences in life.
Femi was coming home from school one hot afternoon staggering with hunger as he approached his father’s house he heard a shrill voice which he quickly recognized to be that of his mother, His heart began to beat faster He was very afraid. “What could it be?” he soliloquized. As he got nearer home, other voices became audible. “A crowd of people had gathered in our house. What could be wrong” he wondered.
Entering the house, he confronted six uniformed men and a score of other people which included their neighbors and some relations. “The Police in our house?” He threw down his box of books, ran to his mother and asked, “Mama, what is wrong?” Before his mother could speak, tears had collected in her eyes. She began to cry. Mr. Abiola was connected with a case of armed robbery involving the murder of an engineer five months ago. He was to be arrested and charged to court.
Five months ago, Abiola’s brother in-law had visited them with one other person whom he introduced as his closest friend. Before they left, he handed over a sum of N400.000 to Mr Abiola which he asked him to keep safely. He told him that he hated the idea of keeping money in the bank because it often slowed down the pace of business for him. He allowed him to use N20,000 out of that money. When Abiola wanted to know more about the source of the money, he told him that he won a lottery drawn in America and the money was sent down to him by post. Abiola had no reason to doubt him because he had never known him to be a dubious character. He had been incriminated by this brother in-law. The court found him guilty. His brother in-law and friend were also found guilty of the same offence. The penalty was death.
Grief and misery became the very food Mrs. Abiola ate all day. All day, all night, she sat in the small garden in front of their house weeping. She wept until her eyes turned red. It was difficult to console her It was unbearable. Her kindness had caused him death. “Oh! God forgive me. It is my fault. If he had not married me he would not have known the man who caused his death”. Very often Femi would sit by her crying too. For many months, Mrs. Abiola still wept in the garden. She ate no food. She wished she could die too. Life became very unpleasant for her. She soon became sick, and was taken to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed peracute pneumonia. By the second day of her stay in the hospital, she was reported dead. This was exactly eight months and two weeks after she lost her husband.
It was a dark world for Femi. He was only nine years old. He had become an orphan at such an early stage of his life. His father’s cousin, Idowu took him to his house.
There he lived with the family. Femi was the only child in his late father’s family. Idowu, on the other hand, had a family of nine. He was so poor that he could only send one of his children to school. This state of affairs marked the end of Femi’s life as Primary two pupil of Methodist Primary School, Okiti.
In Idowu’s house, Femi was no more than a house servant. He did most of the hard jobs in the house. Idowu’s wife, Aduka, was not kind to him. She gave him very severe beating each time he made slight mistake in the discharge of his duties. The quickest and easiest punishment for her was starving Femi for one or two meals. Every night before he slept, Femi would think of his parents and would stay awake weeping until he fell asleep. He thought of his school days. To think of going to school again was an illusion. He grew thinner and thinner every day until he was reduced to a mere skeleton. Aduka showed no compassion on him. She often called him “son of a thief”. Whenever anything got misplaced or lost in that house, she would drag Femi out and give him severe beating asking him to recover that thing immediately or she would beat him to death. One night, a thought occurred to him. He felt that the best thing for him to do was to escape from this house or he would die at the hands of someone who wished him worse things than death itself. No sooner had he got up from his sleeping mat, than he tip-toed to the place he kept his few belongings, tied them together with his shirt and sneaked out.
All through the night Femi wandered. It was a very dark night. His fear of darkness became suppressed by his struggle for existence. He wandered aimlessly till it was morning. He saw people carrying bundles of firewood to the market for sale. He stopped one of them who looked almost as young as himself and asked, “where do you collect all these pieces of wood from?” In the bush near the new hospital site”, was the reply. Femi had soon a job he could feed from. By asking, he got to this bush and went wood-picking. Within minutes, he was able to gather a load of pieces of wood which he tied in bundle. He carried this along and joined the long march of people streaming to the famous market of the area. He got there and now watched out eagerly for a buyer. Soon one approached. “How much do you sell your firewood”? asked the buyer. “What is your offer”? was the reply.
“OK will you accept seventy naira?” “Yes”, answered Femi with a smile that wore ornaments of hunger and need, He paid him N70 and carried the wood. With this money, Femi bought himself some food and ate. He went back to the hospital site. He gradually gained for himself some recognition as a wood seller in that town A hospital worker offered him accommodation in his boys’ quarters.
Years rolled by and Femi became established in the act of wood selling. He was now a very big boy. He still harboured a burning desire to acquire knowledge. He was not satisfied with stopping at Primary two. His school mates had advanced tremendously in the academic field. He became ashamed of himself. Some of his old mates had gained employment in certain offices and wore clean and well-sewn dresses. He grew envious. He imagined himself in their position if his father were alive. He resolved to save money for the continuation of his education.
It took him two years to save up enough money with which to continue his education. He sought admission into a nearby school and was accepted. He was readmitted into Primary two. After school hours Femi would always go searching for firewood. People came to his house most evenings to buy them. The unsold ones he took to a big market during the weekends. By so doing, Femi was able to continue his education. He had only one ambition – to obtain the First School Leaving Certificate. With this he hoped to look for a job in any office as a messenger. “That day is yet to come which would be greater than the day Femi would find himself in one of those magnificent office buildings walking about in his khaki shirt and trousers answering calls and delivering messages”, he would always say.
This second phase of Femi’s education was not very smooth. By the time he came up to Primary six, he was twenty three years old. He was much older than every other person in his class. His classmates never ceased to tease him. They called him Baba Femi. This made him sad and uncomfortable in the class. The First School Leaving Certificate examinations came up and he went through it successfully. His greatest ambition in life was achieved. He became happy again. The odious task of collecting wood was now to come to an end. The thought of this elated him in a special way. He must now go in search of employment. He started imagining the type of man he would be employed to serve. Each time he saw a well dressed man with outstanding personality, he prayed that he would have such a man as his boss. If a car passed by he would imagine himself washing such a car for his boss. His casual comment when a car he liked passed by was “tell me to wash this car now, you go think na today they buyam!”
Femi had come to Lagos in search of a job. He wrote scores of applications to as many offices as he could think of. Replies did not come as fast as he had expected. Very few offices replied. Several others did not. Of those that replied, some regretted that they had no need for more messengers; others invited him for interviews. He was unsuccessful in all the interviews he attended. Frustration began to creep into his chamber of happiness. Lagos was beginning to be abhorrent to him. Once in a while, he came across somebody in similar predicament. They sought consolation in each other’s bitter experiences.
Femi often marveled at the ease with which girls were offered jobs in Lagos. He saw instances of young girls who failed the First School Leaving Certificate Examinations, who were offered jobs in preference to their male counterparts. Eventually some of his unemployed mates secured jobs one after the other. Every one of them had an amazing story to tell about how he finally was offered a job. Some told stories of how some cousin or uncle had to go to the house of the ‘big man’ to talk about their cases. It always involved offer of big sums of money. Others told stories of how some female relation had to go direct to the ‘big man’ and came out with papers offering them jobs. Money, uncle, cousin, or sister Femi had not. A cold wind of desperation blew across his brain. He was full of thoughts. The future looked bleak and hopeless. He saw himself engulfed in a dark cloud of misery. He wished he were dead. He began to sing:
Who will wipe your tears
Poor orphan Poor orphan
Who will wipe your tears
Mother you have not
Father you have not
Why should you
You were born to suffer.
In this world of suffering
Where even the rich suffer to eat
What do you think of yourself
What do you think of yourself
Femi, Oh Femi has no helper
Femi, why were you born to suffer
Who will wipe my tears
I have no mother! have no father
No brother, no sister.
Oh! I am alone in the world.
He usually sang this song at night before he slept. As he sang, copious streams of tears flowed down his cheeks to wet his shirt.
One morning, he went to a woman who sold food in a wayside hotel. This woman had grown to like him and often fed him without demanding any payment. He told this woman that he belonged to a concert group. The group had a play to present in which he had been chosen to act the part of a woman. “It is an all-men group”, he added. He therefore pleaded with the woman to spare him one of her dresses and make-up to give the desired feminine look. She was very delighted to assist.
She gave him her skirt and a blouse, a pair of her high-heeled shoes, an Afro wig, a red stick for the lips, another black stick for blackening the eye brows and a pair of ear tags. He thanked her and went away happily.
The next day, he dressed himself in those materials and looked like a woman. He took two plastic funnels, cutoff the tubular stalks and inserted them in the position of breasts. He looked himself up in a mirror and noticed that he had not done one thing. He took the lipstick and painted his lips red. He had earlier asked and was told where the Higher Executive Officer (HEO) in-charge of employment for people of his class lived. He called for a taxi and asked to be taken to the HEO’s house. When he got to the house, the officer’s servant told him that his master was out. He said that he had come on a very important message and as such would like to stay and wait till he returned. The servant offered ‘her1 a seat and retired to the kitchen where he was busy preparing supper.
Not long afterwards, a car pulled to a stop in front of the HEO’s house. He peeped through the window and saw him. The right door of the car opened. Out came Mrs. Oluwole; the hotel woman from whom Femi borrowed all he was dressed in. He rose quickly from his seat and dashed into the adjoining bedroom. He immediately saw a wardrobe by the left. It was not locked. He went into it and closed it up from inside. Inside the wardrobe his heart was beating like a drum. He prayed that it would not be heard from without. The HEO came into the sitting room. Seconds later, Mrs. Oluwole shuffled in characteristically. Tunde, the officer’s servant had come in to welcome his master. To his surprise, Femi had disappeared. At once he told his master that one woman had come in a short while ago and said she would like to wait to see him. “I thought she was still waiting. I am very surprised to find that she has gone”, he added. “Let’s hope she will call again if she has an important message”, concluded the HEO.
“What do you take?” he asked “Whisky”, replied Mrs. Oluwole with eyes fixed on the pictures on the wail. He went into the bedroom. He remembered that he had left some money inside the breast pocket of his jacket. Inside the wardrobe, Femi prayed that the HEO might have no need for any of the clothes there before he had an opportunity to escape. However, he did not want to take any chance. He covered himself up with the clothes hanging there. His attempt to hide himself still left exposed his red lips.
The HEO now walked up to the wardrobe and opened it. “Bless my soul”, he shouted, and dashed back into the sifting room with fear. “Red lips in my wardrobe?” he shouted still. “What do you mean?” asked Mrs. Oluwole. “I mean 1 saw red human lips right inside my wardrobe. Come and see”. His next door neighbours who heard the shout came in too.
Inside the wardrobe, Femi was almost dead with fear His entire body was trembling. He knew he was going to be pulled out soon. Mrs. Oluwole’s presence made things worse for him. If she were not there, he would not have been as frightened. Here was the woman whose very clothes he was putting on. He was so well- known to the woman that no matter how much he disfigured himself she was bound to be able recognize him.
The HEO led the crowd of people now gathered back to his wardrobe. The red lips had disappeared. One of the men drew the clothes to one side and shouted, “Na woman” and dragged ‘her out.
The entire house rocked with a roar of laughter and abuses. Femi stood like a war captive stunned with shame.
A greater surprise was yet to be discovered. Mrs. Oluwole was so stupefied with shock and amazement that she could not utter a word. To every other person except Mrs. Oluwole, the marvel and laughter was based on the fact that a strange girl entered the HEO’s house and hid herself in his wardrobe. “What could she be up to”? was the common question. Some said it was a plan for a night robbery.
Mrs. Oluwoie who had hitherto not spoken caused a greater roar when she said, “All of una never know something. This person you see here, I know him very well. Na man be this person una de see, no be woman. This person na one man wey de come to rny hotel to eat. Na yesterday this man come my house and say they get concert show wey dey mekam woman. He say make I give am my clothes make him take go make the concert. All this thing wey him put on now, all na my own”. At this, they roared and shouted the more. One of the men came forward and undressed ‘her’ and to their surprise, they saw a full-fledged man before them. They tried to ask him questions, but he was so ashamed to speak. Femi was then taken to the police. He was later charged to court and sentenced to jail.
For four months, Femi Abiola languished in jail. After his release, he went back into the search for job. It was now obvious to him that the only way out was to pay his way through. Fortunately, he met a man, Ekeng Okon, who was sympathetic to his plight. He accepted to give him a loan of N1000 which he was to pay back in five monthly installments, and without any interest. He was very grateful to Mr. Okon, for with this money, he was eventually able to buy himself a job in one of the mercantile houses. He was employed as a messenger. His salary was N400 per month. Femi was posted to work as special messenger to the man who accepted the N 1000 bribe to give him a job. Each time he was paid his salary, he removed N200 from it and paid back to Mr. Okon; N200 was then all he was left with at the beginning of each of the five months. This state of affairs left Femi in no better condition than he had been before his appointment. He regarded as most wicked his employer’s demand for N1000 before he could be offered a job he was qualified for. Not long afterwards, this man was arrested by the Police for corruption. He was convicted and sent to prison.