Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Deceiver

We all know at least one person whose parents sent them shopping in assorted bushes around their compound to find "Justice" (as my household koboko was duly named). I like to think parents like those had a sense of humor, albeit wicked and strange. Sending you on an errand that will facilitate your own punishment, a triple-edged dagger that threatened you psychologically, intellectually and ultimately physically could only have been thought up by the sort of person who sniggers behind you as you contemplate: 1) the weight and flexibility of the weapon, knowing that producing the wrong ratio will only incur more strokes, 2) the conflicting messages coming from your brain, which calmly tells you to do the right thing by your parent and, by extension, yourself; and your instinct, which is frantically trying to inform you that the best way to save yourself is to reject this absurdity and take cover at the nearest neighbor's, and 3) the inevitable, sharp pain that you must surely feel once you hand over your tormentor's device of choice. The parent who chooses this method only wants to put his/her child through mental anguish - the physical strokes tend not to be as heavy-handed (is my understanding) as if they were meted out with the full force of rage that extends from fresh anger. This parent has had time to calm down, perhaps get a little chuckle from watching his offspring agonize over picking the "right" cane - certainly enough time to let a little mercy seep in. This parent isn't dangerous.

Or perhaps you lived in a household where the psychological damage was not wreaked in a relatively short amount of time. In the previous example, your mental anguish lasted only as long as it took you to pluck the cane. By a certain age, you had developed an eagle eye and could find a satisfactory flagellate within 30 seconds. Call it survival of the fittest. If your parents wanted to maintain control of the situation, however, they picked the cane themselves - a splendid specimen, that flashed light when held at the right angle - and placed it in plain view, so you could closely study that which was going to leave welts and lacerations on your flesh...when they were good and ready. You didn't know when it would be, but you wanted to be prepared. If you were lucky, you would have time to hide in a place the cane couldn't reach. So you were vigilant. You maintained a close perimeter, never letting the stick out of your sight for longer than 4 seconds at a time. You would see to it that you weren't taken unawares. But despite your best efforts, somehow you would find yourself immersed in the latest cartoon or playing ten-ten with your housegirl, or perhaps even eating dinner six hours after your transgression, stupidly confident that your mother had even forgotten that you wronged her earlier. It is always at this moment that you feel the flashing heat of pain slicing across your back. Foiled again! But the parent who does this is still merely a trickster and mischievous. You need not fear her.

But woe betide you if you are spawned by The Deceiver, the worst of all sadistic guardians. This is the parent whose intentions are never known, whose motives can never be pre-determined - indeed, he can never be trusted. But because you know no better, you always do. And you always get burned.

Picture this scenario:

It is a hot day in April, and you're back from school. You're seven years old and teeming with energy, particularly after your well-cooked meal of rice and dodo with two pieces of meat. Your cousins from the village have also returned from the government school on the other side of town and they have exciting new games to show you that you don't play at your posh and expensive "international" school (so deemed because of the solitary Indian child whose father is only in Nigeria to fly helicopters for Aerocontractors). They have always seemed more creative than you, and you enjoy their company thoroughly. Mummy is at work; the oldest person in the house is Chinekwu, the fifteen-year-old housegirl with the tangy body odor whose authority you don't respect. You and your cousins are running rambunctiously through the house, ignoring all the rules that Mummy set for you, dismissing Chinekwu's warnings and admonishments to behave yourself lest she "tell Mummy for you". With glee, you all decide to recreate some of the scenes from your favorite American movies - you have pillow fights and jump on the bed, your powerful imagination helping you ignore the jarring sensation in your knees that result when your kakaraka Naija "mattrass" doesn't give way like the bouncy American mattresses in the movies. The average Nigerian mattress is stronger than the wood that built the bed frame. Yours is one of these, and under the pressure of four children adamantly determined to be just like Jane and Michael in Mary Poppins, the bed breaks.

All your little hearts rush to your throats, and cold beads of sweat form on your arms and foreheads. You are too panicked to think about a way to put the bed back together; your cousins' seeming creativity fails you now. All you can think to do is bolt from the room, closing the door quietly behind you to hide the evidence. If no one can see it, it never happened. Right?

But Chinekwu heard the deafening boom of mattrass hitting concrete, and has come to inspect the damage. She is in the middle of singing "Den den deeeen..." when you begin to beg her, bribing her with your meat from lunch tomorrow and Bazooka chewing gum if she will only not tell Mummy when she gets back from work. But Chinekwu has not forgotten the last time you made a similar promise: she kept silent about your misdeed, and Mummy flogged her as well for compliance. Afterwards, you sought her out in the kitchen to make fun of her for howling and "dancing" when she was being beaten; upon all that, you withheld the five naira that you had promised as reward for her loyalty, citing that you weren't spared the rod, so why should she receive compensation?

Chinekwu is only a village girl with a Standard Six education, but she learns quickly and never forgets. She requests the Bazooka chewing gum up front and makes you wash the dishes from lunch. Satisfied that you have covered all your bases, you return to your play and soon forget that you even have a bed, talk less of breaking it.

When Mummy returns from work, you all crowd around the car singing "O yo yo" as Chinekwu rushes to her side to carry her briefcase and grocery bags. Mummy swats you off her, begging you to "let her rest" before you carry on about what she brought for you. She has battled the cachophonous city streets and is in no mood to entertain you or your demands. High with joy now that your mother has returned, you retreat to the living room and wait for her to come in and join you for dinner. You don't notice Chinekwu whispering and pointing in the direction of the bedroom; you don't see your mother look thoughtfully at you before she disappears down the darkened hallway that harbors your sleeping quarters.

Minutes later, Mummy's voice calls from her room: "My pikin! come, let me give you chewing gum!" You cannot believe your luck. It is a rare occurrence indeed when your own mother offers you the sweet nectar of candy - she usually ensures that you cannot get your pudgy fingers on even one Buttermint for weeks at a time. A few years down the road, you will come to realize that no good can come of your mother offering you deliciously unhealthy tantalizers. But today, you are seven and you don't know anything. You run gleefully down the hall and burst into her room, expectantly.

She is sitting on her bed, half-dressed, rifling through her purse as she "finds something for you". You are jumping up and down on the spot; you can barely conceal your excitement. Lo and behold! she produces a stick of gum that you respectfully accept then unwrap quickly and throw into your mouth, releasing bursts of bubble-yummy flavor in sugar-filled explosions all over your mouth. Mummy is getting out of her stuffy work clothes as she asks you how your day went; you gleefully inform her that it was fun, more fun than yesterday but not as much fun as it will be tomorrow. She seems pleased, wants to know more. What did you do today? Oh, nothing much, you say, I came back from school, changed, ate, played with Francis and Ngozi. Oh yeah? What kind of play did you play, she wants to know. We just played Police and Thief, then we played WHOT, then we-. At this point in your story, the image of the broken bed leaps to your mind, as clearly as if you were still jumping on it. All the events that led up to that moment flash quickly through your mind like a tape on fast forward. Does she know? Suddenly, your bubble gum doesn't taste so sweet.

Why have you stopped talking, Mummy wants to know. Continue now - what other kinds of play did you play today? You open your mouth to speak, possibly to beg her for mercy - only a strangled sob escapes. Talk now! she demands. Why are you crying? You didn't do anything worth crying about...OR DID YOU?? All this time, you thought she was just putting away her clothes, arranging her shoes. She whips round from her wardrobe, brandishing a koboko as long as you are tall and proceeds to remind you why she gave you rules to follow in the first place. In the melee, you swallow that fateful piece of gum. When she is through with you, she tells you to wipe the snot and tears off your face and return to the living room to call in the next victim. And for the first time that day, you obey.

This is not the kind of parent that one runs from. This parent has the patience of Mother Teresa and the memory of an elephant - you will never - never - get away with anything. No matter your age, you take your beating like a man and resolve never to make any mistakes again for the rest of your life. Of course, you will fail, but rest assured that you will not make many mistakes; you will instead develop an uncanny ability to think through your actions and anticipate any outcome. In some ways, this is the parent that best prepares her child for a world where anything can happen and carefully cultivates a spirit of caution within him. But a truly discerning parent is one that can passively educate his child on how to think quickly on his feet - and sometimes with the most humorous result.

to be continued...

many thanks to DVTG for telling me this story in its unembellished form - I had loads of fun filling in the blanks, but even my A-game couldn't derive such a perfect ending. your monumental strength in maintaining such a great sense of humor after so phenomenal a beating is well appreciated :-).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beating your Child and Other Humorous Tales

I wasn't beaten enough as a child. I know it, and everyone in my family knows it. We all have our regrets. Back then, I threw well-aimed tantrums to get what I wanted. If a knock had targeted my head as surely and more often, I might be a different person now. For one thing, I'd have a lot more stories to share when my friends and I are swapping discipline stories. For the first eight years of my life, no one laid a finger on me - honestly, I had no idea that you could get beaten for doing things wrong until my brother, a recent graduate from the Nigerian Military School, flattened my left cheek with his rugged palm. I don't think I even cried, I was so shocked! (Which shouldn't be mistaken to mean that it didn't hurt - his slaps have haunted me ever since, especially that one in 1996, which left me seeing green stars and picking up radio stations in Cotonou.) After my first slap, I spent many minutes trying to decide what it was that had happened to me and recall where I had seen that look on his face before. You know the look: the eyes narrow and pull back - nostrils sharpen and expand as the slapper gathers force behind his lungs for the blow - lips tighten over bared teeth. I knew I'd seen that look before. But where?

The year was 1987. I was five, precocious and famously ignorant. I also had a very active and troublesome imagination; having a father who was greatly amused by all my antics didn't help reign me in at all. I said everything that was on my mind back then - there was nothing cute about my strong opinions except maybe the Munchkin voice they rode on. On this particular day, I was feeling particularly opinionated about my little life. My hairstlye (one in front, two in the back); my dress (pink, with bows tied as tightly as possible to show off my "shape" - at that age, I was a figure zero); my nap (I wasn't going to take it). On my high horse, I was barking orders to everyone, informing them what I would and wouldn't do (mostly the latter). And my mother had had it.

We were standing in her bedroom doorway. I still don't know what I said. Sassed her in some way, no doubt. My father would have laughed and called me a "troublesome girl". My mother made the "I go SLAP you" face, and threw her hand back, high above her head. I remember looking at her, eyes wide with curiousity. What is she going to do, I wondered silently. Another one of my older brothers was there - he couldn't have been older than fourteen at the time. Fourteen, but wise to the ways of the slapping hand. Rather than watch my chubby face - which was now gazing dreamily at the hand that was about to descend rather heavily upon it - crumple into a severe fit of tears, he jumped between us and held her back. "Mummy, please, Mummy, please - she doesn't know what she's saying. Please, Mummy." She blinked, then heaved a deep sigh. Shook her head, started saying something about me being "stupid". I was confused and mildly disappointed; it was an anti-climactic situation. I waddled away, oblivious to the fact that I had just escaped my first beating.

Like I said, it was three years until someone took it upon themselves to cut me down to size. By then, my mother had died and the guilt that comes from beating a girl who has just lost her mother had worn off. Life was less than rosy, but still - I feel like I missed out on a lot of learning in the early years. For example, it never occurred to me that you could run to escape a beating. Never. I stood there and took everything like an idiot. Granted, I was too rounded to escape even if I had tried to run but that's knowledge every child is entitled to and I didn't have it!

So in honor of all those empty years, I've decided to recount, in the next few posts, some of the more vicarious tales divulged for my listening pleasure by my more astute friends and colleagues. They were nimble; they were quick. They tried their darndest to outwit their punishers, though none escaped. They have much cooler stories, and deeper scars. I envy them. And you will too.

to be continued...