CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2 | CHAPTER 3
CHAPTER 4 | CHAPTER 5 | CHAPTER 6 | CHAPTER 7
“How in the world did I end up here?!?”
The question coursed through my mind over and over as I walked the dusty schoolyard of Gateway International School for Boys, Ibadan, Nigeria.
This wasn’t my first time starting fresh at a new school, but it was the first time it happened as a direct result of something stupid I did. Three months and nine days earlier, I was a freshman at Nicholas Orem Middle School, Hyattsville, Maryland, United States. One of my classmates, Stephen, had been aggravating me all morning. When I finally caught up with him in the hallway, I initially planned to simply warn him about his attitude, but the unapologetic smirk on his face stirred up a reservoir of anger I had been nursing all day. Before I knew it, we were brawling on the floor and had bloodied each other’s faces as two teachers pulled us apart and dragged us to the principal’s office.
I immediately knew I was in deep trouble. This wasn’t the first, second, or third time my rashness had landed me in the principal’s office.
It was, however, going to be my last.
Principal Menchan must have been having an awful day because instead of handing me the usual green detention slip I was accustomed to, she handed me a pink one. It had a lot of information on it I didn’t understand, but what I understood clearly was the word “EXPELLED” stamped across the bottom of it.
At the time, my parents were stationed in Nigeria because of their jobs and had allowed my older brother and me to remain in the United States with my uncle so we could finish school. My father’s job required him to work for extended periods in different locations around the globe, which meant we rarely ever lived in one location for any significant length of time. It also meant I never settled down long enough in any one place to establish any real roots or build any lasting friendships. Though my siblings seemed to adjust well to the constant change, it caused me to disconnect emotionally from anyone who tried to get close. At some point during all the transfers, I found myself becoming angrier and easily irritable. It didn’t take much to set me off, as was the case the morning I got expelled from school. It was this unresolved anger the put me in my present predicament.
So, after many long distance phone discussions between my parents and uncle, there seemed only one reasonable course of action. They decided it was best for me to be flown back to Nigeria to stay with my parents.
Three weeks later, I was back in Lagos, Nigeria.
Within a few months of arriving, my parents became convinced that I needed some maturing to do, so they did what most Nigerian families do. They decided to send me off to boarding school to mature into a responsible man. Several options were considered, including one school in Ogbomosho, Osun state that sounded like a scene taken out of an apocalyptic movie. I secretly swore to myself I would run off and fend for myself as an orphan if they sent me there. Thankfully, that option was rejected. They finally settled on a school a little more familiar to my dad, Gateway International School for Boys, Ibadan; a school his evangelist uncle had attended several decades earlier.
So here I am.
Thousands of miles away from the one place that felt most like home. It didn’t help matters much that I was coming into the new school at the beginning of the third term as a Junior Secondary Student (Jss.1).
Everything feels foreign.
At the administrative offices, an older lady with a really thick accent hands me three sets of uniforms, but I can barely understand what she’s saying about when or where the different colors are to be worn. I’m simply handed two pairs of green checkered shirts, two green shorts, two pairs of brown khaki shirts and shorts, and a white shirt and pair of shorts.
My father and younger sister have traveled with me from Lagos to Ibadan to see me off, but at the offices, they’re told they can’t go any further and have to say their goodbyes. My sister wants to cry, but I insist she knock it off because I’m concerned it might make me look weak. I’m at an all-boys school and I can’t afford weakness.
Though angry at the turn of events, the truth is, I’m scared and I want to go back to the United States, to my brother, to Nicholas Orem, and even back to hanging out with Stephen.
That’s clearly not going to happen anytime soon.
As I make my way all alone to the dormitory, what some students refer to as the “Dorm,” I hear a boy screaming in agony and pleading for his life. Following the sound of his cries, I poke my head into one of the dorm rooms and watch an older senior student beating a junior student with a long wooden cane. I was told to expect this kind of discipline at the school because flogging is a way of life in Nigerian boarding schools.
Knowing it is one thing, but watching this helpless student being thrashed is disconcerting. My palms become sweaty. Not wanting to get noticed, I start backing out of the room when my luggage gets caught on a hook by the door. It makes enough noise to catch the senior’s attention. In a panic, I yank my luggage free and hurriedly move out of the vicinity.
If I was scared before, now I’m terrified.
Eventually I settle into my assigned room and begin unpacking my luggage. The worn out dormitory has seven rooms, each with bunk beds that fit forty boys. I am assigned to room Five.
Moments later, a few boys who also appear to be Jss.1 students stroll over to the edge of my bunk bed and ask where I’m from. I sense they’re sizing me up to determine where they’ll place me on the pecking order. So I play it cool. Without looking at them, I respond, “Well, I ain’t from these parts.”
I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make me sound cool and mysterious or lost, but it’s what I say. They look at each other, as if deciding what to make of my response. Just then, a bell rings and everyone in the room, including my new friends, scramble to get their brown uniforms tucked in neatly, and hustle out the room.
I’m left alone hastily trying to stuff all my belongings in my new locker, lock it, and determine where it is I’m supposed to be. Six minutes later, I’m still not squared away. I can’t figure out how my lock works and my suitcase won’t fit into my assigned space.
A few rooms down the hall, I hear a livid senior student making the rounds, threatening to annihilate anyone he finds lingering in the rooms.
“Nooo! This can’t be happening on my first day.”
The senior’s voice gets closer and angrier.
“Com’on stupid locker, OPEN ALREADY!!!”
A few moments later, I see the face of the voice. He is short and stocky, with a really dark complexion, but most notably, irate. He charges at me with two leather belts in hand. I feel their sting on my shoulders before I have a chance to explain my situation. “Are you deaf?!? Didn’t you hear the bell?”
Still nursing my stinging shoulder, I answer, “I did, but I’m a new student and I wanted to put my things away first, so I’m trying”…
He swings the belts at me one more time, “I don’t care who you are. Just drag yourself downstairs. NOW!”
I react before I even realize what I’m doing. Screaming curses at him, I grab hold of the belts and yank them from his hands. This of course infuriates him and he shoves me against the locker. He’s clearly stronger than I am and will probably hurt me if we get in a fight, but all I can think of is how badly I want to punch him in the throat.
But in that split second before my impulsiveness takes charge the event that got me sent to Nigeria flash before my eyes. I know this cannot end well for me. For the first time in a really long time, I am actually able to control my temper in the middle of an explosion.
Still furious that I cussed at him, he yanks his belts out of my hands and grabs my shirt, clearly wanting to use his fists to finish what he started. I shield my face and immediately start apologizing and explaining that I’ve just transferred from the United States and I’m unfamiliar with how things work here at the school.
Pausing for a moment, he seems to buy my story. Still scowling and angry, he releases my shirt and steps back. Calmly, he reiterates his last instruction and tells me I have three seconds to leave his presence and head downstairs. I gladly accept his offer and quickly dash out of the room, leaving my belongings unguarded.
Outside, around two hundred students dressed in brown khakis have lined up in multiple rows on the basketball court. They’re taking orders from older, taller students also dressed in brown khakis. I see no adults around. The senior students are apparently the law, judge, and jury. Every young student is addressing them as "senior", then by their first name.
I suddenly become aware that I’m the only oddball still dressed in home clothing. One of the seniors calls me to the front of the line and queries me about my choice of clothing. I explain again that I just arrived and haven’t figured out the schedule and I let him know about my dramatic encounter with the senior a few moments earlier. He graciously lets me off with a warning as I settle back in line with other students from my room.
“Crap! This is NOT how I pictured my first day going.”
A few moments later, I’m told it is “labor hour” and assigned to join a group of Jss.1 and Jss.2 boys. Our group leader, a loud spirited senior named Muyiwa, points us to a large wooden box filled with machetes, which I later discover are called “cutlasses.” We each grab one and march in a single line to a grassy field behind what appears to be the shower stalls. The grass is waist-high and very thick. Senior Muyiwa points and says, “All of you, spread out. Start cutting from here to here, and then there. Make sure you finish over there, too.”
The “here to here, and then there” is about the size of a football field. I’ve never cut grass in my life, much less with a cutlass. But I don’t let on. I take my assigned position and start swinging away. My inexperience quickly shows. I can’t seem to wield the cutlass properly. They might as well have handed me a plastic baseball bat because the grass seems to have a mind of its own and doesn’t want to be cut.
After what feels like an eternity, a friendly looking senior named Jonathan walks over and asks, “You’re the one who just came from ‘Jand,’ abi?”
“Yes. That’s me.” I learned earlier during orientation that “Jand” means “new arrival from America.”
“Oyah, leave that cutlass and go back to your room.”
Relief pours over me as I nurse my blistered hands. I don’t even bother asking why I got a pass, I simply thank him, hand my cutlass to the boy next to me, and head back toward my dorm room.
As I turn to walk away, I notice that several boys in my group, along with a few seniors, have been staring at me since I was identified as being from Jand. The looks are not filled with anger or spite like I’m expecting, but instead…. envy? I walk past one of the seniors who gave orders earlier and he asks in a forced American accent, “So which part of America are you from?”
Then it hits me.
Being from “Jand” makes me a little bit of a rock star. Two more seniors join the conversation feigning to speak with an American accent. They mostly want to know if I have a white girlfriend. I smile and make a mental note to myself about speaking with an accent at all times and making up stories about imaginary girlfriends.
After a few minutes, they release me and I head back to my room. By the staircase, I run into the evil belt-wielding senior from earlier. His angry scowl hasn’t left his face. His name is senior Kunle, but everyone refers to him as senior Menor. Unfortunately, senior Menor doesn’t appear to be impressed with my place of origin. He actually pushes me out of his way and stares back at me as he walks away. A few other seniors follow along with him, all of who seem to share his disdain for me.
Walking past them, I consider matching their stares to show I’m not intimidated. But I am intimidated and I can still feel the sting from his belts on my shoulder. So I avoid eye contact and hurriedly jog up the stairs towards my dorm room.
Entering the room, I breathe a sigh of relief when I find my luggage untouched. I eventually figure out where everything goes, change into my brown khakis and decide to take a tour of the campus to explore my new home. Since it’s the first week of school, our evening schedule is a little more lax.
Downstairs, I make my way past the basketball court, through the junior students building, and explore the long halls of the tech building. From there, I make my way on to the soccer field to take in the full view of the school compound. While walking the field, a sudden feeling of loneliness stabs at my heart. The spot I’m in is where I said my goodbyes to my dad and sister hours earlier. I’m homesick already and I start wishing I’d been nicer to my sister when she said she’d miss me.
Not wanting to be weighed down emotionally, I quickly move from there towards the east end of the school where chest-high bushy fields hide several small cabins. I overheard someone say the rooms are housing for the night guards who patrol the school grounds. Though there’s a cleared pathway and a clear line of sight leading back to the main school buildings, something about the fields feels deeply unsettling to me.
Ignoring every instinct to turn back and stubbornly refusing to be jinxed by superstitious stories I’d heard about bushy isolated locations like this, I press in a little further, curious to see where the path leads and where it ends. But the deeper I wade in, the more my uneasiness turns into a foreboding creepiness.
“Enough of this foolishness! I’m going back.”
As I turn to head back, I freeze and my breath becomes trapped.
Standing in front of me to the left of one of the cabins is a tall, skinny, grey-haired older man. He is dressed in a long white robe with a large red beaded chain around his neck. He has white stripes painted across his face and is holding a clay pot with smoke pouring out of it.
My heart starts beating so loudly I can actually feel it. I immediately want to run away but my feet aren’t responding. I manage to hold the old man’s stern glare for a few seconds, expecting him to yell at me for trespassing his territory, but he doesn’t. He simply continues to stare at me as if confused by my presence, as if he recognizes me.
In a voice deeper than one would expect from such a frail figure, he seems to be pondering the question as much as he’s asking it of me. “You! It can’t be…YOU! How… how did you get here? They … they said you would never come! ANSWER ME! What are you doing here??? THEY SAID YOU WOULD NEVER COME!!!”
A cold chill sweeps over my body. I don’t know how I know, perhaps a sixth sense or a quiet whisper from a guardian angel, but somehow I understand that he’s not merely asking about my presence in his neck of the bush, but my very presence in Nigeria; maybe even the fact that I’m alive!
Still maintaining some form of my composure and trying really hard not to freak out in terror, I point to the housemaster’s living quarters and lie, “Sorry sir. Our housemaster, Mr … Mr. Eniade sent me here to look for some boys from room one. He wants me to come right back to his house and tell him if they are here. He’s waiting, sir.”
Then it got weirder. And scarier.
As if finally comprehending what my presence there implied, he lifts his smoking pot high above his head, yells out something in a local dialect I don’t understand, then angrily smashes it to the ground.
Instantly, my legs and feet come back to life and adrenalin courses through my system. I break out into a full sprint into the bush towards the dormitory. I can’t tell if he’s chasing me, nor do I bother to even look back. I just keep running for my dear life.
Eventually, I pop out into an open area behind our dining hall where a score of students are playing soccer. Catching my breath, I immediately jump to the sidelines next to other students watching the game. There are enough students and seniors around that I feel fairly certain the old man won’t follow me here. Looking around in the direction I just came from, I don’t spot the old man nor do I see any sign that he gave chase.
My heart is still racing a mile a minute. I consider actually heading to the housemaster’s apartment to report what just happened but recall a warning tip a returning student gave me during orientation. Referencing a speech the housemaster, Mr. Eniade was giving, the student leaned over and whispered, “Look here! If you like yourself, eh, don’t listen to anything he says about reporting seniors or workers to him, O! He’ll just drag you back in front of them, warn them, then leave you as a target the whole semester!”
I immediately rule out that option. Watching the soccer game unfold, I wrestle with what to do next. I don’t have any friends yet. Reporting the incident to a senior is out of the question and contacting my parents is not even a possibility at this point in time.
Just then, another bell rings. Dinner.
I run back to the dorm rooms, grab my bowl and utensils from my locker, and head down to the dining hall. At the door, I’m told I’ve been assigned to Table 21 and my table leader is a senior named, Biola. Finding Table 21, I see that there are ten seats at each table and four of them have already been filled by the same boys sizing me up earlier.
The skinny and handsome kid among them reaches his hand toward me for a fist bump. I’m suspicious, but I know I need to make friends in order to navigate life here. Though I have no intention of telling them about my recent experience, I’m eager to inquire more about the old man from the bush. So I bump his fist back and say, “What’s up.”
He’s all smiles and responds, “We’re cool. I’m Ladi.” Pointing to the other guys, he introduces them, “This is Michael, that’s Wale, and that thug over there is Nnamdi.” They all nod or wave a greeting.
“Nice to meet you guys. My name is Myles. You asked earlier where I was from. I’m from Lagos.”
Michael points out that they’re also all from Lagos, and is familiar with my neck of the woods.
“What about before that?” Wale asks.
“Maryland, America.” I say.
They all smile approvingly.
Ladi jokes about the meal we’re about to be served and how it will look and taste like nothing I’ve ever had. He advises me to purchase a loaf of bread from the kitchen because, “It will soak up all the water in the beans and fill you up quicker.” I have no idea what he means, that is, until our table is called up to be served.
At the front of the line is an enormous pot filled with some sort of brownish mishmash of corn and beans I’m supposed to believe is edible. I hand my dinner bowl to the senior serving the meal. He reaches in the pot with a ladle and pours a tiny serving of corn and beans into my bowl, enough to feed a 10 year old. I wonder if it’s a joke, but then he screams, “NEXT!”
“Are you kidding me?!? If that old man doesn’t kill me before the end of this semester, starvation will!”
When we return back to our table, the guys seem to be enjoying the shocked expression on my face when Michael says, “Don’t worry, Myles. Wale went to buy some bread for all of us.” A few moments later, Wale returns with five small loaves of bread and tosses me one, then says, “It’s our welcome gift.”
I thank them.
After dinner, we’re allowed more free time because it’s the first week of school. The guys show me around and introduce me to a few other Jss.1 students, including two colorful characters named “Bulla,” and “Bulldozer.”
On our way back to the dorm, we come within a few yards of the bushy area I’d just escaped from and I become really tense. I feel somewhat hesitant about sharing all I just went through, so I simply ask some clarification questions about the area. “Have any of you guys been to that area of the school before?”
“No. There’s really nothing there. Only the night guard’s living quarters.” Michael replies.
“Have you met any of them before?” I ask.
“Why? Do you have any relatives living there?” Ladi teases, and the guys get a kick out of his question.
I smile back and play it off casually, “No biggie. I just like to know the area I’m living in, that’s all.”
Nnamdi stares at the area for a moment and as if struck by a sudden brilliant thought, he blurts, “You know what? I’ve been here for two terms and have never seen what’s in that place. Myles is right, we should go on an adventure to see what it’s like there!”
The feeling of dread instantly returns, but before I even have a chance to come up with an excuse for why I will absolutely not go into that area, Michael interjects with his own concerns.
“Are you crazy, Nnamdi? Have you forgotten that that’s where they said those twins went missing?”
“Abeg, that’s just a rumor, joh! It’s what the seniors say so that no one comes after them when they take their girlfriends there to sex them up!” Nnamdi retorts.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. Wale and I are not going! Ladi? Myles? What about you guys?”
I look to Ladi and can tell he’s hesitant to go but doesn’t want to own up to it first. So I take the lead, “What’s the rush now? We have the whole semester to explore. We can do it another time, yeah?”
That seems to satisfy Nnamdi as we move on from there towards the dormitory. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. We spend the next few hours chatting about school, America, girls, and our favorite musicians. Eventually, the guys all head off to their respective dorm rooms.
When it’s bedtime, I notice everyone in my room putting up mosquito nets around their beds. I remember I packed one and pull it out to set up as I recall another warning from my friend at orientation, “Loyola College mosquitoes are no joke, man! They are militarized and will eat you till there’s just bone left!”
Just then, senior Menor walks into the room to announce lights-out will be in 20 minutes. He looks at me with the same scowl from earlier and lets it linger for a few seconds, then leaves.
“Wow. What in the world did I do to this guy?”
I wish he would scold me or do something so I know it’s done with, but he just walks away. Of course, walking away is bad for me because it means I’m on his radar. Walking away means he has time to plan something. Walking away means that, along with the old man, I now have two enemies! All on my first day!
I lay quietly in bed and the homesickness from earlier returns even stronger. Tears start to well up in my eyes as I think of how far I am from home. Before my tears have a chance to roll down my cheeks, I hear familiar voices. Ladi and Wale have come to see if I’m settled in. I suspect what they really want to know is if I’ve been crying because of homesickness. I’m told it happens to every freshman on their first night, including “that tall boy in room five who just came from Kano state.” Apparently, he has been crying all evening and is starting to be a nuisance to his roommates.
Luckily, my tears and I are on the same page. My eyes are dry and I assure my new friends that I’m fine. We talk a little bit about my life in America and the fight that got me expelled.
Ten minutes later, they’re gone and it’s lights out.
As I lay in bed, all the events from the last several months replay in my mind and I breathe deeply and pray quietly, “God if you are there and can hear me, I need your help NOW! I don’t know how in the world I’m to survive this semester in this school, much less the next six years in Nigeria! Please, I need you.”
I shut my eye and dream I’m in the hallway of Nicholas Orem Middle School goofing around with Stephen. We start play boxing and I accidentally punch his ear again, except this time, he laughs it off, and chases me down the hall back to class.