“We read to know we’re not alone.”
― William Nicholson, Shadowlands
I came into the world in the morning of May 17, 2000. But if I had known I was going to be Nigerian, maybe then I would have postponed my trip, at least until common sense had been invented. Arriving, I was greeted by an impossibly uncomfortable heat and the cold glare of the overhead lights, with strange hands moving me from one place to the other. After spending nine months in the womb, I was expecting more, I don’t know, maybe fireworks? Even a week-long festival would’ve been in line. But as I was passed on to the hands of my mother, and she looked at me with her beautiful flustered face and warm brown eyes that glittered in the light, spheres that held nothing but an infinite expanse of love, I thought to myself, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Before Peter was born and we later moved, we lived in Surulere, on a small picturesque street that back then, I thought had everything you’d ever need. Down the road to the right there was a tailor, a few paces before was the cobbler. Down the other side was the school I and my sister went to, Fountain. It was a lonely blue and white building with an asphalt car park in front. And then there was our home, a compound with two houses staying side by side like they were rubbing shoulders. Our neighbours were a nice family that had two daughters, one was about my age but the other was a lot older.
Rita was born about two years later, in the April of 2002, and since her birthday came before mine, it became the source of a running joke that no amount of begging or pleading could end. We went to the nursery school near Fountain and my mother used to walk us there while my father was away at work. Because he wasn’t around much during the day, most of our time as children was spent with our mother who tried her best to teach us everything she could along with our schoolwork which she thought was far too easy. At maybe around five or six and I was about to enter Primary One, my mother began to teach me more on how to read, though they were already trying to do that in school but to a lesser degree. The excitement I felt was unreal and as I looked sideways at Rita who was only just learning the wonders of television, I smiled slyly, I was about to have some real fun.
The squiggly letters I had seen everywhere had always annoyed me, I just didn’t understand most of these otherworldly symbols. Some of them were straight, and some had curves while some had straights and curves. Because she was always there, she was the go to when I needed to understand something, and after a while even you could see she was getting a bit tired. From school, I already knew some of what these symbols were and I even tried explaining them to Rita when I got back. “See, these are alphabets, and you can form words with them.” Her blank look and finger in mouth told me that she didn’t really understand the importance of what I was telling her. I sighed, little children could be so difficult.
My mother, after school, told me to meet her in the room in the late afternoon, this was when our lessons would begin. Though, in our house, there were two other rooms, we all slept in one, Rita and I cuddling with our parents every night. During the day, though, my mother would sit and read there or watch tv while me and Rita did our homework. I came in with my little books anticipating the secrets I was about to be taught, adults held a special place in my mind as since they were so big and old, they definitely had some wisdom to share.
My mother shook her head as she saw my books, these were most likely playful ones that had titles such as THE LITTLE DINOSAUR GOES TO SCHOOL, LEARN WORDS WITH BARNEY or such and such. “No, Tony, those ones are too easy, you need to read things more challenging.” She said, ripping a page from the newspaper she was reading. Reading, she had seen, was becoming easier and easier for me and so she decided to up the ante. ‘Tony’ was what family members and close friends called me, it was what I knew myself as, what I wrote on all my notebooks. Even when I learned to write my actual name, ‘Anthony’ always sounded weird, strange on the tongue.
See, words in children’s books are fairly straightforward and mostly have one or two syllables, three maybe in some instances. And even the words themselves were most times familiar, new words weren’t that many as they were made to encourage very young readers, so scaring them with words like ‘oesophagus’ wasn’t in line with the plan. With newspapers, however, no holds were barred, and the game was completely different. Words were used in an incredible variety, immediately conjuring an imagery in my mind that I had never really thought possible. While children’s book authors would dumb the book down for kids, teaching them step by step, my mother’s philosophy was different: throwing us into the deep and helping us with it. With newspapers, my newfound confidence was quickly bashed and replaced with the typical childlike inferiority complex that comes with not knowing something, in my case, a lot of things.
After giving it a quick read to make sure it was child friendly, she handed it to me and I held it gingerly in my little hands. We were on the bed and she was laying cross-legged while I was by her side, laying on my belly, my legs in the air. When reading with her, the rule was always to read out loud. At the first sentence, I was already stumped. “The comm — commi — commu — ”
She leaned in to the page and rubbed my head, easing my apparent frustration, pronouncing the word for me carefully. “Comm — issio — ner.”
“Commissioner.” I said echoing her and she smiled and nodded, a signal that I had got it right.
And that was it. Little by little, every day, we’d practice on the newspapers. Though, some, if not most times, I got them wrong, using the whole session pouring over one paragraph, trying to get it right. We did this until the words moved from hostile enemies to amiable acquaintances. When she was sure I had conquered the newspapers, we moved on to books. In our old home and even our new one, books were always littered around. I never knew how they got there, mostly. You’d find anything from Nnedi Okorafor to Niccolò Machiavelli if you searched hard enough. In school, however, I was light years ahead, smiling smugly at my classmates who were still learning their two syllable words, while I had moved on to words with the three, or even four syllables. Oesophagus? Cake.
Next, we were to tackle my atrocious handwriting, a fight which even neither of us knew would last more than a decade and would end, anticlimactically, in a bitter stale mate with my writing being just barely legible. For the moment, though, I had gotten a win, one that opened the door for thousands of new words and new stories.
My father would come back later that evening and after my mother was done making dinner and we’d all eaten, it was time for bed. Changing into our nightclothes, we’d join our parents on the bed, my father sometimes lying down on the mattress on the floor beside. Our mother after such a long day would be off as a light and most times, because we were as our father described, ‘restless,’ we’d still be up. These were nights when NEPA decided to be kind with the electricity and with the coldness of the AC chaffing our skins, we’d move to our father’s mattress, allowing him to envelope us in his warm safe arms, as he, with the voice of an experienced baritone, sung us a song to sleep, with lyrics I’ve long since forgotten.
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