Last week I headed the team that facilitated the Office’s annual Life Skills and Leadership training for children aged between 10 and 18 years. Last week too, I had a headache everyday; and that’s a big deal because a headache is my body’s way of saying “Hold up! I can’t anymore”. I almost never have a headache because, well, I am young, nimble, some parts crazy, and often hyperactive. It really takes a lot for my body to decide that it can’t go further, and last week it decided so every day. I would tell you what changed last week; but I see you have already guessed: The Children!
“Aunty African Queen, he pushed me”
“I told her to excuse me but she didn’t move, and Uncle Whales is calling me”
Yes, you guessed right; African Queen was my camp name, all thanks to my new hair cut. My neck flexed, then stretched, as my head swung to allow me look the burly 15 year old who had pushed the very slim 10 year old in the eyes. He looked defiant, chewing on his bottom lip and crossing his arms across his chest in the ‘justified’ pose, before taking a step back, scared by my stare. I looked at the eastern wall of the Hall, they were still there: the rules we had laid down on Monday night when we resumed Camp.
- Do not fight
- Do not push others
- Act respectfully of facilitators and other participants
- Do not talk during sessions, or raise your voice when talking except when instructed to
- Do not….
We reiterated the rules several times every day, but it seemed to me at that moment that The Children needed reminding every minute. I wondered why, and what could be done to arrest it. I was going to address the issue when a male teenager shouted at another:
“Did you not hear what Aunty Shanty said? Just be acting stupid there!”
My response, “Haba now“, was part exclamation, part plea, part frustration. The shouting boy had been corrected barely two minutes ago. What was happening?!
Tick! Tick!! Tick!!!
The dull ache started in the middle of my forehead. It was just Tuesday, and not yet noon. I hadn’t known headaches could start so early. The Children were teaching me things.
That night my head had barely hit the makeshift pillow of clothes-tucked-in-pillowcase when I lost consciousness to sleep. That almost never happens. But then, being in charge of 45 children at the same time had never happened before.
I wanted to watch dawn wake Wednesday morning; but I was on the field exercising with The Children. The Man O War on hand had proven capable at handling the The Children, but my perfectionist alter ego was on some streak that morning. I watched, amazed, as the children groaned at the demo of each new exercise.
Lazy buggees, I thought, try it before you complain about it being too hard.
All too sudden, the sky was bright; dawn had happened too fast for me to watch the slow fade of night. My head hung low as I thought: These Children!
On Thursday evening we visited someplace that had been one of the most beautiful places in Oyo State, Nigeria, at some point in time. While the place had lost its beauty, the scenery it provided remained stellar. I was standing too many feet away from the ground and comfort, at the peak of Bower’s Tower; my jaw slack in awe. Below me, The Children were wowing and oohing at different sights as they identified places they could spot from the Tower. The City of Ibadan lay sprawled before us; a vision of rust-brown roofs and green lawns, sand brown earth and glistening black tar, white grandiose buildings neighbouring shanty slums of goats and domestic animals.
We jogged back to Camp singing, clapping, laughing, me nudging the occasional quiet child with my ‘kondo’. I knew I would want a view from the Tower as night fell, to watch the city become shades and shapes; The Children had awoken my aesthetic Oliver Twist.
We discussed sex and bodily integrity on Thursday night, and it sparked off questions that the session wasn’t long enough to accommodate. We stayed up till some minutes before 3 a.m of Friday in the dorm, discussing those issues. As I listened to the teens talk of sexual advances they had received I realized the world had changed. A lot. There were words like “sext”, “head”, “rim”, “blow”, “rape”, “palm”…my sexual vocabulary at that age had been “hug”, “kiss”, “peck”. I stood and ordered that they do same. We stood there as night peaked, in the middle of torches, a solemn gathering of African Queens filled with the knowledge of our worth and pride. It reminded me of the time I had been younger and filled, as they were, with fears, naivety, and insecurity. They were not going to be me; I and many others had walked that path so we could tell them the truth.
After I answered the last question from a girl who thought we knew nothing of teenage dating I told a story I had almost succeeded in forgetting. They needed to realise that though the words had changed, the game was the same. At past 3 a.m when the last of their lights was out I settled in bed; resigned to a measly two-hour rest. The wake-up whistle yanked me from dreams; I was drenched in sweat, haunted by memories, and filled with longing… Darn Children!
Ladies come on hurry with your bath. Males have to bathe too.
You have only twenty minutes, then we have to head to the hall to finish our vocational skills classes, round up the leadership skills, and have the closing ceremony.”
It was not yet 8 a.m but dreams of a past life had stolen what rest I had expected in the last hours before dawn. My eyes were red, my body was heavy, my head was aching, and I had lost most of my voice.
Thoughts of my wide bed at home that must have missed me, the warm shower that awaited me, and the caffeinated coffee that would make my next sandwich breakfast taste like paradise kept me going and wincing only inwardly.
The faster I work, the sooner I would be home to comfort and away from These Children.
I chanted the line that became my mantra as the day trudged on; even as the headache spread from the left side to worry the whole head. Night was teasing at the sky when the last pair of Children were picked up. I picked my backpack and cute travel bag. They felt like lead in my weary arms as I trudged out of the Camp site. At the gate I disregarded the heaviness of my chest when I thought of the next morning when I would not have the beautiful scenery of gardens, geese, and rabbits to greet dawn with.
“You really overdid it this time; got yourself so tired you are thinking of missing the sight of rabbits at the break of dawn.”
I smiled. I had missed talking to myself all week. Somewhere in the middle of sorting all those teen and pre-teen voices mine had become a luxury I couldn’t afford. Thinking about that reminded me of a whisper I had yet to give response.
As night fell my head banged worse, and I felt my weary muscles groan as they led me to sate a hunger I had awakened the day before. I had not done anything so foolish in years; all of my rational self was screaming about how I should turn back and follow the path that would take me home. However, rational me was muted by excited blood rushing through my veins. I walked up the rough path, keeping all my thoughts and concentration on the sight I knew would greet me if I didn’t stop going.
At the top I sagged against the wall, a tired smile lifted my cheeks, and my lips pursed into a pout as I imagined I was blowing the night a kss. It was The Children‘s fault that I had remembered that dogged perseverance often wins. I looked down at the shades and shapes of Ibadan as night cloaked her; seductive whisper, intimate lover.
I woke on Saturday with a frown. The whistle hadn’t sounded, The Children weren’t making noise! I jumped out of bed in panic; something was wrong! An air conditioner was on, the bed was big, there was no bunk atop me or beside me, and there was no one in the room but me. I sat back in bed as I remembered all that was a Camp-time ago that had ended the day before. Something squeezed my chest as I watched the sun rise, noting my Alsatian at its regular spot. The room was rather too quiet -exactly as I used to love it before the 5 days that upturned my life- no one was calling for me or causing a headache. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
Damn Those Children!