My short pants had been torn into pieces. My friends, Sahr Allieu and Emmanuel Gbandeh, could only bow their heads in shame. When Dominic put me down I was forced to run away and go tell my grandmother.
My school was demanding. We paid for every little thing — and not always with money — even though the Sierra Leonean government had declared primary education free for all.
Parents — or in my case, grandparent — were all forced to pay 30 cents per semester, and then some. The other charges would be for books that were never there, or for the food that was supposed to be free from the U.S. government. It was difficult for me to eat at the school due to the lack of money.
There were loads of competitions in my class. We had spelling, math, civics, current affairs and general knowledge pop quizzes. The teacher, Mr. A.B.S. Bangura, was a tough guy and would know everything happening in the class.
He called me aside one day and asked who pays my school fees. I unfortunately told him, “God pays.” He said I was being sarcastic. I did not mean so, but he was adamant and I had to succumb. He was furious and decided to give me a good beating. I was certainly afraid because my grandmother did not want anyone to beat me, not even my teachers, though it was accepted that children could be beat at school.
Mr. Bangura took me out in front of the class to teach me manners, as he said. I was mounted on somebody’s back and given a good beating, a beating I have always remembered.
Augustine’s last chapter: Skipping School and Fooling the Police Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
He put me flat on the biggest boy’s back. The boy was big and strong. He was called Dominic Dumbuya. I had given him the nickname Gingerbread Boy, a name he detested vehemently. I always disturbed him with that name before running to my grandmother. He was happy to mount me on his back for the teacher to beat me well. In fact, he held me so tight that I could not breathe well. I attempted biting him, and he stopped squeezing me against his back.
Mr. Bangura beat me in the same position on my buttocks and he intermittently moved to my back — throwing words at me to stop being mouthy. This was what my peers thought about me. I knew someone told on me. The pain increased as he continued beating me on my butt.
The whole class, instead of sympathizing with me, burst into laughter and some bowed their heads on their desks. I could not see them during the excruciating punishment. My eyes were red and full of tears. My classmates could not stop laughing, and Mr. Bangura enjoyed his job and continued punishing me hard.
Dominic was asked to put me down. He refused. He stood there and turned my back to the class. My short pants had been torn into pieces. My friends, Sahr Allieu and Emmanuel Gbandeh, could only bow their heads in shame. When Dominic put me down I was forced to run away and go tell my grandmother.
My grandmother, “Soba Peppeh,” or hot pepper, a new nickname she had earned from the food she prepared to sell, could not bear seeing me in tears with my pants torn into many flags.
When I showed her the torn pants she did not want others to see them. She took me to the house quickly. I was happy that I was going to get a new pair of pants to replace the torn ones. That afternoon, my grandmother had made some sales of the cassava and beans and the cow skin and cassava. I was not a fan of those meals.
She had barely made a profit for that day. If she bought me pants, she would not be able to cook for the house — my grandmother and uncles and me — that night. I did not care. I knew I needed clothes to return to school. We rushed to the second-hand clothing section and she got me a pair of short pants and a shirt, both especially for school.
School started in the morning that Monday. I had hoped that my new pants would make a difference. They only brought me more woes.
During our assembly time, I was singled out for bringing the wrong color uniform. I was sent home in tears. It was supposed to be a brown khaki for the uniform. It took me about two weeks before I got back to school with the correct uniform. But I still had bare feet.
My grandmother was overwhelmed. Our new house needed to be built fast, before the rainy season. But, again, we had suspended the brewing of “Omole,” for fear of the police who had threatened us.
My mother, Hannah, returned to help.
She came pregnant, but had a stillbirth when she went to visit her uncle, Mr. William, in a village called Wondema. It is a farming village. My mom thought she could develop a rice farm to improve her financial situation. It did not work out well.
Before our promotional exams (to move onto the next grade in school) in July, my grandmother brought me to Wondema. I loved my mom, and she had shown how much she loved me by coming back when it was very rough for us. My stay in that village was not pleasant; it was just a filthy place to live. They all had their dinner at night, with no light where they would gather to eat. I did not fit among them.
My grandmother came to collect me after three weeks away from school just to enjoy my mother’s love. The hope was for me to get sneakers from my mother, who may not have known my problems at school. But after the stillbirth, she remained sick. I did not like it, but it was not her fault. Grannie did not waste time in bringing her daughter back to Motema. It was funny that nothing worked for me at that time. Not even short pants. My mom was cheerful as she returned to recuperate, and indeed it was so. She was anxious to be of help to me.
Back at school, I met our final exams in progress. In fact, I had missed the first exam in composition and letter writing. I had a special talent in this area, so I felt bad missing out. My grandmother went to see the head teacher about my missing the exam. I tried my best to retake the exam after the headmaster stepped in. I passed it well.
I distracted myself by playing games when it was time for the school lunch. One afternoon, as the others went for their lunch, one of my friends reported to Mrs. Bernadette Massaquoi that I hadn’t been eating school lunch. She went around the school searching for me. She met me behind the newly built toilet sitting on top of a heap of earth. I was hauling away time to wait for my classmates.
Bobor Conteh, Sahr Gbandeh and Samuel James were already full. They decided to bring me some of their food. It smelled beautiful. I kept a tight lip to avoid bursting into tears.
Mrs. Massaquoi took me by the hand to the cooks, who knew me well. She shouted at me for not telling her that I had no lunch money. I was tired of always asking her for help for one thing or the other, but she wanted me to persist. She knew what my grandmother was going through. From then I was given free passage to eat without paying a cent.
My grandmother had a swamp that we called a garden right in the middle of town.
She had secured the land a long time ago, when my dad was alive, when he gave her land stretching from our house to a far distance. Many people encroached on the land until we were left only with the swamp. Our sustenance depended on that swamp. We worked assiduously and concertedly to gain from the farm.
Many called me lazy, but I used my brain to work on the garden. As usual, I would go there after school. First I’d wash my short pants and hang them to dry, while I worked on the farm to either add soil to the potato heaps, water them, harvest, or do weeding. This time we had a split job. The building of the house was underway, too.
My uncle was a lazy man. He loved only to eat, relax and listen to music in his room with beautiful women. And he was always ready to beat me if I failed to comply with what Grannie would say to me.
It was a joyous day when the roof of our house was completed. It was a painful process. We lived in a different house while our house work continued. We all wanted to move in fast, but it would take some time.
My eldest uncle, Sahr Motatay James, the Native Police officer, had only one son, who was commonly called “T-Boy.” That was his house name. His school name was Tamba James. My uncle wanted to tighten our fraternity, so he decided to bring T-Boy to live with us, where he and I would know each other and love each other. Upon his arrival, I welcomed him and he became my lieutenant.
T-Boy enjoyed food a lot. He was raised in a village where his mom and dad stayed for work. Uncle Sahr James was a loving man who knew what we were going through. He was a hunter. He went for wild animals and big ones. He was certainly a brave man. T-Boy had one problem: He could not control his bladder and would wet his bed every day.
Our house was almost complete. T-Boy had come to stay. Mariama, a girl whose mom had died and who had become a problem at her own house, also came to stay. Tamba Ngaoja, from a faraway village, had also come to stay. As if those were not enough, Grannie had already made arrangements to bring in a 98-year-old man who had nobody in his life to come live with us when the house was completed.
“Sobba Peppeh” did not relent with her love for those who suffer. She was indeed a generous and sympathetic woman.
School was starting to make sense for me when I was promoted to the seventh grade.
It was from there we would be promoted to a high school of our choice. We were happy for schools to reopen. Parents, and grandparents, would now have to help their children prepare for the very difficult national exam. It was a challenge to families to see whose child fails or passes.
Would I pass or fail? My grandmother always believed that I would never fail, that my brain was good. It was time for “Sobba Peppeh” to prepare for my next big step.
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