Our production of the illicit home-brewed liquor “Omolé” did not take a backseat to my education anymore.
My grandmother had depended on Duran Kanjia, my military half-brother who came to help fill out my entrance form to high school. He also said he would help pay for the necessary exam, but he stopped responding to our letters to him. I was left to wonder about the change I could make in my life after I would have passed.
Sobba Peppeh (my grandmother’s nickname) had prayed for me at night and gave me the blessing we thought I needed to pass. She had even tried to convince me that blessed water (“from Bethlehem”) would help me be as smart as Suma Musa, the girl who had always topped our class from Grade 1 to 7. I would eventually find out it was only well water, from outside our new house, that was not quite finished, but doing fine. It was big and nice by our town’s standard.
I was anxious that night to get to sleep and dream of passing my exam with flying colors. But it was not possible. I only became more anxious. As we finished our nightly prayer, my grandmother wanted me to eat nothing to avoid having to go to the toilet during the exam. She thought perhaps they would not allow me to leave the class.
Our exam center was far; we walked for over an hour to get there. It was a big school called U.M.C. [United Methodist Church] Secondary School, Yengema. The buildings were big. For some of us, it was our first time entering the campus. I was timid and stayed close to some friends. Our teacher, Mr. P. S. Bobor, encouraged us to avoid panic. But I was visibly panicked. I feared the unknown.
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Sahr Allieu, my best friend, said he was worried about me because I was almost always absent. He knew Math was one trap for me, but not English and its related subjects. I was ready for those. We were warned not to play on the road as we all marched in a straight line to the school. It was March, dusty and very dry. One needed money to buy something to cool you down. Everyone had money but me.
I took Sahr Allieu, and we used a shortcut where the diamond-mining company was based. It was clean and neat. I was sure the security would apprehend us. The morning was early. Workers flowed into their offices, the cleaners leaned on their shovels and we walked past them with vehement speed. At one point, we were stopped and asked why we were running in the morning. Our answers were unanimous, so we made it past them and to the school — sweating profusely.
There was no water or towel to clean up. We looked for shade to sit and wait for the others as we cooled down. Some children were wandering around, but it was a holiday for them because of the exams for us younger students. They bumped into us. I became their target since I was tiny and going to high school. One of them came and accused me of taking their ball, which was going to be the center of the problem.
One of them grabbed me hard, demanding his ball back. His stench was unbearable. He started a fight as the others looked on. My white uniform was all messed up, my pocket torn apart. I appeared like one of them: Filthy, shabby and worried.
At the end, I had to run away from the boys who chased us. I went directly to the head teacher’s office, where I was rescued from the older boys. Sahr Allieu, who later became Gabriel Allieu, had grabbed one of the smaller boys and brought him to the head teacher, too.
(Gabriel’s parents were Muslim, and they never wanted me to spend time with him for fear I would convert him to Christianity. Indeed, later in life and without my help, that conversion happened along the way.)
The head teacher gave me some food, made me shower and took us to the exam center. I felt proud of that, but I was still very shabby. My friends were anxious to know what happened, but we were not allowed to say a word during the exam.
I read the instructions very well. The big bell rang, and it was time to start. We all opened the papers together. It was Mathematics first. Well, my grandmother’s Bethlehem water did not help me in the Math class. I tried my best and guessed most of the time. I forgot all the patterns we learned, even those they had flogged me for in class. I fought my way through. I was the last to finish.
Joseph Aruna, one of our classmates, had previously eaten much of our class’ food supply. He said that may be his last school meal. He finished one paper and his stomach turned. He went to the toilet and became very weak. They let him back in and he managed to finish the exam. I was also in pain; the street boys had worked me over very well.
The exam became easier as we got into English and composition. We were to write about a fight we were engaged in and how we ended it. Nothing happens for nothing — everything happens for a reason. My fight that morning came into play. I explained thoroughly. It was striking, and it was depicting my struggle for that day and even before.
My grandmother was informed of the situation. But she was far away in the bush brewing the Omolé that helped build our house.
We were not allowed to discuss answers from the exam. I became the center of discussion for the day as we walked the long return trip home. My friends laughed at me portraying how I escaped from the children. The older children were still behind us among the lot. It was dangerous. I come from a law-abiding family, and these boys were only distractors.
We stood on the road back at our school waiting for a taxi. I entered a taxi with no money and left. I told the driver I was going to Motema. Fares were only demanded when you arrive to your destination. We were getting close and the sun was hot. I had waited to get close to our house. It was the house my eldest half-brother lived in with his children. I disembarked and ran across the street, passed through the main door, to the other and continued running to see my grandmother.
The driver could not run after me. I was quite fast and he had passengers in his car.
Our house was closed and my grandmother was still in the bush, fending for our well-being by brewing the Omolé.
I knew the road to get to my grandmother in the bush. But I wanted a break from it that day. I went on to play soccer. We played for money, by betting for the first team to score two goals. In the middle of the match, the seventh graders from Motema had arrived on campus to collect their materials they left there. I was in joy, until their provocations about the fight I’d run away from earlier in the day started piercing me. I told them intelligent people fight with their voices. We argued with those big boys who wanted to beat me up. They were not lucky because I was busy playing hard for my money. I was not moved for anything then. This was a perfect time to waste time, play around and let boys be boys.
My grandmother and uncles had brewed two drums of Omolé, compared to the usual one.
The rainy season was approaching very fast. Our house was made of mud blocks. It was amazing how much water and energy went into it. I was a considerate boy, but I ignored most important things only to play around.
We would have a long wait for my exam results. I prayed with my grandmother to get a very good result — and we prayed that Grannie’s “holy water” from Bethlehem might be useful. One of my neighbors who was a year behind me did not know much about Bethlehem. All he knew was that it was in heaven.
I looked for maps to convince him, to no avail. He started making a mockery of me, saying that I did not know where Bethlehem was. Some elders met us in the argument and they helped solve the problem. Unfortunately, among the three that came joined poor Borway to confirm that Bethlehem was not on Earth. To them, Jesus was not born on Earth, but in their heavenly Bethlehem. I was baffled by their ignorance.
As a way of distracting me from my salient point, my school friend brought on provocation and said, “No wonder, that is why your grandmother is as poor as a church mouse, only lives on papers from the Bible.” I was mad at him. I waited for the evening to deal with him.
We all went to play games at school one evening. He was continuing his insulting utterances. I grabbed him in one of our open classrooms and fought for my grandmother and taught him the lesson that Bethlehem was on Earth. He ended up stabbing me on my right hand, then we were separated.
The next morning, I was compelled not to go to school. My grandmother felt after the exam we had nothing to learn, that we were the children whom the teachers would use because there was nothing much to learn. We were mostly responsible for cleaning the school compound, and helping fetch water for the school meal. It was a difficult job because the wells were quite far away from the school.
Our house was nearly finished. My grandmother and I were anxious to complete it. my uncles were not helping, even though they depended on their mother’s earnings. Uncle Aiah James loved women and entertained them with music and Omolé. So many a time he tampered with the Omolé. It was a crucial time for all of us. Grannie was determined to finish the house, Uncle Aiah was determined to convince more women to be in his company.
Uncle Tamba Gainda was in between, drinking by himself and hardly seen with girls. And I was there hoping that the whole suffering would be over and we could eventually gain some status in society, and to minimize the provocation behind us. It was indeed too much to handle.
My grandmother then made me a security guard to the Omolé, and funds derived from it.
I was quick in catching those who played with the Omolé by stealing it or tampering with the money. I was always manning the keys to the cupboard where it was kept. I neither drunk it nor womanized as a 12-year-old. I was a good security guard, in that sense. My uncles feared my disposition. In the past, it was me who would rather steal some money to buy bread and sardines with my friends, or to buy a soccer ball for our teams.
I stayed home to either transport water from a not-so-nearby well to mix the bricks or to go to the new brewing center. My uncle and I walked a long way to get the Omolé. It was hidden in a remote location, thinking that no one would see it.
When we arrived at the spot, there was no sign of any hidden Omolé. It was a disaster. My uncle cried out loud because he was the one who kept it in the secret place. We tried to ask our illegal neighbor vendors, but they would not answer. We left in peace and returned empty-handed to Grannie. It was then we heard a true foul cry — as if someone had died in the house. But we survived it. I tried to convince my grandmother we would be OK. She believed me and put the rest in prayer. She had lost an equivalent of a bag of sugar.
My grandmother was strong and resilient. She never gave up. We then worked on the house day in day out to see it finally finished. We worked simultaneously on the next batch of Omolé. Many people came to buy.
There was one day an old fellow came from afar. He managed to reach our house, but suddenly, he tripped on a small rock just in front of our house. He fell there and died instantly. I was not there to have witnessed it. I was at soccer training, since we were not compelled to go to school any longer. We had only three months to flit around, then return to serious business.
My grandmother then got into another business, selling boiled cassava root and beans.
She said she wanted to see me being engaged in meaningful business if I was not doing any classwork for school. The profit was for our food or house. She got some money from that trade, too. Her cassava and beans started to gain a following. People came from town or schools or nearby work camps.
The beans were always very heavy, good for those who mined diamonds. And indeed, they came for it. We all gained from it one way or the other. My classmates and friends sometimes stayed to watch what was going on. They wanted to see how my grandmother lavished her love on me.
As our house work progressed, so did my heart and mind toward my new school, and the worry about the distance it would bring me from my grandmother.
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