I had only one pair of short pants, with two visible holes in the back.
They were overused, but I needed to dress up that morning. It was a Monday. My brother would not help me buy secondhand clothes, he rather gave me his big, old long-sleeved shirt — too big for a small boy like me. I was 12 years old then.
I tried to not worry about these superficial problems, because my grandmother had told me to be patient. “Your day will come,” Sobba Peppeh would tell me. She would give me examples of those who have succeeded and how they fared when small. Jesus was her biggest example for me to copy.
My brother did not bother worrying about my success; for him it was mine alone. He never asked about the marks I had scored in the test that had brought me here in the first place.
Augustine’s last chapter: A Good Result Leaves Me in Tears Or scroll down to catch up on earlier posts in the remarkable tale
I stepped out of the van where we were crumpled together like sardines. I looked silly and dirty in my brother’s big shirt and my holed pants. I was conscious of them. But I had my own deeper problem that no one knew. They only focused on the big man’s shirt and the tiny burst shorts I had on. My shoes were another problem. They were not shoes, but worn-out slippers. I had picked them up off the street near my brother’s house.
Someone must have been too self-conscious to wear them, but I had to try them for my school interview. I should appear decent.
I had used a bottle cap to stop the main strap from leaving the foam-like material, but the slippers kept coming apart, leaving me to stand and fix them before moving on. Walking to the Wesley Secondary School in Segbwema was quite a far distance. Many people were en route to the same place. They were as young as myself, but with their parents, talking about different topics in our local Mende dialect.
I could speak with no one, mainly because they did not know me, but I was determined to be quiet because my slippers were embarrassing.
I had made several stops to fix my slippers before arriving at the school. It was on a hill slightly isolated in the bush, with big trees and mangoes on the campus. I hated it at first sight.
Many unanswered questions came to mind. I hoped it was a boarding school because I could not travel from Daru to Segbwema every day, and I knew no one who lived in that town. Suffering was hanging over my head. I cried alone when I had no answers for these questions. I cried aloud at one point, prompting everyone in sight to look at me.
I was the second to be called for the interview. It was not because of alphabetical order, but by our performances. I did very well on the exam.
Everyone had their parents with them, but I was alone. As I was called, my slipper came apart after one step and I had to drag it. I took them off behind a tree and hid them under the dried leaves. It was to help me avoid laughter by the others. I’d heard them say “look at the boy with no shoes on in public.” I held on to the belief that “he who laughs last, laughs the best.”
I moved quickly to the room for the interview. I was prepared. I thought about my standard of English and the older people I was going to face.
I knocked on the door even though it was open. They asked me to enter. I saluted everyone correctly and I was given a place to stand where they would all see me clearly.
I quickly was overcome with panic, but I held my breath and counted to 10 before I uttered any answers. Sympathy overcame the principal and he thanked me for a very good result. There were no questions about education, they instead started off by digging into my poverty. Where do you come from? Why do you want to come here, leaving all the powerful schools in your area? You look shabby — why? Those were some of the questions.
I was visibly startled at the many probing questions. They were close to the most disappointing points in my life. “Kanjia, can you say something before we proceed?” asked the principal in a gentle voice. It occurred to me that he may be a man who understands, with such a tone of voice.
I went over my ordeal, starting from when my brother came to “help” my grandmother and me choose my next school and fill out the form. I told them where my brother lived (Daru), and about his military job. He was responsible for all the strange questions posed to me.
After explaining the suffering my grandmother was going through to see me educated, the panel was moved with pity for me. I was resolved to hold my tears, but at one point it was impossible. I could lose my year at school. They did not hide the truth from me. Everyone blamed my brother, Duran Kanjia, for his insensitivity. I took longer than the other students in the office.
The principal asked where my mother lived. I told them she lived in Bo with my stepfather, who was a policeman. It was far to go there, but it was a necessity. They returned my 3 Leones for the interview fees. They urged me not to even return to see my brother, because he did not love me.
My exam results were to be posted to my next choice of school, which was Christ the King College, a Catholic high school. The school was apparently a good place for me. I was in love with Catholic schools. They were a good place for a good education. My heart was there as they continued telling me how good it would be for me to be close to my mother. I looked sympathetic! But I refused to pity myself. I got solid information about CKC, the popular nickname for the school. I was told they took boys only when they were 12 years of age. I was exactly that age.
“Well, Kanjia, I am sorry for the inconvenience for coming from Motema to Daru and to here under difficult circumstances,” one of the interviewers said. They told me that while I qualified for the school, I would have no guarantee of a place to live and there would be no one to pay for food and education. The decided I should transfer to CKC, where my mom and stepdad could be of immense help. They returned my three Leones to help me reach Bo and my mother.
I thanked the panel for their hard work. I left in shame and silence. Walking among the strange, hungry and anxious-looking students without my shoes was heavy. And I would remain without shoes, as someone had already taken my slippers from where I hid them. I went directly to the tree, and everyone laughed in unison. I was certainly embarrassed to the core.
I let it go, and I marched off as I left the bush walking among those who mocked me. I walked far away and could not see the school or the students. At last I was free, free at least to move on with my suffering. God was on my side.
More recent entries from Augustine:
- Another Lesson in Perseverance
- More Hopes, Less Success
- One Problem Opens the Door for More Problems
- Major Problems Won’t Dissuade Me
- Poverty Strikes Hard as Mother Returns
I walked out to the junction going to back Daru, where my brother lived.
People were everywhere, waiting for transportation going in the same direction. I saw a big military truck come our way. It slowed down, but didn’t stop even when I waved my hand thinking they might know me. We all kept standing there. I did not want to use my 3 Leones; it was going to be for the CKC interview. My result would be posted there in three days. This was the main thing on in my mind as we stood in the scourge of the sun. I was also thinking of how to reach Bo.
A smaller military vehicle came by, but I had moved away from the group. I thought they gave me bad luck. Luckily Gina, a military driver and a friend and platoon mate of my brother, knew me well. He spotted me and came to a halt. “Tamba, what are you doing here?” he asked. I answered quickly, that it was for my transition to high school that I came.
“For an interview?”
“Then come and go with us,” Gina said. He sped off to the village. But he would only stop at the military barracks. I was delighted with that. He dropped me at my brother’s workplace, the officers’ mess hall. I walked in and asked for Duran, but he was still at home. I walked quietly behind the hall and took a shortcut to the bridge.
I walked slowly toward the bridge. I was hungry, but had no food. I made sure I left my money tied inside my pocket as my grandmother had shown me. I only confirmed the thread was intact after removing it at the interview. I arrived home tired and more hungry. My brother asked me to wash our bedsheets. I did, with anger and hunger. He gave me no food and did not bother to ask me about the interview.
He was a dropout, even though he was quite good at school. He dropped out in 11th grade. Many a time he would tell me it was because there was no money. Our father died and no one bothered to help him. It was my stepdad he visited when there was a recruitment exam for the military. He passed the exam and joined the military, a job he held till death did they part. I was worried within. Duran did not care about my school, and there was a next step, which he should be involved in.
One evening, I asked him gently about school as he came back from playing bingo. I think he had lost quite badly due to his reaction. Big brother, I said, where would I stay to attend school at Segbwema? “Who asked you to come here? Is your grandmother not able to find you a place? If I hear it from you again I will split your … Let me not talk,” Duran said.
He instilled fear in me so that I would keep my mouth shut.
I talked to his colleagues who were better equipped to listen to me, but they had no money to give. Meanwhile, my grandmother did not know what was going on. In the evenings, I would sit and sing sad songs that reminded me of her. I would cry as I sang. It was emotional.
I did it outside, away from Duran’s house. Sometimes he could hear me. Once he asked if I wanted to become a musician because, he said, he thought I will not go to school anymore — and I know how to sing. This was a time for another decision.
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