I’d been there so long now, it felt as if I was born in Daru, and I looked wretched with only one pair of shorts and no shirt to call my own.
I was only allowed to use Duran Kanjia’s clothes when my long-estranged older brother sent me to go buy his cigarettes or marijuana. This was my ordeal. I had no clothes to go to church, something I was used to doing. I attended both the Methodist — my grandmother’s church — and the Catholic church, and it felt great. I would serve at the Catholic church and run to ring the bell at the Methodist church. I played a dual role. I loved being an altar server.
But even with Easter approaching, that would have to wait.
My brother was quite happy to say I could leave when he was paid at the end of April, after Easter. I started praying for that day. It was about three months to final exams, and then the long vacation till September.
My brother had a different plan altogether. He raised my hope and said that when he was paid, that would be his target to send me home to go to school. My father had died when Duran was still going to school; he said no one helped him after Dad’s death. He recounted how he suffered since there were no school fees for him either. (He was very clever but stopped school in Grade 11.) He complained that he had no help from my mom and stepdad. He was disgruntled about that.
I think he paid it back to me as he made me suffer.
It was clear that my brother was not ready to help me out for the last semester. I prayed fervently, to a point I started asking elders if God would listen to a genuine prayer like mine for my return to school. Yes, Private Lahai said in a loud voice. This was a man with several children and a wife, but who never went to church for one day. He knew the reality about God and His actions, though. I doubted him a great deal. I had my faith, untouchable as ever.
More recent entries from Augustine:
- Dangers in the Wild and at Home
- Fighting for Fees and Respect
- ‘Omolé’ Creates a Bigger Problem
- Tragedy Falls on Our Doorstep
- School and Home Collide
When my brother dared return home, he brought different stories of anger with him. It was not a big deal to me. I would keep quiet, but he would force me to talk. I thought being quiet and doing what he told me to would help me get home sooner. The next day was Easter. I was rejoicing that I would be returning to Motema, where my grandmother and uncles lived. Wishful thinking. The day came, and I boldly asked Duran when I would return home to my grandmother. He did not like the way I spoke to him. I spoke soft but stern for my age.
All my rights were seized. The right to play soccer, exercise and to move around. I was not allowed to go to see friends.
Salary week was at hand. Debt collectors started coming by to remind him. He told some of them it was wrong for them to come in to the house and ask. He was ready to gamble, though, because he thought bingo was the way out of his many debts. He had never won any substantial money. I sat there once, by force, to see if I might be a lucky charm. I was disgusted, because he had to borrow money from here and there just to stay in the game. He won something at the end. He concluded that I was a lucky bloke.
The time for me to go had long passed. We were in May. He had received his salary and yet there was no word about me returning home.
One evening — Duran had just returned from work — we sat outside until the place was getting dark. Our door was open for what he called cold air to freshen the room. The town was bushy, full of grass in between houses. The place could be hot outside.
He received a message to return to the barracks and report for duty again. He had just eaten, and showered. He put on his uniform and went to sit outside, when he asked me go search for his belt that he had not seen. He was confused about it. He wanted to blame me. I looked everywhere, to no avail. I came out and reported that I could not find it among the clothes hanging either. He shouted for me to look behind the bed. I told him the place was dark, I could not find it. The kerosene lamp was just too low for the room and he had it in the living room expecting me to search in darkness. “Check behind the bed,” he shouted loudly as time was against him.
I lay on the bed and checked. I touched a cold, long thing.
I held it tight, but it was quite bigger than a belt. I pulled it out. It was longer than a belt. I thought quickly that it was a dangerous thing. I left it and called it a snake without confirming it. I ran out shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”
“Where?” he asked. I was in tears, because I slept on that side of the bed toward the back. And sometimes I would roll off the bed and find myself tangled between the bed and the wall with my legs on the floor; that is where the snake had been found.
He did not sympathize with me.
The snake was forcing itself in a rathole. It got stuck and a few people came with pestles, stones, iron bars and whatever they could lay their hands on to kill the snake. They moved the bed and saw the snake squeezed against the wall and in the hole until it could not move anymore.
The cobra was pulled out and hauled outside. It was a massive snake that would have just killed me. There was no medication then; they would have to take you to Segbwema to the Nixon Memorial Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
The snake was kept hanging in a small tree in front of the house.
I wanted to run away to Motema but I was not prepared. I had only shorts with no slippers or sneakers to wear. I used Duran’s old shirt; he said nothing because he wasn’t about to buy me one. I was praised by our neighbors for being fearless and blessed.
Sleeping became very difficult for me. I tried very hard to forget about it but it did not go away. I made sure I closed all the holes in the house, and did not leave the main door opened at any time I was there alone. He did not care when he was there. He would open it wide even when it was dark. He said I would have to be manly.
I spoke to him directly again for my school fees and return to Motema to continue school. He became very angry, reminding me he would soon be vying for a wife in Bonthe and it was a very far place to go to. “I have to go by land and cross the sea to get there.” He meant only to say Bonthe is an island on the Sherbo River.
His thoughts were clouded by the idea of his taking a wife. I never saw a cent. It was about a month away from final exams. He did not want to listen to me.
I visited a high school nearby and asked teachers what they thought of my going home and returning to school. One teacher was kind enough to say it was better to repeat the class in September if I had not attended for almost the whole year. I burst into tears. He felt sorry, and asked me to repeat in their school, a school that belonged to Muslims. I hated Muslim schools then. They were not schools to boast about. I wanted a school that would challenge me. I declined his offer. I was also afraid of my brother’s treatment of me.
I continued working in his house and being a mission boy. I went everywhere Duran wanted me to go to. I worked with him and cleaned all the bowls, packed the bottles officers drank from, and slept outside the Officers’ Mess. I was very dirty, but as my grandmother said, “You will be clean one day.”
The commanding officer was Sim Turay. He had a beautiful wife. She saw me one day at the Officers’ Mess and said I was a promising, handsome young boy. She admired me and made me her friend. She would cook and send some to the barracks for me. (My brother ate most of it.) She was quite generous. But I feared to ask her for help toward my school. I know she would have helped me. I left the town without her knowing I had gone away.
My final semester met me in deep thoughts about whether I would ever return to school. It was a question difficult to answer. My friends had asked my grandmother a lot of questions, but she had no idea what was happening. Telephones were rarely available then.
July had just started. I knew I had to return home without money or finishing school. I decided to leave surreptitiously. I had no clothes or shoes to wear. The drivers and conductors would be suspicious of me — here I was! All my heart was with my grandmother, though. I had left her for a year, and I missed her badly. That was my first time leaving her. I looked for a tailor and took one of my brother’s shirts to him to be reduced to my size. I could not beg enough. It would cost the equivalent of $10, which I did not have. I asked him to go ahead and do the work. I lied that after work my brother would give me the money to bring. I could convince him.
I went by later to see if he had done it. It was perfectly done. I returned home and came back around lunchtime. The tailor had gone to pray, and his shop was open. I took my shirt and sneaked out without anyone seeing me.
I went with Duran to work as he commanded, and I took my little box with me with my shirt in it. I could not stay long with him there. He sent me to go buy marijuana for him, said that his masters wanted it as soon as possible. I got it quickly and brought it. I went to sit outside and I joined his friend, a driver in the military, who took me to Segbwema.
My journey home started from where he dropped me off.