AHULAM GI (I SEE YOU), BY STEPHEN TOOCHI
Some memories are unforgettable, ever vivid and heartwarming. While some are things you wish never happened because of the dents and scars left within.
The first time she said those words, I died inside of me. It was demeaning but at the same time captured the supposed atrocity I had committed. Her voice rang out clear in the compound that children younger than I was, came to feast their eyes.
She was my grandma. The woman who taught me the intricacies of the kitchen. She was blessed with puffy cheeks and big eyes. She also had a thin mouth that can kill or make alive.
It had been a reoccurrence for three years. And for three years she had been quiet about it, taking in the foul smell and freshening the room without a question or a glare.
That morning however was the dawn of my thirteenth birthday and she couldn’t hold it any longer. She had scurried into the sitting room with a cane of branches. Just one wipe and I was on my feet, scampering for safety. She called out to me. But I ignored her and ran to the gate, my underwear dripping with urine. It didn’t take her two seconds to announce what she had been hiding for three long years.
“I am an old woman, Tochukwu. Why does my house smell like that of a lactating mother every morning? Don’t you know that your mates are with kids already yet you are here bedwetting? Tufia gi nwa a.”
My face dropped. The shout with which she said it forced me to run into the room and damn the consequences. I was sobbing when I lifted my bed. It was dripping and had marks of urine all over it. The smell hit my nose, turned my stomach yet didn’t stop me from stashing it outside.
That day I didn’t go to school. Most kids in the compound gave me cold shoulders. They laughed and made a caricature of my predicament but I owned it and lifted my head high. This bedwetting of a thing was hereditary. I had tried everything; refusing supper, not drinking water from 7 pm and playing no football. Yet it persisted.
Who knows if grandma too bed wetted.
Talking about school, my school was located two clans away from ours. I lived in Amakwa while my school was in Eziora both in Ozubulu, Ekwusigo local government area of Anambra State, Nigeria. My school had three different buildings; a two-storey building, a one storey building where the seniors stay and a plain hall separated into three classrooms. The surrounding environment was inhabited by grasses. In the supposed field, wild tares made the place their residence and when people like us went late to school. Clearing of those stubborn tares and strokes of canes was our punishment.
Have I told you the name of my school? Oh! My bad. It is St. Jude’s Comprehensive secondary school. A Catholic school. As you know, Catholic schools are known for discipline, strictness and moral standards.
And because I hated canes like a plaque, I always found ways to evade or avoid them. In avoiding them, I mostly missed my breakfast and relied on the “fifty bucks” grandma used to give me for transport. I’d mostly trek or probably see a free lift on my way. That way, my fifty bucks would be used in buying either Mummy KC’s Okpa or Aunty Julie’s Moi-Moi.
I love foods. I eat voraciously. Most times I gobble them irrespective of the lumps formed in my throat. As I grew up, I began to like colourful foods. They now appeal to me and rouse my appetite but before this current time, food was my weakness. Yes! You heard right. Food was my weakness: Pounded yam and egusi soup, Breadfruit and porridge yam happened to top the list.
Despite being a cool-headed boy, I didn’t miss out on the games my fellow teenagers played. There were different kind of games: football, volleyball, swimming, Whot, ludo, Ncho, Scrabbles and informal ones like “Eyes wey see go chop”, “Attack” “Ahulam gi” and others.
At that time when I lived with grandma, I was a semi-wild boy. I was gentle yet filled with mischievousness. We lived in the family compound, circled round with buildings of my granduncles. In one of the buildings was a young man I had chosen as a friend. Well, it wasn’t Iike I chose him, he actually was the only one who stood by me when grandma disgraced me in front of other kids. He was there to lead me away and make me forget the soul rending words. His name was Sunday.
We did almost everything together. It was kindred spirits. We hunted for firewood, livestock feed, bush animals and the likes. What we hardly did was eat together. We both were voracious eaters and we understood that, so whenever we ate together, we basically empty the pots. Then one day, as the rave of the moment, “Ahulam gi” game was drawing people into its bandwagon, a sinister voice within, urged me to play, and with who else but Sunday. My blossom friend. I knew I was testing my God yet I pushed on.
After series of knots and promises to beat the others, we locked in our hands together; a sign of bet to play the game in truth.
Are you wondering what the “Ahulam gi” game is all about? Then maybe you’re an indomie generation.
And for your sake, I’d tell you what it entails. The ‘Ahulam gi’ game is a first-see-first-eat kind of game. Anyone who spots the other first, screams “Ahulam gi!” and snatches whatever edibles the other person has on him or her. I mean the other person forfeits his or her food, snacks or fruits.
The next day luck smiled at me as I walked into the compound through the back gate. Squirrels were gliding in joy on top of the pear tree that shaded the gate. The palm fronds that served as fence shivered in the wind. On my head was a basket filled with tubers of yam. I was whistling until I got to the gate and a spirit hushed me. I peered in. Sunday’s mouth was moving up and down rhythmically, munching the best thing that happened to biscuits those years.
He saw me after I shouted, ‘Ahulam gi!’
Wearing a grimace, he tossed me the biscuits and walked away, his face, a contorted grimace. I devoured the biscuits, feeling like an award-winning actor. We practically avoided each other for two days before I caught him off guard again.
This time he was chewing away his life with a mango, contorting his face and making squishy sounds. He was seated at their backyard, three mangoes dancing in the bowl placed beside him. My grandma sent me to his mother; she wanted me to collect the grains she bought for her. Like a thief, I crept into their house and caught him blue-handed.
“Ahulam gi!” I screamed again, feeling fly. He shoved the fruits at me and threatened to break the bet. He was furious. I could see it from the tone at which he spoke. From the expression of his face and his bloodshot eyes, I knew he wanted to break the bet. I had nothing to lose but I acted like a god cajoling him, coaxing him and taunting to man up and see it through. Little did I know that my waterloo awaited me on the morrow.
I whistled, received my grandma’s package and left. Sauntering into the kitchen to meet my grandma; she held my hand and questioned my relationship with Sunday. She opined that she hardly saw us together. I waved it aside and laughed her misgivings off.
We cooked our bitter leaf soup, pounded our fufu and ate. I did the dishes that night; it had become a tradition for me because I hated being late to school. Scratch that, I loathed cane.
The next morning wore inviting attire; the sun was a burning eye of fire. Its scorching heat roused perspiration from my skin to my school uniform. It was three o’clock and I was famished and gassed out. My long books were beautifully placed on my elbow as I walked into the compound. I didn’t eat in the morning and the fifty buck grandma gave to me did nothing to my appetite as we overstayed the school time.
Bursting through the gate, I greeted two of my granduncles who sat at the verandah of their house conversing. I turned towards grandma’s house. I reached under the stone at the backyard (don’t know if the key still sleeps there though) and brought out the key to unlock the door. The door cracked open and I wandered in.
Dropping my books and tearing apart my uniform, I dashed to grandma’s room to see if my food was there. It wasn’t. She had forgotten to bring it in, I effused. I shook my head. In my pants and singlet, I rushed to the kitchen, which was a separate building from the house.
On reaching the kitchen, I touched the ashes and found them warm. I knew my food would still be warm too. So, I unlocked the door, reached down for my food and opened the lid. The steam on the cover slithered off the plate. My mouth watered at the sight. It was porridge yam garnished with enough vegetables and ukpaka.
My spirit registered another being’s presence. My instincts were always right and I obeyed them.
I covered the plate and slinked outside. I glanced sideways, forward and backward yet no soul was in sight except for a detached goat parading the compound. I studied the goat; it was chewing the cub. So, I assumed the goat was the presence my spirit caught.
I went back in, carried my food, dropped it and locked the kitchen. Carrying the plate diligently, the hairs on my neck stood and panic stirred up my belly. What could be this sick feeling? Here I was, with a plate of one of my favourite foods yet my feeling wasn’t right.
I inched away from the kitchen, and then broke into a run as I reached the front verandah. There was one obstacle though— opening the door.
I forgot to drop the food as I did earlier, maybe because I thought I had escaped or because the scent of the food made me realise afresh how ravenous I was.
It was at that ungodly time that I heard a scream ‘Ahulam gi!’
I feigned ignorance, turned deaf and opened the door without looking back. Racing into the room like a rat on spree. My heart was hammering against my chest. Sunday followed suit, tearing away the curtains in the process like a predator eager to pounce.
When he came in, I had two pieces of yam in my mouth. I was a fast thinker; I tried to outsmart him by putting the plate beneath the chair. He scanned the room and grabbed the plate smiling like a church rat. He sat adjacent to my position and chewed pickling. I pleaded, telling him I had no breakfast. He listened, blinked a couple of times and shot me a smirk.
“Do me I do you. Man nor suppose vex.” He said, his lips parting in a lopsided grin.
As I watched, the pieces of yam disappeared from the plate. I burst into series of short cries, sniffling, sobbing and heaving all at once. He enjoyed my predicament and taunted me with the remnants. He was full; it was evident from his smiling eyes and protruded stomach. Had he done it, I’d have gladly accepted the four pieces of leftovers but he shook his head, went outside with the plate, peering at me with a mischievous grin as he gave the yam to a roaming goat.
No one touched me. I just let out a shrill cry that vibrated through the compound.
“I am not doing again! I am not doing again!” I cried.
That was my last voluntary moment of crying.