(PG-13) By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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Mr. Apia Akpaka (PG-13)
By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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The night preceding the day I was to begin Primary One at Isu Community School will forever remain fresh in my mind. Me, who normally fell asleep as soon as my back hit the bed. But did I sleep that night?
The reason for my insomnia was the school headmaster, Mr. Apia Akpaka.
Children hated Mr. Apia Akpaka. Even those who had not yet begun school were conditioned to hate him by those who had. A huge man, he had a clean-shaven head, and a somewhat protruding upper front tooth. It was rumored that since he was born no smile had graced his leathery, lizard-like face - not even by mistake, the rumormongers claimed, though they could lay no claim to being Mr. Apia Akpaka’s relatives, or knowing when he was born.
All my life, the number of times I had set eyes on this phenomenal Mr. Apia Akpaka could be ticked off on the fingers of one hand. The truth was that like other kids, it was not part of my ambition to behold his hawk-like eyes, which were generally agreed to have the power to make your legs rubbery and weak, like a cripple’s; and make your throat run dry, like the back of a bamboo stick in harmattan1. An uncountable number of schoolchildren swore they had, at one time or another, felt lightheaded and faint simply by looking into those hawk-like eyes! ‘Never look into Apia Akpaka’s eyes’ was therefore a cardinal instruction: that is, if you wanted to survive at Isu Community School.
Out in the village square, a voice would suddenly ring out, “Everybody look, Apia Akpaka is coming! Run, run for your dear lives!” And like magic, the village square would empty, with kids screaming their heads off as they fled. Such was the terror that Mr. Apia Akpaka evoked!
Who wouldn’t scamper on account of Mr. Apia Akpaka? The story went that on his daily strolls round the village, he cradled his custom-made cowhide whip, the koboko, under his starched shirt, ready to slip it out with the speed of greased lightning and teach any mischievous pupil a hard lesson.
If your parents gave you an assignment- say for example, “Uchechukwu, make sure you wash your clothes and have your bath, and don’t forget to fetch water from the stream for cooking dinner-” you were most likely to obey. If you didn’t, chances were that, on your parents’ invitation, Mr. Apia Akpaka would come calling that evening with his koboko. And your buttocks would catch fire!
It was rumored that on his parent’s instruction, Mr. Apia Akpaka had thrashed a disobedient boy from Umugbor, the next village, until the boy passed out, and was only resuscitated by the ingenuity of the village Dibia2, Mazi Ekwueme. Every child that attended Isu Community School swore by his forefathers that he knew this unfortunate boy. But to the present time, none has pointed out that unfortunate boy. But of course, no one needed to point out anybody to confirm that Mr. Apia Akpaka could commit murder in broad daylight. You only had to see him walk - the ground shook with his every step.
So now you will understand why sleep vamoosed from my eyes that night. I was going to meet the Devil himself! And if I made the stupid mistake of telling my Ma that, “Look, mama, I don’t want to go to school,” that would be double trouble, for there was no surer way of inviting Mr. Apia Akpaka to your home than to refuse to go to school. So, like a hungry fledging, I trembled on my bamboo bed.
The sleep that had fled was only just returning when I heard our stubborn cocks crowing, Kokrorokooo, kokrorokooo, and the next thing I heard was my Ma opening my room door and shouting, “Wake up, wake up my son! Today is here at last, the day for you to begin school. I know you will make your poor mother proud.” Happily, she began to hum a church song. I swallowed hard and began to pray. I didn’t even know what prayer I was saying. But one thing I knew was that I wished Mr. Apia Akpaka would just die! Yes, fall down and die, just like that. That was what befitted a wicked man like him.
I was luckier than most of my mates starting school with me: my Pa had a Raleigh bicycle, the same age as me. He bought it as a special gift for himself the same day I was born. He told me he had to congratulate himself, even if nobody would congratulate him. The reason for congratulating himself, my Pa told me, was that at last he had a male child after six previous attempts had yielded nothing but ordinary girls. “My son,” he always said whenever he was in a happy mood, “I had to make sure my two legs were firmly placed on the wall, and then, I dug really, really deep.” My Pa never got beyond the point of the story where he dug really, really deep because my Ma would suddenly come flying from the kitchen, yelling, “Stop polluting that child’s mind with your rubbish and nonsense story, you rotten old man.” My Pa would laugh and laugh and laugh until tears ran from his eyes. I always found myself smiling, though whether at my Pa’s story or at my Ma’s anger, I could never tell. I never understood what Pa meant by digging really deep, or why Ma waited until this part of the story before yelling at him.
Anyway, back to my story. Thanks to my Pa and his Raleigh, I was the first pupil to get to school. Getting to school early meant that I had saved myself six hot cuts of Mr. Apia Akpaka’s koboko, a sure thing for latecomers. And there were always so many. I imagined the scene as told over a million times by those who had experienced it:
“Now, steady boy…”
“I said steady…”
“I beg you sir …with my father’s name…”
“I don’t care about your father, or your grandfather…”
“Forgive me, sir…”
Thuwaai! Thuwaaaai!! Thuwaaaaaaai!!!
“Ah, my buttocks have caught fire, sir!”
“Don’t worry! The next stroke will quench the fire!”
Thuwaai! Thuwaaaai!! Thuwaaaaaaai!!!
It was rumored that Mr. Apia Akpaka had developed thick biceps by his daily thrashing duties. My eyes strayed to these biceps as soon as Pa and I stepped into his office. My God, the things were bulging, almost bursting through his starched, short-sleeved shirt. I shivered in my khaki shorts, making doubly sure to avoid his eyes lest my legs became rubbery and weak, like a cripple’s, or my throat ran dry, like the back of a bamboo stick in harmattan.
On seeing us, Mr. Apia Akpaka, like a bullet, shot out of his cane chair, crying, “Come in, come in, Mr. Okeke, come right in, oh dear me, oh dear me.” It was a booming voice. Friendly? It couldn’t be! And then he continued talking, telling us, “Sit down, sit down, and make yourselves comfortable, there is a chair over there, boy-”
And I froze!
What had I done wrong? I hadn’t even moved a muscle since entering his office. God save me! He continued addressing me saying, “Boy, boy, drag that chair over here for your Da…” And I was all action. In a jiffy, the chair was where his stubby finger pointed. “Ah, a strong boy you have, Mr. Okeke,” he continued, “fine boy too,” and my Pa went and told him that, “Ahhh yes, a fine boy, I agree, but he is very stubborn, all my rubber ropes for tying my rice bags have disappeared one after the other, used to make catapults that never succeed in killing any bird.” And Mr. Apia Akpaka’s face clouded suddenly, and he cocked his head to one side. Instinctively, I began a fervent prayer as my eyes spied his koboko, majestically resting on one end of his long table as he allowed his hawk-like eyes to bore deep holes through me. He wanted me to look him in the eyes so that I would feel lightheaded, and collapse. But, thank God I knew all about his tricks: Shaaame, Mr. Apia Akpaka! Shaaame!
“Boy, are you stubborn?” he asked at length, and went on without waiting for an answer, “I hope not. What is your name, my boy?”
“Nwa…” my Pa tried to answer for me, seeing how pale my face had become, and probably remorseful for telling on me. But Mr. Apia Akpaka would have nothing of the sort, crying, “No, no, let him answer, he is old enough to impregnate a woman, how old is he?” Thinking that this question was meant for him, Pa’s mouth opened again to answer, but Mr. Apia Akpaka closed it for him by booming, “No Mr. Okeke, you mustn’t speak for the lad, he is nearly a man, in the olden days, he would already be eligible for two wives, tell me your name and how old are you, my boy?”
Like the Devil he was, it was just his nature to ask two questions at the same time, I thought. I struggled to make my tongue work, as well as make up my mind, which of the two questions to answer first: my name or my age.
Mr. Apia Akpaka and my Pa stared at me, waiting patiently as my tongue, like a rebel soldier, continued to disobey my simple commands. “The intransigent attachment! “ I cursed. “Why show your true nature at this critical time?” In my confusion, my eyes narrowed into slits. My green and white checked shirt stuck to my back, and my armpits itched like crazy, as if I had doused them with generous amount of the itchy Devil beans. Who was I to itch them, with Mr. Apia Akpaka gawking at me? And oh God, I had locked eyes with him by mistake! Already, my legs were turning to rubber, and I was beginning to feel lightheaded and faint.
Common sense bade me to sprint out of the office, away from this devilish Mr. Apia Akpaka and home to the comfort of my dear mother’s bosom. She would understand, I was sure, for not every mother sanctioned Mr. Apia Akpaka’s horrible ways. Just as Mr. Apia Akpaka’s face contorted dangerously and I was about to bolt away, my tongue worked, and I croaked, “I am just after seven years…”
Mr. Apia Akpaka roared with laughter- ho, ho, ho, ho! shaking the foundations of his office. I heard the school bell tingle from its nail. My Pa laughed too. I knew he was proud of me. After his roaring laughter had subsided a little, Mr. Apia Akpaka clasped me tenderly on my shoulder, crying, “No, no, my boy, you are not just after seven years, you are just over seven years, say it,” and as clearly as I could, I said, “it”. “No, no, no,” he cried further, “I mean you are just ‘over’, not ‘after’ seven years- say it.” I understood and said, “you are just ‘over’, not ‘after’ seven years”. Squinting his eyes, he scrutinized me carefully before saying, “Well, well, that’s a good lad, and what is your name, boy?” I replied, “My name is Nwanna Okeke.” “You are your father’s son,” he said, bursting into another round of ho, ho, ho, ho. At last, he said, “Well, well, and clever too.” Then he rubbed my head tenderly with huge, sweaty palms.
I couldn’t believe it! To be complimented by the legendary Mr. Apia Akpaka, so much so as to have him rub me tenderly on the head? My friends wouldn’t believe it. They would say I made it all up. Who has ever heard of Mr. Apia Akpaka, with his leathery, lizard-like face laughing? And his face was not leathery, I thought. At least not the face I was looking at now. If anything, it was fleshy and robust. And friendly too! Suddenly, my legs were no longer melting under me, I noticed, and my lightheadedness miraculously disappeared into thin air.
Mr. Apia Akpaka’s friendly, booming voice brought me back from my reverie. “Now, now, now,” he said, suddenly drawing himself to his full six feet and instantly meaning business, “we had better register you now, Master Nwanna Okeke.”
He dragged out a big book I later learned was called a ‘Register’ out of a table drawer. He asked every question under the sun and my Pa and I answered as best as we could. Where we had no inkling to the answers like, “What year where you born, Mr. Okeke?” And, “What year was your wife, Mrs. Okeke born?” And, “What foods are your family allergic to?” Mr. Apia Akpaka simply provided the answers himself.
At last, he closed his big book, and a large smile beamed across his face. It was a remarkable smile, breaking open like the sun after a bout of heavy downpour.
My heart warmed. I was no longer afraid of Mr. Apia Akpaka. As my Pa and I stepped out of his office, I kept thinking: all those stories about Mr. Apia Akpaka… all those rumors …all those yarns…
“Well, well, well,” I said aloud, “devil take all gossips and slanderers!”
Something told me I would enjoy learning at Isu Community School.
1– A North-east trade wind: dry and windy.
2 – Native doctor / Medicine man.