When she got older, Chielo was told that she never went to a nursery school, and that on her first day in primary school, she came home with illegible scrawls drawn haphazardly on her 20 Leaves notebook. When her sisters asked her what she had written, what the scrawls drawn in circular motions were, she grumbled that she didn’t know what those people in school were doing. At six, Chielo was known to be strong-willed and impatient; She insisted that her younger siblings, Elonna and Somadinna, with whom she ate fufu every night after coming home from Block Rosary Crusade, did not pick up vegetables from the soup with each swallow of a morsel but only when she said so. And whenever she gave the go-ahead, Elonna was prudent enough to pick up as much vegetables as he could, carefully cupping his free hand under the overloaded morsel to catch any leaves that could fall off the food as it made its way to his mouth; he didn’t know the next time ‘small madam’ would be benevolent enough to allow him taste the onugbu (bitter leaves) that always came in long strands and that always tried to fall off his fufu, as if determined that he would not have them. Somadina didn’t care much about vegetables. Whenever their mum cooked porridge yam with ugu leaves, he wondered why anybody would overwhelm and subdue the sweet and earthy taste of the otherwise yellow sauce with some tasteless leaves. But their mother always admonished them to eat vegetables because it was good for them. She would say, ‘o na-enye obara’, literally, that it gives blood.
Chielo also insisted that her brothers only dip each fufu ball, ‘okpoko’, into the soup only once, and only long enough to make a small circular mark in the soup. Staying longer inside the soup plate or making a mark beyond the circle was not allowed. It meant the offender had taken up more soup than was permitted and was sure to be reprimanded by her. Her brothers only extended beyond the circular point to draw a line only when ‘small madam’ gave the order. And Elonna was sure to move his morsel of fufu long enough from one end of the plate to the other so that the mark left on the plate, when the soup is thick, forms the diameter of a circle. Because Chielo said so, they ate in turns, morsel after morsel, so that no one ate up more food than the other. However, everybody was allowed to make each ball as big as their throat could allow to pass through. Chielo must have been at an advantage because being older, the hole in her throat must have been larger than her brothers’. She often wondered why she had to eat with her younger brothers, why she couldn’t have her on plate of fufu and soup. She always thought that if she did, she would save the vegetables for last and only use the liquid part of the soup for her fufu. The vegetables would be taken last, as a piece of meat would, since it was only occasionally that they found meat on their food, often the first day the soup was cooked.
Chielo’s performance and attitude on her first day of school didn’t change throughout her first year in primary school. Her school report card continued to be filled with red ink until her second year when her mother decided that no child of hers was going to be ‘an iti’, a mediocre. After all, both herself and her children’s father, her husband, used to do well in school. Their father especially always came first in class. Chielo found it interesting that no adult ever admitted to ‘carrying the class in the head’ in their school days. And one day in school, when her primary 2 teacher boasted about how she used to be among the best in her standard school days, Chielo suspected that since she didn’t say that she used to take the first position, that she must have always come in the fourth or fifth place in a class of ten pupils. She thought that her teacher was being economical with the truth.
After her mother decided that enough was enough, that willy-nilly, Chielo must become as intelligent as her elder sisters, she made out time in the evenings to review her school work with her. She wanted her to join her sisters to say ‘Agbara m firstu’ , I came in first place, when their uncles asked them about their academic performance during the Christmas holidays. Chielo’s mother went on to tame her stubbornness. She reproved her when, because of her impatience, she didn’t make enough effort to get a word right;her mother thought that gave up easily. She taught her how to read her ‘Macmillan’s Reader’. Chielo mostly crammed the passages. ‘Agbo lives in the town of Lagun, which was not far from Ibadan. He went to primary school…’ her voice would trail of until she fell asleep on her mother’s laps. On some days, her mother would let her fall asleep or go to play with her sister only if she got every word in the passage right. Did her mother know that she couldn’t actually read, that if a word was taken out of the passage, that she would not be able to pronounce it? Chielo would never know. Her mother’s knowledge or otherwise of her secret didn’t matter because by the next academic year, her result improved. She came in second place in her class. She was thrilled. However, because her success came only after she and her mother ran into her teacher in church, she wasn’t sure if she really deserved credit or if the teacher was ‘doing pashia’, was being partial towards her because they had become somehow acquainted. When she went on to the next class headed by another teacher and took the first position, she knew it was for real, that she was officially a good student.
Like her older sisters, Chielo was destined to go to a private secondary school. She did and continued to trade first, second and third positions with two other girls. One day, when one of her teachers caught her crying because Yadiba, her rival who was also her best friend, had come in first place and she in second, her teacher chided her for her lack of sportsmanship.
Chielo continued to do well into her senior secondary. When the decision came to join Arts or Science class, she said she preferred the Arts. But her family and teachers, except for her English teacher, said no, that with a brain like hers, she was more suited for the sciences, that it will be waste of gray matter if she joined the Arts class. However, because her school mandated every SS1 student to take all courses so that they would be in a position to make an informed decision, Chielo was both a Science and Arts student in her first year in senior secondary. By her second year, she knew she preferred the Arts but again, well-meaning family members encouraged her to give Science another shot. Partly because of that and partly because she couldn’t resist the allure of a ‘Dr’ before her name, she joined the Science class. When she couldn’t memorize the periodic table-twenty elements and their atomic numbers, Chielo contemplated joining the Arts class for the umpteenth time.
Chielo took mostly science subjects in her WAEC. In later years, she would think it was Providence that made her also take Literature, a move that would later be her saving grace. She loved literature. Her eldest sister Nwanyidimma had helped ignite her passion for books. When Nwanyidimma was in secondary school and Chielo was still in primary school, Nwanyidimma stayed up late at night to tell her stories from Macbeth, The Lonely Londoners, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. By the time she was in Primary six, Chielo could read fluently in both Igbo and English. Every evening, she would read a portion of Urunwa by Ojo Maduekwe to her mother, her mother who had taught her how to read.
Either because she wasn’t as good as her family had thought or because she had made up her mind that she hated science, Chielo flunked Physics and Chemistry in WAEC. Her Jamb result wasn’t any better. When time came to take her GCE, she combined as many Science and Arts subjects as were allowed to make up the nine subjects she was required to take. This time, she insisted on taking Arts courses in her Jamb and she did exceedingly well without a ‘machinery’- a professional exam-taker, usually a university student, who applied for exams only to help students who had arranged for his assistance in ‘Special Centers’. When her eldest sister saw her Jamb result, she exclaimed: ‘You got this score with this your little head?’
With her outstanding Jamb result, it was obvious she wasn’t destined to be a scientist. Because Chielo had bought the idea that studying law was the preserve of bright students who didn’t want to be in Science class, becoming a lawyer was her first consideration. But after hearing terrible stories about lawyers and how they were all liars, Chielo decided it wasn’t meant for her. She didn’t want to go to hellfire. Because she was good in Math, she decided she was going to study Accountancy. She had come to realize that there weren’t many options for ‘professional’ courses in Arts as they were in the Sciences. No wonder everyone wanted her to study science so she could choose from Medicine, Engineering (there were several of them), Pharmacy, Optometry, Dentistry etc.
One day, Chielo mentioned to one of her mates that she was going to be an accountant. The mate casually inquired why she didn’t want to become an attorney so that she could be self-employed and not waste her time searching for non-existent jobs after graduation from the university. Once again, being an attorney was back into consideration. But she was still worried that her ‘faith’ would not allow her become a lawyer. When her sister and brother-in-law came to visit, she told them that she was considering studying law. She told them her reservations about the profession which included that she had heard that men were afraid of female lawyers, that men thought they were too much trouble so female lawyers ended up being unmarried. Her brother-in-law, Udokamma, whose facial expression showed he was slightly amused, said something along the lines of ‘No, that is not true. If anything, being an attorney makes a woman, for want of a better word, more marketable’. In later years, when she took interest in basketball, each time she saw Tim Duncan on TV, Chielo would be reminded of her brother-in-law. Their similarity lied in their height and personality.
Her concern that being a lawyer was a sure ticket to hell persisted into her days in the university. From time to time however, she got an assurance from a wise adult that she could be a good attorney, that there were honest attorneys who did not sell justice to the highest bidder. There was the monsignor in her parish, Mosignor Nduka, who prayed that God will bless her intentions when she told him that she wanted to use her profession to serve the poor, a lie many members of the profession tell themselves the fallacy of which they realize only when they make their first money. There was also the elderly attorney from her town who was also a Catholic knight who when she told him that she heard that attorneys were buried face down, was stunned and said that he, after decades in the profession, had never heard that. Chielo always found it fascinating that the subject of a rumor was always the last in the distribution chain.
When she became an adult, Chielo would attempt to talk a little girl into becoming an attorney and would try to talk a young boy out of becoming a hip hop singer (after his upset mother came running to her). But when Chielo was tempted to convince a young girl to become a medical doctor, a girl she knew will make a good physician, a girl who when she was barely five years was so responsible and caring that she covered Chielo up with a blanket when she found her asleep, she resisted the temptation.
Chielo did very well in her university as a law student. She also passed her Law School exam on her first attempt. The same year she finished law school, she was admitted into the Nigerian Bar. She knew she will make a positive difference in her profession, that she would defend those who have no one to speak for them. That was, until she too realized the fallacy. It was then it dawned on her that it would take determination to not sell her soul to earn a living.
PS: The views that may have been implied in this story are not necessarily the author’s; she was more interested in writing a good story.