I didn’t think it possible that I could be any more dissatisfied with Holy Mary Mother of God University, but that was before I found what the toilets and bathrooms were like.
For starters, they weren’t on the hostel buildings. They were in a low-fenced area from which my hostel was the farthest, and to get there, the female students had to walk down a tarred road in the full-glare of the school’s chapel and a football field where boys were found at all hours, watching with keen interest as the girls, most of whom —shamelessly —were usually wearing only the towels around their chest, catwalked by. I had a sense that this was, in a way, some sort of mating ritual dance. The girls showed off their goods and ass-ets, and based on their display it was easier for the guys to decide whom exactly they had to have as girlfriend, and it went on from there. But to say I was appalled is understating it, my dissatisfaction bordered on horror.
Then I discovered that the toilets were pit-toilets, and I lost it!
“I’M COMING BACK HOME!!!”
“Jesus! Adaora, take it easy. Do you want to burst my eardrums? What is it? What happened?”
“Pit kwa?” My mother echoed. “What is pit?”
“The toilet, mummy. It’s pit-toilet!”
“What?! Infection! Nba nba nba nba! Lemme call your father. Asi asi o.”
She clicked off. I waited, sitting on a low wall, my bucket of water on the ground, as well as my shower bag and it’s content of moisturising bath gels and glycerine wash and apricot scrub and face mask. Clearly, it was missing the most important things of all: antibacterial soap and liquid disinfectant.
I wanted to cry. Girls were passing me where I sat, with their buckets of water, giving me gauging looks. Some who had heard me on the phone with my mother had chuckled and muttered stuff about me “forming boti.”
My phone rang. It was my dad.
“Yes. Adaora, your mother just called. Said you were upset. What is it?”
“Are the bathrooms in use? Have you seen anyone actually use them?”
“And you are sure they are students and that they are human?”
“Well, that’s settled then. You’ll have to adapt.”
“Look Adaora, your mother just called me out of a very important meeting. I thought it was something life-threatening”—
—”but clearly, it’s not. You can either use the bathroom, or don’t. Your call. But I’ve paid your school fees and that’s the end of the matter. Staying off-campus isn’t permitted in your school otherwise you’d have had a case, but as it is, my hands are tied. Abi, do you want me to go and seek permission and a patch of land from your Chancellor to build a bathroom and toilet only you would use?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“O-ho!” He continued. “That settles it. Go and buy dettol and Tetmosol. Nne je wuo ahu, biko. Bye bye.”
My mother called almost immediately. “Ehen, what did he say?”
I told her.
This was the point where she was supposed to be outraged and assure that she would lean into him, and that she was going to see to it that I return home, but instead she sighed and said: “This is bad o, but nne, you’ll have to manage, eh? Just try, o nwa’m. Maybe you’ll go and buy a little bucket or something you’ll do your business in then flush it into the pit. But please don’t stand over the pit o, biko o! Maka infection! You know how our bodies are as women. We are very susceptible. Obere ihe obanye la, nmadu akowa akuko ozo.
“Please be careful, oh? And maybe you should go and buy some of these clotrimazole creams, na hio ya down there, maka adiamama, oh?”
I nodded glumly.
“Ngwanu, bye bye, oh? Just let me know if you need anything, oh? Take care my dear. I love you.”
I grunted something in response, she clicked off, and I started to laugh. Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying.
I carried my bucket of water and returned to my hostel. I was going to wait until when the girls who had heard me on the phone could reasonably be expected to have left the bathroom, and then I would return and brave the long queues in front of the toilets and washrooms: in all, about fourteen respectively, which were supposed to cater to over a thousand girls.
I don’t suppose I have to tell you what the place looked like, or worse, what it smelled like —there were these plastic trash cans that were always filled to capacity with used sanitary pads and were only cleared out once a week, so there!
As I returned to my hostel, a line from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” came to me:
- “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”
In that instant, those lyrics sounded a lot like a prophecy come true.
On Saturday morning was jogging. At a few minutes to seven in the morning a troop of security men swooped down on our hostels with big sticks and clubs and started hitting on doors and shouting: “Get out! Get out!! Get out!!!”
Deep asleep, I had panicked. In the fraction of a second between sleep and full wakefulness, I had experienced a heart-thumping terror I had only felt a few times in my life before, and in that sliver of time several debilitating thoughts ran through my mind: Armed robbers? Rapists? Kidnappers?
Then I saw the blue uniforms and caught my breath long enough to get on my feet and start to fold my mattress. I had been told by my room mates that there was mandatory exercise for girls every Saturday morning, and “orientation” afterwards —which I had thought of as a one-off, because, really, how many times could one be oriented? But as I would find out in due course, universities weren’t meant to be run by self-acclaimed celibates —so after the initial shock at the manner in which we were roused, I had thought the worst was over, until I found as the students poured out of the hostels like the exodus of a herd of sheep, that I was the odd man out. The rest were wearing these off-white stretchy uniforms emblazoned at the front with the Holy Mary Mother of God university’s coat of arms, which were the epitome of terrible tailoring and looked like they would be more useful sieving akamu, but they were all wearing it, all in white tops, and I was the black sheep.
I had been walking alongside my room mate, Ifechukwu, at the time. “Ifechukwu” I asked, “where did everybody get these white vests from? Were they supposed to hand me one at Students’ Affairs? ‘Cos I didn’t collect o.”
“Nah, you’re supposed to go and buy. It’s seven hundred naira at the bookshop”—
“Seven hundred what? For this nonsense? They are even supposed to pay me to wear this thing. It’s like wearing those white hand-gloves children wear to perform Kirk Franklin in church.”
“Those hand gloves are even more durable sef” Ifechukwu said, chuckled, then pointed me to spots on her vest where the threadcount had warped and her under-shirt was visible. “I no even know the kain material wey these people dey use sew these things.”
“Do we all have to wear them?”
“Look around you. Do you think anyone would be wearing this rubbish if they had a choice? This thing na falling-hand na. Do you realise that all our bride-prices are dropping by ten naira each time we put on these rubbish?”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “So, what’s going to happen now that I don’t have a vest?”
“They’ll probably let it slide because you’re new, but after jogging go and get one.”
For seven hundred naira! I thought inwardly, hating the prospect.
Jogging, as it turned out, wasn’t just jogging. We all arranged ourselves in lines facing a very wide, ugly-looking pavillon with rickety wooden beams, perched solidly atop six steps and a concrete casting that was at least three feet high. On the pavillon was a short, mean-looking fuse of man, who I learnt was the Assistant CSO (Chief Security-Ofiicer), and clearly, he was our fitness instructor: shouting at us in a stentorian voice that somehow told of a low intellect, ordering us to mirror his every move as he did push-ups and cardios and pumped his biceps and stretched his body out this way and that, leaning into his thighs, hands braced on knees, one after another. I was out of breath before long.
Handpicking another security man to take his place on the pavillon, the Assistant CSO made his way into the crowd, with long, angry strides that seemed like a prelude to violence. As I would later learn, he always walked this way, and was always angry. But what I hadn’t realised in that instant was that as he stomped his way through the crowd of girls, like a foot soldier at a war he didn’t expect to return home from; that he had been heading directly for me. Up until he yanked me roughly by the shoulder of my shirt.
“Where’s your jogging vest?” He growled.
Shocked, and more than that, angry at the sudden assault, I slapped repeatedly at his death-hold on my shirt. “Are you mad?” I snapped. “C’mon will you leave my shirt! What’s wrong with you?”
I heard the gasps of surprise and glimpsed the looks of shock on the faces of some of the girls from my peripheral vision, but I was too incensed to be bothered.
“You’re a new student, abi?” He growled again, his eyes dancing, wild and crazy. But I’d given off and experienced enough crazy in my life to know that crazy offsets crazy, sometimes.
“Ehen? Is that why you’re roughing me up?” I slapped his hand again. “Get this beastly hand off me.”
He just stared at me a moment longer, chuckled, and was on his way.
I let out a very long hiss and made a big show of adjusting my shirt, still fuming; that bloated ugly, hateful face still impressed on my mind, with it’s pair of manic eyes and matching horizontal tribal marks on cheeks, wide nostrils like suction pipes, tooth-baring snarl reminiscent of a rabid dog’s. I hated that Assistant CSO from that moment on, hated him with an intensity that I couldn’t even explain.
“Girl, you get mind o” the next girl to my front on the line said, with no small amount of admiration. An admiration I didn’t then understand.
“‘Mind’? As in how? What could he have done to me anyway?”
She chuckled. “E be like say you no know who Sheddy Baba be?”
“Is that his name?”
“Yes. Shedrack. And he’s an animal. He beats anybody and everybody, girl or boy, e no wan know.”
“Ehn! Beat who? Me? That low life? Mchw! Let him try it now. They’ll just lock him up.”
“O girl, leave that matter. Na so all new students dey talk sha.”
“If he’s been doing it to other girls and getting away with it, then he’s got another thing coming if he tries to pull that shit on my side. A common security man. Beat me? God forbid!
“Does he even have SSCE certificate? I won’t take that nonsense from anybody! To God who made me, we’ll just kill ourselves. Am I in primary school? What nonsense is that?”
I didn’t realise I was shouting, and it didn’t even matter. Even the girl I was speaking too was no longer paying attention to me, her attention trained on some point behind me where a commotion had started. I followed her gaze just as excited girls scurried out of the way in the crowd behind us, and I heard a scream as the crowd parted to reveal a girl who was wearing a blue T-shirt, screaming and trying to get away from Sheddy Baba as he pounded her with his fists, held in place by his unyielding grip on her T-shirt, trapped.
“I thought I warned you last week not to wear mufti to jogging again!” I heard Sheddy Baba growl in his wild, crazy voice, over and over again, with each blow he dealt her. And each time she screamed, and while this seemed to excite some girls who were angling for a better view of the spectacle, I felt something curl up inside me.
“Count yourself lucky” the girl I had just been speaking to breathed in my ear, and when I turned to face her she was giving one of those ‘I told you so’ looks.
I turned away from the sight of the girl, whose build was a lot smaller than mine, being assaulted by a security man —regardless of what fancy designation he was addressed by, he was a goddamn security man, with no qualifications that could have gotten him a better job —and I wondered, not for the first time, what that school was, because with each passing second it appeared to be farther and farther away from what I had imagined a tertiary institution would be, from what I knew a tertiary institution should be.
When I turned, I couldn’t see, but I could still hear the girl’s screams, but after a moment of deliberation I found that that wasn’t what was most bothersome. What was more troubling was the fact that most of the girls found such a thing entertaining while the others watched with the quiet resignation that it was the way the cookie crumbled and they couldn’t do anything about it. The few faces of shock belonged to new students.
It occurred to me then that this was normalcy in Holy Mary Mother of God university. This was the standard example of a normal Saturday morning, and much worse, this was going to be my life for the next five years.
Count yourself lucky…
I gulped audibly, and strangely, I felt lucky. I stood up to Sheddy Baba, and I survived.