Forgive my little digression from hard-core sports. Instead, enjoy this little story of a particular day in my life.
I am 10 years old.
I am with several of my age mates playing our daily evening football on the huge open field in front of the Magistrate Court and Police Station, off Sukuwa St, Jos.
Every day of our lives, children in neigbouring streets of Yandoka St, Turaki St, Pump St. and so on, congregate for a ritual, football games between the streets, or between Igbo and Hausa. The Yoruba will more often team up with the Igbo in the formation of the teams.
We all assemble on the field straight from school. To go home is to be saddled with chores that will prevent us from joining the early teams and getting an opportunity to play. So, it is a game of truancy – the more rascally you are at not going home after school, the more matches you get to play, and, of course, the more the beating you get from your angry parents.
On this fateful day, shortly before the game starts, Lawrence, the shortest boy in our group, but the most streetwise, comes to the football field with a set of new football jerseys. It is the first time any one of us will come close to seeing and using jerseys in our lives, not to talk of brand-new ones.
We are all very excited. We crowd around Lawrence as he walks majestically into our midst, a broad smile lit up by the bright yellow of the shirts on his face, and fascination plastered on every other face.
Lawrence, a new hero, distributes the jerseys to the seven of us in our team. The Hausa team is transfixed in a mixture of admiration and envy. They lose the match even before the game starts. We play well into late evening and ‘destroy’ them with goals.
Approaching darkness halts the match.
We collect the jerseys in a pile.
Then, Lawrence asks who amongst us will take custody of the jerseys and return them the following day.
Most of the boys agree the captain should take them home.
I am delighted and happy. I carry the jerseys and head home, proud that my outstanding play on the football field has transformed into privileged responsibility.
In that mood, I arrive the house on cloud-nine.
Of course, as usual, my mother is waiting for me with a whip in her hand. Being beaten after football has become my second nature. On this day, I don’t care. I don’t even feel the pain of the whips any more. They are dampened by the excitement of new kits in my custody decorating a corner of our parlour.
My father soon comes home and immediately notices the glittering jerseys in the corner. He wonders who owns them. What are they doing in his house?
With fear mounting slowly in my heart, I tell him.
It is ‘our’ team’s new uniform at the football ground.
Where did we get them from? What are they doing in his house?
I sense trouble. My explanation, apparently, does not sit well with him.
It is Lawrence that bought and brought the jerseys to the ground. As captain, I am to keep them until the following day.
My father asks: Why does Lawrence not take them to his own house?
I do not know.
Where did Lawrence get the money to buy the jerseys?
I do not know.
My father orders me to pick up the bundle, carry it on my head and follow him.
I know immediately that I am in deep s..t. The paper-weight jerseys become a ton in my arms now drooping with their dead weight as I follow my father in the fading light of evening.
We walk up the street, past the magistrate courts, through a short-cut hugging the courts, and onto the wide field of ‘stubborn grass’ in front of the police station. Beyond the station is the Fire Station and Uncle’s house on Sukuwa street. I remember Papa Jonathan Odegbami. The fear of Papa is the beginning of wisdom. He is the one that handles all the disciplinary matters of the children in the Odegbami clan, a whole army of cousins, nephews and nieces in Jos.
I am hating myself with every step on that long walk.
Suddenly, a tug of the collar of my shirt jerks me back to reality from my dreadful reverie. My father is pulling and dragging me into the Police Station!
I can still hear his voice as he calmly tells the officer at the desk to detain me until I confess the source of the jerseys I am carrying.
Ha! My world ends.
The policeman is the most dreaded person in the world of children, and the police station the worst place to go to.
I am now behind the counter, the ‘wicked’ look on the officer’s face tells me I am ‘finished’, that my end has come. I am crying my eyes as I watch my father depart and leaves me with the police men in their dungeon.
I am spilling out confessions and admitting every error I have ever made in my life. I am pleading and begging and ‘swearing to God’ never do wrong again.
I start to mention all the names of my teammates.
It is a neighbourhood police station. Everybody knows everybody.
Within one hour, the police station is full. All the players with me living on Yandoka St. and the adjoining streets are brought to the station with their parents, brothers, sisters, dogs, cats, everybody and everything that moves in their houses. The station becomes a beehive of families of crying children. All of this because of 11 jerseys that one of us brought from ‘hell’ for our game that evening.
Soon, the truth becomes manifest. Our stories tally. Even Lawrence admits his guilt. His father had been looking for the money he kept at home paid by a client for some carpentry work. That is the source of money that Lawrence took to buy the accursed jerseys. Who sold him the jerseys? Even the innocent man in the sports shop soon joins us behind the crowded police counter, pleading for mercy!
One by one, we are allowed to go. I wait till the end because my father is not there to witness my ‘acquittal’.
One of the police men leads me home eventually to my waiting mother and father. They are relieved by the Policeman’s explanation and plea for my pardon.
My father assures him that all is well, and escorts him outside.
Then he returns with a cane in hand and all my siblings as witnesses to my further humiliation and punishment. Hot tears pour like rain from my eyes. Even my ‘hardened’ mother cannot take it anymore, and begs my father for leniency to allow me get up from my ‘stoop down’ position. He finally obliges her.
I crumble into a heap on the floor next to my siblings, and we all are made to listen to my father’s sermon and his new commandments.
He points to the picture of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in an almanac on the wall of our sitting room, his face like that of angel submerged in white clouds.
My father tells us about the Yoruba sage and his principles. He delves into Yoruba history, culture and sacred values, the premium placed on education, on morals, on good conduct and exemplary character; about Omoluabi ethos and ethics. He speaks about integrity, the difference between wealth and riches, and how never to celebrate ‘thieves’ and material things earned corruptly. He tells us about good leadership and how to recognise and select the right leaders. He tells us about working honestly and hard.
Those lessons have stuck like a glue to my being and my life.
I recall his words now, what I see in today’s Nigeria is a far cry from the Omoluabi of my father’s sermon that night some 6 decades ago in Jos.
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