‘We are going to beat up our maths teacher,’ Pope says.
The three of us are sitting together in our den after the last day of school: Pope, Friday and myself. When Pope speaks, we all listen. He is the leader. Pope is a bit taller than the two of us, but has small build and no muscles to boast of. However, he can climb trees faster than a monkey and can chase a chicken until it becomes fatigued enough to be easily caught. Pope likes to wear his hooded sweatshirt despite the heat, over faded denim and light leather shoes with pointed tip. In contrast, Friday is short and stout like an athlete, which he is not. He has a round baby face; his eyes are set close together, with too much hair covering most of his scalp. When I first met him, I found it funny that he is named like the days of the week. He just laughs and says his brother is called Monday. If his mother had not died early, they will probably have completed the days of the week in their family. I want to tell him that I have never heard of a person name Tuesday or Thursday, but decide not to.
‘Do we have to do it?’ I ask.
‘Are you afraid?’ Pope asks.
‘He will identify us.’
‘He will not.’
‘What is the point then? Beat up a teacher who will not know who did it and why?’ I say. ‘Don’t you think it is better if he knows that we beat him up for a reason so that he does not repeat it when the new term starts?’
He makes it sound like an everyday activity. The three of us are in the same school, in the same class taught by the teacher. We have been together since we joined the school six years back and are now poised to move on to senior school in a year’s time. I am part of the gang now, yes. I wear our T-shirt, yes. I chant the songs we learnt in our hideout, yes. But beating up Teacher. Ah ah, not me. I don’t think so. I don’t believe so and can’t do so.
‘I don’t think it is a good idea,’ I say.
Pope ignores me. He wipes his right hand on the hard floor, removing small stones and dried grass, leaving a cleared area on the floor. The building we are in is at the edge of the old cemetery at Hai Malakal. Pope and I discovered the half completed house some time back. It has three big rooms that we now use for our own things. However, the green high roof is in place, which shelters us from sun and rain. Because the doors have not been fixed yet, goats and dogs and chicken wander inside when we are not around. Their droppings are all over the place and we have to clean it every time. I find human excreta sometimes, long hard ones, and flat ones like the person who deposited it had diarrhoea. We have to deaden the smell by pouring sand on them.
On the cleared area on the floor, Pope carefully lays out the war arsenal. The weapons of choice are simple; red pepper powder, a catapult and a club. Pope tells us he borrowed the red pepper from the women in Konyokonyo market. The women have stalls where they lay out their wares. The red pepper powder is in small plastic bags, laid on the stall together with small bags of tea, salt, sugar and several types of foodstuffs. Friday and I know what Pope meant when he says he borrowed. When he steals things, he says he is just borrowing them and will return. He never does, of course. The same for the red pepper powder now.
Pope says we are not to harm him much, just a small beating to teach him a lesson. He likes that. He teaches us in class lessons and we teach him a lesson in the street. A beating he shouldn’t die from is therefore in place. Beating him up will surely make Pope feel happy, satisfied.
‘None of us is big enough to confront the teacher on his own,’ I say. ‘I still think that we have to find another way of doing this thing.’
‘I believe we had discussed that before,’ Friday says.
I know Friday is a fighter. He fights big boys, small boys and anyone who crosses his path. The big boys never bully him in school because when he starts fighting back, it never ends in the school. He will follow you with it back to your neighbourhood. He will wait for his chance when you are least expectant of him, will pounce with whatever weapon he has. He will keep fighting you until you call for a truce. He never does that himself. One day in class one of the big boys laughs at him after he failed a really easy test. He got on top of his desk and walked over the desks to the boy and landed on top of him. They were both suspended for one week from class and had to cut grass in the playing field.
Pope cracks jokes when he is in good mood and shuts up when he is unhappy or with no money to call his own. That is Pope. He also serves as an altar boy at the neighbourhood church and has done so for a long time. He participates in high mass with the bishop and carries the Bishop’s hat for him. In fact that is how his name came about. He claims the bishop can’t hold mass without him. I don’t believe hm. But that is Pope being himself.
When you see him on the altar, he is so quiet, so tame. His white flowing gown and the red collar vestments transforms him into saint. He moves gracefully during the processions, his hands he clasps in front like in prayer, with calculated steps in unison with the song or the tune from the church organ.
After a high mass, we meet late at night in our den and Pope brings altar wine and communion with him. I do not know whether he steals them from the church or during the time it is being prepared. He says it is no sin since it is not yet blessed. That is him, always with the right answers. For the wine, he says they are extra bottles. One cannot argue with him. If you try, you are definitely on the losing side.
‘We must teach him a lesson,’ Pope finally talks. He has been too quiet. ‘He is a big-headed teacher, brutal and will kill someone one day with his beatings. Do you want that?’
‘I don’t want that,’ I say.
He looks at me like I am an outcast, with no arms or legs, and one eye in the middle of the head. His eyes though are wide open like he has been smoking weed. He does smoke weed sometimes. We all do. I don’t like it much. The last time I tried, I coughed the whole night and my father almost found out. Pope’s eyes are bloodshot. Maybe he has smoked one roll already, maybe two. Or even three.
I know why he is determined to do that to the teacher.
Pope is angry that his girl friend, Pamela, was humiliated and caned in class by the maths teacher. To be truthful, she is not his girl friend. Not yet. I am not sure whether Pope will win the heart of Pam. He has competitors, for sure. And she is rich, has rich parents. She is the type that is dropped to school in a car and picked up at the end of the day. Never mind that it is a Land Rover 110. While we miserable lot have to walk the six kilometres home, come rain or shine. Pope has no chances of winning.
She has tutors at home, wears clean uniform to school everyday, while my dear friend makes do with one that has to be washed, if at all every other day. When he plays football that means the shirt has to be washed. By the middle of the first term, it is already fading from over-washing, with no replacement in sight. How can he claim her as his? She has a change of under wear every day, new, clean ones. I know because once she fell while playing in the school field and her skirt was blown over her head and we all saw the brand new clean rose coloured underwear without blemish.
Maths teachers come in all shapes and sizes and are the most vicious creatures in the school. Teacher Barnabas is one of them. The teachers come to school prepared to massacre pupils. When they arrived in the morning they will send the school prefects, who are usually older boys, to go cut sticks for them. They don’t like sticks from the neem tree, which gets broken with just a few strikes. The favourite stick, which is resistant to breaking, is from a tamarind tree. This tree has sore tasting fruits that can be made into a drink by soaking them in water. We used to suck on the fruits, like sweets after removing them from the pods – they leave your tongue and inside of your mouth raw and sore. That is the tamarind fruit.
Pamela was caned for not answering a question. Teacher Barnabas is going to pay for that. When we met at the club that evening, Pope was fuming. I believe that is when he hatched the plan to chastise the teacher. Maybe, he wants to bring Teacher Barnabas’ head on a silver platter as a trophy for Pamela to accept him. Our religious education teacher once told us a similar story from the Bible.
Pope says the plan is simple and we can execute it without him knowing who did it. For me that is important because not only is he my teacher, he is also a family friend. Teacher Barnabas visits our home sometimes and father always asks him about my performance in class. They were buddies at Rumbek Secondary School a long time ago. He looks much older than my father though. He must be at least a decade older. He tries to look like a young man, dyeing his greying and thinning hair black every week, tacking his shirt above the protruding round belly. He resembles a clown I once saw in a magazine. I wanted to ask my father why he is so merciless and beats pupils that much. But I did not. I was afraid father will tell him and he will cane me in class again. I still remember the last time he did that.
Pope hands the red pepper to me and I carefully place it in my pocket. He carried the club and Friday has the catapult with several small and rounded stones he picked from the gravel mount near the den. We file out of our hideout and head for the joint where the Teacher Barnabas goes every day after school to drink. Pope tells us that the place is usually crowded with customers from midday to late at night. There are many customers and they sit is small groups to swallow their orders. They are served by small girls who bring the bottles and small glasses to the customers. Although they have tables, the bottles are normally hidden under the tables, away from preying eyes. Popes knows all that and he tells us.
Pope is in front, then Friday and, I follow several good steps behind the leader. He walks very fast, his school bag dangling from his back. He leads us through some narrow passages in the compactly clustered neighbourhood of thatched huts and random fences made of papyrus and reeds and rusted corrugated iron sheets. There are no toilets in this place I can tell. We pass through passages filled with the pungent odour of urine and booze and faeces. Friday turns to look at me, his hands tightly holding his nose. He speaks with his eyes. I motion him to continue, pretending I can handle the smell. He stumbles across a fallen bamboo pole and almost hits his head against the mud walls of a hut.
We get into a clearing just across a main road. Pope stops and points to a house a few meters away from us. It looks like any of the houses and compounds around. I can see just two huts in the compound, with several shelters. The fence is too low and I can see the people inside, in groups. Their voices start to filter to us like the white smoke rising into the sky from each of the other surrounding compounds.
Pope motions again and we move to the side of the building closest to us.
‘We wait here,’ Pope says. ‘I will move to the further side. Friday you take the lead.’
I take my position and squat. I wait, and wait some more. No one seems willing to leave Mama Nyoka’s just yet. Mama Nyoka makes the deadliest brew in the area. Her followers also come for the Suku Suku, the highly toxic one made from fermented dates. I know all this because Pope tells us. The drink is not like the wine Pope sometimes brings to us from the church. No. It is much, much stronger. I tried it once I did not like it one bit. I decided to stick with stolen altar wine for now.
A man walks out of the house and stands near the papyrus fence. He unzipped his trousers, his hands shaking, and urinated loudly against the fence. From my vantage point I can hear it hitting the ground like gushing water from a broken hose.
Then I see him. Teacher Barnabas walks out of the house. His attire completely changed and waggles from side to side. He is bubbling some incoherent words as he walks. His once smart tucked in shirt is now out, with the shirt half buttoned from up. His hair is now unruly and shabby. A small boy runs out of the next compound and makes fun of him, as he flaps his arms to chase him away. The boy leans on the electricity pole laughing, his right foot on the pole and his arms akimbo. He wears a yellow T-shirt that has become dirty. His equally dirty pants have no bottom, replaced by two big gaping holes that look like rimless oversized spectacles. I saw that when he turned and knelt down to pick a stone.
I wait for a signal from Pope who is several steps behind me now at the next street corner. Our plan rests on what I had to do before Pope and Friday rush him in. I felt in my right pocket for the lump. It is still there. The sun has gone down but it is not yet dark. It is good for us so that he does not recognize us easily.
Teacher stands his ground in the middle of the road as if undecided on which direction to go. The small boy is still watching him from a distance. He calls out names but Teacher is not paying attention t him. He moves two steps forward and three steps backwards. One time he almost falls but steadies himself with an herculean effort and remains standing. He sways from side to side like a eucalyptus tree during a rainstorm.
Pope signals that I move to disable Teacher. My heart is beating fast, very fast and I cannot breath normally anymore. Small sweat forms on my back and face, like I have been doing some heavy work. Will I do it? Will I be able to come behind him, even in his intoxicated state, tap him on the back and when he turns, pour the red pepper in his face? Will I be able to then call out to Pope and Friday to hit him with the club and punch him repeatedly? Will I be able to stamp on his head and knock out his front teeth as permanent testimony of our actions? All these thoughts race through my mind as I make baby steps towards Teacher, who is now swaying in the middle of the road. I turn to look in Pope’s direction. He is waving me on, but I can barely see him clearly. Friday is nowhere to be seen. I take another step.
Out of my right side, I hear a loud sound, coming closer and closer to where I stand. I turn to look in the direction of the sound. Before I can figure out that it is a vehicle, it is almost on top of me. I jump back from its path. When I turn back to Teacher, I see him flying high in the air, his arms flailing about as his body turns. I hear a thud seconds later as he hit the ground and rolls up into a mass of torn pieces of flesh and clothes and mud. Before I can close my gaping mouth, the car speeds off even faster down the road and disappear. The small boy yells, and runs back into the house from which he came, calling on someone’s name. I see blood gushing out of a cut on his fore head, forming a small pool on the hard gravel road.
* * *
On the first day of the new school term, the Headmaster called the three of us to the front of the assembled pupils and teachers. He thanked and praised us for saving the life of Teacher Barnabas. He said if it was not for our quick actions and responses and being courageous, he would have died a terrible death. Teacher Barnabas stepped out from where he was standing with the other teachers. He had a sling made of white bandages across his neck, holding his broken left arm. A long scar across his fore head from where the blood flowed that day distorted his features. He smiled as he shook Pope’s hands, then Friday’s and then mine. I noticed that his two front teeth were missing.
By Edward Eremugo Luka (Twitter: @eremugo)