VANITY when it takes hold of your senses will not release it until you have learnt a life-changing lesson and manage to become estranged from all that is vain and futile.
But of course I did not know this until I had lost my way and then found it again.
Still, it was at this age of fifteen, and with the freedom to braid and thread my hair, that it all began. It was at this time that I first began to question who I really was.
What was really my surname?
That was the first of the questions that plagued my mind.
It wasn’t a matter I just sat aside and meditated over. The question came upon me like the sudden flash of a shooting star. And it was Mr Esedebe, our Biology teacher, who prompted that tiny wheel inside my head to begin to spin.
“Eloka, is Spirogyra a single-celled organism or multi-celled?” Mr Esedebe’s rough-sounding voice barked out.
I heard his question but I kept my head down, and would not respond.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer. Spirogyra is a single-celled organism, I knew that as plain as I knew my own name. But the problem was as he’d barked out my surname—the name I was given as surname—my mind began to formulate a question.
What was really my surname? My father, what had been, or was his name?
I wasn’t having one of those psychological traumas where a child that may have been abandoned wakes up and starts searching for his parents or the particular missing parent.
No, I was not going through any of that. I have long ago stopped thinking of my parents. I have long ago stopped wishing they would materialise from nowhere and take me home with them—either one of them.
So it wasn’t one of those moments; I wasn’t curious about who my father was. I only wanted to know what his name was. It was only right that I should append his name after my own… so I began to think at that very moment.
“Did you not get my question, Eloka?” Mr Esedebe thundered.
I raised my head. Then remembering that I was still seated, stood up. “I heard you, sir, but I was thinking of something else.”
The entire class erupted with laughter.
“Silence!” Mr Esedebe barked before focusing his furious eyes on me. “You were thinking of something else while in my class, Eloka?”
That was a crime—in Mr Esedebe’s book of law. Also in the law book of most of our teachers. I knew this but at that moment, I did not care that I was breaking the law.
“Yes sir, I was thinking of something else.” I boldly replied. “I was wondering if a living being is complete without a proper identity.”
“What nonsense are you talking about, Eloka?” Mr Esedebe looked hard at me.
“The nonsense about that surname you keep calling sir.” I answered.
Another bout of laughter erupted. Mr Esedebe had to bark twice before he could silence the class.
“Have you lost use of your cerebrum, Margaret?” He asked me angrily, looking at me as if he was certain that I must have done so.
“I don’t know if I have, sir, but I want to know who I really am.”
At this point, I have realised that I have caused trouble for myself by my abnormal questions and responses, but it was too late to amend my mistake… and I wasn’t sure I wanted it amended. I wanted to know what my real surname was and I wasn’t sure how I was going to go about finding it out.
“Step out of your seat, Margaret, and come kneel in front of the class.” Mr Esedebe ordered, obviously deciding that whatever my malady was, it would be cured by a good punishment. “By the time I am done with you today, I am sure you will not only know who you are, you will also know why you were sent to school.”
But by the time he finished with me—which was treating my backside to six lashes of his cane and giving me a nice portion of the school farm to weed—I still did not know who I was.
But something new had started in that class. I had boldly challenged authority and even though I was punished, I liked the feeling I got from doing so. And it was with this new feeling of being the fearless one that I went for my Confirmation catechism class after school that same day.
The Catechist, old and with glasses that looked like round bottles, pointed at me and asked. “Margaret, what is the Christian meaning of the word ‘liturgy’?”
Again, I knew the answer—it was simply participation in God’s work. But even as I stood up, I knew I was not going to give that answer, I was going to pose a question of my own.
“Catechist, why is it that God who is our father and all-knowing, did not give us the power to know certain things ourselves?” I asked.
The old man gaped at me. I think that like Mr Esedebe, he was wondering if I had lost my reasoning ability. “What kind of a question is that?” He finally demanded. “Are you trying to question God?”
“I am not questioning God, Catechist, my question is directed at you.”
At this, my fellow catechumens started to laugh, some were even clapping.
I felt like a hero. I have challenged another authority figure and was getting hailed for my audacity. What many would not dare do, I was doing it and I was not afraid doing it.
“Will all of you keep quiet!” Catechist shouted. But his frail voice only grated instead of roared. “And you, Margaret, since you are beginning to question God, I think I will reprt you to Sister Mary-Cynthia to deal decisively with you.”
“Okay, sir.” I answered with an amicable smile.
While I wasn’t looking forward to being reprimanded by Sister Mary-Cynthia, I did not mind the shame and discomfort her reproachful words would bring as I walked home along with Assumpta and Theresa.
“Why would you ask Catechist such a question, Margaret?” Assumpta asked.
I sniffed at her piously critical tone. “Because he is catechist and seems to know everything about God.”
“Nobody knows everything about God. He is incomprehensible.” Assumpta stated. “And no one of us is allowed to question his wisdom.”
“But did you hear me question God, Assumpta?”
“Yes, by asking Catechist that question, you were indirectly asking God why he did not give us the power to know everything like himself.” Assumpta retorted.
“I don’t think she was questioning God, but even if she was, I don’t think that is a bad thing either.”
We all turned around and stared at John-Bosco. None of us had noticed that he was walking closely behind us. Their house was three-houses after the convent, but most times he walked home with his own friends after catechism.
“How can you say that it is not a bad thing to question God, John-Bosco?” Assumpta queried, glaring at him.
“Because it is not a bad thing to ask one’s father questions if one is confused… and God is our father, isn’t he?” John-Bosco replied.
“Indeed, he is our father and I, as his child, was only wanting to know the reason why he did some things the way he did them.” I concurred, pleased that I was getting support from someone, and a senior student at that too.
John-Bosco was in SS.3 and he looked like a man already. He had beards on his chin, they weren’t much but they were there and I have been enthralled by them since the day I started my confirmation catechism class.
“And it is your right to ask questions and also your right to get answers.” John-Bosco continued. “In fact, I liked the way you questioned Catechist and was not afraid to do so. It was very courageous of you.”
“You think so?” My heart shook that someone, a boy, had recognised and even praised my fearlessness.
“Of course, it was.” John-Bosco asserted. “But I’m not surprised that you have that kind of courage in you, Margaret, pretty girls are always more courageous than others.”
Then he gave me a wink, waved generally at all, and swept past us, walking ahead.
Theresa let out a long hiss. “What a stupid boy, saying thing he should not be saying.”
“That is why I don’t like talking with boys, they always say nonsense.” Assumpta stated with a pious sniff, her nose in the air. “And he even had the audacity to wink. Nonsense!”
I wasn’t paying attention at both of them though, I was busy thinking. Thinking about John-Bosco and thinking about his words. So he thought I was pretty, eh?
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