#Opinion: When You Were 14 – By Ucheoma Onwutuebe

#Opinion: When You Were 14 – By Ucheoma Onwutuebe


Azikiwe. Awolowo. Macaulay. Streets of your childhood. On these streets, you held the hands of your siblings as you sidled to school, walking by the sidelines just as you’ve been told by your mother, to avoid the motorists. You drive past the hospital in School road where you were born – that’s what they told you anyway. Drive past those houses with rotting awnings and rusty mosquito nettings. These awnings will drip brown water into pails when the rains come. You drive past the petty kiosks where you use to stop by on your way to school to buy biscuits and sweets and sometimes chewing-gum, even though you have been warned by your mother to stop chewing gum like a street woman. These kiosks spoke an obvious truth that their owners were barely getting by, that these were their all. Their kids would also take snacks from here to school and the help from the village, who is always from the village, would pilfer and pilfer till she gets caught and beaten and bundled back to her home. Everyone here walks in gentle strides, taking their lives one day at a time. It’s been their general attitude: sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The folks here rarely moved and the effects of being in a spot too long told on them. The crumpling of their houses was a part of them. Septic tanks filling out and never getting emptied, doors to houses not opening freely; you have to jack it up first and shove with your shoulders before they yielded. Back then when your little friends came over to play, you’d warn, Don’t lean too closely on the stair railings. And when you went over to theirs, they too would warn, Be careful how you stand in the bathtub before it gives way beneath you.

Your folks are mostly civil servants who are always praying to get their pay early enough so that they can clear up debts they incurred while last month’s salary lingered. All day they flip through old and dusty files, waiting for the clock to chime four, eager to drag themselves home. Of what use was work without pay, anyway? By the time you were eighteen, you would have made a perfect character in the movie Sarafina. All you sang in your mind was ‘Freedom is coming tomorrow!’ It was this deep conviction in you not park up in the same parking lot with these folks. You were restless and you felt nothing good could ever happen to you here.

You drive past a bunch of youngsters, looking like the ones who stole your innocence, swaggering with an air of superiority, an enormous cloud of ennui hanging over their heads. To them, everyone else jumped out of the scenes of ‘The gods must be crazy’. These one had a slight variation though: Mohawk haircuts, trousers hanging precariously on their hips. Yet they shared some similitude with the ones who mugged your innocence under the staircase. That was the trysting place- under the staircase. They resembled those brute boys that pinned curious, adventuresome girls against the crates of soft drinks and did things to them. You had defied your mother’s command one day and went with one. There, he whispered harshly into your ears, Hurry, gather your skirt in your hands, and your ears were filled with the discordant music of the metallic clicking of his belts, the swish sounds of his jeans pulling down. Then you felt a sharp pain in your crotch! Your reasoning is singed. You are not who you were before this episode. You’ve been changed; it’s like lustre has gone from your eyes. You don’t become evil, you don’t become bad but you are no longer innocent. You are only fourteen and you have just been burgled; an unripe fruit, acrid to taste.

And in the morning you meet him at the tap, the boy you did it with; you smile shyly at him but he looks away and swaggers past you and then you wonder, Did I do something wrong, did I…, did I say something? In the afternoon on your way to the market, you see them at a corner, he and his buddies. You cross over to the other side of the road to avoid them but they make catcalls at you and they laugh and slap his shoulders, hailing him. And you are only fourteen and your eyes sting with tears. Then you remember… that you mommy warned you that this would happen if you let boys touch you there. Yes she warned you but you never listened….
(An excerpt from a work of fiction)

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