THE TAX COLLECTOR
I was in Form Three in the secondary school and sat in my hard, wooden seat trying hard to pay attention to the blackboard.
It was Friday morning and Simple Americana, as we called the history teacher, was teaching us about Nigeria. Every teacher in the school had a nickname.
“Nigeria became independent in 1960. On Independence Day, there were three regions,” Simple ranted. “Now, we have twelve states in the country. The capital of the Western State is….”
I looked out through the window. Birds of various descriptions were flying on the manicured green grass. Butterflies flitted from one flower to another, ingesting nectars from the blooms.
The sun glowed softly in the harmattan weather. It gave the atmosphere a pastel olive tone.
I longed to be like those birds enjoying the beauty of the outside world, carefree and singing. They did not have to worry about learning some boring rote.
I was lost in thought.
Tomorrow, which was a Saturday, would soon be here. As usual, I would escape from the boarding house and steal into the city of Oyo. I would go home and see my grandfather and grandmother.
My grandmother would prepare a bowl of amala with ilasa soup loaded with din-din-n-din fish. And I would finally eat something prepared with love, instead of the nauseous meals that they fed us in the boarding house where we were locked up.
Suddenly, I heard the teacher calling my name. His voice sounded distant, as if from another planet.
“…Okediji,” I heard. “When did Nigeria become independent?”
“In 1960 sir!” Even a rat knew that.
“What is the exact date?” the teacher wanted to know.
“October 1, sir,” I replied.
“You were not paying attention,” he yelled. “You were looking out through the window while I was teaching you a very important lesson.”
I said nothing.
“Stand up. Now!” he yelled.
I got up.
“Go and wait for me in the staff room,” he instructed me. What a relief, I thought. I didn’t have to spend another minute in that box.
I quietly walked out. But I did not go to the staff room as instructed. The staff room was where they abused students with flogging. The teachers would sit there snacking at 11:45am, and entertained themselves with caning students who “got into trouble” that day,
I decided it would be insane of me to voluntarily subject myself to such flagrant child abuse. My parents sent me to school to learn, not to be abused.
I, therefore, went to the library, found a seat at the far corner, and started reading. Usually, only a couple of people were ever in the library.
I decided to spend the rest of the school hours in the library.
Since discovering the library a year earlier, I realized that it was much more worthwhile to spend my time in the library rather than in the classroom listening to the boring teachers and their boring diatribes.
After a couple of hours, the bell rang, marking the end of classes for the day. I made my way to the dormitory.
The following morning after breakfast, I changed from my royal blue dorm uniform and went to the barbed wire fence. I found my favorite spot, pulled up the wires, and gingerly stepped through the fence.
I was free! The school was at the outskirt of the city of Oyo, and it was a long walk to my grandparents’ house.
I walked the three or so miles and found myself in the adobe underbelly of the ancient city. My grandparents were waiting. They knew I would visit on Saturdays. What they didn’t know was that I had no permission to leave the boarding house.
After the warm welcome, I was treated to the highlight of the day—the amala and ilasa meal with din-din-din.
My grandparents, as usual, pulled out some seats, and we sat under the huge tree in front of the house. My grandfather and grandmother pulled out their pipes and began puffing on the tobacco as they sat silently with me.
“You had a good week in school?” Grandpa asked.
“Yes, baba,” I answered.
“What did you learn?”
“That Nigeria became independent in 1960. That we, therefore, became Nigerians and we had three regions at that time. Later, we–”
“I’m not a Nigerian,” grandpa said calmly, puffing on his pipe.
“We are all Nigerians, Grandpa,” I corrected him.
“Says whom?” He asked me, refilling his tobacco. “I’m not an African either. And neither are you.”
“So what are you, Grandpa?” I asked, confused. “What are we?”
“I am Yoruba,” he said in his calm voice. “I am Oyo.”
“Yes, but—“ I began to protest. I wanted to teach him what our teacher taught us.
“But nothing,” Grandpa insisted. “Your name is Moyosore. If someone came from someplace and started calling you Ayoade, would you answer to that name?”
“Certainly not,” I replied. “But this is different. It was the white people who gave us–”
“Did they ask me before giving me the name?” Grandpa was indignant. Grandma sat silent, puffing on her pipe. “I don’t recollect anybody asking us in Oyo before calling us some strange-sounding name.”
I said nothing.
“I reject the name,” Grandpa continued. “It was a tax-collecting gimmick. Once they started calling us the name, they sent agents to barricade the way to our farms and started collecting money from us. It was all a gimmick.”
I was confused. My teacher taught me one thing, but my grandfather taught me the opposite.
Who to believe?