I remember the first time I realized I didn’t like her, I was in primary school. My siblings and I had finished dressing up for school and were seated at the dining table waiting for our breakfast. In between coaxing us out of our ‘Jonah sleep’, rushing us in and out of the bathroom, and getting us dressed, my mum had managed to whip up breakfast as usual. My worst fears were confirmed when she placed the dishes of Yam pottage (Asaro) on the table.
I had been perceiving the painfully familiar aroma of the pottage way before it made its appearance in the plate before me but I had refused to believe that was what she was busy cooking. After all she knew how much I didn’t care for Asaro; I would rather go hungry than stomach it, and that was what I told her that fateful morning, how I’d rather skip breakfast than eat the dreadful Asaro placed before me. My mum took one look at my resolute face and headed straight for her room, reappearing moments later with her pankere. I recall my mother standing sentry over me as I cleared my plate, crying over my futile attempts to swallow the food without tasting it. As I watched her walk away with my empty plate, I angrily wished she wasn’t my mum.
My mother believed in tough love. As a civil servant employed by the Government to discipline other people’s children, charity definitely began at home. Any infraction of any kind attracted its requisite punishment. Hiding my mum’s trusted pankere was at your own peril, her palms were quite handy…pun intended. We came to discover that my mum’s disciplining sessions simply couldn’t be evaded, like death and taxes, it was certain. Postponing it didn’t work either, if I knew I was in trouble with my dad I’d simply sleep early just to avoid getting a beating from him. My father didn’t believe in waking a child up for corporal punishment. My mum, however, didn’t have any qualms about that. It was in my best interest to stay awake and receive my beating rather than have my blissful sleep rapidly disintegrate into a waking nightmare.
My sister and I got into trouble a lot and as a result repeatedly got spanked by my mum. After each beating my sister in between her wails would reiterate to me that our mum wasn’t her birth mother, after all one’s biological parent wouldn’t inflict such physical pain on their offspring. My sister was of the firm belief that she had been switched at birth and given to the wrong family. I on the other hand couldn’t afford the luxury of that escape from reality. You see, I’m my mother’s child, even at that young age I knew I was the spitting image of my mum. Relatives said it, my teachers paid us compliments, strangers marveled at the resemblance. My mum would blush amidst statements of mock denial while the compliments rolled in, and I? I would look on silently while I pondered why my mum could be so mean to me despite this fact.
There was a day my sister had had enough. We had just watched The Jungle Book then. The movie must have really struck a chord in her, because immediately it ended she declared she was running away. My brother and I watched in awe as she packed her prized belongings and scribbled down a ‘goodbye note’ stating that she could no longer take my mum’s stern treatment and was going in search of her real parents.
It was the perfect time to run away; my parents were out at a function, she would be long gone before they returned. However, we decided that she needed to take a power nap before setting out on her adventure, I would wake her up at the agreed time way before our parents were due to arrive. It was in that sleeping position at the dining table that my folks met us roughly an hour later. We had overslept; my parents had also returned ahead of time for some reason or the other. My mum read the goodbye note, looked at my sister’s packed bag and proceeded to spank her out of her slumber. It took my Dad’s intervention that afternoon to save my sister from further beating. That was my mother, she had zero tolerance for emotional blackmail.
I used to fantasize about going away to secondary school then. The plan was that I would attend a boarding school. I, being naïve, envisioned it as the solution to all my problems. I would be far, far away from home, surrounded by my peers, free to do whatever I wanted with no fear of retribution from my parents. I spent many a day daydreaming about this and could hardly wait to finish primary school and kick start this exciting stage in my life. The long awaited day finally came and my parents couldn’t understand why I was so ecstatic during the long drive to school. They were shell shocked at the way I was brimming with joy when it was time for them to leave, considering the fact that other kids were dissolving into tears and refusing to let their parents go. I simply couldn’t hide the fact that I was on cloud nine as I waved goodbye to them and skipped all the way to my room. I jumped into my bed, a happy smile etched on my face as I visualized my new world. Life was good.
Boarding school made me realize the difference between discipline and sheer wickedness.
At home, breaking a rule earned me my mother’s ire. In secondary school my mere existence at the bottom of the food chain was enough to guarantee me any type of suffering imaginable. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time earned junior students chores ranging from fetching water to cleaning the dreaded pit latrines. It was common for juniors to be bullied out of their fancy slippers or drinking water just because a senior student coveted it. The manner with which students were stripped of their possessions and sense of being was degrading to say the least.
Trying to reason with senior students who were simply perpetuating a system of bullying because that was ‘how they met it’ was quite suicidal. Back at home, I could haggle with my mother on how many strokes of the cane I was to get if my offense was light, we would even crack jokes while at it then reach a mutual consensus. Saturday mornings were devoted to rating my parents individually and recommending areas of improvement. My mum would remain stony-faced while we gave her a thumbs down as usual and reported her ‘wickedness’ to my Dad. Yes, she was strict, but I had a voice.
My handwriting always got me into trouble with the seniors. By some stroke of misfortune someone had discovered that my penmanship was above par and almost immediately the notebooks from senior students to transcribe started rolling in. When my tactic of deliberately misplacing the notebooks failed to work, I had to flat out refuse and then suck up whatever punishment came my way. It was while serving one of those punishments at night prep that I recalled how I had acquired my handwriting.
It was the end of the session, my Primary 1 teacher had called me aside just before my mum came to pick me. She told me she would be busy during the holiday and therefore needed my help in copying her class notes to a fresh notebook. At the time I didn’t think much of the request, I was simply pleased that I was helping my favorite teacher out. I would later come to know that my mum had planned the whole thing. That holiday was marked with a lot of sweat and tears but I’ll never forget the pride I felt when at the start of the new session I presented my former teacher with her new notebooks decked out in my impeccable calligraphy.
My love for my mother got me through one of the worst phases of my life. She would plead and make all sorts of promises to cajole me to resume each session during my junior secondary school days. Every visiting day ended on a sad note when it was time for us to part, she would continually wave goodbye, with tears streaming down her face as her vehicle disappeared into the horizon. Considering how eager I was to leave home because of my mum, it was ironic that I would escape into my memories of her to get through unpleasant situations in school. Memories like how my mum had snuck in food to my room after my Dad had locked me in and declared that I was to go hungry the whole day; my punishment for stealing popcorn. She had waited until my Dad stepped out briefly in the evening, then slipped the plate of food under my door. I had learnt my lesson, my Dad had disciplined me, and my mum had ensured that I didn’t starve. We were all winners.
I bounded down the stairs into the kitchen and pulled my mum into a crushing bear hug, all in an attempt to avoid the harassment I was bound to get. I had overslept and left her to prepare breakfast for the family. It was to no avail, as her complaints spewed forth. I went through the motions, interjecting with the ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I was tired’ statements on cue. When I sensed that she was done sounding off, I reached out for my food flask. My face fell as I turned the food into my plate, only to discover it was Asaro. She burst into silent laughter when she saw the sad look on my face, the laughter became audible when I asked her why she had subjected me to the additional torture of her nagging. I finished the food in silence at the dining table.
Over the years I had come to learn that there were worse things in life than an undesirable breakfast. I passed her on my way to the kitchen to wash my plate, and complained to her about my awful breakfast while pointing out the unfinished food on my plate. She replied by making a sarcastic remark about the tiny crumbs I was calling unfinished food. We both laughed and exchanged a knowing glance. We had come full circle since that fateful morning over 2 decades ago when I thought I didn’t like her. However, at this point I knew without a doubt that I loved her with every fibre of my being.
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