The first time I reported a boy in my class for biting and breaking my pencil, I did not know how to express what he had done. I knew how to speak Igbo properly, but we were prohibited from speaking any language that was not English in my school. My parents only spoke English when they were extremely disappointed in me and my siblings. Even then, they never used normal English words that regular people used. My father would say something like “posterity will be my judge; I am not to blame for your inadequacies because I gave you my very best.” My mother, on the other hand, leaned towards a more humorous path. ‘Immilimious’ and ‘bastardization’ were words she threw around when we misbehaved. When all was well, we spoke in Igbo. We thought in Igbo. Dreamed in Igbo. Igbo was us. But in my school, it was called vernacular and we would be punished if we spoke it.
So there I was, in front of my teacher, wondering how to tell her what the boy who sat behind me had done to my pencil. If I knew that it would be difficult to say it in English, I would have remained at my desk and pretended to be writing the test. I would have simply hunched my back over my exercise book, raised the other half of the book on which I was not writing, folded my right hand as though I had a pencil, all whilst creating the impression that I was trying to prevent ‘giraffers’ from peeping at my work. My teacher would believe me. I scored ten over ten in nearly all my tests. She even flogged me the day a girl who was known to be dull sat next to me and scored ten over ten too. She said that I allowed an ‘iti bolibo’ to peep at my work and copy me. She assured me that she would flog me harder the next time I allowed it to happen.
“Oluchi, what is it? What happened?” My teacher asked, looking around for whatever it was that had brought me to her desk.
I knew what it was. I knew what happened. In my mind, I thought, ‘Jekwu ji eze ya wee tabie pensulum’ – Jekwu cut my pencil with his teeth. But I could not say it out. I tried translating to English, ‘tabie’ means cut. I knew. But it sounded wrong at the time. My father would laugh at me if he were there to see me, speechless for lack of words. He would tell me that I had suddenly developed constipation of the mouth. He might even tell that story again, the one about his classmate who could not read.
His classmate’s name was Nnazue. He had been transferred from a school in the village to the township school my father attended. Although the teachers knew that he found reading English words difficult, they still called on him to read. Whether to mock him or to get him acquainted with the language, my father did not say. One day, the spelling teacher asked Nnazue to pronounce oblique. He stood up, and after many seconds of mouthing inaudibly, he pronounced the word as o-be-li-kwe. The class burst out laughing, and from then on, Nnazue’s new name became Obilikwe. So when a person spoke imperfect English, my father called them Obilikwe.
“You will soon begin writing your test; I hope you’re ready? Tear out a plain sheet of paper. You will not be writing in your test books today. So take away everything from your desks. Some of you will go to the empty class downstairs so the giraffes won’t stand a chance today. Space out. Oluchi, what is it now?”
I swallowed again. I looked down at my broken pencil and stared at the teeth marks on it. I was only playing with Jekwu when I told him I had lost his pencil. His pencil was in the middle of my test book, and just as I took it out to yell KIDDING, he grabbed mine, put it in his mouth and broke it in two. My pencil was already more than half way gone so breaking it then made the halves impossible to sharpen. Also, my mother had bought so many pencils for school that she told us how ‘immilimous’ it was to buy pencils every other day. She marked the point on our pencils where we had to reach before asking for new ones. We had to submit the old ones, with her special marking present and then we could get new ones.
“Aunty, my pencil…” I said.
“What happened to your pencil?” She asked.
Vernacular was not allowed. If I spoke in Igbo I would be forced to kneel down in the corner with both hands raised up, suspended, until the teacher was satisfied, which was usually after about an hour.
I had been punished once, for saying ‘taa’. My classmate, Esther – who liked to pretend that she lived on a different planet – told me about the flying car she came to school in that morning.
“Flying car?” I asked, making sure my tone clearly said that I did not believe her for a second.
“Yes now,” she started in defence. “You think I’m lying? My daddy has a flying car and he brought me to school in it today. You that are always late, how could you have seen it.
used to express a range of emotions including
surprise, anger, disappointment, disgust, disbelief,
or when reacting to something that has just been said
‘Taa?’ asked Okongwu, shocked.
That was my response, partly because she was lying, but mostly because she was right about my lateness to school and I wanted to get away from the conversation. I rarely made the morning assembly and the one time I was early enough for it, I was called out for having nails that were deemed too long for students. Some others were called out for having plaque in their teeth, or for smelling foully, or for having unkempt hair. These ones were sent home and I was allowed in but with a written warning to my mother, asking her to cut my nails.
“So your mummy is a nail cutter, eh?” My mother said, as she cut my nail with a Tiger razor blade. “But when you won that Kiddies Club Award, they wrote to your Daddy. Ndi ala.”
The moment ‘taa’ escaped my lips, Esther, popularly known as ‘Alarm Clock’ for the constant wagging of her tongue, told our class teacher that I spoke vernacular. I knelt down and raised my hands until I shivered with exhaustion. After that punishment, I knew well to shut up if I didn’t know something in English. Even if I knew it but was unsure, I would remain silent.
“Oluchi, do you want to write your test or not? Go and sit down my friend!”
“Aunty” I started. “My pencil… Jekwu.”
My teacher looked at me and I sensed that she could see through the tightness of my face. The tears were about to win when she asked me to come closer.
“Ogini? What did Jekwu do to you? Gwam” she whispered.
I looked at her and although I was sure that I was not speaking, I could hear myself. The words slipped from my mouth like raw egg from its shell. My head said, Jekwu cut my pencil, but my voice said:
“Aunty, Jekwu tabilala my pencil.”
to make an opening or incision in (something) with the teeth.
origin- Igbo tribe, Eastern Nigeria
‘O tabi ile ya’– ‘she bit/cut her tongue’
She looked at me as though trying to figure out what I had said. I immediately wanted to take back my words, to erase her memory so that she could forget I ever said them. I wanted to remain silent. I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks and I was sure that she was going to mock or punish me. Maybe like Nnalue who was nicknamed Obilikwe and Esther–Alarm Clock, I would now be Tabilala. I added ‘lala’ to make the word sound like a proper English word. I had used the word a few times but never in the hearing of my schoolmates or teachers. Tabilala would be Engli-Igbo; a mixture of an Igbo word and an English sounding word. I wondered if it would be considered full vernacular or something else.
“Jekwu must be a very silly boy” she said. “Oluchi, he broke your pencil with his teeth. There is no such thing as ‘tabilala’, you hear? You of all people should know.
I knew the right thing but fear has a way of thoroughly erasing information from one’s head. She reached into her drawer, brought out a new pencil and gave it to me.
“Ngwa, fichaa anya gi. Go and sit down for your test.” She turned back to the rest of the class “I hope you’re all ready?”
The new pencil did not fix it all. It did not have my mother’s special marking on it. Even though Jekwu stuck his tongue out at me when I returned to my chair, I did not earn a nickname, and I learned then to say what I knew and be corrected if I was wrong.
Uzoamaka Doris Aniunoh (@) is an Igbo writer whose interests are in telling simple stories that mirror her world. She is a lover of Nollywood films and intends to explore acting in the future. She will sing and even dance for a bowl of ora soup, any day.
Related country: Nigeria