Many buses were parked in the large parking lot. Some were new and fine, while others were rickety. Without looking at the names on them, it was easy to know what school what bus belonged to. The fine ones were for the private schools, the average ones were for the federal schools, and the rickety ones were for the state schools. It wasn’t only buses that littered the park.
Students of different sizes and colours were standing by their buses, talking in circles or carrying their baggage to the registration venue. They had all come for the National Secondary Schools’ Leadership Conference. It was an annual event, a conference prefects from different schools longed at attend. The pre-requisites for qualifying were quite stringent, so only the best of the best attended.
This year, twelve schools were picked, and were to be trained for 10 days, arrival and departure days excluded, at the National Youth Development Center, Port Harcourt, in Rivers state. Each school was asked to bring ten of their top prefects. At the end, every participant was going to get a certificate of attendance but what freaked most attendees however, were the awards that would be presented on the last night; awards that attending students did anything and everything to get. Every year, some students did weird, absurd and unspeakable things to get these awards. Others however, came for different purposes. This year wasn’t going to be an exemption.
Uche looked round at the different students that sat in the conference hall and all he felt was intimidation. ‘Why did I choose to come here in the first place?’ he scolded himself. He had never been the outgoing type and would have preferred to be left in his own world. This was more exposure than he could handle. He was the library prefect of Immaculate Technical College, Mbano, Imo state. He liked his position as he only had to take care of the books and ensure they were returned.
He didn’t have to talk at the assembly hall or dinning hall like his fellow colleagues did. It also afforded him time and opportunity to read more, which was his hobby. As the most intelligent student in his school, he had been cajoled to attend the conference by the Principal and he obliged. Now, after hearing that each student was going to give a 2-minute speech at the end of the training, he felt like entering the ground. This wasn’t what he had bargained for.
He stole a glance at his colleagues from school, who were seated at different places in the hall. They seemed happy and content. They had already started making friends. He wondered how they were able to get along with others so fast. An announcement distracted him from his thoughts. “We’ll be having a thirty minutes break now. Try and acquaint yourself with those around you. The orientation course will continue right after”
Many students stood up and walked about for different reasons. Uche just sat still. He remembered the previous day’s activities. Registration ended about 7pm, participants were checked into their rooms, and dinner was served at about 9pm. There was no general activity that night as they were allowed to settle in and rest well ahead of the activity-packed week.
Uche had been with his school mates. There were four boys and six girls from his school. He had nothing much to talk about with his colleagues, so he sat on his bunk and began reading Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. It wasn’t his first time reading it, but it was a book he could read over and over again because it affected his own people severely.
Strangely, he could hardly read much because of the noise the boys were making. Only a few were lying down or reading, most were at the top of their voices and their major topics of discuss were centered around girls and soccer. Uche had wanted to scream; both didn’t appeal much to him. He wondered how he would cope with such boys for nine nights.
Somebody poked him. He had been lost in thought, he hardly noticed students were already settling down from the break. He looked sideways and saw a girl smiling at him.
“Hello!” she said, waving her hand in his face with a mischievous smile. She acted as though they had met before. Uche wondered how a girl would be that forward. He wanted to be on his own. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No” he answered, politely.
“You just sighed”, she said, still looking at him with a questioning face.
Uche was a little confused. He couldn’t place her words too fast, she talked like a Northerner. “What?”
“You just sighed. Are you okay?”
He hadn’t noticed. “Oh…sorry. I didn’t know I did. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Would you want some chips?” she asked.
“No, thanks. I’m fine”
“Okay then.” She said and sat next to him, picking at her plantain chips. She still had a smile on her face and Uche wondered what she was up to. Before he could take his eyes off her, he noticed she reached to the back and picked her bag from the seat behind. It was quite an effort for her because she was short.
Uche was dumbfounded. He had been so happy when he had a quiet guy to his right and no one to his left. And now, he was about to have a happy, smiling, forward, and short Hausa girl disturb him. He wasn’t going to take that. “You can’t…” he had started to say but the look on her face shut him up.
“I can’t what?” she asked, still smiling, as she kept eating her chips. “Or is someone sitting here?” she asked, smiling.
Uche could see it that she was having fun. He couldn’t lie, he’d be caught. If she was sitting behind, then, she’d have known the seat was vacant throughout the first session. She raised an eye and Uche knew he was defeated.
“I’m Fatima” she said, and extended her hand for a handshake. She saw Uche look at her hand. She followed his gaze and saw that her hand was smeared with oil and plantain fragments. She giggled and quickly redrew it, looked in her bag for her hanky, cleaned her hand and stretched it out again; the smile not leaving her face.
“I’m Fatima” she said again.
Uche couldn’t help smiling. She had succeeded in infecting him. Looking at her, he could see she was pleased she had made him smile. “I’m Uche” he said, as he took her hand and pumped it lightly.
“Nice meeting you” she said.
“Same here” he said, sincerely, though hoping it would stop at that.
She was about to say something but at the same time, the announcer spoke up, clouding her voice. Uche was relieved. He turned and listened. The announcer was saying something about a guest they were expecting. Uche felt a pinch and flinched. It was Fatima again. “What?” Uche said, almost irritated.
“I was asking you why you’re so quiet?” she asked, looking more serious this time. Seeing her this way, Uche just wanted to stare at her a little longer, she looked beautiful, not the childish-look she had started with. He immediately cautioned himself, surprised at his reaction. He had never given a second look at any girl before.
“Please, can we keep this till after the session? It has started” He saw she was disappointed but still managed to smile. He faced the stage and listened. The announcer was saying “…so, we’ll have to wait for him. He’ll be hear in the next thirty minutes. So, your break is extended thirty minutes. Please don’t leave…” Uche wasn’t interested in the rest. This meant, he was stuck with Fatima’s chat for another thirty minutes. He looked at her and laughed spontaneously. She had stuck her tongue out of her mouth.
“Dah!” she said.
Uche was still laughing and she joined in. “You’re something” he said, recovering from his hearty laughter.
“Didn’t it feel good to laugh?”
“Yes, it did” Uche admitted.
“When last did you laugh; really laugh?” she asked, expecting an answer.
Uche thought about it and couldn’t answer. He tried to remember but the only time he could remember was three years back, when he was five and he wasn’t ready to remember that. He had buried it and was going to leave it buried.
“I cannot remember” he said, trying to make light of it but Fatima wasn’t fooled.
“What happened to you that took away your joy, Uche?” she asked.
Uche’s eyes filled and this surprised him. It wasn’t just the questions she asked him that got at him but the way she asked. There was a genuine concern and care in her voice. He gritted his teeth. He had vowed never to let anyone see his tears, nothing would change that.
“I don’t want to talk about it” he said.
“It’s okay. I understand’ she said. At that, he looked at her. No one could ever understand what he had gone through. But looking at her, he knew that somehow, she would understand if he told her. ‘Uche, get a grip. Don’t let this girl crumble all your defenses’, he suddenly chided himself. “It was nice meeting you Fatima. I’ll need some time of quiet before the session resumes.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want.” She said, then added. “It was nice meeting you too.”
Uche was disappointed. He had hoped she would pester him a little more. He needed someone to talk to. He knew that after the session, they would go for lunch, then sports, then evening session and on. He couldn’t think of a anything that would guarantee they meet and talk again. There were no permanent seats.
‘Maybe she really doesn’t care. Maybe, she just like everyone else’ he thought to himself. Her questions had however triggered memories and those memories filled his mind for the rest of the break. Just as the break ended and the Guest speaker was ushered to the podium, Uche heard that now familiar Hausa accent.
“Can we talk during lunch?” Fatima asked.
Uche looked at her, and saw that childish-smile again. He smiled back. “I’d be glad to” he said and saw seeing the relief on her face, he knew she indeed cared.
Uche’s heart beat faster with a mixture of joy and anxiety. He was going to do what he hadn’t done in ten years. He was about to open up to someone. He was about to come out of his shell. He was about to trust again. It was a scary thought and he sincerely hoped Fatima would be worth it.