Green, White, Plain
He looks like he was smuggled in from a zoo where he was the baboons’ interpreter, given an excellent brain (maybe for the fun of an experiment), and then driven into our school to show just how one shouldn’t judge a man’s knowledge by his appearance.
His name is Tunde -Tunde Jenrola.
He really looks like the baboon’s interpreter with his high afro and bent shoulders, and perpetual faded, inappropriate clothes, and the rubber fishing boat of a thing he calls a shoe.
He is so constant in the way he looks that even the shadow of his absence is familiar to everyone—whatever that means.
I wish he had taught me all my life and not just in this last Primary school year..
When I close my eyes and picture God, I think of him as the one standing next to Him, writing down the list of noisemakers on the earth.
The relationship between us is quite intriguing; almost gay, in fact—if you look at it from a certain perspective. But from my perspective, I am just the student who is quite interested in things, and he is just the shabby teacher who is very interested in students who are interested in things.
So we are friends in a kind of way.
Today, as he comes into the class just after we all chatter ourselves in from assembly, I see, again, that part of his constantly present presence is his frailness, the one that joins with his dead clothes to make you believe that his brain too must be begging for help, must be seeking to escape from a certain mental awkwardness. But we…I know him. I know how rich and beautifully dressed his mind is, and it irks me some that those who don’t will think he has nothing to offer.
I watch him move across the class and sit his stooping form in a chair. The class is silent by now, of course. He never canes us, but then maybe we are all so scared of him appearing in our dreams to scare us, that we behave like we have sense around him.
I watch him arrange his table systematically and carefully, the way he always does. I am not quick enough in the business like my mother, and so he catches my eye before I can move them to my board.
He holds my eyes and “speaks” to them. My heart skips a bit, and I stand and move to him.
I stand before his ironically beautiful face and say,”I am sorry, sir, but I couldn’t do the assignment.”
He nods slowly. “Did you think about it?”
His voice is like music—another irony—and I wish he would just start teaching us social studies or whatever so I can melt into its rhythm while he feeds our minds.
I can feel various pairs of eyes on my back now.
“Yes, sir… But how can I possibly know what Nigeria’s problem is?”
It sounds like I am mocking him with his questions, but I really am just being honest. I hear a snigger and a chuckle, and then the silence lifts until there is a din of whispering voices that turn into background noise…steady, undistracting, mature background noise.
Mr Tunde is looking into my soul, I am sure. The noise behind us is like a wall; it shields us and our discussion in—I feel good already. My tongue feels freed.
“What is my problem?”
My heart begins to race again. “I don’t understand, sir”
“You do. Why do I appear the way I am?”
I am silent.
“Does the way I appear have anything to do with what I know…what I can offer?”
“No. On the contrary, you are the most intelligent person I have ever met. Your mind is so rich and…”
“Ah ha! That means you believe there is a problem with me and the way I appear.”
I am silent again.
“Now, see me as Nigeria. What is my problem?”
My tongue gets on its marks…
“You don’t have constant light and water and good health care…” My head swims. “Food is not enough and there is so much money you hear about but don’t see. And there is so much you want to do but can’t because your environment is flooded and dirty and limiting and…” I look at his eyes. “There is too much you see but can’t change.”
His eyes stay on mine for a while, and then he smiles. I see his rotten tooth. “You just described Nigeria as me…and you. Mostly, you, though.
“But everything shouldn’t be all negative. I have good things aside my problem, right? What are they? What have we?”
“You have the greatest teaching skills on Earth; you have knowledge beyond compare…” My voice sinks. “You have too much to give with no adequate space for you than this.” I wave my hand across the classroom.
“Nope…No negative notes. What are the blessings you have?”
I rack my head a little, then I find.
“I have a great, doting mother; I have a community that helps me through my fatherlessness; I have friends that value what I have… I have a great teacher.”
He smiles. “Good. We must count our blessings to really live. We are really all just trying to survive in this country, and that’s why the place is as it is.
“Let me tell you what those people did apart from colonizing us – oh, alonside, actually—they colonized our minds with our own feelings of nostalgia, contempt and hatred for them, so that when they left us to ourselves, we couldn’t function without division and greed and corruption and what not. We are all just trying to grab as much as we can carry, because our minds are so bugged by the ills we believe we have.
“So, if they had stayed, we would still be crying—maybe another kind of tears—but much sweeter than this, I continue to believe… Maybe we would have been one in suffering and nationalism, at least.”
I want to ask him what can be done about the problem now—that’s the question, right? But he has already dismissed me and turned to the class.
“When did Nigeria gain Independence?”
“October 1st, 1960,” we chorus.
“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane now?”
“Stare at it,” some of us answer while the rest giggle.
He doesn’t ask “why”; he just smiles and looks at me.
“Are you truly free?”
The giggles stop. They look confused.
I answer “no” in my mind.
“Did the whites cause the wars Nigeria had?”
“No!” They chorus.
“But they prepared us for it,” I say when they are done, and look at Mr Tunde. I know they are all staring at me because I sound dumb, but I glory in how he looks at me, a knowing smile on his lips. “Our minds were prepared for it.”
“Is Nigeria independent?” He asks again.
“Yes,” they chorus.
His eyes are on mine
“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane?”
The giggling again…
The chorus comes…”We stare at them!”
His eyes never leave mine…