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Modern Girls

January 21, 2008

In those days, the trucks came by a dirt road that branched off the expressway. The road was fringed by forest. By the time the trucks arrived at the school, they were covered in dust. On the first day of each new term, we saw men unloading baskets of tomatoes, bunches of unripe plantain, rice in sacks, and bitterleaf. The men, too, were covered in dust. We stood in our freshly-starched uniforms — blue and white check blouses, dark blue pinafores — and gossiped about what we’d done and who we’d seen on vacation, watching them work. The loads of food passed from hand to hand, as did boxes of school supplies: exercise books, ink, blotting paper. The men were dark and thin, and they had bodies made muscular by long manual labor. When they finished working, they clambered into the backs of the trucks, and left us in our clearing in the forest.

The Royal College for Girls was in Omu, and Omu was the real middle of nowhere. Compared to it, other small towns in the Western Region, towns like Ikorodu and Odogbolu, were interesting destinations. Omu — before the school’s establishment there lent it some prestige — consisted of a few small farms, a cluster of mud houses with tin roofs, a creek, a chieftain. The people of Omu were mostly Muslims, which meant they were not a part of the cultural elite. We, the students at Royal College, were by and large Christians. A majority of us were Anglicans, but there was a smattering of Methodists as well. Only two girls in our class were Muslims. One of them, Saudatu, was the daughter of an important politician from Ikenne, a one-time advisor to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Like the rest of our fathers, he had done something in life. And she had been admitted to the school, like the rest of us, on merit. She was also one of the best students, and a genuinely nice girl, so the fact that she was Muslim didn’t really matter. And anyway, she knew all the words to the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Mrs Allardyce sometimes called on her to lead the school in prayers at Assembly, which was a remarkable enough privilege for a girl in the tenth standard. If Saudatu was truly Muslim, she didn’t show it much, and acted just as normally as the rest of us.

The other girl, Nuratu, was a different matter. For one thing, she was a reservation student. The towns around Royal College were given a certain small number of slots in each year’s admission. The students had to be good — at least by the standards of their villages and hamlets — but it was often clear that they weren’t the usual Royal College material. Their clothes were scruffier, they sometimes didn’t wear socks, and often, to our astonishment, would do things like climb trees or run around with no shoes on. Nuratu came from Odejebu, which was about ten kilometers away from the school, and even smaller than Omu itself. She wore her hair in spiky tendrils plaited with rubber thread, unlike the cornrows and afros sported by the rest of us. It wasn’t exactly clear to us what it was her father did. It didn’t matter. He was probably a farmer or, at best, a school-teacher. We did notice that, as one term followed another, Nuratu became a little better at blending in. By the time we were in tenth standard, she was one of the few girls brazen enough to relax her hair, and risk the wrath of Mrs Allardyce. That won her some admiration from us. Still, her English wasn’t very good — she pronounced “ch” as “sh” — and her laughter sometimes sounded like the squealing of a goat. And then, there was the problem of her breasts. While we mastered lines from Dryden, and sharpened our minds in various ways, her entire being seemed to be physical. She was, to use the word we were most fond of, local. We watched her with some wonder, this curious creature who tore into boiled yams with all the elegance of a market woman, this hayseed who only used her fork and knife when a prefect was patrolling the hall, who, when she laughed, heaved her chest up and down. Around her hovered a constant skein of our knowing glances.

Ours was to be a part of that first generation of Nigerian girls who really played a role in the intellectual life of the nation. We were often told of how fortunate we were, and we took it seriously. Our fathers had been the first in their families to go to school. We came from homes that had cars, drivers and domestic servants. The words Oxon and Cantab were familiar sights on the diplomas hanging from the walls of our houses, and we were used to suits, jurists’ wigs, telephones, private libraries, and receptions at embassies. Letters came to some of us from brothers studying overseas. Those blue envelopes, bearing news from another part of the planet, festooned with stamps and intriguing postmarks, were a reminder that Omu was a mere detour in our journeys. Many of us were set — in two or three years — on attending University College Ibadan, or else the British equals of that institution. A few of us had already declared ourselves Awoists, and expressed disdain for the bush politics of the NNDP. We bemoaned the lack of newspapers at the school. These activists amongst us were typically the girls who were interested in law. Others, more talented in fikemba — physics, chemistry and biology — were on the road to medicine. The school fostered a feeling of tranquility in us. We were preparing for the world, but the world largely remained at a distance. We went to gym, to Home Economics, or to Father Duncan’s Latin class, and the war was something that barely rose above the level of hearsay.

In October of that year, when a busload of seventeen-year old boys arrived for a day visit, we hoped they recognized what good luck had brought them to our little dominion. They were from King’s College in Lagos, wore dark blue jackets and carried themselves like lords. The ball, that evening, was our opportunity to show ourselves their equals. We did Mrs Allardyce proud — we were prim but not unfriendly, and just about impossible to impress. We showed them that they had come to Omu but might just as easily have been in London. We dazzled them, and each other, with our perfumed dresses and powdered faces, and our easy mastery of the waltz, the foxtrot and the cha-cha. Those little lords must have been sighing all the way back to Lagos the next day. We sighed too — for a whole week — and fanned ourselves with exercise books. Our minds strayed far from work, and would have continued to do so endlessly had Mrs Allardyce not come one day to interrupt our Geography class.

“Is Atinuke Oyewole here?” Mrs Allardyce hadn’t been back to Scotland for thirty years, but she was no better at pronouncing Yoruba names as when she’d first arrived in Africa. Tinu raised her hand. She was one of the richest girls in school: her father was a magistrate who had been posted to the North. She often told us that he would be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria one day, and when she said it, it wasn’t anything like a boast. It was a simple fact. Mrs Allardyce spoke from the front of the class. “I’m so sorry, Atinuke, but a telegram has just come in. Your brother Alade was killed in action near Benin City. So sorry about it.” Tinu, as gentle a soul as existed amongst us, got up from her seat silently, walked to the front of the class. She drove her head with tremendous force straight at Mrs Allardyce’s chest. The old lady let out a cry as she crumpled to the ground. Mr Abosede, our Geography teacher, at first sprang back in astonishment, before coming to his senses and grabbing hold of the now enraged Tinu. He held her arms back, with some difficulty, as she hovered over Mrs Allardyce. Tinu screamed, “What did you say to me? What did you say to me?” We watched, struck dumb, intoxicated at this sudden excitement. Mrs Allardyce staggered to her feet, gathering her pleats about her, and fled the room, calling back at us, “Remain calm girls, remain calm.” Tinu, struggling against Mr Abosede’s grip, had every intention of giving chase.

Tinu’s grief, in the days that followed, erased all our memories of the dance. We took to comforting her. Her brother had been an officer in the Army, but because of their father’s connections, his postings had never been in any of the hot zones. He had died in an ambush, during a Biafran push. Tinu went home not long afterwards. She didn’t return to Royal College to finish her school certification until late 1970, by which time we were all in final year, and our minds were on other things. Following her run-in with Tinu’s head, Mrs Allardyce became more careful around us, more skeptical of our supposed gentleness. If and when possible, she would recruit Father Duncan to deal with any issue that might be sensitive. This was how, starting that year, most of us got theoretical details about sex, and the importance of sexual modesty, from an ancient-looking, celibate white man. To his credit, Father Duncan was never flustered by our embarrassed snorts during these sessions.

And it was because of Tinu, too, that Mrs Allardyce would have nothing whatsoever to do with Nuratu’s case. How does a rumor begin? This one suddenly appeared, that’s all that anyone knew, or cared to admit. Christians were Christians. With a Christian, you knew where you were, and what you were dealing with. Muslims were a different matter. Many of them retained an affection for traditional religion. They practiced juju, secretly or openly, and they thought nothing of using the unseen powers to get their way in life. Nuratu, this story went, was a full-fledged user of juju. The news of it went like a tremor through our whole class. We’d heard of such things, of course, but to have it so close to us?

For so long, we had kept the forest at bay. We read Livy and Cicero, learned how to set silverware on a formal table, mastered the expansion of polynomials. We were modern girls. Now, the forest had returned with a vengeance. It whispered through us as we whispered to one another. The details of Nuratu’s juju emerged, and deepened with each telling. It all began one day, after gym class. Someone — impossible to figure out who, but surely there had been a someone — had seen Nuratu staying behind. She had had, on that day, none of her silliness. She wore a serious expression, and prepared juju somewhere near the lockers. When she was done, she arranged it carefully in another student’s pencil-case and left it there as a trap.

Things are never what they seem — we were old enough to know this — and so the idea that this Nuratu, this friendly and uncouth Nuratu, was actually an agent of evil powers, was not all that surprising. She was, after all, close to home, and within reach of her babalawo‘s assistance. She knew the forest well. For all we knew, she slipped out of bed at night to consort with the beings in that very forest. Nuratu, unlike us, didn’t have the benefit of an Anglican or Methodist background and, it seemed, the years of Christian education had done little to help her. So, for all of the rest of that term, when we saw Nuratu coming, we melted away. We took another route, gently closed a door, or pretended to be asleep. We lived in fear of her, a real fear that was also like a comedy of fear. “Oh God, here comes the witch,” we’d say, and change direction as smoothly as possible. Conversation with her, if we could not avoid it, was kept to a minimum — polite greetings, nothing that would give the girl ideas or make her take interest in any of us or, worse still, make her offended at us. And Nuratu, seeing us — and oblivious as a frog in a pot of water — would cheerfully cry out “Hallo, Tolani!” or “Hey, Funmilayo, why don’t I help you with your hair on Saturday?” And Funmilayo, barely concealing her hysteria, would say, “Oh, but thanks! Kemi Omolola has already said she would do it for me,” and would scramble off to find Kemi to firm the story up, and avoid Nuratu’s roving hands on her scalp. Who’d wish to have her head massaged by a witch?

It went on like this for weeks. Unable to shake off the image of the juju sitting in the pencil-case — and uncertain about whose pencil-case it was that had been so cursed — we all divested ourselves of our pencil-cases. We took to carrying our fountain pens to class without the usual paraphernalia — the fifteen-centimeter ruler, the compass, the plastic angle-set. And when we mentioned Nuratu’s name amongst ourselves, it was with nervous laughter. It did make a kind of sense that she’d make alliances with devils, we said to each other. Maybe that was how her breasts got so big. This whole issue of reservations ought to be looked into, we said. And, of course, when we used the gym, we never went near the lockers, but instead showered and changed in the dorms.

During the exams at the end of term, another story began to circulate. Nuratu had been seen touching the stack of blotting paper in the store-room. The blotting-paper? Just what was it with this girl and stationery? No one dared ask. All we knew was that blotting paper was henceforth to be avoided. So, there it sat, in its soft, white, innocent-looking reams — but we now knew it bore invisible traces of who-knew-what malevolence. At the end of our Literature exam, when even Nuratu’s simple mind could no longer ignore the accumulated evidence of almost two months, she accosted a group of us in the hallway. Why, she wanted to know, had none of us used blotting paper? Our fingers, stained with blue ink, betrayed us. We had used the unabsorbent paper of exercise books, handkerchiefs, or small pieces of cloth snipped from rags. What was it, what was going on? We were no longer to take her for a fool. Hadn’t we been avoiding her? She would march off to Mrs Allardyce with the full story right now if we didn’t start talking, Allah was her witness.

We shuddered when we heard her invoke Allah. All but begging her not to unleash her powers on us, we recounted, in turns, how we had heard from someone who had heard from someone of the pencil-case in the gym. Pencil-case in the gym? What pencil case in what gym? We said that we had heard stories, too, about the blotting paper. Naturally, we made no mention of her Islamic faith. The word “witch” remained unsaid. We said only that, whatever she had done, we were certain she had done for a good reason. And that her adversary, whomever it was, probably deserved it. Nuratu, as the full implication of our story dawned on her, looked as if she had been stabbed. She slowly sank to the floor, and began to weep and shake her head. And we, ashamed, dispersed. Perhaps she herself took the story to Mrs Allardyce, or perhaps some other party, having heard us tell it and having seen Nuratu’s reaction, did. Either way, Mrs Allardyce immediately passed it on to Father Duncan. Tolani was in the hallway when that conversation happened, and she came back to us with a full report. Mrs Allardyce, she said, had said, “We have entirely failed to free these girls of the pagan spirit.”

Hearing this, Bunmi Lijadu — who always had something clever to say, and who, many years later, became Vice Chancellor of the Ogun State University — said, “I’ve never heard such nonsense! Everyone knows we’re Christian girls. Right, girls? Pagans indeed, that Allardyce has some nerve.” We all agreed, even Saudatu, who, in any case, eventually would convert to Christianity, after marriage. And we admired Bunmi for saying “Allardyce” instead of “Mrs Allardyce.” Father Duncan called an assembly of the entire tenth standard that afternoon, and said he had decided to investigate “this most troubling report.” After getting several versions of the story from us, he walked off towards the gym. We followed. Once there, he began to look around the lockers. And there it was, on a little ledge — an abandoned pencil-case. Father Duncan was either brave or stupid, because he immediately picked up the pencil-case, and with his bare hands, unlatched it. We almost fainted. “Come around, girls, and look at this,” Father Duncan said. Gingerly, we trooped around him, craning our necks from a safe distance, refusing to breathe, and looked into the pencil-case. There was juju in it, something truly horrible to look at. One of us-hard to tell now who, but it was probably Abisola — began to cry. “This,” Father Duncan said, “is not juju. It is merely some orange peel on which a layer of mold has grown.” He flung the peel through an open window into the grass outside, and placed the empty pencil-case down. He looked at us with stern brown eyes, “Someone peeled an orange and abandoned its skin here, and it went bad. That is all. You’ve all been unkind, and I think you owe Nuratu an apology. I’d recommend you do it one by one, and that you start right away.”

Some of us did so, going off to the dormitory to seek her out that afternoon, explaining that it was all a mistake. But some of us didn’t, maintaining to the last that something wasn’t quite right about the girl, that everyone could see that, and that we’d be damned if we were to be so easily taken in by crocodile tears. That was the year that things changed completely for Nuratu, and for Mrs Allardyce. Things changed, too, for so many of us girls, for some more than for others. But why did Nuratu continue to take the incident so seriously? She became a total loner. It had been a jokey kind of thing and no real damage had been done. Others had had it much worse. Even Tinu, after her brother died and before she left, had calmed down and hadn’t taken herself so seriously. She had even given Mrs Allardyce a farewell present of a soufflé she made herself.

By the following year, when a stream of refugees began to make its way over from the East, and four strange, thin Igbo girls with impeccable manners came to join us in the eleventh standard, we could already look back with some understanding. We’d lived through the whole conflict without shortage of food or supplies. There had been no threat, no danger, and no interruption of our education. Biafra had burned and starved, but we’d been innocent of atrocity and news of atrocity. For us, in our little clearing in the forest, it had been a shadow war, a war amongst faint figures moving on the far side of a screen. How lucky we were, we said, to have remained modern. Looking at it that way Nuratu had no right — it was Bunmi Lijadu who said this — to go around acting all hurt and entitled. It was bad form actually, typical local behavior. We all agreed.

by Teju Cole

Download the MP3 (20.1 MB — Read by Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia)

Categories: Hidden Messages Tags:
  1. January 21, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Great story! Thank you for this.

  2. moni
    January 22, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t understand the purpose of having the story narrated by people who are unable to communicate the story accurately. The mispronunciations are flagrant and incredibly distracting.

  3. January 23, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Wonderful bitter-sweet, punchy text.
    I preferred reading it than hearing it recited by the chorus wich is, I agree, distracting.

  4. February 22, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Richard Ali's Blog and commented:
    “Modern Girls”. Brilliant short story from Teju Cole. There’s a downloadable MP3 at the bottom. The reading is okay. Effective. Do read.

    – Ra.

  5. Ucheoma
    February 23, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Nice

  6. QueenNobo
    February 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    This was quite an enjoyable read. Would make an interesting novel…

  7. February 24, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Masterful writing, this.

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