An extract from Ike Anya’s new book, Small By Small: Becoming A Doctor in 1990s Nigeria, published by Sandstone Press on 18 May 2023
Poison, general science, making choices
She strides into the wooden-floored classroom, sure-footed and statuesque, taking her place at the front, in the gap between the rows of desks occupied by our class of eleven-year-olds, and the blackboard. We hear her heels clacking on the concrete corridor leading to our classroom, even before she arrives. We smell her rich fruity perfume before we see her. I know what the scent is:Poison by Christian Dior. I have seen the bulbous purple and gold bottle with its crystalline cap sitting on my glamorous Auntie Mim’s dressing table
Mrs Amobi strides back and forth in front of the blackboard, elegant in her shoulder-padded suit, the perfect scarlet ovals of her nails sweeping through the air as she gesticulates. Each movement seems to release a gust of Poison’d air that floats through the rapidly warming classroom. She asks us to open our General Science textbooks, lying neatly on our desks before us. The textbook that we use, the same one used by first-year secondary pupils across Nigeria is actually a textbook of integrated science, but at our school the subject is still called general science. It is probably something to do with tradition. Ours is one of the oldest schools in the country – the first set up by the colonial government – and a lot of emphasis is laid on doing things the King’s College way.
Mrs Amobi is teaching us about cells, how in the human body they aggregate to form tissues, which themselves form organs, and how organs form systems and systems, the body. She pauses from time to time to scribble in chalk on the blackboard, but the alchemy of her strong perfume and the tropical afternoon sun seems to induce a stultifying lethargy. With something of a sense of relief, we watch her clap her hands, releasing a flurry of chalk, announcing that the lesson is over and promising to see us again next week.
Hers is the last lesson period before break time, and we pour out into the corridors, heading for the tuck shop to buy biscuits and soft drinks at the kiosk or just to loiter, for those whose pocket money does not run to such luxuries.
After break, we settle back into class. One of the older boys, a prefect, four years ahead of us, walks in on an errand. He sniffs the air exaggeratedly and says, ‘Ah, I see you have had a general science lesson today.’
At the beginning of our fourth year, we are asked to choose subjects. From the sixteen subjects of our junior secondary years, we are expected to pick between seven and nine. We will concentrate on these ahead of our final senior secondary certificate exam in three years’ time. Most of my classmates, with a natural affinity for either the sciences or the arts, find this process fairly straightforward. My more eclectic tastes mean thatI struggle to drop any, picking literature, history and economics, alongside further mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology.
I find dropping French the most difficult choice. I have studied it since primary school and always done well in it. All of Nigeria’s neighbouring countries are French-speaking and I harbour vague dreams of a life in the diplomatic service. These are probably inspired by my cousin, recently posted to the Nigerian Embassy in Sweden. A few days before the deadline, in desperation, I seek the top student in the final-year French class for advice. Breaching protocol and visiting a senior classroom without an invitation, I timidly approach him during prep one night and ask, ‘Can you speak fluent French now?’
He smiles patronisingly. ‘Oh no! I can read large paragraphs of grammar and answer questions on them. I can carry out basic conversations, but no, I can’t understand anything too complicated.’
I am horrified. What then is the point of continuing with French, if one cannot speak fluent French at the end of the course? No, I will not pick French. Instead, when I am older, I will go on a crash course, the kind advertised at the back of the Reader’s Digest magazines I devour voraciously: ‘Learn French in 3 weeks!’
I pick economics instead, eager to understand the business pages and the impenetrable stock market listings of the newspapers that my father brings home daily. The day after I hand in my choices, I bump into the French mistress, the usually taciturn Madame Achugbu in the school corridors.
‘Good morning, ma,’ I greet her, standing to one side to allow her to pass.
‘Anya!’ she says. ‘I hear you are dropping French.’
‘Y-yes,’ I stammer, launching into an explanation of how I enjoy so many different subjects and have had a difficult time choosing, even doing nine subjects.
‘I still want to learn French later,’ I offer in propitiation.
‘That’s a pity,’ she says, cutting me off and walking away. ‘You were one of our best French students and we had really high hopes for you.’
I watch her receding figure and stand by the wood-panelled staircase, biting my nails.