Our trek took us past the female hostels on the right and the classroom block on the left. We skirted through the bank of convenience stores, and began to cut across the assembly ground. The first building we saw was the senior hostel which had UNITY HOUSE painted on the wall facing us. The structure loomed before us, imposing and brooding, bigger than the small, compact buildings of the junior hostels we were used to. An expression mixing awe and dread settled on our faces as we approached, deciding to start our search in Unity House.
The first sight that greeted us upon our entrance into the compound was that of a heavily-built boy bringing a leather belt down on the back of a smaller boy who was kneeling before him. Crying out, the boy collapsed to the ground where he lay, writhing and crawling away from the other student. “Senior Bruno, please! Senior Bruno, please!” he frequently screamed. But Senior Bruno’s strokes followed him with demonic force and speed, his protuberant eyes blind to whatever part of the hapless student’s body his weapon was landing on.
This tableau of brutality struck terror into us and we hastily began to edge back out, through the gate.
“Hey!” We jumped at the sound of the bellow. “Stop there!” We froze. “Run down!” Our hearts beating, we obeyed, scurrying forward to the pavement where our caller stood. This senior wasn’t as heavily-built as the Senior Bruno tormenting his victim, but he was just as scary, mostly because of the huge scar that zigzagged across his cheek, from his hairline and settling on his chin. His eyes were beady and looked mean, and his lips were duskier in colour than the rest of his face – a telltale sign of a heavy smoker. I knew this because one of my uncles was a heavy smoker too, and I once overheard my mother chide him that if he continued with the habit, no woman would want to kiss him. Yuck!
“Which class una dey?” the senior asked.
“JSS1,” we chorused in small voices.
“See fresh meat sha!” he said with a cackle. He arched his head in the direction of the door close to him and said, “Tega, come, come o. Come see JSS1 boys wey no dey fear enter senior hostel.”
Feet shuffled inside the dormitory, and moments later, another senior – Tega, I presumed – walked out. He was just as scrawny-looking as Dark Lips, with the same menacing mien. A lit cigarette hung from his thin lips, the smoke curling before his face. “Na who be these ones?” he growled.
“Fresh meat!” Dark Lips said, and cackled again.
“Wetin una dey find for here?” Tega questioned, his eyes darting from one frightened face to the other. When we didn’t respond immediately – so terrified were we –, he barked, “No be human being I dey talk to?!”
We recoiled in fright. The sounds of lashing and ‘Senior Bruno, please!’ continued to resonate in the air surrounding us. Joseph was the one who answered in a tiny voice, “We are just looking for our buckets.”
Our buckets?! If I wasn’t so frightened out of my wits, I would have decked him one for that lie.
“We were just looking for our buckets,” Dark Lips mimicked in a mocking falsetto parody, and then laughed again. Tega grinned wickedly and dragged smoke into his lungs, blowing out the scanty remains, slightly obscuring his face. “So una bucket enter senior hostel, una follow am enter, abi? No problem, we go show you say no be your papa compound be this.”
Ibuka whimpered close to me. I suspected he was about to collapse in tears.
Dark Lips said, “Una sabi wetin be ‘pick pin’?”
We shook our heads in unison. He demonstrated. He stood on one leg, bent forward, lifted the other leg high, and touched the ground with the index finger of one hand, the other hand also spread out in the air. We stared at him in fountaining horror.
“You don see am?” Tega said. “Oya, pick pin!” he commanded.
“Please, senior – please, we are begging –” we burst out.
“I said – PICK PIN!” he roared, and with a deftness that spoke of practice, he whipped his belt out from around the loops of his trouser and lashed out at us. The leather strip caught Joseph on the side of his face, eliciting a choked scream from him. Tega advanced, and we scurried backward. Dark Lips brandished his own belt and reiterated the command for us to ‘pick pin’. The two of them pounced on us, striking us with their belts and causing our cries to intermingle with that of the boy still being tormented by Senior Bruno. Finally, when we started blubbering ‘Senior, please, let us pick pin!’ repeatedly, they moved away from us. And waited. We got right down to business, trembling and sniffling, trying to maintain our balance on individual one foot. It wasn’t easy, especially for Ibuka. The poor boy. He kept on gasping for breath and staggering back to his two feet, an act that earned him a few more strokes of the SS3 boys’ belts.
That morning, we were introduced to all sorts of cruel practices that these senior boys regarded as punishments. In addition to ‘pick pin’, we were made to assume the ‘angle 90’ position against the wall. That one I’ve described in a previous episode. And then, there was ‘koko beware’, a maltreatment so dreadful it doesn’t bear telling in this episode. Story for another time. Suffice it to say that by the time we left senior hostel, shivering, aching and drenched with tears and sweat – and urine, in Ibuka’s case –, we had learned a lesson. To never, ever, EVER enter senior hostel in broad daylight when the seniors could catch you.
And the bucket? It was lost to us forever. But the shared experience gained Ibuka and I a friendship with Joseph.