I arrived in Zaria during the harmattan season and at first lived with my father in Mala Mala. It was dusty and cold and each year, since I had no shoes and walked barefooted, the soles of my feet were so dry and the skin split during that terrible season. Cold water on my feet was the most painful thing I ever experienced. Since my mother was not there and my father left early for work as a railway carpenter just before the long railway seven o`clock horn tooted I had to do all the housework. The routine continued even after I was enrolled in Standard Three in St Georges’ School. I did all the house work before going to school and after coming back from school. When my mother came to live with us in Zaria with my siblings the routine was less rigorous. In the mornings she went to the market to man her shed where she sold enamel ware plates, pots, pans, and so on. In the afternoons after school I hawked gariand kerosene which I carried on my head on different days in the mainly Hausa residential area called Munchia shouting out the name of the substance I was hawking at the top of my voice. We later moved to Plot T 28, in Dogon Bauchi, just by the railway line running from Zaria to Bauchi.
I did not pick up as much of the Hausa language that I should have because my father’s warning was constantly in my ears, `Don’t mess around with these Hausa people. I don’t want trouble.’ And he would pull his ear in emphasis. But I still ventured to Dije, the street-side waina seller when he was out. She often gave me some of the tasty waina.Of course during my hawking I had to speak Hausa with my customers who were mostly Hausa. My father’s other stern warning was, `Never go to Kogi for anything.’ But my junior brother, six years younger than I, went to swim in those dangerous waters whenever he liked and I got thrashed for allowing him to go there. How could I prevent him? I had very few clothes and what I had was inhabited by lice and bedbugs. Each day I spent a bit of time hunting then out and crushing them between the fingers. Bedbugs also occupied the beds and furniture joints. Cockroaches inhabited crevices in the walls of our room and parlour. 

During my final year in St Georges I borrowed a magazine from a class mate, Emmanuel Spencer. It was by Erle Stanley Gardener and featured detective stories and I got hooked after reading it. It was to shape my future reading. Incidentally Emmanuel, now late, ended up as my class mate in the secondary school. During that year people began asking my father what I would do after leaving school. His answer was precise. Since he had no money to pay my school fees I would carry his tools and follow him to learn how to be a carpenter. It was then that my uncle, Cyril, my mother’s younger brother, who was in the military and also lived in Zaria undertook to pay my secondary school fees.
It appeared that part of the bargain was that after completing primary school I would come and live with Uncle Cyril while I sat for the entrance exams. So I went to live with him. Those were the months I served two contrasting masters, one mild, the other a sadist! By eight o`clock in the morning after Uncle Cyril left for work I went over to Uncle Erasmus Mbonu’s house in D Line, I hope my memory serves me right, to help with the house chores. He had a kindly wife and children not that much younger than I was so it was a fairly friendly atmosphere. I usually left there about eight at night and, each day, being so tired from working all day, sleep-walked to the room and parlour in C 18 where I served Uncle Cyril. Luckily, in those days there were no cars, only bicycles and pedestrians on the streets and more pedestrians and trees on the pedestrian reserves. It was a miracle how I managed to reach my destination each night without colliding with any of the trees. Uncle Cyril would usually come home after one o`clock in the early morning, sometimes as late as two thirty. And his standing order was that I was never to sleep before he came back. I was to read my books! I was only thirteen! He would usually come back with his woman friend and if I showed any sign of sleep he would kick me with his army boot for not being awake and reading! I got the same treatment for any other mistakes. And he had this stern way of looking at people. I dreaded night fall and was terribly afraid of him!

During those most trying days of my life I attempted three exams and interviews to different secondary schools. The first was to Ibadan Grammar School which I failed. And in hind sight it was easy to discern why. I had told the interviewers that my ambition was to be a Produce Examiner! Nobody had coached me on what to say and I gave that answer because I knew a Produce Examiner relative who was very rich! Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, was very famous. I bought the forms and travelled on the tortuous train journey through Kaduna all the way to Jos, the only centre for the examination in Northern Nigeria, and stayed in Uncle Arnold Mbonu’s house. When I got to the centre the next day all the applicants were told that the examination papers did not arrive and there would be no exam at that centre. So everybody went home and that was that! But I was admitted to St. Paul’s Secondary School, Zaria, a mission school that had just taken off a year earlier.  

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