Long before President Muhammadu Buhari started the ‘Change Begins With Me’ campaign Oluwadara was already living this mantra.
She saw her children as her responsibility to society; the people who through their actions will create a ripple effect that will transform the larger society into what she always hoped it would be.
She was not going to undermine the magnitude of this responsibility so she chose to start early, teaching her children lessons most people complained were too advanced for ones so tender.
When she noticed the first signs of sibling rivalry she used it to mold her son into what she wished every man in the world would be – a gentleman.
“Never you beat your sister or any female at all, so ti gbo? It makes you very weak.” To drive the importance of the message home she made him understand that if ever he breaks this rule, he insults her- his mother – and every woman in the world, grandma included.
From that day it became impressed on Adebowale that the worst thing he could do as a human was to hurt a female. He avoided it piously.
At two years and a month old, Oluwadara took Adebowale to school for the first time. Her heart was in the pit of her stomach and still journeying southward as she worried if her son will be all she had taught him to be and make her proud.
The first reason she got to worry about him was when she brought him in early on that first day. He made straight for the play ground where kids were lined up in front of different play equipment, waiting their turn to have a go at it before assembly started. She went into his class to have a word with his class teacher and when she came out saw him on the swing, wearing a triumphant look resembling his father’s, while half a dozen sulking faces surrounded him.
Apples and trees! She thought, exasperated as she brought him down from the swing.
“Wait your turn Debo. And let the lady go first.” She lifted a little girl and placed her on the swing then told her son to help push her. The girl’s smile was brilliant, Debo’s scowl was murderous, but he obeyed.
Before the long face and bruises started, Adebowale loved school. He will wake on a Saturday morning and carry his school bag asking to be taken to school. The weeks after exam and before school closed for the term, when nothing was happening at school, Debo would revolt on days when he was kept home.
Then things changed. He became sluggish while preparing for school. At the end of the day, he would utter barely audible greetings as he got into the car and will remain silent all through the drive home. Attempts to get him to divulge what bothered him were always futile.
Once, both Oluwadara and her husband Mensa went together to pick the kids from school. Adebowale had painful looking scratch marks on his neck which both parents noticed immediately. They waited to get into the car before they asked him.
As usual he was silent. It was Tejumola who offered the answer. Someone in his class fought him.
“And what were you doing while they were fighting you?” Mensa was disappointed at the thought that he might have fathered a weakling and as he waited for his son’s answer hoped to hear it was a much older student who was responsible. He was already rearranging his schedule for the next day to make time to visit the school’s management.
“It was a girl!”
“Oh.” Both parents chorused and that ended the matter. No visit to the school, no complaint.
Soon he became withdrawn. Oluwadara was not so bothered when her brother’s daughters came to stay for the holidays and Adebowale went to great lengths to stay away from them.
“You’ll not stay on your own now oh.” He will warn for everyone to hear when they came close or tried to play with him.
But when his attitude extended to Tejumola, his sister, Oluwadara became really troubled. She saw it as a cue that another life lesson was needed. This led to a talk on the need to get along with people, and to teach her son she began to serve the siblings their meals in the same plate.
This solved nothing. After each meal he went back to keeping to himself.
Things got worse at school after he turned 6 and began Primary two. Anulika, his seat partner drew a line to demarcate the chair they both shared and warned him never to cross to her side.
Each time she noticed his short had crossed the line she would push him off the chair with her hip. The more he let it slide, the bolder she got.
While writing one day, her pencil broke and she reached across the desk to take Adebowale’s sharpener.
“Can’t you say please.” He corrected.
At that, she stopped sharpening her pencil, threw the sharpener to the floor and smashed it with her foot.
She picked the scattered bits off the floor and taking advantage of the moment of shock she tried to force them into his slightly open mouth.
“Take, eat it. Ordinary sharpener is what you are shouting for.”
Adebowale pushed her hand away and incensed by that she scratched and clawed, using the broken pieces of sharpener to wreak as much havoc as she could manage on his body. Her finger got into his eyes and he started to cry.
The boys in class pointed at him and laughed.
“A girl beat you. You don’t even have power.”
He cried some more.
That same day Aunty Mary taught a lesson on comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. On the board she wrote down a list of words then their comparative and superlative forms.
When they returned to class after long break the entire class was roaring with laughter and looking between the chalk board and Adebowale. He looked at the board and saw why.
Weak |Weaker| Debo
Someone had changed it during break and despite Aunty Mary’s threat for the culprit to own up, no one did.
All except Debo were punished. They blamed Debo’s cowardice for their pain and to make him suffer, intensified the teasing.
Weak was such a shameful word to him. His mother had made it so. And hitting a girl was what made him weak, according to his mother. Now why were they all calling him weak for refusing to hit one?
He resolved to show them that he was not what they called him.
After school, he went on a wrestling spree, picking on every boy in his class who so much as smirked at him, beating them till he was bloody and dusty. Even then he did not stop. He fought till everyone gave him a wide berth, so that when Oluwadara came for him he was sitting alone. Every other student left in the class were as far from him as possible.
At home, Oluwadara was filled with vicious outrage as she listened to her son recount all he had endured in the hands of his seat partner.
She itched to get hold of the girl and spank her till she had welts on her body. But most of the outrage was directed at herself. To think that she had put her son through this!
She called for her younger child in that tone that foretells trouble. Teju came in head bowed, eyes trying to avoid her mother’s , hands clasped in front of her, a picture of remorse for a crime she wasn’t aware of but knew she must have committed.
Oluwadara dragged her forward and with a hand cupping her chin, raised her head to look into her brother’s bruised face.
“Never you ninu aye re hit your brother.”
Both kids protested together.
“But I didn’t.” Teju’s denial was quick and sharp.
“But it wasn’t her.”
Dara knew, but wanted to use this as an opportunity to teach another lesson, one she had failed to teach and from the look of her son, one that most parents have also failed to teach.
All these while she had warned her son never to hit a woman, but never told her daughter same. She did it then; warned both children never to hit anyone, male or female, but this time, there was a clause.
“But if anyone tries to harm you first, no matter who, make sure you defend yourself.”
Adebowale’s brows shot up. There was doubt in his eyes.
“Yes. I mean it. No more of these wounds on your body. If anybody fights you, don’t pity them fight back.”
“Anybody?” He still looked unsure.
“I can’t believe you told him that. What happened to all your ideals?” Mensa asked his wife later that night as they prepared for bed.
“Kini? So I should be defending ideals instead of defending my son? O ti o. Let change begin with that girl’s mother for a change.”