By rights, I should have a variety of incurable skin diseases now.
I grew up in the Surulere area of Lagos and before the housing estate known as the Iponri Estate was built, it was just one vast sandy wasteland with something that looked like a stream right in the centre of it. That stream had industrial waste from all the manufacturers at the Iganmu area pass through it. It also had an oily sheen all the time but we ‘Shell Club’ boys (that’s what our area was called) would do a 20-minute trek to go swim in those waters. We were all about 10 or 11 years old at this time and we were about 9 in number.
We gave ourselves military ranks and the ‘General’ was Ayo Idowu. His younger brother, Segun vacillated between the ranks of Brigadier and Sergeant. We were never sure which of these ranks he should be. I was a ‘Lieutenant General’, there was just something about that rank. I used to spend hours as a child poring over diagrams of military rankings. Did I miss my calling?
Along with us came Rashidi “Rash Boots” Thanni. He got this nickname because of his skills in soccer and also as a play on ‘Billy’s Boots’ , a character in the British comic, Tiger.
There was Debo “Billy Debs” Adeshipo (the youngest of us all, he was about 8 or 9) and his cousin, Bimbo "Bad News" Oladipo and a few others I cannot now readily remember. We had this register of names we ticked to mark attendance.
We’d play for hours in these dangerous waters, Rash Boots moving to one side and lying face down in the water practising holding his breath. Then we’d go home tired.
It took a long while before we were discovered. Debo Adeshipo went home one day and his father saw a streak of oil in his hair. He probably smelt like toxic waste too. So Debo’s father bundled him into the car and asked to be taken where the oil came from. Debo led his father on a merry-go-round for hours but saw reason after he was slapped a few times.
That was the end of the ‘mugba-mugba stars’. Mu’gba means to drink a calabash. I remember now that we called ourselves that because we were sometimes forced to drink the oily water as we struggled to free ourselves of the strange objects at the bed of the stream that often entangled our legs and attempted to drown us.
Are kids insane?
Behind our street at Gbajumo lay a school for the handicapped, “Atunda Olu”. They had a swimming pool which never seemed in use so we (the remnant of the mugba-mugba stars) would creep into the school after official hours or at weekends and sweep the algae that masked the surface of the pool aside and commence swimming. The pool wasn’t more than 4 feet deep and less than 10 feet wide but it was heaven for us.
Once in while, the guard of the school would come t
earing down to chase us away and we would flee in our underwear (we didn’t have trunks). Once I remember I ran the wrong way and appeared on the next street in my underwear. I don’t know how I made it home. Maybe I have selective amnesia in respect to this particular event.
I read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Brown’s School Days, Eze goes to school and many other great books in those days but I lived my own adventures.
Rashidi Thanni stayed with his step-mum, his father had died, and he and I (we were the closest in our set of friends) would sometimes go to the bar beach on the island, still aged 10 and 11 (I was older). We’d get there at 10am and swim without guidance for upwards of 6 hours. Then we would get on the bus back home (they were LSTC buses in those days). We’d notice the adults and other sane people kept their distance from us in these buses. Who wouldn’t have?
Our hair and all visible orifices would be caked with sand and our eyes bloodshot from all the salt water. Rash Boots on the walk from the bus-stop home would often pluck an eyelash and place it on his head. In this way, they would forget at home that he had been out for 8 hours.
Once I remember on one of these walks we saw a money note lying on the ground. I was the more impulsive and stooped to pick it but Rash Boots warned me against such madness. Kidnappers could have placed the money there as a lure to get kids and turn them into goats. So we both peed on the note to nullify whatever hex had been placed on it and thereafter had the courage to pick it up and spend it.
I miss my childhood and my best friend in those years, Rash Boots. He died after making his way to Europe, spending 3 years in Italy, 8 in England and fathering two daughters. My stage play, The Inheritors, is dedicated to him.
The years of childhood are beautiful years and full of wonder.
It’s why I love Wole Soyinka’s Ake.
It’s why I tell this story.