The Life Changer
It was a bright sunny day and all the people of Lafayette were happy that their daughter, Ummi, was going to the university. That was more than twenty years ago. My father agreed on the condition that I got married before I graduated. That was another story. My husband, your father, agreed we should marry even before I went for my registration. So for me and members of the community, it was double celebration of sorts.
I didn’t know how right my husband was until I set foot into the university. The first thing that struck me was the carefree attitude of the people there. Everybody was going about their business without apparent care in the world. What was even more striking was that it was difficult to tell who was a student and who was a teacher. I mean, in my secondary school we all had uniforms as students. Only the teachers were allowed to come in their private dresses.
“Wait, mum. You mean I would not be required to wear uniforms again.”
“Sadly, not for you, my learned friend. You people at the Faculty of Law have what they call dress code which comprises black trousers, white shirts and black neckties for boys and ditto for girls except that in place of trousers, the girls wear skirts. But even that is during classes only.”
“It is not so bad after all.”
“No, it isn’t. And, really, it makes you kind of stand out of the crowd. It
makes you special in a sense.”
“Then what happened, mummy?” Jamila asked.
“What happened where?”
“After you noticed that students and staff were not dressed differently.” “My dear Jamila, I didn’t say they were not dressed differently. I said the students were not required to wear uniforms. As for difference in dressing, that was one of the first things you would notice. And, Omar, you’d better pay attention here. The way the girls in the university dress leaves very little to the imagination.”
“What does that mean,” Bint asked.
“It means they dress almost naked.”
“This is very serious, mum. And the university allows that? In my school
for just wearing the wrong colour of sandals you would be sent home.”
“Bint, your school is a primary school now. You cannot compare it to the
“I know Bint is wondering, discipline and decency should be permanent
aspects of human character. They should not be limited to a certain level or category of schooling,” Omar said. “This interruption would not help us, children. I thought I was telling you
about my reaction to this freedom of dressing when I first entered the university. No
more interference, please. Let me tell you guys our experience with Salma.”
Salma was a fair complexioned girl, tall, slim and rather busty. That last was obvious to see even to some of us who were recently married. The tight-fitting clothes she wore made you wonder how long it took her to wiggle herself into them. She had on very dark sunshades which accentuated her formidable appearance. The young men around were openly ogling her while the few of us ladies belonging to the old school even then, pretended not to notice her.
We were at the Faculty registration office. The lecturer in charge had taken ages to come and when he did he was taking eternity to start. No one entered the office after him and we stood in the queue for like an hour without movement.
This Salma of a girl had come barely fifteen minutes and she was all over the place grumbling about the ineptitude of the registration officers, the so called university lecturers. “They are, all of them, inconsiderate,” she declared. “They are so heartless it is hard to imagine they have children at home.”
She was last on the queue but would not stay at her place. One young man addressed her politely and said, “Young lady, some of these people have been here for far longer than you have been and are patient enough to wait for the lecturer to get ready so they could all proceed to the next level of the registration exercise.”
“You don’t know these people as I do,” Salma said. “If you wait here that is how they would keep you till dusk doing nothing. They have nothing to do but to frustrate you.
They are like the policeman at the checkpoint. If they stop you with unnecessary queries, it is not so much because they want bribe, this is a given, but sometimes they want to delay you as long as possible to keep them company till the next vehicle arrives. It can be so lonely manning the road as a policeman.”
“You mean there is no difference between your lecturers and the policemen on the road?” the young man asked.
“They are all the same. In fact you are better off with the policeman because at once you know where you are with him. Whether you are right or wrong, just grease his palms and he would allow you to pass. With lecturers you do not even know where you stand. As a boy they would ask you for money; as a girl they would ask you for a date.”
“Just like that?”
“What do you mean just like that? Of course, it is in return for a favour desired. Like the monkey in this office, whoever he is… I mean, you cannot just leave people standing on the queue while you are inside doing nothing. So if I have the opportunity, I would just go in, give him two or three thousand naira to pocket and he would attend to me.”
“You are sure about that, my dear?”
“Sure. But why are you asking me so many questions?” Salma removed her sunshades and looked intently at the young man interrogating her. “I just find your allegation a trifle sweeping. Too general, if you ask me.” “You don’t know these lecturers as I do. This is not my first university, you
“I can imagine,” the man said.
“Just now, you were saying if we allow you to go in you could influence the man to get the registration process started?”
“Yes, please. Money moves mountains,” Salma said. “I thought it was faith, in the original.”
“Never mind,” Salma said, putting her glasses back on.
The man cleared his throat and addressed us, “Ladies and gentlemen, can we please allow this… What is your name?” He turned to Salma.
“Ladies and gentlemen, can we please allow Salma Mohammed here to precede us to see the lecturer so that the registration can get started?”
“Yes.” We all answered in unison. Just then, the lecturer’s door opened and the man inside came out with wet duster in his hand. He turned and locked the office.
We all kept quiet. Baffled.
“The office is ready now, sir,” the man said, turning to address no other
person than the young man who had been engaging Salma in conversation.
I did not understand what was happening at first. No one did. Meanwhile,
Salma had removed her glasses for the second time and was looking at the young
man strangely. Speechlessly.
Comprehension dawned on us almost at once.
Everybody kept quiet.
The man with the duster stretched out his hand and gave the young man
the office key.
“Thank you, John,” the young man said.
“Is there anything more you want me to do, sir?” “No, John. Just try to be faster with the cleaning job. It is not good to keep
our new students waiting, you know.”
“I am sorry, sir. I am sorry, my dear students.” John turned and hurriedly walked away from the scene.
All eyes were now on the young lecturer who had all along been staying with us and was enduring what we were going through as his office was being
As for Salma, she just stood there shivering like some rain drenched
The man calmly walked by us, opened his office and before he entered said, “Please be orderly. We would soon be done with the screening exercise. Maintain the first come, first served order. Thank you.”
He disappeared into the office.
All eyes now turned to Salma.
She was suddenly bereft of words. She was fidgeting and was busy looking at the design of her shoes all the remaining period till my turn came and I entered to be screened.
Within a very short time I was done and I proceeded to the department for my matriculation number and other matters. I did not see Salma again till some few months into the semester.
“Wow. That was thrilling.” Teemah was beside herself with laughter.
“Just wait till I tell you what happened during my departmental
“What happened, Mum?” Omar asked.
I was not to know what transpired before I came to departmental office. The secretary was busy hitting away at her computer. She was visibly a woman of few words. She raised her head, assessed that I was a new student and asked what she could do for me.
I said I was there for my matric number.
She just nodded towards the door beside her. On it was written HOD. I knocked timidly at the door and waited.
“Come in,” came the rasp reply.
I went in and was shocked to find that the HOD here was also a very young person. He sat resplendent behind his mighty desk and was scribbling away on some paper as I entered. He stopped writing and looked up. I saw at once that he had tribal marks
which were rare in these times. They betrayed his ancestral origin. He was
obviously an Igala person or Yoruba. I had no doubt about that. The crucifix
dangling across his chest from the necklace he wore told me his religious
inclination. I was instantly filled with apprehension without knowing why.
“Yes, young lady, what can I do for you?” he asked. “I am a new student, sir. I came for my matric number.” I was still
“Sit down, my dear.”
I sat down.
I know that I would always pass a test on etiquette. You are in a person’s office, you never sit down even if there are a hundred other unoccupied seats until you are invited to sit. For some reason, I found his endearing salutation slightly discomforting. You do not just go about calling everybody your dear.
Unless he meant something. I was immediately on my guard. The kind of things I heard Salma say about university lecturers filled me with foreboding. Of course the young lecturer who talked to her was humble and nice. That ought to have dispelled my doubts. But it did not. I still had some reservations.
The name pennon on his desk said simply, SAMUEL JOHNSON, PhD. “You are among the first to report for registration,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” I responded, wishing he would just assign me my number and get done with it.
“What is your name?” he asked as he pulled a file towards himself. We were still analogue then. But I do not think a lot of things have changed since my schooling days, concerning record keeping, I mean.
“My name is Ummi Ahmad,” I said.
He nodded into his file then casually asked me if I needed something to
“No, thank you sir,” I said rather too quickly.
Suddenly the office was becoming oppressive. I developed an instant, irrepressible feeling of claustrophobia. Why would your Head of Department offer you a drink just because you went for registration? This was how it got started. I decided to tell him I was married but I quickly changed my mind. One thing I learnt in life is never to volunteer information unless specifically asked.
“You look beautiful and decent in your attire,” he said as he stood up to come and sit on the sofa near the visitor’s chair, where I was seated.
This was too much, I thought. Why would he be trying to make conversation with me when all I wanted was the matric number? Suddenly the image of Salma loomed over my face. I could hear her saying all lecturers are the same. If you are a boy they ask you for money, and if you are a girl they ask you for a date.
Surely this man would not be trying to make a pass at me. What was his business with my attire? I knew I was not wearing my hijab, but I was dressed in such a way that even those wearing the hijab would wish they were that covered. Of course my entire face was exposed. I did not think there was anything wrong with
that. Indeed, my husband and I had since come to the conclusion that the recalcitrant male would always misbehave irrespective of what the woman wears. This put me on my guard.
“Our students should emulate your style of dressing. I hope you are as intelligent upstairs as you are decent in appearance. You are better than I imagined.” Something was wrong either with my hearing or with the man seated beside me on the sofa. He looked every inch responsible. Yet I could not make head
or tail of what he was blabbering about.
All I wanted was to get out of that office.
You are better than I imagined. What the hell was the meaning of that? “Sir, please can I have my matric number now? I am pressed.” That last was a lie. I just wanted him to let me go. His response shocked me.
“No problem, my dear, you can use my toilet.”
“No, sir. It is not allowed,”
“Who disallowed it? This is my office, remember?”
“Unless of course if you were not pressed in the first place.” “No, I was…I am. Ok. Thank you, sir.” I was totally confused. I knew it was improper what I said. And now I was committed. He stood up and went and sat behind his desk, perchance to give me room to manoeuvre and enter the toilet.
I mustered enough courage and entered the toilet.
I came out a few moments later after flushing the toilet. It made a satisfactory gurgling noise which to my ear convinced the man that I must have discharged something. Still the feeling was uncomfortable. Indeed it was very embarrassing. I am not sure if I would be able to face the man again.
He was buried in the file before him. I told myself that I had enough embarrassment for one day. With or without the number I was leaving.
“Here is your matric number,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “You are UG0001. I pray as you are the first here, you would be the first in everything.” For some reason I was genuinely angry with this surreptitious overture. “Thank you,” I said almost rudely and made my way out of the office. He still found it necessary to send his secretary after me to inform me that I
had to proceed to the 100 Level Coordinator for further registration.
I distinctly remember seeing him smile as I left his office. I was too angry to make anything of the smile at the time.
“But why were you angry, mummy?” Bint asked curiously.
“To tell you the truth I really didn’t know then. With knowledge of hindsight now, I think I was angrier at myself than I was at him because, really he didn’t say or do anything rude that would warrant such reaction.”
“So what happened after you saw the Coordinator.”
My registration went on smoothly from that moment on and by the end of
the day, that was around four o’clock in the evening, I was thoroughly exhausted.
I took a tricycle home.
“And what is a tricycle, mummy?” Bint asked.
“Keke Napep.” Teemah replied her curtly. “Continue, mummy.”
By the time I got home your father was not yet back from the office. hurriedly prepared his dinner which he normally took early and had my bath.
When he returned, I waited for him to eat and rest and I was about to start narrating the story of my first day in the university when he said, “You just can’t be too sure with people these days.”
“Yes, dear. What happened?”
“Mhm. It is a long story. It has to do with our neighbour.”
“Which of them?”
“The quiet one.”
“The quiet one? That man cannot harm a fly?”
“You never know with people, my dear.” Suddenly, that expression reminded me of my experience at the office of the HOD earlier.
“Yes,” I said, “You never know with people. Imagine what happened to me in school today?” He seemed to suddenly remember.
“I am sorry, sweetheart, what happened in the school? Please forgive me. I forgot to ask.”
I told him nothing much happened. Then I went ahead to narrate my registration experience that morning. From the long queue at the first registration point, to the Salma incident and down to the HOD’s office. I left nothing out. Indeed as I told him about the HOD I supplied additional commentary on the incident. I did not bother hiding my anger.
My husband was listening to me with a bemused expression on his face.
I didn’t quite understand his facial expression.
“What is his name?” my husband asked.
“I cannot really remember, dear. Why?”
“Is it Dr. Samuel Johnson?”
I was shocked.
“Yes,” I said, simply.
“Is his face scarified?”
I looked blankly at him.
“I mean, does he have tribal marks on his face?” “Yes, he has. He looks like an Igala or a Yoruba man. Do you know him?”
My husband doubled up in feats of laughter, he almost fell out of his chair. Then he got hold of himself and affected a seriousness which I knew he did not feel
and looked almost pitifully at me.
“He is Yoruba,” he said. “That is Dr. Samjohn, alright. He is my friend.”
I stared open-mouthed at my husband.
He saw the surprise on my face and added, “Actually, he was the one who
assisted me with your admission