No-one understood why Mr. Nnadi made school life unbearable for his students, and Juliet knew better than to get on his wrong side, taking every measure possible to avoid crossing paths with the cane-brandishing sadist. All to no avail. How come he never graded any work she submitted, and why had he harshly ordered her to get out of his sight when she brought the matter to his attention? He even warned he’d fail her entirely if she ever copied her answers again. Absolute rubbish—as if a girl as highly intelligent girl as Juliet would participate in ‘combined service’. Hardly a day passed without Juliet suffering under his bullying streak for the flimsiest of reasons, and other teachers began to notice the stress taking its toll on their favourite student. On a dull Friday afternoon after most of the students had vacated the premises, Mr. Nnadi sent for Juliet who had stayed behind to catch up on some reading, and he made his intentions clear.
“Yes, I’ve punished you, it’s school life, get used to it,” he sneered, sprawling across the stairs leading to his teacher’s quarters. “You want to pass this exam? Fine. Speak to your father, and ask him to see me. I hear he works for Shell Nigeria, he has money. Actually, forget that…” He reached out to grab Juliet’s hand, cunningly scratching her trembling palm. “You could cooperate with me instead, and life will be sweet for you as long as I’m your Maths teacher in this school—either that, or you repeat the whole year.” Juliet snatched her hand away, and the teacher heaved with laughter. “You don’t know what I mean by ‘co-operate’? Come on, you must have had a few boyfriends in that Shell Camp where you live, don’t act all naïve.” He rose to his feet and whispered in her ear. “You’re a smart fine girl, figure it out. And make sure you come back here this time next week, or you’ll have me to answer to, and I’m not making idle threats. Breathe a word of this to anybody, and I’ll show you real ‘pepper’, you hear me?”.
Mr. Nnadi had transitioned from devil dwarf to paedo pervert within a fraction of a second, totally bent on sinking his sick claws into a 12-year-old who not only strayed from trouble, but actually had a brain? And that wasn’t all he planned to stick into her either, rotten man. I struggled to breathe freely when Juliet called me aside and tearfully described her ordeal at the hands of her brutal teacher. What a phoney—thirty minutes of his allocated teaching time wasted on dismissing his students as lazy, undeserving, and spoilt losers, those from wealthy families regularly at the receiving end of a cane taller than himself. He would bore the whole class to sleep when he reminisced on the golden era of education, a period devoid of luxuries when he’d trekked five miles every morning to attend his lessons. What a fake, hiding his rotten mind under a cloak of golden morals.
Mrs. Anyanwu screamed blue murder when Juliet finally narrated what had transpired between the Maths teacher and herself after I managed to persuade her, and Mum used every muscle to hold her friend back when the latter threatened to march through the school gates and bash Mr. Nnadi’s warped head against the nearest wall. Juliet’s father reacted similarly when he returned from work that evening, swearing the callous educator wouldn’t get away with his prolonged tyranny and paedophilia. No-one could prove the Maths teacher had attempted to drag Juliet into bed with him, but nothing would stop her father from storming into the principal’s office demanding answers.
“Are you trying to tell me my child isn’t clever enough to pass that simple one-plus-one you give her?” Mr. Anyanwu demanded the minute his target stepped inside, throwing an exercise book into the teacher’s face. “Have a look at these Maths problems she solved, what exactly did she do wrong? And don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about; I’m a petroleum engineer, I studied Further Maths, and I coached her. Why don’t you give her something to do in my presence right now, and we’ll see if she’s the dunce you say she is? Should we show her work to other Maths teachers here, and ask their opinion?” The principal assured him his suggestion wasn’t necessary, but Mr. Anyanwu ignored her. “There’s a difference between discipline and pure wickedness. How many other teachers here have a problem with Juliet, eh? Flogging her every blessed day for nothing, what gives you the right? Mess with my daughter, you mess with me, and believe me, you do not want to go there. Do I make myself clear?”
Juliet, although embarrassed at her father’s interference, left the premises shedding joyful tears, but still shivered whenever she caught sight of the man who’d shamelessly made a move on her. Eventually she transferred to my school Archdeacon Crowther after third term, never to set eyes on him again. Four years later, just before our WAEC exams, a suspicious teacher caught Mr. Nnadi in bed with a Junior Secondary I pupil after barging into his quarters. A riot broke out on the school premises immediately the news reached every ear, and grudge-bearing students who had prayed for the day they finally got their own back chased him away, chanting every fitting word used to describe the Oompa Loompa bully who had persecuted them for years.
Juliet narrowly escaped those paedo clutches, and had flourished as a legal eagle practising in a reputable law firm with the support of her strong family and a loving fiancé. In contrast, poor Mirabel faced an uncertain future, especially now her family had disowned her for leaving that so-called husband after they opened the door to statutory rape, their daughter still paying the ultimate price for their greed. All this torture and hurt for a bride price in the year 2006?
Nurse Charles, the other charge nurse from New Aggrey, had invited me to tag along during her next visit to Cherry Blossoms Women’s Crisis Centre, and I gladly accepted. The small rundown bungalow stood behind a large uncompleted storey building on the outskirts of Ikeja, surrounded by overgrown ixora bushes and rusty water tanks no longer in use. The clammy walls inside with their brownish fingerprints displayed magazine cut-outs carrying various women’s rights messages, and I stopped to look at a large monochrome poster of a forlorn teenager with tear-stained eyes, the words “I WAS WEARING THIS WHEN IT HAPPENED” inscribed in red across her ripped hoodie. I knew how she felt—my own world lost its colourful vibrancy the day I left my student flat for that fake study session.
Nurse Charles opened a door at the end of the corridor, and we entered the office where Remi Olusegun, a human rights lawyer in her early thirties whose sexual assault cases regularly made the headlines, welcomed us warmly. Next to her sat another woman, Nurse Charles’ church friend who taught at a girls’ secondary school. We’d barely taken our seats when Remi began to lament over the difficulties her charity had faced from day one.
“Someone needs to speak out for these women, these young girls, but how many people stop to listen? When are people going to realise women are people too, people who have the right to go about their lives without the fear of attack?” Remi shook her head. “I’ve dealt with cases where the girl reports the victim, and she’s accused of lying because there’s no visible evidence, but the man continues to live his own life, even continues to mess around with other young girls…”
“Tell me what I don’t know,” I agreed. “A teacher sexually harassed a friend of mine when she was just twelve. A grown man chasing after a twelve-year-old? She was lucky, her father had words with the man, and he never bothered her again. Instead, he found another victim, and when he was caught red-handed, he was fired. No court case, no jail sentence, just a mere sacking. And you know the worst thing? An old friend of ours spotted him teaching in another school in Bayelsa during her youth service—she would have recognised his shortness anywhere—but with a different identity.”
“You see?” said Remi. “Another man getting away unscathed, but why didn’t the school investigate after your friend’s father confronted the man?”
“That’s the problem, no-one would have believed my friend if she’d told them the whole story. Think about it—the strictest teacher in the entire school who never took nonsense from anybody? It would have been a case of ‘your word against mine,’ and the whole staff would have supported him. There was no way he’d tamper with an underage girl, right?” Remi nodded mournfully. “My friend’s father couldn’t prove the sicko had made a move on his twelve-year-old child, but she later told me her father had mentioned those sick advances to the principal in secret. Did the principal fire the teacher? No. Instead they caught him raping another girl inside his quarters. My friend’s father took action and informed the PTA that the principal was partly responsible. She knew she had a paedophile working in the school, but she sat back and did nothing.”
“Lord have mercy,” muttered Nurse Charles.
“What a shame,” said Remi. “Teachers are the very people we trust to mold our daughters into leaders of tomorrow, but now they’re messing up with them in private. In the UK and America, they’d ban him from teaching indefinitely.”
“Yes, that’s true. Out of interest, why did you name the charity ‘Cherry Blossoms’?” I asked. “Interesting name, considering cherries aren’t grown in Nigeria.”
Remi laughed heartily. “That’s what everyone says, and they’re right, no cherries here, although I used to love the black ones when I studied in Manchester. But no, the cherry blossom is a tree with green leaves in the rainy season, and there aren’t that many in this country, but when harmattan approaches, the tree sprouts pink flowers all over, and they fall in their thousands…”
“Oh, I think I know what you’re talking about!” I nodded, envisioning the sublime pink sea outside our village church every Christmas. “There’s a huge tree like that in my hometown, and people always complain because sweeping the petals takes ages.”
“That’s the one,” confirmed Remi. “Very beautiful petals falling off the branches, some of which haven’t fully blossomed, and society walks over them even though its not their fault. Yet you can’t deny their delicate beauty, and it’s our duty here to pick them off the ground and get them blooming once again, allowing the world to see their full potential.”
“Wow, that’s really interesting,” I remarked. “And I agree with the part about blooming. Look at poor Mirabel. All she wanted was to live like a normal girl, but her parents had other plans, and look at her now. They really messed her up, hope they’re happy,” I added sarcastically.
Remi studied my reaction. “Dr. Duru, may I ask why you feel such an affinity for Mirabel? I can hear it in your voice. Is it anything to do with…personal experience?”
“Well…yes, I…I…” I bowed my head, unable to look the Cherry Blossoms founder in the eye.
“Doctor, are you okay?” Nurse Charles asked anxiously.
“Yes. I was just thinking about my mother,” I blurted.
“Your mother?” Remi asked. “Was she…”
“No, nothing like that, but still a similar situation.” I paused, wondering whether to proceed or drop the subject.
“A similar situation?”
“My maternal grandfather didn’t approve of women in education, and stopped paying Mum’s fees after she completed primary school. A wealthy aunt saw her through secondary, but he still made things difficult, interrupting her studies to hold her back. Just as she was about to complete her secondary education, my grandfather brought home some wealthy man who already had two wives, but she refused to even look at him.” I exhaled deeply, picturing the gloomy tale in my mind. “Mum grew up watching polygamy turn her father’s home into a battlefield—everyone knew everyone’s business, one child or wife was always jealous of the other. Mum had promised herself she would never marry like that, but her father didn’t care. At one point he tied her hand and foot, and locked her inside his storeroom—he was a tobacco merchant—ready to bundle her off to that man whether she liked it or not…”
“What?” Nurse Charles’ mouth dropped open in shock. “Are you serious?”
“Unfortunately, yes. No amount of tears or begging would move him—she was his daughter, and she had to obey if she knew what was good for her. Thank God for my mother’s friend who planned her escape. Both of them fled to Ibadan, and Mum stayed with her aunt there for a year before she won a scholarship to attend nursing college in London. It was tough, but her aunt and a few other relatives scrimped and saved, and Mum boarded the plane to the UK…”
“Your mother is a nurse?” asked Nurse Charles.
“She’s a midwife. My father will soon retire from Shell Nigeria, and she plans to start her own practice in our home state when they leave PH. Anyway, Mum met my father at an Independence day ball in London, and they got married, but my grandfather refused to accept Dad as his son-in-law. Even with all that distance between them, those evil vibes could have torn my parents apart. Mum’s father would insult Dad’s family, saying they were nothing but shit at the bottom of his foot—excuse my French—and that Mum had prostituted herself before the son of a poverty-stricken cook. When his tobacco business collapsed, that’s when he remembered his son-in-law worked for Shell, and he came crawling back. For money.” I pursed my lips and sighed. “Mum’s half-siblings followed his lead, and for months my parents never rested, it was always ‘I want this, I want that’, until Mum decided enough was enough. My grandfather even called her a selfish whore who had forgotten where she came from, but Mum didn’t care. Why was she expected to kill herself for him when he refused to support her years ago? Was it her fault he fathered more children than he could handle?”
“You see?” said Remi. “What happened in the 60’s still happens to this day. There’s this guy who chopped off his underaged wife’s legs to prevent her from running away, and she died from the infection. They say it’s tradition, but why should tradition physically disable another human being because she has a choice? It’s so sad, I’ve represented a number of victims in court, but we often end up fighting a losing battle because rape cases are still regarded as minor offenses to a certain degree. Some of the girls even refuse to go to court because they fear the repercussions of their attackers. It’s such a shame.”
“And there’s also the financial crisis. Most of our funding comes from generous members of the public, but the government have never contributed one penny towards our organisation,” Sister Charles’s friend added. “Show me the receipt, show me the invoice, and I’ll apologise. We try our best for these girls, we never turn away anyone who comes through our doors, but for how long?”
“We’re thinking of organising a fundraiser and awareness campaign for Cherry Blossoms,” said Remi. “How much we’ll raise that day remains to be seen, but I’m hoping we’ll at least generate enough publicity, and maybe we’ll receive some funding.”
“And we could hold the fundraiser at the MUSON centre…” added Nurse Charles, but Remi cut her short.
“Not sure about that, I thought the MUSON only hosted musical events, and anyway, we don’t have the budget.” she pointed out.
“Yes, but it’s all for publicity, and distinguished members of the public are most likely to attend if we choose a grand venue,” said Nurse Charles’ friend. “But we can’t host it in this cramped building, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll think of something,” Remi answered. “I don’t know how, but we will, I just need to arrange the dates first, then I’ll make the other arrangements, but we will do this, those young ladies futures depend on it. And I’ll work hard to spread the word if it’s the last thing I’ll ever do. Dr. Duru, I trust you’ll help us with that?”
I had nothing but immense respect and admiration for Remi Olusegun, a woman standing up for oppressed women under her wing. Organisations like hers hadn’t existed during my own time, and with sexual violence on the increase, this charity needed support in order to get justice for Mirabel and others like her. My schedule at New Aggrey didn’t allow much flexibility, but from that moment I knew I had to get involved one way or another.
“Count me in,” I smiled.
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