I liked the Ogunjimi’s. Not only were they my next door neighbours – they were very accommodating. Back in those days I must have really been a pain. I had questions for everything and complaints about the food, the language, the mosquitoes yet they were very patient and seemed to do all they could to convince me that Nigeria was a wonderful country.
Like most of the staff that lived on the campus, they grew their own vegetables and fruits. Most of them seemed to be more interested in cultivating tomatoes, okra, peppers, spinach and cocoyam than growing hibiscus, bouganivea or any of the flowers. The Headmaster however, was an avid gardener and could often by seen in the mornings and late afternoons tending his plants in front of his quarters, a medium sized bungalow, two streets away from the Corpers home.
The Ogunjimi’s also kept some chickens, which of course came in handy for the eggs and for the meat at Christmas or birthdays. There were seven of chickens and the girls took turns to feed them with grains of rice, corn or any leftover bits of food. These creatures had the run of the compound. I would often see them majestically stepping around the house clawing and pecking at some poor worm.
Sometimes people would identify their chickens by attaching bright pieces of cloth to their legs. This was to avoid the trouble that could result from someone appropriating a neighbours chicken for their evening meal.
I was on my way back from classes when I saw Mrs Ogunjimi searching for something amongst the bushes in front of her house.
“Afternoon o. “She continued her frantic search.
“What are you looking for? “ I was at the gate to my house now.
She shook her head. “One of my chickens has gone missing.”
So I joined her in the search. We looked in the shed behind the house where the family kept their bicycles and old boxes of coke bottles, clothes and household utensils. We looked in the backyards of the adjoining teacher’s houses and down the road that led to the Boarding houses. The search went on till we were both tired.
“Mr O will not be happy.”
It amazed me how the woman would constantly refer to her husband as ‘Mr O’ but worked for them.
“Maybe it just wandered off.”
Her voice was cold. “Chickens do not just wander off from their group. Something has happened to it. I know it. Maybe it’s that Mrs Nwobisi. It’s the kind of thing that she can do. You know how these people are.”
I had no idea of the tribalism that existed on campus and by this time I was tired, hungry and hot. Yoruba’s had views on Ibos and Ibos had views on Yoruba’s. Someone had told me this was a country of over three hundred languages and dialects. I guessed that there must be many views flying around.
I thought nothing of it until the next day when I witnessed my first fight. Well, I had seen people fighting on the road, and in the market where I brought my weekly provisions of soap, oil, Gari, Rice and the rest. Just not on the school premises.
These two women were rolling on the floor, pulling at each other hair and screaming obscenities at each other first in their individual languages, then in Pidgin English. There was a crowd gathering – a couple of houseboys, some students and one male teacher who was trying unsuccessfully to separate them.
I caught sight of the first woman and realised to my dismay that it was my friendly neighbour Mrs Ogunjimi and the woman she was pummelling in the face was the neighbour across the road – Mrs Nwobisi.
Stupid woman. She screamed as they both jumped to their feet.
Your mothers mother is stupid. The other woman replied aiming a kick which dislodged her wrapper and revealed the fact that she was wearing a pair of jeans shorts underneath.
I was incredulous. Someone laughed.
Mrs Ogunjimi flexed her muscles and crouched down.” I have come prepared for you today.”
They went for each other again and almost broke Mr James’s glasses as he tried to pull them apart.
He tried to appeal to them. “Madam. This is not befitting of you. Mrs Nwobisi. What is all this? Think of what your husbands will say if they see you like this. Or your children?”
“This foolish woman accused me of stealing her chicken!”
“I know she stole the chicken.”
“Why would I steal your chickens – I have my own chickens?”
Mrs Ogunjimi laughed. “You call those dried up specimens of flesh and bone – chickens? I wouldn’t eat them if you paid me.”
Mr James tried to speak. “ Madam. There is no reason why Mrs Nwobisi would take one of your chickens.”
Mrs Nwobisi was indignant.” Yesterday I had nine chickens. I prepared one for the soup- pot. I am supposed to have eight left but I only have seven.”
Mrs Ogunjimi shrugged.” Do you think I have time to be counting your scrawny chickens? I don’t care whether you have eight or eighty. Why were you killing a chicken in the night and depositing the feathers like a thief in the night….”
“Eh. So you are monitoring my dustbin now? I am sorry for your husband. He does not know that you are a mad woman.”
“You are the mad woman!”
“All your family is mad.”
“Eh? You dare abuse my family.!” She lunged again and tried to slap Mrs Nwobisi who being younger, deftly avoided it and managed to push her on the floor, then sit on her.
“Yes. Your mother and your father. That is if you know who he is?”
At this point a man joined us. The crowd parted and he stood towering over the women. His eyes were red.
“What is all this?”
We all looked at Mr Nwobisi.
“Your wife stole my chicken.”
“I have not got time for this. “ He said coldly.
He signalled to his wife who reluctantly relinquished her hold over Mrs Ogunjimi who in turn aimed another kick at her shins.
Mr Nwobisi pulled his wife away. “You can’t just go around accusing people like that without proof. Do you think we are so wretched that we can’t afford chickens?”
Mrs Ogunjimi hissed in contempt. “I don’t know what you people are capable of.”
“I cannot be standing here arguing with a mere woman over something as basic as a chicken. I will be discussing this with your husband when he returns.” With that he walked off with a comforting hand around his wife’s shoulder.
Mrs Ogunjimi hissed in contempt. “Do whatever you like. Go and call the whole police force if you like. I know what I know and I know that she stole one of my chickens.”
I went over and tried to encourage her to go back into the house, which she did reluctantly. Later on when she had calmed down I asked her why she was so sure that it had been Mrs Nwobisi that had stolen her chicken.
“They ate chicken yesterday. There was no celebration or party. People just don’t kill a chicken if there is no reason. She stole the chicken early in the morning and thought I would not know but my mother did not give birth to a fool. I know that it was her.”
“I don’t think that what you have told me points to her stealing the chicken.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
That was the end of the conversation. I never did get to know how Mr Ogunjimi felt about the incident and I cant say I gave it too much attention, but when I was going to school the next morning I saw seven chickens scratching for food in front of their garden.
I had never seen anything like it before.
Their feathers had been dyed a bright bubblegum pink. I guess this was Mrs Ogunjimi’s way of branding her chickens. I heard some of the students laughing as the chickens walked majestically behind their mother as she made her way across the road.
A few days later it was Environmental day where everyone had to tidy up their surroundings. I was asked to inspect the grounds behind the Boys hostel, not usually a very pleasant place to be with mounds of rubbish – empty bottles of soft drinks, cartons, bottles, newspapers, food wrappings. Today everywhere had been swept clean and the refuse left in a heap at the end of the compound.
That was when I saw it.
A little mountain of pink feathers concealed under the rubbish. It dawned on me that I was probably looking at the mortal remains of Mrs Ogunijimi’s missing chicken.
This was an issue of common sense and not a case for Miss Marple. The facts were clear – Boys Hostel near the scene of the crime. Suspects – Two hundred boys who were usually hungry anyway – having to contend for the meagre and really bad food served in the canteen. Tempted by the chickens being fattened up under their noses. It was a crime begging to happen.
Now the deed had been done and another accused of it. The only evidence – a bunch of pink withered feathers buried in a shallow grave behind the Boys Hostel.
I thought of telling Mrs Ogunjimi so that she could apologise to Mrs Nwobisi then decided against it, realising that would just cause more trouble between them.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that dyeing the chickens pink was no deterrent to hungry teenagers and that the other surviving chickens ran the risk of facing the same fate eventually.