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Personal Essays

A Childhood Epiphany

by MICHAEL CHIEDOZIEM CHUKWUDERA

FOR A MOMENT, the two girls before us, Rose and Chioma, stood stranded. We were about thirty pupils in our Primary 1 classroom. We were in the English Language class, and our teacher, Mr. Ahmed Sule, sat facing us. Rose and Chioma struggled to read a comprehension passage about two girls who were going to visit their grandmother. The first girl seemed helpless; the second was able to pronounce some words but she got stuck too. None of us was able to help them until I stood up suddenly and began to read like one propelled by a force.

I remember reading the words “They were going to see their grandmother.” I may not recall the sentence verbatim, but I recall recognising how the alphabets combined to form the word, “grandmother.” And it was at that moment I realised I had learnt how to read. I stopped in my tracks, surprised at what had just happened. At this, Mr. Sule asked Rose and Chioma to their seats. And to me, he said, “Michael, go and read for us.” I stepped in front, standing before the class, and read the passage.

It was as though a ray of light had shone in my mind and illuminated in it all the secrets of the art of reading which previously lay hidden like objects in a dark room. Each time I have remembered that moment, I always see myself sitting in that classroom, a stream of light pouring on my head from the ceiling, and a force propelling me to take a new look at my English reader, after which I saw the alphabets combine to form words. Now looking back, I find that it was the moment in my childhood where the door opened and let the future in.

From the previous school year, we had begun using Queen Primers and English readers with the popular characters, Ali and Simbi. These books had the activities of characters described in simple words and short sentences and were supposed to teach us to read. I recall throughout the three years in my nursery school, that I was very good at memorising poems. I also remember reciting, with the rest of my classmates, “I go up, we go up” after our teacher, who wrote the words out on the blackboard. But I was a child lost in my imagination, more intrigued by words, as I heard them, and the images on the pages of my colourful reader—of Ali cutting grasses and Simbi skipping—than the combination of alphabets to form words. Perhaps, it was the same with many of my classmates. So what we engaged in at the time was that on the first day of each new passage, the teacher read the passage before us as we trained our ears to grasp the passage only in narration, after it was read to us a few times. But the following year, our new teacher Mr. Sule decided that children in their fourth year of school should be able to read without first being read to, to parrot later. It was problematic to most of us, including me. For this reason, I have always remembered that moment when I discovered I could read as a moment of epiphany. Up until that moment, I had no consciousness of ever knowing how to pronounce anything, let alone, read.

I arrived home that day to my mother cooking in the kitchen. Entering our house through the passage, I stopped at the kitchen door. “Good afternoon, ma,” I greeted her. Smiling at me as she always did in those days, she answered, “I see you, my child. Welcome.” “Mommy, I can read,” I said, like one who had just discovered a treasure cove in a barren and hopeless, rocky landscape. The memory of how she reacted is now fuzzy to me.  But it must have been an eager and exciting reaction, because from that evening, through the following months, she would become the person through whose keen interest in this novel journey, I exercised the powers of my newly-found revelation and tried to do things with it. In her shop that evening I remember telling her, “Tell me to spell anything and I will spell it.” And as she called word after word, I spelt it all correctly. The only mistake was me spelling her baptismal name Jacinta as Jecinta. Afterwards, I became fascinated with the art of pronouncing, reading, and making meaning out of words.

Learning to read opened a new portal for me to see the world and the various information encoded in written words. I remember how it struck me when I kept seeing “Keep out of the reach of children” on the medicine bottles mother sold in her shop, and thinking: Oh! This is why they don’t allow us to play with these medicines, even the sweet ones! On the wall of her shop also hung a red, attractive packet I thought was a kind of candy, though I hadn’t really seen its content. But when I looked at it, having learnt to read, I saw the name “condoms” written beneath a stylised Gold Circle. It was like a discovery. This was a precursor to one of my foremost childhood curiosities. I remember coming to the realisation that the condom people on the radio kept talking about as a means of preventing HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancy had been very close to me all the while and I never knew. I also remember deciding, within myself, that I was going to take time to discover what this condom looked like.

The discovery of my love for stories began from here too. I began to read my English readers and I found that the parts I enjoyed best were the stories in the comprehension passages. I read the Jehovah’s Witness Book of Bible Stories. I would read to my classmates in school and to my mother at home. I read almost anything I saw anywhere—the words on TV, words on banners, the church bulletin, words on the doors of every typical Nigerian Christian family, “2002, My Year of Divine Abundance,” “This House Is Covered With The Blood of Jesus,” “I Am A Covenant Child,” and many others. The spectacular thing about reading these words was not just that I read them, but in the process of trying to read them, I deciphered some of the words which I had always heard but was seeing for the first time since I learnt to read.

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Not very long after, we did letter writing in school and I became fascinated by the concept of letters. When I returned home, I told my mother I wanted to write letters to my relatives scattered all over the east, the west, and midwest of the country. Mother welcomed the idea and encouraged me. First, I wrote letters to my father, to my aunts, and uncles. I would begin writing either on the table or sprawled on the floor. Then at some point, like a writer faced with writer’s block, I wouldn’t know what to say to whoever I was writing to. I would read what I had written to my mother and she would, like my muse, tell me more things to write and I would put them down. And I spent the following months writing letters which I could not send to my relatives because I did not know the way to the post office or how to get the stamps with which to post the letters. I remember longing for a time to go to a post office or even to know how to get stamps. In hindsight, objects like stamps appear to have been like antiques from a fairytale to that child I was, who never got to lay hands on them, especially the ones I could use. I often wonder how excited the six-year-old me would be if I were to send a stamp eighteen years across through a time machine to him, or how excited he might be to go to the post office.

Knowing how to read followed a spectacular improvement in my academic performance. I quickly moved up the ladder in class. I remember beginning, around this time, to articulate complex thoughts in my head. I could understand deep things about human motives. I thought I understood the world so deeply. And I had a calm certainty within myself that with this newfound great understanding, someday, I would conquer the world.

In the years leading up to this time, my mind and my body have been home to many passions, most of which come and go. Firstly, I wanted to be a physician; then an engineer, then a footballer, then a rap artiste, and a physician again. But I will most probably never come to be any of these. They all had their tenures in my mind when I desired them and they motivated me. But they were knocked out, one after another, either by a realisation that I wasn’t talented enough in one or interested enough in the other. Presently, I live an adult life where most of my childhood passions are absent. My love for reading seems to be the most enduring of all my passions because it has stayed with me to adulthood despite the numerous heartbreaks and loss of dreams I have seen going through life. In hindsight, it seems almost every other passion cultivated the passion for reading, even my passion for being a footballer, which made me want to read the stories in every sports paper my father bought at the time. It was about the stories in everything. Then on some days, my father would talk to me about the African novels he had read from the Heinemann African Writers Series, Longman, and Pacesetters, and he would teach us morals from events in the stories. And so, I was brought up to see stories as more than just narratives of people moving around doing interesting things. But also, as a conscientious tool to understand the way the world worked. And how wonderful it is, when at some point, I read some books and find in them, a spectacular thought which I had formed in my mind, but which I had no one to share with. How amazing it is, to find that one is destined to go through life with books as his best companion.

My life has not been the rollercoaster I thought it would be in my childhood. I have failed at a lot of things and most importantly, my life has fallen apart before my very own eyes as I watched helplessly. In the process, a lot of my passions and desires, like disloyal friends, seeped through the pores of my skin when I needed them most to keep me going. Reality has tamed and silenced some passions that could not stay. But the love for reading has remained with me.

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. These words remind me of that moment, more than a dozen and half years ago when I began to read all at once. It feels to me like a miracle to have acquired this superhuman power of reading in that manner, because it showed me how magical a thing reading is, and I believe it aroused in me a certain degree of appreciation of how we humans are blessed in our facility for language. If I had learnt reading gradually, being a person who has a short attention span, its magic would have eluded me.

Many notable people are able to point to a particular moment, often in childhood, when they discovered that which fascinates them about the world. Albert Einstein reflected on the time his father bought him a compass as a child, how he spent time watching the movement of the magnetic needle in its stubborn insistence of pointing northward. James Baldwin reflected on the time a painter friend, Beauford Delaney, made him look more thoughtfully on a layer of oil floating on water—and there he saw the city reflected in the puddle. He reflected on that moment as an anecdote of how his painter friend aided him, as a writer, to see clearly; that there could be, after all, a better way of seeing. Chinua Achebe reflected on growing up in colonial Nigeria and reading stories about colonialists and savages and coming to discover how stories are not really innocent, as a part of his evolution in becoming a writer. There are often many such times in the life of a man striving to make a difference. But there is always a revelation which begins the process, long before one is even aware of it. Every other such event occurs later in one’s life to perpetuate what the pioneer process began. When did you begin to write? When did the world begin to fascinate you? These are common questions often put to artists. For me, I could pinpoint a dozen times when I felt an epiphany. I could point to my first encounter with Kanma’s poem, Pablo Neruda’s poetry, Amu Nnadi’s poetry which I have written on, or my second time reading Achebe’s Arrow of God as an adult. But there is always that moment—mine, in which I have told this story to describe—that moment in childhood, where everything began.◙

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a reader, freelance writer and editor who enjoys good music and going to new places. He writes weekly pieces on culture, literature and music for Afrocritik. His works have appeared in Jalada Africa, Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, Praxis, African Writer and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter@ChukwuderaEdozi