In which Anon reminisces on the funeral of a teacher
There he lay, inert, in a cream-coloured casket on a three-foot trolley, alone between the officiating bishop and the congregation of a church where he was an elder for twenty years. He was a teacher, known by all in the entire town of A.
Ringed by verdant rolling hills from which children raided mango trees by day and adults searched for snails with oil lamps by night, the town’s idyllic setting is now giving way to modernity here and there: communications masts stand like giants over dwarfish buildings; there are three banks and a dozen schools; two markets keep the town abuzz; there is a general hospital, a police station and a post office.
The main street, splitting the town into two unequal halves, is now broader and smoother, complete with street lights, thus giving a formerly narrow, pot-holed thoroughfare – from where goats and sheep lay, chewed the curd and shit – a modern look.
There is a spacious town hall where, on weekends, four-wheel rides compete for parking space with smarter Toyotas and BMWs. With almost equal numbers of Christian and Muslim population, there are as many churches and mosques scattered around.
It was in this town that the teacher earned his fame and respect, respected as a redoubtable scholar and instructor. Educated adults who knew him well compared him to the village schoolmaster in Oliver Goldsmith’s hero in a poem of the same name, “a man skill’d to rule/ The village master taught his little school;/ A man severe he was, and stern to view…still the wonder grew,/ That one small head could carry all he knew.”
It was said by those who witnessed it that many years ago in the missionary school he attended then in the Western region, his English literature teacher, a Scotsman, made him recite stanzas of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” before the general assembly. In khaki shorts and barefooted, he stood before the students and teachers and rendered a good deal of the stanzas off the cuff, to great applause. From that day, the students prefixed his surname with the second name of the poem.
Students he taught agreed he was much more. They received his stories and improvised songs not with “counterfeited glee” but with genuine childlike amusement and curiosity.
“You can live in London in Nigeria,” the teacher used to admonish them, apparently parodying one of his foreign instructors in the missionary school in the fifties. Nobody knew what he meant by that but others taught he referred to the acquisition of English education and manners he himself spoke well of.
Months before his demise one day in July some years ago, he had been pretty much alone, abandoned by his three wives and nearly two dozen children. It was as if nobody wanted to have anything to do with him in his twilight years. And even when he died, it was said he was alone in bed.
As the story was told, the teacher was partly responsible for his abandonment in later life. There was no love lost between his mother and his first wife, a comely woman who became a teacher like him. So, a second, a washer man’s daughter, was arranged only months after his first marriage. The first two sons that came were separated by only ten months, an age gap shared almost consistently between his other sixteen children.
As the children came, the gulf between his spouses widened, and extended to the children. A flawless result from school of the children of one, for instance, brought out the sourness in the mother of the other, and vice versa. There was never any physical confrontation between the mothers and between the children. But almost everyone knew of the raging rivalries beneath the surface calm in the teacher’s house, except the teacher himself.
By the time of his death, he was still as estranged from his wives as he was distanced from his children.
Now in church for his funeral, the entire town filled the pews, children, old men and women. Even the village idiot showed up, wearing a new cap, all of them present to wish the teacher the final goodbye.
His first wife sat in the front row, her visage a bolus of anguish. Her slightly puffy face and rheumy eyes said it all, a woman in profound distress for the loss of a dear partner, a husband she tortured with calculated feminine silences even though they lived under the same roof.
The second wife sat to her right, an illiterate small-scale trader. She was her husband’s favourite, a privilege extended to her 12 children. In white mourning dress – buba and wrapper with a matching head-tie thrown carelessly over her head, her children seating a row to her left did not notice that she held the programme for the burial upside down.
More than a dozen choristers (teenage boys and girls) with their dog-eared hymnals sat to the dead man’s left, though he had no knowledge of this. They wore crumpled white and purple gowns, complete with tasseled matching caps. A smallish, lugubrious organist in rimmed glasses looked up to a faded score spread on his mahogany instrument.
Robed and bespectacled, a paunchy priest said the funeral orations from the pulpit, spreading his hands over the congregation now and then, intoned a brief bio of the deceased and then it was over, after the offertory.
Six pall bearers in white appeared almost like spectral figures from nowhere and pulled the trolley through the aisle to the teacher’s final and permanent hole behind the church, giving credence to the quip that “man is ever filling up holes.”