This originally appeared on misteragyeman.blogspot.com on April 21, 2015.
A coming-of-age tale.
Around the third term of Class Five, thoughts of love begin to circulate. Everything conspires to make things this way. Torsos begin to advertise gender. The weather grows moist and sentimental. The realization dawns upon the pupil that Class Six is just an exam away- and then JSS! And then university, and taxes, and feeding bottles and diapers! The world suddenly looms before the eyes; life becomes real and earnest.
This fever affects girls more than boys. Before, they only raise their plastic children and cook their inedible foods in play. Now, the real thing beckons. Casting off the childishness of Frytol bottle seal-rings and Disney stickers, they begin looking for a worthy companion.
It’s hard for the ladies though. They have known the boys since nursery, in all likelihood. They have seen their Scooby-Doo underwear and smelled their exhaust fumes. Often-times they may have lent pens to the pimpled freaks which were returned with bite marks and a troubling smell. For the young male, the realities of life will strike three years later, just when he should be girding up his loins against the Great Examination. Such is life.
But there are always newcomers, those wonderful unknown angels. And into such a situation came Bobo.
Bobo was remarkable in many ways. Most importantly, he looked like a man. He wasn’t tall, but he was compactly arranged, with thick arms and thighs that stretched his shorts when he sat, and the discreet promise of a pot belly. He was thick all over- even his ears. His head shape gave him the classic Nkrumah hairline, and his chin was modestly dimpled. He added to the overall effect by wearing church shoes; they were scuffed, but still respectable. He laced them extremely tight. The girls wondered why.
Bobo was oblivious of all the attention. Bobo was oblivious of most things around him. He padded about in his clicking formal shoes, with a whimsical little smile on his face. Time to submit homework? Bobo would sit, gently rubbing the surface of his desk in circular motions, stopping to pass on the ones from behind him. Then the teacher would ask if anyone didn’t submit their book. With the soft smile in place beneath concerned eyes, Bobo would raise his hand and hurry up to explain. His reasons seemed good to him, but he always got lashed anyway. The smile would be replaced for a little while by a nervous licking and biting of lips, and the girls in the class would weep inside. Class exercise? More desk rubbing, then straight on to the whipping and lip biting. And the girls would curse the cruel world. Question asked? Bobo would lean forward politely and stay in that position, placidly playing with his collar, returning the teacher’s expectant gaze. After a bit, the teacher would realize that you can’t have a staring contest if the other party is looking through you. After a few kind words for Bobo, they usually moved on. The girls in the class wished teachers wouldn’t call him Bobo. They called him Bobo, themselves. But then they did it from a place of love. Teachers should call him Livingstone.
At break, they watched Bobo sitting by himself under the nim trees, eating fried plantain. It was always fried plantain, with an occasional egg. He brought it in an Action Man lunchbox that looked ten years old. Why always plantain, the girls wondered. Was it his favourite? Or was it all he could afford? Maybe he had a tree in his yard. Maybe his parents were poor, honest plantain farmers. They had to be poor, anyhow. Bobo never bought anything at school, not even icewater. At Second Break when the other children snacked on Nice biscuits and Yoghurt 100 toffees, Bobo would approach the stalls, remove a handful of coins from his front pocket, carefully count them, look back at the displays, look at the money- and smile his wistful smile, shake his head and trot back. After careful investigation, the girls developed a suspicion that the coins never changed number, and never left his pocket. Instead of snacking, Bobo would sit and watch the boys playing football. He only played if they asked him to. Then he would throw himself into the game- he played Number 6- briskly trotting around, having very little impact. Opponent danced around Bobo, but they did so politely. You couldn’t pay special attention to Bobo. It would feel mean. It’s like with cows. You find yourself working around them.
The girls couldn’t approach Bobo either. Oh, but how they wanted to. Of course, they didn’t mean to marry Bobo- even they had to admit that he was useless. But they wanted to take care of him, just for a bit. Maybe until JSS, when the boys grew up. So they watched and yearned. And then they discovered the drawings, and the yearning intensified.
There is this thing that school children draw sometimes- or they used to, at least. There are many variations, revolving around the basic shape of a heart, and the words ‘Odo Handkerchief’. I’m not sure why they do it. I doubt they know themselves. But ever so often you find a real artist who applies himself to the task, with kente borders and little sentimental background encomiums. Bobo was one of these special ones. He had a great technique- he would smudge the lines of the heart with his thumb, creating a blurred effect.
And he wrote the ‘Odo Handkerchief’ in cursive, with long flowing lines. The drawings didn’t surprise people too much, considering. They did not flatter themselves that they understood this treasure of a boy, so they couldn’t say what was unusual in his context. But the cursive did throw them a bit. They didn’t teach cursive in this particular school, so the girls had to apply themselves extra for this skill. And this boy was cursiving loopy rings around them. It was a delightful heartache.
Even with these revelations, still nobody could find a decent way to invade Bobo’s personal universe. They just watched, and yearned, and suddenly mid-term was here, and the exams were around the corner. And Bobo’s heart was still his alone. The trial grew sore. And then, without warning, Jessica Ampofo got up one day, went to the classroom during break time, and took Bobo’s notebook from under his desk. (The drawings were done on the insides of his notebook covers.) And she held on to it, until she saw him looking for it before the RME teacher came. Then she went up and did a coy little bit about wondering if the book was his, and not being sure because she didn’t know that the rest of his name was Kweku Agyare. Lie! They all knew. The name was on all his books, in the same careful print. But Bobo politely smiled. And she put the book on his desk and accidentally flipped the cover, and gasped in honest surprise to see this beautiful work of art. And she gushed and said wow. And Bobo’s smile broadened. And she said, Did you do this? And Bobo nodded yes with a quiet pride, and she took the book up and stared at the drawing, and stared at Bobo, and back at the drawing, and so forth. And everybody in the class pretended not to notice this little situation, but there was a breathlessness in the air as they watched Bobo’s smile broaden, bit by little bit, into a grin. And when Jessica playfully slapped the back of Bobo’s hand and said, Oh you have to make one for me- the world stopped spinning for just a little bit. And everybody, even the boys, felt a little drained when Bobo grinned and nodded Okay. That Jessica Ampofo. Deceiving Bobo; who ever heard such a thing? The girls busied themselves with scholarly preparations as the slothful RME man came in- much too late. Even as the man droned on about goodness and right, in their hearts they agreed that injustice had prevailed today.
Then came second break. Everybody sort of milled around the door, wondering if Jessica would walk out with Bobo. Of course she did. The girl had no shame. And they watched helplessly as the two headed to the nim trees, Bobo carrying a notebook. And then they watched him trot toward the stalls, and the world stood still again. Even the football game slowed to a halt- Class 5A’s treasure was well known. And the world watched as Bobo drew the eternal handful of coins from his front pocket, carefully counted them, looked at the displays, looked back at the money- looked toward the nim trees, nodded purposefully to himself, trotted up to the seller, and bought two Nice biscuits. And a balloon.
In the memories of some forty people, graduates of Class 5A, this is the crystal moment when ‘Odo Handkerchief’ made sense.
And that is the story of Bobo.
I’m not Bobo.
I do like Nice biscuits.
And fried plantain.
I never drew ‘Odo Handkerchief’.