It started when she claimed me as her ‘Dear’ from among the entire first year class. I was excited. Her reputation preceded her. I knew who she was because all the lower formers had been talking about Sister Avery. She was tall, standing at 6’2” a head and half taller than most of her classmates, and weighed in at about 250 lbs when most of her classmates were a 110-160 lbs.
To say Sister Avery was fat was to tell a half truth. Her weight and height evened out enough so that she was still shapely and curvy in all the places I wished I was. She was in her 7th year, about to sit for her A-Levels. She was reading BioChem and planned to go to Medical School to be a pediatrician. Today as she spoke to me all I could think of was how her gargantuan figure would look next to infants and toddlers.
“H3r, you dis small girl I hear you are pitsir pitsir.” She wagged a finger in my direction, albeit playfully.
“Oh Sister Avery, where did you hear that I was prissy?” I asked in my usual coy tone that had most of the seniors falling for me.
The competition was stiff with everyone waiting for the verdicts to come in. Who would have who for a Dear (Sweetheart) and which senior girl would collect the most amount of sweethearts from the incoming class of newbies.
“So! Will you be my Dear or what?” Sister Avery said as she handed me a present nicely wrapped in shiny, crinkly paper.
Just wait till I showed this one to the girls in my dorm. I had amassed quite the stash of gifts even though Homo’s Night was still a week away and the first years had only been on campus for three weeks.
“Oh Sister Avery,” I smiled shyly. “This is beautiful, but you know you don’t have to give me a gift before asking. Of course I will be your Dear.”
“You don’t want to open it first?” She smiled knowingly.
“I want to savor it later, after Prep.”
“Well ok then. Come and give me a peck.”
I rose steadily from my seat and joined her on the bed. I leaned in closer and gave her a quick kiss on her right cheek. This was getting risky. How many of these pecks was I allowed to give out before I brewed jealously? Did they count for a sin?
“Now go before you are late for Prep and the prefect punishes you. Being my Dear comes with privileges but you must not abuse them.” She winked at me.
I walked out of her cubicle knowing the path had been carved out for me and I would need to fulfill its requirements. My excitement had dulled by the time I arrived at my dorm room. The realization that I had accepted another proposal gave me pause. So far I’d been asked by four Upper 7 and two Lower 6 seniors and I’d said yes to four. Two of whom were prefects and thus had been hard to say no to. Then there was the one whom I adored the ground she walked on and would have flung myself at her knees even if she hadn’t asked me.
The two rejections had been easy. They were best friends with the two prefects who asked. And they respected each other too much to share a Dear. Plus the prefects asked first. Also, I thought wistfully, being Dears with prefects came with privileges. This last one though, Sister Avery, she was the boss of everyone even though she was not a prefect. She commanded so much respect, and a good measure of fear, in the hearts of the some of the lower forms. How could anyone say no? I wondered how many Dears she had already. Probably a couple in each class year.
So four Dears. And we still had a week left of proposals season. This meant there could be more coming my way, and from the rumour mill, I knew there’d be, at the very least, one more. I had a fairly good idea who she was. Sister Neida.
Could I handle five?
As a student reading BioChem and Physics, my workload was already more than I could handle. Having Dears required commitment to building the relationships. Key of these commitments was letter-writing. Some Dears only communicated by letters which were usually written during Prep time and delivered at differing times during the day, usually by students of the lower forms. Writing letters to five Dears would take up an hour of my four-hour study time. This was not a very efficient use of my this period. I shrugged as I walked into Adom House.
“Ei! Gy3ma enya sweetheart kor so aka ho 3?” Wynie screeched as I stepped into the dorm doorway.
I smiled broadly as I nodded yes to her question. She jumped down off her top bunk and walked towards me. She quickly snatched the present from my hands before I could protest.
“Let’s see what you got this time.” She unwrapped it hurriedly, handing me the pretty crinkly wrapper.
“Eish! As for this one, I beg.” She gave me a devious look. I think I know who this is from. You don’t have to tell me.” She grinned widely and searched my face. I turned away.
The whole orchestration played out with utmost secrecy. Once you’d been asked, and you acquiesced, you were not supposed to reveal who you had accepted until Homo’s Night when we had a formal exchange of gifts. Of course people did not always play fair.
“Do you want to see your present? Or are you too busy hiding your facial expression from me?”
I whipped around quickly and snatched it from her. I walked to my bunk and hopped onto my bed. She hopped up beside me.
I turned the book over and gasped as I saw the shiny and embossed front cover of the latest book in the Cutler series by V.C. Andrews: Darkest Hour.
Sister Avery must have done her research or at least talked to my dorm mates. I glanced at Wynie to see if she’d betray Sister Avery’s snooping. She was too busy licking her fingers, slowly melting the piece of chocolate she had popped into her mouth, waiting for the fruit-filled center to reveal itself. I hadn’t even realized Sis Avery had included a box of chocolates. Hmm…had Sis Avery talked to Wynie? I knew I’d get answers in her sleep. Wynie was the best sleep-talker I’d met in my seventeen years. You could count on her to give you a play-by-play of her entire subconscious once she rolled into REM cycle. I just had to channel patience until bedtime.
I opened my locker and placed the book on the top shelf, next to my Fa spray, Jean Nate splash, and Midnight Musk powder. I’d need to write Sister Avery a really long note during Prep tonight. I couldn’t wait to read Darkest Hour, but that would have to be postponed until Saturday during Visitation time. I knew I wouldn’t be receiving visitors this weekend so I’d have some free time.
I could almost dance with excitement! I clicked the padlock on my locker and turned to face Wynie.
“Shouldn’t we go and..?”
“I’m going to find Ama Serwa.” I said and snatched the box of chocolates from her before she could complete her sentence. Ama was my first love. She had barely noticed my existence for most of grade school, but that hadn’t stopped me from showing her all my affection. See, I have loved her since Class Five but she was the popular girl in Primary and JSS and I didn’t run in her circles. I doted on her whenever she gave me the chance. I made her care packages whenever mom sent me a DHL parcel.
Ama Serwa was my first love. I had always admired her but in Class 5, in Mrs. Agbenyaga’s class, during Social Studies, Ama Serwa who had never given me a second glance, defended me when Nana Sei called me a piranha for the nth time. They were making mocking faces sucking in their lower lips and forcing their teeth to stick out. The boys in Class 5 were notorious for always starting trouble and functioned in a pack mentality, with Nana Sei as their leader. Just about anyone on campus knew who was in the pack, and they were often behind most of the mischief in the school. If Ama Serwa hadn’t shut him down he and the boys would have formed a ring around my desk chanting piranha until the teacher came in and disbanded them. From that day on I felt indebted to her and my admiration grew into puppydog love into obsession.
I followed her around everywhere but stayed on the periphery of her social circle because her friends were even more snobbier than she was. Her social circle was mostly made up of those who had Ghanaian parents but had been born and raised abroad, those who were “half-caste” (mixed heritage), and those who spent every vacation abroad and returned each trimester with a British or American accent. Every now and then this other girl, Mary, would join them; when they invited her, she always assumed her well-honed “lafa” (locally acquired foreign accent). Mary used to slip me tidbits about Ama Serwa after she’d been invited to an exclusive party or sleepover.
To say I worshipped Ama Serwa was not completely off base. I jumped to help her carry her book bag when it seemed laden with extra books. I let her rest her tired feet on my lap so I could stare at her polish and her beautiful feet. The latter was true dedication because everyone who knows me knows I hate the sight of bare feet. When my mother, who was abroad in America, sent me DHL packages, I would carefully select the best of the package and create an offering worthy of Ama Serwa: Smarties, Skittles, Cadbury, Wrigleys, and at Easter, those beloved Peeps which were a typical American delight made of marshmallows. My sister would always try to convince me not to split the Peeps three-ways. “That girl doesn’t even know you exist!” She mocked me. Undeterred I pressed on in my devotion and with it the need to infinitely impress her. I wrote letters and poems and short stories to her after my homework was done. Telling her some of my deepest thoughts, fears, and yearnings. She was the first person I confided in about what my uncle thrice removed had done to me when I was 7.
Up until Class 7 Ama Serwa had still not bequeathed me with any of those dazzling smiles she reserved for the Alpha Males, or one of her tinkling signature laughs she shared with her posse. According to Mary, she rarely mentioned my name except to say something like how I had almost tripped her while trying to get her books . Mary said sometimes Ama Serwa read my letters out loud to the posse when they had their famed sleepovers and they all laughed. She was jealous, I convinced myself. Ama Serwa wouldn’t be so callous. I was determined that one day Ama Serwa would claim me as her best friend and we’d share secrets that no one else knew. Just me and her. In the meantime I’d show her what she was missing by being the best friend ever!
Our class year was the second batch of students to enter into the new education system called Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary instead of the British O & A Levels system. An exam in class 6 qualified you for JS1-3, at which point another exam would qualify you for SS1-3 and then another one for university. The British system featured an exam in Class 7 that got you into Form 1 -Form 5 (O-Levels) with an exam to qualify you for Lower & Upper 6; This exam (A-Levels) got you into university. In JS 1 Ama Serwa suddenly found herself without her usual posse because most of them had escaped this new system by taking exams outside the school that would enable them to attend schools that still participated in the O & A Levels. Some had rejoined their British or American-based families and were attending high schools there. This was my chance.
I reinforced my attempts to create a new posse of just the two of us. It took almost all three years to get those smiles and laughs but it was worth it. When it came time to sit for our exam in JS 3, I knew without a doubt that I would pick the same schools Ama Serwa picked for SS 1. Luckily for me our grades were pretty well matched so I got into all my top schools as did she. I picked St. Perpetua of Good Succor only after she had confirmed her enrollment. I didn’t want to risk not being in the same school as her. My grandmother was furious that I waited so long to send in my acceptance letter, but she was happy when I told her Ama Serwa was also enrolling in the same school. “She’ll be a good influence for you. I hope she can talk some sense into you to give up this creative writing business and focus on the Sciences.” I smiled sweetly for her all the while thinking of other things. “I’m sure!”
When I burst through the doors of Ama’s dorm room, her bunk mate said she was in the Bath House. I looked at my watch and gasped in disbelief. I couldn’t possibly have spent that much time in Sis Avery’s room! It was almost time for supper and I didn’t have enough time to get in a shower before that. If I did, I would risk being late and be punished. Even though I had Dears in upper forms, I was still expected to set a good example. Other upper formers who had no Dears sometimes took delight in punishing “pitsir pitsir” lower formers like myself. Judging that showering before supper was not an option, I rushed back to my dorm, stashed the chocolates and went to freshen up at the common sink.
“Heeer, akola, where have you been? 3b3 y3 ma hen ay3 late!” Wynie’s voice came up behind me as I dried my face and neck with my towel.
“Eiii P.O.D!” Wynie commented after I hung up my towel.
“Polish on Dirt” was basically the description for girls who didn’t take the strongly recommended evening shower. In an equator country, in a dorm room with fourteen, sixteen year olds, a second shower was almost mandated for the general wellbeing of the entire dorm. Body odor issues were alive and well. Some girls had already gained the reputation of always being P.O.D because they were too lazy or too uppity to shower in the Bath House.
The Bath House was a large open windowed building with four rows of shower stalls with no doors. The water probably flowed through the taps maybe three times in the entirety of my time there. The Bath House was the bane of my existence the three years that I spent at Saint Perpetua of Good Faith (St. Pet for short).
The morning after Grandmother dropped me off to begin my boarding school career, I woke to the clanging of metal buckets as second formers, now senior to us, fetched water for themselves and their respective Dears. Soon even these second formers would stake their claim on some of us and have us doing their manual labors. That morning, after the second formers got their water, we got ours and traipsed behind them on our way to the famed Bath House. My shock and confusion must have been plastered all over my face because a second former smacked me on the butt and made me jump. When I started breathing again, I became overwhelmed.
There were female bodies everywhere.
These bodies were in various stages of nakedness and undressing. There were skinny and flat-chested ones like myself with butts that always caused a commotion and there were round with rolls of fat tissue. I was mesmerized. I grew up in a strict and very devout Roman Catholic home and we barely even looked at our own bodies in the mirror, let alone another’s. I tried to navigate my way into a shower stall and used my brand new towel as a shower curtain hoping to goodness it wouldn’t drop. I tried to soap up my sponge with a little bit of water from my rinsing pail and gingerly avoid making contact.
“Agbenyiagbor!” A senior yelled out my last name. I jumped, dropping my new bar of Geisha soap. Legend had it, one never leaned over to pick up things. You just got a new one. Not for the same reason as folks did in prisons, but rather due to the amount of bodily fluid and filth that coated the Terazzo floors and collected in the gutters that run alongside each row of stalls. Those first few days I dropped many a bar of soap because I was generally an anxious child and most seniors chose my shower time to either demand that I move their buckets or scrub their backs.
The first supper bell rang, pulling me out of that unpleasant reverie. By second term, I had gotten the bathroom protocol under wraps, but even now when I thought of those first weeks or whenever it’s was my dorm’s turn to scrub the floors, I shuddered. Second supper bell clanged. I grabbed Wynie by the elbow and ran out towards the dining hall. She was leading prayer and I was serving our section tonight. Anyone who arrived after the third bell was locked out until after Grace was said and the first round of meals had been served. I stood in my assigned place and watched Wynie go up to the front of the room. I closed one eye and winked at her with the other.
Where was Ama Serwa? Probably still putting the finishing touches on her make-up. She was forever running behind. She came careening through the door just as the last bell rang and the prefect went to lock the door. I beamed at her. Often, I wished I sat at her table. I would have loved to tell her about my latest acquisitions and share the promise of chocolate.
“Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts…” Wynie intoned. She always prayed with such a face, I had to avoid looking at her.
“Amen!” We all chimed in. We were having “Red-Red”; I prayed there’d be more beans than stones. The kitchen staff rarely had enough time to sort the beans. We were forever presenting petitions airing our grievances to the Head Cook, Mrs. Amanyaga. After receiving one of these she would appear miraculously in each of the four dining halls and give us a lecture about getting what we paid for. We were overdue for one of those lectures. I hoped tonight would not be the night. I prayed that we could eat and say closing Thanks as fast as possible so I could talk to Ama Serwa.
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe is a trans-disciplinary artist who dabbles in African dance, African cooking and nonfiction writing. Kuukua is proud to be an African woman and a politically queer woman of color. She is the author of several essays and prose poems. Some of which have been anthologized in: Writing Fire, African Women Writing Resistance, Becoming Bi: Bisexual Voices from Around the World, and Inside Your Ear (Oakland Public Library Press). Her essay, “The Audacity to Remain Single: Single Black Women in the Black Church,” is anthologized in Queer Religion II (Praeger Publishers). Her scholarly and writing interests lie at the intersection of race and skin color, African culture, Black women’s bodies, expression of voice, and non-conformance and performativity.
She has her hands in three projects currently: The Coal Pot, a Culinary Memoir celebrating her Ghanaian roots, Musings of an African Woman, her blog that features a collection of personal essays about Black women, social situations, mental health, immigration and assimilation, and a short story collection for the MFA thesis. She blogs at: ewurabasempe.wordpress.com and is a contributing blogger at: Queermentalhealth.org