Friday, January 29, 2010

When Going Nude Was The Way To Go

I do not remember what my reason(s) was/were then but I never told my friends that men in our village, it does not matter what age, wore nothing but loin cloths, like the teen age boy in the above photo. The cloth functioned more as a protection rather than  serve as a cover. Could it be that was I ashamed of my own people or was I just afraid they would be judged by my friends based on what they were taught to believe were the makings of a civilized people? I knew that if Eva had seen this photo then, she would be kneeling in the confessional box the first opportunity she got asking forgiveness for allowing her eyes to look at an indecent photograph and for associating with someone who kept photos of naked men.

Whether I was ashamed or afraid, one thing was sure. I did not know it then but the system was doing a good job educating me away from my own people.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Promise To Tell The World

It was like someone dropped a bomb muting all noise the ears could pick as she sauntered towards the front for her much awaited testimony. Nicola had always complained about the carpet of silence we made her walk on each time we would act like we were going to die if we missed on the surprise she has got waiting for us. She said the quiet always made her feel like she was entering a chapel and needed to fall down on her knees to say a little prayer.

“Ok! I have cast out the spell of silence. Now, you could all go back to your chatty selves.” That was clearly an attempt to get everyone resume twittering. Ordinarily, that “Nicola talk” would have done the trick but except for a few polite laughs, we were all hung on suspense on what show she had brewed for the occasion.

We did not have to wait long.

“Now, Julia, I had prepared something for you but I would not give that to you now as I originally intended.. That would come later. Instead I would give you this set of cutleries I stole from the cutlery collection of Evas’ mom.”

“Eva, you would not need to worry.” She chuckled. “Like my mom, I would bet your mom would never notice anything missing in your house.” I could only guess what her message was behind the cutlery sets but I knew what she meant in her last statement and I could feel her pain. That moment, I thought of my mother and how much I missed her warmth embrace. God! It had been two long years since I last saw her.

“This wouldn’t be because I want you to learn using them, far from it. It would be because you taught us not to fear going out of our comfort zones. You showed us the need to unshackle ourselves from the chains that keeps us from enjoying the fun of living our lives in freedom.” It was a beautiful compliment. I could almost cry. I wanted to tell them, they were the ones who taught me the beauty of living a life of someone really “born free”.

I could not help myself. I embraced Nicola and let my tears roll. She would not know and neither would I at that time, how much influence she would be playing in my life.

“Now stop those tears so I could do my own part!” said Eva chortling. Without wasting time, she fished out a beautiful necklace from her pocket and handed it to me.

“Julia, we have pooled our daily allowance for a week so we could buy you this necklace. We hope that each time you would wear it, you would remember us. We all had our initials engraved inside the heart locket as Julia your name would always be engraved in our hearts.” I closed my eyes. I feel so blessed. This time I did not want to cry. Eva would always tell me how she would shout with joy when she was happy. I wanted to shout with joy and shout with joy I did.

It was my turn. This was to be my testimony but also my farewell speech. After tonight, I may never see them again. The thought sent a stab on my throat.

“I had stayed awake each evening trying to think of one beautiful testimony I would leave behind which would have you thinking of me even when I would be gone. I was glad I did not have to think of material things to give you because you knew too well I could not afford it. That’s the advantage of having rich friends. You would not have to give them material things. They could easily buy those things for themselves.”

There was laughter. I paused to look into each one’s face. They were all brimming with smiles. I smiled back. I wish there were video cameras then to capture that smile. It must be one of the most beautiful smiles I ever wore on my face.

“I had been very fortunate to have had the beautiful experience of having you be part of my life. I was blessed and I just could not think of a great way to thank everybody. I could only offer you a promise. I promise to keep the beautiful spirits that you are, alive in my heart and in my thoughts. You would be alive in the stories I would be telling my friends back home about you. I would tell your stories to every important person that would come into my life. I would tell your stories to anyone who listens. I would tell it to the world. And Eva, because you made a way for this friendship to happen, you deserve a special mention.”

My testimony was met by a stunning silence. Everyone was misty eyed.

“Promise you write a book about it and let us know. I would order a ton ” shouted Betty. That “I would !” I retorted in a jest. Whatever I said next was drowned by a thunderous applause.

The book never came but I delivered my promise and continue to deliver. They had all gone ahead of me now. But wherever they are, I hope they are all cheering for me.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Eva was ringing the bell like she was training for some bell ringing competition. It was the signal for us to finish cleaning up the tell tale signs of our just finished bare hands dining experience. The much awaited event of the night was going to commence.

The bell did wonders I must concede. Everyone was in the hall in no time. Once again, everybody looked charming, clean and coiffed.

Eva looked around. She wanted to make sure everybody was there. All eyes were fixed on her. She got the attention. It was time to start.

“This party is not just about us celebrating what we have just accomplished for ourselves it is also an affair to express our gratitude to those among us who have helped make our struggle to where we are possible.”

Eva paused like she wanted to make sure she had all ears glued to every word she had to say.

She did not have to check. She knew that whenever she opened her mouth everyone hung on to every word she would speak. She wasn’t everyone’s Miss Congeniality for nothing.

She continued.

“Tonight we are going to toast to each one among us who we think deserves our special mention.”

The silence exploded. Shrieks and vigorous applauses thundered on every nook of the room.

“Who would like to start the ball rolling?” Eva asked.

I could see a sea of hands raised. Everyone wanted to take the first shot. My hand was up instantly. I waved it like mad. It was like I was afraid no one would notice I was there and they would just leave me out.

This was the part of the party that played like a broken record in my mind ever since we had it planned some two months back. I had always longed for an occasion to let my heart talk to everyone in the group. I owe it to them. I would not forgive myself if I would let this one chance slip away.

“Me!” I shouted. Eva did not notice me. She called on someone else. I raised my hand again and again and again and again Eva just fleeted her eyes away from me.

“I should not worry. I would have my turn.” I whispered to myself.

A toast after toast ensued mostly for Nicola and Eva. No one forgot to toast to their best friends. I heard the word “ best friend” so many times. “Wow!” I thought. If there would ever be such a thing like a “friendship night”, this was how it should be.

Then it dawned to me. If this was friendship night, why had I not heard anyone mention my name? Why was I not on anyone’s best friend list? Had I deluded myself into believing we had finally bridged the class divide that set me and them apart and we had finally become good friends?

I tried reassuring myself. “The most popular girl in class would not forget you.” I muttered to myself as I threw glance at Eva. I knew in my heart I was on top of her list.

I saw her nod her head as she trained her eyes on the group. She still seemed to think I was not around. A feeling of de javu swept over me. I felt I was being transported back to the time when this very same people treated me like dirt.

“God!” I closed my eyes and prayed. “Eva worked so hard to get us all bridge our differences so we could all be friends. Please Lord, don’t let her work burn to nothing.”

I heard everybody cheering. “Go Rebecca go!”

I opened my eyes. I saw Rebecca walking towards the podium. She carried with her a nicely wrapped box. I wondered what she was up to.

That could not be a gift she was holding. We never talked about gifts when we planned the whole affair unless there was something I missed.

Rebecca looked real pretty. Beautifully pretty. She was what a "modern glam" young woman should look. She exuded a pleasant aura. The once hated witch had really transformed herself.

She was basking on the attention. She took her time. I wondered if it was a skill they had learned from some finishing school. But these girls really know the heart and craft of freezing the attention of people to themselves.

She had all her timing right. Just before anyone started turning impatient, she unwrapped the box very slowly.

A deafening silence ensued. All of us were holding on to our breath. Then like a magician, Betty pulled out what was inside the box.

There was collective sound of “wow!”. It was like some unseen conductor lifted his baton as a sign for everybody to utter just that word all at one time.

Out of the box emerged a beautiful blue satin dress. I had not seen a dress as beautiful like it before. But of course, I did not move in a circle where expensive beautiful dresses were as common as worn out dresses were in my own milieu.

But even this crowd that was so used to seeing a real “ haute couture” still gasped with admiration at what they saw.

Betty began to speak

“I would like to offer this toast to Julia.”

She looked at me while deliberately taking a long pause.

All eyes were on me. My fear was totally unplaced. Their eyes lighted. I was wrong. Only friends could gaze at you in the way they did.

This was not how I expected the events to flow. I was surprised. No, I was not surprised. I was stunned. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not just under hypnotic spell. I was not entranced. It was all true.

Rebecca went on with her speech. “She made me realize a lots of things about myself which I had been ashamed of and which I had been working very hard to change.”

“Oh please! Cut the drama” shouted Sasha, the group’s self appointed joker .

Loud laughter ensued. Betty missed her cue on this one. This was the point, she was suppose to laugh with her audience but she went on with her speech not a bit affected

“ I offer her this dark blue velvet dress. It is not white if you notice” she said. This time looking at everybody with a hint of smile.

“Now, Julia, if anyone would make the mistake of spilling ink into this dress, the splotches would not show."

Nicola. always in her element, interrupted.

“Come on Betty, given the gravity of your offense against Julia, you should have at least asked your mom to buy a real expensive dress in one of her trips to Paris. It should not be one you just asked your nanny to buy from a flea market.’’

The comment was calculated to elicit laughter and everybody laughed except for Betty.

She did the unexpected. She ran towards me. She handed me the dress. She embraced me tightly and started to cry. She did not need to say anything more. She said it all. This time there was no laughing. Everyone tried to hold back their tears but not me.

The witch finally found her way home.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Young Witches On Training

Their laughter was simply symphonic. Never had it crossed my mind that the day would come I would find their laughter musical. It must have been the silly fences they built around themselves that had in the past made their laughter sound like discordant notes which assaulted the senses. Not anymore. They have leaped out of their fences. They had freed the spirit chained within themselves and allowed the harmonious cadence of their laughter to be heard. I wondered when the last time was that they laughed with such joyful content. I had never seen them that happy before. Their laughter was just magical. It was enchanting. It conjured the image of a bird in flight; of a butterfly emerging out of its cocoon. It was a laughter of freedom.
I remembered the times when the sound of their laughter sent chills to my bones each time it strayed into the sanctum of my hearing range. Mother Alma, our catechism teacher, told us about devils laughing each time someone did something evil. If Mother Alma was right and devils did laugh, their laughter I used to hear must have streamed in the same wave.

Their laughter always carried an ominous ring. It foretold of a disaster that was going to strike and always, I was the disaster's moving target. I was its easy prey.

Logic could desert you when pushed to the edge of sanity as logic had deserted me those times. While I prayed for forgiveness to the Lord for wishing evil to people who had done me evil each time I knelt down to pray at night, I had also made a list of people I prayed He would punish for treating me in way I did not deserve. I still could remember a few who made it to that list.

Rebecca topped the list. She did not just make my life disturbed and miserable. She made it hell. I could not believe someone so beautiful outside could be so ugly within. I could write a book on the pranks she played on me but the memory of one that really made me cry stood out. She pretended to be fixing her pen one time and ended up splattering ink all over my white blouse uniform. She laughed. She was amused that I could not hold my tears back.

It was not funny. She knew. They all knew that the nuns only gave me two sets of school uniform. Each night after I finished with my work, I washed the uniform I wore that day to be ready for the day after next. With only one uniform left after the ink disaster, every night, I would have to stay awake till late. I would spend much time fanning my uniform after having it washed trying to get it dry so I would have something to wear the next day.

Regina was also on that list. She was not as evil as Rebecca but almost. One time at school break, she and her friends invited me to the school cafeteria for some snacks. I seldom saw the insides of the cafeteria except when the nuns sent us to have it cleaned when the janitor went on a day-off. Regina told me she was going to give me a treat. My mind told me not to accept the invitation but the naive mountain girl in me insisted I should and I knew why.

Among our people, food was our way of offering friendship. It was our way of making peace. For us, partaking in food with others meant more than just an act of easing our hunger pangs but a covenant of brotherhood; of sisterhood. If you would enter any household back home especially if this was your first time to visit, expect to be offered something to eat. If for some reason you could not eat the food offered you, you would need to explain this to your host and hope he would understand. To simply decline a food offering would be declaring your refusal to be in communion with the person who made the offer. That would be a crime. You would have to understand the full meaning of the act to know why you could not take the offer lightly. Among our people, food is symbolic of life. An invitation from someone to partake in a food is actually an offer to be a part of his life. The act of eating what he offered marked you as his true brother or a sister. If you were a visiting stranger and you eat at someone else's house, you would be surprised how people would be referring to you as this someone's brother or sister and be accorded the due respect. But the world I grew up into was entirely alien to the world of these girls. Regina and her friends would never see food along that light.

The girls loved the cafeteria's chocolate porridge. It was on top of the menu and it was what we ordered. The cafeteria was the serve yourself style. I could hardly take my eyes off the bowl of porridge as I carried it back to my seat. I had to remind myself not to act like one those street kids gawking at the candy bars they saw displayed in the candy store. The smell of the porridge was just lovely. I could hardly wait to taste it.
I did not get the chance. Regina pulled out my chair as I was about to sit. I ended up with a thud on the floor. There I was spread eagle on the floor like a ballerina who missed on her jump. The bowl of porridge spilled all over me. I must have looked like I did a demo on how to bathe in chocolate porridge lying down. Regina tried to offer an excuse saying she only wanted to help me seated which of course was a lie.

Everybody in the canteen found the incident funny. The laughter it invited leaped to millions of decibel. It was not my eardrum that their laughter shattered. It crumbled what took my people years to teach me. Our culture schooled me to always believe in the inherent goodness of people. They could be evil sometimes but you should venture to search for the good that lay hidden within them. That was how enduring relationships are built I was taught. But that moment on, I ceased to believe in the wisdom of such search.

One would think I must have wandered off into a coven of young witches on training and not in the best exclusive school for girls in the country where only the very rich and supposedly well bred girls could have an access if you would look at my list. But I did take pleasure in having that dream, where I was this glamorous witch vigorously stirring the cauldron while I watched Betty begged me to let her out of my boiling potion.
Ah yes Betty! She was the princess of mean. She may not have played pranks on me but she did enjoy throwing me insults. I could not forget how one time, she put spit on her half finished chocolate bar and then offered it to me saying, I should taste it as she was sure I never had sunk my teeth on a Belgian chocolate before. She always elicited laughter of affirmation each time she threw those diatribes on me but that particular stinging insult got the most rancorous reply.

She may not have been on the list but our "me and her story" would deserve a mention. Lourdes exuded that "I could not hurt a fly look" but she had this evil streak lurking within her or she would not have stuck gum on my hair. That was another amusing show for everyone while I tried to take it off.

When Maria, my sister, heard about the gum incident, she rushed to confront Lourdes about it. Lourdes in a coy irritating way told her it was just an accident. That all the more fueled my sister's rage. In an angry voice which reverberated around the campus, she blurted out her "How about if I spank you?" signature remark which cascaded out of her mouth whenever she was really pissed of. That was the signal for Lourdes to unleash her wailing siren which landed her and my sister at Mother Susana's office and earned my sister one day suspension from her class. My sister and I had a good laugh over that incident.

The laughter that found its orchestra and played on beautiful notes was what I kept in my heart. The evil sound that their laughter once held are now only part of my memories' dustbin. I sometimes retrieve it and dust it off when I tell people of my life story but only to let them see by themselves what had been but never should be. Laughter in its pure form could be soothing and healing but when sharpened on its edge, it could inflict a devastating wound. It is a powerful medium of communication exchange. It should be used with care. Laughter does not disguise its message. It would not tell lies. I believe it would be good to ask ourselves whether people hate it when we laugh. Sometimes, they do.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Out Of The Fence

I gazed at the sepia print. It was all faded except for what it stored. I closed my eyes. My senses took the cue. The memories began to take life.
I could hear the crickets chirp like mad. They must be happy the weather was beautiful that night. I felt the cold breeze caress me. I shivered. It was beginning to get cold. Mother Agnes insisted I should wear my sweater. I did grudgingly but as soon as I was out of the convent door, I took it off and hid it behind the hibiscus bush which lined the pathway. I was wearing the dress that my dad bought for me. I did not want my sweater which saw better days to upstage it. I had not worn a new dress for a long time. I wanted to completely delight in the pleasure of wearing one. A car stopped in front of the gate. The driver waved at me. I did not have to worry about the cold any longer. As he had promised to Mother Agnes, Eva’s father sent their family driver to fetch me. 
Almost everyone was there when I arrived. This was Eva’s graduation party. It was an exclusive party just for us, her friends. It would have been a sin for anyone of us to have missed it. As had always been, everyone was looking beautiful. They were all dressed up to the hilt. I would have been surprised if they were not. Either I got numbed from the constant experience of feeling small each time I could only ogle with envy as I see how money could help transform you from looking ordinary to fabulous or I have learned from those experiences how futile it was to moan about things you could not change. Whatever the reason, I no longer felt intimidated. 
The party was really fun. We played games, danced, sang and laughed our hearts out. The clowns and a magician hired to entertain us were a hit. We even had our pictures taken as a group. We were really relishing every minute. We had not even realized how hungry we had become until Eva announced we were moving the party to the garden. It was time to eat. I had seen that garden a number of times but that night it looked different. It was like a fairy land. Beautiful flowers were everywhere. Lights of every imaginable color and shape blinked at every nook. I saw ladies dressed like fairies. It was like a dream. I caught sight of this one very long table enough to seat all of us. Whoever set it up must be one good artist. It was all covered with lovely white laces. The flower arrangements were simply exquisite. The glasswares sparkled and looked so dainty like they were going to disintegrate at a touch. The china which must be pretty expensive exuded beauty and elegance.The cutleries glistened like they were bathed in gold. The thought that I would be using them sent chills into my spine.
The array of mouth watering food were so beautifully laid out like they were only meant to be gazed upon. God! I mumbled! Would I end up just gawking at such a culinary ensemble? I can't eat with all those intimidating silverwares. It was not that I did not like to use them. I just did not know how. I did not even know what the use is of those different forks. Why should eating be so complicated? I had always eaten with my bare hands. It was what everybody did back home. I could recall my father telling me that eating should be an act of communion with your food. You got to involve all your senses. You must feel your food. Touch it with your bare hands. Talk to it and give it thanks. I could not remember now if that was exactly what he said particularly the "talk to it" part. But at that moment, all I could think of was to find a way out so I would not make an spectacle out of myself. The first thought that came to my mind was to tell everybody I was not hungry and that they could just go ahead and eat but I knew that was a moronic excuse.
My instinct for self-preservation led me to do the unthinkable. I run to Eva. I did not pause to catch my breath. Time was running out. I did not wait for her to speak. I told her of my dilemma as she listened intently. I know she remembered the time I provided the comic relief when she invited me once for a weekend dinner while her dad and mom were away. I had my food splattered all over as I tried to use my fork and knife. I would not want any encore. I suggested to Eva that she ask everyone to eat with their bare hands. It would make the event much more memorable for everyone. What a nerve! I was expecting her to tell me I was crazy but she seized on the idea like it was brilliant. I breathed a sigh of relief. Eva and I ate with our bare hands so many times together and she had fun but we knew we were going to have problems with the other girls. Eva suggested we ask the help of Nicola if the plan was to have a chance. Of us all, Nicola was the most adventurous. Appeal to her adventurous instinct and you could let her jump down the cliff. We took Nicola aside and told her of the plan. I saw her face light up. She was in. We wanted Nicola to pass on the idea as hers. She would love that. She did not waste time. She requested everyone to go wash their hands and wash it pretty well. Rarely would you question Nicola when she would request you to do something. It was not because she was the tycoon’s daughter and only heiress but because you would always be curious to know what she had hidden under her sleeves. It took almost half an hour before everybody was back. All eyes were focused on Nicola. Everyone was anxiously waiting for what she would explode. The explosion did not come. She casually requested everyone to get seated so we could say our grace and start eating. Everybody was disappointed. I was beginning to be worried. Eva and I looked at Nicola. She gave us a wink. She signaled to one of the ladies dressed liked fairies for assistance. She pointed on each dish she wanted on the table and requested her to put some on her plate. She then gathered her flatwares and gave them all to the lady. This done she started to eat with her bare hands. Count on Nicola to put on a show and get the attention. Except for Eva and myself, everybody's jaw dropped in shock. All their lives, they were taught to always act befitting of their social status. Only the commoners ate with their bare hands.It was a mark of someone who smelled of sweat. Nicola, an epitome of high society breeding, had crossed the line. I glanced at Nicola. I burst into laughter. She looked silly in a funny kind of way. Maybe one should not really eat with her bare hands when wearing an expensive silk dress. But she was getting the kick out of it and when on the roll, Nicola could be contagious. I looked at Eva. She threw all her cutleries up on the air. I did the same. Soon there were shouts of glee as forks, knives and spoons rained on the ground. Everyone dug on their food with their bare hands. Their faces all smeared with sauces and the laughters that ensued said it all. My friends were riding high on every moment of their adventure out of their fence.

I opened my eyes. Looked again at the faded photograph in my hands and smiled.