The Naming of Things
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara
We are the new students of St Peter Claver Seminary. Some of us know each other from the previous junior secondary schools we attended, or the places we live, and for others, we are meeting each other for the first time. Like bees, we begin to build our colony, subtly layering our kinds over and over till we become a mountain standing through the scorching sun and the soothing rain. We are almost close to the mid-term break, and we are now four: Kamara, Nnamdi, Ebuka, and me.
We are aware of what tugs the hearts of our schoolmates, what bares their teeth at the sight of our bodies, and at first, we do not speak about it.
For Nnamdi, his nose is narrow and pointed, his skin shines like the inside of a pawpaw. For me, my brows and lips are full, my skin also shines like the inside of a pawpaw, and when I talk, my high-pitched voice leaves people in awe. For Nnamdi and me, we are often called sweet names by our schoolmates like Apunanwu, Lagos Babes, Baby, Babe, Girlie, Aje butter, Alhaji’s wife, and so on. But because we’ve built a colony, even this does not bail us out.
For Kamara, when he walks, we sometimes joke that Naomi Campbell has got nothing on him, and his skin colour is a shiny black that cloaks his beauty whenever rage lurks in the eyes of our schoolmates. For Ebuka, his nose is broad, his voice hoarse, his brows so scanty that he uses gel to thicken them, and then a comb to arch them perfectly. Unlike Nnamdi and me, they are not called sweet names. They are called Omekanwanyi, Woman wrapper, and Hermaphrodite. Most times, our individual differences do not matter. We all carry this burden with us.
The first time we hear the word homosexuals is a few days before the mid-term break. We are in our dormitory, strictly reserved for the senior secondary student one (SSS1). We have just returned from night prep. As usual, classmates go about their business for the minutes before the light goes off – towels are wound around waists, buckets of water are clutched in hands, books rest on the crooks of arms, snacks are smuggled out of boxes and into bowls and mouths. We sit on our beds and talk about our favourite musicians, how Shakira and Beyoncé killed their songs, our heads flinging backwards, eyes rolling to disagreeable takes about who dances better between the two musicians, shouts renting the air hanging above us as we compete within ourselves who whines their waist best in our group. We laugh, shout and clap, until the hostel prefect in SSS3, Senior Alika, walks in. His leather belt lands on the students standing close to the door. Feet scurry like lizards into beds, and silence drapes all of us.
“SSS1 students!” Senior Alika shouts, his deep, threatening voice echoes round the dormitory.
“Yes, Senior .”
“Wetin dey do una?” he asks.
Apparently, two classmates have been caught again making out after prep in a classroom. No one knows their names. Senior Alika threatens to deal mercilessly with the next person he catches. He asks the class if we are aware of what we are doing, if we know what it is called. No one answers except the smallest boy in our class, Jide Okafor, who is popular for his comic drawings.
“Yes! Homosexuals,” Senior Alika says. “And the act?”
“Homosexuality,” Jide answers.
“Do you know that it’s a sin? Two boys having sex with themselves?”
He walks round the dormitory, the muscles on his face all tensed up, and his leather belt folded into two swings back and forth within the firm grip of his right hand. “Ever thought where the sperm goes? It piles. Do you know what the piling does?”
“Cancer! It causes cancer!”
We (Kamara, Nnamdi, Ebuka and I) are startled, and we make side-eye contact as though to ask if we all have the same guilt rattling in our heads. Our classmates’ eyes seem to find their ways to us, but still, it isn’t any of us. We had read together in the same class, left at the same time, and sat on our beds discussing the music video, Beautiful Liar by Shakira and Beyoncé
When Senior Alika leaves, Uche, the heftiest boy in our class, who had once taken my boxers after I spread them on the metal frame of my bunk, struts around, barking in Pidgin English: “Wetin dey do una? Una fellow boy yansh? Soap don finish? I go follow beat the person, make una no dey spoil our class image na.”
Everyone is calm; us too, or at least we try to fake it. We pretend that they’re not trying to unpack their thoughts, to know which of us had stayed back after night prep. Uche comes towards our bunks. “Una don dey calm like Virgin Mary? I know say na one of una go do am. Every time boys go de do like say them be woman,” he says.
Our classmates laugh.
We carry this guilt with us. And Kamara, the softest of us all, is sobbing.
We’ve all gone home for the mid-term break. The piles of assignments leave little room for the possibility of us hanging out. We call each other, sometimes a conference call, and gush about how we miss each other; how it would have been easier to strut through the streets together, how the taunting from boys would have lesser or no effect if we were together, just the way they had little effect each time we walked past the senior dormitories. How on some days we would swing our hips a little bit faster, laugh hard, clap hands, and rest one of our hands on our hips.
One morning, Kamara creates a WhatsApp group and adds all of us. He names the group #TeamXY, and the conversation shifts quickly from the complementary greetings to what XY means.
Is it Kyle XY related? I ask.
Ebuka: Kamara, which one is XY again?
Kamara: Seriously? *shocked emoji*
Kamara: Don’t you guys know about the cross-matching thing? XX for female, XY for male. I think this reflects our identity more.
Nnamdi: So true. Wow!
We call Kamara our Albert Einstein, our Wole Soyinka, and gush about how brilliant his idea is.
School reopens days later. In the evening as we are unpacking our boxes, Kamara brings out his sportswear, and holds it up for us to read what is written on it. “Wow! KXY?” I say. Kamara smiles. Nnamdi and Ebuka grab his sportswear and run their hands through it. Kamara asks what we think about it. We tell him it’s beautiful, lovely, and unique. We follow suit. I write CXY on mine, Nnamdi writes NXY on his, and Ebuka writes EXY.
Our initials spiral out like ripples. When Senior Alika hears about it from our classmates, he bounces like a tennis ball into our dormitory during the siesta. “Where those foolish homo XY group dey?” he says.
Our hearts begin to race.
“Where dem dey? Before the count of 10. One, two…”
We grab our uniforms from the hangers, hurriedly put them on, and now we race towards him.
“Follow me,” he says.
He takes us to the assembly ground and asks us to kneel down on bare concrete under the scorching sun.
“Una get mind form homo group,” he spits.
“No! Not it, please. We are only stanning Kyle from Kyle XY because of his extraordinary powers,” Kamara pleads.
He sends Ebuka to bring our sportswear. When Ebuka returns and hands them to him, he pulls them up one after the other as he calls out our initials. He sighs and loosens his belt, and soon the only pain we know is the belt lashing our backs.
Nnamdi begins to shiver when it gets to his turn. Beads of sweat run down his face and palms. He begs, but Senior Alika is determined. The first lash lands on Nnamdi’s neck and he falls to the ground, crying, pleading, and saying that it was never his idea and that he was sceptical about it from day one. Another lash lands on his back, and he goes further to say that it was Kamara’s idea and that Kamara wanted us to identify more as males. Senior Alika still pays him no mind, and he goes on to lash him several times, then turns to Kamara, who is kneeling and sobbing, and whips him again and again.
After that day, Kamara, Ebuka, and I do not speak to Nnamdi. We make side snarls with our faces each time he passes. We sometimes ridicule him as he walks past us, saying that he is not girly, only blended in, and just wants to follow the trend because of our group. On a particular Sunday after mass, we are washing our spare White Sunday wears when Nnamdi walks in with his metal bucket. When he passes us to use the last tap, we see that the back of his trouser is stained, probably from sitting on a dusty chair without cleaning it first. Kamara makes a subtle move to mimic him, swinging his waist forcefully as he walks from one tap to another, pretending to look for soap. Ebuka and I press our lips hard, filling our mouths with laughter at first and then bursting out loud with it. Kamara walks back towards us, smiling, laughing, and throwing his head and hands around. We are still laughing, and do not know when Nnamdi approaches us, wagging his index finger at our faces while dishing out stern warnings. For a moment, we keep calm, and then, in unison, we burst out laughing because it feels more like stand-up comedy. Kamara mimics him again. This time he pulls his upper lip downwards in an attempt to look like an ape. Everyone in the laundry room laughs. Nnamdi’s face melts into sadness. He picks up his bucket, turns the tap on, then turns it off. He empties the bucket onto the marble floor. He walks towards us and pushes Kamara to the floor.
“Fool!” he spits and runs away.
Kamara, still on the floor, trying to process the shock, looks sternly at his hands and begins to cry when he sees the bruises on his elbow and arm.
“Snitch! Coward! Swine! Compound, complex, shameless, yellow baboon!” Kamara barks. Ebuka and I reach out to help him stand. Our classmates in the laundry room giggle. “Ah! Ah! Kamara this one is too much o,” one says to Kamara because it is obvious that his insult on Nnamdi’s looks does not add up, no matter how hard one excuses it under the umbrella of a verbal fight.
“Hmm! He wants to start a fight he can’t handle,” I say.
We accompany Kamara to the clinic. The nurse asks what happened, and we tell her that he fell while playing football.
“Football? Since when?” she questions, knowing that we do not play football, and we spend our recreation either watching or participating in the drama club.
“Meaning? So boys can no longer play football?” Ebuka says.
The nurse rolls her eyes at him. “You better mind the way you talk to your elders.” Kamara stretches out his arm towards the nurse and squeezes his face tight as she dabs Gentian Violet on the cuts and bruises. We watch as the purples liquid colours the bruises.
We thank the nurse and head towards the dormitory.
“That fool has the mind to touch me,” Kamara says. He lightly touches the cuts on his arms, recoiling his hand when it hurts.
“You can report him to any school prefect,” I say.
“It’s nothing. See how he damaged my precious skin. If I see him, I’ll so push him so that his skin he feels pompous about, won’t dare recover from the bruises. Shey he’d look for where to copy from in the Biology test.”
Ebuka nods. “And if he does any malpractice, we’ll expose him.”
I manage to stifle my laughter at the conversation, because, like Nnamdi, I’m not as brilliant as Ebuka and Kamara. In previous tests, we all sat together, Kamara and Ebuka writing swiftly, Nnamdi and I stretching our necks into their answer booklets.
For the students of St Peter Claver Seminary, Mondays always come ruffling fresh like the swaying leaves of a palm tree. Uniforms are properly ironed, with lines running through each length of the trousers and, in some cases, through the back of the school’s blue check shirt. The blue Manual of Prayer with the picture of two upright palms pressed together on its cover, is clutched either in the hands or under the armpits of students. We all line up for the morning assembly, according to our classes.
The senior prefect is leading the Morning Prayer, his shrill voice mouthing the prayers into a hymn. His deputy is standing beside him, monitoring the students who do not respond to the prayers, and Father Festus, our principal, walks around, punishing those without their chaplets and Manual of Prayer.
After the prayer, Father Festus climbs onto the podium and addresses us. He commends us on our good behaviour over the weekend as reported by the house masters, and mentions that the first-term examination will commence soon and that he will ensure the timetable is released today.
Father Festus dismisses us, and we march down to our various classes. In the class, everyone panics and runs around looking for updated notes to complete their notes, which they were too lazy to take during class. The supposed big boys hang around the back seats, gauging whose notes to steal and smuggle into their lockers in preparation for examination malpractice.
Mr Odili, our biology teacher, young and full of energy, peeps through the window of the class, and suddenly, the class becomes quiet like midnight. He walks past, and the bustle of energy and noise returns. And he walks back again as if to pick up a student who he would use as a scapegoat for others to learn.
“Kamara, dear…please come,” he says.
Ebuka and I tilt our legs for Kamara to walk past. Mr Odili stares at us as though something isn’t right.
“Come with your cohort,” he adds quickly.
And we all stand, aside from Nnamdi, who is in the next row copying some notes.
“Nnamdi, don’t be recalcitrant,” Mr Odili says, and the class murmurs. Mr Odili is known for his extensive vocabulary, his stringing of big, big words that a majority of the students do not understand. He headlines the spelling bee competition, and for one to scale through to the final stage shows that you know the “nooks and crannies of the Oxford dictionary” like he would say.
“It appears something is off between you folks,” he says to us outside the class. He looks directly at Kamara.
“There’s no problem, sir,” Kamara replies.
“Sure?” He holds his index finger up. “There’s absolutely nothing in life to squabble about, you all know, right?”
“Yes sir,” we chorus in reply.
“All right! You four,” his fingers wags through us. “Meet me in the lab during break. I need help with some specimens for your class test.”
His demeanour and smile are charming and seem to reflect on anything or anyone around him. We squeeze each other’s hands, including Nnamdi’s, before we walk back into the class.
In class, Kamara tells Nnamdi to bring his locker back to our side. “We’ve forgiven you, prodigal daughter.”
Nnamdi laughs. “I’ve missed y’all.”
During the free periods in class, we talk about Mr Odili, how nice he has been to us because of Kamara and Ebuka’s intelligence and their performance in the last spelling bee. In his class, he tells the four of us to bring our seats forward. The whole class already knows our seats in the biology lab, so we don’t struggle like the other students to rush from the main classroom to the laboratory during practicals. Even in class, on a closer look, he seems to teach only the four of us. He doesn’t move past the front seat, and his voice is barely loud enough, except when he reverts to Kamara after the class has failed his question.
“Girl! You’ve tied that man somewhere,” I say. “Oh! Kamara this, oh my dear Kamara that,” I dramatise with the rising and falling of my hands.
“How silly of you to think that,” Kamara says. We laugh and high-five each other.
Nnamdi asks if we notice that the deputy senior prefect has been all over him. We tell him that we suspect that it’s because he is fair and fine.
“Hmm, but don’t try anything with him or you’ll get expelled,” Kamara adds.
Nnamdi assures us that he does not even intend to let him have his way, and that the deputy senior prefect only asked him to be his school son. “The other day I was with him in the dining, and he left this foreign biology textbook with me. Do you know that I saw that XY and XX thing Kamara taught us? There’s even XXY; it’s a syndrome. Wait, I wrote it down.” Nnamdi pulls out a book from his locker. We peep into it and read.
“God forbid! God forbid! I am not sterile. This is not me, this is not the reason why I act like this,” Ebuka says.
We recoil into ourselves after confirming Nnamdi discovery. On the day Nnamdi brought the deputy senior prefect’s biology textbook, he turned the pages till he arrived almost at the last chapter and first showed us a boy with breasts, and then he traced his finger down to where the chromosomal anomalies were written. Ebuka began to cry silently as we stood in the dark behind the door leading to the pantry, with only Kamara’s torchlight illuminating the surroundings. Kamara and I fell silent, chills running over our bodies. While Nnamdi read aloud, we listened and watched the torchlight shake in Kamara’s grip. Ebuka sobbed silently and then took the book off Nnamdi’s hands and ran towards the SSS3 classroom. That was the day he stopped speaking to us.
We start to untangle the bonds we share. Ebuka moves out of our corner in the dormitory and joins the noisy boys who pull their shorts down slightly to reveal their boxers and also leave the first two buttons of their shirts unbuttoned. He struggles to blend into their culture, especially with the way he pockets his hands while talking and the tiredness that creases across his face while he watches football matches with them.
Initially, we had thought that if we broke our bonds we would be more vulnerable to the bullies and those who shamed us for our physiques. But after Ebuka leaves, the other students use him to taunt the three of us. “See how Ebuka is now becoming manly?” some say to us.
Weeks after Ebuka leaves, Nnamdi leaves too. He joins our overtly religious classmates. Beside his bunk is an altar where the statues of Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and St Michael the archangel stand. He tends to the altar like a gardener, dusting the statues every morning and evening, changing the flowers he plucks from the school’s garden. He volunteers to read the bible during the bible studies in the chapel every Sunday. One Sunday, Kamara and I watch him read and lead prayers. Later in the dormitory, Kamara says: “A lot has changed, and now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s anything in this life, especially if we have Klinefelter syndrome and are sterile too.”
The sun is blazing hot, and we are in the chapel for the afternoon bible study. The aluminium roofing over the chapel amplifies the heat. In the chapel, we, the students, are divided into three classes, and each class is supposed to appoint a speaker who will preach on a particular verse. Most students use the pamphlets tucked inside their bibles to fan themselves; their white uniforms are unbuttoned up to the third button, and singlets and bare chests are revealed. For days like this, the intense heat becomes a reason to excuse any form of chaos in the chapel.
My class, SSS1, is seated at a far end of the chapel where the choir sits during our Sunday masses. Nnamdi leads the opening prayer, his bible in front of him with several pieces of paper sticking out. Kamara and I sit at the front. Kamara is sucking on his water bottle while I skim through the pages of the Catholic hymn book as Nnamdi prays. Ebuka is sitting at the far end with our other classmates, gazing into the vast space that lies beside the chapel.
Nnamdi orders us to open to 1 Corinthians 6:9, and a classmate reads aloud.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.”
Nnamdi is calm. His hands rest on the open pages of his bible. Kamara tugs at me, and I nod. It is the first time Kamara and I are hearing of the passage and the word effeminate, which Nnamdi explains as a boy that behaves like a girl. Kamara nudges me again, and he points out the difference in his bible. “There’s no effeminate here,” he says, and I trace my hands through that verse to confirm.
“Thank God.” Kamara takes a breath. “But why is there homosexual in my version and effeminate in yours without homosexual?” he whispers to me.
We wonder why Nnamdi would decide to bring it up in the class today, as though to cut us open to harm. When the classmate reading is done, Nnamdi starts preaching. He does not focus on the other sins listed but dwells on effeminacy. He talks about how this is a wrong thought that dwells in one’s head, and he uses himself as an example, talking about how God has delivered him, and how he’s still on that journey to defeating the devil and regaining his soul. Our classmates giggle, some stare at Kamara and me, and others give a resounding yes and amen to Nnamdi’s prayers.
In the dormitory, Kamara and I lie still on our beds. We feel humiliated and regret forming the bond in the first place. Later that night, Kamara wakes me up and tells me that since the term is coming to an end tomorrow, he will endure this sudden exposure to bullying, and when he gets home, convince his parents to change his school, even though it will be a new struggle to blend in again. “I don’t mind. I really don’t mind starting all over,” Kamara whimpers.
We are vacating today for the end of the term. Boxes are packed and in front of dormitories. Eager students like Kamara and I have carried our boxes to the school’s parking lot. We, the students, are handed the principal’s vacation speech. Students, parents, and family friends hug as though trying to imprint themselves onto one another’s bodies. At the assembly ground, the principal reads his speech, and we applaud. He begins to call out the results of the first, second, and third students from each class, before other teachers hand out results to other students. In SSS1, Kamara takes the first position, Jide Okafor takes the second, and Ebuka comes third. Later, I’ll check my result and see seventh inscribed on it, and hear that Nnamdi came 45th out of 124 students. Parents of other students cheer for Kamara, Jide, and Ebuka. Some press a 1000-naira note into their palms.
Kamara and I are walking towards where our boxes are. We are smiling and gushing about how scared we were that we wouldn’t make our parents proud. “Now those bullies will be our friends because they’d like some help, especially during exams,” Kamara adds.
“How sure are you?” I ask.
“Senior David, who came first in SSS2, told me. You know he’s slightly effeminate?”
As we are walking towards our boxes, Ebuka and Nnamdi approach us. They congratulate Kamara and me, and we congratulate them as well. Nnamdi apologises for what he said during the bible study, and then he adds quickly that he was telling the truth, and we should all work towards a change during the holiday.
Kamara rolls his eyes and moves to walk past them, dragging me along. He suddenly turns and hisses, and then we continue to walk towards our boxes.
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian writer & poet, is the author of the poetry chapbook, I Know the Origin of My Tremor (Sundress Publications, 2021). He is an alumnus of the SprinNG Fellowship and the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. His work appears in or is forthcoming in African Writer Magazine, The Masters Review, Poetry Magazine, The Republic, and elsewhere. In 2019, Ugochukwu was the 1st Runner Up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize.
*Image by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash