Poki Okpoko sat in class, as always, in the front row. He
looked attentive, but was not really listening. His mind was on
the task he had set himself for the day, a score he had to
settle. He stole a glance at the wall-clock on the grey wall
behind the teacher and noted that it was a few minutes to break
time. He was elated and could feel the first pangs of
excitement creep into his nerves. He knotted himself, keeping
the excitement strictly within himself; he didn’t want any last
minute unforeseen disruption.
Nine years ago when Poki was born he was so tiny that he was
often likened to a lizard. Now he had grown into a wiry young
boy with a big, round head and bright eyes that had no fear in
them. He was agile too, both of body and of mind.
His physical agility was probably thanks to his athletic
father, Sam Okpoko. Every Wednesday evening and Saturday
morning somebody would come from the city gym and take father
and son through lessons in self-defence and physical fitness.
Father’s presence in those training sessions was fitful – he
came only when the demands of his busy schedule as a professor
of Psychology allowed, but whether he was there or not, the
son’s went on uninterrupted.
Poki’s mother, Dorothy, had protested vehemently against
what she described as a waste of resources. She wanted the
money put to better use – ‘educational pursuits’ in her words –
but Dad Okpoko would hear none of it. He wanted no weakling for
a son. Most men dubbed gentlemen, he always averred, were
essentially weaklings who were afraid of standing on their feet,
or sticking out their necks and asking for what was theirs.
Their fear stemmed from a suffocating awareness of their total
lack of fighting skills, and so they would choose to ‘talk it
over’, no matter what the it was. Not that he was
advocating pugilism, but you had to fight – or defend yourself,
at least – if you were a man. And his intention was for his son
to be prepared for times like that.
And as for Poki’s mental agility, his mother took care of
that. All her skills as a teacher were lavished on young Poki.
He never strayed too far, too long, from her watchful, loving
eyes. Sometimes it was almost suffocating, and despite the
protestations of little Poki, she never relented. He was always
reading, calculating, doing assignments, under her supervision.
The effect was that he was well ahead of his classmates.
Poki was still preoccupied with trying to control his excitement
when he heard his name:
He stiffened to attention, his face assuming a studious mien.
“Answer the question,” the class teacher said, in that croaky
voice of his.
“Sir?” He was standing up now.
“Poki.” There was absolute silence in the class. Poki was
easily the best student. He always had answers to every
question; the teachers were understandably on his side. But it
looked as if he was about to be brought down from the high
table, where he dined with intellectuals, to the floor, to dine
with dunces. The students waited with secret joy.
“Sir,” Poki answered.
“Answer the question.”
Poki bowed his head. Within him confusion throbbed. He didn’t
know what the question was, and apparently a question had been
asked. He must have been carried quite far away by his
thoughts, he reasoned, and there was nothing else to do but to
own up. Silently, the class waited. In secret joy.
Poki’s high and square shoulders drooped a little as he said, “I
am sorry, sir. I didn’t get the question. I wasn’t listening.
It’s my fault, sir.”
The teacher studied him for some uncomfortable seconds before he
said, “Sit down, but pay attention. I won’t take it from you
another time.” The voice was croakily stern.
“Thank you, sir.” Poki lowered himself slowly onto his chair.
“Aziza,” someone quipped from the back before Poki had quite sat
down. The derision in the voice was only thinly veiled.
The whole class burst into laughter.
“Whoever uses that kind of interjection in this class any other
day, that will be for him a day of sorrow.” If the teacher’s
voice was stern before, it was acidic this time. Following his
croak, a contrastive silence descended like fog on the class.
Just then the bell rang once, signifying the end of the period.
Then twice, shortly after. It was time for break. The class
went wild like a flock of fowls scrambling for food.
On his face Poki wore a sinister smile, the kind that denoted
confidence and mastery of a situation, not necessarily
happiness. The smile of a man who knows how to pick his way
among thorns. Poki knew whose voice it was that called him
Aziza.. It was that same voice that had given him the sobriquet
in the first instance, three months ago. He knew that the name
was because of his pipestem limbs and narrow body. Not that it
bothered him but he had to teach the bully to try someone else.
He had been told several times by his father and his martial
arts instructor not to fight, but this was one time when it was
necessary to fight.
Outside, it was quite sunny. Girls and boys played in
clusters. Those who considered themselves the senior boys and
senior girls simply chatted. Poki knew where the bully would be
– under a mango tree, behind the long block of classrooms
housing primaries one and two. There he would be gambling,
playing cards, smoking or telling stories, and, as usual,
As he had expected, Poki found his quarry there, telling stories
to a small group of boys gathered round him.
“Okotoko,” Poki called, when he got close enough.
The bully spun round, facing him. The others turned too.
“I’ve come for you.”
“Coward. Because he disappointed himself and his darling
teacher in class today, he comes for me,” Okotoko said,
addressing the other boys. Poki was inconsequential.
“You’re wrong there, Okotoko. Had you not spoken in class I
would still have been here for you. I’ve come because exactly
three months today you gave me a nickname. That name dies
today, here.” Poki could feel the other boys wince: he could
tell they were feeling sorry for him but dared not intervene.
“Aziza dies. Who says?” Okotoko asked, closing the void between
him and Poki. He stood a hair’s breadth away, with puffed
chest, his hands on his waist. Grinning mockingly, he licked
his lips at Poki and said, “Make me do it. Aziza. Aziza. Long
Poki shut him up with a resounding slap on the right cheek and
stepped quickly back. The other boys were now positively
paralysed with fear for Poki as Okotoko charged forward like an
enraged bull. Poki stepped aside deftly, landing Okotoko a blow
on the left cheek. That cheek, he acknowledged with silent joy,
would be swelling up shortly.
Okotoko wasn’t deterred. He came charging blindly forward
again. His brute force was such that he could have immediately
knocked Poki out cold if he had ran into him. Quickly, Poki
stepped out of his way, but did not hit him.
Okotoko wasn’t deterred. More furiously, he came charging
forward a third time. For Poki, it was easy enough stepping out
of harm’s way. From the corner of his eyes, he could see the
other boys shifting restlessly, their paralysis had left them,
and they were suspended, briefly, on the razor’s edge. Which
way they would fall now depended on what happened in the next
few seconds. Poki decided not to keep them in suspense for too
He stole a quick glance at Okotoko and saw some specks of fear
in those eyes that were so full of vanity. Okotoko’s cheeks
were now visibly swollen too. Poki quickly noted that Okotoko
had strength but no skill and was fighting with great emotion:
he was angry with Poki for daring to challenge him and angry
with himself for not having knocked out Poki by now. And
because he was beginning to disappoint himself, his anger was
gradually being replaced by fear. Pride. Anger. Fear. Emotions
Poki had nothing of. At least for the moment. He was a
disciplined, methodical fighter. Unemotional. The rigour of
his training had made sure of that.
Poki decided to save Okotoko from further agony. He did a
fast back swing, his right leg meeting an expected obstacle in
the form of Okotoko’s head before reclaiming the earth.
Immediately, he closed ranks and delivered a barrage of blows on
Okotoko’s face, cutting open the eye-brow and the upper lip. As
blood spurted out, he yanked the right arm out of its socket and
knocked it right back. It was a quick masterful demonstration,
but in the split second that it lasted, hell broke loose.
Okotoko’s scream pierced the classroom walls and resounded
throughout the school compound. In two seconds, the scream had,
like a magnet, drawn two teachers to the back of the block.
The shock at what they saw was amply expressed on their
faces. Poki looked neat enough but Okotoko’s upper eye-brow
area and upper lip were torn. His cheek was swollen, and blood
dripped onto his white shirt. The other students – witnesses to
the bully’s demystification – were overawed. Poki was the new
bully and he did not have just strength, he had style too.
The two teachers promptly marched the two fighters and their
spectators to the headmaster’s office for their prizes. When
the headmaster heard what the quarrel was about, he expressed
his disappointment with Poki for harbouring such animosity for
so long. If Poki had acted because of the incident in the class
shortly before the break period, he would have dismissed his
action as a spontaneous emotional reaction. He described Poki’s
action as premeditated and deserving further punishment. The
headmaster doubled Poki’s punishment, and sent for his mother.
Before Poki’s mother came, the bell had tolled for the end of
the break period. The headmaster dispatched everybody except
Okotoko to their classes. With eyes that had no fear in them,
Poki left the office with the other students. He had taken his
double punishment calmly. They could do whatever they wished
with him, but as far as he was concerned, he had done what he
had set out to do in school that day. Okotoko deserved whatever
he got and – the thought brought some light to his heart –
nobody would dare call him Aziza any more, not after what he had
done to Okotoko the bully. For those who did not witness the
fight would see the stitches on Okotoko’s face tomorrow. Now
they would all know that he neither forgave nor forgot.
On the way home from school, Poki’s mother berated him
incessantly. She had the same opinion as did the headmaster:
because his action was preplanned, it was terrible. Poki could
not understand how the fact that he had waited and planned for
three months a revenge which he could have exerted immediately
made him terrible. Adult logic was always confusing.
From his mother he learnt that the family had incurred an extra
expense because of him. She had promised to take care of
Okotoko’s hospital expenses. That was the only time Poki felt
remorseful. He hadn’t reckoned with his family being dragged
into his affair. When his mother threatened to stop his
physical fitness lessons since it was turning him into a brute,
Poki knew it was time to recant. But his entreaty did not seem
to be effective, which was strange. He usually did not have to
plead very long with Mum before he had his way.
At home, Poki was very restless; there was no telling what Dad
might do when he heard what had happened. He hoped that Dad
would come late so that it would be bed-time soon enough and
school again tomorrow.
Unfortunately, Dad came home early. Poki crept into his room.
Sam lunched and stretched out for a short while with his wife in
their scantily furnished sitting room. Poki could tell their
every movement for his ears were so tuned as to hear even the
fall of a pin anywhere in the house. He was waiting to hear Mum
report him to Dad. But it never came. What came instead was a
rap on his door. His heart fell into his mouth before he heard
“Come, let’s go out, or are you busy?”
“No, Dad.” What he wanted to say was ‘yes’, because he didn’t
want to go out with Dad. Not until the memory of what he had
done in school had faded. But he had never said no to any of
Dad’s fairly regular invitations to treats. In fact, he was
known to look forward to such invitations. Saying “no” now
would turn the searchlight on – on him.
“Dress up then. I’m ready myself,” Dad informed him from
outside his door.
“I’ll be out soon, Daddy,” Poki replied. For the next few
seconds, he stood listening sharply; he half-expected Mum to
call off the outing. But when nothing suspicious drifted from
the sitting room, he slipped into blue denim jeans trousers and
shirt and a white canvas. He tucked the shirt into his trousers
and laced-up the canvas properly. He did not pick up his cap.
He was dressing for Dad. He wanted to look proper so as to
soften whatever would come, if anything would come.
When Poki came out he saw that his father was spotting a white
collarless tee-shirt over cream trousers and canvas.
“You’re looking good, Dad,” he said.
“Thanks, Po, you too,” Sam replied.
“Thanks you, Daddy. Isn’t Mum coming along?”
“Some other time. Today is for you and me alone.”
Poki went over and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek,
wondering as he did so how come she didn’t tell on him. Maybe
his entreaties did not fall on deaf ears after all.
Poki watched, fascinated as always by the scenery, as his father
drove them through the campus. From the direction in which they
were going he could tell they were headed off campus. And, sure
enough, they climbed the grassy knoll at the end of which stood
the imposing campus gate. As they descended, Poki took time to
feed his eyes on the evergreen meadow bordering the road.
They drove through the campus gate and through busy city streets
all of which Poki found equally fascinating.
“Here we are,” Sam said, parking in front of a modest,
happy-looking outfit. They came out and Sam locked the car.
“Where’s this?” Poki asked, following his father into the place.
“It’s a tratoria,” his father answered, emphasizing the ‘r’s
like a thoroughbred Italian.
“Tratoria,” Poki chewed the word over, imitating his father. He
wanted to be able to remember it another time.
“An Italian-style restaurant,” Sam explained, pulling out a seat
at a table of his choice for little Poki before sitting down
himself. He placed an order for pizza and ice cream.
“So how was school today?” Sam asked while they waited for
their order to be served.
Poki’s heart skipped a beat. But Dad couldn’t have known, so
this must be a harmless question, he decided. Poki then gave
his father a graphic account of all that happened in school that
day expunging, of course, anything related to Okotoko and Aziza.
When their order came they had scarcely begun to eat when Sam
“I want to tell you a story, Po.”
His mouth being full, Poki nodded his assent. Dad’s stories
were always a delight.
Sam Okpoko then told his son the story of a certain powerful
king in the dim past who had the heir apparent to the throne,
his only son, put to death, inadvertently though, for a minor
transgression, despite the pleading of his courtiers and
ministers. He told of the King’s sorrow on learning that the
boy who had just been killed on account of his draconian law was
“The King is a wicked man,” Poki pointed out at the end of his
Dad’s story. They were now through with the pizza and the ice
“He was not wicked, son. He only had a morbid preoccupation
with justice just like you with revenge, as you demonstrated in
Poki’s face crinkled. He became languorous.
Sam then went on to tell him about the need to temper justice
with mercy, to show compassion on less fortunate, or weaker,
mortals. Love, he explained, was stronger than power, because
while power was ultimately the tool of oppression in the hands
of a weakling, a mask for subterranean fear, the supremely
confident and truly powerful fellow had only compassion and love
for the less endowed, for all men. This attitude was the result
of solid, inner strength. He added, in conclusion, that love
without power was useless, and power without love hideous.
At the end of his talk he paid for what they had had, and then
ordered and paid for a take-away for Mum Okpoko.
As they left, Poki mused over what his Dad had said. He was not
sure he understood his father totally; he was not sure too
whether he felt justification or remorse or anything at all
anymore. But he was certain he had been touched within, for he
felt strange. He had been changed in an undefined way.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, when they got into the car.
“That’s all right,” Sam acknowledged, turned on the ignition,
and slid the gear lever into one. As he drove off, he called
“Daddy,” Poki answered.
“When you were telling me about your day in school, you omitted
the part about you and this Okotoko boy. I want you to see me
as a friend, Po. Not just as Dad. I’m your friend. Talk to
me. Share with me. Always. Whatever.”
“Yes, Daddy. I will.”
After a while Poki found the courage to ask what had been
“Yes, my boy.”
“How did you find out about Okotoko?”
“Your mother phoned me from school. Why?”
“Nothing, Dad. I was just wondering.”
Then there was silence. Not the oppressive silence associated
with embarrassing confessions. This was an easy, peaceful
As his father drove through Ogui Road, Poki noticed a record
store blasting a highlife tune from three giant speakers. A
group of rough-looking boys were gathered in front of the store,
dancing and sweating under the late evening sun. Poki wondered
what they could be celebrating.
On the opposite side of the road, he saw a little boy about his
age pushing a barrow stacked high with firewood. The boy only
had brownish and badly torn pants on. He sweated profusely. His
veins stood out on his legs, hands and forehead. There was an
uncanny, other-worldly expression on the boy’s face as he
struggled with the barrow, and cried in a strange voice for
passersby to make way for him.
The agony on the boy’s face was too much for Poki. Not even
Okotoko in all his wickedness could inflict this kind of
punishment. He simply shut his eyes and thought of happier
things. And as his father drove them through the busy streets
of Enugu back to their campus residence, Poki felt light and
(First published in Okike: An African Journal of New Writing,