Lotanna tugged at the collar of her school uniform, counting with each pull. 

“Three hundred and three. Three hundred and four. Three hundred and five…”

Held loosely in her left hand was a test sheet. 


“The method was what was important. It doesn’t matter that your final answer was correct. And stop repeating what I say!”

A spot at the top of Lotanna’s head still throbbed from the knock she had received after Miss Bola’s outburst. 

The chain of the swing Lotanna sat on felt warm against the side of her face. The heat from the sun did not burn, it was the gentle type that aunty AY loved. 

“It is good to be under the sun in the morning. They say it gives vitamin D,” Lotanna mumbled aunty AY’s favourite sun phrase. “I can’t get blacker than I already am.”

More tugging of the collar. “Three hundred and twenty-three. Three hundred and twenty-four. Three hundred and twenty-five…”

“Stop repeating what I say!” 

Despite Miss Bola’s painful knock on her head, Lotanna had been unable to stop herself from repeating the words, her voice shrill and enraged. What she had meant to say was Mama Henry said my head was very important and no one should hit it. But it had felt impossible to say those words in her rising anger; all the speech lessons from Mama Henry, Frank, and aunty AY had not helped either. Miss Bola had given her another knock on the head, grabbed her by the left ear, and pulled her out of the class.

Lotanna continued tugging at her collar. 

The short-break bell went off. 

“Three hundred and fifty-seven,” she mumbled, watching as other students poured out of their classrooms and flooded the playground. “Three hundred and fifty-eight. Three hundred and fifty-nine…”

There were three hundred and fifty-nine tiles in the recess hall. One hundred and forty-four tiles in her class. Five out of one hundred and forty-four were cracked. 

Someone snatched her test sheet and leapt away before Lotanna could act. 

“Zero over ten,” Jude yelled, his missing teeth flashing. Jude was one of her classmates and chief tormentor, even now, his eyes gleamed with laughter as he looked from her face to her test sheet. 

More of her classmates made an appearance. She had no friends except for Mama Henry and Frank and aunty AY, but they were all grown up and too old for primary school. 

Jude was hopping about now, waving the test sheet and shouting for the entire playground to come and see her big fat zero. 

Lotanna released her collar and hopped down from the swing. Her tongue was doing that thing when it became heavy in her mouth. Words buzzed like bees in her head. She was getting angry again. 

Say it like this.
Breathe. You can do this, Lota’m.
You do not have to answer immediately. 

Mama Henry would tell her to breathe. Sometimes she would ask her a question and hold up a paper. A word will be written on it and Lotanna would read it and understand what her answer should be, everything suddenly making sense. Her tongue would loosen a bit and she would give a correct answer. But Mama Henry wasn’t here, and neither was Frank or aunty AY.  

Lotanna’s throat tightened as the urge to cry rushed in. Words were increasingly beginning to not make sense in her head. She didn’t know which one to choose to stop Jude from doing what he was doing.

They formed a circle around Lotanna. She counted seven. Two more joined. Nine. She was taller than them all. She felt too big, too exposed. Jude was still doing the stupid dance. They were laughing and pointing and singing a song with zero in it. 

Walking over on heavy feet, Lotanna extended a hand. She wanted to ask Jude for the test sheet but the only sentence in her head was what aunty AY loved to say when she wanted to watch her favourite TV show. “It’s time for Face to Face.” 

After drawing a deep breath, Lotanna demanded, “It’s time for Face to Face.”

Jude stopped dancing, turned to face Lotanna fully, and dragged his small mean eyes from her outstretched hand to her face. He frowned. “You always say rubbish that’s why you got zero.”

Lotanna blinked back tears as she returned her focus to her test sheet. It was her test sheet. Today was not good because talking felt harder and her head was growing hot. And they were laughing. Their Zero song was wrong. Miss Bola was wrong to give her zero and knock her head. She wanted to show the test sheet to Mama Henry, Frank, and aunty AY and explain why she was right and Miss Bola was wrong to score her zero.

Lotanna snatched the paper from Jude’s grip and turned back to the swing. 

Someone struck her from behind. Pain much worse than Miss Bola’s knock blossomed at the back of her head. Staggering forward from the force of the hit, Lotanna crushed the test sheet in her fist. She was trying to breathe as Mama Henry taught her but it was not working. Her entire head was hot now, throbbing with anger and pain. 

Turning, Lotanna swung blindly, catching Jude in the jaw.

The buzzing in her head was worse now, she wanted to clutch her collar and tug at it but things began to unfold rapidly. Jude rushed at her, grabbed her by the middle, and slammed her against the hot sand. He struck her in the face.

“Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight.”

The chant rose and rose. 

Lotanna kicked her feet, struggling to be free. When she saw it was impossible, she turned her head and bit into Jude’s arm hard. She bit so hard that when he tore himself away, Lotanna was propelled along with the movement. Her gum pulsated painfully but she didn’t care. 

Jude looked from his bleeding arm to her face, released a cry then rushed at her. This time she was prepared. Snatching a handful of sand, she flung it at his face. Stumbling to her feet, she attempted to scamper but someone tackled her. Her face hit the ground. Pain burst in her nose at the same moment she bit her tongue. They were more hands now. One pulled at her hair. As she turned, she kicked blindly. Someone fell with a cry of pain. Attempting to rise, she slammed her head into a jaw. 

“She bit me, Aunty, look. She bit me!” Jude’s yell was mixed with tears.

A much larger hand grabbed her by the arm and pulled. Blinking slowly, Lotanna struggled to her feet as she looked up. 

It was Miss Bola, the Math teacher that had given her a zero even though her answer had been correct. She was frowning, shaking her head, and saying something. From the corner of her eyes, Lotanna spied Mr. Timi. He was rushing over with a long pankere in his grip.

Mr. Timi was going to cane her for fighting. She had bitten her tongue when she fell and she still felt abandoned by words. She could not say anything to save herself. Jude was crying, showing his bite mark to everybody. Frustrated, Lotanna began to howl, the loud drawn-out kind that Mama Henry absolutely hated. She couldn’t help it. 

When Mr. Timi reached the gathering, he shouted for her to shut up. When she did not, he raised his cane. 

Lotanna moved at the last second, escaping what would have been a burning stripe across her back. She speared through the crowd and made a mad dash for the school gates. The gateman, Oga Sam, attempted to catch her but she escaped his hands as well, barrelling ahead and howling as she went. She ran and didn’t stop until she reached the street before home. When she was certain that no one was after her, she slowed her pace.

Sniffing, Lotanna swiped an arm across her nose and winced at the pain the action caused. A streak of blood lined her forearm and her nose felt stuffed and cakey. Her focus shifted to the test sheet still tightly held in her fist. It was all that mattered. She would take it to Mama Henry and show her and she will understand. Mama Henry always understood. 

The heat from the sun had grown merciless, raging down on her the way Jude and his friends did a while ago. Lotanna’s eyes watered; she wanted to howl again but her throat was raw. 

Two more shops then she would take the bend and walk past the compound with the large mango tree and two dogs. They would bark at her through the gate. This time she would not stick her tongue at them. She had bitten down on it when she fell. 

She shuffled on. The pain was growing worse, especially the one on the back of her head and her arms too. Her face throbbed and her eyes were producing tears on their own not because she was crying. No, she was not crying.

Lotanna paused when she spotted the shop at the end of the street. Posters of hairstyles. Packs of attachment. Drying towels on the iron rack. The generator screeching at the corner. But the real salon was at the back. A lot of business happened there that Lotanna was not yet clever enough to understand.

A few more steps and Lotanna was at the doorway, eyes downcast and fist still gripping the sheet of paper. The chatter in the shop quietened and ceased. It was then Lotanna felt it. That pressing need to wail; to fall at Mama Henry’s feet and say: Look at what they did to me. 

But she did not wail, instead, with her head still downcast, she shuffled over to Mama Henry. She was sitting at her favourite spot next to a dead hairdryer, a book on her lap and a can of beer within arm’s reach. Tears tracked down Lotanna’s cheeks as she offered the paper. 

Instead of taking her offering, Mama Henry placed a finger beneath her chin and lifted her face. She sucked a breath. The others began to move as well, drawing nearer, gently moving her this way and that. They said nothing for a long moment. Mama Henry shut her book, took a long gulp from her can then sat straighter. 

“Lota’m, you made me concerned, returning so early from school. What time is it? Almost noon.” Her voice was as thick as a man’s even though she was tall and elegant. “Come, sit next to me. Are you hungry?”

Lotanna shook her head as she gingerly settled into the smaller stool next to Mama Henry’s throne as Frank liked to call it.

“Can you… speak?”

“Yeths,” Lotanna said around the tear on her tongue. She rejoiced internally when she gave the correct answer even though it didn’t sound right. She looked up at Mama Henry, taking in her colourful adire bubu gown, the thin beaded chain of her reading glasses hanging from her slim neck and her large black afro. Whenever she stood, she loomed over everything in the salon.

Mama Henry sighed, shut her eyes, and massaged the bridge of her nose with heavily ringed fingers. “AY, come and take pictures of her.”

Aunty AY, slim, small and married to Oga Dino, a carpenter with a shop also on Ikiko street, retrieved her phone and drew closer. Her eyes were furious. Frank was furious too. He was almost as tall as Mama Henry only he looked more like a woman with his fair skin, slim beardless face and short dreadlocks held in a top knot. 

“Mama Henry, don’t you think we should storm that rotten school and show that banza headmaster pepper? The frog knows Lotanna is not like the rest and he allows them to do this.”

“This is the second time,”  Frank said as he placed a gentle hand on Lotanna’s jaw, moving her face this way and that as aunty AY took photos. “It is getting worse.”

 “What is that in your hand?” Mama Henry offered an open palm, waiting.

Lotanna dropped the crumpled paper in Mama Henry’s hand, her mouth opening then closing as she struggled to form an answer.

Someone on the TV was shouting something. Lotanna’s hand crawled to her collar but she dropped it. Mama Henry was not saying anything.

“The…” Gulping, Lotanna tried again, forcing herself to talk around the pain in her tongue. “The answer is correct. Miss Bola said my method is wrong. They sang a zero song. She is eleven and still in primary three.”

Nodding, Mama Henry folded the paper and tucked it in her bra pocket where she usually puts money sometimes. That meant Lotanna’s zero test sheet was as valuable as Mama Henry’s money. Money was very valuable to Mama Henry because Mama Henry was the biggest, most scary businesswoman in the whole of Port Harcourt. 

“They said violence gives birth to more violence.” Mama Henry shifted in her seat, holding herself stiffly and clasping her ringed fingers between her legs. She was tapping a foot, the repetitive movement making her gown move funny. Lotanna began to count the taps. 

“If we go to her school now…” Mama Henry shook her head. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow we will go to the school with you and pay your headmaster a friendly visit.”

Mama Henry placed a hand on Lotanna’s shoulder. “Lota’m, sorry ò? My strong child. Frank will take you to the chemist.” She faced ahead once more, the lines of her face hardening. “They did it the first time, we were gentle. Tomorrow dem go remember who we be.”


Sandra tapped a foot, eyes dancing from the clock on the wall to the sweaty pacing headmaster and then to her phone. “What is taking so long? It is past 8 am! I have places to be.”

The headmaster forced another smile. He was a very short man with a stocky build. Also balding and his tie… the thing looked like it was choking the life out of him. Why did he appear so distressed?

 “Please, be patient, Mrs Uwem. I am certain they will soon be present. Before they come, I urge you once more to allow me to handle—”

“Ehn-ehn!” Sandra raised a palm as she stared daggers at him. “My son was bitten. One of your students, who should be locked in a cage like a rabid dog, bit my child. And you are pleading for what?”

Adjusting his tie once more, the headmaster cleared his throat. Why was he sweating so profusely? “That was why I called for this meeting. From what I learnt both your son and—”

“You are not listening to me. My son was bitten!” Grabbing Jude by his injured arm, she brandished the wound covered in a splatter of GV solution. “Look at my child’s arm. What parent will be calm in my situation? I heard the animal who did this is an eleven-year-old. An eleven-year-old still in primary 3. She is not fit for—”

“Madam, I think there is no need to hold his injured arm so tightly.”

“Do not tell me how to handle my child,” Sandra snapped. A whimper drew her attention to Jude. He was sniffing, his face wet with tears. “Look at how my boy is suffering.”

“And he hasn’t suffered enough in my opinion,” said a voice at the doorway of the headmaster’s office.

Sandra turned in time to see her step into the office. The woman was tall, at least 6’2, she looked to be between 35 and 40 years old with a straight nose, smooth angular features and dark menacing eyes lined with kohl. Sandra shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. 

“Call me Mama Henry. I am Lotanna’s guardian.” There was nothing friendly or bright about the smile she shot Sandra’s way. As she strolled further into the office, she began packing her full afro into a bun. “I heard you say vile things about my child from the lobby.” She began weaving the bun as she stopped before one of the seats in front of the headmaster’s desk. “Stand up, boy. I believe this seat is reserved for parents.”

Jude turned wide eyes to Sandra in question. Mama Henry wasn’t wrong. There were smaller seats at the right wall of the headmaster’s office reserved for students. She was tempted to make a snide remark but she reined her tongue. “Go, my boy.” Sandra released his arm and patted him on the back as he walked to one of the seats. 

Mama Henry was still standing. There was the sound of approaching footsteps. Sandra turned and blinked as two people along with a heavily bandaged child walked in as well. That was the child who bit her Jude. Sandra scowled. 

An equally tall effeminate-looking man pulled out the seat for Mama Henry to sit. She shrugged off her ankara robe, revealing jeans and a black shirt. “Hold on to this for me.” She passed him the robe and settled in her seat. 

The headmaster was still standing, this time he was watching the woman with wary eyes. Finally, he cleared his throat and took his seat. “Good morning, madam. I uh… I called both parents because of the fight that occurred yesterday between your children.”

“There was no fight,” Sandra cut in. “That wild child.” She pointed in the direction of the girl. “She bit my son. She is a bully and she must apologise for her actions and also be punished.”

The girl flew to her feet. She had the same angry eyes as Mama Henry. “N-no. I… Mama Henry they… they. ZERO SONG!”

“At least try to speak properly.” Sandra huffed and turned back to the headmaster. “I am certain she is lying.” 

“You should mind your mouth, mother of Jude,” Mama Henry said without looking in Sandra’s direction. “Even though I think your son possesses the eyes of an ụsụ, I did not comment on it.”

Sandra sprung to her feet. “I-I will not sit here and be insulted.” She faced Mama Henry fully. “Tell your ward to apologise to my son—.”

“This is not the first time my ward is facing this treatment,” Mama Henry said to the headmaster, completely ignoring Sandra. “The last time, she did not defend herself. Lota’m came home with bruises and scrapes all over her body. I chose the path of peace with you Mr headmaster, now look at my dear girl.” She beckoned with a hand. “AY, bring your phone. Let them see the damage they have done.”

A short petite woman hurried over. As she passed the phone to Mama Henry, she stared hatefully at Jude and then at Sandra. Sandra flinched. 

“Look.” Mama Henry presented the phone, swiping from shot to shot of wounds and bruises. “Look at what your students did to my child.” 

Sandra chuffed. “No way my son was among those who did that to her.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Mama Henry hissed as she turned to glare at Sandra. “I am very, very upset at the moment and your constant interference is worsening things.”


“No, you look.” Mama Henry rose to her feet as well and faced Sandra fully. “Your child mocked Lota’m. Incited other kids against her. Gave her a blow on the back of her head. Lota’m bit her tongue so badly that eating and speaking have become painful. If no one ever told you, I will tell you now. Your son is a spiteful little monster. I didn’t come here to seek an apology from you because I know that such a poorly-behaved child will have equally poorly-behaved parents. My business is with the school that I pay to educate and protect my child while she is in their care. As I go about this, you will not interfere or so help me God, you will understand why I wore no jewellery, put my hair away and removed my robe.”

Turning to face the headmaster once more, Mama Henry forced a smile. “So, Mr Headmaster.” She presented a sheet of paper. “This contains what it cost me to care for Lotanna’s wounds. I included a little extra for the emotional trauma she suffered. My account details are written there as well. It is my suggestion that you retrain a certain teacher called…” she turned to her child. “What is the name of the woman who hit you because of your speech impediment?”

“Miss Bola,” the girl said, eyes downcast. 

A flare of sympathy sparked in Sandra’s heart but she grounded out its light. Her son was bitten. There should be consequences. 

“Yes, Miss Bola. Give her a retaining. I know this school is not on the wealthy side, but I trust your ability to carry out your duty as the responsible headmaster that you are. I will also be paying this Miss Bola a friendly visit on my way out. No one hits Lota’m on the head. The head is a very important part of the body.”

Mama Henry turned to leave, completely ignoring Sandra. 

Who did this woman think she was? Sandra had faced far fiercer people; even her husband who fancied himself a boxer at home, she faced. She would not be ignored. 

Sandra grabbed Mama Henry by the arm, stopping her exit. Her companions rushed forward but Mama Henry raised a hand, halting their approach.  

“I want your daughter to apologize to my son for biting him,” Sandra said. “He will also apologize for hitting your daughter.”

Mama Henry looked from the hand on her arm to Sandra’s face. She was furious, Sandra could see that, but since when had fury, however intense, ever made her tuck tail and run? 

“Lotanna will do no such thing,” Mama Henry spat through gritted teeth. “I had half the mind to walk up to that demon you call a child and twist his little ears until he feels the pain he caused Lotanna.” 

“How dare you—”

“Look at me well-well.” Mama Henry crowded Sandra’s space, eclipsing the light from the fluorescent bulb hanging above them. Her voice fell to a whisper, “Abu m nwanyi ihere adighi eme. I am shameless.” Fire burned in her eyes. “Do not think that because I speak smooth English and spray good perfume I am okay in the head. Test me and m ga-egosi gị ihe siri ike. Go and ask about the hairdressers of Ikiko street.” She snatched her hand from Sandra’s loose grip and drew back. “Tell your son to stay away from my child or you will come to know my face. Mrs Sandra Uwem, you do not want to know my face.”

The headmaster rounded his table and tentatively drew nearer, hands clasped before his chest as if in prayer. “Mama Henry, please, it hasn’t gotten to that.” 

A sudden bout of cold attacked Sandra. She blinked as realization slowly sunk in. Her eyes danced over the trio. This evil woman was the head of Ikiko street. A don of sorts who stubbornly refused to rise from whatever poor hairdresser facade she loved to hide behind. Even Sandra’s husband—big, tall, bullying Jack—was terrified of her, the numbers she controlled and the brutal manner she dealt with those who interfered with her business

“I… I…” Heart thundering within her chest, Sandra struggled to find words. “I am so sorry,” she managed to squeak. Rushing to Jude, she snatched him by his arm, ignoring his yelp of pain as she dragged him before Lotanna. “Oya, apologize.”

Jude stared up at Sandra with a slack jaw. “Ma?”

Sandra smacked him on the back of the head. “Apologize immediately and promise to never fight or mock Lotanna.”

Frowning, Jude waved at Lotanna. “I am sorry for hitting you at the playground and singing the Zero song.”

Lotanna inched to Mama Henry, held her hand and nodded once. 

Suddenly beaming, Mama Henry bent at the waist and met Jude’s eyes. His frown melted, fear easily replacing it. Sandra resisted the urge to grip her son’s arm tighter and pull him behind the skirt of her gown. “See? There is always a way to peace. I am certain when you get home your mother will teach you lessons on how to avoid my Lota’m. Because if my child comes home looking like she did yesterday…” She straightened and looked Sandra dead in the eyes. “Mr Jack Uwem will be a very sad businessman.”

Sandra’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach and melted into a queasy mess. Jack will kill her if he finds out about this. 

Mama Henry faced the headmaster. This time her smile appeared genuine. “I will go see Miss Bola now. Have a pleasant day, Mr Headmaster.” 

The silence that greeted their absence was the heavy type that pressed in on all sides. Collapsing into her seat, Sandra groaned. “Why didn’t you tell me who she was?”

The headmaster shook his head and sat as well. He appeared frazzled but relieved. “It’s never in my place to tell.”

That night when Jack returned home, Sandra told him about considering changing Jude’s school.

“Why?” His breath stank a bit of liquor but he wasn’t totally gone, at least not yet. “Is he failing? His grades are dropping, eh? If they are, bring him here let me show him small discipline.” He opened his special cupboard above the kitchen sink and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. 

Your son is a spiteful little monster… such a poorly-behaved child will have equally poorly-behaved parents.

“No. I— never mind.” Shaking her head, Sandra left Jack at the parlour to watch his game and get wasted. 

Maybe she should do nothing about changing Jude’s school. Maybe she should let him continue being the bully that he is. Maybe then that hairdresser will turn her eyes of vengeance on Jack and finally free them from his chains. Yes, even now she would start stashing all that can be stashed and patiently wait for their seven-year-old son to tear down his father’s business. 

Because even when she picked up Jude from school today, she still saw it in his eyes. The spite. That need to belittle. That anger. Like father like son… or maybe like mother, too. 


Pankere: (Yoruba) a thin cane made from tough shrubs

Adire: (Yoruba) tie and dye textile

Bubu gown: long flowing garment

Banza: (Hausa) nonsense

Ankara: The textile used to make African prints.

ụsụ: (Igbo) bat

Abu m nwanyi ihere adighi eme: (Igbo) I am a woman shame does nothing to

m ga-egosi gị ihe siri like: (Igbo) I will show you strong thing

Oya: (slang in the context) go on

4 thoughts on “Lotanna

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: