Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Death of the Tomato Plants

From my memoir Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, Chapter 22

While one part of my life was coming into shape, another was in trouble. I was worried about Beth. Her letter in mid-November 1979 had said, “I’ve been taking my vitamin pills every day. But I’m still often tired.” I wondered if she was getting enough protein in the school meals. She didn’t complain, though her notes to Sam indicated that she wasn’t happy.

She’d also told us about her tomato plants, which she was growing as part of the school’s emphasis on practical subjects. She’d been bothered when they didn’t grow, but in late November they recovered. “My plants are getting fuller, and I have seven tomatoes.” But when she came home at Christmas, her first words were, “My plants died. I will get a bad mark for agriculture, and I was punished.” I was devastated.

“What? How could that be?” I hugged her and pulled her down beside me on the sofa. I knew she wouldn’t have forgotten to water or tend her plants, so the failure was surely not her fault. “Don’t worry,” I said, as she started to cry. “I’m sure you did your best.”

“I did, but they died anyway. I had to cut grass every afternoon when the others were harvesting their tomatoes,” she said between her sobs.

Miss Gentle, the English headmistress, had retired at the end of Beth’s first year as part of the Nigerianization of posts in education and the civil service. The idea of asking foreign employees to retire when there were Nigerians who could take the posts made sense, but I wondered about the quality of leadership at Beth’s school. Had some relative of an official in the Ministry of Education become the headmaster, when he wasn’t suited for the position? Did anyone supervise the agriculture teacher?

Chinaku came home a day later, and soon we were on our way to Nanka. It would be Clem’s mother’s first Christmas after Papa’s death, and I hadn’t hesitated when Clem said we should go early. Trinity House and Beth’s school would wait until the holidays were over.

In January, I urged Clem to come with me to take Beth back to Kaduna and see the headmaster to ask why Beth was punished when her plants died. He agreed; his daughter’s tears had upset him.

Beth accompanied us. We found the headmaster seated on the floor with a couple of teachers, eating rice and stew. His desk was piled with messy stacks of papers.

“Good afternoon,” he said, from his position on the floor. “What can I do for you?”

“We are bringing our daughter back for the second term, and we were curious about the agriculture program,” I said. He didn’t stop eating or stand up.

“Is this your daughter?” He nodded toward Beth but clearly did not know her.

“Yes, she’s a second-year student,” Clem said. “She was unhappy when she came home for the holidays. Her tomato plants had died. She was punished but learned nothing about the cause.”

“Yes, well, if her plants died, she must have done something wrong,” he said, shoveling another spoonful of rice and stew into his mouth. Beth was near tears.

“Is that what you call teaching?” Clem said, looking ready to explode.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We’re not getting anywhere here.” I didn’t want Clem to get into an argument that might make Beth’s life more difficult.

Walking with her to her dorm, I felt like I was exiling her to months of misery. I cheered up a little when she ran into her friend Rakia, but I was determined she wouldn’t be in this school any longer than necessary. I left her with a heavier heart than when I had first brought her. I was so glad Clem had been with me and concurred that a move would be good.

I had never before seriously considered Hillcrest, the American mission school in Jos, about one hundred miles further from Lagos than Kaduna, but suddenly it seemed like a viable alternative. I called my friend Joanne, who’d moved to Jos two years earlier. She reported that her children were happy, with many friends and good teachers. But would we be wasting Beth’s excellent preparation at St. Saviour’s, with its British style, by moving her to an American curriculum?

I decided her happiness and well-being were more important than academics, so I called the school. The principal encouraged me to bring her for placement tests and an interview. He recommended she join the second semester of seventh grade with students her own age.

Then we were almost stymied because Hillcrest didn’t provide boarding at the school. Instead, there were hostels run by the Baptists, the Lutherans, and a couple of other denominations, and there was a nondenominational hostel. I called every one of them, but they were all full.

I called Joanne again. “Could you possibly let Beth stay with you? We could pay you for her board,” I said. She agreed. Beth was soon feeling at home both at Joanne’s and at school, where there was a healthy mix of Nigerians and children from other countries.