I was one of those nosy children always trying to listen in on grown up conversations that didn’t concern me. For many years, my family lived in faculty and staff housing on the campus of the University of Ibadan. Our home was Number 1 Sankore Avenue, a sprawling three-bedroom bungalow with a huge back and front yard plus mango, coconut, and other fruit trees. It was there, stuffing overripe mangoes into my face, sticky, sweet juice running down my bony arms, that I began my life-long mango addiction and gained respect for the soldier ants that protected the massive tropical almond fruit tree in our front yard. Our next-door neighbor was a British zoologist who helped build the UI zoo and who kept a large pair of boa constrictors in his garage.
Eavesdropping on a conversation one day, I learned something that would change my young life. One of my mother’s visitors brought up our neighbor’s snakes and casually dropped the fact that he fed the boa constrictors kid goats. My six-year-old mind received this information and came to a swift and perfectly logical conclusion. If the snakes could eat kid goats, they could probably eat kids of other species. This meant human kids, i.e., me or my brother. This is how “operation don’t get eaten” was born.
Every afternoon, my mother encouraged us to go out and play. We really didn’t need any persuading. Further down the road on Sankore, there was always adventure at our “cousins,” the Lawsons: a pickup game of futbol, prank telephone calls, board games, and delicious food that we instantly devoured, food that would have produced an epic tantrum if our mother had cooked it at home. A street over, on Saunders Road, there was the possibility of a game of hopscotch or ten-ten for me, more futbol for my brother, or a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie at the flat of a young friend whose father owned a film projector and a seemingly endless supply of side-splitting comedy. Then there was the pleasure of simply roaming about with other kids from street to street and home to home until it started to grow dark, and it was time to head back home.
My main problem now was how to get past the boa constrictors safely. I knew not to bring this dilemma up with my mom because she would know that I was being a nosy parker and I would surely get in trouble. I quickly came up with a solution. It was to have us sprint barefoot and silent at top speed past our neighbor’s garage until we were four houses down, then look over our shoulders for any pursuing snakes. In this way, we outwitted the boa constrictors until my family left Ibadan for the University of Calabar, when I turned eight. The strategy obviously worked because I’m still here.
In Calabar, we moved into a block of flats, and I made my first American friend ever at school. I discovered that she lived one building over from us and brought her home to play. This went on until one day, I went to visit her, and eyes gleaming, she showed me her newest pet. It was a snake. A small constrictor. I regret to say that our friendship did not survive that slithering reptile.