Bonjour,” Bint said.
“That’s very good,” the teacher said, speaking English. “And how do you say that’s very good in French, teacher?” Bint asked innocently.
“What?” The teacher jerked his head off as if stung by a bee. Then, within a flash, he bolted out of the classroom only to come back a few minutes later with the French Mistress of the senior classes.
“Ask her,” he told Bint simply.
“How do you say that’s very good in French, Aunty?” Bint asked reverentially.
“C’est tres bien,” the French Mistress replied. “C’est tres bien,” Bint repeated confidently.
The class began clapping and laughing at the same time. The class teacher followed the French Mistress out and didn’t come back till after the break.
Meanwhile the whole class as one surrounded Bint and started clapping and singing going round her in cheer and joy. They seemed to have known instinctively that Bint was destined for bigger things. Who else but a genius would ask a question the teacher could not answer?.
“I got them. I really got them,” Bint was saying excitedly to her siblings. I found myself laughing silently. Before I got carried away, I let myself unobtrusively into the room. They were used to my impromptu barging. One reason I used to go in unannounced was to keep them on their toes where issues of personal hygiene were concerned. The second reason was that we were used to keeping each other company. These formed the rationale for my periodic checking of their room to ensure that they learned the basic norms of maintaining the cleanliness of their room at an early age and to get used to my presence. My own grandmother used to tell us when we were young that what you teach a child is like writing on a rock and when dried, it would be difficult to erase. I seldom miss an opportunity to make them see the lesson in an experience. They learned to respect my opinion over most of their matters and I tried not to be unnecessarily didactic when it came to correction or giving instructions. This cemented our mutual trust.
“I am so proud of you, Bint,” I said as I wedged myself between Bint and Jamila, her immediate elder sister. They were all seated by the edge of the bed and looked up at me as if my intrusion had all along been anticipated.
“Thank you, mummy.” Bint said as she nestled even closer to me. She was my last child and consequently the darling of the entire family. My first child was Omar. He was the first child and only male. Between Omar and Bint there is such great affinity that no one dared frown at her intransigence, no matter how great, if he was around.
And all of them called me mummy. They didn’t call me Mama, a title every child in my community used for their mother. They couldn’t call me Ummi, which was my name at home, which incidentally also meant mummy. It actually translated to My Mother in Arabic, because I was named after my paternal grandmother. So I was Ummi to everybody else, and Mummy to my children and their friends. Except Omar who insisted on calling me Mum. I was never particular about how I was addressed. What I always insisted was respect for each other, and for one another.
“Listen, young girls, all Mallam Salihu was trying to do was to practice his small French thereby trying to perfect it. You should give him a break. Moreover, he is humble enough to accept that he does not know. Another teacher would frown his face and tell you au revoir means welcome whether you like it or not. Your knowledge to the contrary would mean nothing to him.