‘Modern Girls’ by Teju Cole


From Island:

In those days, the trucks came by a dirt road that branched off the expressway. The road was fringed by forest. By the time the trucks arrived at the school, they were covered in dust. On the first day of each new term, we saw men unloading baskets of tomatoes, bunches of unripe plantain, rice in sacks, and bitterleaf. The men, too, were covered in dust. We stood in our freshly-starched uniforms – blue and white check blouses, dark blue pinafores – and gossiped about what we’d done and who we’d seen on vacation, watching them work. The loads of food passed from hand to hand, as did boxes of school supplies: exercise books, ink, blotting paper. The men were dark and thin, and they had bodies made muscular by long manual labor. When they finished working, they clambered into the backs of the trucks, and left us in our clearing in the forest.

The Royal College for Girls was in Omu, and Omu was the real middle of nowhere. Compared to it, other small towns in the Western Region, towns like Ikorodu and Odogbolu, were interesting destinations. Omu – before the school’s establishment there lent it some prestige – consisted of a few small farms, a cluster of mud houses with tin roofs, a creek, a chieftain. The people of Omu were mostly Muslims, which meant they were not a part of the cultural elite. We, the students at Royal College, were by and large Christians. A majority of us were Anglicans, but there was a smattering of Methodists as well. Only two girls in our class were Muslims. One of them, Saudatu, was the daughter of an important politician from Ikenne, a one-time advisor to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Like the rest of our fathers, he had done something in life. And she had been admitted to the school, like the rest of us, on merit. She was also one of the best students, and a genuinely nice girl, so the fact that she was Muslim didn’t really matter. And anyway, she knew all the words to the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Mrs Allardyce sometimes called on her to lead the school in prayers at Assembly, which was a remarkable enough privilege for a girl in the tenth standard. If Saudatu was truly Muslim, she didn’t show it much, and acted just as normally as the rest of us.

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