Faith without works

The girl ran down the stone pathway, paying no heed to the glances and greetings that were being thrown her way. A brief glimpse at her face would reveal to a casual observer that she was chasing after something very important. This assumption wasn’t far off from the truth. At any other time the girl would have laughed at her current situation, but this was a desperate time. She rounded the bend and came to a screeching halt as she got to the popular intersection after the Annex hostel. In a trance-like state she made a complete 180o, then paused to scan the pockets of girls around her. She walked up to a group she deemed approachable, with a hurried smile forming on her face and called out to one of the girls, “Good evening Senior Tola, please can I get a sheet of paper and pen from you?” “Why? Didn’t you know that you would need paper and biro when you were leaving the hostel?” Tola replied. “I didn’t stop to think because I was late”, the girl retorted, “The prefect announced that the chapel pastor has started collecting the prayer lists”. “Ehen! Which prefect? What prayer list?” Tola’s forehead was now furrowed in confusion. “Senior Eunice; the Assistant House Captain of Soun House. She said that JSS3 students should submit their prayer lists for the J.S.S.C.E exams.” the girl replied. She furtively glanced at the chapel further down the road, then turned to face Tola. “Please I need the paper and pen now!” Her irritated facial expression clearly showed that she wasn’t happy about the delay being caused by Tola’s interrogation.

 She didn’t have to wait long though, one of the girls had already torn out a sheet of paper from the notebook in her hand, while another handed her a pen. She rushed out her thanks and started to sprint towards her destination only to hear Senior Tola calling her. “Wait! You will need this”, Tola stretched out a scarf to her. The girl’s eyes widened, she had forgotten that she wouldn’t be granted access into the chapel if she wasn’t wearing a head covering. Her gratitude was evident as she thanked Senior Tola profusely for the thoughtful gesture. “All the best”, Tola replied, an earnest expression on her face as she waved her bye. The importance of the prayer list was known to all.

She bounded towards the chapel, then stopped once she got to the borehole. The chapel was a stone’s throw away from the borehole, and from this spot she could peer into it, which was what she proceeded to do. A few seconds later she heaved a huge sigh of relief, a wide grin plastered on her face. Praise and worship was still ongoing, afterwards there would be a bible reading and a short sermon, following which the prayer session would start. She intended to wait here until they started praying. The preaching was always the same; clearly focused on the imminent rapture, and the impending doom awaiting all sinners. She didn’t care for the sermon, it constantly left her feeling the same way; scared stiff at the thought of roasting in a lake of burning fire till infinity. Right now eternity could wait, what was paramount to her at the moment was getting into the chapel in time to pray on her list and get it submitted to the chaplain for further prayers. She made a futile attempt to recall the last time she came to the chapel. A lot of people would be shell shocked at the sight of her in church today. Heck! Even she couldn’t believe she was doing this, but right now, at this moment she needed to ensure that she dotted the i’s and crossed all the t’s crossable.

The borehole was quiet, devoid of the usual racket that accompanied the activities of students waiting to fill their buckets and drinking kegs. She was grateful for the silence, she had no need for distractions right now. She needed to make good use of this break though. In another twenty minutes it would be almost time for dinner and this spot would be back to its usual bustle. The junior students usually kept vigil here pending when the dining hall prefect called students in for meals as it was directly opposite the dining hall. She brought out the paper and pen from the pocket of her blue check gown and proceeded to squat near a huge slab.

It was a yearly custom for J.S.S 3 students to have a prayer meeting in the chapel just before their J.S.S.C.E. During the prayer session, they would submit individual prayer lists which detailed their desired scores in their examination subjects to their chaplain for further prayers. This was not an exercise to be taken lightly, the sight of a student reacting to the news that he/she had failed was an unnerving sight to junior students who were yet to take the exams. An involuntary shudder went through her body as she tried to visualize it. So after sewing skirt and resuming for the next ‘senior’ session, someone would now tell her that she didn’t pass her exams and she had to revert to wearing pinafore. God forbid bad thing!

She smiled as she scribbled the first subject and wrote her desired grade. English Language was a no-brainer, she would definitely get an ‘A’. Her smile widened when she recalled how Mr. Ohunta, her J.S.S 1 English teacher used to write words of endearment next to her top scores in her exam scripts. Her hands were clammy when she wrote the second subject. She had to pass both English and Mathematics to be promoted to S.S.S 1. If she failed Mathematics she would have to rewrite the exam, she highly doubted the possibility of scaling through the second time if she couldn’t pass it at the first sitting. This was what brought her to the chapel, she needed God’s help this one time. During the last promotional exams, she had failed Mathematics and was promoted on trial to J.S.S 3. She had cried all the way home, in dread of her parents’ reaction to her exam result. This time around the implication was direr, she couldn’t afford to fail. She took a deep breath and penned a ‘P’ next to Mathematics.

Integrated Science would be a ‘C’; she couldn’t be bothered to learn how to properly draw and label a cockroach or tilapia. A loud hiss escaped her lips when she got to Introductory Technology, she detested everything about that subject. From the Technical drawing that she constantly sucked at, to their lecherous teacher. Alhaji, as he was usually called had a penchant for punishing the female students by smacking them heavily across their upper backs. That wasn’t even an issue, corporal punishment was the norm in school. What disgusted the girls was how he would feel them up while spanking and proceed to issue lewd comments. In need of someone to announce that you had graduated from wearing bra tops to the bra wearing ‘big girls’ club? Alhaji was your man. She routinely stabbed his classes, she didn’t need someone wondering aloud to the smirks of her classmates on how puberty had been unkind to her. She nonchalantly penciled a ‘P’ next to the subject.

She would have written an ‘A’ beside Business Studies, but shorthand was a challenge she would hopefully conquer in the next life. She would definitely have to make do with a ‘C’. Social Studies and Agricultural Science were definitely in the bag. The witches in her village would have to pull double shifts to ensure she didn’t get an ‘A’ in any of the two subjects. She rolled her eyes inwardly as she wrote French Language, the luckiest score she had ever gotten in that subject was 31/60. Lucky because their French teacher never taught the subject he was paid to teach. He spent many a class eulogizing on how the French had the best pastries. She had never been to France but she could perfectly describe a French loaf to anyone who cared to listen. It was comical to watch, the way his head bobbed in excitement as he spoke in awe of the croissants and baked goods in his beloved country. He was nicknamed ‘Mr. Goat’; his long lean face coupled with an equally longer beard that he groomed in a unique way lent him a profile eerily similar to that of a billy goat. There was an urban legend of a male student who had approached the teacher, and called him by his nickname on a dare. She twirled her pen absent mindedly as she recalled and mused on the veracity of that tale. The girl grinned and flexed her shoulders as she redirected her focus to the sheet of paper in front of her.

It was compulsory for all students in the Federal Government Colleges to study a Nigerian language, hence she had to write Yoruba. She wrote a ‘P’ beside the subject resolutely, there would be no ‘F’ in her wish list. A smug smile crept on her face as she penned down the last subject. It was quite ironic that the class heathen was the one always coming first in Christian Religious Knowledge. At the last Speech and Prize giving day she had walked across the podium taking in the shock and disbelief on the faces of her classmates as she went to collect her award for the best student in C.R.K. She lifted the filled out paper and surveyed the contents as she tallied her grades. “4 As, 2Cs, and 4Ps. Not bad.” the girl muttered to herself.

She was about to insert the sheet into her pocket when she felt it being snatched out of her hand. She whipped up her head in shock to see the culprits laughing, “Ify! It’s not funny! You could have torn the paper. Do you know how I had to beg for it?!” She gestured impatiently at the intruder, “Give it back!” Ify had unfolded the sheet and was glancing over it incredulously. She beckoned to her companion, “Tayo, see what this girl wrote as her prayer list”. “Ehen! Let me see.” Tayo uttered as she sauntered towards her friend. She spent the next few seconds alternating between reading off the list and throwing increasingly deeper looks of astonishment to the girl.

“Why did you write this?! Tayo queried as she handed back the sheet of paper to the girl. “How do you mean? I simply wrote my wish list” the girl retorted as she folded and tucked in the sheet firmly into her pocket. “So you wished Ps and Cs for yourself!” Ify retorted derisively. “I don’t understand, what should I have written? All As?!” the girl asked as she threw her arms up in exasperation. “Yes of course!” Tayo cut in, “that’s what should be in your list. “Everyone requested for As in all their subjects”.  The girl froze for a few moments before dissolving into raucous laughter. “You guys never cease to amaze me, how do you plan to score all As?” she scoffed immediately she caught her breath. “Anyway, I’ve never gotten an A in Mathematics or Yoruba and I’m definitely not interested in striving for the unattainable now.” Tayo and Ify regarded the girl in silence, then turned to exchange knowing looks. The girl had a reputation for being different ; different in a weird kind of way. However, this didn’t stop Tayo from making a last-ditch effort.” I just don’t get it. How can you have a blank cheque and decide to fill in a paltry sum?” “Like seriously! Why are you limiting your expectations from God?” Ify chimed in. If the girl heard their plea, she certainly didn’t show it. Her gaze was fixed intently in the direction of the chapel, her back turned to her companions. She wiped her palms on her gown as she turned to face them after what seemed like an eternity “We need to go. They…” she stretched out her right hand towards the chapel “…just stood up. I think the prayer session is about to start.”

The girls made for the chapel hurriedly, weaving their way through the grass-covered path adeptly. As she made to jump over an army ant infested portion of the path, the girl blinked as she remembered something. “Ehen, how come you two are late for today’s fellowship?” Ify hissed, “It’s that wicked Senior Ogochukwu o, we were kuku serving punishment in the seniors’ hostel, even after we had told her that we had to be in the Chapel today for the prayer meeting”. “Oh! That’s true, she’s still punishing you because of what you said to ‘Bucket’? “Yes o! It was even Senior Eunice that begged her to release us sef, we are to report to her room to continue our punishment once we finish here” Tayo lamented. Wow! So no dinner for you guys?” the girl asked rhetorically as she shook her head. “No dinner o! Tayo retorted, “I can’t wait for this S.S.S 3 set to pass out, they are so wicked”. Ify joined in, “As in! I honestly can’t wait for next session, to think we’ll be seniors then” the two friends began to jump and laugh in excitement as they envisioned this cheerful thought. The girl giggled nervously as she stole a glance at them, for a split second she envied them, they were so self-assured about acing the coming exams. They should know better, she thought to herself. Like her, Ify had been promoted on trial to J.S.S 3, English being her Achilles’ heel. Bola had repeated J.S.S 2 having failed both Mathematics and English. Whatever floats their boat, she reckoned as she stopped at the entrance of the chapel to tie her scarf. She walked in, and proceeded to participate intensely in the prayer session. When the chaplain called for the prayer lists to be submitted, she carefully handed hers to the chapel prefect, watching as it was added to the growing pile of sheets, her eyes closely trailing the bundle until it was dropped beside the chaplain.

Some few minutes later she was out in the open air, headed to her hostel. She let out a heavy sigh of relief as she relived the past hour. “Thank God everything went well, time to get back to life as I know it”, she muttered as she went to get her plate in readiness for supper.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. By night prep she had become a celebrity, almost all her classmates and seniors kept ‘stopping by’ her reading desk. Everyone wanted to know what was going through her head when she wrote that funny wish list. The junior girls dared not pry directly but she could sense the way their antennas went up anytime any of her ‘august visitors’ popped in. Her whole evening was solely spent on defending her standpoint.

Apparently all her classmates had requested for all As. Everybody! Even Bucket had penned down As in her prayer list!! Bucket, as she was referred to behind her back, had gotten her nickname since their J.S.S.1 days. The gist was that during the first few weeks of resumption, anytime she was asked to spell her name she would start looking for her galvanized iron bucket. When asked why, she would reply that she needed it for guidance because her name was boldly inscribed on her bucket. Though none of them had personally witnessed this, they all believed that the story was true. Bucket was a political candidate, hence the reason she was always promoted every session against all odds. Her dullness aside, she was more notorious for being a bully. She would try to physically intimidate any of her classmates who crossed her path. If that failed to work she would report you to a senior sympathetic to her plight. Many a junior student had horror stories to share based on their time spent in the seniors’ hostel, all because they had a spat with Bucket. She continually capitalized on the empathy that the seniors showed her due to her lack of brilliance.

Just be reading book there, sho gbo! If you like, don’t apply it to your life”, Mama chided her as they made their way down the dimly lit path that led to their hostel. Night prep had ended about an hour ago. Students typically had a little over an hour after night prep to run errands before the hostels were locked for the night. They had stayed back, so as to avoid running into or being waylaid by a certain senior Mama had offended earlier in the day. Mama was her best friend; they had bonded within minutes of their first meeting back in J.S.S.1. Apart from being the youngest and smallest girls in their set, they were both in Niger house and had been assigned to the same class. Their friendship was definitely more than the blue check gowns and class seats they shared, they had an uncanny way of operating at each other’s frequency. Except for this one time. They had spent the whole night bickering over the prayer list incident. Her best friend was sorely disappointed. The girl’s argument of how her wish list had revolved around her capabilities continually fell on deaf ears, Mama wasn’t having it. She had been quiet earlier during the walk home but the girl knew her friend too well to attribute it to fatigue. She could picture the way the wheels in her head were turning, looking for a killer justification, all in a bid to defend her stance on this nagging issue. Something had definitely clicked, hence Mama’s opening statement. She smiled to herself as she began the mental countdown to the outburst that was sure to follow.

“It is not by coming first in C.R.K, you also need to able to apply some of the godly principles from the bible stories we read in class to your life. I agree that we have to play our part and pray for God to bless our effort but it’s not always like that. At times God can break protocol for you.” The girl paused to regard her friend warily, Mama could be a spirikoko but this was interesting. “Feel free to look at me as you like”, Mama continued, “I kuku know what I’m saying. Is it not in the same bible that God fed the Israelites with manna for 40 years? Manna that they didn’t work for o”, she said with emphasis as she placed a hand on her left hip. “Didn’t God also instruct Moses to bring out water from a rock for them? The mad man that was minding his business before Jesus came to rid him of his demons nko? God’s blessings are not dependent on your works or whether you are deserving of it. You can’t explain his ways, so stop looking at it as tit for tat”. They continued their walk in silence, lost in their thoughts. She had to admit, the way Mama deployed her street smarts into every situation she was faced with was just admirable. She had always been the practical one of the two though she was younger by two months.  That trait was partly why she had gravitated towards her back then in J.S.S.1. She inhaled sharply as she mulled over her next course of action. Right now she didn’t care about what was ideal or practical talk more of risking her friendship with Mama for it.  She turned to face her friend “Let’s even agree that you are right, I just can’t go back to the chaplain to ask for my wish list.” Her eyes were closed as she pleaded her way through the last part of the sentence, she was just too drained to continue this argument.

Mama rolled her eyes, she was very intent on hashing this matter out. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words failed to come out. Her eyes widened as she froze in shock, it was like she had seen a ghost. “You! I’m sure that minute mind of yours thought that you would be able to escape me tonight, shey?” Senior Dele grinned evilly as she and her posse stepped out of the shadows towards them. The two friends exchanged a quick glance of despair, their plan to stay behind clearly hadn’t worked. As if she could read their thoughts, Senior Dele continued her tirade addressed to Mama, “I was going to wait for you till the second coming of Christ. Shebi you think you can be rude to me anyhow? Tonight we are going to settle scores, we will now know who the senior is in the two of us.” The girl watched helplessly as her friend was bundled away to the senior’s hostel for a night guaranteed to be replete with all forms of excruciating punishments.

The school bell tolled away in the distance, it was time for lights out. The girls in the dormitory hurriedly snuffed out their candles, the house captain would soon be on the corridors conducting a routine check of the rooms. The girl could hear the footsteps as they came closer to her room, she could make out the outline of her captain as she peered into the room for a split second before retreating and closing the door after her. She tossed and turned on her bed, as she tried to will herself to sleep. For some weird reason she was restless tonight. Her mind went to Mama, she smiled as she visualized her friend strolling into the hostel the next morning, a cheeky grin plastered across her face. The relentless bullying by the seniors was now a norm to them, it was nothing to lose sleep over. She drifted away into slumber land as she made a silent prayer asking for God’s forgiveness and the unquestionable faith of Abraham.

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

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