I lived in Makeni, the capital city of Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, with my family in the early 1970s. We had returned home from the U.K. My father, an engineer, built roads to help spread the town’s booming rice and palm oil trade. Makeni, the northern rock and home of the football-playing Wusum Boys, was famous for its gara. Driving around town, you saw expanses of the colorful tie-dye spread out in the sun. I also remembered the minarets of Makeni’s central mosque, the tangled coastal mangrove swamps, and the palm trees with red ‘banga’ nuts. I loved the rainy season thunderstorms, the playful days in our big yard with its pawpaw, guava, and mango trees at ‘The Reservation’ where we lived. There, I had many adventures with my imaginary friends. Makeni was my wonderland.
Still, I could not get away from the reality of school. I attended the St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School for girls run by Irish nuns. The headmistress was Sister Maria*, a tall Irish woman who always wore a white religious habit. Not all the teachers were nuns, though. The school buildings formed a long, L-shaped bungalow connected by a covered, open corridor. In the middle sat the playground we used for athletics, prizegiving, and other events.
Near the end of the school year, we held a concert for our parents. School lessons were suspended, and we spent the week leading up to the show in full rehearsal mode. The nuns were famous for staging impressive plays, even to my ten-year-old mind. All of my classmates had received parts and were learning their lines. I was the only one without a role. “Do the Irish Jig,” Sister Maria suggested. But I turned out too uncoordinated even for that.
So, Sister Maria told me I would end the concert by reading ‘A.A. Milne’s poem, “Christopher Robin.” It is about an English boy saying his prayers before going to bed. I would recite it kneeling by a chair, wearing pajamas and my Woolworth’s dressing gown. The padded blue and white robe suited cold England, not hot Makeni. But no one my age in town owned a dressing gown, so I sweated underneath it during rehearsals. “Shout, so the people at the back of the hall can hear you,” Sister Maria reminded me. I shouted and sweated even more.
Mary* was my understudy. I could see in her eyes that she wished that I would die so that she could take my part. She knows the words better than me. But since I recently returned from England, I had the perfect British accent for the poem.
Concert day arrived. I was very much alive despite Mary’s evil thoughts. From behind the stage’s curtains, we searched the sea of expectant faces. There, in the front row, sat my parents. I wondered where Mary’s parents were sitting.
The curtains opened, and a group of girls sang the first part of the poem:
“Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
I glanced offstage at Sister Maria, and she mouthed, re-mem-ber- to-shout.
“GOD BLESS, MAMMY!” I began.
“I know that’s right.
Wasn’t it fun in the bath tonight?
The cold’s so cold, and the hot’s so hot.
Oh! God bless Daddy – I quite forgot.
If I open my fingers a little bit more,
I can see Nanny’s dressing-gown on the door.
It’s a beautiful blue, but it hasn’t a hood.
Oh! God bless Nanny and make her good.
Mine has a hood, and I lie in bed,
And pull the hood right over my head,
And I shut my eyes, and I curl up small,
And nobody knows that I’m there at all.
Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day.
And what was the other I had to say?
I said, “Bless Daddy,” so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.”
After what appeared to be an eternity of nerves, I finished my lines, and the girls repeated the poem’s first part to end our performance.
The thunderous applause made me jump. I took a bow, and another and another as the applause continued. Mary looked like a stone statue. Finally, the clapping stopped, and I was relieved.
I became popular both in school and outside. Everywhere I went, people shouted, “GOD BLESS, MAMMY!”
Years later, I connected the poem with A.A. Milne’s storybook, Winnie-the-Pooh. The title character’s best friend was a young boy named Christopher Robin, the same as the author’s son. With their friends, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, and Tiget, Christopher and Winnie had many adventures in a magical Ashdown Forest.
They say life imitates art. I say life is art, or at the very least, a performance. Magical Makeni is on my mind.
- The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Maxine Williams was born in the U.K. and has lived in both Sierra Leone and Nigeria. She studied architecture and currently works in Housing for Local Government in the U.K. She has been writing in her spare time for 10 years and writes for niche magazines.