It is one thing to dream as a child, and another to dream as an adult. The former is wild and free, the latter, tamed and doubtful.
I am a man now, and when I pay a visit to possibilities, I do so while riding on the back of caution. I earned all of my scars as a child.
But to live so cautiously, where is the place of adventure? Where is the ambition needed to seduce hope? Asking these questions, I can’t help but look back with nostalgia at the child I was.
My story began in 1996 when I crashed into a wall and bent the wheel of Mr. Sunny’s Flying Pigeon. It was the morning of October 1, and Nigeria was celebrating thirty-six years of Independence from Britain. The streets were decorated with green and white flags, and for a Nigerian living in Enugu, the highlight of the celebration was riding to Okpara Square to watch the parade. Few feelings gratified like waving a greeting from your bike to a friend walking to the Square as you sped past. Aside from the Governor’s speech, which no one listened to, October 1 was a day to show off wealth, and wealth meant riding on a Raleigh or a Flying Pigeon.
I was raised in the forgotten neighborhood of Obiagu with a group of friends thrown into each other’s lives by a bond of adhesive poverty. I was nine and observant. I watched the adults brag about their bikes. Those who rode Raleighs always argued with the measured silence associated with kings, while those who rode Flying Pigeons were satisfied only with being better than those who trekked. My father belonged to the least of these three groups.
It was the pinnacle of achievement for children of my age to know how to ride a bicycle. Not every child whose parents had a bike knew how to ride. To learn to ride meant accepting the possibility of more than a scratch on the bike, and not every parent was ready for such experiments. It was even worse for me, as my father didn’t own a bike, and wasn’t a rider himself.
It was bad enough that I did not know how to ride, but the bar was raised when my friends started an earn-your-scar game. The game originated from the myth that no one ever learned to ride a bike without a fall and a scar to tell their story. To be recognized and respected as a rider, we required not just to see you ride but also to see your scar and hear the story of the fall that made you worthy.
Among my friends, Obi was the first to learn how to ride. His father was a trader who owned a Raleigh, and his mother was proud of her ladies’ edition. He frequently told a story that he lost a tooth in a head-on collision with a farmer’s Long John. Another story, he lost the tooth when his brakes failed while descending the steep Milikin Hill. Either way, no one had a scar prominent enough to qualify as the unceremonious king of the group, unlike Obi, who lost a tooth on a Raleigh. He was so strict in who he allowed into his sacred cult of rider that he drafted governing rules, which he changed at will. And like the government of a dictator, we followed his decrees.
I remember the afternoon Ekene came to the group and requested, with a fresh wound on his elbow, to be inducted into the cult of riders. Obi measured him with a contemptuous countenance and demanded a witness to corroborate Ekene’s story of his fall and new scar. We all saw him as a good rider, so he lacked the telltale sign that would earn him a rightful place amongst the verified.
Ekene’s father, Mr. Sunny, was the Principal of the neighborhood school, and he owned a Flying Pigeon he loved more than anything in the world. The closest anyone ever got to his bike was when he ordered his son to wash it—and Ekene was kind to let me help. I loved the sound of the spokes when I ran a sponge through them, and the way the mud drained off the tires when I splashed water on them.
Ekene became my best friend for sharing his chore with me and was why I volunteered as a witness to his fall, even when I knew the wound on his elbow was self-inflicted. We all knew his father never allowed him to ride, so I was the only one who knew he practiced with the Flying Pigeon. When he first started, he would beg me—like I needed to be asked—to run after him and catch the bike each time he lost his balance.
After Obi drilled me with a thorough cross-examination and found that my story corresponded with Ekene’s claims, Obi named him a rider. Ekene was so overjoyed that he promised to compensate me with secret riding lessons on his father’s bike. I looked forward to the day he would fulfill his promise, and time never crawled as it did during those next few days. I waited patiently and hoped to surpass my father with a skill soon.
I was at the hearing of another earn-your-scar story when Ekene whispered into my ear that it was time to take my first biking lesson. I shot up from the curb where I sat and followed him with excitement. His father traveled to the State Ministry of Education to do something only a Principal could do for schools. It was October 1, and from the way Mr. Sunny had repainted his Flying Pigeon in green and white, I knew he would return early to attend the Independence Day celebration.
Ekene held the bike while I mounted, but my legs were too short, and they couldn’t reach the pedals. I begged him to allow me to use the ‘monkey style’—where the rider squeezes themselves inside the triangular part of the frame, instead of throwing their legs over the top of the frame, which is common among people of my height—and he reluctantly agreed.
However, because the rider was crammed into a small space, this ‘monkey style’ made the bike more difficult to control.
This was the challenge I faced after turning down a hill and speeding up so terrifyingly fast that Ekene could no longer hold onto the bike. Coincidentally, I crashed on the wall of Obi’s home just as he was stepping out of the house.
The front wheel of the Flying Pigeon twisted into an irreparable infinity symbol. I hit my face on the wall, and the skin of my forehead broke into a fountain of red. When Mr. Sunny came home and saw the shadow of the bike he left behind, he called forth all the demons roaming hell to avenge his Pigeon’s desecration. He refused to be pacified until my father agreed to work on the school farm for a year without pay. The bicycle he couldn’t buy for himself, he agreed to pay in sweat to another man. And it was all my fault.
I vowed that I would work my baby fingers to stubs to buy a Raleigh for my father and a chopper bike for myself, the one I had seen rich children riding. My ambition was so fired up that I took a job with the bicycle mechanic down the street before I learned how to pump a flat.
I worked for the mechanic until I was twelve. I never bought a Raleigh for my father or a chopper for myself, but under his guidance and with his bikes, I earned a scar—and my induction into the cult of riders.
As a kid, I was a Roadmaster until I grew up and learned caution. I was wild until I matured and became tamed. I smell the scent of nostalgia trailing me. It must be an adventure calling.