We called him Uncle Boniface. That wasn’t his real name. Actually we meant “Burny-face” because his face was terribly scarred from a fire accident. I took my English language studies for granted until I heard the story behind Uncle Boniface’s burnt face.
I was a very well-behaved child growing up and wasn’t the kid who got into trouble often. The few times I did get into trouble were because of my intense curiosity, many times over matters that were none of my business. Thankfully, rather than get into trouble when I asked Uncle Boniface how he came about the burns on his face, I learnt a lesson that has stuck with me ever since.
I had gone to his bicycle hire shop to hire my favourite BMX bicycle, but had to wait as he needed to fix a new tube for the rear tyre. As I sat there waiting, I couldn’t take my eyes off his disfigured face glistening with perspiration in the midday sun. “How did your face get burnt?” I sounded out before I realized I was even talking. He paused for some seconds, his eyes though still fixed on the tyre, were focused on somewhere distant, somewhere in the past. Slowly, he dropped the tyre, clasped his palms on his laps and shut his eyes. His breathing had become deep and slow at this time. “English language” he muttered almost inaudibly. Then he turned, looked at me straight in the eyes and repeated loudly this time, “English language!” He didn’t wait for me to make sense of that before he continued:
“I was twelve years old had been attending the primary school in my village for a while. I was enjoying the school experience, especially getting to learn a new language other than my mother tongue; A for apple, B for ball, C for cat, and the likes. I also learnt words and their opposite like good and bad, high and low, big and small, responsible and irresponsible, decent and indecent. The one I didn’t learn did this to me.” Suddenly he grabbed my left shoulder. “How old are you boy?”
‘Thirteen” I replied, a bit confused.
“Do you smoke?” he queried further.
“No o! Smoking is bad! My father will kill me if I do!” I was the model kid of the neighbourhood for Pete’s sake! How could he ask me such an absurd question? He released my shoulder and smiled sadly.
“I had started trying out smoking” he continued. “I wasn’t even your age then. I used to exchange my school lunch of akara for a stick of cigarette with a classmate. Only God knows where he used to get them from. Well, on that fateful day, I got home and headed straight for the yam barn behind the house. It was my smoking hideout. I saw a jerrican of petrol by the barn, kept by my father for his new motorcycle. ‘Highly inflammable’ was inscribed on the jerrican. Going by my school lessons, I reasonedinflammable must be opposite to flammable. To confirm, I took off the cover of the jerrican, and lit the cigarette. I woke up later in the hospital.”
He gave a long wistful sigh before picking up the tyre and recommenced work on it like he never stopped. I can’t remember taking the bicycle out of his shop that day, but I do remember thinking how risky it is to be careless with the English language. I also vowed never to smoke in my entire life. That vow holds strong to this day.
Originally Posted On: storried.com