I knew something was not right with my tongue the day Brother Onyeka sent me to buy him a 35-cl bottle of Coke. This was in the late 1990s; I was a little boy of about six. I returned with a 25-cl bottle, sold at ten naira less. Somehow, the big boy at Mama Emma’s shop had heard fifty for sixty when I said, ‘I want to buy Coke, the sixty naira one,’ and proceeded to give me what I did not request.
‘I said the sixty naira one,’ I repeated, stretching out the chilled bottle back to him.
‘Yes naa,’ he returned impatiently, grabbing the bottle to show other patrons around the 25 cl embossed on it. ‘Is this not 25 cl? This is the one sold for fifty naira.’
I pushed the matter no further.
But I became gloomy and did not join my brothers whom I had been playing with.
The next days or weeks I was more self-conscious and attentive, trying as I spoke to discover what part or parts of my speech organs made the difference, watching to see if my listeners’ countenances twitched on hearing f where they expected to hear s, for how the movement of others’ mouths as they spoke was different from mine.
I found out what the problem was: the tip of my tongue peeked through my teeth whenever it encountered the sounds s and z. I made a conscious effort to overcome this problem, which meant more weeks of close attention as I fought to clasp my teeth before the tongue could peek through each time I had to pronounce any of the problematic sounds (an important takeaway from that period is that s is probably the commonest English sound). It was not easy, like making sure your eyes do not blink is not easy, and at first the sounds came out—at least in my hearing—as ts and dz. But after some long months, my brother Udoka remarked with the detachment of an onlooker that I no longer said five when I meant size.
I’ve stammered for as long as I can remember. My remotest memory of feeling deflated from the condition happened in school while I was nine or ten, in primary 4. A pupil had presented a speech on magnets at the morning assembly, and the teacher on duty now asked questions on the presentation. I didn’t raise my hand when she asked Who can tell us what a magnet is? and How do we make magnets?, because the questions required lots of talk. How would I navigate the long bumpy paths of the many words and sentences without stumbling and falling, which no doubt would elicit wild jeers from the whole school? When she asked for examples of magnets, I considered which between bar magnets and horseshoe magnets would give the less trouble, and raised my hand: ‘Aunty, I—Aunty, I.’ She pointed at me and I skittered out with excitement to speak into the microphone.
‘B-bbbb-bbar magnet,’ I sputtered like the engine of a vehicle.
The whole assembly exploded into wild laughter, while I joined my mates back in the file, so embarrassed that I wished I could become invisible.
There was a pattern to speech presentations at Holy Child Primary School, Fegge, Onitsha, the primary school I attended: the pupils of the most senior class, primary 6, were always the first to go, according to their names alphabetically listed in their class register; then the next class in line, primary 5, then primary 4, and so on. Often, the junior classes (primaries 3 to 1), even some primary 4 pupils—those whose names were last in the class register—never got to present by the time a term ended. And the next term, the primary 6 pupils would begin again.
I knew the problem I had, and with this arrangement of speech presentations I somehow didn’t want to get past primary 3. But I got past primary 3, as one of the best pupils even, other forces trumping this one drawback, and some weeks after the midterm break, the first pupil in primary 4 presented their speech. I was number 10 in the class register and there was nowhere to hide now. I lived the few days to my speech in acute anxiety, thinking a lot for a little boy of nine or ten, pausing abruptly in the middle of an errand or play to contemplate my predicament, the topic that would give the least trouble—or, when I had decided on a topic, to recite the speech in my head. In my head there were no hitches, the words flowed effortlessly, like a palm gliding on a smooth thigh.
I lay awake on the eve of my presentation stewing over how to make a less embarrassing show. I told myself not to fear, since fear would come with pressure which would fan the stammer. I knew it would not be possible to completely eliminate fear, pressure, at the thought of facing a crowd at that age—and maybe at all ages—but I was also aware that the hurdle flung in the way of a stammerer is more daunting, that fear and pressure wouldn’t have been much of a problem if they did not also prevent the free flow of my words. I told myself to remember to go easy, to stop and draw a deep breath whenever I encountered a particularly knotty sound, instead of struggling to let it out in one breath and thereby get stuck repeating the preceding consonant.
At the assembly ground in the morning, I walked out briskly just as the teacher conducting the assembly shouted into the microphone, ‘Speech—time for speech.’ Tipping my gaze just over the heads of my audience, I introduced myself and the topic—Kitchen Equipment and Utensils—without much trouble. But I proceeded to stammer through the rest of the speech, gobbling at the words without pausing for breath, completely oblivious of my advice to myself to take things easy. I must have been so absorbed in my snarling mouth, in vomiting out the lumps of words that strangulated my throat, that wanted to tear my jaws, because I can’t remember now if my mates pealed with laughter through the entire presentation, or the teacher shushed them when they wanted to. I shoved through the words, crashing into the impossible sounds, with the effect that I was winded and burned to a frazzle by the time I was done.
The teacher was about to ask the pupils questions on the speech when the headmistress, a nun, approached the assembly ground from where she had been standing on the pavement that ran round the church building (the school was on church premises). The teacher paused when she noticed the headmistress striding with measured grace, her grey habit flickering in the wind, and the assembly ground fell hushed as though the Holy Ghost was passing. The headmistress took the microphone and addressed the assembly. She said that the idea behind speech presentations was to entertain and educate, and not just education on anything, but on things not so familiar. Hence, Kitchen Utensils and Equipment and the other topics the pupils favored were not eligible subjects for speeches, but stories and current issues the assembly might not be so conversant with were. She then declared that I’d have to prepare on one of the eligible topics and repeat the speech the next morning, and the entire assembly turned to look at me, maybe in pity or to see if I wanted to cry.
It was therefore one more day and night of anxious contemplation. But this new anxiety did not stem from the consciousness that I would present the speech again—I had decided there at the assembly ground, just as the headmistress made her decree, that I wasn’t going to repeat my turn; I had presented my speech and that was that, the next pupil should bother with the eligible topics. The problem that instead preoccupied me was how to be late to school. My siblings and I were often among the first set of pupils in school, and there was no way I could deliberately lag in my preparation for school without their, or my parents’, noticing, especially my mother, who was usually the last member of the household to leave for her daily business. So the next morning I got ready for the day with apparent enthusiasm like everyone else, but on the way to school I handed my satchel to a classmate, a pretty, rheumy-eyed girl who lived in my neighborhood, pleading that I forgot something at home and needed to go get it. Then I strolled home to tell my mum that I was having a stomach upset, before proceeding to the toilet where, instead of sitting on the white bowl, I leaned against the frame of the casement and watched the birds swooping into the thick foliage of the gigantic mango tree underneath which some Hausa men sold provisions and mended footwear. I watched the streets too—Nzekwu Ojudo, Scott White, Kaduna, Abatete, all intersecting at Orlu—and when the rush of schoolchildren began to subside I knew it was time to go, that the assembly must have ended.
Except for a sprinkling of late students, the school premises were deserted when I arrived. I stole towards the main classroom block, rehearsing the excuse I’d give any teacher that accosted me: No, Aunty. I’m not late—I had come earlier. I forgot something urgent and only went home to get it. Can’t you see I have no bag?
In the classroom, our teacher gave me a message from the headmistress: ‘Nzube, Sister said you should go to all the classrooms and deliver your speech.’
I knew from the flippant way she said Sister said (Sister, this game is between you and this boy. Why involve me?) that she wouldn’t bother with enforcement, that she only conveyed the message because she had to, so she’d say she told me. I was grateful to her. More than anyone else, she knew my whereabouts in school, controlled my whereabouts to a great extent, and could have given me more days and nights of panic attacks, but she chose not to. She chose to give me back my happiness. Who is to say how I’d have turned out if not for that one act of kindness, for her sensitivity? I probably would have begun to play truant, because I feared my dad—whose loud voice and peremptory manner created a chasm between him and his children—and couldn’t have asked him to change me to a different school. And who’s to say what truancy would have landed me into, the path it would have led me? I am grateful to that teacher—she was the first person who understood me.
I did not hear from Sister again, and I became a happy boy again.
I have a cleft palate, a short narrow split in the roof of my mouth, which makes it difficult to pronounce the sounds l and r, makes them come out as –ng, as in drink and singing.
I was in my late teens when I realized that this slit is not normal, that it is the reason I cannot correctly articulate r and l, that everyone who articulates every sound right has their palate even. My dictionary was open before me, cleft palate one of the lexemes on the pages. I read the definition and knew at once that cleft palate was the name for this slit in the roof of my mouth. I was quite surprised that the lexicographers knew about this condition, knew the name, a condition I always thought was peculiar to me because I never met anyone else who had it.
Armed now with its name, I usually googled about the condition. I found that my case is a very mild one, that some people have both a cleft palate and a cleft lip—the slit runs through the roof of their mouth to their upper lip, stopping somewhere just below their nose.
I was in primary 5 when I learned that I have this condition (my l and r sound perfect in my hearing). The teacher had asked us to keep quiet and place our heads on our desks. But after a while Emeka Okolo said something and the teacher asked who made the noise.
‘It’s Emeka Okolo,’ I shouted, and the whole class exploded with laughter.
It was a strange, exaggerated reaction—we often told on each other, my classmates and I, so often that this shouldn’t have warranted such cacophonous laughter. I felt my visage throb with a rush of embarrassment, wished that I could disappear into the floor, as I realized that the laughter was directed at me, that they laughed because of what I said. Somehow, it came to me that the problem lay in my pronunciation of the l in Okolo.
Like when I discovered that I had a lisp, I did my best to conquer this defect. But this proved tricky, not least because I couldn’t place the source of the problem, didn’t know which part or parts of my speech organ caused the trouble, and so didn’t know what to adjust. With more attention after I found out that I had a lisp, I was able to hear my f’s when I meant to say s, to notice that my siblings’ tongues did not peek out when they wanted to pronounce z. But with my discovery that I couldn’t properly articulate r and l, the sounds continued to sound so perfect, so that I couldn’t compare my articulation with other people’s as there was no apparent difference.
I wanted to record my voice on our stereo to hear how those sounds sounded, to scream into the beginning of one of my mum’s gospel music cassettes: Aralụ Aralụ Aralụ. As my brothers bothered with mother tongue interference, tried to overcome mixing up the two sounds, which often prove difficult for my Igbo people of Anambra, I sat, uneasy, and watched with longing, wishing that I could at least pronounce the sounds even if I confused them.
My mum, always ready with a theory on everything, said something about a doctor who should have cut off some delicate skin underneath my tongue—at the meeting point of my inner lower gum and the frenulum of my tongue—which was responsible for the defect, but never did because Mum never went back, and I seethed with quiet anger and silently blamed her for not caring enough. I began to compulsively feel that spot with the tip of my tongue, to occasionally take a view of my raised tongue, mouth open, in a mirror. There were indeed some weeny bits of skin, tonsil-like, that looked like they did not belong there.
I don’t think now that there was any appointment with any doctor, nor that those pieces of skin are abnormal. And I know that my mother, probably aware how much I needed some reason to clutch onto, cared enough to lie.
Growing up, there was nothing I feared more than teaching, more than speaking formally to a group of people. But in my senior secondary school years, I began to nurse this desire to become a teacher. I admired the easy ability of good teachers to hold a class rapt, their aura of authority even when they are not trying to exert authority. The crippling fear was still there, as obstinate as an empty calabash gourd that wouldn’t sink in water, but the desire grew to match it, to be more obstinate, so that I ended up a teacher after my secondary school.
My first time in class, I was too absorbed in myself, in my performance, to notice my students’ countenances, their body language. I was uneasy and stuttered occasionally. Because I taught mostly mathematics and physics, subjects that didn’t involve much discussion, which meant less talking—or more formulaic talking, full of specialized terms—I was able to keep my stammer in check. For physics, I adopted my own physics teacher’s method of dictating notes and pausing, when necessary, to explain a concept or solve an exercise. Some of my students frowned and had confused expressions whenever I read words like acceleration and parallelogram, and I would inch towards the board to write out what I meant. I tended to ‘swallow’ those sounds, a strategy I had adopted many years before in a bid to overcome the defect, but which makes either of them come out as an aspirate.
Once, I overstayed in a class, and my students remonstrated because it was break. So I told them that whoever wanted to go for break could. Immediately, a girl went, ‘You can go for bheak, you can go for bheak, you can go for bheak,’ at the top of her voice, while her mates fell over themselves with laughter. I was used to my students’ subtle mockery of my condition—the shielding of faces against desks to laugh and whisper, the exchange of surreptitious giggles—but this was on another scale. I felt very embarrassed, but I ignored her, which is my default predisposition towards the many taunts I experience because of my defects.
I no longer teach; after doing so for roughly four years staggered across ten, I got something that pays better. But towards my last years as a teacher I was obsessing a lot about my cleft palate, how it affected my communication and what my students’ perception of a teacher who couldn’t properly articulate some sounds was. The obsession was so visceral that I stopped dictating my notes and resorted to writing on the board, which adversely affected productivity.
In 2016, my sister told me of a woman who said nine when she meant line. ‘She has this way of talking,’ my sister continued. ‘She can’t articulate r and l, calls them n.’ I was happy, not at the woman’s inability, but to hear that this defect wasn’t after all peculiar to me. I had known I had this defect for close to fifteen years, had discovered the name about five years ago, but I’d never met or heard of someone who suffered the same.
I reckoned that the sounds didn’t exactly come out as n—people do confuse the -ng of my case for n sometimes—and told my sister so, told her I had the same defect, asked if she had never noticed. She looked visibly surprised, as she admitted that she had never noticed. I could see she said the truth—it wasn’t a case of flattery, of not wanting to hurt my feelings. Nor was it a case of inattention on her part. I think it was more about having spent all her life with me, having internalized my pronunciation of those sounds to have come to associate it as my way of pronouncing them, not necessarily an inaccurate way, but simply my way.
I’d have loved to meet the woman, to interact with her, but the husband was a retired police officer and had moved with his family to his hometown.
One of the labyrinths of subconscious thoughts I often find myself trying to navigate is that of choosing between stammering and a cleft palate. If God had sought my opinion on which I’d rather bear when He wanted to make me, which would I have chosen? Even with the seeming benefit of hindsight, the question always plunges me into a tricky quandary. Sometimes I choose a cleft palate, because the embarrassment of stammering is instant and obvious, with no pretensions. But just as I settle on this choice, I’d reason that a cleft palate is rarer—that not many people have met someone with it, which makes it hard for them to understand my pronunciations of the difficult sounds—and then choose stammering. Other times, I go the same cycle in reverse.
As a child, I used to pray to God to remove both since He can do all things. Other times, I would tell myself not to be greedy and prayed for one, although I made sure to spare myself the dither of choosing by asking God to take away whichever He pleased.
I think there’s some correlation between stammering and self-consciousness—and I’m very self-conscious. I do not mean that stammering is not independent of self-consciousness. What I mean is that there is a way our impairment—I think this is true also for some other impairments—can become amplified if we’re so focused on it, if we dwell on the impression we make on people, on people’s opinion of us, because of the condition. But people don’t really care. They are mostly inattentive, mostly focused on their own headaches to notice or bother with the next person’s, and although I’ve been jeered at for my impediments, I’ve had friends and students of many months and years admit that they never noticed I have these impairments.
Now, it has to be said that self-consciousness isn’t such a bad strain, and without it I probably wouldn’t have overcome the lisp, probably wouldn’t have told this story.
About the Author:
Nzube Ifechukwu was born in Nigeria on May 25, 1992, where he has lived since. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His works have appeared in Lolwe, Brittle Paper and Jalada Africa. He was shortlisted for the 2017 Brittle Paper Literary Awards.