While my study habits remained intact after my father’s death, my agreeability did not. In addition to being one of the smaller students in my class, it was only a matter of time before class bullies came around to test me. I never fought with anyone before my father died. His death, coupled with moving to Kaduna and being in a new environment, with new parental guardians, new school and no elder brother signalled a major shift in how I related to my peers.
The first time I fought with anybody I was actually blamed. What I realized very quickly was that since nobody was going to stand up for me, I had to do it on my own, and if I did not fight back I was just going to become the punching bag of the neighbourhood.
That attitude changed the way I reacted to anyone that attacked me. People had to know that if they fought me, I would fight back, and even if they beat me up, I would leave scratches on their faces or something even more permanent so that they would remember that even though they won, it came at a cost. To be sure, the bigger boys might always beat me up, but I also always made sure they walked away with some sort of mark to remember me by. I never thought twice about resisting every bully who had a go at me.
There was only one bully that I fought more than once, a boy in my school named Sunday, who eventually dropped out, joined the army and was rumoured to have died in the Nigerian civil war. I do not remember what started us fighting, but he was definitely bigger and stronger than I was and had no problem beating me up in that first encounter.
That first night at home nursing my bruises, the matter was probably over and done with to him, but for me, all I could think about was what should be done next. The following day, I watched him until we went for lunch break. He got his food and started eating. I took some sand in my hands and went and poured it on his food. This meant he had no lunch that day, so he beat me up in anger. The next day after that, I did the same thing – and the next day, and every day after that.
Each time I did that he would beat me up because he was bigger and stronger. However, after about two weeks, I noticed that he became paranoid. We would break for lunch and he would get his food and run over to the football field way out of my sight. Another thing I used to do to Sunday was wait until he would be sitting with his friends, relaxed, and I would walk up behind him and smack him on the head, and give him a nice surprise beating. He would then turn around to beat me up. But I had the element of surprise so I would always get in the first good slap and he could never relax. Eventually he reported me to our class teacher that I was fighting him all the time.
“But how can this small kid be fighting you?” asked the teacher.
“He is – he is harassing me,” said Sunday.
Our teacher then took me aside and asked me what was going on.
“Sunday bullied me.”
“Two months ago,” I said.
“Two months ago?!” exclaimed the teacher.
“Nasir, it was two months ago, it is over.”
“It is not over. He bullied me. The account is not balanced. He beat me up.”
After some failed attempts to get us to reconcile, the teacher took Sunday and I to the headmaster and said she did not know what to do about this, that this tiny boy – that was my nickname, tiny boy – has been harassing Sunday. The headmaster looked at us and said, “This is impossible.” Sunday assured the headmaster that it was true and went on to tell the story. The headmaster then turned to me and asked what happened.
“He bullied me,” I said.
“Did you bully him?” the headmaster asked Sunday.
“Yes we fought, sir,” Sunday replied.
The headmaster directed Sunday to apologize to me, which he then dutifully did. The headmaster then turned to me.
“He has now said he is sorry. Go now and do not fight anymore.”
“But sir, he beat me up several times. Sorry? That is it?”
“Yes! If I see you fighting on school premises, I will deal with you.”
The moment we got out of school, off the premises, I started fighting Sunday again. This carried on for another month. Eventually, his father came to meet my uncle and explained what had been happening.
My uncle then sent for me.
“Is this true – you have been fighting with this boy?”
“Because he bullied me.”
“Three months ago.”
“Three months? You have been fighting for three months?”
“Yes, on and off.”
“Ok, this has been settled now. They have come over. Sunday is sorry. His father has talked to me, so no more fighting. Do you understand?”
“I understand. But can I just slap him one last time?”
Since many of our school mates knew about this incident, nobody else fought with me afterwards, and the only bullies I had to contend with were around town. This incident taught me a tactic that I have since found endlessly useful in public life: standing up to bullies is a good way of buying permanent peace. As a child I knew that I was not very strong, I was not big, and I would likely lose, but if I can give the bully a hard enough time, he would not do it again. Permanent peace comes about as the result of a resolute and uncompromising effort to define your position on a matter – and that is the way things are.
Culled from Nasir El Rufai’s memoir, “The Accidental Public Servant.”