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The defining experience of my life is secondary school. I attended a military school from 1992 to 1997. I actually enrolled in November 1991, but since the academic calendar had been changed that year, our set was the 1992 set. I had applied to the school because an older cousin who was a student used to come around and he looked really sharp in his uniform.

The school had a fagging culture. This means that seniors had power over juniors. Seniors could hit juniors for any reason or no reason. Juniors were essentially the slaves of their seniors - doing their laundry, shining their shoes, fetching water and generally doing errands. Senior boys also regularly extorted food and money from the junior boys.

One way for a junior boy to protect himself was to secure the protection of a powerful senior. Such power could be physical but usually it was based on charisma. If it was known that the junior boy was under such protection, the bullying and molestation would be moderated until such a time as the senior boy left the school. The seniors extended such protection for many reasons. Sometimes it was because there was a relationship outside the school - maybe blood relations or neighbors or church members or the boy has a beautiful sister that the senior hopes (usually hopelessly) to court. Other times, relationships could be for more altruistic reasons, a senior could like you and thus choose to protect you. Another reason, though this was only alleged, was sexual. However, the most common way to secure protection was to buy it either with money or food. We were allowed to bring some pocket money and foodstuffs, usually powdered milk, powdered chocolate, biscuits, instant noodles and garri and during visiting days, these provisions (also known as grub) were replenished by our parents or whoever came to visit us. One could give some of that grub and/or money and buy some peace. This strategy was risky because the bargain was implied, not stated. Thus, one could give away one's stuff and get nothing in return. And if the junior boy was not subtle, he could irritate the extorter and incur his wrath. Further, even if a senior was not one's protector or even an active bully, he could ask or take the grub and the junior boy ought not to complain, or at least not complain too loudly. And that was what I refused to do. I just could not give my stuff to anyone who had bullied me. And for that reason, my seniors said I was greedy. They meant stingy but they used the word greedy. And sadly, even my mates came to believe that. It hurt then and it hurts now. And it strengthened my resolve. I would only give my friends my stuff. If I did not like you, I would not give you anything even if you were my mate. It also made me loath to ask anyone for anything. Except my friends.

Another problem I had was that people thought I had money. My father was relatively wealthy and he was well known. Boys from rich families often came to school with stupendously huge amounts of money. My father was not like that. He gave me the minimum recommended by the school. That minimum was N50 per term. Some boys allegedly came to school with N2,500. That was a lot of money in the 90s, more than the annual salary of a middle manager in a well paid institution. I still find it hard to believe those stories, but then, that was the military era, when generals ruled the country and they had so much money, they did not know what to do with it. If there were boys who had such money, how was I supposed to compete with them? So, in this case, when seniors or mates demanded money, I genuinely did not have it. This just worsened my reputation. I would like to think it strengthened my character because even now, I will not pay for popularity and I am not swayed by generosity.

One thing that the stigmatization did for me though, was to make me willing to give, if I have, to people I think are deserving. It is more than 20 years since I left secondary school. In that time, I have been relatively successful. Many of my mates and seniors now often ask me for money. The requests can be burdensome because someone asks everyday. If it is not someone from school, then it is a poor relative. I have been criticized for being too openhanded. And I wonder if I am overcompensating for that "greedy" tag. Most of the requests are affordable as it is money I barely miss. Most of the requests come from a place of genuine need - someone needs transport fare to go to work, or to buy food pending when salaries are paid; another needs to pay hospital bills, or rent and so on. I am also grateful that I can afford to be that charitable, that I am seen as an approachable person and that I do not ask anyone for such things. However, when I say no, I start asking myself if I am being stingy.

Despite how bad I had it in secondary school, I remember it fondly. And if I had to relive my life, I would probably still attend that school. I am more proud of it than of my university.