(based on a true story)
Don’t tell lies, ever. No matter what – not even little white lies. -Margaret Keane
It was the dry Harmattan season in Nigeria. It had been a hot and unusually sticky day. I was only a little over nine years old.
I had developed a lot of interests, one of which was lighting matches, burning paper, and watching the fire reduce the paper to ashes. I was playing this game when I heard my name being called somewhere beyond the locked doors of my room. I hastily put the burning papers in the dresser where I kept all my clothes. Looking back at that moment, I wonder if my brain had fully developed at that age. I went downstairs to answer the call and found mummy waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Yes, Mummy?” I said.
“Do you know where the box of matches is?” she asked.
I shook my head a couple of times. After my response, she called my twin sister, Jane. This gave me a chance to leave and return to my newfound interest upstairs in the quiet of my room.
When I threw open the door to my room, my heart dropped as my mouth gaped open. For a moment, I lost my voice. When my speech came back to me, I screamed, “My room is on fire! My room is on fire!”
Mummy raced to my room with thunderous steps to find out what had happened. Her reaction was no different from mine. She screamed, snatched three buckets that were standing outside our bathroom, fetched water from the large drum outside, and shoved the full buckets into the hands of my brother, my sister, and I. She then ran to get Daddy, who wasn’t very far away. The neighbors, who were standing outside and watching a room of our house being eaten away, called the firemen.
Daddy hurried home from work. He ran upstairs and immediately headed for the water drum. Because we didn’t have enough water to put the fire out, he decided to put it out in his own way. He stormed into the room, picked up the burning closet, and hurled it out of the doors that led to our balcony. I watched as it crashed onto the ground below. Burning fragments of wood flew out everywhere, some of which hit my neighbors and forced them to move back. The orange flames soon disappeared, but my guilty conscience wasn’t going anywhere—not unless I confessed.
The fire gave the room a distinctive odor of burning paper, wood, and cloth. A grayish stain from the smoke had formed on the wall. The smoke had begun to seep through the opened window and the doors leading to the balcony.
By now, all our neighbors were congregated outside our house like sheep without a shepherd. They seemed puzzled. The harsh sound of whispers rose from the crowd. There was only one thing they wanted to know. Who caused all this commotion?
I was standing out there with them, but I turned away in either shame and disgust because I couldn’t bear to see all those curious eyes staring into my guilty conscience. I felt an urgent tap on my shoulders. I turned around, and I saw the lady who lived across from us. She wanted to know what happened. Everyone had questions to ask. Even my siblings were part of this crowd. I had to find a scapegoat, fast. I looked to my right and found my way out, my little sister on the floor right next to my leg with her thumb in her mouth. “Hmmm,” I thought. “I could get away with this pretty easily.”
I then began delivering a false story to the crowd. I told my audience that I had just finished using the bathroom and was heading for the kitchen when I noticed my little sister sleeping in my room. She had just woken up from sleep. I mentioned that I saw a box of matches lying on the floor beside the overflowing cupboard, but I thought nothing of it.
“As I went down the stairs,” I said, “my eyes were burning, and I started to cough really badly. This was a sign that something bad was happening. I ran back into the room because I heard my sister crying. When I opened the door a little wider, there was too much smoke. I carried my little sister out of the room and into the kitchen where Mummy was cooking and yelled, ‘my room is on fire!’ Mummy screamed at the top of her lungs, ordering us to get buckets of water to quench the fire. Then she went to call Daddy, who was only miles away. We ran out of water in no time, so this didn’t work.
“When Daddy came home, he had a big frown on his face. He was angry. Mummy quickly told him what happened. Daddy went into the room, opened the balcony doors, and threw the burning drawer to the ground below.”
Everyone seemed impressed by my bravery.
“You saved your sister’s life,” they told me.
I walked away feeling proud yet awfully guilty. This guilt followed me around for two weeks, a constant thorn in my side. Everywhere I went, it seemed like everyone was talking about the fire. I became afraid that everyone might read the guilty expression written all over my face. I was fighting with my conscience, the inner voice that was pushing me to tell the truth. I cried every night as I thought about what I had done. I had lied to mummy and daddy and blamed my little sister for a crime she did not commit. I felt like a criminal. That voice kept on pushing, determined to win the fight. It finally won after two weeks, and I finally spent half an hour explaining this awful truth to my parents as they listened in surprise.
After I had confessed, I ran to my room and stayed there for dinner and breakfast. I was finally dragged out by my roaring stomach. It ached with great pain as though I had been stabbed in many places with a knife. When I got downstairs, I ate quickly and in isolation. As I was about to rush upstairs, I heard daddy—calling me by my Nigerian name—say, “Osarhiemwen, come here!”
I walked towards daddy in a hurry, knowing that I was going to get punished. Instead, he and Mummy counseled me earnestly on why lying was a bad trait to develop. I was euphoric and relieved that the feeling of guilt and humiliation had gone away after two whole weeks of it eating up my soul. It was one of the many lessons in life I had to learn the hard way, and I’m glad my parents made sure it was one I remembered.
Another important lesson I learned: playing with fire really burns. After this experience, I developed a healthy respect for fire. From that day on, every box of matches serves as a lasting reminder of this unfavorable interest and the day that I set my room on fire.