Jatto and his mother sat in the outdoor kitchen behind their house. Jatto’s mother stirred the groundnuts she was roasting in a clay pot over firewood while Jatto read a book aloud in English.
Jatto was the best reader in his class, but he didn’t always like reading to his mother. She spoke only Esan, one of the languages in Nigeria, where they lived. Wasn’t it a waste of time to read to someone who couldn’t understand? His mother didn’t even realize when he made mistakes. Still, she insisted he read aloud every day.
“It seems like a nice story,” she said in Esan.
Jatto fanned away smoke.
His mother emptied the nuts into a tray and rubbed hot handfuls between her palms. When she blew on the nuts, their skins floated to the ground like feathers. “Let’s bottle these when you finish reading,” she said.
Jatto shook his head. He had so much homework to do. “I’ll never finish reading.”
He said “never” in English because there was no word for never in Esan.
“What’s ‘never’?” she asked.
Jatto cleared his throat to speak in his important voice. The one he used for explaining English words. “It means I won’t stop reading today, tomorrow, or the day after.” He drew circles in the air. “Nor the day after the day after tomorrow, the day after the day after, the day after . . .”
“Oh, OK! That’s forever,” his mother said.
Jatto stared at the nuts. Each one was cream-colored and whole. His stomach rumbled.
Now would be a good time to stop reading and eat some, he thought. But he couldn’t ask. It was just a short while after he’d talked about never. He thought about the big circles he’d drawn in the air to help his mother understand the word. Maybe he could explain that never didn’t mean he couldn’t stop to eat.
Jatto’s mother whistled. Tam-tam, their goat, trotted up to them. Jatto flared his nostrils so he could smell goat-milk air as his mother milked her. Tam-tam’s milk was the best he’d ever tasted. Jatto’s mother fed her plenty of mint leaves.
Jatto needed to take his mind off food. “Mama, why do you make me read to you even though you don’t understand?”
“I want you to practice speaking English often because I can’t speak it with you,” she said.
“I can practice English in my head,” he said.
His mother smiled. “We share our stories aloud with others, not in our heads where no one can hear them. Our people have always told our stories aloud.”
Jatto nodded. The oral tradition. He’d learned about that in school.
“Why don’t I tell you a story.” She handed him some nuts and milk. “You can eat while I talk.”
He ate as she began. The story was about a young man named Kanadoran who wanted to marry a princess. Before Kanadoran could marry, the king gave him impossible tasks. Kanadoran managed to complete them and marry the princess.
By the middle of the story, Jatto had finished eating. He bottled the nuts without being asked again.
Soon, Jatto was singing the story’s refrain with his mother.
“You never tell me stories,” he said when they stopped singing.
His mother sighed. “I used to, but when you started school, I wanted you to focus on English.”
Jatto swallowed. “I make a lot of mistakes when I read to you.”
His mother laughed. “I guessed so. But I like hearing the sound of your voice while I work.”
Jatto nodded. He knew what she meant. He had enjoyed listening to her story as he bottled the nuts. It made the work seem easier. “I have an idea,” he said. “Next time, I will read a story to you in English, then I will tell you the same story in Esan. We can even make up songs together.”
“Great! And I will tell you stories in Esan and you can say them back to me in English. Let’s ‘never’ stop sharing stories.”
Jatto smiled. His mother’s understanding of never was even better than his own.
From Highlights Magazine