by: Sang Kromah
“We need to talk about Rugi.” Six words Ali and Mary Bangoura never expected to hear, regarding their 14-year old daughter. But on this day, Rugiatu Bangoura put a curse on 16-year old Kevin Brennan, and Liberty High School was never the same again.
There was nothing average about Rugi. With coily hair that was normally piled neat and high, she was quite a sight in a town as small as Sykesville. While her peers were interested in what was trending and new SnapChat filters, Rugi’s head was in a book or reviewing books for the local paper.
It was the first day back at school, after summer vacation, and nothing much had changed since Rugi left tenth grade behind. She was still smaller than her classmates. She was still younger than her classmates. And the fact that her name included more syllables than most teachers were capable or willing to pronounce, didn’t make her life any easier either.
As she fervently searched the quad for friendly, familiar faces, she caught the unwanted attention of Kevin Brennan, a boy as ugly as he was racist, and never missed an opportunity to remind Rugi and the rest of the school just how different she was. It started in Mrs. Cole’s eighth grade Language Arts class when Rugi received a double promotion and skipped two grades, making her the youngest eighth grader to ever attend Sykesville Academy. It was something to be proud of. Something Mr. and Mrs. Bangoura never stopped talking about, but for some people, particularly Kevin, every new success of Rugi’s ate away at him like a cancer.
In real life, people rarely use the phrase mortal enemy outside of fiction, but in this case, the term was fitting. Kevin hated everything about Rugi from the way her bowlegs made her wobble ever-so-slightly when she walked to the fact that she always knew the answers to questions asked in class. He once had her clothes stolen, while she was in P.E., so she had to walk around school in her gym uniform for an entire day. And another time, he locked her in a supply closet for an entire period in the ninth grade. He never missed an opportunity to make fun of her complexion and never shied away from cultural stereotypes about fried chicken, watermelon, or being late, even though Rugi was always annoyingly on-time and happened to hate fried chicken with a burning passion.
Kevin was particularly rotten, and Rugi didn’t care much for him either, but she tried extremely hard not to show it. He never called her by her given name. While most kids called her Rugi, Kevin came up with a name that stuck with her from eighth grade to eleventh. A name that she went an entire summer without hearing because she had spent it in Liberia, with her family.
“I thought you got deported, African Bootyscratcher?”
Ignoring him normally did the trick, but as she attempted to make her way around him, Kevin blocked her path with his gorilla-like frame, making an escape impossible.
“The last time I checked, you can’t be deported to Pennsylvania,” Rugi said, unwilling to explain, once more, that she was born in America. She made another failed attempt to go around Kevin’s towering figure. “And the next time you fix your mouth to call me anything other than my government name, I will show you what an African Bootyscratcher really is.”
This threat intrigued Kevin. His freckled-face blazed almost as red as his shockingly red hair as he laughed, alerting the surrounding students that something was amidst. His beady black eyes were a little more hateful than usual. His stained bucked teeth seemed a little longer as he spoke, and the usually calm and seemingly impenetrable Rugi found herself becoming increasingly angry as she awaited his response.
“Rugiatu Bangoura, are you threatening to hit me?” He feigned concern as his laughter died down.
“Oh, so you do know my name?” She shook her head, preparing to walk away.
“Go back to Africa, ya African Bootyscratcher.”
Even the most patient people have a breaking point, and this was Rugi’s. Maybe it was the fact that she’d spent three solid months in her parents’ native sub-Saharan African country, where names like Rugiatu weren’t so odd. Maybe it was the fact that she had spent that time with a grandmother, whose storytelling left Rugi not wanting to crack open a book. Or maybe she had realized that Kevin’s incessant bullying would never stop unless she stood up for herself.
Truth be told, it was a combination of all, but Rugi evoked an amount of confidence that appeared too big to fit within her petite body.
With an unnerving calmness that encouraged more onlookers, Rugi placed her backpack on the ground, dramatically cracking her knuckles, before taking a step backward and crouching in a dramatic manner her grandmother once made, while re-enacting one of her far-fetched tales. She clapped her hands together once and began to chant in a make-believe language that sounded nothing like her grandmother’s native tongue.
“Abu abu yaya.
Acaw acaw yaya.
Aray aray djinna.”
She clapped her hands together three deliberate times as her lips curled upward in a devious smile that made the hairs stand on the back of the necks of all on-lookers, particularly Kevin.
“Kevin Brennan, you have until 2:35 today, to publicly apologize to me for every hateful thing you’ve ever said and done to me or else this won’t be some seven-hour curse. It will follow you and your children’s children.”
They all began to laugh, making it no secret that they all thought Rugi had lost her mind in Africa. And although Kevin laughed along with the others, he felt quite uneasy as Rugi picked up her backpack and walked away, fiddling with a thick black rope wrapped around her wrist.
Kevin laughed with his friends as he made his way to homeroom, but somewhere deep within his subconscious, worry began to settle in. Rugiatu Bangoura was one of the most precocious people he’d ever met, not the type of girl to say things she didn’t mean.
His smile disintegrated upon entering Mr. French’s homeroom. His eyes landed on Rugi, sitting front and center. The sight of her was enough to make him trip over his own feet.
Everyone laughed, but not Rugi, who sat, stone-faced, once again fiddling with the black rope.
Kevin clumsily made his way to the only unoccupied seat, directly behind Rugi, who gave him no more than a side-eye glance and a slight smirk.
In first period, Kevin somehow ripped the seat of his pants. Ironically, he spent the rest of the day in his gym shorts from last year that were a little too tight.
In second period English Lit., Ms. Koenig made an example out of him for being the only student who had completed none of his required summer reading.
In third period, Amy Kim verbally eviscerated him for referring to her as Chinese, after she gave a play by play of her summer vacation, visiting family in South Korea.
Poor Kevin, anyone with a heart might have said after the day he was having. It was only halfway through the day and he’d already acquired two detentions, ripped his pants, and made an enemy out of the most popular girl in Liberty’s growing Asian population. But if you had known Kevin and what he was capable of, what was happening to him was the least of what karma owed him.
By lunchtime, Kevin began to laugh off the thought that maybe, just maybe, Rugi may have cursed him until it was time to pay for the double serving cheeseburger lunch, he was accustomed to inhaling. He gestured to dig his hands into his pocket, only to realize he had no pockets. For you see, Kevin’s lunch money was in the pocket of his ripped skinny jeans, which were now in the trash.
His face became probably as red as his butt was when he had fallen on it earlier. Kevin was usually the one laughing students out of the line when they were only a few coins short, so the irony of him being the one holding up the line wasn’t lost on him.
If he were a kind person, one of the students behind him may have lent him the money. If he wasn’t always so rude to the lunch ladies, maybe they would have given him a pass, but he was none of those things. Just as he was about to spout something heinous and storm out of the line, his eyes met Rugi’s brown doe eyes, watching him like a hawk, from just a few feet away.
“Tick tock. Tick tock.” Rugi mouthed, before heading to her lunch table.
If there was any doubt in Kevin Brennan’s mind that Rugiatu Bangoura was a witch, this moment nullified those doubts. After all, his day had been off to a great start until she put her African curse on him.
It was no coincidence that Rugi happened to be there for every one of Kevin’s unfortunate events. When you are one of many that have been victimized by the school bully, it doesn’t take much convincing to form a coven against your oppressor. Rugi’s friends that Kevin had dubbed the United Nations were all his prime targets. Anil Gupta, who created a student check-in app for the school, Amy Kim, who actually built a robotic mascot for the school, and Mariam Abdul, a poet, who has actually spoken about human rights at the UN headquarters. The four girls had one thing in common in Kevin’s eyes; they were exceptional, and he wasn’t. Mariam, who happens to work in the front office, emailed Kevin’s schedule to Rugi, who then made it her business to show up at each one of Kevin’s classes to simply freak him out.
And it worked.
The temperature throughout the halls of Liberty High School remained at a steady 65-degree mark, but Kevin was sweating profusely. And to top it off, Rugi now had her friends pointing accusingly at him whenever they’d see him in the halls. By fifth period, Kevin was frantically Googling “how to remove an African curse”. He tried ordering a hoodoo mojo bag, but it wouldn’t get to him before 2:35.
He was desperate. “
“This is what happens when foreigners are allowed to come to America. They bring all of their magic and witchcraft along for the ride,” he mumbled to himself. Kevin skipped sixth period altogether, making his way to the school library for the first time since freshman orientation.
When he opened the door to the library, he was shocked to find Rugi behind the counter. Truth be told, she was just as shocked to see him.
“What are you doing here, African Boo…” he stopped mid-Bootyscratcher as Rugi began to fiddle with the black rope with her eyes intently fixed on him.
“You were saying?” she asked. “And do remember, it’s 1:30 now. You have about an hour to publicly apologize to me.”
“Fix it, you witch.” Even though he was going through emotional hell, he was still as terrible as ever.
He still hadn’t learned his lesson, so Rugi wasn’t done torturing him.
“Shouldn’t you be in Ecology now?” Rugi’s voice was calm and confident.
Kevin’s eyes opened wide as Rugi left the comfort of her chair.
“How-how’d you know that?” he stuttered, taking a step backward.
“You’d be surprised by how much I know.”
“Someone told you.”
“You don’t listen, do you?” For each step Rugi took forward, Kevin took one backward. “I know and see everything. And I told you that you were going to regret being nasty to me and yet, you continue. And you think things are bad now? Wait until 2:35.”
Kevin took one last step, putting his back against a wall of books that startled him, but still, he defiantly looked into Rugi’s face and uttered the words, African Bootyscratcher.
Rage surged through Rugi’s body, turning her blood to lava. Her hands shook. Her heart rate accelerated. Her vision darkened and she opened her mouth, unsure of what was going to come out, but the words she used earlier began to come again:
“Abu abu yaya.
Acaw acaw yaya.
Aray aray djinna.”
But this time, as she said the words, it was her grandmother’s voice and not her own. She clapped her hands, just as she had done before and the lights began to flicker off and on as Rugi slowly approached Kevin. Fear was eminent in his eyes, but his stubborn and foolish pride wouldn’t allow him to apologize. In his eyes, Rugi and people like her were robbing people like him of opportunities. All of Kevin’s life, his father had preached of the opportunities immigrants had taken away from true blue Americans like him, and Rugi was a textbook example of this. He never received accolades because Rugi and the rest of the United Nations had stolen them from real Americans, the ones with four American born grandparents, not anchor babies.
The thing about America is that opportunities are hardly, if ever, simply given to people. It is a place that welcomes hard workers and honors the exceptional. And that was Rugi, hardworking and exceptional. Kevin was hardly average; the type whose idea of success depended solely on whom his grandfather happened to be. While Rugi’s idea of spare time was working for the town newspaper, Kevin’s was spent trolling people online.
The flickering ceased and the library went pitch black.
“Let me go,” he yelled.
“I’m nowhere near you,” she responded.
As Rugi’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she thought she saw Kevin struggling with a smaller figure.
“What’s happening?” she asked, but there was no response, only Kevin huffing, and puffing.
Rugi moved forward, in an attempt to stop the scuffle, but was grabbed by the wrist and pushed into a bookshelf.
The lights came back on and a terrified Kevin was disheveled and red all over. She looked around frantically for the person who had attacked him and had him so afraid, but no one was there. Kevin, on the other hand, ran out of the library, screaming at the top of his lungs.
Rugi sat on the ground, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Could it have been her friends, who had facilitated the situation with the lights? Could it have been one of her friends, who had attacked Kevin? Asking these questions was the logical thing to do, but deep down, she knew that it was highly improbable that yes would be the answer to any of them.
She spent the rest of the period helping to clean up the mess that the apparent earthquake had caused.
When the bell rang, Rugi collected her belongings, but as she made her way out of the library, she touched her wrist, only to find that her grandmother’s lucky black bracelet was no longer there. She hadn’t taken it off since her grandmother had given it to her over the summer, but there was no time to look for it.
For the rest of the day, Rugi and Kevin didn’t cross paths. Kevin made sure of that.
“Rugiatu Bangoura, please report to the principal’s office as soon as possible,” the voice on the intercom startled her. Rugi’s name had only been called on the intercom in recognition of her achievements, but she knew this was different.
Rugi bypassed her last period history class to nervously make her way to the principal’s office.
Upon entering Principal Hunt’s office, all eyes were on her and there was an air of fear in the office.
“Principal Hunt will see you now,” Ms. Noble, his secretary announced.
Kevin was standing in his office and when Rugi entered, he began to back away from her like he had seen Satan himself.
“Get her away from me!” he shrieked.
Her mother was sitting there as well, and this had Rugi terrified.
“Sorry for the mess. It’s Maryland, we’re not used to earthquakes.” Principal Hunt apologized.
“You made it sound like an emergency. Why am I here, Mr. Hunt?” Dr. Mary Bangoura was a no-nonsense type of woman, which is why Principal Hunt attempted to call Mr. Bangoura, the more diplomatic of the two first, but to no avail.
“The principal squirmed in his seat, attempting to appear calm before Rugi’s mother.
“As you know, we have a zero-tolerance stance on threats of violence,” he began. “Rugiatu threatened to physically harm Kevin in her native tongue.”
“He keeps calling me an African Bootyscratcher and wouldn’t let me leave.” Rugi began to explain nervously.
This claim had Dr. Bangoura’s undivided attention at this point.
“And what language was that?” asked Dr. Bangoura.
“I’m assuming it was Liberian,” he began. “Since that’s where you’re from,” he finishes smugly.
Rugi began to laugh, only to be silenced by her mother’s raised brow and side-eye glance.
“Mr. Hunt, you pulled me away from my patients for absolute nonsense.” Dr. Bangoura uncrossed her legs to effectively sit back to take in his appearance as if wondering how this man got this job. “Do you know that Liberia has well over 25 languages, but the official language is English?”
“No, I did not, Dr…”
“I’m not finished,” she interrupted. “And do you know that Rugiatu was born in the United States and speaks no other language, but English?”
“No, I did not.” This time, his voice was noticeably less audible as the color drained from his face.
“I have come to this school at least five times, regarding this boy, and nothing has ever been done about it, but when he tells you that she threatened him in some nonsense language that she doesn’t even speak, you interrupt my work day, you foolish man?”
“I-I am so sorry, Dr.”
“Keep your sorry. That boy owes my daughter a public apology and if she doesn’t get it, I will be taking actions against this school, dangartor.” Dr. Bangoura swore at him in her native tongue, Mandingo. Dangartor is a condemned man.
Principal Hunt’s mouth dropped.
“Mom, it’s almost 2:35.” Rugi paused and looked at Kevin with a piercing stare. “Can we leave now?”
“The black rope. It’s gone.” Kevin made his way toward Rugi, his pride no longer visible. “Rugiatu, I sincerely apologize for all the horrible things I’ve said and done to you. I will publicly apologize tomorrow morning as well.”
“You’re off the hook,” she said as she followed her mother out of the office.
She was excited by her win but terrified by the possibility of those words being something more than the mere gibberish her grandmother led her to believe.
“Rugi, I have some bad news for you.” Dr. Bangoura said as they made their way to the parking lot. “I received a call from Liberia, on my way here.”
“Grandma died.” The words came out of Rugi’s mouth without confirmation from her mother.
Dr. Bangoura simply nodded and they drove home in silence.
Maybe it was by chance that the earth decided to quake, coinciding with the show she was putting on for Kevin. Maybe the passing of Rugiatu’s grandmother unearthed some ancient Mandingo magic that was evoked when Kevin pushed her to the edge. Or maybe her grandmother’s spirit caused all of Kevin’s mishaps. The thing about magic is that it’s hard to know it’s happening in its present state. Often times, one must look back and re-examine events to recognize that magic was there.
As Rugi rubbed her bare wrist, she knew that Kevin would never call her an African Bootyscratcher again.