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Written by AKOGWU JOSEPH CHINONSO…

Thelda and her daughter returned their pleasantries with handshakes and faces filled with smiles, amidst the flashes of cameras by the press. When they were settled, the MC called up the judges: two ladies and a young man. They walked up immediately and sat behind a table. The MC handed the mic to the man who was the chief judge. He was an authoritative figure in his forties, with an intelligent face, dark hair and shrewd blue eyes behind black horn-rimmed glasses. He immediately called up the contestants to the stage. They were thirty-six in number, representing each of the states of Nigeria. Their ages ranged between eleven and fifteen. They lined up on the stage and the chief judge reeled off the rules, “No word will be called twice. No word will be spelt more than once. Pronounce the word after you’ve spelt. You’ve twenty seconds to spell a word. Contestants should spell audibly. You fail a word and you’re out. The definition of the word you’ll spell will be given to you if you wish. There will be only one winner at the end of this spelling bee. Thanks so much and good luck.”

The competition began immediately. A contestant from Lagos was the first on the line, about fourteen years of age. A microphone stand was before her.

“Spell ostracize,” The chief judge said from the table, his eyes fixed on his watch.

The girl spelt, “O s t r a c i z e,” and pronounced quickly.

“That’s right.” The judge said and the contestant went behind as the audience broke into clapping. Another contestant walked up and stopped in front of the mic. A female judge said, “Sassy.”

The contestant spelt rightly and went behind. The third came up.

“Procrastinate.”

She spelt rightly. Others followed suit, all spelling correctly. As a judge called a word, Stella hummed the spelling in her mum’s hearing even before the contestant finished spelling it. Thelda smiled and squeezed Stella’s right hand at intervals and said, “You’re great.”

In the third round of the competition, most of the contestants were already knocked out, leaving only three contestants from Enugu, Kaduna and Lagos on the stage.

A female judge said, “Manoeuvre.”

Stella hummed the spelling quickly and watched the Kaduna contestant stutter the letters, “M a n o u v r e”

The bell rang and the judge said, “That’s wrong,” and she gave the correct spelling. The contestant’s eyes were instantly filled with tears as he walked down the stage. The audience became tensed as the remaining two went on spelling correctly each word any of the judges called. Stella wanted the contestant from Enugu to win and whenever it was her turn, Stella was visibly shaken and her spirits sank lower.

“Ophthalmology,” A female judge called.

The contestant from Enugu said, “May I’ve the meaning please?”

The judge said, “The scientific study of the eye and its diseases.”

The contestant breathed and spelt, “O p h t h a_” She paused and Stella shook her mum’s thigh,

“God,” she whispered, her heart beating fast, “her lips have become nervous.”

Thelda didn’t utter a word. She was as well consumed in tension. She’ll fail it. She thought with her heart pounding.

The contestant went on slowly; unsure of herself and the letters she was calling, “l m o l o g y.” She pronounced it.

“That’s correct.” The judge said.

The audience clapped widely and Stella shouted, “Thank God!”

Thelda smiled and exhaled slowly.

The Lagos contestant stepped forward.

The chief judge said, “Schizophrenia”

The contestant demanded, “Definition please?”

The judge said, “A mental illness in which a person becomes unable to link thought, emotion and behaviour leading to withdrawal from reality and personal relationships.”

The contestant said, “Pardon.”

The judge repeated the definition and the contestant nodded and spelt, “S h i_”

To Be Continued…

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