Misbahu came from a village in Sokoto state. His father, Hannafi, was a subsistent farmer, who had two wives. The first, Misbahu’s mother, bore him six children, and the second, five. One day, Hannafi decided to send the boy to a distant land. I’ll send this boy somewhere; someday, he’d be able to send warmth to the hearth that forged his bones, he pondered as he lay in bed one night, picking at the hair on his head.
Misbahu had never left the village since he was born. Now a six-year-old, he would work on his father’s small strip of land during the farming season and stayed outside in the evening, playing amma birii-birri, with other children in the village playground.
On days that he didn’t go to his father’s farm, he’d be at an onion plantation working for a fee. Sometimes, he’d be found moving from one stall to another in the village market.
Misbahu tip-toed into his home one night and met his father sitting on a mat outside his hut. His back rested on the hut’s wall. This was unusual; the man would normally be indoors at this time. He halted – quivering. His father’s hut had been strategically located, such that anybody entering the compound wouldn’t escape the man’s curious eyes whenever he’s around.
Misbahu sidled to the other end of the compound, hoping to escape notice.
“Misbahu!” the man hollered.
The boy abruptly changed course and headed towards his father.
He was now squatting on the balls of the feet – his knees bent, and body hunched over. His eyes rolled from the ground, his torn jumper, the mat as if expecting them to tell him what was running in his father’s mind.
Misbahu straightened up.
“You’ll be going somewhere to learn the Quran.” He paused, perhaps to let the import of what he said sink. “I’d love to see you become very versed in Islamic knowledge.”
The boy nodded, muttering toh under his breath.
The man shooed Misbahu with a gentle wave of the hand.
Misbahu rose and headed in the direction of the outhouse. The structure was a little affair of mud blocks with a sack curtain draping over the doorpost. He entered the structure and lowered his dirt-gleamed shorts to his knees. His thoughts buzzed around having to leave the village – being detached from his mother and siblings – and going to live in a strange land.
Several times, he tried to force something out into the stinking pit. Failing, he pulled up his shorts and walked out.
Inside the room, a hurricane lamp burnt feebly. Two of his male younger siblings lay asleep, on a mat. The prospects of leaving the village for the city weighed heavily on his heart. He grabbed his mat which had been leaning on the wall and spread it on the floor. He worked automatically, for beneath lay the thought of his imminent departure. Anxiety had strewn rough creases over the yarn of his face as he lay – peering emptily into space.
* * *
When it was time for Misbahu to leave, it seemed like a dream. He said goodbye to his mother and his siblings. She stood by the door of her hut as the boy went up and down picking one item after another. Her face appeared pale as she continued gazing at imaginary objects far away.
The boy carried his little bundle: a pair of shorts, a blue kaftan, which was relatively new from the last Eid, two old T-shirts, a cap – that a paternal uncle had gifted him when he came visiting two months ago, a copy of the Quran, and an old brown rosary. He packed the items inside a red-striped Ghana-must-go bag which his mother had bought for him the day before. On top of the items lay a brand-new wooden slate.
It never occurred to him, not even for one brief moment that he might be going away for a long time or he that he might never return to the village again. And it never occurred to him to ask: when am I returning home. Misbahu had barely turned eight at the time.
Before he left the house, his mother spoke to him briefly – her eyes watering at the end.
While they were going to the village motor park, Misbahu tried calling up what his mother had told him. He couldn’t remember the exact words, but he remembered the litany of prayer loaded with blessings she had handed him. The picture of her leaning exhaustively against the doorpost as they were leaving the house stood in front of him.
* * *
The land they travelled across after leaving Sokoto was relatively flat. It was dry season – crops had been harvested. They came across two teenage boys tending a herd of goats by the road. Misbahu smiled mildly: see a herd of goats. That big she-goat looks very much like my mother’s.
They arrived at Lafia Central Park in the early morning of the next day.
Misbahu was shepherded firmly through the shouting cries of turnboys, drivers, beggars, and hawkers by his guide. They ran into a pack of almajiris singing mellifluous laments to passengers sitting in a vehicle – waiting for the car to full. And stopped at an eatery. Misbahu watched from a distance as a passenger inside the vehicle they had passed handed one of the boys a fifty naira note. The boy ran away claiming sole ownership of the money. The other boys ran after him. Misbahu shook his head slightly.
“Eat your food. We’ll soon be at the Mallam’s house,” the guide said.
* * *
By the time they arrived at the Mallam’s house, images of people and objects were long and thin on the ground.
The Keke man that took them to the house wanted more than what he had been offered: “Your money is more than two hundred naira.” The man cast a contemptuous look at the naira note dangled before him. “For the two of you? No,” he added amidst a hiss and contorted face. And retreated his head into his tricycle.
“How much is your fare?”
“Your money is four hundred naira; you and your load. Can’t you see that this place is far from the park?”
The guide, seeing that the man wouldn’t accept his offer, dipped his hand into the left pocket of his kaftan and fetched a hundred naira note which he joined with the one he had held out to the man. The Keke man collected it and left, muttering indistinct words.
The Mallam’s house was a long, low building located at the edge of the town. It stood several yards from the road, and in front of it was a clearing with two fig trees. Another tree, whose name Misbahu didn’t know stood a few metres away.
Misbahu was asked to take his bag to one of the rooms in the porch after his guide had left.
An awful smell hit his nose as he entered the room.
Shirts, kaftans, jumpers, trousers, shorts, and rags lay scattered on the floor. Mats – some with dismembered straws, sprawled at the different corners of the room. On nails pinned to the walls hung bags and clothes gleaming black with contours that looked like those of dried sweat. He stood by the door wondering where to keep his bag.
In the first few weeks of Misbahu’s stay, the boys, especially those in his age bracket, were friendly. But the senior boys, some of whom had already graduated into teachers, wore stern looks most of the time and hardly mixed with younger ones.
Misbahu spent most of his time with Bello, the mentor he was placed under. Bello instructed him about his new life.
“You’ll be responsible for your feeding, and you must be an obedient student at all times if you want to be successful in this house,” Bello had said to Misbahu as he rounded up a tutorial one mid-morning. The usual morning lesson had ended and everyone dispersed.
Bello wasted no time in bringing the boy under his control.
Bello spent more than half of his life at the Mallam’s house. And the Mallam had come to adopt him as a son and confided in him on many matters relating to the running of the house.
Bello presided over the affairs of most of the boys and seemed not to care about anything else. All the energy and power in his being appeared to be channelled into running the affairs of the school as he’d be seen shuttling from one task to another.
The day’s activities began after Subhi prayer during which the boys would collect outside the house receiving lessons. After the morning session, they’d pick their bowls, and head into the neighbourhood – and even beyond – to beg. They wouldn’t return until when the sun was retreating home.
Misbahu and the other boys slept on the mat spread inside the room – and sometimes on the verandah. They’d cover themselves with old wrappers and blankets. Mosquitoes would hover over them, with their high-pitched wails. Whenever the wrappers and blankets slipped from their bodies, the mosquitoes would quickly collect for a feast.
One day, Misbahu was in the midst of eight other boys in an alleyway in the neighbourhood when a woman, on hearing their chatter, stood at the door of a house they had passed and called out: “almajirai, kuzo.”
The boys started running back. Misbahu tripped and fell, breaking a tooth. For three days, he couldn’t eat normally, relying mostly on pap he had been able to gather from his begging expedition.
Why’d my father subject me to do this? He doesn’t love me after all. If not, why would he send me here where I have to even beg for food? He pondered as he lay on his mat one night with tears streaming down his cheeks.
* * *
Bello would beat and seize the food and money the boys had brought home. And they dared not grumble as this could poke his rage and make him beat them the more.
One evening, Misbahu came home with a morsel of jollof rice, with a small piece of meat sitting on it. He went and placed the bowl at the usual place – at a corner, on the verandah.
Bello went to help himself to the food and wasn’t satisfied with what he saw: “Where is this boy?” Misbahu was by the corner waiting for crumbs, in case something would be left for him.
“I am here –” he said, trembling.
Even in the semi-darkness, Misbahu could see the long lines of veins that had collected at Bello’s face.
He moved forward and halted as though an invisible barrier had massed in his way.
Bello thrusted, holding the boy by his jumper. He dealt him three slaps on the cheek.
“Try this tomorrow and see – Useless boy!” Bello turned and went back.
Misbahu felt like a chick abandoned by her mother for hawks to devour.
Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months.
Misbahu, in a bid to impress his master, started straying far into other communities. The Mallam had asked them to start paying weekly dues. And he felt he needed widen his sphere of activity to gather any tangible thing.
It was during one of these long-distance treks that Misbahu came across Kaura, a middle-aged man. His real name was Hamidu. The man owned a small kiosk. Cigarettes, kola nuts, assorted candies, and bottled water were amongst the things he was selling.
Kaura was of average height, dark-complexioned, and stout built. His lips were dark – perhaps the effect of many years of smoking. Whenever he talked, his voice was hoarse and rows of brown teeth become exposed.
No one in the area knew exactly where Kaura came from. Some people said Katsina; some said Kebbi. Kaura would stay in the kiosk till very late in the night. Sometimes, a club would be seen leaning on his small kiosk’s door, making some to believe that he was a shopkeeper by day, and watchman by night.
Kaura started handing Misbahu breakfast and lunch. This made begging unattractive. He also ensured that the boy had small change in his pocket. It was from this small change that he was paying his weekly dues.
“Where are you from –?” Kaura asked Misbahu on the fourth day of their meeting. They were sitting by the kiosk in the evening, munching the grilled beef Kaura had bought from a hawker he saw across his shop.
“So-koto,” Misbahu muttered, between the crunching sounds of his moving jaw.
“Sokoto?!” Kaura said, amidst successive nods of his head.
“What are you doing in this town?”
“To learn the Quran –”
“But you can do this at home. Don’t you have Quranic schools there –?”
“Toh –” the boy said, faintly.
Kaura went on picking his teeth now that the feast was over – lines of thoughts breaking in his head.
“Don’t go around begging again –” Kaura said, putting his arm round the boy’s shoulders and smiling. “You’ll be running errands for me for a fee,” he continued, bending his head to gauge the boy’s reaction. “I’ll also be responsible for your breakfast and lunch.”
Succour has come my way; I’ll no longer suffer like the other boys, Misbahu thought – smiling.
“Work starts tomorrow!” Kaura said, patting the boy gently at the back of his head.
As Misbahu sauntered home later that evening, he kept replaying: Succour has come my way; I’ll no longer suffer like the other boys, in his mind.
* * *
The following day, Misbahu was at the man’s kiosk at in the mid-morning.
“I am here, oga –” Misbahu said – eagerness etched on his face.
“You’re a bit late today –”
“Yes… We did some work for Mallam –”
“Sit down,” Kaura entered the kiosk and brought a wooden stool.
“You – You – know – Jungle?” he stammered, turning around to ensure that no one was within earshot.
“Jungle… Jungle… Jungle…,” Misbahu mumbled, the flesh on his forehead forming folds. – his eyes contracting. “I don’t know the place, oga, but I have heard the name a couple of times.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll show you the place. “Wait here while I arrange some things,” he went into the kiosk.
He emerged four minutes later holding a small food flask which Misbahu made to collect.
Kaura told him not to bother.
They flagged down an Achaba.
Misbahu sat, sandwiched between the Kaura and the rider. And off they went.
* * *
Jungle was a thicket located at the far end of Ungwar Waje. On the other side of the Jungle was a hill. The road to the place was rough, with ditches and gutters that reeked of foul smell.
The roofs of the houses in the area had turned brown, and the dried shrubs around, held stray polythene bags of different shades and colours.
Feeling the ambience, Misbahu started trembling: I have never been here… what’ve we come here to do?
At a spot that looked like the entrance into the coppice, Kaura asked Misbahu to wait, while he hopped in.
He emerged a few minutes later with a tall, haggard-looking man – supposedly in his early forties.
“This is TK. He is my main man here.” Kaura said, knitting some threads of importance around the “main man.”
TK had a limp in his gait and wore a black T-shirt over a faded blue jean. A small bag of patterned fabric hung loosely on his slouching shoulder. His dark face bore tiny lines, creating around his mouth, when shut, a packed flesh. The darkness had spread to his lips. He appeared like someone who’d flare up into violence at the slightest provocation.
“Sannu yaro…” the man said, surveying Misbahu with his bloodshot eyes.
Misbahu, who had been gazing at the ground, raised his head and quickly brought it down.
“Ina wuni…” Misbahu said, forcing the words up his throat.
TK didn’t answer, but went on swaying his body, casting contemptible stares at the boy. He appeared to be miming a song playing in his head.
“I’ll be sending you to here to bring goods to TK; If you don’t see him, don’t hand it to anyone!”
Misbahu nodded thrice, wondering what kind of goods Kaura was talking about.
TK turned and went back.
Misbahu made four successful trips to the Jungle, until law enforcement agents smashed the place. Scores were arrested, but TK was lucky to have escaped.
Soon, Kaura’s hard drugs business folded up.
“We need to devise another means of getting money,” Kaura said as he and TK lay on a mat – in the latter’s room, one evening. Each held a burning cigar. “This kiosk business won’t give one the kind of money one desires in this life.”
TK stayed silent, directing a jet of grey smoke at the bare rafters holding the room’s roof.
“We can send your boy to reconnoitre these posh estates in town. There are rich people there, you know…” TK said, pressing the butt of the now spent cigar on the wall.
Kaura readily bought into this idea and Misbahu was handed a new job.
* * *
Salimah had heard stories of people being robbed – and even murdered in their homes.
The family had recently moved into their new house. Her husband, Kabir, who had two days to his departure for a workshop in Jos, advised her to lock the house and go stay with his younger sister in Lafia East.
“Her area is fully developed, compared to this new layout where the houses are few and far between,” he had remarked.
“I’ll be fine, dearie,” she said, smiling and gently patting him on the shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he smiled faintly, raising and dropping his shoulders, with hands tucked in the pockets of his brown jallabiya.
He made to say something, but suddenly changed his mind and went to the bedroom.
Misbahu strayed into Elites’ City bearing a plastic bowl – seeking leftover food and clothes. Fate took him to the three-bedroom bungalow where Salimah lived. The general feeling among the residents was that he’s one of those bowl-bearing almajiris who roamed about seeking help from house owners.
Between Salimah and Misbahu developed a strong bond that was fascinating to behold. He was the one running errands for the woman.
Sometimes, he’d would go to the house in the mid-morning and wouldn’t leave till evening. There was no room in the house the boy couldn’t enter – including the woman’s bedroom. She had on many occasions asked him to go in there and pick up things for her.
At night, Salimah reclined in a sofa in the living room, poring over the front page of an old newspaper.
Then came a knock on the door. She sat up, trembling.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her chest rising and falling in regular alternation.
“It’s me, Hajiya. Misbahu ne…”
On opening the door, two men pounced on her and dragged her back into the living room, the errandboy following. They tied her hands and legs together – like a ram being prepared for slaughter on Eid day. The men took money, jewellery, and unsewn Ankara and laces.
Later, the two men were apprehended and charged to the court. But the errandboy was never found.
Salimah had never been able to shake off the trauma she went through. She thought her living room still reeked of the stench that emanated from the men that night. Thirteen days after, she still felt their smell lingered in the living room – an ethereal reminder of their presence. Sometimes, especially at night, she’d panic at the mere sound of the ticking hands of her wall clock. Or any faint sound emanating from the kitchen. At other times, she’d cringe at any flash hitting her windowpanes.
“Misbahu, you’ll never know peace wherever you are,”
“Stop cursing this boy; he’s a victim of stolen innocence,” Kabir said, holding on to his wife’s hand, and pressing it gently. “May God continue to protect us against all evils.”
The couple was sitting in the living room watching a movie in which a pack of robbers broke into a house.
“Aameen,” she answered with an air of nonchalance.
Image: Ahmad Bello Pixabay modified