I tell stories. That is my life. I gather stories and I tell them. The twist in the tale is that I get into the stories and I act.
I lost an ear in the course of a story, but that is not very important in the circumstances. The cutting off of an ear does not stop one from hearing and putting out stories.
“The earless storyteller!” screams Koko, barging into my thoughts. “What lies are you manufacturing yet again to disturb the peace of the world?”
Koko’s story is the reason I cannot drink water and put down the cup, as our people say. He is a pest, the son of a witch. I met him in prison, Kirikiri Maximum Security, Lagos. He was thrown into prison for pro-democracy activism, some have said while others aver that he was imprisoned for witchcraft, or sorcery, rape, terrorism, 419 or whatever. Nobody knows the truth and in any case truth does not matter in these matters. His stories are many; it suffices to say that ever since I met him I’ve been stuck with him from dusk to dawn and forever.
He was not yet eighteen but he was the lord of the prison. He was in fine fettle amid the dilapidated walls that threatened to cave in every new minute. He revelled within a steamy overcrowding of discordant humanity struggling for days on end with fat bugs and mosquitoes and lice for any available space. He was quite at peace with booming body odour, the asphyxiating tang of sweat-sodden blankets, sharp animal practices, sub-human life…
His weapon was laughter. He brought sanity to bear on inhumanity by laughing endlessly at himself and getting his fellow prisoners to mock at themselves too. The narrow passageway that ran through the length of the lock-up showcased irreverent graffiti:
“After death na mortuary.”
“Man die go, woman born another.”
“Who no know go know.”
“After Biafra comes Bianca.”
“Alliance of Feudal North and Decadent West.”
“Emperor of Democracy get fat stomach.”
“Nigerian Democracy: Coup at the polls.”
“PDP na chop and quench.”
The cells on either side bore titles written ever so legibly in charcoal atop the door-frame. The most decent room was called “Aso Rock” after the Nigerian presidential mansion. It was occupied by the mysterious one, Oke Ebila, who reportedly supplied the one thousand blind mice with which General Abacha wanted to blindfold all Nigerians in his bid for a life presidency. The worst of the rooms where well over thirty men shared space originally meant for six bore the title: “The Kremlin: For the Masses Only”. It was to The Kremlin that Koko was assigned in my wee hours of hunting for stories. The inmates who were in various stages of drowsiness swooped on him when he entered, and one could not but wonder at the outrage of the odious lot.
“Who are you?”
“This place is for the masses. Are you a mass?”
Koko turned this way and that to forestall any of the prisoners poking him with a dangerous blow. One by one the prisoners were a sight to behold. Most were just bones with just the barest flesh hold the things together. It would take a major excavation to dig out their eyes that had sunk so deep into the sockets. There was fatness in a couple of them, but it was a bloated, watery fatness. The teeth of these men were layers of crust and clay.
“You think say na Christmas party we de do here?” hollered one scrawny fellow, lamming into Koko.
Koko ducked. The man was off balance in fast seconds and fell like a light pack of firewood on the jagged floor. The fallen man struggled to come up with a punch but was restrained by the biggest prisoner in the pack.
The big fellow was “President Clinton of The Kremlin”. Standing imposingly above six feet, the man had tree trunks where his legs should have been. His tummy was much too much such that he could never ever be able to look past it to see his member. His biceps were like soccer balls. He was serving ten years for raping a ten-year-old girl.
“Who are you?” he asked Koko. “And why are you here?”
“I am Koko and…” Koko was stammering.
“What did you do?” The big man towered over Koko.
“I killed ten soldiers,” Koko said.
The prisoners were speechless with respect.
“And how were you able to do that?” asked President Clinton when he found his voice.
“They came to kill me and they died,” Koko said.
“It is the secret of our struggle.”
“What struggle?” Big man Clinton was incredulous.
“Them and us,” Koko said cryptically.
President Clinton raised a hand, aiming a knock on Koko’s head. “I am not here for childish pranks.”
“And I am not here for fat man business!” Koko said impudently, walking away.
President Clinton and the other prisoners could only stare and wonder as Koko broke into a bewitching jig that immobilized all.
Much to his surprise Koko settled into prison life quite easily, spending most of his time in the toilet that boasted of a water closet that overflowed with streaming maggots. Just walking on the floor he enjoyed the plop-plop sounds of bursting maggots. But the most joy came from playing football with the other prisoners in the open courtyard. A defender nicknamed “Policeman” because of his uncanny ability to arrest any dangerous attacker was asked to stick close to Koko. It made great laughter watching Koko draw circles round the burly fellow in his interminable dribble runs, making Policeman kick the air on several occasions. He scored goals at will and the prisoners responded with cheers of “Koko! Koko!”
“I de commot!” Policeman cried to Oke Ebila the referee, walking away. “I don’t want to die pursuing that breeze of a boy!”
Oke Ebila ended the football match and took Koko to his lair, Aso Rock.
“They will come for you this night,” Oke Ebila said to Koko.
“Who?” Koko asked, confused.
“The enemies of democracy.”
“And who are those?”
Oke Ebila said no other word. Koko thought Oke Ebila was a closet homosexual trying to lure him to his bed. Koko was still arguing to go back to The Kremlin well after midnight when a nightmarish sound exploded inside the prison. Everybody rushed to The Kremlin from where the sound had come. The threadbare blanket on which Koko should have been sleeping was wrecked by an axe which had been struck with so much force that it drew part of the blanket into the earth.
In the wee hours I drove to Kirikiri Prison armed with Koko’s story. I went to the ashen warder on duty hoping that the man would let me talk to Oke Ebila.
“Oke Ebila is dead,” the warder said and ran. I had to dive to catch him.
“What is the matter with you?” I asked, breathing hard.
“Don’t kill me too!” the man pleaded, quaking.
“Who killed Oke Ebila!” I hollered, shaking him.
“What do you mean?”
The man was finding it quite difficult to bring some coherence to bear on his speech. “All I know is that we woke up to find Oke Ebila’s room full of blood, and he was nowhere to be found.”
“So they took the corpse away?”
“That is it.”
I winced in disbelief. “But how can someone enter into this prison, kill an inmate and walk away with the corpse without being arrested?”
The man suddenly broke free from me and fled, disappearing into thin air, as they say.
“You must be for Koko,” a very old man said, walking up as I hobbled on unsteady legs to my car. “I can help.”
The man settled into the car, and I could not care less. He took me to a score or so places, but there were no leads whatsoever to Oke Ebila or Koko. The man was so full of useless talk. Hours had died and I was on the last bend of my patience. Suddenly the jerkiness of the car coupled with the gritting sound told me I had flat tyre. I stopped by the side of the dirt road, muttering baleful oaths under my breath. I opened the boot only to find that my spare tyre was gone. Dusk was thickening and no taxis would stop. We had to trek to the nearest vulcaniser who was about a kilometre away. All the while the old man was muttering a guttural song about the old parrot who owned the fable that set the fowl free from the lair of the lion.
“I wanted to know if you’re for real,” said my companion, suddenly breaking into laughter.
“What!” I made to explode.
Coming out of the vulcaniser’s shed was Koko.
“Oke Ebila!” he shouted, embracing my companion.
“Here is your spare tyre,” Oke Ebila said, tugging at his disguise and pointing at the tyre in front of the vulcaniser’s shed.