In my city, heaven and hell are cohabiting fellows. I am in heaven. Cool air from the air conditioners blowing on my skin, the red billowing curtains shut out the arid sunshine and blue plush rugs embrace my calloused feet housed in thin-soled shoes. On the seats, comfy and soothing to the buttocks, they sit, backs inclined away from the backrests, eyes trained on a figure standing on the dais in swaddling white agbada and a cap tilted to the left – power-shift-to-the-west they named that style of cap-wearing. Their hands are thrust forward at awkward angles, with their smartphones ready to record every word. My tape recorder lies unused in my lap, an object of ridicule from the tech-savvy reporters sitting around me. I draw doodles of flowers with heads and houses with legs on my notepad. It is the celebration of the governor’s first 100 days in office.
The governor gathers the folds of his agbada, arranging it first on his left shoulder and then on the right. He takes the microphone, taps it twice and a shrill scream erupts from the speakers. The people stick their fingers into their ears to snuff out the noise. The governor holds the microphone away from his body like a frightened school boy presented with a grenade. Behind him sit the other dignitaries – the commissioners and the special advisers for this and that.
“When we came into power, we met everything in shambles. We all know the evils the former government committed. If I start recounting them, we will still be here till midnight. But today, we are happy things have changed. We have created jobs for the unemployed, the school children have free education, and the streets have been cleared of illegal structures. Everything is just beuriful, very beuriful.”The governor says.
The audience breaks into applause as he pauses to mop his sweaty brow with a white handkerchief. One of the governor’s aides dressed in the usual uniform of a black suit comes forward with a portfolio and arranges the prepared speech on the stand before the governor. He starts to read.
I traverse into the forest, running with the squirrels and grass-cutters. I feel the cool breeze on my face. I taste the tender green leaves and run the fertile red soil through my fingers. The sound of applause brings me back. The master of ceremony calls for an encore and the audience claps their hands again. The MC points in the three directions of the seat arrangements. “We are going to take six questions – two from here, here and there.” “Yes, young lady, what’s your question for His Excellency?”
The lady is wearing a brown and red patterned floral dress. Her painted crimson lips are reminiscent of an oozing sore. She looks to the left and right as if she’s waiting to be cheered on. Then, she reads her question from the jotter in her hand.
“My name is Gladys John from the Daily Mirror. I will like to ask His Excellency what his government is doing to improve the condition of women in this state. Thank you.” She brushes the bottom of her dress with her hands. She sits.
The governor who is now sitting, flanked by his deputy and the commissioner for education looks to his right. He points with his fore finger at the deputy governor.
“This is what our government is doing. Allowing women like her to leave her husband’s kitchen to cater for state affairs.” The hall reverberates with laughter, the source of the laughter joins in. But the deputy governor’s laughter dries on her lips; it does not enter her eyes.
I feel the claws of anger gripping my intestines tightly. I want to bear down and force out hot words like faeces burning the anus. The governor had carefully evaded the question. My hand shoots up.
“Yes, young man. Your question?”
“Your Excellency, if my memory serves me right. In the prelude to your speech, I remember you mentioned providing jobs for the unemployed. Did you mean the uniformed robots, graduates who sweep the streets? When you talk about free education, do you mean the children in schools who can barely read? And lastly, the illegal structures on the streets; the beggars and lunatics and the traders? Where did you send them off to? Your Excellency…”
I hold the microphone in my hand, it is silent. The master of ceremony says that they are experiencing some technical problems with the sounds system. I smile. I clear my throat and shout that I have not finished with my question. “We can’t hear you.” The MC turns away. There are buzzing murmurs in the hall. I feel hands pulling on my sleeves and shirttail. “Sit down. Don’t cause trouble here. Sit.” They say. The MC’s voice comes back on the speakers, “Hello, testing, testing… Ladies and gentlemen we are sorry for that break.” He glares at me. “Mister man can you please tell us your name and the media house you represent?”
I see the governor talking into the ear of one of his aides. He is giving me the evil eye. Everywhere is silent and I can hear the purr of the air conditioners. I turn and walk out of the hall, hostile eyes burning holes through my adire shirt and trousers.
I pass through the strangely emptied streets. The beggars and the insane were packed in droves and dumped outside the city. The roadside shops are now flower beds, yellow, purple and red flowers of no particular breed ousting the people of the land. Mama Sade, who sold rice, beans and macaroni used to be under the mango tree on Ajagbe Street. Taofik’s mechanic workshop was now a bare patch and the big green umbrella of the watch repairer, Ahmadu, had disappeared with the wind. I turn off the streets into a dingy two-storey building with peeling brown paint. I take the steps two at a time.
I enter the pool, so called because all the reporters, columnists and photographers of the Independent Voice are pooled together in one large room. “It fosters a strong supportive work environment,” the Editor-in-Chief had said in response to the clamour for individual offices. Funke looks up from her desk, and down at her wristwatch. She stares at me questioningly. “Why did you return so early?” I nod without answering, walking fast to my table, fingers pulsing with the eagerness to write.
I stand, staring at his shiny scalp, gorimapa the hairstyle favoured by middle aged men out of the necessity to conceal receding hairlines than the need to tag along with trending fashions. With his glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, three pens, red, blue and black lining his front pocket and his jutting paunch straining out of his starched shirt, his old headmaster’s look was complete.
“What the hell is this?” he yells.
“A newspaper, sir.” I answer, keeping a straight face.
“Oh! You think I’m joking with you. Of course I know what I’m holding. What I want to know is why you’ve decided to cause problems for me!”
Mr Chuks Okafor is pointing at my article – 100 days in office: A Fumigation of the Poor. In the article, I’d written about the government driving the poor off the streets without giving them other alternatives. It ended with a cynical statement, “One day the poor pushed into hiding, will burst into the open, taking the reins from the oppressors. Then, this city shall be truly beautiful.” The Editor-in-Chief stands; he starts pacing the office. In a low voice, I tell him I am the only one to blame – the copy editor didn’t see the article because I swapped it just before it went to the press.
“What about the Managing Editor?” he asks. I shake my head. I do not elaborate that he never checks the copies on his table. “I can trust you. You do a wonderful job.”He always says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Do you know how many calls I have received from the State House today? They say our paper is instigating violence!”
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience sir. But I wrote the truth.”
He stops pacing. He opens his mouth, closes it and licks his dry lips. “The truth?” he echoes. “Mr Ojoniyi, you’ve not been employed to be a soothsayer. In fact, Get out of my office! Now!”
I return to the pool on the second floor. I meet a queer hush as I enter the room, the kind of quietness that welcomes the subject of discussion. Calmly, I begin to gather my personal belongings from the drawers – sheaves of papers and my coloured pencils – the ones I use to draw private cartoons. Funke, the lifestyle columnist for the newspaper comes to my table. She’s the only female co-worker that likes me. She does not guffaw when I enter the pool each morning in my self-styled attires – local print fabrics sown into shirts and trousers. She always has a soft look in her eyes when she talks with me which makes me believe there can be more if I want it. But I look away each time and the intensity flies away with the fleeting moment.
“Femi, did Oga fire you?” She asks. I shake my head and continue with my paper-gathering.
“Then, why are you packing your stuff?”
I take her hands into mine and rub them warmly. She blinks, surprised. She probes my palm with a nail, her eyes on my face all the time.
“I’m leaving to write true stories and not fiction.” I beam at her.
“But…” she starts. I silence her with my finger brushing over her lips. Our audience make their presence known, dragging their chairs over the terrazzo floor and clearing their throats noisily.
For the first time in months, I feel truly light as I strut out of the Independent Voice with a dozen bewildered eyes following me. It feels like the high I used to get in secondary school after smoking igbo with the boys in the bushes behind the school compound.
We are sitting on the balcony – Korede, Jamiu, Emeka and me. Korede is my landlord’s son who became the owner of the house when his father died two years ago. He tells everyone who cares to listen that he is a graduate; one of the frustrated products of an ailing nation. “This country is sick. Sick with diarrhoea and we are all drying up,” he says in a mournful monotone, as he turns the leaves of an ever-present newspaper in his hands. Korede reads newspapers all day long. He lives on the rents from his tenants. I am one of the few persons who know he only has a diploma in local government studies not a first degree as he claims. Jamiu is a carpenter. He is one of the people whose shops were demolished by the government. He now mends broken furniture in the neighbourhood. Emeka sells used clothes at the Ogbe market. He is worried that the government will soon come to tear down his shop.
They are playing draft. I sit on a cane chair outside their triangle, sipping on a Star lager beer, provided by Korede our generous host. Emeka’s eyes light up when he eats yet another piece of Korede, his opponent. Jamiu is the prodding commentator, advising each player on the best move to make. I never learned how to play the game. It does not interest me. Emeka wins the game and the triangle breaks up, enveloping me into a new formed square.
Korede turns to me. “Femi, you’re quiet. Are you still sad because you lost your job?” I grunt and shake my head slowly. “I didn’t lose my job. I left.”
“Is it not the same thing? Whether you’re the one who left or they sacked you, you still don’t have a job.” Emeka interposes. Jamiu raises his beer bottle up; he considers its emptiness morosely. His face breaks into a wan smile as Korede calls Junior, one of the tenants’ children to buy more drinks for us.
When the shadows begin to lengthen us into giants, we move inside the house. In the parlour, a big portrait of Korede’s father hangs on the wall above the television. His face is grim in that common pose struck by people taking photos in the early fifties and sixties. They never smiled. Korede switches on the television and increases the volume. The drum-roll before the news plays. “The governor has put in place a scheme to give all secondary students in the state, personal computers to enhance their learning abilities.” The newscaster reads. The screen goes blank for a moment and then footage shows the governor handing over computers to students.
Korede explodes. “What a farce! A misplaced panache!” He likes to lapse into the use of big words when he gets excited or angry.
Emeka snaps his fingers. “Kai, if my son brings a computer home, we will sell it at the market. Can a computer be eaten?” Jamiu does not say anything. He seems to be slipping in and out of a doze.
I shift restlessly on the settee, clasping and unclasping my hands. “Maybe, we can do something to change things.” I say.
“But what can we poor masses do? Nothing! I tell you nothing!” Korede rails.
We are all quiet, watching the images on the screen but unconscious of the sounds like an audience at a still motion picture. The electricity goes out with shouts of NEPA echoing through the houses on the street. In the flicker of candlelight, we leave Korede’s house. I descend down the stairs gingerly. I fumble with my keys in the dark. The door of the room opposite mine opens, Mama Junior holds up a kerosene lantern peering at me.
“Ah, Akowe, it’s you. I heard some noises.” She says, retying her wrapper around her waist. She turns back into the room. Just before the door closes, I remember something.
“Mama Junior.” I call out.
“Did Junior bring a computer home?”
“Computer? You know my son does not steal, where will he get it?”
I tell her about the governor’s scheme and she throws her head back and laughs. She says they will only give it to those children in fine, fine schools.
“Goodnight, Akowe. May we wake up one by one.”
She calls me Akowe, the learned one, yet with her little education she clearly understands the situation in the state. I light the stub of candle on the table. The clothes on the wooden hanger in the corner cast eerie shadows on the wall. I lie on the mattress, tossing until I give up the battle with sleep. I unplug the rechargeable lamp from the wall socket. It’s reserved for my nocturnal readings. I continue with my reading of Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France. I am fascinated as I read of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. I bring out my coloured pencil and shade a part I like – “The proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie, without forcibly suppressing its adversaries, and that, where there is forcible suppression, where there is no freedom, there is, of course, no democracy.”
My head drops unto the table and I dream of the Paris Commune. I see the Gauls taking over power from the French government. I am waving the red socialist flag, singing revolutionary songs. I see Funke leading the women in a bare-breasted protest, waving tree branches in their hands. Suddenly, the women’s breasts merge into one, big ball rolling towards me. I try to duck but it’s too late. The ball of breasts falls on my chest and I flail my arms helplessly fighting for breath. I stir awake, stiff with creaking joints. In the semi-lighted room at dawn, I smile. Yes, something can be done. I will start it.
In the morning, I go to withdraw money from my fast dwindling savings in the bank. I buy a Sony camera, letting go of my technology snobbery. In the first school I visit, the principal is unfriendly.
“Why do you want to take pictures of our school? Do you have permission from the Local Inspector of Education’s office?” He shoos me out. I make the next stop at Agbonrin High School. I flash my reporter’s identification at the principal and he ushers me happily into his office.
“You should have told us you were coming. Then, we would have told the students to wear white socks and clean uniforms.” I assure him that it does not matter. “Our newspaper wants to depict the situation in the public schools in its natural mode.”
He leads the way down the block of classrooms. A section of the roof on the corridor is caving in; the wood has been eaten away by termites. A puddle of water is gathered in the slop of the floor leading into one of the classrooms.
“Good morning sir, you’re welcome to J.S.S 1A. God bless you sir.” The students stand and greet in a chorus as we enter their classroom.
I notice the rowdy sitting arrangement in the room. Very few of the students have chairs to sit on. There are more desks than chairs. Some of the desks are upturned, used as chairs. At the back of the class, the students with neither desks nor chairs sit on the floor with their backs against the wall. Click, click, the camera goes, swallowing the scenes in its tiny brain. I visit five schools, the condition in the latter worse than the former.
I start the walk back home. On the corner of Aje Street which used to be a buzz of traders, now a cloister of barbed wire fences, I see a woman with a basketful of bread on her head, running. As she runs, the loaves fall, forming a trail after her. I look behind her and behold her assailants – the government’s Operation Clean officers in their maroon uniforms.
They shout – “Hey! You! Stop there!”
The woman keeps running until she’s double crossed by the officers. “I beg! Please no take my market. I no go sell for that place again. I beg o!” She pleads.
“You broke the law and you must pay.” One of the officers tears off a sheet of paper and hands it to the woman.
“Come to our office and pay your fine. Then, you can have your wares back.”
They leave with her basket. The distraught woman tears the paper into pieces and shouts after them. “If I get 10,000 naira, you think say I go dey sell for road? Na God go punish you.” One of the officers looks back and the woman retreats quickly. I take a picture of her retreating figure.
In my room I begin to write furiously, squeezing some papers into a ball when my thoughts do not appear lucid. I carry the loose sheets upstairs. Korede is dozing on a chair. He swaps at the houseflies buzzing around his head with a newspaper. He opens his eyes and sees me.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“I just got here.” I sit on the chair opposite him and place the sheets of paper on the bench between us.
“Those are the leaflets we are going to share in our revolution.”
“We? What revolution?”
Korede’s eyes widen in excitement as I enumerate my plans.
“So you mean, we the masses will take over and rule?”
“But how do we get the support of the people?” He continues.
I tell him that’s where we will need Emeka and Jamiu. Korede does not look pleased when I mention their names.
“Emeka will influence the traders and we will send Jamiu to the association of artisans.” I explain.
He smiles reassured. “Oh! I see, you have this clearly planned out.” Korede takes one of the sheets and begins to read.
We share the leaflets with pictures of dilapidated schools and Caterpillars levelling shops. The people look at the pictures and shake their heads sadly. “We know about all these things. But what can we do, we are only poor people.” I tell them we are going to protest against the government. I describe how we will march to the State House and stop all businesses. A flicker of hope dances in the young men’s eyes but the older women drop their gazes and say, it’s too dangerous. The government has power.
On the demonstration day, we hold the city. My head swells like Ijebu garri soaked in cold water when I see the large crowd outside the State House. All the offices are closed and there is no public transportation. I feel a tug on my shirt as I chant, No! To the destruction of shops! It’s Funke in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, the uniform of our demonstration. She hugs me and pulls me aside. “I always knew there was something different about you. I’m so proud of you.” She gushes. I smile and give her a placard, Say No to Oppression. She carries it high and joins with the chanting crowd. The policemen push us back with their batons. They do not allow us to enter the gates.
Suddenly, some men charge at the policemen. They scuffle and gunshots ring out in the sunny afternoon. I try to shout above the noise but the furore suppresses my voice. When the crowd sees the still bodies of two of the men on the ground, they scatter in different directions. I don’t want to run but Funke pulls me away as the policemen continue to shoot into the air. I do not see Korede, Emeka and Jamiu.
We enter my room, panting from our flight. I usher her to the only chair in the room. She smiles, ignores the chair and sits on the mattress, propping herself against the wall with a pillow.
I rush back into the streets. The air hangs heavily with the smell of tear gas. The policemen are still patrolling the roads, so I take a shortcut. At our meeting place, in a neglected Cocoa warehouse behind the Texaco Filling Station, several men are sprawled on the floor with bloodied wounds. The women are tending their wounds – making bandages out of torn strips of singlets and shirts. Some of the women are also wounded. I hurry towards Korede. He is sitting on the bare floor, his bandaged head in his hands. His eyes sweep over me stonily. “So you escaped without a scratch?” He looks angry that I have no wounds to show. My chapped lips move in explanation – telling the men I didn’t desert them. The men’s eyes don’t stay on me. Their stares keep wandering to the front of the warehouse. I follow their gaze. There lay two still forms on the floor.
The unseeing eyes of Emeka stare back at me and Jamiu’s teeth are protruding out of his mouth. Even in death, his lips fail to do him their service.
I shout. “We will not allow them to kill our spirits. Tomorrow, the struggle continues!” The men with naked frenzy dancing in their eyes, rise to their feet. We stand in a circle, elbows hooked.
I support Korede on my shoulder as we walk back home. The streets are quiet. Even the crickets stall their carols. We are quiet – words heavy in our hearts not finding an outlet.
The sight of Funke startles me. She looks out of place in my sparsely furnished room. She has removed her t-shirt and she is wearing a black bra. “Oh! Sorry about this. It’s so hot in here.” She giggles. I tear my eyes away from her chest. I crash on the mattress, feeling the heaviness of the day on my shoulders. Funke massages my back in slow circular motions. When I tell her about Emeka and Jamiu, her hands stop moving. “Ah! They are dead just like that! God will punish those useless policemen!” I turn on my back, facing the ceiling. Funke lies beside me on the mattress. We stay that way for many minutes.
“You must eat something.” She says. She arranges the food on the floor – a loaf of bread and a tin of sardines. “I couldn’t find anything to cook. Do you eat at all?”
We eat the bread, sandwiching it with the sardines. Our chewing is the only sound in the room.
“It’s late.” I say after we eat the last piece of bread. She looks deep into my eyes and smiles.
Legs entwine, body fluids mix, and blending baritone and soprano moans rule the night until our eyes close in slumber.
I’m awake before the first cockcrow. She looks like a chiselled carving with her shiny ebony skin in the dim light of dawn. I shake her awake gently.
“We have to go now.”
Her sleepy eyes look confused. She stretches and curls herself and closes her eyes again. I shake her more strongly.
“What? Where are we going?”
She is fully awake now. She averts her eyes. “People died yesterday. It’s too dangerous.” I feel betrayed and ask her why she pretended to be loyal to the cause. She holds me in her gaze. She looks hurt but she does not back down. “I’m loyal to any cause that preaches freedom but that doesn’t mean I want to walk blindly into death.” She dresses up in a huff. Funke walks out of the room, banging the door after her. I want to go after her but I stop myself.
I pull a t-shirt over my head and move out of the room. I climb the stairs and knock on Korede’s door several times but there is no answer. He must have left for the warehouse already, I think to myself.
I arrive at the warehouse, limbs tingling from the long trek. The place is empty. I sit on a stump of wood waiting, until the sun climbs high in the sky. I leave the warehouse for the Aje Junction. Everywhere is abuzz with activity. People rushing to their places of work and buses and cars zoom past me. I stand there shouting – “The masses need to claim their freedom from tyrannical policies. This government is a dictatorial democracy.”
My voice is breaking. People are passing but no one is listening to me. Some of them shake their heads, others laugh in my face. Sanity and insanity are indeed kinsfolk. If a town of people dance naked on the streets, it is called a tradition but if one man attempts to dance naked alone, he becomes a mad man.
My mouth is dry and my head feels light. I sit on the pavement, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I hear the sirens of the Operation Clean truck. They stop and haul me into their vehicle. “Mad people are not allowed on the streets,” they say. I want to tell them that I am not mad but I feel very tired.
We drive through the streets; beuriful streets, milling with people suffering and smiling.