The man had a colourfully embroidered drum of starched fabric resting on his head. His northern character was made whole by the loose-fitting caftan he wore and the mallam title friends used to refer to him. From beneath the cap, a neat sprout of grey hair emerged, covering a greater part of the area around the face. There were creases at the corners his eyes. They showed how far he had walked in the way of senectitude.
In the twenty-five years behind me, a face had never struck a chord in my heart with that much force. First, it was a face I had seen somewhere. Secondly, the look in his eyes stirred strong sympathy. He appeared hard-smitten by life. Perhaps he has had to bury a much-cherished son when he had expected the son to bury him; or he had just regained freedom after a long spell behind bars; or he had sunk his entire life’s savings in a parcel of land that was later confiscated by the ruthless Abuja mayor for rules violation.
We paid him for the stationery and strode to an idle terrace, nearby. I brought out a sheet from the stationery and started. I had written a couple of lines when I realized I had flipped the sheet so that the faint red margin was on the right when it should be on the left. I squeezed the sheet and tossed it aside. I pulled out the remaining sheet and tried to write again. Careful to avoid another error, I wrote one character at a time. I finished and decided to read it over. Only then did I realize the salutation was missing –the strange man had crowded my mind, leaving no space for anything else.
I watched how Sam wrote from the salutation to the signature line without an error. He had an extra sheet left.
“What is happening today? I often made the mistakes?” he asked after he had given me his extra writing sheet.
“I find it hard to focus.”
Somehow, I managed to write clean this time. We strolled along the road for about twenty metres until we found a pay-photocopier. We made copies of documents backing our modest educational accomplishments, arranged them neatly in the right order and slid the bundles into official envelopes. Then we took a bus for a long sluggish drive to Wuse District.
In the 1980s, after Lagos had become a human jungle, the first foundation stone of Abuja was laid. But, just twenty-five years later, Abuja was getting worse than Lagos. The authorities realized, rather late, that big cities in Africa would always remain the nectar around which there would always be a beehive. It was why Abuja became congested at a speed that was not anticipated, with crawling traffic. To hawkers, snail traffic offered a vast market. They flooded our bus windows, selling anything from pure water to all manner of drugs. They would pay fares to join the commuters, as if travelling. They would jostle past the surplus of commuters standing in the buses’ aisle, selling their petty goods as they did so. At the last bus-stop, they would disembark, instantly taking other buses heading back to where they were coming from. There was no doubt that daily sales soared as a result of their marketing style.
That day, as we drove, my mind did not feel the carousel that often came from the eclectic shapes and drapes of fellow travellers, a manifestation of the kaleidoscope that is the nation. My mind was not nudged by the resplendence of Asokoro District as always. I was blind to the sparkle of its homes and the beauty of the mast trees guarding every gate and fence. I was not reminded about the modesty of my little life as I often felt each time I passed through the stunning avenues of the district. As the bus roared through, my mind was far away at Massaca Junction, where the Trader sat under a faded canvas canopy.
Sam sensed the heavy burden in my heart and became visibly worried. The dark cloud that formed in my heart had cast a creepy shadow in his. I felt guilty, but I was too broken and frail to tidy things up.
On our return trip, I thought I should be sensible enough to lighten up – or even totally get rid of – the dark mood I had stirred. It stifled the fun of travelling in a city bus, rocking and mocking the bond of our friendship. So, I forced a chat to fix the ugly mood. Hopefully, it would prevent any prospect of harm to our friendship and help me chase out the ghost of the Trader.
“I hope oga does not show up while we are yet to return to the inn,” I prayed, my voice unsteady.
“You know he does not always come at this time. It is always before eight, on his way to the office,” Sam explained.
“You are right,” I noted.
Sam’s surprise showed he knew something was dark when it should have been bright. I knew I owed him the truth. It was a vow we had made: to unveil our minds all the time. It was a shield in a place of uncertainty like Abuja, where everyone you saw came with a monstrous dream of becoming a millionaire. It was the reason why the city, with its vast size and “infinite” wealth, was too small for the millions of ambitions that jostled and shoved in it. The signs were the growing crimes that often caught the innocent and the dilettante.
At the inn where we worked, our routine entailed leading lodgers to rooms to see if they were befitting. If they were satisfied, they paid. Then we provided toiletries and filled buckets in the adjoining lavatories with water – the showers were often poised but dry. When the lodgers leave, the following morning, we would clean up the rooms and get them ready for expected lodgers.
Later that day, I jumped into bed thinking the night would provide a reprieve from the tormenting figure of the Trader in my mind. But the man turned up in surreal scenes while I slept. Though he appeared quiet and harmless at the junction, he was an uncaring roughneck in the dark vignettes of my dream. He bellowed at his human preys and lashed at them with whips the size of a python.
On the night that followed, I dreamed again. The bloody scene was a bucolic market, at a time of the day when the sun had climbed to its peak. The Trader had a long sword that swished around, beheading men, women, and children. Decapitated bloody heads flew like bunches of palm kernels, allowing spurts of red to shoot out. People ran in any direction that seemed safe, screaming and bumping into each other and getting wounded. I woke up drenched in my own sweat, horrified and feeling damn frail.
I had told Sam about the man. He had said that if the man kept showing up in my thoughts, I would, in due course, find out where I had known him.
“I would like to take a walk to the junction,” I pleaded with him.
“Are you going to ask him who he is?”
“I will not go to that extent.”
“But be careful,” Sam warned.
“Caution is always at the back of my mind,” I assured him and felt at ease that he did not seem worried about my truancy.
The road to the junction was wet and uneven, and littered with cellophane flattened by the heavy weight of trucks. There were foul stenches from stagnant liquids in the adjoining gutters. I scurried past that section of the street. Eventually, I reached the main road. There were children hurrying to school. Women stirred stuff with giant spoons in sooty pans and pots. Men hovered around them, each yelling to be served first. Bus conductors babbled names of Abuja suburbia, the voices wrestling one another. White-collar workers drove in spotless four-wheel-drives with windows fully wound up. The polyester bands holding them to their seats said something beyond safety – they also spoke, oppressively, of class.
From where I stood, I watched the Trader attending to a few buyers. After the buyers had left, he pulled a mammoth book and flipped through the leaves until he was at a destination. Then he buried his face in it. I stood for about ten minutes, watching and musing. He was unaware he was a target of an intense scrutiny. A few buyers interrupted. He lifted his face so he could attend to them, folding the book in the process. As he folded the book, I noticed Arabic inscriptions, written in gold.
It could be that I had seen him a few times at the entrance of the Faculty of Religious Studies, when I was a student. The faculty was close to a battery of halls –A1, A2, A3… – where some professors relayed snippets of things they had learned over decades. Clusters of students, dressed in long caftans with tubular caps, often formed around the entrance of the faculty. They loved to put on trousers that ended just below the knee, leaving about a foot of their bare shins. The caps had great circumferences than the heads they covered, leaving enough space into which a bunch of rags could be stuffed.
Walking back to the inn, I focused hard on the years gone by, gathering my five senses into one and swathing them with a sixth. I could not believe it when my tenacity paid off. The bizarre scenes at night, my past as a victim of a gruesome war, and the book I saw the man reading, were the jigsaw pieces that finally formed the picture. He was one of the commanders from a terror group that waged a horrendous war in the north-eastern corner of the country, a war that stirred unmatched emotional pains beyond the borders of the region and made news around the world.
I could see that in the fifteen years that had passed since the attack at Goza, the warlord turned trader had gone through a striking transfiguration that there were just relics of the old identity. But I thanked Heaven that what was left was enough to help me recall who he was. The fighters had come to Goza town a couple of times, preaching and justifying their decision to end inequity, corruption, and nepotism. They claimed such evils could only have come from a style of education that failed to embrace Allah and his teachings. I recalled the Trader often preached fiercely with a crude-looking megaphone. His manners were vigorous. His voice would thunder and reverberate through the streets.
We were a happy little family of two responsible parents and two obedient kids. Every day, Dad spent his time on the farm, while Mum spent her own time weaving hairs at a local market. Except on Saturdays, when my sister spent the day with Mum while I spent mine with Dad, we were in school from Monday to Friday. I often looked forward to Saturday evenings, which were always a period of feasting in the house. Mum and my sister would return home with all that we needed for the rest of the weekend. After worship on Sundays, Dad spent time playing cards with friends on the benches in front of the house. I played football with friends around the street, while Mum and my sister simply stayed in the house. I wanted to become a doctor eventually. My sister wanted to become a teacher. It was the reason why Dad often referred to her as poor girl – teaching was considered a sacrifice and its reward was only in heaven. “At least, I will be a queen in heaven. All I need to do is wait and be patient,” was what she often said in response to Dad’s teases. This was the happy life the war brought to an end.
The radical preaching lasted for weeks, but people did not seem fascinated by their idea. They saw them as a gang of misled boys. People preferred to be part of a nation they had known from birth. That was when the deadly campaign started. As everything spun out of order, Mum and Dad perished, my sister disappeared.
As a colleague with whom I had worked for some time, Sam had known the full extent of my story. Now that I had recognized one of the men who led the killings, burning, looting, abductions, and rape, he was going to hear that the story had not finished yet – another reel was about to be spliced to it.
I returned to the inn, acting as if all was well, but Sam was too inquisitive – his prying eyes followed me to every corner of the bar. I continued to attend to my work. But he could not bear it any longer.
“Did you see the man?” he asked. The weight of his resolve was perceptible in his tone.
“Sure, I saw him. He will always be there,” I answered casually, feeling that the revelation was too sacred to be shared carelessly.
“Did you get any hint of where you had known him?” Sam pushed.
I remained silent. The silence hinted him to the fact that I was not ready to discuss the topic any further.
Along the street, a building stood facing the gates of our inn. In it was a boy of our age and with whom we had become intimately bonded. That morning, he came to the inn at about 10.00am as he always did. He loved reggae music and often came with a CD. The Hi-fi of the bar’s Home Theatre drove him crazy. But I think that he might also have been trying to indoctrinate us and get us to fall for his genre of music. That morning, still reeling from the shock of the previous evening, I was forlorn and withdrawn. Holding out a disc to Sam, our visitor asked if something was wrong with me. I forced a smile and replied: “Perhaps the dull pace of the morning events is showing on me. Just play your reggae.” I turned to my chore, sorting out bottles in crates of a non-alcoholic beverage – I must get the crates ready before the Coca-Cola truck arrives.
The CD sang one reggae song after another until it came to a Lucky Dube song, whose message mirrored exactly my experience:
“…You don’t know what tomorrow brings in this crazy world
People dying like flies every day
You read about it in the news but you don’t believe it…”
I left the reception and headed to the small room Sam and I shared. There, I slumped on our bed. Though I remained still, there was strife in my heart as I mused about the lines of the song that kept resonating in my mind:
“…Leaders starting wars any time they want
Some for their rights
Some for fun
And their own glory
Letting people die for the wrongs that they do
Oh, it is painful…
Yes, we are living in this crazy world…”
From the rebellion that my eyes had witnessed and my mind had recorded, a politician had gathered a group of redundant ragtag boys into an armed militia. He used them to cower and frighten other politicians who ambushed his powers. But with victory finally in his grasp, he failed to live up to his pledge of a cabinet position for the boys who sacrificed for him. That mistake was the ignition of the deadly confusion. The powers in Abuja, through an intricate plan, chose not to calm the storm. They let it linger until the polls and tried to use it to justify a plan to suspend elections in the region. The plan would have left the opposition badly injured and unable to fight. It was a lucid vote in the National Assembly that blocked the plan. But, by then, it was already late –the region had become charred remains of its old self.
Still lying on my bed and staring vaguely at the ceiling, the blades of the ceiling fan became hazy, as a pool of tears formed around my eyes. A slight blink sent a line of tears cascading down the side of my face. At that point, I reasoned that the time had finally come for Sam to know what ensued at the junction on my last visit. The longer I held it to myself, the more the chance of ruining the trust that ensured we were not only friends but brothers.
Through misty eyes, I typed an SMS to Sam: COME TO THE ROOM, PLEASE. Almost immediately, my phone vibrated. I scrolled down to my inbox to read his reply: OK. Three minutes later, I heard faint footsteps that got louder and louder. The door’s faded knob spun, the hinges shrilled and the door opened.
Sam was shocked when he saw tears in my eyes.
“What has gone wrong, Philip?” he asked.
“Sit down,” I requested, tapping the edge of the bed with my left hand.
I was unable to look at his face with blotches of tears around my eyes.
“The man at the junction was among the men who led boys to attack Goza,” I said point blank.
There was a brief moment of silence. Then he asked:
“You mean the man from whom we bought those papers?”
“Yes,” I replied, my voice barely audible.
“What! The world is indeed a small village,” he noted. “I am really sorry for what you are going through, Phillip.”
I remained silent, raising my hand to mop the tears that had continued to fall.
“What are you going to do now,” he asked.
“I really do not know,” I said.
Except for the tornado in my heart and the noisy rhythm of the spinning fan, what followed was a hushed interlude.
I mused over how the tides had sorted events with the Trader ending where he was least anticipated. Abuja is like a heart through which blood from all limbs must flow – nearly every man from the north, south, east or west must visit or journey through it at one time or the other. When things fell apart for the Islamic insurgents, they could not go back to their towns, where they were known – there were wounded souls seeking revenge in those towns. So, most of them moved to obscure villages in the south of the country. Some crossed the border and moved to the riverine areas of Cameroon. Yet, others moved to as far as the Central African Republic. A few found new homes towards the other extreme of West Africa. Refugee populations in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad received some of them, thinking they were refugees from other towns. But for any of such rebels to opt to settle in Abuja was unthinkable and crazy.
I followed Sam as we walked out of the room. I veered to the bathroom, while he kept on to the bar. I washed off signs of grief from my face. Then, I continued to the bar and picked a bottle of a reinforcing drink. To tame its cruel taste, I also carried a bottle of mineral drink. I returned to the room, unified the drinks in a glass and tossed the mix down my throat.
Over the next few days, my heart struggled with how to avenge every soul in my family and the happiness of which I had been robbed. I could approach him with a gun and shoot point-blank. But, unless I was suicidal, there was no way I could get a gun without walking into criminal gangs in the city. Even if a gun had been shoved into my hand, homicide could have led me into another messy web. Then the option of torching those papers, pens, sweets, batteries… to set back his fortunes also flashed through my mind for a while. But it was not a wise idea, either. He would be intimated to the fact that someone had spotted him, get out of town and start elsewhere. I wanted the son-of-a-bitch dead.
Across the road, directly opposite the Trader, was a maishayi. Fellow tribesmen, dressed in loose caftans, often frequented his stand. They loved the therapy of his hot brew on their chest. I often watched his dramatic way of simmering down tea: he would raise a cup of hot tea above his head, pour it down like a waterfall to a second cup at his waist level. Then he would repeat the show with the hands switching positions. Doing that just four times got a hot cup cooled enough for any impatient drinker. It was at the tea-man’s that I spent two late hours of the next few days, observing the Trader while he read his book. I watched the constant depression on his face, his self-isolation, his love of the Koran, his interaction with buyers and the rare moments when a smile swept across his face.
“Do you want your tea with bread?” the tea-man asked, on my first day.
“No, just the tea,” I replied.
“OK. One hundred.”
“Serve it,” I ordered.
“It is hot. Do you want it cooled?”
“No, just bring it,” I replied.
I did not want my tea cooled. It was rather fine that it was hot – I wanted to spend some time studying my target. I arched over the cup of tea and took a sip, feeling the pepper and ginger flavouring. Some folks love these spices in their tea. It represented some kind of cultural adaptation of tea. At home, my tea was normal: with sugar and the beverage. But that night, I knew why I had to take that tea with its odd flavour: I was embarking on something extraordinary – if you are going to a place you have never been to, you must do things you have never done.
I made the tea-stand as cosy as possible. Within fourteen days, I had taken a good number of cups. My friendship with maishayi grew. I learned to stomach his warped grasp of life – he believed that if you applied galena powder to your eyelashes and stared into the eyes of the First Lady, she would fall in love with you and hate the President. He believed that Dimka, who led the 1976 failed military coup and was executed by a firing squad, was a “strongman” who never really died, and was sometimes spotted in his village. We had our only fight when I argued that Dimka was not alive. After that, I understood how deeply rooted his beliefs were. I learned to tolerate them no matter how crooked they seemed.
Deep within me, something kept saying, “You lack the raw nerves to kill a man.” Time was running out. The more time that raced past, the more the door of revenge narrowed. One day, I sat staring at the Trader across the road. My mind eventually leaped over him to the horrors of Goza. Then I felt a pool forming in my eyes. Then it overflowed its brim and ran down my cheeks, a few drops straying into a corner of my mouth, a salty tang intruding. When the tea-man turned my way, his eyeballs grew large, almost popping out of their pens. “Why you cry?” he asked. In a flash, I felt a sudden miraculous calm in my heart. I realized, there and then, that I had found the best way to deal with the Trader: tell the tea-man the whole story.
After I had finished my story, the tea-man moved his focus from the rear of the story to the Trader across the road. Then, in his eyes, I saw hate gathering. He had never really believed anything he had heard about the trader.
I told Sam that I had told another man about the Trader.
“Who could that be?” he asked.
“The man in whose place I have been spending the evenings.”
“You mean the tea-man?”
“Have you become that intimate?”
“Yes, in a way.”
“Would you not regret it?”
“No, I do not think so.”
My unceasing truancy had become so frequent. At that point, I felt Sam was getting worried, mostly for the reason that I had not told him exactly what I wanted to accomplish by constantly going to the junction. But I wanted to go again. And to justify the constant visits, I crafted a lie: that I had found out spices in the tea cured malaria and I wanted a few more doses. Though the tea-man had not promised he was going to do something about the Trader, I saw, in his expression, a resolve to do something. I wanted to see if he had already done it.
Some years back, there had been an ugly incident in a slum, where the police opened fire on a camp of economic refugees. They were rumoured to be planning to bomb major areas of the city. Later, the truth came out that only a few of those dead men were truly abhorrent. By then it was late. When I reconnected with the tea-man, he told me he hated that story replaying itself. He had narrated my story to the noble men he had known for long and trusted. And that “the good people” were trying to do something about it. I wanted the nitty-gritty, but I thought better and tamed my curiosity.
I turned back to go. But, first, flashed another look at the Trader. He was reading, and had no inkling of the thick plot against him. If I had never felt his cruelty first-hand, I would have –going by his deceitful manners – remained ignorant of his horrific past. I probably would have offered him a place to put his head. Some folks were doing just that, unaware of the monster he was, unable to see past the polished lies he told. He was a man who led armed boys to set fire on dormitories and shot students who rushed out of the burning building. I pondered over the possibility of him having children and how he would have felt if they were killed that way. That day, I walked back to the inn, feeling I was closing in on him.
The Trader’s little turnover seemed to be growing. I could see that from the series of new dresses he had been wearing. They fitted well and left me thinking about the tailor who made them. The tailor must have run his tape measure around the Trader’s body, ignorant of the worms that infested and crawled inside him. The day he learns about the Trader’s past, he would race, yelling like a lunatic to his pastor to be purified. At a point, the immaculate dresses pleased and almost pacified me to start considering a pardon, but the mountain of his transgressions was staggering, and they came protesting.
I visited the junction again. When I turned up, I looked in the way of the Trader, hoping to see him in a new caftan. I had already reinforced my mind so that whatever he wore would not coax me to regret the steps I had taken. But something seemed out of place. Though the Trader’s table was where it had always been, his trifles of merchandise were not on it. The table was not only bare, it was unmanned. The line of my sight moved through a quarter of a circle, as I tried to locate the tea-man across the road. I struggled between the streams of traffic, searching for him. I managed to catch a glimpse of him when two trucks gave a second between them. When our eyes connected, his face gave no hint as to what had happened. In fact, he acted as if he had not seen me. He, instead, continued dramatizing his tea–falls. The blank face seemed a little unfriendly and, for a moment, faded my trust in our friendship. In the end, he served all who waited. Then he moved away from them and winked. I moved until I was within inches of him. Then he relaxed his face and whispered, “The man is die!”
The news was dreamlike, preposterous and stunning, all at the same time: that the Trader had died in the three days I was away. Was he sick, or was it that he suddenly slumped under the cargo of his atrocities?
The tea-man had shared my story with the others. Opinions rhymed that the police should be invited to establish the exact identity of the Trader. When the police came, the Trader tried to escape. But a ring of policemen swiftly formed around him. Then he turned violent, forcing one to “restrain” him with a single bullet to his chest.
I wished I had been there, begging the police not to shoot straightway. There were bits of useful facts he alone was aware of, facts that would have trawled the city of others like him. I wished I had been there to “walk” him back to Goza and study his reaction. But all the same, the policeman had done a great job – exorcising the earth of a needless spirit. My mind, now free of his ghost, became fully relaxed. I felt no pity for him. As the saying goes, “it is up to you to decide if you want to sleep in peace.”
Image: Pixabay.com remixed