This is an excerpt from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s first novel, The Quest for Nina, schedule for release August 2008 by Raider Publishing International, New York, USA.
Shehu Waziri was a celebrity among his folks. His rise to stardom was as remarkable as it was unexpected and in a community that thrived on rumours. His rise fed the mills and his name was whispered even by the winds. The peasant boy with no means had somehow defied the odds and grown to be a living legend and a beacon of hope to the youths of his community, who thereafter dared to dream of ever crawling up the ladder out of the slum and a state of virtual non-existence.
Growing up, Shehu had been a quiet youth. His parents were poor and old and their mud house threatened to slide away in every heavy rain. In that house, they raised fourteen children, of which Shehu was the seventh. Most of the children hardly went past primary school; the girls were married off early and the boys learnt trade – locksmith, blacksmith, trade, carpentry; there was even a gravedigger.
Shehu did none of those. He dared to dream. He dreamt of a better life. He dreamt of becoming someone someday. How? He was not sure but he knew the first step was an education. He decided to live his dream and it came at some considerable cost. ‘Nobodies’ could not afford to dream – at least, not in this non-existence. But like Pinocchio, the toy boy, Shehu dreamt of becoming real and he persevered.
The idea was appalling to his older siblings and disturbing to his parents. The boy was old enough to start scrounging for a living even as a mason or a gravedigger, just anything to bring in the much needed extra cash to support the family. Worse still was the fact that someone had to pay for his education. The family concluded that the boy’s decision was a double tragedy – a potential production source was not producing but was going to be a drain, down which valuable resources would be pumped.
Two years after primary education, Shehu was still looking for a means to further and get a secondary education of some sort. From somewhere beyond the clouds it would seem, a benevolent uncle appeared and sent the boy to school and just as suddenly, the benevolent uncle vanished.
His brothers reluctantly supported him some distance before categorically washing their hands off him. They had more important things to spend their money on, they said. By then Shehu had met Biko, who was his classmate and friend. The pampered General’s son found something worthwhile in which to invest and he gladly carried Shehu along from his expansive allowance. When the General discovered the source of his son’s growing sense of responsibility, he did for Shehu what he did for his son, as if the two were siblings. So, Shehu finished his secondary education in some relative comfort.
Though he was no longer a burden on the family, he was not contributing either and so the family chose to neglect him. He was not informed about family meetings and his opinion was not sought on any issue concerning family members. It hurt him deeply when he stumbled over the news that his younger sister would be married off within the week. Shehu went to confirm the report from his mother.
“Who told you?” she asked.
“I heard it on the street.”
“Oh,” she said, “I thought you knew.”
“She is my sister, at least, someone should have told me.”
“So? What difference would it have made if you had known earlier? Don’t pester me, boy; I’ve got things to do.”
Shehu felt slighted. His younger brothers, who supported the family one way or the other, all played prominent roles in the event. It was as if they danced round him, avoiding him. Even in his family he was considered a nobody – a nobodies’ nobody.
Two years later when Biko opted for a regular degree at the university, Shehu showed interest in taking Biko’s place at the Defence Academy and the General agreed to help him. The General’s strong influence paved the way and Shehu was admitted. The news spread like wild fire. Shehu, the nobodies’ nobody, instantly became a local hero and the pride of his community. His family was overjoyed. He was accorded the respect of a prince – a soldier was king.
By the time Shehu became a commissioned officer four years later, his profile among his entire clan had skyrocketed. In his immediate family, no important decision was taken without his sanction. The family had now changed its course such that it revolved around him. He put the family house back on a proper footing and sponsored some of his siblings, nephews and nieces to school. Shehu became a pillar of hope and strength.
In a society where soldiers were regarded as demigods, having one in your family was an attribute of pseudo-divinity of some sort. His older siblings, who once regarded him as a hole in the family’s pocket, now became ‘the soldier’s brothers’. They basked in the glow of Shehu’s pseudo-divinity.
Some people had formed the notion that in a few years Shehu would stage his own coup and become the Head of State. Coups d’etat were obviously seen as a sort of dancing chair at which soldiers took turns. And so each time Shehu breezed into town, even the kola nut-stained-toothed old men would hail “Sai ka yi!”
But fame too came with its cost. Everybody laid his woes at Shehu’s sparkling boots and the young soldier hardly had anything he could call a private life. Long lost uncles wanted to decide whom he should marry, when and how. He took his time to decide and finally came up with the choice of Hadiza. She was scrutinized, like a parasite under several microscopes at the same time. She was found worthy in some quarters while in others, they never ran short of criticism;
“She’s far too thin.”
“Looks like she’s ill.”
“Of course she is. The girl is epileptic.”
“Was it not her father who used to drive that Volvo?”
“Sure, that scoundrel.”
“I hear he sold the car to pay debts.”
“Their family has been cursed with poverty.”
“Scavengers! Damned no-goods!”
But Shehu stuck to his gun and married the girl nonetheless. The first two years of married life were uneventful except for Hadiza’s unfortunate miscarriage. When another four years lazily rolled by and Hadiza was not seen with a bulge in her midsection, tongues started wagging. Inna, Shehu’s aging mother, developed a keen interest on the matter. She was anxious to see her ‘favourite son’s’ children. She started pushing buttons to ensure that Shehu took a second wife.
Somehow, quietly, the myth of Hadiza’s witchcraft was spun. It was whispered that she ate her foetuses in her womb and had cast a powerful spell over Shehu to guarantee his faithfulness. No one dared to confront her for fear of offending her soldier-husband. She was adored and revered in unequal measures and her every move was scrutinized. Every gift from her was received with ravenous greed and in-depth scrutiny.
When Shehu arrived from Port Harcourt, his father, Malam, had intimated him about the importance of the summons issued to him. After the Friday prayer, Shehu arrived at the house to meet both his parents, two of his uncles and his four older brothers waiting. Inna had spread mats in the compounds and the men sat according to their age while she sat apart, very close to her room.
After a lengthy preamble, Baba Sani, Shehu’s uncle, finally narrowed his speech to the basics. “As I have said before,” he rasped in his throaty voice, “Shehu, our son, you have been a source of pride to our family. You have pleased your parents beyond measures and they bless you every minute. However, your mother, as you well know, has expressed grave concerns about an issue that is troubling us as well.
“Shehu, you have been married six years now and we heard rumours of a miscarriage donkey years ago and since then nothing. This unfortunate turn of events has unsettled us greatly and your parents have aged. Nothing will please them now more than to lift up your son in their hands and give praise to Allah.”
Baba Sani it seemed held back and so Yaya, Shehu’s eldest brother, famed for his brashness, took over; “We don’t quite know what is wrong but we think you should take a second wife.”
One after the other, they all chipped in a word or two, all saying the same thing in so many words. Shehu waited until they have all had their say and when he was sure they had nothing else to add he cleared his throat. “I have heard you all,” he began, “you have spoken at length and I appreciate your concern. You all know what we have been through from the beginning when we were regarded as nobodies. Then God’s time came and we were lifted to an enviable position. That is how Allah works, according to his will. I have indeed been married for sometime now and I believe when Allah wills it, I shall have children, as many as he deems fit.”
“Your faith in God is commendable,” Tijjani, one of his brothers began, “but you must also remember that you are not getting any younger.”
“Your parents are not getting any younger either,” Baba Sani chipped in.
“When and how I have children is Allah’s decision, not mine,” Shehu countered.
“Yes, we know.” For the first time, Malam spoke. “But aren’t you old enough to take a second wife?”
“Marrying a second wife, father, is a matter of choice, not compulsion.”
“When situations such as this warrants, it becomes compulsory,” Baba Sani pointed out.
“I am happy with my wife; I don’t need another woman to complicate my life.”
A dead silence fell on the gathering. Shehu felt as if he had uttered some grave profanity as questioning eyes were turned on him. Inna, who had said nothing since, could not have asked for a better cue and she seized the opportunity in a grand, if not bizarre fashion. She started wailing and chanting supplications. The men were dumbstruck as if a giant bell had tolled over their heads.
“Something has happened to my son!” she wailed. “This can’t be my son speaking!”
“Oh, woman,” Malam exploded, “Silence! Silence, I say!”
“How can I keep silent when my son is under the influence of black magic? How? How?” she sobbed, “somebody should look into his eyes and tell me this boy knows what he is saying.”
Shehu was shell-shocked but somehow he managed to speak; “Inna, for God’s sake stop this thing.”
Inna instead wailed louder, this time throwing tantrums into the act. It was becoming more dramatic. “When I laboured with this boy no one helped me save God,” she cried, “but now that he has become something, somebody wants to take him away. Why? Why? Why?”
Yahuza, Shehu’s immediate elder brother, outstanding for his bizarre sense of humour, regarded Shehu strangely and said; “By God, it is true,” he started, “his eyes do look different.”
Shehu gasped and Inna’s wailing went up several decibels.
“No wonder, he speaks differently I have noticed,” Baba Sani ventured.
“Even his countenance has changed,” Baba Tanko, his second uncle, said. “I have been suspicious for long; I just didn’t quite know how to say it.”
“So you will keep silent and watch while they finish my son for me?” Inna said between sobs and supplications.
Exasperated, Shehu rose. “So, this is why you called me all the way from Port Harcourt? Perhaps when you have something more reasonable to say, perhaps then we can have another family meeting.”
He made to storm out when his father’s authoritative voice halted him: “Shehu,” the old man called, “you maybe a soldier, an officer for that matter but you are still my son. Look around you, son, you are the youngest here and by virtue of that alone you owe us some respect. You don’t walk out on us.”
The air was charged. Even Inna’s wailing had subsided in anticipation of a potential father-son showdown. The son stood still, his face hard like granite and for almost a minute, no one knew for certain what was going to happen.
“I am sorry, father,” Shehu spoke, “I should have restrained myself.” He took his place on the mat again. The charged atmosphere remained and for a while only Inna’s steady droning could be heard. Finally, Baba Sani mustered enough courage to clear his throat.
“Certainly, a seated elder will see much further than a child on a tree,” he began. “Inna knows the ways of women and as the mother, who carried you in her womb for nine months, you don’t expect her to sit back and watch evil consume you…”
Shehu glared at his uncle and then turned to his father; “Father, forgive me but my patience is running short. What will you have me do?”
“Divorce that witch and marry another woman!” Inna cried passionately.
“Not quite so fast,” Malam said, “I think you should try your luck with another woman. I don’t quite like the idea of divorce, you know.”
Shehu sighed. “I will think about it.”
“You will do as I wish,” Inna declared.
“Inna, you know marriage should never be rushed,” Shehu said.
Inna chuckled mirthlessly. “You are too young to lecture me about marriage.”
“That was not quite the way I meant to put it, Inna,” Shehu said. “You know I have to get a good girl and the courting…”
“I have made arrangements already for you to marry Asabe.”
“What!” Shehu was shocked. “Who on earth is Asabe?”
“Asabe, Hajiya Ladi’s daughter,” she explained. Hajiya Ladi was Inna’s bosom friend.
“Inna, how can you ask me to marry Asabe for God’s sake,” Shehu protested. “The girl is still a child.”
“She is old enough if you ask me,” Baba Sani volunteered.
“She is not my type. I shall not marry her,” Shehu announced.
Inna threw her arms in the air and wailed. She cried that she never thought any of her children would defy her. She alleged that Hadiza had made her son a mere puppet. She cried so dramatically that she quickly developed a fever and had to be put to bed.
The family meeting broke up and in the ensuing confusion; Yahuza quietly whisked Shehu away from the scene and advised him to disappear for the time being. Shehu never thought Yahuza had that much sense and with a mixed feeling of anxiety and relief, he did as he was advised.