Fiction

Father of Children: A Short Story by Ahmed Maiwada

Our household was busy threshing groundnuts one morning, inside our compound of wattle-and-daub huts and barns. The goats and sheep were bleating. The fowls were crowing and cackling. The ducks were quacking. The weaver birds were chirping in the trees. The robins were twittering on window sills and eaves of thatch roofs. The women were singing. We, men were chattering and laughing.

Our father’s youngest wife went outside to empty a calabash of threshed groundnut shells. She returned into the compound panting, trembling and sweating. Her calabash was not emptied. She rushed straight to our father and said, “Father of Children, war has come to your home today.”

Our father, who could have passed for a eunuch for his gigantic frame, was surrounded by his many little grandchildren. He sat under the gamji tree that occupied the centre of the compound. He wore shrunken, soiled-white calico trousers and a toga. His dark, smooth skin; the black and grey hair on his broad chest were exposed now and then by the ever busy, strong harmattan in the atmosphere. He looked up from the groundnuts roasting in the embers in-between his hoary spread legs, squinting at his youngest wife while we looked from him to the anxious woman.

Father of Children was unmoved, like a gamji tree in a storm. His eyes wore that disdainful look for women’s lack of heart.

“Which kind of war can dare come to a brave man’s home, woman?” he asked.

“There are men with guns all around your household, Father of Children,” the woman cried. “You may think they are flies around a tailless donkey’s skin ulcer.”

Father of Children’s little grandchildren exploded in giggles.

It was quite true when we climbed the walls and looked. We saw men in uniform and helmets, holding weapons and staring at us. They were as many as the grains of sharp sand on the bed of a drying river.

Father of Children ordered us to stop work.

In the silence that followed, we could hear the wings of the flies mating around us as clearly as planes over the fields.

“Well,” said Father of Children to us. “I will go out and inquire of their mission.”

He went into his hut, instead. Then he emerged without his toga, but with his phylacteries under his knee caps and around his biceps of steel.

Father of Children was a father of children. We, his male children, alone, numbered over thirty. More than twenty of us were already married. Each one of us had at least three wives; each wife having not less than five little and grown male and female children. Except for the few among the teenagers out with the animals in the fields, all of us stood watching Father of Children tramp toward the dim gate-chamber.

He was barefoot, going headlong as if toward the bush to answer nature’s call. His back muscles rose and fell like the river tides in the peak of monsoon as he dissolved into the dim gate-chamber.

Daring his fury from discovering my anxiety over him, I sneaked after him.

I arrived at the second and larger gate-chamber that led out to the world to see the back of Father of Children, as he stood outside the exit door towering over the tall, thin and moustached police chief. The uniformed policemen behind the police chief were uncountable. Their helmets sparkled in the sun.

Father of Children was saying to the police chief, “This household does not owe any tax. Why do you want to see the head of the household?”

“I asked you a simple question…” the police chief thundered.

“And if I should inform you – may your life be long,” continued Father of Children, “we are busy threshing our groundnuts so we might sell and pay our taxes that will soon fall due. We don’t want to offend the authorities.”

“So you know that it is wrong to offend the authorities?” asked the police chief. “How come you belong to a rebel party?”

“May your life be long,” said Father of Children. “The English, who handed down taxation and politics to the native authorities, also handed down the rules of carrying on those things. The District Head’s messenger goes round by sunset to announce the time for payment of taxes and the rates per head. So is the case when there is a new law we should know of. And it is an open secret that the English did not hand down any law restricting our choice of political parties; and so we choose the parties we like. There is no such law till date; there is none proscribing the party we belong to.”

“Are you the head of this household?” the chief policemen thundered.

“Of course I am the head of this household…” Father of Children replied.

The concluding part of his reply was drowned by the whistle which the police chief blew. It was the cue which his innumerable assistants were waiting anxiously for. And they fell on Father of Children with beatings and kicking.

I rushed back into the household where anxious eyes were still glaring at the gate-chamber. I said to my brothers “Go and prepare for war! The dogs have fallen on Father of Children.”

Everybody rushed into his hut and got prepared.

We met Father of Children and the dogs under a thick, red dust that could have been raised by a whirlwind. He would fell five of them with a swing of his rocky knuckles. Ten others would surge forward, kicking and beating. Each rifle butt that landed on his head would split in two, like a boiled groundnut knocked against a stone. Each bayonet that connected with his body would coil like a mosquito coil, or melt like lead in a forge.

And we, born in our father’s image by our chaste mothers, fell on the oppressors with our weapons, arms and feet. The sounds of beatings and kicking were like a million cattle locked in horn duels. Even the worms in the earth beneath the battle ground knew that day, from the thunders of heels and thuds of fallen bodies that real men were at the battlefront.

When next I saw Father of Children, he was armed with a rifle, seized from one of his victims. He was felling double the number he fell using his bare hands.

I was matching on, and stepping over the felled bodies of our enemies when a shattering gun report exploded in the air. It was like two rams the size of a mountain knocking heads together. The burnt gunpowder filled the atmosphere like a fart in a sealed room. A scream went off; a scream of a man in agony. It was Father of Children’s only surviving younger brother, pierced by a bullet. He had joined us in the battle straight from his home in the neighbourhood.

He fell down in a pool of blood, a dead man among several police casualties.

The anger over our only setback fired us on, until we chased the policemen. They fled leaving behind over a hundred helmets, scattered around our household.

Father of Children called us to his hut in the evening and said, “We have won today’s battle, thanks to our ancestors. But, I swear by Thunder the war is not over. They would reinforce and return for another battle. Only one thing shall guarantee a truce, which is our renouncing NEPU for NPC. Both the District Head and the Village Chief have done everything possible to make me renounce NEPU. The exorbitant taxes I pay for myself and all of you resulted from our freedom of choice. You all know that ours is the only household where little children of between five and six years are made to pay tax. But all these persecutions shall vanish; this war will not continue if we shall change our political party to the one favoured by the authorities. But you are all my children, and you go where I lead. We will not renounce NEPU; we will sip at our pap because that is what we want to do. Therefore I order you all to send your wives back to their parents’ homes this evening. Also, pack as much as you can carry of your chattels. Load the donkeys and the bulls; make them ready for journey tomorrow at dawn. We shall migrate from Katsina. Our families might join us at the new place we are going.”

Reports reached us at our new place that our Village Chief had sent a truckload of prisoners from the Katsina Prison to our abandoned household. They broke in with their diggers and pick axes and looted all the treasures that we could not take along: over seven herds of cattle, thousands of goats, several barns of grains. The prisoners were ordered to destroy the barns and buildings. They took all the money they could dig out; and it was a great sum.

We built a new household outside the city of Kano. The then Emir of Kano was an upright man; he refused NPC the abuse of his stool toward suppressing the opposition. NEPU and its teeming supporters of common birth thrived in that atmosphere of freedom.

Father of Children introduced us to cross border trading. We bought cheap cassava from Kankiya, in Katsina land, and sold it in Kano.

The District Head, however, had spread his secret agents in all the markets under his area of authority. The secret agents working in Kankiya market spied on us. One day the District Head’s men seized eight servants of Father of Children at Kankiya. Father of Children pleaded with them, saying, “I do not want trouble. Please, release my servants.” The District Head sent his condition for releasing the servants, which Father of Children accepted by attending a reconciliation meeting at the District Head’s palace.

We left Kano for Kankiya three months later, guaranteed from molestation.

We settled in the house of Maccho, a Fulani friend of Father of Children, while we rebuilt our old household.

It was not quite two weeks when our Ward Chief invited Father of Children and us, his sons, to a meeting in the Village Chief’s palace. My immediate younger brother advised Father of Children, saying “Father of Children, we should better go prepared. I don’t trust these royals.” But Father of Children waved him aside saying, “No, let us just go. There is no problem. We have already entered into a peace agreement with them. They recalled us back from Kano because they need our taxes. Who will pay them as much taxes as we if they should arrest us?”

We sat on the spread mats before the Village Chief’s throne, as all commoners did. But I could tell that the tone of the Village Chief’s preambles had disturbed Father of Children. His eyes became as red as ripe pepper, as they do when he got angry.

“We do not accept NEPU meetings within Kankiya area,” the Village Chief said to Father of Children through thick folds of white turban. “Can you tell us why you and your sons went on with NEPU meetings in disregard of our laws?”

Father of Children had barely opened his mouth to answer when a palace guard slapped off his hat from his head and barked, “Show respect!” Another guard dashed over to the exit door of the palace and locked it up. Two district policemen jumped upon me and Father of Children, and handcuffed us.

But Father of Children managed to rise on his feet and stagger to the exit door. He kicked the wood with his foot and it gave way. He stumbled forward. But a district policeman waiting outside the door welcomed him with a cudgel on his bare head. It sounded like a sabre striking a boulder. Father of Children crashed forward into the dust. As he laboured to rise, a cattle vendor by the name Kallamu sneaked behind him and laid a marke staff on his right ear. Father of Children crashed down to the dust, like a chunk of earth from a river bank, slashed by the tides.

About a hundred men fell on him as a flock of hens would fall on a stray cockroach.

Father of Children was limp in death when they dragged his handcuffed body to the front of the palace and then led us, his sons, to his corpse; high like the gathered laundry of our entire household. His blood made russet lines and splotched on the brown dust and his brown, woven, cotton babbanriga.

I had an elder brother whose skin was as red as ripe plum fruit. He was nursing guinea-worm and lived with his in-laws, unable to walk. The palace guards arrested him and drove him in a truck down to the palace, with his own handcuffs.

The palace guards threw me and my other brothers into the arriving truck as if we were sacks of groundnuts. Then they drove us to the District Chief’s palace while we bathed and coughed in the thick dust raised by the truck.

We arrived at around ten o’clock in the night, hungry, thirsty and tired. I know that if we were some cattle and the chief of the slaughterers should slay us, our meat would not have tasted well in any soup, for our bodies ached from beatings and our blood flowed where our skins were gashed.

Our subsequent trial lasted for six months. The district judge sentenced each of us to a two-year jail term, with hard labour.

Father of Children was buried by wild birds, under powers granted by the authorities.

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