Early in the morning of September 3rd, 1984, Dad played the town-crier, personally coming to our door to bang at it. “We’ve got a crucial meeting,” he bellowed. There was nothing wrong with the notice, except for the yelling and cruel door-banging.
Pandi, my younger sibling, and I turned up in the sitting room in the shortest possible time, a mix of curiosity and foreboding in my mind. I recall that, in my rush, I wore my shirt with the guts on the outside. Mum was already seated beside Dad. As always, she was her timid self, the reticence showing in the way she wore her head tie: concealing the ears except the lower ends that, though perforated, were free of rings. Even though she wasn’t, her dress sense gave her out as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Well,” Dad said, after we were seated. “I’m a responsible man, and I want this to be seen in every single one of you.” His bloodshot eyes spun around as he tried to read our minds by studying our faces. He must have found something: curiosity. “If something goes wrong in this family, I will feel the weight of the guilt more than anyone else.” He continued his long, boring prologue before he said finally, “To cut a long story short, the sole agenda of this meeting is your hair, Mandu.”
Pandi and I shot glances at each other. For a moment, the day seemed to have drifted back to dawn, as a million questions flashed through my mind.
“What about it, sir,” I asked softly, to avoid being labelled rude.
“You have to cut it. It doesn’t speak well of this family,” he replied.
It was shocking to me. I had been growing my dreadlocks for about eight months. He saw it growing, but he said nothing.
“Sir, why is this coming now, after I had laboured to grow the hair? Growing it isn’t easy.”
“Are you trying to argue with me? Aren’t I the boss in this house?”
“That is not the issue, sir.”
“What! Stop talking to me as if you are talking to Pandi!” he roared.
“I’m just trying to make you understand that, as long as I’m the one wearing this hair, it shouldn’t be a problem to you, or Pandi, or Mum.”
“What!” he roared again, smashing the centre table with his clenched fist. “We will see who the boss is. By the time I return, this evening, this hair should have been cut or you are wearing it in your own house.”
With the calmness of a sleeping baby, I got up and walked to my room.
“I’m not going to wait for your time grace. I’m leaving your house, right away!”
Though I was calm outside, I boiled and coiled within. My rage stemmed from the bias in his ruling. I knew the silly laws would continue if no one acted tough. Eventually, he would ask us to do absurd things like brushing our teeth only once a week. I had found a way of life that resonated with me. The dreadlock is one of its numerous elements. I was only glad that it didn’t elude me, or revealed itself in the sunset of my life. Stopping me was going to be as difficult as stopping a train where it wasn’t scheduled to stop.
Once in my room, I started shoving shirts, trousers, undies, shoes… into a leather bag, refusing to give an ear to either Mum or Pandi. I had to go. Before that day, I would have staked my life that Dad hadn’t the traits of a tyrant. It became clear to me that the only thing that opens the lock to a man’s real character is money. Everything was well until one of Dad’s classmates became the Manager of Wild Life Park. I recall that I and Pandi persuaded him to go to the man and congratulate him. The congratulation would pave the way for eventual favours.
“He was not just your classmate, but your closest buddy,” I had reminded Dad.
“They don’t always recall you were that close, the moment they make it,” he had argued.
But in the end, Dad visited. The eventual outcome was that he was given a contract to start supplying food to games at the park. That was how money started coming in. The house was re-painted. The settee in the living room was taken out and, in its place, came new ones. Dad bought a stereo set. Huge pieces of meat started showing in our meals. It seemed surreal that my happiness was the opportunity cost of Dad’s success and joy.
Every morning, Dad would switch on the radio receiver and scroll through the frequencies. The box would make sounds like corn popping. He would settle on a voice that often said, “This is BP Radio.” The voice would tell stories about the Governor and the Civil Service. It would also tell stories about politics and wars around the world. Then, with time on his hands, he would play Jimmy Cliff’s Remake the World, or Bongos’ I Won’t Leave Africa. The music often lasted for just a few minutes, after which other stories under different captions came up.
We preferred to spend the whole day playing music, but there weren’t enough CDs in the house: just a few Highlife discs, which Dad had bought after listening to them in the liquor bar where he often spent the evenings, drinking and dancing.
Nkra lived a couple of blocks away. He had a good job with the stores unit of a mining company and was paid decently, supporting an eccentric life: every day, he would come home with new music LPs, a bagful of rare drinks and biscuits. He was often flanked by a lady whose enormous hips quaked like gallons of a liquid in a supple bag. The quake would echo in the minds of men who sat burning their time along the street perimeters. One Saturday morning, we visited Nkra to borrow his music records. He was delighted and, like a curator of a museum, led us to his collection. Everything was exclusively reggae. The collection was a spectrum from the Paragons to Burning Spear.
Nkra educated us about the music and the culture, first. He told us about Rasta. He talked of the Rasta iconography to include a variety of English, Reggae Music, the love and use of ganja, a dislike for alcoholic beverages, a vegan lifestyle, dreadlocks, and so on and so forth. Then he played one of the records. It was fast-paced. The heavy bass-line was quick, blissfully organic, with a hypnotic effect. He danced, once in a while springing alternatively on his legs and rising towards the room ceiling like a human piston. He called the spring, skanking. That was how it all started.
Dad was ignorant that his son had become a man, not just from the sideburns, beard, strong biceps and the roar in his voice, but in the firmness and strength of his heart as well. He and Mum must have felt I would return later in the evening. I rather felt sorry for Dad –perhaps Pandi would, but Dad would never discover what I had discovered, not a drop of the vast ocean that life actually is. It would be a life partly lived.
I stayed with a friend. I clarified to his mum why I had been kicked out from home. She laughed and said she was sure that Dad and I would, in time, fade our differences. With that, she made me feel so liberated. But I also knew that there was the need for me not to stay beyond my welcome –my friend was not the boss in the house, after all. Plus, I wasn’t sure of his Dad’s exact opinion about my situation. One day, he might begin to tighten his face.
When we met in school, Pandi had a message for me. He dipped his right hand into his pocket and brought out five hundred naira.
“Guess who sent this?” he asked.
“What! How did he know about my situation?”
“When I returned his records, I told him what happened. He felt it was his fault.”
I struggled to hold back tears. “Tell him I’m very grateful for this.”
My matted hair continued to grow. Then I started getting hunted by teachers who wanted to cut it. With them, I played hide-and-seek. When I recalled the tale of a man who couldn’t afford tuition but became educated by going to the library, I parted ways with Government Secondary School.
Each time I went to the library, I felt eyes on me. But it was nothing beyond that. In time, other readers got drawn to me, realizing I wasn’t as hard as my hair suggested. Even though my hair was a mirror of a firmly rooted belief, I wasn’t in a rush to fling open the wings of my heart. But I noticed people talking to me with caution, perhaps thinking I belonged to some kind of offbeat clan.
Three months had passed since I left home. But the more time passed, the more I grew obdurate. Every boy will, in time, grow up to start his own life. It seemed that was what I was going through, just that the way it was happening was odd. Even Dad’s story was fresh in my mind –how he sometimes slept on a church veranda with security guards before he eventually found his footing. It made me realize that, for everyone, life was not always a bed of roses.
The house in which I was exiled existed at the periphery of town, a picket of mountains behind it. A lot of times, I went to the mountain and sat on a sledge, dipping my feet into the clean river that ran by its foot. I would sit there until the sun turned deep orange, ready to bid farewell. The clouds were always huge masses of froths. Their shades of grey reminiscent of Michaelangelo. The gorgeous image over the western horizon would trigger a string of thoughts: how I left home only after things were shaping up, and whether it meant that a happy life wasn’t for me. I also thought of the exact nature of Dad, who I thought I had known until he saw real cash. But the greatest was the upside of my series of reflections: how the painting in the sky gave me an idea of painting homes for a living. Painting homes required very little skill. If I could paint, I would be able to make money, rent a house and be a man of my own. I would have wrestled Dad to the ground. That would push him to respect the rights of every person, even if that person lived under his roof.
Every day, I walked along the streets, inspecting on-going constructions. Some were at the foundation stage, others a few days away from occupation. Some owners were so wealthy that they bought boundless stretches of land. It left me wondering that there probably would be no land left by the time I was ready to buy mine. It was always easy to know the owner of a building. He was always that man who maintained a ten-metre gap as he walked around the building, inspecting it. I went up to such men and told them I was a painter.
No one engaged me. A few days later, I would notice that someone else had been given the painting job.
When, as time passed, I ran short of money, I went to Nkra. He asked if I wasn’t ready to mend fences with my Dad. I told him I was not quarrelling with Dad. Then he asked if I had gone to the house since leaving. I told him I would go after I left his house. He felt relieved; he had feared my parents would think he was inciting me to revolt against them. For me, the idea was also brilliant, mainly because it would ease the burden in my mind, allowing me to concentrate on building my life –returning home wasn’t an option. I didn’t see Dad bowing, and I wasn’t ready to bow, either.
Except for Pandi, whom I often met, I hadn’t set eyes on Mum or Dad. Mum was seated, cutting vegetables. She threw the knife, jumped and embraced me. Dad was inside. When he heard my voice, he peered through a quasi-opened door of the bedroom. Seeing the hair still growing, he hissed and shut the door with a bang. Then his voice came through: “I heard that you don’t go to school anymore. See the mess you have made of yourself?” I wanted to win the battle and proof that I had become a man. The best way to win was not to fight over issues.
When Mum asked what it was about my hair that was making me go to all those extents, I told her that it wasn’t about the hair, that the time had just come for me to start my own home. About dropping out of school, I told her that people acquire education differently, that I was going to the library every day to study.
Some spices rose from the kitchen and invaded my nose. I was determined to eat before leaving. I waited. But I realized I was timid, without the ease of a man in his parent’s house. It was absurd to feel that way in a house where I was born and raised. It meant that I hadn’t any place on earth where I could feel at home. For a moment, I felt that life was pointless and wished it wouldn’t have mattered if I wasn’t alive. I struggled hard to fight back tears, wondering if the idea of visiting wasn’t a blunder. Perhaps I should forget about the food and find my way, I thought. But If I did so, it would have meant defeat for me –I had come with the aim of ending the beef with Dad.
Eventually, the food was ready. Everybody was served, including me. Even though I hadn’t any urge of returning to live under the same roof with a man who had ordered me out of his house, I was gritty about a ceasefire. I loved my exile, not for anything, but the freedom I enjoyed, the freedom that ensured I was my own boss, the freedom whose absence had stolen my joy.
Dad, though far away in the bedroom, had his mind in the heart of the sitting room. A few minutes after I had started eating, the bedroom door hinges made a high-pitched sound.
“So, you have the guts to eat in this house?” he questioned through the slit of a half-opened door.
I put up a smile. It was what I needed to do if I truly wanted reconciliation.
“So, I can’t even eat in this house?” I replied with another question, feeling dismayed.
Mum gazed his way. The anger in her eyes was obvious. She dared him, asking why her son couldn’t eat the food she had prepared, telling him that I was expressing more maturity than he was. She told Dad that I was his blood and that he should have gone looking for me in the first place.
A sudden surprise settled on his face and, for a moment, I felt sorry for him. Mum’s reaction surprised him –she never opposed him. Deep inside me, I knew there was a limit to the tolerance every woman had for her husband. When it concerns the plight of a child she had conceived and had, suckled and raised, there is bound to be a limit. Once a woman has a child, someone has emerged to contest the love she has for her husband. As far as that was the topic, my dreadlocks didn’t bring me short of that love. Growing dreadlocks wasn’t a sin. It wasn’t a crime, either. Dad should have known that, even though a man can have a child, the child may not necessarily grow up to be like him in every way. What about the reality that when children are born, they sometimes grow up to achieve goals that had eluded their parents? If children must do that, then they must be born with traits of their own, or find it somewhere as they grow.
Dad’s face slumped, depicting defeat and distress. He vanished behind the door with the haste of a prey that had just sighted a predator. I relaxed and ate –I must please Mum, but also ease the burden in my heart. As I ate, it dawned on me that I had come to understand the labyrinth of life more than Dad ever did. It was the first thing I had achieved that had eluded him. I ate until I felt the food at the base of my neck.
At Jomex Night Club, I was the boss –I received supplies of drinks. I sold them. I decided which music was played. Every morning, I took stock to see how much had been sold the previous night. Then I would check to see if what had been sold tallied with the cash in my hand.
I couldn’t go to the library anymore, but I read at the bar, every morning when there weren’t folks yelling to be served.
Sometimes, sitting in the bar before the hub hours, I heard voices in my head. They said things like: why are you doing this type of job? At least, your Dad is a contractor with the Wild Life Park. You shouldn’t be seen working in this kind of place! My answer was always: my[Dad is another individual and has his life to live. I have my own life to live.
Nkra had found me my first painting job. It was the burst that led from one painting job to another. After I had painted Jomex, the proprietor asked if I could find a barman for him. There and then, I offered myself. It was how I became a bartender at Jomex, along Dr Isiri Street.
Days after I resumed work at Jomex, my proprietor came with a collection of music CDs. I saw that the album covers weren’t new. They came from his music library. I was struck by the fact that he didn’t have a specific music culture. If he did, I should have seen it in the peculiarity of his collection. As far as I was concerned, the bar was going to have a distinct music face. If I played the records he brought constantly for some time, they were certainly going to defile my music character. It was crucial that my job specification never made it clear the kind of music I should play. I had an idea, and it was purely idiosyncratic, a mirror of my new found values. I knew my option wasn’t going to jeopardize my job, as long as the job generated the money my boss so badly craved. I started with records from Nkra’s pool. With time, I started buying a few copies each time I was paid. They belonged to me, and I would take them along, any time I was leaving the job.
By the end of the second month, I had started building an Identity for Jomex –a nightclub where anything aside aside Reggae was forbidden. My aim was to help Rasta to multiply, and it was working. Realising that gave me confidence that I sometimes wondered where it came from. I became so confident that I sometimes felt I could wring a tree trunk with a bare hand until it turned into a paste, or grab it with my left and tug at it until the roots pulled taut and furrowed the soil.
KALEIDSOCOPE 100 FM IN NEED OF PROGRAM ANCHORS, a conspicuous caption of an ad read. It was on walls and electric poles along the streets. VENUE: STUDIO PREMISES, UTONKONG ROAD, BEHIND NATIONAL LIBRARY. There was a silhouetted photo of a disc jockey with a headphone straddling his head like an overhead bridge over a highway. For a second, the saliva in my mouth turned sour. Perhaps, I was wrong about the high visibility of Jomex. Otherwise, one of these posters should have been there, the hangout of guys that mattered. As a matter of fact, I should have been approached and given copies of the ad to find the right positions within Jomex. Better still, it wouldn’t have been wrong if I was contracted to find the anchors –I was already running things within the related demography.
I had been reading at the National Library, ignorant that something that mattered so closely to the lifestyle I cherished was shaping up behind it. But, going by the date on the ad, it was already late –the auditioning had been conducted and done with the previous day. I figured that if I had any guts, it was time to show it. So, I took a bus heading downtown and disembarked after about a thirty-minute drive. I walked along the diversion that was Utonkong Road, beside which was the library, until I was at Kaleidoscope. Two security guards stood at the entrance. They were dressed in sky-blue shirts atop navy-blue trousers. Their boots were oversized, clunky, and with crack marks that told how old they were.
When the security guards turned down my plea to get in, I remained defiant, resolving to stay for as long as it would take. But it didn’t take any longer. For the first time, I benefitted from the gnarled and textured ropes of hair whipping around from my head. Plus, my decision to speak only Jamaican English got the men thinking I had come from Jamaica with something special for the radio station. They didn’t want to stand in the way and bear the weight of the guilt for the rest of their lives. So, they let me in.
The same magic worked on the Programme Director when I finally met with him. I told him I wanted to introduce a reggae show. Even though it may not have been in their plans, I figured that they never believed there was a soul in the town who could anchor it, or simply that such an idea never crossed their minds. But there I was, with the right traits. It made him curious.
“Do you practice Rastafarianism?” he asked.
“I practice Rasta, sir,” I said. Seeing the hint of confusion in his eyes, I went further, “You see, any word ending with the suffix, ‘ism,’ such as capitalism and colonialism, isn’t for us. Such words are often closely tied to exploitation. It’s the reason why our movement is known simply as Rasta.”
It sounded silly to him, so he laughed.
“Of what significance will such a radio show be?”
From the question, I knew that he wasn’t trying to trivialize the worth of my idea. Rather, he wanted to see if I knew my bearing enough to be allowed on air.
“We will play the music to entertain and inspire the youths. Since the messages are based on the experiences of the artists, the youths will be educated and find maturity of the mind. It could lead to a million other outcomes that, sitting here, I can’t foresee. Every healthy seed will always grow up to have healthy branches and fruits.”
“Healthy branches and fruits!” he asked. “What about the potential of corrupting the minds of young people, especially with respect to smoking Marijuana?”
“First, on the show, we won’t say or do anything to encourage ganja smoking. Secondly, ganja smoking precedes Rasta, and as such something else motivated the people to smoke it. In this town, there are people smoking weed who know nothing about Reggae or Rasta.”
He seemed captivated and arranged for me to have a mock presentation. After that, he saw me off to the gate.
“It was nice meeting you. We’ll communicate to you when the time comes. ”
“I look forward to it. Thank you, sir.”
I walked back, my heart spilling with joy –from all indications, it was going to work. I imagined what I could achieve if I found myself anchoring a radio show that linked me to millions. Even with Jomex alone, I knew what I had achieved, reshaping mind-sets.
May 11th drifted closer. When it was one day away, I dusted the walls, pulling down nauseous tarantula webs. I found a huge portrait of the icon and hung it on the wall. No music was going to be played except Bob’s –it was his day. He was so iconic that a lot of folks believed he invented Reggae.
A giant crowd turned up. Pandi was also there. From the size of the crowd, I was able to see how far the news of Jomex had travelled. I couldn’t cope with the orders. Then it occurred to me that my boss ought to have hired a sidekick. I drafted Pandi to assist, not caring how Dad would feel if he found out.
Liquor stupefies, and music does, too. When the party rose to a crescendo, I looked at Pandi and noticed he didn’t seem moved. I wondered if my kid brother was so numb to the riveting mood in the air.
I asked him if the lyrics of reggae music spoke to him in any way. He asked what “lyrics” was. When I explained it, he pretended he didn’t hear me well, that he thought I had said, “release.” I knew he was lying –I could see the lies in his eyes. I told him that, when reggae is playing, the bass-line is what drives one crazy. “Yeah,” he said and nodded. But the vagueness in his eyes also betrayed him –he didn’t know what bass-line was.
Everything went well until the song, Kaya, started playing. I was aware that people often smoke ganja outside, returning when they were done. I didn’t know that, because it was Marley Day, it was going to be different. The song continued playing:
“… I feel so high, I even touch the sky
Above the falling rain
I feel so good, in my neighbourhood
So, here I come again
I got to have kaya now…”
Suddenly, someone lit a joint of ganja from one end of the building. First, I felt the odour of leaves burning. It was so strong it wouldn’t have been coming from outside. The line of my sight struggled through the dim lighting of the club until I located a dude at a corner of the hall. He sat with his head bowed, perhaps burdened by the guilt of what he was doing. I found myself between a stone and a hard place –it was Marley Day, the fans feeling that the borders should be pushed further apart, at least for that day. But the cost for me could be drastic if my boss found out. But I dismissed the fear –he never came to the club in the night and wouldn’t find out.
With the crack of dawn, I cleaned up the place, going round to be sure there wasn’t anything incriminating. The morning felt dull, an anti-climax of the previous night. It was like getting lifted to the spire of a tower and being allowed to crash-land. Then I recalled I had books to read. In just a few months, I would be writing my Senior Secondary School Certificate Exams as an external candidate. I rummaged the refrigerator and found three slices of bread. Then I prepared a cup of tea and had breakfast. Next, I had a shower. After that, I turned to the books.
As the days passed, I realized I wasn’t relaxed, living at the bar anymore –I was living a makeshift life as if I was in a camp. So, I found a two-room shelter, not far away from Jomex. By 09:00 p.m., every night, I closed and found my way home, reopening twelve hours later.
A couple of days after, the marijuana issue resurfaced. It was the day I played Legalize it.
“Some called it bampee
Some call it the weed
Some call it marijuana, yeah
Some of them call it ganja
Got to legalize it…”
The song had played for about a minute when someone suddenly lit a wrap of ganja, right inside and started smoking. I wasn’t sure if it was the same man who did it on Marley Day. New faces came to Jomex every day, and it was hard for me to register every face in the mind. While I was thinking what to do, a second person lit his, too. Then someone said, “Yeah, Rasta! If we can’t smoke it elsewhere, we have to smoke it right here! This place belongs to us!” I procrastinated for an unfair amount of time. When the will to talk finally came, I felt within me that it was too late.
I thought I should find a way of ending the smoking, but I kept dallying, afraid of ruining a customer base I had worked hard to build. My dithering was obvious, and it emboldened more people. So, the practice only became more deeply rooted, a ritual. Each time a song talking good of ganja came up, the smoking would start. They smoked whenever I played Ganja Farmer, or Na a Go a Jail, or I Shot the Sheriff. They would inhale deeply and concede, delightfully, a thick cloud of formless smoke that rose and created a mock sky. The smoke would become so thick that others got high from inhaling second-hand smoke.
Every now and then, people heard about Jomex and visited. A new face loved to sit on a tall stool at the counter, facing me. He seemed so disciplined, more like those boys who loved books but felt that all work without play was like going too far. On his third day, he sat for a few hours. Then he grumbled that I hadn’t played Bush Doctor in a while. I wondered how he would have known the last time I played that song –I was sure he hadn’t been there for more than a few days. I felt that he just loved that song and wanted to hear it. Some twenty minutes later, I started playing the song. It was out of the little respect I had for him. “I’m coming,” he said and went out. There was something like a mischievous smile on his face. It left a little irritation in my mind. When he returned, a few minutes later, I was shocked to the bones. There were heavily armed policemen with him. By now, there were close to a dozen smoking guns: lit weed, and the ones hidden in pockets. “Nobody moves!” one of the armed men warned. Then they seized the lit wraps of weed. Searching everyone, they brought out unlit wraps from a number of pockets.
I thought of the undercover policeman who had disguised himself like a fun-seeker, spending three nights just to find a smoking gun. So, he was from FCIID (Force Crime Investigation and Intelligence Department)! I tried to look him in the eye to see if there was any pang of regret for his “betrayal.” All I saw was a sneer, suggesting we were nothing but cheap criminals. All he cared about was his success in a grand plan to apprehend ganja smokers, the bad boys of Bukuru community.
I pleaded to be allowed time to lock up. One of them asked if I wasn’t the manager of the club. When he was told that I was, he ordered two armed men to stay with me while I locked up. One of the men slipped his hand into my trousers, between the waistband of my trousers and my bare buttock. He kept dragging me carelessly so that I lost the rhythm of my footsteps and lurched around. For the first time, the cords of hair on my head felt like a burden. I had a fair esteem of myself, but the police felt otherwise and showed it by the way I was treated. I asked myself if that was truly all I was worth. I thought about how Dad would react to the news that we had been arrested for ganja possession. He would win over Mum by telling her, “You see, the boy you are backing?” I wished Mum would tell him, “You are to blame for everything. You should have found a way of persuading him to return home. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
We were herded into a police van and driven into the darkness of night. We ended up at Police B-Division. There, they stripped everyone to his underpants and squeezed us into a tiny cell that felt like one of Adolf Hitler’s gas chambers. The cell was so dark it felt like we were underground. Without a single mattress or mat, we spent the night standing, slapping, and scratching.
During the arrest, I had thought that we would be asked to play ball so that everything would end at the club. That none of the policemen made such a suggestion frightened me. Later, it became clear that they wanted something big that they figured young men like us couldn’t cough out. So, taking us that far was a way of involving parents, something I wished never happened. Luckily for me, it never happened –my boss turned up. He played ball. By then it was 02:00 p.m. the next day –we had already served prison terms of some sorts.
As we drove back in my boss’ van, I tried to read his mind, what he was thinking about me. I also wondered about my fate at the bar. When he eventually opened up, he was calmer than I had expected. He said he would have sworn with his life that I wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen. He said that I had damaged the reputation of Jomex, and the stain would be difficult to clean up. By the time he dropped me at Jomex, all he said was that he wouldn’t want that kind of thing to happen anymore. I expected him to say more than that, but he said nothing else and left a million questions in my mind. It felt worse than getting fired.
Jomex recovered slowly, eventually picking up fully in two weeks. By then I knew the enormity of the damage I had caused. I made and glued notices on walls. It read: NO SMOKING HERE. GOD IS A POLICEMAN. It wasn’t the notice that warned drinkers. It was rather the recent history of Jomex. Plus, I refused to play those moving songs. But the smoking didn’t stop altogether. Guys smoked at dark corners that couldn’t be negotiated and illuminated by security electric bulbs. Still, it made Jomex guilty –the men smoking were visiting the bar. At that point, I knew I had started something bigger than I could ever stop. But I called a meeting and told everyone about the implication of smoking anywhere that was within a hundred metre radius of Jomex. Everyone nodded at the aptness and wisdom in my speech. It was a miracle. Though once in a while, one caught a whiff of ganja smoke, it happened so rarely, the hint so faint that the actual source was confusing: weed? Seems like something else.
The external exams I had registered for took off. I told my boss about it –I wasn’t going to be around every hour of the day. My boss endorsed my request to take a few hours off each day I had a paper to write. Since I wasn’t taking the whole day off, it wasn’t much of a hassle. But on the day we wrote English Language, there were two parts of the test: Paper One, in the morning and Paper II, in the afternoon. That day, I didn’t even have the time to check things up at Jomex as I often did every morning before leaving. I returned late to discover that Jomex was undergoing a facelift. There were men with trowels, shovels, head pans … Within the hall, there was an erection, walling off a strip, about four metres wide. The strip was, in turn, divided into smaller units, each representing a room. Everything was a mess. A beautiful chandelier had been removed and thrown carelessly, a film of dust making it look like a piece of scrap.
I sought to know what was going on, but no one cared to listen. The men carrying out the work didn’t know me and weren’t obliged to answer any question from me. All they knew was the owner of the building. I wondered why he left me in the cold over what was going on. As a matter of fact, I knew the building more than he knew it and should have been notified about any makeover. If I had been fired, it would have been different. And why was this happening the day I stayed out longer. It seemed he had found a copy of the examination schedule to know the day I was going to stay out longer.
When I eventually found my boss, it was the next day. He gave all manner of vain excuses. That I wasn’t fired, and I would return to work the moment the repairs had been concluded. His grounds sounded too cheap for me to believe. Early in the next morning of the next day, before the labourers started work, I went to Jomex and packed out anything that belonged to me –my music records, a pair of shoes and a few other items.
Every day, after supper, when the sun had retreated, I took a walk, passing along Dr Isiri Street to see the progress of work at Jomex. After two weeks, it was obvious that the work had been completed. The walls had been painted rosy. But my boss didn’t say anything about me resuming work. One day, as I walked past, I suddenly felt like a stranger trespassing. Then I quickened my steps. Even though I hadn’t been formally issued a letter of termination, that sudden feeling, a mix of panic and fear, credibly felt like I had been fired. If I was being held responsible for sullying the reputation of Jomex, I had already fixed it. The saddest event of the past shouldn’t have been used as a justification for my firing. It was the defence in my mind, should my “boss” mention the marijuana issue as the basis for his decision. But after that panic, I felt no reason to continue forcing myself on Jomex. I would simply find another job –I had known enough people, and getting a job shouldn’t have been hard anymore.
Two days later, one of my clients told me something worrying he had seen at Jomex. I decided to go see things for myself. From afar, I could see that the security lighting was active. Reaching there, I saw half a dozen women milling around. Obviously, they were women of pleasure, with spaghetti-suspended blouses, mini- skirts and shorts. Everything was lurid, from the dresses to the freakish colours on their faces, the melodramatic earrings and nails and the jargons of their language style. They buzzed around a short, stocky man, who sat by a table on which the knuckles of green and brown bottles sparkled. They were so at home that it was obvious they occupied the new rooms.
I realized the reason why I had been driven away from Jomex: to shelter whores. To me, it was a fall from a frying pan into fire. If ganja smoking was a hot frying pan, sex for cash was the heart of hell. At that point, I got the proof that I wasn’t returning to Jomex. I walked in to see who was at the bar. There, I found another woman. She chewed gum in such a dramatic manner that made her jaws slither from side to side. She looked exactly like the women drinking on the terrace. I requested for a can drink, paid and left. It wasn’t that I craved for the drink. It was meant to hide the actual reason why I visited.
I wasn’t told what I had done. I wasn’t given space to defend myself. I was generating the money. There wasn’t anything shady in the account book. The way I was treated was unfair. When I said all these things to my boys, they insisted we shouldn’t go down without a fight, or at least a little revenge. But I was afraid of triggering any wave of scandal that would travel to as far as Kaleidoscope –I had not given up on the possibility of joining them. But since my boys remained stiff and unbowed, I caved in.
We took a hushed night walk, walking along a street that gave us a two-hundred-foot gap from Jomex. We stopped when we had come face-to-face with the bar. Luckily, there was no building standing in the way –we had an unhindered view. The short man and one other man sat around a table that supported liquor bottles and drinking glasses. Three women sat with them. One other woman danced to a Central African rhythm, her energy concentrated around her hips. From Jomex, it wasn’t possible for anyone to see us –the strength of the security lighting fell short of two hundred feet.
With a pile of construction gravel nearby, things worked in our favour. We got to work, hurling the rock fragments in Jomex’s way. The first went off the goal area, landing on the roof and creating a galloping sound like a moving car derailing into a farm. The men tipped their heads back to see if something was going to crash through the ceiling, the enormous meat on their napes gathering into pillows. They were wondering what was happening when another stone crashed into a glass on the drinking table. Another missed their heads by inches. It crashed into a glass window, sending shards of glass flying. The women screamed and ran into the inn, turning spread fingers into helmets. One of the men toppled rearwards on his chair, the tip of his shoe pulling the rim of the table and throwing off beer bottles and drinking glasses. There was a wild and spontaneous explosion of laughter at our end. The second man, who was trying to help his friend to his feet, looked in our direction. He squinted, trying to see into the darkness. At that point, we all raced off laughing.
On our way, I was overwhelmed by a sudden peace. What happened turned out to be the magic I needed to heal the wound in my heart, the wound that had been caused by the sore manner I was jettisoned out of Jomex, despite what I had done for its good.
I had forgotten about Kaleidoscope when the delightful news came. I went there and was requested to have a fifteen-minute mock presentation again. It was a Wednesday. After that, I was served a formal letter of a job offer as an On-air Personality, anchoring a reggae show that I named Organic Rhythms. In the five days before my first presentation, Pandi spread the news. To many, it seemed like a dream. Everyone waited around his radio to confirm the news. And there I was, introducing one reggae song after another.
My new job was a seal of approval for the new life I had found, happening in a way I couldn’t explain. Each time I walked the street, the air was different. It was an air of love, not that of dismay, the dreadlocks becoming a token of stardom. People would tap their friends and whisper into their ears, “There’s the guy who anchors Organic Rhythms.”
Nkra visited. We had a picture in the studio. Back home, Pandi told Mum and Dad the incredible story.
On the second edition of Organic Rhythms, he surprised me, coming with Dad to the studio. It was how it all ended: happily ever after.