We lived in a tenement house at Kawo. It contained thirteen room-and-parlours. What first struck me about the house was its brown zinc roof. The walls had become brittle with age. The paint, originally white, had turned yellow. The house had a large compound. The floor must have been ambitiously plastered before. There was a gutter running in front of the house. Each time I looked into the gutter I saw swollen carcasses of mouse. I also saw shits often wrapped in black polyethylene bags.
Mama could never see such a thing and keep quiet. “Father-of-my-children, this yard is infested with mice; it’s too dirty.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could have got a better house.”
“I’ve tried my best. Let’s see what you can get for us.” Baba always said this in defence of his choices most of which we never liked.
Because he was a policeman, always on transfer, we kept changing houses now and then. It had always been this kind of house. My sister Okasuwa and I always worried aloud. He would tell us, “I learn to cut my coat according to my size.” My sister Okasuwa would reply, “The problem, Baba, is not with the cutting but with the coat.”
One day Okasuwa told me, “Perhaps Baba chose the rank of sergeant as his permanent coat. He’s been a sergeant ever since.”
“Fourteen years now,” I said. “Baba complains that there is no promotion in the police.”
“And you believe him? What about Femi’s father, much younger than Baba, who is an Inspector?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
We had to live with the mice. Each night was a nightmare for me. I often remained awake, to my indignation, listening to the chaotic movements of the mice. They romped on the spring of the bed on which my brother and I slept. They noisily scratched almost all the plates in our room. They chased one another and shrieked now and then. I wondered why the rest of my family could sleep so soundly (so I thought) every night while the mice partied around in our room.
“I don’t care about the mice. My headache in this house is the latrine,” Okasuwa told me.
“Oh yes. You’re shitting on top of shit, and you’re seeing the shit.”
“God! Can’t Baba and his co-tenants do something about it?”
“I hear they are waiting for the landlord.”
“But the landlord doesn’t shit here. What if he doesn’t come?” Okasuwa said, looking very dismayed.
“Well, I don’t know. Learn to go into the bush.”
“Which bush? Are there bushes in this Kaduna?”
“If you walk far enough you will see bush.”
I knew Okasuwa would never go into bush. She deliberately chose to live a different life from ours. She bought her own toilet soap, her own body cream, and her own towel. She hardly ate at home. She wore expensive clothes and shoes. She told me our room, even the entire house, was an oven; she went out every morning and returned late in the evening. She was learning tailoring at Kawo market.
It was Saturday morning. Somebody knocked on our door. “De Fada-of-dis-house dey?”
It was Papa Ofure.
“Yes, I dey,” Baba answered.
Baba was dressed for work. His head had grown too thin for his beret. It used to fit him. It used to make him handsome.
“Good morning. De landlord don come o,” said Papa Ofure, smiling.
“I hear you,” Baba said curtly.
Baba was in a bad mood. Mama had quarrelled with him because, for the third time, he said he did not have money to pay my school fees now. I had been driven out of school for not paying my school fees. Mama insisted that Baba borrowed money to pay because I was in my final year in secondary school. Nothing, not even my being in the final year, would make Baba borrow money from anyone. It was not his habit.
I followed Baba outside. I took a deep breath. The air outside felt healthier than the stuffy, urine-smelling air in our room. My siblings Anya and Osu would not stop wetting. A gentle breeze was ruffling the leaves of the large mango tree in our compound. Birds were chirping happily on the tree. It was a bright day though light clouds moved gently in the sky.
The house was fully awake. Mama Peter was shouting at Peter to finish shitting quickly. He was sitting on a potty. Ado was also sitting on a potty in front of their room, one of his small legs stretched, the other bent at the knee. His head rested on his left palm and he seemed to be dozing. I saw Rekiya, dressed in tattered pyjamas, playing with her new doll. Mama Bulus sat in front of her room, her fat legs stretched out. Turaki, her youngest child, sucked her large breast while standing. Mama Bayo had lit her stove beside her door, warming something that looked like leftover food. Her daughter, Julie, squatted beside her. The stove exuded dark smoke. I saw Ramatu, the daughter of Baba Rafatu’s first wife, tugging at her mother’s wrapper, whining. The mother was breastfeeding her new baby. Loud music was booming from Egahi’s room. Always, it was Fela. Always, it was Suffering and Smiling. From Papa Ofure’s room was the rapid rhythm of Edo music. Gospel music in Igbo was the steady signature of Papa Peter’s electronics. There were also songs in Hausa booming from both ends of the rectangular compound.
Near the latrines, a ramshackle outhouse with three doors, I saw six people standing, four carrying crumpled papers in their hands. Tanko, his palm gripping his kettle, his face wrinkling, was nearest the second latrine. Aunty the old Delta woman leaned on the wall, her kettle on the ground beside her. There were five buckets, three of them without handles, filled with water, sponge cases dancing in two of the buckets. They were lined up in front of the bathroom. Aminatu, one of Baba Rafatu’s adolescent daughters, bathed her siblings. “Kneel down well!” she shouted at the one she was washing, spanking her buttocks. Like her mother she was hot-tempered. There were other three of her siblings waiting for her. Beside her was also Ofure, my sister’s friend, bathing her younger brother.
Under the tree stood the landlord. Our house was his own share of inheritance from his recently deceased father. He was much younger than Egahi, the youngest tenant in our house. The landlord looked rather shabby. His blue riga lacked buttons at the cuffs and the neck. His baggy pair of jeans looked totally tattered at the cuffs. His long toenails were conspicuous from his weather-beaten sandals. He did not wear a cap. His hair was dishevelled and his eyes were bloodshot. He was smoking. He had a funny manner of exhaling the smoke. His thick, dark lips pouted leftward, gaping, his entire face slightly moving in that direction. The smoke came out of the gaping mouth and his large nostrils in jets.
Papa Peter, Egahi, Papa Ofure, Baba Ado, Baba Rafatu, Baba Bulus and Baba stood around him. Papa Peter had a towel around his neck. He did not wear any cloth; his stomach was hairy. His knee-length shorts dropped below the waistline, revealing the upper part of dirty underpants. It never stopped surprising me that his buttocks were larger than his wife’s. Papa Ofure was in his increasingly fading safari suit, one of the only two I always saw him in. He was the caretaker of the house. He was also the oldest man in our compound. He addressed everybody as “My Dear,” and often reminded us, especially when there was a quarrel, that we were all one big family. The cynical Baba Rafatu always challenged Papa Ofure’s mantra: “How you go talk say we be one big family? Who tell you say Yoruba and ’Ausa and Ibo don be one family before? I beg no tell me dat kin’ tin.” The pot-bellied, ebullient Baba Bulus wore a singlet over a very large towel tied on his waist. He was chewing a stick, occasionally scrubbing his teeth with it, and spitting on the ground. Egahi wore a T-shirt over a pair of straight jeans.
Baba Bayo limped out of his room carrying a small iron trap with a big mouse dangling from it.
“Chei! Dis one don eat ya food finish o,” Papa Peter told Baba Bayo.
“Abi! See how e big. Where de landlord dey sef?” Baba Bayo asked, standing on his good leg.
“See am na.” Papa Peter pointed at the landlord who was busy with the ash of his cigarette.
Baba Bayo pointed the trap and its content towards the landlord. “Aboki, you see wetin I catch. Na so so holes full everywhere.”
The landlord asked in anger, “Na my froblem?”
“No be ya problem, sha. But na you get de house.”
“In my house por Kabala flenty flenty rats dey. Eberywhere in Kaduna, rats boku. Aha, where ya rent?” He stretched his hand towards Baba Bayo.
Baba Bayo ignored him and limped out of the compound.
The landlord turned to the other men and said, “Yes, yes, I don come, make ebrybody bring za money.” He stuck a cigarette, which was a mere stub, between his lips and stretched out his hands, demanding. He was talking to no one in particular. The authority in his voice was unmistakable. “Is my house. Nobody is here pree of charge. I come here eberyday to ask por money. Why? I not a beggar.”
Baba spoke Hausa to him. “Muhammadu, I’ve not got my salary.”
He answered Baba in Hausa, smiling, “Officer, every time you complain of salary. Are you working free for the government?”
“Most of us in the government service are donkeys, Muhammadu. Can’t you see? Three months into the new year, the General has not signed budget. No budget no salary.”
Baba left abruptly, not looking back. The other men stared at him as he walked out of our door-less, half-crushed entrance. Muhammadu was not disturbed by Baba’s discourteous action. He smiled and shook his head. He took his time to light another cigarette. He inhaled deeply, and then exhaled the smoke towards Papa Peter and Baba Bulus.
Papa Peter reacted: “Come, why you dey smoke put for my face? You well so?”
Muhammadu turned to him, “Oya, bring ya money. Is pive mons! You no fay por pive mons!”
“Na because I no be policeman you dey ask me for money?”
“Za rent! You’re occupy my house. You fay ya rent!”
“No shout on me, Muhammadu. You know say you be small boy.”
“Who be small boy?” He turned to Papa Ofure, “You hear am kwo? You be caretaker, you bring zese mad feofle come my house…”
“Nobody is mad here!” Egahi shouted. He had been staring at Muhammadu with indignation.
“You, bring ya money. I don tell you say you no stay in zis house pree op charge.”
Tanko caught our attention. He was walking from where he stood near the latrines to his room, his countenance downcast, his slippers making a loud slap-slap noise. He seemed inwardly agitated. I looked towards the latrines and saw his kettle on the ground.
Egahi was talking to Muhammadu, “Do I look to you like someone who will stay in your house free of charge? You should be happy that I’m living here, by the way. Muhammadu, I’ve warned you to be careful the way you talk to us here.”
Muhammadu ignored Egahi and turned to Baba Bulus. “And you, Mallam, ya own is two mons only.”
Baba Bulus gave him a withering look. Then he turned his face away, hissing loudly. Muhammadu smiled, shook his head and took a long drag of his cigarette.
Baba Bulus turned to him and said, “I tell you say my roof dey leak. Rain don dey come again. If you no repair de roof, I no go pay any money. I go use de money repair am. Shikenan!”
That did not seem to bother Muhammadu. He exhaled his smoke with a relish, his eyes half-closing. Then he chuckled, shaking his head, exclaiming, “Zese feofle por my house!”
“Ehm you, Mr. Caretaker,” Papa Peter turned to Papa Ofure. “Tell am say make he see,” he pointed his finger in the direction “Our bafroom dey fall. One day person go dey baf and the room go fall for him head. Why e never repair am? We don complain tire. Ask am, make he tell us now.”
Papa Ofure stared at him, mute.
Baba Bulus added, “And our latrines don dey full. De second one, shit don reach de mout of de hole sef. You want make we dey shit for outside?”
Muhammadu was shifting from one leg to the other, inhaling the smoke and exhaling it towards Papa Peter and Baba Bulus. The smoke irritated Papa Peter. He kept waving it away with his open palm. Muhammadu momentarily folded his arms across his chest. He was staring at Papa Ofure.
Papa Ofure, addressing his neighbours, said, “Make una tell am na. No be him dey here?”
Very uneasy, Tanko came out of his room, half-trotting. Egahi burst into laughter as he saw him. Tanko went for his kettle on the floor near the latrine. I heard one of the people standing there tell him that Aunty, very pressed, had entered the latrine. It was his turn to enter. Tanko exploded with anger, shouting that he was also pressed, that he could not even stay in one place because of that. He was shouting in Hausa, “And who is inside the second latrine? Does the person want to spend the whole day inside? Is the person shitting or eating?”
They were pleading with him to calm down. He stiffened his body, contorting his face; then he relaxed and leaned on the dusty wall facing the latrines.
I turned to the men under the tree who were also looking at Tanko, amused.
Otor, my age mate and school mate, emerged from their room, holding the tail of a dead mouse. He walked straight out, to the gutter. It occurred to me that if the mice in our house were edible most of the children in our compound would not have been malnourished. Mama’s pot of soup would not have lacked meat, as it always did days before Baba’s payday.
Egahi was talking to the landlord: “Y’know, the real problem is that the two latrines and one bathroom are not enough for us. See how people line up to shit,” he pointed there. “Muhammadu, listen to me, see the population of us in this compound; see what you have for us as latrines and bathroom. You should know that this is unreasonable.”
Muhammadu retorted, “No tell me nonsense! You feofle has flenty flenty wives and chindren. So you shit flenty. Is my pault? Gonment say do structural adjusmen programme, marry small, born small chindren, but see za froblem you cause por yaself.” His voice sounded really angry now.
“God punish you with your govment!” Baba Bulus burst out. “How many children your father born?”
“Twenty-five!” Egahi shouted, laughing. “Is that not what you told me, Papa Ofure?”
Muhammadu was cowed into silence. He exhaled his smoke, staring at Papa Ofure.
Papa Peter said, “You be small boy, you no get sense…”
Muhammadu interrupted him, pointing his right hand, the cigarette stuck in the fingers, “No insult me because you no get money to fay. But you must to fay. You hear me? All op you must to fay. Two mons, three mons, five mons, and you, Egahi, seven mons!” He turned to Egahi.
Egahi had opened his mouth to reply when, again, the loud slap-slap of Tanko’s slippers drew our attention. He looked really agitated.
In a tone full of mockery, Muhammadu asked in Hausa, “Ehm Mallam Tanko, can I have your rent?”
Tanko stopped suddenly. He turned to the men under the mango tree. Shooting his index finger towards Muhammadu, Tanko blurted out in Hausa, “May Allah’s curse be upon you for bringing such discomfort on me! If you had built more latrines for us I would not be undergoing this unease. May Allah curse you!”
The other men burst into laughter.
Muhammadu had a good laugh and said, “May more of Allah’s curse be upon you for…”
The remaining words stuck in his throat. Tanko rushed straight for Muhammadu’s throat. Though taken unawares, Muhammadu managed, with one hand, to free his neck from Tanko’s furious fists. He was not entirely lucky. Some fingernails had dug into his neck. The fists settled for the neckline of his riga, squeezing it, dragging it, tearing it. Muhammadu’s free hand let the newly lit cigarette go, finally. He used it judiciously, landing a heavy blow on Tanko’s jaw. Tanko slapped Muhammadu hard across the face. Papa Ofure, suddenly realising that he had to separate the fighters, tried to throw himself between Tanko and Muhammadu. He held Tanko by the arm, yanking him.
Baba Bulus was shouting, “Tanko, leave Muhammadu’s cloth. Leave de cloth na.”
“I’ll kill this bastard!” Tanko swore in Hausa. “I swear by Allah I’ll kill this son of a whore!”
“You want to kill me? You want to kill me?” Muhammadu felt with his left hand the torn neckline of his riga. He furiously pulled off the riga and threw it down. A couple of spliffs rolled out of the riga. “You want to kill me? I will teach you a lesson today?” He was pushing Baba Bulus who now stood in front of him, preventing him from reaching Tanko.
“I will kill you! Son of a whore!” Tanko was yelling on top of his voice, pushing Papa Ofure who was preventing him from reaching Muhammadu.
“Hey, no killing here,” Egahi shouted, lending a hand to Papa Ofure.
Papa Peter stepped back, saying, “Abeg leave dem make dem fight. Na him Hausa broda fit fight am.”
Egahi succeeded in holding Tanko by the waist and pulling him.
Tanko kept shouting, “I’ll kill that bastard, I swear by Allah.”
Women and children had crowded around them, shouting and making a din.
Baba Bulus let out a loud shout, stepping back from Muhammadu. The towel on his waist went loose and dropped on the floor. He stood momentarily naked, without underpants. I saw his penis as he dashed down and picked his towel. Some children shouted with excitement.
“Knife! Knife! Knife!” Papa Peter shouted.
I turned to see. Muhammadu was charging towards Tanko with a pointed dagger.
Muhammadu gave a fast blow. Tanko dodged to the right. The dagger stuck on Egahi’s left arm. Totally letting go of Tanko, Egahi gave a sharp cry, squatting, sitting on the floor, and splaying his legs. Blood began to snake down the arm.
For a moment, everybody stood frozen, staring at Egahi twisting on the ground.
In that instant, a slender woman came out of the second latrine. Tanko rushed towards the latrine. I saw a drop of shit on his left leg as he disappeared into it.