As a kid, I played in the sand at night under the full moon; jumped around the house, surrounded by a familiar and concentrated air that reeked of crude oil oozing from a nearby conduit; and threw stones at agama lizards. I noticed how the chlorophyll-laden centipede grasses in the lawn in front of our two bedroom apartment had gradually withered – from their slender stems up to their narrow leaves. The graves weren’t there then.
My father’s brick house was roofed with corrugated iron sheets and surrounded by sturdy iron burglar bars at every entrance and window. It was situated in my grandfather’s compound, in the heart of the town. The other buildings in the residence closely represented what most of the other structures in the village looked like. Even though Papa’s father was considered rich at some point, by local standards, the houses in his compound were still typically village-styled – constructed with bamboo and coffee-coloured mud with intertwined dried palm fronds covering the roof. The four rectangular buildings that flanked our house (two on each side) were plain with well defined edges, and a fine finishing touch of plaster.
The other exceptional thing about the ancestral home was the hut by the corner which was made purely with fine polished mahogany, arranged with chairs and an oblong table of the same kind. It was mostly used to receive visitors and for family meetings. The wood was so beautiful and durable that one would almost doubt the claim that the log cabin, at the time, had lasted for about three decades.
“…Such were the quality of our local timber in those days…” like Papa said, in one of his now famous speeches, where he went on to talk about the times when our people survived mainly on their farm produce; with a remark that he could have sustained a family then from the sales of fittings made with “our” wood.
Papa’s father had a lot of farm land. He was adept especially with his hands; knitted mats and was also the village architect and mason when he wasn’t transporting his farm produce to the neighbouring communities for commercial purposes. He could afford to marry two wives, keep as many concubines as he wanted, and still feed his five children along with his other relatives. Papa was the last child of the first wife: with two elder brothers and half-sisters. My grandfather was well known and admired around the area for his hard work and skills, and enjoyed a very good business relationship with prominent individuals, amongst which was the then Civilian Administrator in charge of the Local Government Area: who would later take responsibility for his young child after hearing about my grandfather’s demise.
This administrator took Papa with him to the area headquarters where he was enrolled for afternoon classes – this gave him time to do routine morning chores which involved household tasks. With time and satisfaction with Papa’s academic performance, he also let him assist in sorting and handling some paperwork under close supervision, and run errands at his office when he wasn’t in school. It was there that Papa got a peek view of the corruption in the system through the crevice in the local administration. He saw that the highly respected Civilian Administrators in the council overseeing the area were mere stooges remotely controlled by the armed forces.
Papa was already a full time clerical officer, on the government’s payroll – though not privy to most correspondence that passed through him – when the then military Head of State ordered for an emergency search for oil, in commercial quantity, in all unexploited areas. That was when crude oil was discovered in my village.
The military administration at the time was toppled by another dictator and everything was brought to a standstill. Papa would readily tell me all these stories from before-I-was-born.
I remember the day the oil company operations officially kick-started. They had come into the village with an AK-47 wielding military force, massive trucks, machineries, tanks and pickup vehicles. The group comprised men mostly dressed in yellow coveralls with red streaks and crimson helmets to match, and a bunch of expatriates. The other accompanying set of people were mostly in fine cars (that is, not considering the stains on them from the mud-spattered path that led to the village), and carried an aristocratic air. They were dressed predominantly in agbada and saturated the atmosphere with their expensive colognes. Their arrival was unannounced.
The main centre of activity that day was a large area in the outskirts of town. Set in the girdle of evergreen margosas that would later dry up and die, and bulwarked with barb wires with a red DANGER sign on the see-through gate, it was designated “Government Property” for as long as I had known. That day, for the first time, I saw the entrance to the place open. The machineries were offloaded, and then the men in agbada, together with the Caucasian expatriates, did a kind of appraisal on site and equipment amidst small talks, handshakes and photographs. We could only watch from a distance to avoid spiting the tough-looking, angry-faced soldiers who surrounded the perimeter, pointing the nozzles of their weapons at us, the on-looking villagers.
The next day, it was mostly young guys in coveralls and helmets, about two or so expatriates, and fewer men in military uniforms. The spectacular things I remembered about that day were the salivating Alsatian dogs that bared their teeth and tongues in snarls, barking intermittently. They were chained to the trees around the oil field. And every time a spectator dared come closer to see what was happening inside the barb-wired territory, they would jump and pull at their restraints with fury as though intending to break them and devour the intruder. This, together with the guarding army, successfully kept us watching at a reasonable distance from the scene: as some of the humongous machines from the previous day were sunk into the earth. This would soon become a familiar sight.
Papa wasn’t happy with the government, The Company, and everyone that had anything to do with this mysterious arrival. He argued that there ought to have been a Memorandum of Understanding (whatever that was) with the community before the launching.
He blamed the government for almost every – and any – thing, and would readily accuse The Company of complicity.
One morning, we woke up to discover that five of the croakers in Mama’s little pond at the back of the house were dead, and Papa claimed that the oil corporation and junta were responsible for it. Papa was well respected in the village, not just because he was a member of staff of the Community Secondary School that was built by local effort and donated to the government, but also because he was very instrumental to its establishment. And no one questioned his opinions on issues. That day, I fought hard to understand his logic.
Papa was too heavily built for a Principal; tall, muscular and with a stern face. He often joked that if he hadn’t gone to a teacher’s training college, after his days with the local government, his physique could have easily given him a pass into the military, without any help, and by now he would have rid the system of corrupt practices.
Papa also had a very strong sense of community, and for obvious reasons was always part of the village delegation to the Local Government Area Council.
The Company never agreed to direct meetings with the elders and other emissaries from the village; they would rather refer the contingent to a beer-bellied man in the council (like Papa had described him after one of their usually futile encounters), who was claimed to be their liaison officer. The agenda for such meetings usually revolved around proposals and pleas, including the need to: tar the tiny rutted muddy road that led to the village, provide us with electricity, refurbish the Community Secondary School, train and engage our youths in the repair of leaking pipelines.
The sight of unrepaired pipelines dripping crude, some right across from our farmlands, wasn’t uncommon in the village, but this was the first explosion; the explosion that sadly took Mama away.
She had gone to the farm that day to harvest her, more often than not, stunted cassavas, while Papa was at the Secondary School when it happened – across the farm. By the time, I was in boarding school in the city and didn’t hear about it until I came back for holidays. The Company would later come up with a presumption that Mama could have lighted fire in the farm that caused the explosion in a bid to exonerate itself.
Another explosion happened two years later, razing a compound and claiming five lives. That was when the village decided that it was enough. It was time for The Company to go. For good. The ecological injury, land violation and massacre needed to come to an end.
The death of Mama and the others had emboldened the villagers to fight the common enemy of environmental degraders, economic stranglers, script writers and actors in the political marginalisation of our people. We had also not produced a ward representative for the local government since its creation.
After Mama’s death, Papa became increasingly vocal and restive. He was, however, an advocate of non-violent struggle, at the front line of most campaigns and peaceful protests in the local government area and state capitals. He soon became the face of this diplomatic crusade.
The government did not budge in the face of these protests. They sent in more and more Army troops to protect the facility in the village while The Company continued its operations. But it was only a matter of time before their guns rattled to silence.
Attempts to cow us were resisted, and with our blood an impenetrable hedge was formed on our barely arable soil. It was genocide, but at the end, The Company left.
Everyone had lost something significant to the struggle: house, property, body parts, conscience, happiness, even virginity. For me, it was the lives of two very important persons. As I stood in tears between the stone slabs set at the head of both of their graves on this gloomy morning, the memories came back suddenly. Childhood, The Company, Mama’s death, the face-offs, the thudding sound of bullets hitting Papa’s chest and the silence that ensued thereafter; the stiff resistance, the proceeding genocide, maiming and raping of our girls and women, and then – thanks to the press – the international interventions.
It was a brilliant morning the day Papa died. He was sitting on his stool outside on the lawn, characteristically listening to the news on his loud radio. On the news that Saturday were stories of coup plotters in the military that were sentenced to death; bodies of three soldiers that had just been discovered in a borrow-pit a few kilometres from our community; a journalist that was arrested for making “inflammatory”statements on the state of the polity.
The eight o’clock news was still blaring from the FM stereo when they came with their truck. I had just come home on holidays from the university and was watering the shrivelled hibiscus in front of the house. They jumped down from their vehicles, and pointed their automatic rifles at Papa. I heard the dark scar-faced man that seemed like their leader say with an accentuated voice: “Kai, you sent your boys to kill three of my men. Walahi, your own go pinish today”. I saw the bewildered look on Papa’s face, and the next thing I heard was tup dop tup dop tup dop. That was the sound of bullets hitting his chest. I watched from behind a large container where I had squeezed myself into a peeking position, unable to move a muscle, as Papa fell helplessly with all his weight on the ground, breaking the wooden stool and displacing the now silent radio.
“Father, Teacher, Hero”. That was the epitaph I thought of for Papa’s gravestone. He died at fifty-five.
I promised to build an obelisk between their graves, which were lying parallel on the lawn, as soon as democracy was restored and a sustainable human and capital development – including the clamour for environmental remediation of the village – was in reasonable progress.
The sun peeped out from behind the dark clouds and I looked at the graves again – this time wearing a smile. The tall four-sided narrow tapering stone column pointing to the sky from where Papa and Mama were beaming with satisfaction, had fit, perfectly.
Agbada- a four-piece male attire common in West Africa. It consists of a large, free-flowing outer robe, an under-vest, a pair of long trousers and a hat.
Kai- an exclamation.
Walahi means “I swear to God”.
Pinish is a mispronunciation of “finish”.
DISCLAIMER!!! This is a work of fiction, and any semblance to actual person(s) living or dead and or event(s) is purely coincidental.