We were two famished al-majiris on the rickety ladder–Farm, the boy they say is probably my brother–and I. We were climbing sluggishly like two giant lizards. We were climbing silently, as though we were seeking for a deserted place where we could lay eggs. We were tearing the mango tree leaves off our sweaty faces so that we’d not misstep and tumble down to the white soil beneath us. We were over-scrupulous we did not want the Principal of this tranquil Christian Missionary Secondary School, Maiduguri, peer through the cracked window louvres of his office and discern that bedraggled city’s prowlers had come to detonate a bomb in the school which was entrusted into his hands.
My name is Watermelon, but please don’t call me that. Mallam Kabir, a farmer who was “unfortunate” to pick me and my companion up from his watermelon farm when we were babies, infamously gave us these weird names–Watermelon and Farm.
We did not know why he flung all the recommended Arabic names into the trashcan and named me after a fruit and called my “brother” Farm. We did not know who our biological parents were; we did not know why we were cast onto the farm like manure. And we did not know how old we were. But we liked to say that we were possibly fourteen because we were now as tall as Mallam Kabir’s shovel. We should’ve grown taller than the shovel, I thought, but since Mallam Kabir died in the rain on his farm after the month of Ramadan we seldom ate. And our tongues never touched water. Well, you might call the tea-coloured liquid we drew from the wells water. Our clothes were the personifications of penury and squalor–faded pairs of roughly patched trousers that were bereft of zippers. Food-stained T-shirts with a single button (the other buttons were blown away by the violent torpedo.)
I still visualised Kamba, the toothless “madman” in the neighbourhood who gifted us these clothes. We were called beggars. We gallivanted about the city begging. We would beg people for old slippers. For leftover food. For drinking water. For old shoes. And we’d sneak into their compounds when they were praying in the Mosque and pluck their mangoes and oranges and guavas. It was this adventure that slid me into the life of one gorgeous and brilliant damsel whom I would never remember to forget till I breathe no more. Her name was like music to my ear. Ha-li-ma. Sing it like me, sing it with me. Ha-ha-li-li-ma-ma.
I awoke one serene night under the neem tree I called home, and told a chirping bird on a branch that I wished it could go and tell Halima that I loved her more than myself. But the bird did not take flight with my message; it perched there on the branch of the tree singing an elegiac song to other birds, as though oblivious to my existence. I urged myself to be a man, but I cried. I cried like Farm the day an Hausa boy was lynched at the market. He slapped and insulted a woman who wanted to steal a tin of tomato from a nearby shop and the woman screamed, “Igbo! Christian!” And before the boy could prove that he was Hausa and Muslim, they had poured fuel on him and set him ablaze. I didn’t join the boys in knocking the Hausa boy down. I only donated my tyre and stepped aside as they hung it around his neck like a jewel. They poured fuel on him. They set fire to him. And, as the boy flinched in the raging fire, Farm cried.
I still remembered the boy’s last words: “I will tell Allah what you people did to me.”
“What do you imagine you are up to, brat?” Halima asked when she caught me halfway up on their guava tree.
We came to steal their guavas, my “brother” and I, and now our hope of putting the fruit into our hollow stomachs turned into dust. And, of course, we were in her trap!
Farm was not in the tree; he was on the leaf-strewn ground because it was his duty to catch the fruit when I flung it from the treetop. But now we were caught.
I looked at Farm to see if he had begun to sob. He was only trembling like the green leaves of this guava tree. Flies hummed around his oversized head. He looked surreptitiously at the bleak wall, as if he was desirous to scale the fence.
“Who are you?” she asked in English and folded her petite arms.
I wished she would translate that into Kanuri or Hausa so that we could grasp her meaning. I glanced at Farm and he pointed an accusing, quivering finger at me. My hands and legs began shaking. I almost collapsed.
“Climb down.” Halima’s voice was now low, dangerously low. She peered up again, squinting in the fierce afternoon sun. “I said, come down.”
I was too paralysed to obey her command. I was looking at her and she was looking at me. Her face was the shape of a chicken egg and her skin had the colour of fine cocoa.
Because we were tongue-tied, she threw a small stone at me and said, “Climb down or I will go to the Mosque and call Baba…I will unchain our bulldogs!”
Farm yelled at the mention of dogs and sank upon his knees and raised two skeletal hands. I farted as I slid down the tree.
A smile twitched her lips and she whispered to me, “Do you hide a trumpet in your back pocket?”
I told her I was flummoxed.
“Trumpeting sounds were emanating from the back of your tattered trousers as you climbed down,” she said, squinting in the fierce Maiduguri sun. “Is there a trumpet in your bottom?
“Oh, he was farting,” Farm said, his voice shaky. Then, turning to me, he rebuked, “I warned you, donkey! I asked you not to eat Mallam Musa’s leftover beans, but you ignored me and licked the plate clean with your tongue. ”
“Shut up, you baboon! Do you want me to punch you?”
“No, no, don’t pummel your brother,” she told me. “Teenagers rarely listen. Ignore him. “Halima stressed the word “teenagers”, as though she was not. I want one. I wanted so desperately to do something for her, to tie her high-heeled shoes, to stop the wind from stirring the fallen leaves and throwing them right into her face, rolling them under the cream-coloured car that was parked close to a crimson ramshackled car. I wished I had wings like a falconer. I wanted to fly away.
Halima was laughing epileptically. “I will torment you derelicts today. You farted and polluted Baba’s compound, lad. You wanted to steal our guavas. I will drag you waifs to the Sharia Court and they’ll chop off your hands as they did to Mallam Mohammed’s.”
“Please forgive my hand!” Farm cried.
I knew our hands would not be chopped off like Mallam Mohammed’s who stole yams at the market, but I was afraid. I closed my eyes and said, “We wanted to steal because we have not eaten since yesterday.”
That did the magic–her laughter stopped abruptly like a faulty doorbell. “I always see you lads roaming this neighbourhood,” she said, her voice sorrow-lined. “What are your names?”
“Shut up, Farm,” I hollered. Then, softly, to Halima, I said, “Farm is his name. Mine is Watermelon, but I am not a fruit.”
Her eyes ballooned. “Watermelon isn’t your name, is it? Please be serious.”
I thought it necessary to narrate our history to this eccentric girl. When I finished, she said, “No wonder you both are naive. Mallam Kabir, or whatever was his bloody name, should have enrolled you in a school! Baba says that education is the best gift a parent can offer a child. How can we compete with Europe and America without education? Do you know Europe?”
We shook our heads and said that we did not know any man called Europe. We asked her if Mallam Europe was a friend of hers and her face creased. I knew we had offended her again, but I did not know how.
Farm heaved a sigh when she began wiping his tear-filled eyes with her white hanky and led us into their parlour which smelt pleasantly of wine and affluence.
Halima offered us food – two loaves of bread and a cup of tea.
We wolfed down the bread and swallowed the sugary tea as she told us dehumanizing stories about Europe and America and slavery and the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the Great Walls of China and the Biafran War and the apartheid policy in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.
I was Impressed. I hadn’t seen a bookish girl like Halima in Borno State. Virtually all the girls I knew could not even recognize their own names if they saw them in a book; they were married off to old and young men even before they turned twelve.
I asked Halima how old she was and she said sixteen with that contagious smile of hers that always dissolved my worries. And then she launched into the issue of infidelity in Northern Nigeria. She said her mother knocked off her father’s front teeth with a frying pan when she, Halima, informed her that her father sucked their maid’s breasts whenever Halima’s mother travelled. Farm solemnly asked Halima how many teeth were knocked off from her Baba’s mouth with the frying pan and where was the frying pan? I slapped his mouth and he tore my shirt. Halima cackled as she separated us. We trudged home (under the neem tree), gratified that our stomachs were filled to the brim with Halima’s hard bread and tea.
Farm remarked that my stomach was bigger than his; that I looked as if I swallowed a TV, and I slapped him again and threatened to ban him from following me to Halima’s house like a dog. He hugged the tree and sobbed. I called the bastard a cry-cry baby, but I forgave him anyway. I forgave him because he forgave me when I absconded with his own share of the bread and bags of money that the pot-bellied men of the Small Party with the exciting “Change” mantra gave us – the boys who were not yet fifteen, to vote out the Big Party. I remembered Alhaji Usman Kano saying that he’s aware that all of us were not eligible to vote because we were adolescents, but he encouraged us to vote out the incumbent Christian President. How we screamed and scrambled when Alhaji Usman scattered naira notes in the dust-laden air!
Wallahi, we made a lot of money during that election. I had contrived to buy Halima an anklet with some of the money I collected from both Big Party and Small Party, but every time I thought about that my hands began to tremble. Other boys said that Halima also made them tremble. I wished elections would approach again so that those men that looked like pregnant women would come to us with bags of money. If the second opportunity came, I vowed, I would confidently walk up to Halima with a glittering anklet. Inshallah, she’d kiss my hand and say she would marry me when we grew up.
As the days flew by, our friendship with Halima–our provider and tutor–grew tall like a bamboo tree planted beside a stream. She gave us a children’s book written by a man called Chinua Achebe and asked us to read it or savour the pictures in it. But my “brother” and I couldn’t read. Halima kicked her desk and complained every time we failed to tell her what the slim book was about.
One evening Halima said, “Go and get a piece of plywood, an improvised slate, anything. I’m keen to teach you lads how to read and write. Do you know any English?
We shook our heads. We were in their surreal parlour. My eyes, unlike Farm’s owlish eyes, which were glued on the TV, were lingering on Halima’s budding boobs–boobs that looked like two oranges. I willed my hands not to pluck those alluring breasts. “We’ll provide the slate now,” I said when her eyes riveted with my lustful eyes.
“Splendid,” she said in English and wobbled to her feet.
I furiously watched Farm watch her retire. Halima could not love Farm more than me because pus was coming out of his ears, but I was jealous. I nudged him and he got up and smirked. We withdrew. We ventured into the bush in search of a slate–or plywood. We used to plunge into this bush to hunt antelopes, but since we saw a lifeless body of a man dangling from the branch of a neem tree we quit.
Farm suggested we explore the bush; he said we might see some of the bags of money the pregnant men from the Small Party had hidden in the bush during the election and I wrapped my hands around his tiny body and told him that his big head was becoming useful. He smirked. And then we began to walk; then we were jogging; then we were running. We ran until the bush grew taller and swallowed us. I told my “brother” that we were lost in the greenness of the placid bush and he started weeping. We stopped walking when we heard a stir. We exchanged looks when we heard voices in conversation. We shuddered when we heard footsteps crushing dehydrated sticks. And we turned to run when we saw masked men with long guns and machetes. But our feet were glued to the grass. These masked men from nowhere barked, “Hush!” and grabbed, as though we were two precious bush animals. They were all clad in black; their red eyes flashed fire through the two holes in their masks. Far inside the bush, they took us. I cried when I remembered that Umar my friend was said to be taken into a forest called Sambisa by unknown men and since that Sallah Day no eye had seen him.
They took us into an eerie underground hut, their boots crushing dry leaves as they marched. Farm cried without cessation.
At night, we were laid down on a mat to sleep underground in the bush and in the morning, they injected some liquid into our arms and sat down on a bamboo seat. The hideout smelt of drugs and urine. “Do you love Allah?” the tallest one I assumed was the leader of this group asked us.
“Of course we love Allah,” we replied, our entire bodies trembling.
“If you love Allah, why won’t you do what pleases Him?”
We said we didn’t understand him and his shoulders slumped. A hush fell. I could hear our heartbeats.
The leader of these unknown men took off his mask and lit his marijuana.” It is the wish of Almighty Allah that we overthrow this Nigerian government and establish an Islamic State. Two of you will help Allah destroy that Christian school in the town.”
Farm shrieked and the ferocious man brought him down with his mud-coated boot.
My head was now in a desperate whir blur; my eyes were blurry. What was wrong with me? What did they give me?
“If you die fighting for Allah, you’ll be rewarded with countless virgins in heaven,” he continued, after a few puffs. “Or don’t you desire to make love to innumerable virgins in heaven?”
“I want to make love to innumerable virgins!” Farm said with glee, dusting his torn trousers. “I itch to bomb those Christians. I want Allah to give me one of those white women I see on Alhaji Idris’ television. But must I die before…?”
“Yes,” a deep voice said over our shoulders; the owner of this voice was corpulent and one-eyed. His face was fecund with a beard and there were Arabic letters tattooed on his shrivelled hands. “Glamorous virgins just for you. Not white girls. White people worship Isah whom they call Jesus and they will all perish in hellfire!” He coughed.”Beautiful black maidens for you. Think of it!”
I knew the one-eyed man was saying the truth. I knew because our Imams and Sheikh Abdullahi had told us something like that at school. I was rusticated from that school because I came to class wearing a tomato-coloured singlet that said JESUS SAVES. It was Ahmed my classmate who read it out for us. Ahmed was the only student who could read the English language fluently in the entire school. This “scholar” said that the original owner of the singlet was ostensibly a white man in London and he must have used it to clean his ass prior to sending it to Africa. Farm heard him and rushed off to the Main Building. He told the Principal and Sheikh Addullahi that if they unbuttoned my shirt they would see Jesus. He betrayed me because I had wrestled him down and snatched his sugarcane. Every time I recalled the incident, I wondered if Sheikh Abdullahi was still there. He routinely gave me peppermints and encouraged me to memorize the entire Koran.
I always yearned to put my penis into a woman, particularly a virgin. But what would become of my Halima if I left this world in search of virgins? I cannot leave Halima here on earth just because I crave to bed virgins in heaven. I told them this in a feigned tearful voice.
And they rebuked me and said Allah would take Halima’s life so that I could equally see her up there in the Paradise. We must do Allah’s wish like those two female bombers who blew up twenty two people worshiping at Molai-Umarari Mosque on the outskirts of Maiduguri.
And that was why Farm and I were on the ladder. We had got to the top. We could see the picturesque compound and many classrooms. I told Farm I could not wait to blow up the Christians and the structures and ourselves and go to heaven to claim our beautiful virgins with big breasts.
Farm said that he wanted to piss and I whispered, “Wait. You can piss in the toilet in heaven. The bomb they tied around our bellies will soon explode even if we don’t click them.”
“Are there toilets in heaven?” he asked.
“Sheep! Do you suppose the angels piss on the wall?”
“I…don’t know.” Farm spat and slapped at the mosquitoes and flies that were buzzing musically around his head with monotonous regularity. “Watermelon, I wish one of the virgins Allah would give me would be Halima. Her breasts resemble a ripe pawpaw. I peeped when she was bathing.”
I glanced at Farm’s pawpaw-stained trousers and giggled because his penis had stood at attention like a soldier in the barracks. I didn’t wallop the lustful beetlehead because he would wail and ruin my hope of dying for Allah and enjoying virgins in heaven.
We were now tiptoeing on the algae-laced fence. When we landed in the school garden that’s rife with pink roses, Halima’s words gripped me with firm hands.
“Never destroy a flower, boys,” she told us one moonlit night. “It’s one of Allah’s most beautiful creatures. But man is more beautiful than any flower. Seek education so that you cannot be brainwashed. My only brother, Hussein, chopped off a Christian Yoruba girl’s head for blaspheming against our religion. Now they celebrate him, but I told him that I will never forgive him because he’s destroyed something that is more beautiful than flowers. My dear boys never kill for God; He is big and able to fight for Himself.”
“But our Imams taught us…” I had begun to explain, but Halima brushed me off with a flick of a wrist.
“Don’t ever tell me that!” she’d said. “What do you, not your Imam, say? What do you say? Imams are humans. Like you. Like me. Sometimes you’ve to think for yourself. Think for yourself! You also have a brain.”
“Yes, Halima. I’ve a brain.”
“Then use it. Treat your fellow man like a flower. That’s what Baba tells my brother. But he always asks my brother to use his brain.”
I remembered our conversation vividly as though we had it yesterday. Why didn’t I remember her counsel before I embarked on this “holy mission”? Perhaps there was no flower to remind me. I reckoned it was Allah who made me see these pink roses that instantly brought back the
memories of that flower conversation.
“Do you recall what Halima said about flowers?” I asked Farm. He nodded his breadfruit head and the countless flies that were using his head as their toilet buzzed off.
“These flowers are harmless and beautiful like these Christians, Farm. How can Allah create beautiful things and want them bombed. I won’t bomb any Christian. Look at those girls over there, Farm. They’re beautiful like these pink roses! Halima asks us never to kill flowers, Farm. Halima was right: Allah is not a helpless toddler. Of course He created these students who are harmless and elegant pink roses. Those Christian men and women that sell cosmetics at the market are like these flowers. Allah will abhor me if I murder these innocent and beautiful Christians.”
“What do you want us to do, sell the bombs and buy pink roses?”
“Don’t be silly!” I said, and looked around. “Let’s go and confess to the Principal.”
Farm dropped to his knees. “Oh God, please! Please, brother. The students say that the Principal is angry with us. ”
“Us” meant Muslims, I knew. Farm had just made me remember how Mike, the Principal’s only son, and his shop were both set ablaze because the young man was imbibing Star beer.
I hauled Farm up and nursed the roses we had accidentally injured with our feet when we landed. Then I buttoned our shirts.
Farm asked me to be swift, his voice quavering, his eyes moist. I tore off the metal box that was my explosive. I tore off Farm’s. We tossed them over the fence and heard them drop into the reeking lake we saw when we were on the ladder. But they didn’t explode, the bombs. I wrapped my arms around Farm and he cried on my shoulder. I wriggled out of his embrace because he stank of rotten eggs.
“Halima is prudent,” I told him. “Inshallah, she’ll hug us. Farm, Allah’s Paradise is not a chalet, is it?”
He wagged his head and cleaned his running nose on the sleeve of my dirty shirt.
“Who are those rags!” an invisible woman shouted and we jumped, startled.
Then we skittered to the fence, carefully avoiding the pink roses. We couldn’t climb any of the tall fences because the tree we had used was outside. So we scuttled to the exit gate.
“Who are you people!” a guttural male voice screamed.
“Christ! Catch those thieves, somebody!”
We dashed off, our tattered slippers flying off. We pushed the aged gatekeeper with toothpick legs who was listening to the news on his portable radio into a puddle and ran past the gate. We ran past the Central Mosque, past the market, past Fulani herdsmen and their cows that were grazing in the abandoned football field. We ran until we heard Halima’s excited voice in her Baba’s street.