Cool evening breeze wafts lazily through the settlement whipping up red-brown dust and loose dirt that head for people’s eyes. It is this kind of breeze that soothes and sometimes tickles your armpits.
It is on evenings like this that men like to sit on their verandahs discussing politics, playing draughts, while downing shots of ogogoro that seem to never finish. The ogogoro makes them laugh boisterously at intervals, punctuating their animated discussions in dramatic fashion.
On such evenings women find cooking forgiving as they can take short intermittent rest trips from the damp hotness of their small general kitchens. The children play on dirt roads from mid-afternoon until the sky turns red and homecoming birds fly across the setting sun in the horizon, forming a picturesque effect.
Girls form circles the size of your mother’s cooking pot; some play Ten–Ten, clapping, chanting and stamping their feet; others draw boxes on sand for Suwe. Boys divide themselves into teams of five and play football along fairly wide plains and paths with makeshift goalposts, stopping at intervals to let vehicles pass.
Four O’ clock and the sun is already hiding under a cloud. One boy is running late for the big football match because he’d been instructed by his mother to clean all the plates before he leaves the yard. Normally this is no problem but today is different. He has a wager with Azeez, the bully whose legs remind him of the big turning sticks women use to pound tuwo. They argued two days ago about which of them was the better player, until Ahmed—whose eyes are wide as stainless plates used to eat garri—suggested that whoever is first to score four goals during today’s match will be crowned the undisputed best player. The boy knows the others will start the match with or without him. He also knows, but will not admit it, that Azeez is a really good player and could have scored up to three goals by the time he arrives.
He rushes his washing, with plates clanging up and down. That his mother keeps yelling each time a pot falls doesn’t make him any more careful. He pours soap water into the bigger pots to soften dried burnt food so he has an excuse to wash them later. When he’s done, he calls to his mother inside, telling her he is through, that he is going to play ball o! He doesn’t hear her reply but he can see her nod in the eye of his mind as he dashes off.
Half an hour later, the boy and Azeez have already scored three goals apiece. Tackles fly carelessly as both teams try to get the ball to either striker. Suddenly, the boy goes down under a challenge and someone shouts, “Penarity!”
Another retorts, “Toh. Na Lie! Nobody rough am joor! Play on jare!”
“Karya ne!” another boy screams.
“Stand up play ball abegi! Bloody weakling!” Azeez is yelling, “You no know ball but you wan’ win champ. Maami’s boy. Tah!”
“Uban ka!” Retorts the boy. By this time, every other boy has gathered around and cries of Uwar ka and Dan bura ba, rend the air. Soon, some boys find sand being stuffed in their mouths. Someone screams.
Just then another cry is heard in the distance. Above the angry exchanges between the belligerent boys; above the piercing screams of toddlers being forced to take their evening baths; above the rhythmic percussion of knives slicing through vegetables and onto wooden boards; above the shrieking of one girl who just grazed her knee…
This cry is different. In this settlement, everyone knows everyone else’s voice, and everyone has learnt over time to ignore petulant screaming children and their antics. But this is that of an adult and it rings of horrific urgency. For a moment everything careens to a standstill. Then heads turn, one by one as if choreographed.
Gunshots are heard first. Before the roar of engines. Before the sound of grenades exploding in the distance. Before inbound clouds of rising dust are spotted. Before the ground vibrates in protest. Before they see the woman running towards the settlement, arms flailing hopelessly.
This is when life returns to the community. The screams multiply and people run around aimlessly and collide into each other. The boy, still confused wills himself to run but his feet cannot connect with his brain. Rooted to the spot, he watches chaos unfold. He can still hear the yelling of the boys during the rumble. The dull thudding of fists against flesh. The roars of “goaler!” each time someone scored. The clang-clang of kitchen utensils − they almost sound like music now. By Allah! Anything can sound like music now −.
Someone yanks him back to reality. It is a woman, his mother.
“Wetin you dey look? You tink say na action feem be dis?” she pants, shoving him. “Run!”
There are grenades exploding all around and gunshots cutting through people and felling them like trees.
“I no know. Just─” A flash of metal. An explosion. A splurt of dark red. The boy screams as her head disappears from her body. Then a strong hand grabs his arm. It’s Azeez’.
Just when they round a corner leading towards the bushes, an explosion erupts very close to him. Then a pickup truck with modified off-road tires abruptly screeches to a stop right in front of them.
Seconds pass before tears start cascading down the boy’s face as his brain tries and fails repeatedly to process everything going on about him. His head is swimming. He starts screaming until the big man points the shakabula at him.
“You wan follow your mama?” He bellows.
The boy shakes his head that now feels light as cotton.
“Then shut up. Stop crying like a girl and get in the vehicle!”
The boy nods timidly but as the big man starts to walk away, he murmurs something about wickedness and his mother’s death. The man swings back swiftly, this time his eyes the colour of rotten pepper. The boy whimpers and draws breath.
This time the scream does not get to leave his throat.
* * *
The boy wakes up to cold water. Not the refreshing type that quenches burning throats. This water brings pain splashing into his face, making him jump and thrash about in a mixture of alarm, surprise, and confusion.
“Thirty more minutes.” He hears the big man bark.
The boy has regained full consciousness: moving vehicle, bumpy ride, dark interior, stench of sweat and fear. He peers into the faces of each of the boys. He knows all of them–or almost all. He watches the questions play on their faces: Thirty minutes till what?
He wants to laugh at Azeez, the bully. Only few days ago, he’d beaten up three boys for refusing to give him their meat. He has never seen him look so meek. But the smile is wiped from his face when he thinks of his own fate: Mother is dead. Home is history.
A lot of things can happen in thirty minutes but there is not a lot he can do except think. Arrgh! Thinking would have been so much easier if only the vehicle didn’t have to jump every three seconds making his head bang repeatedly against the inside of the vehicle! He decides to remove his shirt and fold it to use in cushioning his head from the jarring effect of the bumpy ride.
A lot of things can happen in thirty minutes.
At first his thoughts are unorganized, like his washing earlier today. He can still hear the clang-clang of kitchen utensils. They almost sound like music now. By Allah! Anything can sound like music now.
The boy thinks about the possibilities of surviving beyond today. What if he and other boys make breaking news tomorrow morning? Thoughts of photos of his corpse and others in the newspapers—of bodies bundled together like yams destined for the marketplace make him shiver in the sweltering heat.
It might have been better if he was shot dead, allowed to lie alongside Mama in death. He shivers again as he remembers the raid. His mind plays back the din with some sort of cinematic vacuum-esque effect like the ones in war movies he used to rent from Hakeem the barber: meaty sound of metal tearing through flesh, then tissue, then bone. His mother hitting the sand, biting the dust like his school’s literature teacher had taught him to say. What did she call such figure of speech again?
“We don reash!” The big man roars again as the vehicle jerks to a stop. “Oya, get out, one by one.”
The boy clambers down and as he joins the queue, nostalgia cascades over him reminiscent of morning assembly at school, when students would sing “O when the Saints are marching in” as they all marched to their classrooms.
At the camp, hush washes over the boys and tension absorbs the atmosphere like a sponge. All the boys sit on the ground with their legs tucked in as though they are here for a yoga session. The aroma of something cooking rises with smoke like burnt offering somewhere behind the cluster of sand-coloured makeshift tents. A lanky man comes to address them.
Everyone falls on their knees, bowing obsequiously before him. All sixty-something boys captured from the settlements of Gumsa and Musari. Mallam Aliyu looks every bit as fierce as the rumors hold. There is a menacing demeanour that hangs about him like foul smell around cow dung. He is dressed in a grey turban over a dirty kaftan that seems to scream “Hey! I used to be white!” The two men flanking him wearing dirty danshikis point the barrels of their AK-47s upwards as though threatening the sky.
The lanky man walks forward and his clenched face hovers menacingly over the boys. “My name is Mallam Aliyu Abdullahi. I am your leader. I and my brothers are sent by Allah to do His honourable will of cleansing this world of infidels…”
The boy frowns. Infidels? How were people killed earlier today infidels? Such kind people who lived quietly with their lives devoted to Allah’s will. People like Musa, the cobbler who was always singing off-key along to his tiny Kchibo radio with its broken antenna; or Iya Lanre, the Yoruba woman who always brought his mother oranges and cashew nuts each time she visited?
Mallam Aliyu’s voice, loud as cannon shots, vibrates in passionate anger and keeps rising like dust on harmattan mornings when people sweep. As he talks, childlike innocence and timidity is gradually wiped away from their faces and replaced by aggression and bloodlust. The boys reply “Allah akbar!” at intervals.
The boy is suddenly consumed with fear. It’s hard to imagine that these are the same boys with whom he played football just a few hours ago. Boys like Usman, the timid kid who could never stand in front of their class to read comprehension passages without stuttering? Or Aminu who fought with and lost to a girl last week. Or even Adamu, who everyone called ‘babe’ because of that his tiny voice and effeminate gesturality. He fears whatever can suddenly rid his age mates of their juvenile innocence and replace it with such conviction that they could indeed become Allah’s agents of cleansing.
The women finish cooking and scoop spoonfuls of greasy jollof rice into plastic plates and pass them around. The boy now remembers hunger. He watches his mates lap up the barely enough food like dogs, even licking up oil from the sides of the plates. One of the girls sharing food, Jamila, is who he has been thinking of lately. He smiles wistfully at the memories of her reaction after she read the poem he wrote her for her last week:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
I’ve searched through the land, I swear
But I’ve found no one like you.
He remembers her blushing, not able to say anything. She still looks as beautiful, only now exhaustion washes over her face like badly applied makeup. She catches his gaze and forces a smile that reaches everywhere but her eyes. He wishes he can go over to hug her and say everything will be okay. But he just smiles mischievously as she turns back towards the cooking area deliberately rolling her waist.
Night comes and sleep ensures all the boys are ordinary little boys once again. But the boy lies on the grass watching the starry sky. Sleep will not come. Neither will answers. Or succour. His mother always said dead good people reappeared in the sky as stars. Perhaps she’s up there somewhere watching over him now. He wonders if the other boys think the same thing. He looks around him at the boys who he grew up with; that he thought he knew; that he used to know…
Over the next few days, they will all wake up to become soldiers. They will be taught warfare and defiance. If they feel any emotions or remember anything from halcyon days, they will not show it. They will join older men on killing sprees and raid villages for boys like them to radicalize. And the boy will join them, shocked at his transformation, afraid of himself and even more scared of his reflection. He will become one of them.
Until one night when he is watching the skies as usual searching for fragments of his dissipating dreams; when he spots two silhouettes sneaking into the nearby forest. When he follows them in curiosity, armed with a handgun. When he discovers the male is the big man who shot his mother and the female is Jamila, his love. When from behind a tree a safe distance away he watches in horror as the big man plunges into her and something dislodges in his chest like a grenade losing its pin. Then, because he knows the forest like the back of his palm, where each twig lies, where each leaf has fallen, he will sneak closer to them and point the gun at the big man, still inside Jamila. He will mutter something about wickedness and his mother’s death. Then he will cry, “You took my Mama from me. Next, you took my innocence. Now you want to take my love!” The words squeeze through the spaces between his teeth, before he pulls the trigger.
The boy will shiver as lightning sparks and thunder growls. He will stare at the body as his last bit of innocence leaves with the bullet that kills the big man. He will turn his back on a sobbing Jamila too shocked to speak, when the sky starts to weep with him.
Then he will run. Fast. Past the befuddled half-asleep sentry soldiers. Away from the camp and the boys that he used to know. Away from all the pieces of chequered history he could call his own. Away from unquestioning service to Allah. Away from the life he wishes he never had. Away from it all. And as he tears through the forest afraid and uncertain, his tears will become one with the rain.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed