I once worked on two legs, without these crutches that have now become the pillars that hold me. Twenty Junes past, I had walked on two sturdy legs.
The men came at night; they pasted the posters upon the walls of Komoma Street, pasting the big smile upon our hearts. I was brushing my teeth, when I first noticed the posters. The water I was gurgling nearly choked me, as I tried to discern what was written on the posters. Boldly and affirmatively ‘Hope ‘93’ stood out. I spurted the water in a thin jet towards the gutter that festered in front of my room.
To my amazement, the man’s smiley face and that slogan that dare sing of a new lease of life trailed down the length of Komoma. We all knew him. It was because of his like we all came to Lagos. Where dreams were journeys to realism. They said he was once a washer man. Pa Karimu, my landlord who knew everybody, who had not only listened to zik’s oratory but had also once dined with him, claimed he knew the man when he used to be a washer man. Washer man turn big man – turn millionaire, now to turn president. I thought of the string of transformation. This gave me hope. “Hope 93”, the poster had blared.
I unplugged the water heater and untangled the rope from the bucket handle. I stepped into the courtyard of the tenement. A whiff of competing odours assaulted my nostrils, as I parted the curtain. The women reeked from the unwash of the night’s rituals. Mama Sikira’s child led a line of toddlers in defecating formation. The giant dustbin was already a mammoth hill of left over morsels of eba, amala, rags and banana peels. The mingled smell of the compound was that of despair. The kind of choking smells that caused asthma attacks. An excited voice – Nurse Theresa’s was at that moment arresting the attention of her listeners. I unlocked the padlock on my drum to strew the stream of my bath water. “ The man car long reach that domot “Eh!” chorused her bewildered listeners, on how one car, not a bus, was as long as the distance she pointed. The statement caused Pa Karimu to intervene in the chat “Na Kadilac dem dey call am, na dem type Zik dem de enter!” I noticed them, nodding at his revelation, of course he was there in the thick of the first republic days. Nurse Theresa aware of losing her grip on her listeners, said.
“If you see de kind brocade the man dey wear ehn, na costly ones O, de money dem take buy am fit feed all of us for this compound for one year!
“Ewoh eh! Chei! Flowed across the compound in states of disbelief, on how one clothing could feed the whole compound for a year. “Em kay O is also part of the system. As long as it is one them we would still be in bondage, the only difference between him and the soldiers is that he is a civilian”. Teacher Ajose’s words reached me as I entered the outhouse.
“But na good man, e dey kind!” blurted Nurse Theresa.
Of course, he is one Nigerian who envoys a tremendous support from all! We need some one who would stand by the masses like Tai!” as I shut the door of the outhouse. I muffled their words against my ears. “Em kay o” “Hope 93!” I thought once again.
The outhouse catered for the compound ‘s tenants, it had a forever stench of shit. It had several species of buzzing flies basking in the feast of bowel harvests. The walls were an encyclopaedia of graffiti, telling the story of who and what had happen in the compound. I still wondered how some found it easy to scribble on the walls amidst the monstrous smell of the outhouse. One of the tenants who perhaps believed fervently, he had found a messiah had scribbled in charcoal “Em kay O, is our man, Hope ‘93’. I soaped my hair, and the scent of the soap alleviated the stink of the outhouse momentarily. The outhouse was the metaphor of our lives. Smelly. Backward. Em kay O was beginning to revamp my quest for life, perhaps he would pull me out of the quagmire the soldiers had thrown us into. “Hope 93” I thought. The buzz of a rude fly interrupted my reflections.
The days of our lives passed swiftly in the euphoria of the campaign months. We had never seen anything like it. In those months of June a zephyr took me on its wings and gave me the freedom to fly and perch on the altar of love. I met Mosunmola. She was Mama Sikira’s child from an earlier marriage. With her I became a minstrel, a crooner of the songs of the heart. I walked tall, wore a wide smile, and laughed at the slightest joke. With her I anticipated the tidings the years will bring. Then came the tensions. It was palpable. Everywhere people talked. In bar rooms, after plates of goat – head and bacchanal feasts, the beer analysis of the situation always followed. The General had checkmated himself everybody agreed.
The long line of bucket basins, and bowls, snaked down the road running into Samaja road, living only a tiny space for motorists to pass. The tap was the only one on Komoma Street. We had it as a favour from the Federal Rural Water Supply Program. As a favour because, Pa Karimu and Madam Bolewa knew people, who knew people in the Water board. I mentally counted the potpourri of water carriers before mine. “Twenty nine” I said aloud.
“The devil is a liar”
“Na lie we no gree”
“We no go gree”
The spontaneity of these shouts shocked every one, as they slashed the morning air. Three men where staring at something in Pa Kola and Sons Barber Corner. Sweaty unwashed faces, and odorous breaths, surged forward as if they were in spasms of Molue rush. A small black and white TV set was painfully trying to be steady for it’s over anxious viewers. We caught him just in time. The General himself, I stood on the tip of my toes on an over turned bucket. On the screen I caught his beret glancing up and down.
“We also stated in on uncertain terms of resolve to act as midwives of the new political order where we would set Nigeria truly on the road to fulfilling her manifest destiny both within the black race, and in the comity of nations. This annulment was taken in the general interest of…”
“Liar! Liar! Liar! “Khaki must go!”, Maradona! You don com again o!” “The devil is a liar!”
The voices of the gathered listeners became a riotous cacophony turning the public water square into a chaotic bazaar. Their arms flailed in the air in convictions of emphasized points. Their spittle jetted out showering one another. The colony of greased faces, palms and overalls of the engine oil sellers across Samaja road, closed shop to joined the fray. The annulment was forced to become a cliché before nightfall.
“I said it a revolution is needed to wrench our country from the clutches of the military. This is a day light robbery. An assault on our psyche, we must resist”. These were Teacher Ajose’s words sermonising us that evening when the compound sought his opinion.
“Like Kongi said, the man dies in all who keep silent in face of tyranny”. He lost us all when he mentioned death; one after the other we started yawning, stretched our limbs and stole away into their rooms.
“I know Kongi too shall fight this, it is a battle we must all fight, man woman and child”. I was the watch detail for the compound that night, I checked the pad locks on the gate, and fastened the heavy chains across it. My mind regurgitated the words again. “The man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”, I shall add it too, to my notebook to join numerous other saying though by alien names. Names I only hear from Teacher Ajose, Kongi, Tai Solarin, franz fanon, Malcolm X, Kari marx, and Edward said. My favourite was Teacher Ajose’s own saying.” THERE IS NO WEAPON TO FIGHT INJUSTICE LIKE A RADICAL SPIRIT”. I drifted away from the strained thoughts of my mind as one of Haruna Ishola’s Apala songs flared from afar like the smokes of abonfire, my ears caught some lines from the song. It became my lullaby that night.
I woke up to the dumb snivels of Rahila at my window, Madam Bolewa’s niece. I did not like Rahila but pitied her. Though sometimes, I feel an awakening when I stare at her for too long. My mind had judged her as an untouchable ripe mango. Rahila was deaf and dumb, but nature had made up for these defects in her beauty. It was this beauty that had been the weakness of the compound’s virile hands. Madam Bolewa’s Ise’wu restaurant had lost a succession of managers. They had always let their libidinal urges grow fanatical. A tiny left-handed scrawl had always shown them the way out. The last of these notes was “Mr. Malachi touched me up and down, yesterday”. Rahila’s heart was rebellious in its quest for love, for she had chosen me – a nobody, to translate her thoughts into an affair. She would wash my clothes, cook for me, all in a bid that I shall one day marry her. As she always indicated by pointing a finger at me, then no to herself and locking them into crescents shape bounded chains. The tenement men always chided me for not giving her back what she craved for. Rahila did not want my songs of pity, and it was what my heart had for her in abundance. It was my pity for Rahila that became my adoration to Mosun. Mama Sikira though was the Gibraltar Rock that stood between the days of our desires. To her I would always be the stranger who came to live amongst the city dwellers. I was always an ‘Omo Hausa’ ‘a Gambari’. The Northerner who left cola chewing twilights of listening to the BBC Hausa service, under baobab trees to come and stay by the Lagoon of civilization.
On the nervous night of the annulment, I had gazed out intermittently outside my window onto the street, to see if there was any sign of the heralded uprising. I sat in darkness. I had refused to on the lights in the room. Thought a tiny red light burned from the tip of incense. It was to douse the ordour of ice fishmeal, I had taken earlier. When the knock came it was gentle like soft raindrops on zinc. Then the voice followed.
“Idrissi, are you in?
“Yes! Come in Mosun
She entered bringing with her, her smile that that always glinted like the moon on dark nights. The smile like a plague infected me, as I was soon smiling too. She sat on the hand of the only settee in the room. I sat on the floor by her feet; for I was slavish to her love, my adulation to her was a chain that bounded me to her.
“Idrissi, most you leave? We can go to my Aunty in IlIiaro, she would welcome us”.
“Yes or we go to my people in Wukari”
She pouted her lips in defense. “No Idrissi, I don’t see you as North or South; my South, my North, my everything.”
“But, I sense trouble this thing will blow up soon, people left Kano today in droves….”
“They overreacted nothing will happen, you’ll see” she touched my nose lightly and then my ears; she grazed my face smoothing the wrinkles of tension. I gazed into her eyes as if it was a crystal ball. What I saw comforted me, it was longing and hope. For soon enough time passed, ticking away the hourglass of our emotions. It was then a din erupted outside my door, interrupting the rhythmic flow of our passions and making my heart palpitate. “Yes” “No”, bend the ‘area’ Yes! Left, No right”. All the dwellers of house. No fourteen Komoma Street had gathered outside to watch the Network news. The static was obscuring the pictures. At last they adjusted antennae, and parkarimis TV on beamed a gaily-dressed broadcaster.
“Mosun lets go and watch the news!”
“It will just be filled with politics!”
“That’s why we must see it, you know the update on the annulment.” She hissed loudly. I knew the tale behind the hiss. Mosun hated politics, political talk and politicians. To her it all meant deceit. To us it was the key to a prosperous life. She hissed again, making a singsong of hisses.
“Please, Idrissi stay with me, and leave them to their polities”. The plea in her eyes arrested my strides to the door. “Please, Idrissi!” The commentaries started. Teacher Ajose’s voice shot out in anger “We are spectators in this drama, it is a farce! The military are our puppet masters!”
“But, their people should be made to pay for their sins” Pa Karimu’s son Kekere answered back.”
“Our brothers fleeing Kano are running away from their shadows, we one.” Teacher Ajose opined. “No, we are not. Isn’t it because Em Kay O is Yoruba that is why the annulled it?”
“Why do we let politics divide us in this compound”. Mosun asked innocently. “You see, we have failed to learn the songs of oneness and even if we do, we don’t sing it with our whole hearts.” That night Mosun and I sang the song of oneness. Our voice became one and rose against the din of the chorus of rancor outside my door. When we reached the one cresecendo of our melody, we gazed into each other’s eyes and strained our ears not listening to the confused voices outside, but perhaps to the little voice of oneness we had sown, who maybe shall be the one to teach us the words of the songs of oneness, of singing in concerted tones.
The night annulled itself into dawn, Mosun left early the next morning to Ketu to join Mama sikira where the family had gone to mourn a relation.
We were woken up by the shouts of the newly formed area militia. I recongnised most of the faces, they all had scars that were relics of past skirmishes, in the far corners of the compound were Adigun ‘Paraga’, Semiu ‘No nonsense’ held a dane gun, brandishing it with abandon, while sunny ‘Daga’ was a walking collection of cutlasses. Kilango, the lead singer of the belligerent songs I feared most. He got his name from his murderous tendencies; the neighbourhood could count of how many knife and bottle fights he was not part of. The zigzag of the scars on his face, were the prove of his famed immortality. As he stepped forward to address us. His Oriki dissolved the tension momentarily “Even sharp hom, know who carved am, even sharp knife know en go stab, you no dey fear police, go Mushin go Isale Eko, dem know u, even trouble dey fear am”
The scowled faces had taken up all the available spaces within the middle of the tenement rows; the smelly gutter that ran though the length of the compound was the least of their concerns. A film of thoughts formed a montage in my mind, should I have taken flight to Wukari after the butchering of the cows at the abattoir, or perhaps I should have gone with Mosun to her Aunty in llaro. The consequences of my inaction had at this moment nestled in the hands of Kilango. He mounted the rostrum; it was Nurse Theresa’s centre table. His voice cords thundered out “Actualize!” over a hundred voices boomed back “June 12!” he turned left, and then right slowly, the veins in his neck stretching tautly his chest also heaving and falling. He blared once more “June 12”, and they chorused, “Actualize!”
We must actualize “June 12”, Na our turn, we must rule, we go rule. He went on and on almost how the cause must not be abandoned; how we should all form a band of bond against the usurpers of the process.
Fifteen more minutes, later it was all over, they left in their wake several layers of muddy prints, broken buckets, and trampled clothes from fallen clotheslines.
This was followed eight heady days of rioting. Until one of the General’s Hench men was sent to the city to rest the volatile unrest. His armoured tanks and life bullet shells subdued the annulment riots. This didn’t stop the exodus out of the city, or to places like Idi Araba.
I had known those who wanted me alive by this time. Mama Sikira had told the local militia that I lived amongst them. Not only that, but that I have sown a seed in her daughter Mosun. Teacher Ajose was my chief protector; I fed from his bachelor meals at night, and listened to the analysis of events. “They have tied themselves with a long rope, they shan’t succeed this time around, like Achebe said “We should not accept restrictions to our thinking …
He jumped up and ransacked his shelf of books and hurriedly took out a hard cover bounded book Anthills of the savannah by Chinua Achebe”.
“You see Idrissi, literature is prophetic. Achebe wrote everything that is happening now in this book! You must read it idrissi”. Then he lapsed into a deep silence; it was broken by Pa Karimu’s knock. “Good evening to you young men, turn on the radio quick” They said Em Kay O has declared himself president.
I rushed towards teacher Ajose’s transistor radio; static with a classical music background filled the room. The voice tore through the night air tearing my heart in pain. Mosun shouted my name in one breath.
“He is in there!” mains Sikira shouted. Pa Karimu stood up his wrapper almost falling. Teacher Ajose’s eyes burned fiercely, his hairs standing on end. He gritted has teeth. “traitor! Woman traitor” the word came out of his gritted teeth.
His small frame could not stop the force upon the door when it came. Hefty hands lifted him and threw him across the room, crashing him against his shelf of books and ideas. I could see Pa karimu’s frail hands attempting to stop them. The men that reached for me I knew, for I had bough them several derrica of rice in the past. Torino and Sapiko lifted me and threw me against the wall. I was kicked in the head, in the belly, everywhere. I heard Mosun’s wail, mingled with Rahila’s dumb whisperings. Nurse Theresa’s, and a voice I couldn’t fathom wailed too. Pa Karimu’s curse and Teacher Ajose’s tantrums provided the voice over for the wails. The night was filled with a harmony of pain. They must have been over a hundred of them. My screams became lauder as the slaps changed from hands to cutlass blades. I screamed fiercely as each smack cut into a flesh here and burrowed deep there. With my last ounce of strength, before I floated into nothingness I shouted, in the face of my of my tormentors “But I voted for him too!”.