Time to Grow
By Joel Ogar (Nigeria)
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Ariku Peter Ariku, stood in the front of his father’s mud house, looking set and serious. He glanced down the non-tarred road for an oncoming bus, those types that were rejected in cities and appreciated in villages, to take him to the nearest motor park where he could find his way to bigger city. He had Lagos in mind. That place, he heard, is full of opportunities and if you are lucky enough you could even make your way abroad. Abroad! Each time the thought came he immediately fantasized about America. According to a little book in his pocket, which he priced more valuable among his few belongings; the United States is a free Country of her own world, a portrait of what life on earth ought to be, a place where you are taught the principles of riches…
“Ariku, haven’t you gone? I thought I heard a bus slowing down some minutes ago.” His mother said as she stood beside him, her untimely presence broke the thoughts in his yearning heart.
“You know how hard it is to get a lift from this road, especially as early in the morning as this,” he replied with a squeezed face, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. The movement was out of impatience and the irritating presence of his mother, not the weight of the bag on his left shoulder.
“I was afraid that you’ve also dropped with our advice, your knowledge of this land, in your haste to leave its premises,” she breathed out. “While waiting, please come and take a bite of what I’ve prepared, it is not healthy to travel with an empty stomach.” When he didn’t make a move she added, “I cooked it to your taste, it’s palatable I promise.”
“Thanks, I woke up with a bad stomach and don’t intend disrupting it more.”
“I didn’t know about that or I would‘ve prepared a bowl of lemon grass and roasted yam instead. But if it’s my cooking you’re avoiding, I’ve assured you that it’s tasty. Try…”
“Please give me some peace will you? I’ve eaten enough of your food to know how it always tastes.” It was a scold and not his usual manner of speaking.
She looked dejected, arms folded across her breast, her left leg making meaningless drawings on the ground. “So the anxiousness and joy of going to the city has taken your mother’s place in your heart?” She asked, setting her face toward the ground as if trying to study what she had drawn, but actually hiding her tearful eyes.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just want to be left alone, peacefully, till I am out of here.” He threw the words over his back, as if addressing someone disgusting.
“And you’re indeed leaving?”
“We’ve gone through that haven’t we? And I made my mind clear this morning that there’s no revoking of my decision didn’t I?”
The night before, his mother and father had tried to talk him out of his decision.
“Ariku” his father called, “you are the last of my seven sons. None of your brothers had given me a tough time, nor have they strayed out of my advice and guidance the way you’re proposing to do. They are where they are today because they took me for what I am and kept my words; today, each is living happily with his family.” He engaged his eyes, “Are you telling me that you’re taller than me or bigger than the submissiveness of your elder brothers?” He shook his head and lifted his right fore-finger warningly, “What you are jumping into is out of our line of living. As I told you some days ago, your brothers and I are ready to support your start of a farm of your own, since there is no means to further your education. I have even talked with the Headmaster of our primary school and he promised to create a teaching job for you. Everybody knows you’re bright, but what do we do when we don’t have the money the universities need. My strength is fast falling. Your mother is past her active age. Where will you get helping hands? There’s nobody like your parents, not even your brothers. Who can bring out money in these hard times and waste it (as they regard it) on a child not theirs?” he questioned sternly. Stretching his old ear as he continued, “Have you ear? Then listen to am saying, Cities are for hooligans not someone as good as you. Please hang on; we know you’re a man now. If you don’t like being around here,” he waved at the compound, “we could help you erect you own house and probably aid you in looking for a wife,” he cajoled.
“Dad,” Ariku began, “I am young, healthy and educated. If I can’t further my education doesn’t mean I must be relegated to a village farm while my certificate rots in a box,” he said stressing each word.
“You have been given a teaching job in the primary school. With your standard you could become the headmaster someday. Isn’t that pleasing?”
“No. I’ve never dreamt of becoming a teacher for life.” He looked at him, “Sorry Dad. I don’t appreciate anything outside any dream.”
“Were you the only one I sent to school?” his father exploded. “Two of your brothers have the same certificate you’re boasting of, and they are proud farmers like me, and…”
“Yes, they agreed to your discipline because they are made with a heart and head different from what I carry,” he retorted. “I go where my spirit directs. I am everything I am, different from you. It was only your flesh and blood I took.”
In resignation the man rested his elbows on his kneels, lowered his head and laced his frail fingers across the nape of his neck where the hairs, due to age, had started fringing upward.
Imploringly, Ariku looked at his mother to say something, whether in support or against his stand he didn’t care. He just wanted to know her thoughts and what she had to say. He had a spirit that could not be disturbed by two, old people in tirade talks of archaic ways on how one should live his life.
“You’re my son and the last of my children. It would break my heart if you lost your sight and destroyed your destiny,” she said gravely and pleadingly. “Out there is a vast world different from our small but comfortable village. How will you start life where nobody knows you, where you don’t know anyone? You were sent to school not to run after everything you read in print, but to be knowledgeable and initiate sound and positive changes in our society. Please Ariku, I beg you to take more time and reflect upon your decision. Most times we make mistakes, silly but life threatening ones. You’re a man now, but a man never stops growing until he’s lowered six feet beneath the ground. Look at us! Is these how we were two years ago? Age is griping our hearts by the second. Please don’t infect it even more with grief, or you’ll meet an empty house if you should come back early,” she concluded fervently.
“Have you told him what became of Ebriku’s son after thirty six years in the city? Tell him! Let him hear it from your mouth,” her husband urged.
The moon, by now, had woken up and hung directly above their heads. They were sitting in front of their cooking hut. The firewood that had previously illuminated their faces had no further need so she got up, quenched the fire and stored the wood away before resuming her seat.
“Ebriku, the late headmaster, had a rebellious son called Omaga. Listen, he was tagged rebellious because he declined his father’s advice and fled to city. Have you heard of it before now?” she asked. Ariku, whom the question was directed to, seemed lost in thought, wandering in a distant land. He said nothing as he stared over the bended head of his father, into the horizon where the moon’s brightness dropped and kissed the darkness. Gripped by nature, lost in thought of what he once read: ‘Uncertainties of the future do not bind men from making moves. Was it not said, life is a risk ether way you examine it? Man lives in dilemma of life and death, but – ’
“…how old are you?”
He was called back by her voice. “Almost twenty-three,” he replied enthusiastically. Age is one thing he never hides, but holds with pride. He might not answer to your greetings but ‘How old are you’ was something he always answered. If he couldn’t display it in stature, as compared with his age-mates, he could at least say it.
“Good,” she resumed. “You are twenty-two and he left fourteen years before you were born. So after thirty-six years, one morning he was brought into his father’s yard, half dead and wretched: one black faded shirt on top of equally faded trousers and bare-footed were all he showed for his years and toils in the city. One single paper didn’t follow him back to confirm his degree; for there were times his father claimed he was studying Medicine at the University of Lagos. I guess he speculated that to rub-off shame; he was the most learned, the village’s eye,” she sighed. “It was suicidal. He couldn’t bear it and gave himself to death,” she lowered her voice and tone. “He’s there now, the mischievous son, depreciating everyday in health. Even if by miracle he gets well, where is he going to start, the eldest begging his younger ones to spare him a name in the family that was his?” She broke into tears.
The silence around them became pronounced as she sobbed. She shook her shoulder convulsively to her weeping, pitifully, displaying a show of miserable ness and pains children bring their mothers from birth, and so often hung till their death. Her drama and feelings there invoke could pierce any heart within the vicinity. Her husband couldn’t bear it, he got up, his head on his chest, and went inside to seek comfort from their bamboo bed. Shortly after, she followed, creating an air of sobriety as a companion for Ariku.
He sat for hours thinking, restructuring his mind, canceling previous plans. The new ones he made were not in favour of his parents. Their ideology infuriated him even more to flee and prove them wrong.
Ariku Peter Ariku had strong convictions contrary to his supposed genealogy. Very early the next morning he stood by the roadside, he came striding into his parents’ hut, who were busy whispering to each other, ‘He had fashioned himself in the manner of city boys… where are the gods?…is this our reward for bringing him on earth?...what if he was our only child?...it means we would have buried ourselves’. They had nothing to do but give him their blessings as custom demands, though he would‘ve left without one if they had refused him because he thinks himself highly above traditions. And, in his mind, doesn’t fit into any strata of village life; he feels in him the blood of an advanced man living in a modern world. Even the way he looked at his mother, standing beside him on the road, scantily wrapped, baring her breast, hairs undone and chewing a month old stick she kept under her pillow, not actually cleaning her teeth but in the act of doing so, suggested he had been at the wrong place at the right time in history.
“No amount of persuasions or fine words can make me spend a night in this place again,” he told her slowly and prayed it wouldn’t worsen her feelings.
But she had already been mutilated. Any form of repugnance, no matter the clothing of mildness, added flares to her excruciating pains. Through sore eyes she watched a dusty bus come to a stop.
“I don’t know when, but I see you coming back to bury me someday, and put a roof over my grave. Don’t give in to carelessness and drunkenness else you’ll destroy your destiny. That was why I tried to keep you by my side,” she said hurriedly. They had spent the better part of their time trying to put off the idea of city from his mind without any meaningful advice on things that lures and traps a growing young man.
“I will mother. Its time to go,” he pleaded, trying to release himself from her grasp, not pleased by her tears that wetted his back; he’s going to a city not the village’s church or farm.
“May God bless and establish and keep you for me.” She rubbed his head, “Please trust Him and He shall grant you all your heart’s desires.” She released him, “Go well my son”.
The bus left. It had waited patiently, like the angel of death, as she hugged her departing son, saying her good-byes amidst tears, before filling the air with a cloud of dust that could never settle down into the exact place they were displaced from. And he saw for one last time his tattered place of birth, his father’s haunted eyes peeping at the scene outside through his window, and the bare wrinkled back of his mother moving homeward, lonely and defeated. Ariku saw it all and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. But there were no tears, and it didn’t surprise him. ‘I am a man; a time to go is a time to grow’ he said silently to himself, turning his back to the last mud house and faced the unwinding road ahead, racing along with the bus.
Seated in a restaurant not known for luxuries and delicacies, one not of high class nor cozy environment of the middle class, were five rotten young men including Ariku. They originated from different tribes and spoke different languages; it was only Peter (Ariku now chose to be called Peter, a name given him in school where everybody was expected to have an English name, but which until now was thrown aside by his family and villagers who respected their names as culture ) and Austin that understood each other. But they, excluding Peter, have one characteristic in common – agility. “Don’t worry,” he was told, “after two weeks of living in this jungle you’ll be transformed into a Lagosian, fully adapted into the system,” Austin indoctrinated him, the only one among his friends that had a little education.
Lagos is one of the busiest cities, with an overwhelming population in West Africa. It’s like one of those few places where the indigenes were shrunk and displaced out of their seat by aliens residing there. Whenever the slogan, ‘No man’s land,’ is heard the head unconsciously knows Lagos is been referred to. She is a generous harlot that welcomes and receives the good and bad, the bold and timid, on her lap. The issue of housing is no problem. She offers her streets to be laid, the bridge of her fly-overs’ as an accommodation for thousands. The city has no ugly apes or lazy bones; everybody that wants to be somebody looks clean and smart. Here, the fittest survive. If you’re lazy and idle, you had better dig your grave in time and save your body from being fed to fishes in her lagoon, but only if human hunters, for rituals, don’t get you first.
The Bridge is where Austin lived and that was where Peter met him the second evening after his arrival. By intuition he had his ear to the ground, discerning which dialect is which. So doing, he drew Austin out of the crowd where he was cursing himself furiously for allowing a fellow Lagosian to swindle him out of five naira – it was big money in 1976.
“I often thought I’d one day meet somebody from my part of the world here,”
Austin said cheerfully. “How is the place I call home? Has it been long since you came? Which village do you come from?” He asked eagerly, one question after the other, like a lost hunter who had spent years cruising the bush, wanting to learn about his wife and family on his first meeting with a man. “Aw! That’s two miles, I guess, from my village,” he muttered sadly and disappointedly. “It has been long since I visited home.” He confirmed Peter’s fear, which his mother had drummed in: nobody comes back from city except sick or at deaths’ mouth. Thus, when you have somebody that knows you and where you’re from, it is up to them to bring you back.
And during Peter’s introduction to Austin’s three friends and accomplices (please take it that they seldom do bad deals; also remember, nobody on earth is truly righteous) shortly before they convened at the restaurant, he noted the way Austin beamed, hugged and patted him. Sitting there, he reflected on the issue of long absences from home. Had Austin seen someone that would take his numb or useless carcass home someday? Was that the reason why he moved me to his quarters and promised to help me sink my roots, so I’d keep an eye on him? He was troubled, though only for a fraction of a second, for he immediately reassured himself that life in itself is full of numerous and unanswered questions; just as one can’t give an answer to the origin of man or to where man goes when he dies.
He brought himself back to the moment and heard Austin telling them, mockingly, about his plans to further his education.
“Schul!” one exclaimed. “O’ boy forget schul. You think say you fit do our job and train yourself for schul, or na we no like to go school?” He was scorned in what is called ‘pidgin English’, popular among Lagosian, especially the uneducated ones.
“Ehen!” the most eldest of the five began, “another thing be say make you no take lizzy play O.” He was referring to Elizabeth, whom they called Lizzy for short, a restaurant girl in love with the handsome, naïve Peter. “Ibi like say she dey like you, na women the survive some men here o.” He looked at the rest for their approval and each nodded to his word. “And if ibe say,” he continued, “she dey sleep with men bring the money come feed you, no talk ooh, na Lagos we dey; as you won survive na so she too won survive,” he warned.
Peter agreed and nodded to their rules and tips for survival.
His eleventh day in Lagos was the worst of the not too pleasant ten he had seen, after receiving the most terrible beaten of his life on an attempt, with the gang, to pull one of their trick of drinking beer without paying for it, in a bar. From where he stood, the road split into four identical busy motorways, screened on each side by fancy buildings and pedestrians rushing from somewhere and going somewhere. The people are too busy to pause and give direction to a lost soul. People see others, especially when you are half naked and bathed with blood from your mouth and nostrils like Peter, as death in search of who to visit next. This is Lagos, shine your eyes or you become a victim they remember and hurry on without a second glance.
He limped on a heavy foot, and finally collapsed onto the floor. His mouth quivered to pronounce a name, the only one he knew and his everything in this wide wild world, but it ended on a cloak, spiting out lumps of blood. Through a missing sound, inaudible even to his own ears, he finally called, “Aauzzinn”
There are moments when nature completely withholds her helping hands and you seem alone in a wilderness stretching to infinity in all direction. Such times, she allows you one trifle but valuable thing; either the strength to live it to the end or she ends it quick by calling you back to dust where there’s no thirst for water. But, were you infatuated into the trap by her robust display of opulence, she compensates too; remember nature is infallible.
In Peter’s case, the kindest thing shown to him was one last grace for animating the air around him. Like the mystery in sound waves, each particle in air respondent and passed the word “Aauzzin’ to its neighbor. The message was transmitted in an unbelievable frequency. The last of the particles nodded it into Austin’s ear where he sat three miles away, unaccompanied, alone.
He rose sharply, looked eastward from whence the message came, and sat back with a sigh onto the floor of an empty building where they do laborious jobs for overwhelming wages. He made a sign of the cross and murmured, “Thank God nobody knows he stayed with me in Lagos.” He knew or perceived what must have happened to him. “Am not ready for home yet, even in the next ten years, except if I arrive on big money, lest of taking a dead body home.” He got up, stretched his arm and went away, leaving behind the scene that led to Peter’s demise. On the walls of the empty building it hung, re-enacting itself before their working tools, each acting as an arbitrator between the hapless Peter and the gang that left him in the lurch, on whose favor to cede light labor to, the next day.
“O boy,” the scene unrolled, “time don reach to zap one by one O,” the herd man cautioned, using their slang.
They were in a bar far away from their living quarters, a good distance from where they would be recognized, each sitting with a bulging stomach containing five bottles of beer, but for Peter, who has been enjoying his freedom greatly and this round table of drinking, it was his sixth.
“You heard him?” Austin asked, looking him over warily.
He nodded and glazed around, smiling. This indeed is the measure of manhood, when you sit in public and drink directly from a bottle of beer, series of cigarettes burning between your fingers and nobody comes to harangue you about morality or to reprobate you for smoking, or what the Bible says about drunks. Yes, I am a man now. He smiled broadly and glazed around, but didn’t notice or couldn’t see that there were two left, he and the eldest of the group. He was on his seventh bottle, completely drunk.
The next time he lifted his head was when the bar man and some other men were glaring down on him.
“Are you boys playing tricks or what? Your friends left under the pretext of urinating and never came back. This is the bill,” he dropped it on the table.
“You blind old fool!” he said as he began staggering. “Do I look like a boy?” He thumbed the beer bottle in his hand, “I’ve taken six of these— and I am now on the seventh,” he boasted, addressing the other men. “Am I not fit to be called a man?” Liquor drooled from his lips with each accompanying word, and all of a sudden he swayed and then crashed the table bearing the empty bottles.
The blows, when they came, were in heavy torrents. He danced to the pouncing like a roll of thread jumping on the spindle turn of a spinning-wheel. He was beaten soft, blood escaping and pouring from him as if intending to flood the city. Thereafter, striped of his worthless sandals and clothes, not excluding the small wage he had received that morning, and was then pushed out from the premises, naked.
The curtain of reality was drawn closed, darkness fell on the building, and no verdict was reached. It was as empty of opinion as it was empty of lives; the cases between potters are for fellow potters to judge, not clay that cannot fashion itself.
Austin slept soundly; his friends disappeared into their own slums; the gang would reconvene tomorrow: tomorrow is a day that always comes. Yes it does, but will it come for Peter too?
His last strength exhausted, he was calling for his dearest friend, Austin, to rescue him. Half alive and half asleep, he laid on the floor, seeing the bare, wrinkled back of his mother as she walked in tears towards their compound; seeing the haunting eyes of his father hinting ‘I warned you.’ He moaned, the animated air around him closed in, and from them he heard his mother whispering into his ear, “I see you coming back to bury me… put a roof over my grave. Don’t give in to carelessness and drunkenness; else you’ll destroy your destiny.”
Drunkenness! My destiny, have I destroyed you? O mother, I am on my way home! Sorry, I cannot roof your grave. Or has she died? It’s like the whispering of a ghost! He heard her again, “May God bless you… keep you for me… trust Him… He shall grant all your heart’s desires.” My one and last wish is to stay alive. He tried to pray, and then heard the mocking laughter of imps in macabre dance. Has the devil gotten my soul? He heard another thing, this one chimed like a bell from a belfry. A church must be around here. Immediately, the hymn sailed free to him.
“Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”
“That saves a wretch like me,”
“I once was lost but now am found,”
“Once blind but now I see.”
He stirred in joy, yet the imps’ laughter grew, chased his heart and pierced through like an arrow. It was excruciating, he couldn’t dampen it. I must not close my eyes lest I am vanquished. But the lids wouldn’t open. They were either taped or glued. He forced it till a gap was spared him, then he noticed he was being carried, and traced the arm to an angel wearing Lizzy’s face – they were at the threshold of the church. He could hear the minister’s voice, “I came not for the just but the sinners…… come unto me all ye that are wearied and overburden, and I’ll give you rest …”
It was quarter pass six in the evening. He closed his eyes and smiled. I am saved; I am a man not a beast without shepherd.