The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Antebellum: Layers of Dust
Faruk Ibrahim drove sedately through the unfamiliar Northeast motorway exactly five months after the coup; it was also twenty-two years since his leaving the little town of Bolewa where he had been born. He was on his way there again, but this time, not running to safety and the future but in search of what fragments of the past he could glean from there. The journey was toilsome and the towns far between, the cities no more than suburbs of Jos where he was coming from. The sun bared its vexation on the little white Toyota Corolla and not for the first time Faruk wondered why he had not fixed the broken air conditioning, for even with both windows wound down, he sweated as much as a man afraid. Speed could not compensate for the hot stifling air.
Besides, the roads were bad, sometimes ceasing altogether and becoming long patches of dry, powdery russet brown dust. On both sides of the road was savannah seeming perennially dry, seeming to defy the fury of the sun merely by stubbornly not bursting into flames. Yet, in this heat, a few nomads were about with their herds of white cattle that were more plentiful than men in the frontier of the Northeast State. Each time he passed a herdsman and his charge, Faruk hooted his horn in response to the others ecstatic hallooing and raised his hand through the window in salute to this close relative of the American cowboy.
The American west is the Nigerian northeast, he mused each time, wondering what stories of rugged living each of these hardy heritors could tell of their lives. Unconsciously, he thought how many untold stories there are in Nigeria and how all one needed do was to scratch the surface a bit and look inwards.
And then, of course, there were the numberless cattle egrets, bubulus ibis, sentinels of the herdsman and together with sun and the moon, watcher of the doings of men, of his mother and father and their lives before him.
His only comfort from the accursed heat was the car stereo. There were no radio signals except on the outskirts of the major towns and he had left Gombe behind three hours earlier. Miles Davis 1959 Kind of Blue played from Bose speakers, the very finesse of the recording keeping his mind off the unbearable heat. And somehow, Rahila had always wondered how, listening to jazz music kept him alert to the road like at no other time. He tapped his thumb on the wheel in time to Coltrane’s riffs and felt lightness from experiencing the culture of a promising past each time Davis said something undying through his trumpet. Jazz music awakened a foundational perception in him absent all those other times when the burden of living amidst the pell-mell pull of life drowned out the music of nature in his ears.
He always caught himself looking through the driving mirror just in time to remember that on this particular stretch of road, he was all alone and had been so for quite awhile, an hour now, since he had passed an old lorry laden with assorted farm produce and rustic farmers hanging on to the tailboards of the old Bedford, laughing and singing their own rural songs and in their own peace. They were on their way to a neighboring village where there was a market day. He had hooted his horn at them and they saluted him noisily as he passed them. A few minutes later when he stopped to check his tires, they also stopped to ask what was wrong and when they found there was nothing they could do, they commended his knowledge of Kanuri to which he said he was Kanuri and was presented a prize of bananas and oranges by Wabekwa, an aged untired man who was their king of farmers. Then he was off again, leaving them far behind. He caught himself looking at the driving mirror again.
Faruk had a thin face and his clear white eyes, which added a kindness to his face that was sometimes inscrutable, like an unfordable gulf, offset the dark chocolate of his complexion. He had happy, even lips and when he whistled, his lips were sexy. His hair, like his father’s, was wavy, as had been that of his Kanuri and Fulani grandfathers. His eyebrows, however, were not sweeping and bushy but thin and fine and he wore a thin handlebar moustache and had spent much of his twenty-four years enduring the teasing of his friends who swore he could never grow a beard. He was tall and lithe, like a Kenyan runner. The entire effect of these little details was a wholesome beauty that was concealed and enchanted all the same. When he smiled, which was the easiest thing in the world for him, a positive animation livened his features and he could will anything he desired then.
He wore a red polo shirt over white chinos and black sandals of cured snakeskin. Beside him was an already lukewarm bottle of water and in a cooler behind him were the rest of the dozen pack of bottled water he had bought in Jalingo that morning. Beside the cooler was a battered suitcase of brown leather, a suitcase that had crossed continents and been the habitué of countless car trunks, indeed a suitcase that much told his life story for he had gotten it for his fifteenth birthday. He whistled along with the modal jazz playing softly from the speakers of his well used, ever-faithful Toyota and gradually he lost himself in his thoughts again.
After the last fight with Rahila a week before, he had decided to take a breather from the North-Central where he had lived all his life, away from the differences and choices that tried so relentlessly to determine his life and his joys. But he did not know how or where to go. He had already spent a week brooding when he went to visit Yaya Hussena, his late mother’s friend until her death when he was fourteen; she and his father were most of the family he had.
When he got to her house, on entering the shaded porch decorated with many potted plants, which never failed to give off an ozonic trace of nature and well being, she said,
"My God, what troubles you? Your face is as long as a Kaaba door!"
He looked up at her, standing at the far side of the porch mulching compost with gloved hands to the roots of a promising rose bush that was as much her child as he was. She led him to sit on the cloth sofa and shouted for her maid to not let her son starve or thirst in her house! She was an old woman, about sixty, and her gray hair peeked out in neat cornrows from her Dubaijin headscarf. Her skin was pale, as had been his mother’s; she had the kindest face he had ever seen.
Yaya Hussena always adopted the undying spirit of a young girl with him and now she smiled at him with the coquette of a lover. She called him Habib, her love; she called him that perhaps because it was also his mother’s’ name. His mother, Habib Ummi al-Qassim had been Hussena’s dearest friend, a sister of the blood. He sat down and told her of Rahila. She kept nodding, did not interrupt him save to bid him eat some of the food and drink that had been silently placed on a stool beside him. While she listened, Faruk noticed it seemed a film appeared over her eyes, as if his words reminded her of something else. The old woman’s complete silence was not so much because she was listening to him as because his words unearthed memories long entombed by the sand of many years. He looked up ever so often and only the alert questioning glint in her eye made him continue his narrative.
Of all cosmic jokes God plays on the hapless denizens of his world, deja vu has to be the most unnerving, the most improbable. And it was exactly deja vu that coursed through Yagana Hussena’s mind as Faruk sat there on her porch, telling her the problems of his love and how dim the prospects of his joy without his love were.
Decades before, she had listened to something striking in its similarity. Something that had so clearly been a cause of much suffering, it was impossible not to draw any conclusion other than another tragedy was in the offing. Skill and tact would be needed to ward it off, as one might gently nudge a meteor off the path of the earth and catastrophe.
Of course the Colonel could not help Faruk, not even the freedom he had furnished his son with could keep him safe from the enigma that even now reached out to grab him and carry him unknowing to the depths of hell, a hell that had consumed his mother already. No, she thought, I did not do enough forty years ago, Allah forbid that I do not exhaust myself this time around, what is life to hold back from living because of life?
She wondered about General Hassan and where he figured in this new complexity; he was definitely aware, he was always aware. Her own Hassan who had tried to make the most of it, her soldier-boy who had punched up a ray of light at a time when darkness covered her intertwined life like an unrepudiable promise. And even though Hassan’s actions then had not been able to ward off the fatal confrontation - for how can one ward off what one is unaware of? - it had provided a leeway through which Habibi had escaped with this boy and lived for a decade, encumbered but alive and yet hopeful in time.
But Hussena realized that telling Faruk of what had happened in Bolewa when she was still a girl would do him no good even though it was imperative that he knew. Knowing was the only he would have the strength he needed to make the right decision, that strength absent decades earlier and for which she never fully forgave herself. Just then her pet macaw, Haruna, started chirruping "strength strength, haw-haw, strength!" and Faruk saw her smile one of her fine smiles and she looked up at him just as he finished speaking.
She smiled and said
"Haruna has a habit of reading my mind. Did you hear him? He just said 'strength', just what you need"
"How do you mean, Yaya?"
"I mean that you should not fight on a field that is not of your own choosing. In knowing the field, lies strength”, she said.
"You mean a strategy?"
"Yes, in a way. Strategy is knowledge, foreknowledge precisely. Come, I have some of your mother’s things, I think its time you have them" she said, standing and grasping his arm lightly, leading him into the familiar house past the living room to her own quarters, which were as neat as ever, where she bade him sit on her brown ottoman.
The room had large windows and its walls of fresh lemonade green with the white carpeting and the gold green Oriental rug gave off airiness much in the same way the potted plants gave an incorruptible rarity to the porch. He fiddled around with a paperweight, uncertain why she wished to give him his mother’s diaries just after he had told her about his own troubles with Rahila. What had that to do with foreknowledge? The elderly woman straightened up and placed herself beside him on the ottoman, putting a large brown envelope in his hands. She stroked his face and told him what he had to do.
The next day Faruk went to the National Directorate of Employment and almost like something planned, he was informed that there was a placement for a social studies teacher in the northeast, if he was interested. It was a six-month spot while the substantive teacher was on sabbatical. Fine. Where? Federal Government College, Bolewa. Laughter bubbled up within him for at that moment he remembered what Yaya Hussena had always said, that something coming was on its way all ways. So she had been right after all. Of course, he would go to Bolewa.
And so here he was on the dry dusty roads of the northeast.
His father had been surprised at his decision and had simply nodded on hearing the teaching appointment was in Bolewa. His father was an easy man who believed each man must do his duty equally to the past as well as the present. Though he believed he had instilled enough strength in his son for the younger man to make decisions, Colonel Ibrahim Dibarama, Faruk’s father, agonied for him sometimes. But Bolewa? Things were getting dangerous here for the young man, but, again, Bolewa? Who knows, the Colonel thought, it might all work out for good.
Faruk Ibrahim broke off from his thoughts and kept his mind on the road, the music had stopped but he did not play it again or place another disc into the tray.
Thirty minutes later he came to a junction, straight ahead was Maiduguri, 200 km away. He took the road that led to Nguirama and then on to Maidunama and Bolewa.
He still had 300 kilometers before he could present himself to the native land from which he had been for so long sequestered, to say to that land, I too am your son, give me of my patrimony that I may truly be one with you.