The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Postbellum: Petals of Roses
They sang, and then they prayed, then they would share the Word, say the benediction and then sing, and pray again. By the end of the day they would have repeated these three undertakings so many times that Heaven just had to hear them and consider the things that formed the thrust of their entreaties. And why did they do this each day? Because; in the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was God. From the every beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all Creation was made without him. The Word was the source of life and this life brought light to humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
The large rectangular hall was among the earliest building in what had become the Bible School; it had been built in the time of the Scottish Fathers to serve as rooms for the brothers. Eventually, when the Father’s left, it was turned into a dining room and chapel room by their Nigerian successors. The walls were made of stone bricks quarried from the mountains just behind them and Rahila felt something of the nostalgia of its builders had remained through the decades. From the floors tiled with stone and to the rafters, treated black with soliginum to guard against termites and woodborers, there was a conscious effort to replicate something of rural Britain. The room was as cozy as any cottage in Aberdeen and over the years it had became the very nucleus of the school. And though Rahila Pam’s mind kept wandering off, she was vaguely aware that there were about seventy of them in the hall and that number did something against the frostiness of the world outside the large windows.
Fifteen broad tables and benches had been arranged in the hall with two long wooden benches allocated to each table; these benches became stools to sit on during breakfast, lunch and dinner and pews during the morning and evening prayer sessions. At the center of the length of the hall was a little clearing where Brother Ponsahr stood preaching from a makeshift pulpit crafted by the more industrious of the brothers. Behind him was a bare wall with the legend; Be You Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Alone, a quote from the book of James, scrawled out in blood red lettering. She sat to the left of the pulpit at the back of the hall, at the extreme left of her pew; Funmi sat beside her and automatically tapped her on the thigh whenever she felt Rahila had drifted away from the service.
But the problem was not Rahila drifting away from the service but of drifting in and out of it. She drifted because she preempted most of the things being said. Every ten minutes or so, she would break out of her thoughts, jerked out of them by her friends touch through the fabric of her gown.
Nonetheless, Rahila still drifted.
Her thoughts settled on Mrs. Adugya who had been Matron of St. Emmanuel’s Secondary School where she had attended years earlier. Her mother had sent her to the school because at that time it was one of the best advertised schools in the Tin City and was the haven of all those who lived to pull rank with their peers and over their inferiors. “Oh, Rahila? She’s in school, you know, at St. Emmanuel’s.” Had she liked the school? To that question Rahila had always replied, is that relevant?
In a way it was and in yet another way it was not a relevant question.
An education is important because the very innocence of a child is put into it and refined, or not, and that child has more or less to live with that acquired experience. More often than not, the children were warped and turned loose into a society of parents that had all the while been pulling socioeconomic rank with their education and the matrix of their future. Those twisted children then unleash revenge on that same society, hoping to get their own back until they realize that even their delinquencies are calculated and cannot make an impression on their addled parents; that those delinquencies religiously decried as scandals to the family name were secretly enjoyed as proof of their wards correctness, an opportunity to ‘suffer’ and be consoled with generous sighs of o tempores, o mores! .
But Rahila had not been one of those children who enter the educational process to be formed by it; she already had her lessons ingrained in her mind and the educational process was to serve only the office of unraveling those lessons. So, in spite of the battering assaults of the mis-education her mother had foisted on her, Rahila Pam had come out of it more or less mentally unscathed. Except for one minor thing.
At St. Emmanuel’s, she had lost her religion. When she left at the age of sixteen, she already distrusted the underpinnings of the modern Christian clergy. The school was a private business owned by Pastor John Edo who also owned a church and a few other businesses. The church, El-Ohim Assembly was a Pentecostal sect and Mrs. Adugya served as Matron of the school and her job was to see that they all, especially the girls, did not lapse into sin. She was one of those women who live second hand lives, the sort who indulge in the use of holy candles and handkerchiefs and live their days by ‘what Pastor John said’ and treated him and his family as celebrities, perfect angels who could do no wrong. Thus residually, she, associated with this man of God, was far in terms of piety above the students who she saw as potential wreckers of her pastor’s reputation. Her first problem with Rahila had been that she refused to cut her hair. Mrs. Adugya’s hair was short and kinky.
Mrs. Adugya threatened them all with hellfire and had them quaking to the nails on their toes - that God watched everything they did and would invariably punish them for everything they did which was, of course, evil. She denounced pride, the greatest of the deadly sins, and always cast a look at Rahila whenever she mentioned this particular pet sin. Rahila would not cut her hair and her father had had Mrs. Adugya arrested on the day she brought a scissors to Rahila’s locks; Pastor John’s daughter was allowed to keep her hair.
Rahila could not speak in tongues and this was an affront to Mrs. Adugya who felt that the Holy Spirit was doing its best, if only Rahila was not so obstinate. On the many visits by Pastor James and members of his church, Rahila was singled out for extra anointing of holy oil and prayers.
And gradually the Rahila’s theories achieved concretion.
Many around her spoke in tongues and described how it felt like being filled with the Holy Ghost. She could not ‘speak in tongues’ because she could not and could not describe the ‘feeling’ because she had never felt it. So, there was a dilemma. Was there was something innately evil in her that prevented her from partaking in the much gloated about state of grace trumpeted by the St. Emmanuel clerisy? Or was it that her friends did not feel this grace at all?
This thought nagged her for her first three years in the school and by her third year she had come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with her; that she was fallen demon who needed to be saved. At that time, she begun to participate in the activities prescribed by Pastor John and his minions, anointed handkerchiefs and teaspoonfuls of olive oil, yet, she did not feel better and the ambiguity of it all made her life miserable.
In her fourth year Sekyen confessed that it had all been a charade put together to please Mrs. Adugya and her Pastor John.
For the first time in her life, Rahila Pam was angry and she raged at her mother. What annoyed her was the thought that the Pastor knew that it was a charade, he had to know that he was just fucking around with young people’s minds, and he still felt himself a man of God while destroying what she saw as the beauty of God’s creation. And Mrs. Adugya, she could not forgive the woman for her helplessness and stupidity and the cruelty that had endangered. So all the ostracism had been groundless, all the three years of mental torture about her own perceived evil were unnecessary misery. Who gave anyone the audacity to assume such power to sway with her mind, her personal spirituality? She had not felt anything because there was nothing there to feel. Not in all the rituals and handkerchiefs and prayer requests. Nothing. Sham, charade!
At the age of fourteen, and without having read the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre or the writings of the Algerian Albert Camus, Rahila Pam was already steeped in existentialist thought. There was no God who sat there to spin the wheel of fate and destiny, Who could be prayed to change things by human indulgence in piety and prayer; that God that needed weak men did not exist for her. Men chose; men made decisions for themselves and consequences flowed from those choices. Simple.
Mrs. Adugya and many of those warped children of her generation that she had warped and that had allowed themselves to be misshapen had chosen the secondhand life of being fed with their fears by skillful pastors and conmen and their lives, the ruin of it, was their just reward. How can a person fake ‘grace’ and ‘speaking in tongues’ for four years? It flew against anything Rahila could conceive. That still in the rosy years before she was properly initiated into her society where she saw herself circumscribed by the nuance of decay all around. That was ages before Faruk and her confrontation with that society.
Mrs. Adugya had eventually fallen out with Pastor John and each time Rahila saw her afterwards, she felt a dread in her body that seeped from the eyes of that sad, pathetic, defeated woman who had offered fifteen of the best years in her life to a man who had nothing to give her in return.
“Yet, how can there be a revival in the church when the very cathedral of Jesus Christ, the Dome of the Rock, is the site of a mosque? What has happened to Christianity? When the Scottish Fathers came here to establish this church in 1905, there had been a revival of the gospel in Britain. Everywhere you went you saw white handkerchiefs billowing outside the houses, a sign of faith in Jesus Christ. So they left their families, their mother’s and their father’s and children, the land of their birth, to come to Africa in order to give the Good News to the unsaved, they wanted Africa and the other colonies to partake of that revival! Yet today, we have a mosque in the heart of the Holy Land.”
Brother Ponsahr was preaching and the latest tap on Rahila’s thigh from the very attentive Sister Funmi brought her back to the hall long enough to get this snippet of his talk.
Rahila thought, this was how the Crusades began, with this same type of bigoted ignorance. Bigotry on the part of Ponsahr, who had taken a fight that was not his and made it the cornerstone of his philosophy. He was fighting a religion for the benefit of another religion and that, Rahila thought, was bigotry. Religion was like a field of battle; it would never be sated, no matter how much blood was shed on it. The Israelis and the Palestinians were engaged in power play, not religion, politics. The Dome of the Rock, the Mazar-i Sharif, what did those stones mean to anyone? Yet Africa and Africans kept on thinking Christianity or Islam is threatened with each incursion and each suicide bomber. And so we kill ourselves here.
It was ironic, Rahila thought. Fourteen million Africans were taken across the Atlantic to be slaves for three hundred years in the new World and no doubt, Ponsahr would tell her that it was so that they could hear the Good News in America. But did that same Christian God also allow the eleven million Africans who had been sold to be Arab slaves; was it so they could discover the light of Islam? Nothing that had been said, by the Christian or Islamic clerisy, had been able to explain African slavery and she knew it was because it was unexplainable. Yet, Arab and European plundered black skinned people for centuries in the name of God and Allah. And because God and Allah had not said a word against slavery, they were complicit. How could the African fight on behalf of gods that did not consider him a human being, gods of people who had seen and still more or less saw him as chattel?
There was nothing in religion.
There was a God, she believed there was a God; only He was not in religion for religion was interpretation open to reinterpretation and eventually misinterpretation and if man is wise, it should lapse into sociopolitical utility. The truth of religion had been lost and re-lost a thousand times before it ever got to Africa.
“Rick Joiner prophesied in 1990, in the United States, long before the Gulf wars and the intifadeh, that the Church would be assaulted by Islamic fundamentalism and the state would do nothing to protect the Church; barely twenty years later, what has happened? Maybe some of you here are from the Plateau? The church tried its best, warning the government before the September 9th Crisis occurred, expressing its alarm. What did the State do? When the former President, Chief Oba Shegun came here, did he not tell the Church to shut up? Did he not placate the Muslims, the Muslims who burnt our houses and our businesses?
“In the word of prophecy, there are portents that signal God’s wrath, the four horsemen, the first bears a sickle, the second bears fire, the third famine, the fourth bears death and Hades. I was in Gindiri in Plateau South when the Crisis happened, I was a pastor of a small church and in that church alone, we harbored three thousand people, we did not bother whether they were Christians or Muslims, we gave them relief from our store and the food that people gave, before the Red Cross and the humanitarian people came. People came, from Dengi and Kanem and Wase, from Yelwa, people who had walked for days, children barefoot all of them carrying and yet leaving tales of loss and trauma behind them. Women who had been raped, daughters raped and kidnapped, their husbands killed. During that crisis, we saw all these things. Sickles were used to rip open the stomachs of pregnant women, fire was set to our houses and there was famine in the land. Children died.
Rahila was listening.
“Children died, because of diarrhea and pneumonia. The wife of one of my pastors died, backache, but it was pneumonia. Muslims slaughtered Christians in the streets and burnt them in their homes. Why? Because we have not held our light up!”
The talk of the Crisis brought Rahila Pam back to the hall and her memories. She was sad that what Ponsahr intended, to rouse the faith of the people in the hall, was having a different effect on her. There was an evil in Islam that was all the more recognizable because Islam believed that man were born perfect. She had had many disputes with Faruk in the early days about what made Islam so evil and he had replied that it was not Islam, but people, individual Muslims who had been evil and done evil things. Rahila thought, if Islam had had a concept of original sin, then redemption and the necessity of grace would have imposed a certain standard of humanity on its adherents. But it did not have that and that perfection was what was twisted into an exclusionist religious prejudice. That was why when the imam said ‘go, burn and kill‘, there were few who asked ‘why?’ And distrust had festered. No one asked what all the Christians that had been killed since the beginning of religion had gained for Islam; dar al Islam had still won and lost a world.
And what of all the Muslims and Jews of Jerusalem, slaughtered during the Crusades and the succeeding centuries, what had their deaths gained for Christendom? Had it stopped the collapse of monarchies and republics under the pressure of anarchy and freedom? She realized that that evil in Islam also had its counterpart in Christianity and in time, she saw that Faruk was right, that the evil had never been with God and what He had revealed but in men and what they had interpreted, misinterpreted and practiced.
But the people in this hall, did they understand the context of their religion any more than the Muslims did? She felt depressed because at a point, she could see that what she knew and what Faruk and Nabila knew and what her father knew were merely academic, they were pitted against a whole world that did not know or chose not to know.
What use was the knowledge of theology when faced with a teenager pointing a gun at you, or dirty almajirai jerking off on girls innocent of anything save being the ‘other’ religion. For Rahila Pam, religion had made a tragedy of God.
Rahila felt Funmi tap her again and whisper, “You are not paying attention.”
She smiled and thought of her mother.
That was the evil in Mrs. Pam. And that was why Rahila had run away from her. Why did her mother want to kill Muslims merely because her daughter had fallen in love with a single Muslim boy? Why did Muslims in Kano and elsewhere in Nigeria begin killing Christians because an atheist in Denmark drew improper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed? In that fantastic leap across a gorge of remote cause and improbable effect was the incubation of evil. That was what made her head hurt and threaten to scatter her brain cells in a fine spray.
“The LORD Almighty gave this message to Zechariah: I have longed to help Jerusalem because of my deep love for her people, a love which had made me angry at her enemies. Praise the Lord!”
“Halleluiah!” the hall resounded.
“Turn once more to the chapter nine, the same book of Zechariah. Zechariah chapter nine verses twelve and thirteen. Somebody please read for us.”
“return, you exiles who now have hope;
return to your place of safety.
I tell you now, I will repay you twice over
with blessing for all you have suffered.
I will use Judah like a soldier’s bow
and Israel like arrows.
I will use the men of Zion like a sword
to fight the men of Greece.”
“Thank you. History is replaying itself and when we ask, why are the Muslims pressing us so hardly on all sides? Why are the enemies of our religion and faith overpowering us and rendering those of our women and children fatherless and husbandless, those they have not killed? And we must answer ourselves that Israel’s restoration, the restoration of the Church, is at hand. We must bear our persecutions with joy, as the apostle James tells us in James chapter one. Why this joy? Because of His love, Jehovah’s love for us, his deep love . . .”
This was her message.
She did not know of Ahmed Anwar and the message he had given to the people of Bolewa a decade before she was born, a message that had maddened them to bloodshed and she did not know of that same message which Usman the Waziri’s son had given the Muslims of Bolewa which made them bring out swords and machetes, but she knew that in Ponsahr’s words there was a message for her.
It was about her and Faruk.
Love was the restoration.
The girls returned to Rahila’s room. Her roommate, Evangeline, was as usual out. Rahila had a cool relationship with the plain Igbo girl who considered her too exotic. Evangeline was small and had the unfortunate aspect of serrated teeth with spaces between them and she could not stand what she saw as the perfection of her roommate, she lived every minute in the torment of a snub which never came because she had taken herself far out of the orbit of Rahila’s gambits to companionship. Every night Evangeline came back to the room and kept Rahila up for hours with her snoring, in a way and without knowing it, getting her own back. This lack of sleep had been more than anything else responsible for the leanness Sekyen had complained of in her friend yet Rahila bore it with calmness because she suspected that the diminutive Igbo girl did not know she snored and might take it badly if she told her that. There was no medicine for that particular condition that she knew of so why torment the poor, aloof girl?
The draftiness of their relations Rahila merely put down to yet another manifestation of girls at war, that inevitable friction that comes up almost as if ordained by God between some women.
They girls lay on Rahila’s bed. Rahila lay in the center of the eight-spring bed with her knees folded up into her bosom while Funmi lay at the end of the bed where Rahila’s feet would have been, forming an imperfect T.
“Tell me, how did you become a socialist?” asked Funmi.
“What a strange thing to say. What makes you think I am a socialist?”
“It’s in your manner, I’ve been observing you. I think you are a socialist but I can’t understand why.”
Rahila had met Funmi during her first week at Barkin Ladi. The theological school was located at the foot of two mountains called Pwamadi and Pwambodi, giving it an out-of-this-world, picture perfect backdrop. The backdrop had been the main reason why the Fathers’ had built at the spot they did, discarding or simply being ignorant of the especially harsh hamartan that the view exacted during the cold season. Yet, it was superb. After having come up the steep inclines of the plateau itself and reaching flat savannah lands, it was a splendid sight to see two mountains standing as if out of nowhere in austere majesty just before you, one thought immediately of God. From the front of the school stretched acres and acres of savannah, dry at this time of the year and thus giving the single lane road that wound through it from Barkin Ladi Town itself the look of a twisting, tormented, grey snake. The gate lay somewhere canceled in this grassland, marked only by two posts standing starkly on either side of the macadamized road, its gates having rusted and fallen away decades earlier. What use were gates when you sought to keep no one in, or out?
Yet, about five hundred meters behind the buildings and up the sides of Pwamadi was a thin ring of woodland that had caught Rahila’s attention from the very first day. On the day she met Funmi, she had settled down into the daily routine enough to brave out to this woodland out of curiosity and boredom for while many of the girls and young men were nice to her, she had not made any friends.
The first thing she noticed was that the timber had been logged before, for she found the stumps of trees that had been cut down earlier. It was a beautiful place of green with birds still chirruping in the coolness of the trees even though it was eleven a.m. in the morning. Rahila was enchanted and she felt she should steal a few minutes each day just to come up here and seat and contemplate. She still had not figured out whether she wanted to return to her mother or whether she would leave her for good. Rahila Pam had sat down on a log left there for a long time, listening to the many sounds of insects, birds and the very fauna of Mount Pwamadi, savoring this manifestation of her sylvan template and remembering the many weekends she had spent as a child at her father’s village in Du District just outside Bukuru Town. She was still absorbed in her reverie when she picked up an unusual strain in the air and realizing she was not alone, she was for a minute afraid before deciding to find out who it was since there could be no spirits haunting that specific grove.
The sound turned out to be sniffling and the sniffler was a girl wearing the white jumper uniform of the theological school, sitting alone on a similar log to the one Rahila had just left. She was very light skinned and buxom, the two most arresting things about her, and she wore glasses. She sat there amidst the efflorescence of nature and its greenness and life with her feet stretched before her and Rahila saw that this girl, who could have been a dryad, was weeping.
Rahila was touched by a sadness in another that rivaled hers.
Rahila shifted and a twig she stepped on cackled and protested her disturbance.
“Hi”, she said simply.
The girl looked up and quickly looked away in a too late bid to hide her tears, saying a muffled “Hi” before thinking the better of it.
“Hello”, Rahila tried again.
This time the girl smiled and it was beautiful smile, like Nabila’s smile, “Hello”, she replied in a soft and unsure yet mellisonant voice that Rahila found as pleasing to her as the song of the little keneri birds in the trees all around them. Rahila smiled a tentative smile to find out if the girl wanted to be left alone or if she, like herself, was looking for a companion.
“You mind if I sit with you?”
“I don’t. So long as you don’t ask me why I was crying.”
“I wont.” Rahila said. She took her sit beside the light skinned fully bosomed girl.
“What’s your name?”
“I am Rahila.”
“I’ve seen you down there” she said, pointing roughly to the school buildings that were hidden by the trees, “You are very beautiful.”
Rahila was taken aback, surprised, because no girl had ever told her she was beautiful before. She knew feminity had its own call, its own rituals and rites of do’s and don’ts and yet here for the first time was feminity defying what was feminine and in doing that asserting the fickle, which for her, was the hallmark of being a woman. Her thoughts flittingly went to questions of sexuality and came back to how fine it was to be complimented by another woman, whatever it meant, the gesture of it was definitive and consequential. And there was grief in the intelligence of the eyes that complimented her.
“Thank you. You are a very beautiful girl also.”
They left that grove with the bond of friendship between them for they both, sufferers by choice and by circumstance, needed someone to help them stand and it was their fate to have each other.
“How do you mean ‘why’? Are you asking why I think, for if I am a socialist, as you say, them the why is obvious, ko?”
“You seem too intelligent to be a socialist. Socialism collapsed over a decade ago, how could you still hold on to a dead creed?”
“Hmm, I don’t understand what you are saying. But then, what is socialism to you?”
“The belief that people can be good by themselves.”
“And you don’t believe that?”
“No, I don’t. Only God make people good. Only faith.”
“Only when they are bribed with salvation and paradise?”
“You speak as if you do not believe in God.”
“I do. My disbelief is reserved only for religion.”
“It’s the same thing.”
They were silent for a while. This was the first time they had spoken of ideology and issues that bordered on the personal.
“For me, socialism is quite like you have said it. The belief that people can be good, that they can aspire for better things, a better life. But for me it is not an exclusive economic stricture. That’s why it collapsed in Russia and elsewhere, I don’t think it was ever meant to be an economic revolution.”
“It’s social. A way of thinking, that each man should do as much as he can because that is for his own self-satisfaction and that each man should have all the tools he need for self-realization. My type of socialism is one that everyone keeps on aspiring, for the common good.”
“Why should they?”
“Because they will all perish if they don’t.”
They heard the rise and fall of feet passing through the corridor outside the door and each of them wondered where their conversation was going. For two weeks they had been content merely to skate the surface of their bond, content merely to observe the bark of it, yet this conversation was leading to a peeling away and an unmasking and with that the pleasance of acceptance or the bitter draught of non-acceptance.
“I come from here in the North Central State and without socialism, we will lose our identity, I would lose my identity. You are from the South West and your people are homogeneous and you have no fear of losing your identity. But we, our very identities are at stake.”
“And who are you fighting against?”
“The same Nigeria you are fighting for?”
“You are not making sense.”
“Look at it this way. The North Central contains about nine tribes that number over five million people and if we do not find a common identity for ourselves, I see the region Balkanizing itself into as many parts. And that is not to mention a surfeit of minor minorities. How will these states stack out against the sheer numbers, in excess of thirty millions each, of the Yoruba, the Hausa and the Ibos? If the North Central State is fragmented, it will only be the beginning of the dismantling of Nigeria. So while I am fighting against Nigeria, the peculiar Nigeria that narrows definition down to the exclusive terms of the religious or the political in order to shout state creation and marginalization, you can say I am fighting against Nigeria. But when you consider the result of my system of belief, that of a unified Nigeria comprising six distinct nationalities in a confederation of equals, you will see that I am fighting for Nigeria.”
“How does your socialism fit into this?”
“I have not said I am a socialist, I am merely using your own word. I have never read Marx and maybe I never will but I am aware that what I intend is similar to his concept. My socialism has to do with the reinterpretation of history. There are four major historical currents amongst the northern minorities; there is the Nupe-Gwari current, the Plateau current, the Jukun-Chamba current and the Igala current. These coincide with pre-colonial and pre-jihad power centers and the whole of the region is an interaction between these currents. These currents, over the years, have crystallized into a certain outlook which is conservative yet outward looking, religion or culture or language had never been as important in the North Central as in the other regions of Nigeria until recently. Every region, especially your own Yoruba, see their identity in terms of language, pure and simple, the Igbo use the same matrix. The North West and the Northeast see themselves in terms of religion, of Islam but the North Central has too many languages, too many religions and the combustion of this makes it cosmopolitan. I want the cosmopolitan nature of the North Central Nigeria to remain harmonious in the face of the onslaught of disintegrating forces.
“So, we must go and create a new Nigerian history beginning in the North Central, for it was here, on the hills of this plateau on which we stand, by the banks of the Niger that has its confluence here that the autochthonous people of Nigeria emerged. We must trace our history, a convenient, revised history, from that point on and relegate the Jihad and British Colonialism to its rightful place at the tail end of the history of my people.”
“You want to brainwash people?”
“But you can only brainwash when there is something on the brain to be washed! Can’t you see that Nigeria and Nigerians have no sense of history? And history is the greatest tool, the only tool, if we are to remain together as a nation.”
“But you will be telling lies!”
“No. History is convenient truth.”
Funmi sighed and was silent, digesting all that Rahila had said and the nuance of her intellectual audacity. It was madness only because it was an ideal in a field where ideals could not grow. To rewrite Nigerian History, that would be the best thing to ever happen to the country, greater even than Independence. But how possible was that? Yet, her friend with the pale brown skin spoke as if she knew personally the moral, physical and intellectual heft of the disintegrating pressure, as if she had already tested the waters; was that why she was here?
“I understand you now. But I do not think your plan can be translated into real terms. I have seen more of the underbelly of this country than you have and I know that the same people, the same future you are fighting for, will be the same one that will kick against you every step of the way.”
“What does that matter if I try my best and keep trying?”
“My mother was not a very strong woman. But she was beautiful, and proud.”
“She gave you beauty, I know she must have been a beautiful woman. Where is she now?”
“My father used to be in the Civil Service, he was a permanent secretary.”
Rahila kept silent for she had detected a cadence in Funmi’s voice, she did not look her way for she feared that that might break the moment and make her friend withdraw what she thirsted to say back into her shell from where she could snatch it out and cry over it, as she had been doing on the day they met.
“Then the old General died and General Abdulkarim put together a transition to civil rule program. They came to our house in Ibadan many times to see my father, to have meetings. Sometimes, they met him at my mother’s house.”
“They did not live together?”
“No. My mother was a kept woman; she was not my father’s wife. She had a house, her own house that he had bought for her when I was born, where my brother and I lived. And he came all the time. I loved him very much. He used to carry me all around the place, to parties, calling me his girlfriend. I was just fifteen then and I loved him very much.”
“It was politics. They wanted him to contest for a senatorial seat. He did not want to, at first. Then he relented, because of the pressure from the village and the political party, he was the most accomplished person in that part of the South West, degrees from all over the place, US and Europe. A gentleman. One day, weeks to the election, he died. He died in my mother’s house, in her arms, in the eyes of my brother and I. He said he had a headache, that something was pounding in his head, he was sweating, and then he was dead.
Later on, a cousin of his ran mad, saying he was the one who killed my father.”
“They took everything away from my mother. All my father’s things, excepting the house because it had been bought in her name. He did not have a will and my stepmother despised us, because she was barren and my mother had a boy, Ranti, and me for my father. Even her boutique; one day, my father’s relatives came and took away everything, all the laces and things, took them away. My mother suffered, we suffered, and a crisis of the spirit had taken hold of us all. Things became harder, my brother was in his final year and I was in my first year studying History at the University of Lagos. Soon, all her jewelry was sold. My brother could not find a job. All we had was that little house, and our memories.”
“She got more and more tired. She got a job as a secretary, just so she could get something every month. But she was always so worn out and it seemed as if my mother who had always been beautiful, was aging before our very eyes, each minute, each day. It was her heart; her spirit was in throes unimaginable. Her husband was dead and his children faced an uncertain future.”
“Then in the midst of it all, my father’s brother, his younger brother came to visit us. He worked for an oil company in Lagos. Something made him come to visit us that day, and he stayed the night. The next morning, he said he would take care of my schooling if that was okay with my mother. I could live at his place on the Island. He had a wife and a seven-year-old son, she was having problems conceiving, many women in my father’s family have trouble conceiving. He said he would take me in. We were overjoyed, my mother and I, my brother had left to look for work in Port Harcourt where my father still had friends who could assist, for his memory. So it was decided that I should go move in with his family when the new semester began.”
Tragic recall is the syncretism of unhappy kernels of memory in an attempt to probe and understand where all the nuance and inflection that gave meaning before its moment suddenly disappeared to, as if they had never been there. Tragic recall is the aftermath of a storm, when men come out and try to reconcile the high color beauty of the brown fields, the green trees and the very sprightliness in the air with the reality of ruined buildings and lost livelihoods. It lies at the beginning of the process of answering the question ‘why?’ - the only Question really- and the same one Rahila had been asking all her life and Funmi had only in the past months begun to ask. At such moments, solidarity is shown only in unquiet eyes and silent lips.
“I lived with him for a year. He was unhappy with his life. Soon, I felt uncomfortable; something had come into his eyes when he looked at me. But he was paying my fees, I asked to move out to a place nearer my school and his wife agreed and told him. He was fine with the idea. He got me a room in a 2-bedroom house just ten minutes away from the University; I was in my second year then. Then he started coming around, to say hello and check up on me. Soon, his hugs held on for longer that necessary. But he was paying my fees, he gave me a generous allowance, what could I do? He started touching me one day, his hand grazing over my buttocks. I told him off, I begged him off, he said he was sorry but that he loved me, desired me but that he knew it was wrong and I should forgive him. He did not come to see me for a long time and I stayed away from the house at the times I knew he would be around. But he still sent my allowance every fortnight. Then one day, last year, he just came and raped me”, she sucked in a deep aspiration of air and Rahila could hear the tears in her voice, the sniffling tears of the day they had met, “He raped me. And I ran away from school. He raped me because I was beautiful and I cannot forgive myself for the humiliation of my beauty. So I came here.”
A thousand thoughts swirled in the mind of Rahila Pam. So this was Funmi’s story? She remembered the days of the September crisis and how that unspoken fear had suffused the female hostels, hovering in the eye of every girl in the long hours when they were unsure and afraid. And the stories of suicides after everything settled down, the girls who had braved their way home; some died, some killed themselves.
An uncle. Yet, the girl was still here, she was irresolute and did not know what to do, but she had not killed herself. Rahila wondered what she would do if she were raped, would she have the strength of this girl? How does one live after such an experience, to become a receptacle, to be used as a thing? Her own troubles mellowed down, her slowly increasing resolve seemed petty beside the dreadful tears of this girl and the horrible burden that had been inflicted on her. She wondered what twist of fate it was that girls such as Funmi and Nabila kept reaching out to she who did not have even a quarter of their strength, she who needed also to be strong. Outside the windows she knew that Pwamadi and Pwambodi were listening to her thoughts and the light, proud sobs of Funmi Boyega who had bared her soul to her.
Rahila pivoted around on her hips and came around with her back to the wall beside Funmi’s folded feet. Funmi was still looking away from her when she reached out and held the girl under her right arm and pulled her head unto her laps, bending over, her hair falling all over Funmi’s face, stroking her face, wiping the tears on that beautiful yellow skin away, feeling a curious communion with this afflicted epitome of downtrodden feminity.
“You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met because you are strong, much stronger than you know. You are the hills of the plateau, something that transcends time because it was there when time was born. You are one with me and these hills, and water and all things natural, for we are women and we are the mother’s of men and of the whole world. Sometimes, men get out of their ken and make a mess of things, playing soldier or beast, bolstering egos that uncover the triviality of their spirits, and they try to drag us down with them. But they cannot, because we were here before they were, we nurse them, we suckle them and we tell them ‘enough of your tomfoolery, be done and gone’ and they have to leave because a woman’s spirit is stronger than a man’s. But sometimes, we forget this. Do not let yourself fall to ruins because of this man, Funmi, rise above this. You are strong enough to.”
Funmi listened, because there was an modulation in Rahila’s voice that she had never heard before, it sounded like the voice of an ancient oracle, something out of this world. Rahila could not hear herself and she would have been surprised at the tone of her voice if she had heard it. It seemed as if time had stopped still for the two girls, transfixed in their healing. The things Rahila’s voice said was the affirmation of feminity and its strength, the strength that bore the children in the womb and on the back, which planted the acha in the fields and harvested it, which loved and desired and was betrayed yet remained sensitive and resilient in the face of male contrariness.
It was a man’s world and males had created that world in their image, one of violence and ego and arrogance and the only thing that kept the earth going around the sun was that the entire Creation, the universe in its entire entirety, was female, restraining the excess of men. And women were temporal embodiments of that celestial feminity with all its power and character. That was why when men furrow fields with guns, women sow grain for children; that was why women could love completely and men only imperfectly.
“I think its time for us to stretch out our hands to the sun of our past, to will it back into our everyday. That power that our grandmothers had, we must reclaim it uncorrupted and have it acknowledged by the world of men. We must stop running. By running, we betray the fight by not being on the field of battle, under the standard of our essentiality. Both of us have run away from a conflict subsisting from long before we were born, that of the woman against the man, of sensitivity against the chill of ego and logic, of the intuition of truth trying to break out of the tablecloth of suppressive roles and bigotries. Why must we stop running? It is because the forces against us, men, the society, they would ruin themselves and us with them if they are left to their own devices.”
Funmi kept silent, soaking in the words of Rahila Pam like a sponge and feeling a strength seeping into her veins from the clarity of the others oracular words, feeling for the first time that she had no reason to begrudge herself her beauty, that beauty could not be an accusation made against her and one she should not make against herself. Funmi felt as if a wind had taken hold of her and lifted her high up above the clouds, above the smiling brows of Pwamadi and Pwambodi and she felt like a bird, an eagle, flying high above her uncle and her father’s relatives who had tried to suppress her inevitable impress.
“I wondered just yesterday, why I came here, to a Church, when the pressure of the reality of my life and ideal of my destiny overwhelmed me. Innocent people, blameless without fault, died because of a woman who loved me in her own unique but twisted way and I could not accept the love that had turned so tormented and hideous. So I ran. I am in love, intuitively, with a man who my society contemns not because of his character but because we both are in love, something that they cannot feel anymore under the long compacted layers of sensible dust. So I tried to deny that love and ran away. You are the most beautiful girl I know, with the most beautiful soul and the most intelligent, perceptive mind; you were raped and you too have run away. Yet, Funmi, we have all run here. Why? Because God is a woman, religion is a man but God is feminine. And here, you were waiting for me, I was fated to meet you and now we are rejuvenated and strong again, strong enough to go out and face what awaits us, to do what we must do, to shine like a sunrise meant to be.”
Just then, the bell for lunch went off and broke the symmetry of their silences, yet, though aware of the world outside the door, of shuffling feet and seeking, they remained for a moment with the awareness of a new world within themselves, the world of a lighthouse looking calmly out into the tempest with the impeccable resolution of mountains and the placidity of the breeze.
“Lets go and eat,” Funmi said.
“You will go back to you mother and your schooling?”
They were soul sisters, joining the countless others each day who found the strength to keep holding out against the odds of the society and their doubts. Funmi stood up, out of Rahila’s arms and touched her friends hair, stroking it down the side of her face and packing it back behind her ears and smiling.
“I will,” she said “It’s my ironclad and my forte”
Faruk Ibrahim lay on the cream-white sofa in Yagana Hussena’s veranda garden of potted plants with one leg trailing on the ground and the other, still in his shoes, set on the armrest. He wore a striped blue shirt without a tie tucked into his black trousers, belt and the top of black stockings peeked over his formal shoes of the same color. Placed on his chest was an old copy of ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’, V.S. Naipaul’s book from 1968 in that for off time before Nobel and knighthood. V.S. Naipaul, before his talent for the beautiful turn of phrase had become the bitter cynicism of an inadequate man. He had been reading the book for over a year, he read a bit of it each time he came to ‘ya Hussena’s house and he was already three quarters through when he left for Bolewa six months earlier.
“Habib”, Hussena called from somewhere in the house,
“Na’am” he replied
“Are you comfortable sitting out there?”
“Yes I am yaya”
“Okay. Give a few minutes to put something together for you. You look so lean I wonder if you are not on a hunger strike or something.”
He smiled. ”Haba, yaya, hunger strike kuma? Nobody goes on hunger strike in Nigeria anymore.”
But she had not heard him and he returned to his thoughts.
The verandah was warm and comfy, really a greenhouse with thick glass walls all around that kept the heat in without obscuring the view of the yard where his car and Hussena’s red Toyota Starlet were parked in a garage area framed out of cultured prefect bushes. It was not a large yard but it was full of his aunt’s devotions, it was a beautiful view from the verandah, a simple slope of lively green St. Augustine’s crabgrass, the prefect bush and many ornamental palms spaced about every two meters inside the compound on either side of the gate. There was an open air hut built of untreated logs for the occasional birthday party of Yagana Hussena’s many adopted ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’, children of friends who loved her as much as their own mothers. It was a house as familiar to him as his father’s ranch in Vom-Bukuru.
He had been in Jos two weeks then and had already pieced together the entire story of his mother’s liaisons with Usman Waziri and Ahmed Anwar from the accounts of his father and Rose Dakyen. He had already been to see Hussena and she had confirmed most of the story, the parts that she knew, the early parts and the apocryphal.
“It started on a Friday, after juma’at prayers not long after the two returned from their exile. I think it was sometime in the second months after. Usman had become a preacher, he had a reputation from his journeys, respected men of religion had tutored him and the ulama or Bolewa and Borno took to him easily. Usman preached that day. I was there, I don’t know if you went to the mosque at Bolewa wile you were there.
“The late ones trooped in to join the rest at prayer. In the mosque, the imam called on an erudite scholar to lead in the reading of the Qur’an. It was Usman. Usman was dressed in a white muslin gown and assisted by two young boys who carried his books as he walked to the central rug and took his seat in the squat of true pious. He seemed very young but there was an ascetic aspect had come about him, he seemed to have balls of fire in his eyes.
“ ‘In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Beneficent. . . . .’, he started,
“Aah, Faruk! The faithful were roused. Never in all their lives had they heard the book of Allah so well expounded. In his cool intellectual voice, Usman stoked their hearts with so much passion to do what he had construed to be the will of Allah. It was a sermon the merchants and artisans had always wanted to hear, the men of trade who would do anything to increase their profits, to eliminate business rivals even in the name of God. Usman had confirmed it. He had become a talented exegesist and he interpreted copious verses in Koran. Even I, for a while, was caught in the web of his profound exegesis, until I realized what he was doing and the horror of it gripped me completely. The portents were too strong, the point of no return had been crossed and I wept for your mother, that she would cause this madness in the Waziri’s son, that he would set salt on the land of his father’s.
“Usman gave his benediction. It was in the way he spoke, with an infectious calmness that cut and seeped into the heart, like rain seeping into the crevices of rocks, splitting it when the time came around. It was concealed in his voice - that thing that maddened the faithful in Bolewa that day and accentuated the grievances of the past leading them to the point from which return was impossible.
“May Allah never give you rest until you have perfected his will, may Allah wreak death and destruction upon the troublesome ahl al kitab!”
“Across the expanse of the praying ground and mosque, Faruk, the air was taut and reverberated as 40,000 ummah who could carry steel said, with steel in their voices and from their very souls, they said in a shout.
‘Amin. Amin. Amin. Amin!’
The tensions began then, it was like the way they say labor pains are, Bolewa wrenched and twisted in the spasmodic fortnight prelude to violence.”
Yagana Hussena had paused at this point in her story, recalling no doubt the terrible day of reckoning that his father had described so vividly to him. The sheep running about, the women, and the assorted death that hung in the air.
“Two weeks later, on a Sunday, a scholar of no less repute mounted the pulpit of the largest cathedral in Bolewa. It was Ahmed. There had been a lot of excitement about him. A fine Arab man who had become a Christian. Ahmed had studied theology and catholic history extensively under the tutelage of Francis Cardinal Giovanni. He had also studied deeply in the secular history of the Middle East in the last millennium. He had lectured at the highly revered Erasmus University in Rotterdam. When he mounted the pulpit that cold harmatany morning, he had the eager ears of the entire congregation. His voice was like a crystal sea, smooth and calm and deep. He selected his text and told them. He told them many things. He told them things they had never known. When he had finished telling them everyone was caught in the thrall of silent rapture. From the senile old parishioners to the priests to the women and the children. All knew what their duty was. He told them the same things Usman had told the ummah days earlier.
“ ‘May our lord Jesus never give you rest until you have perfected his will in your society as the Jews did in Canaan. .May the lord wreak death and destruction on our foes for ours is the victory. If we must die, let it not be like hogs slaughtered in a shed, we must claim our field. God be with you.’
“Faruk, wallahi I am telling you how it happened, I was not in the church but I was, I felt the tremor of it. What Ahmed Anwar had told them was repeated long after the evil jinn had left and calm had returned to Bolewa. Faruk, I tell you, the massive cathedral shook from its beams to its foundations with the reverberations of repeated chants of AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!’
There was a pellucid madness in their eyes of the Christians of Bolewa that day.”
Later on, when Faruk remembered the incident with Dije, he had asked.
“Yaya, do you know a Dije? From back then?”
Yagana Hussena had paused awhile then smiled.
“You met her?”
“Yes, she was teaching at the Government school.”
“She was very beautiful. We were friends for a while. One day we were talking and she asked about my parents and I told her, from then she became guarded in her manner and I withdrew. I thought, maybe she too, has a part of the story. But I could not regain our earlier familiarity, so I did not ask her. We hardly talked even.”
Hussena’s hair was growing grey though she too was aging gracefully; she had been older than Ummi and his father, older even than General Hassan. Yet, sometimes, as it was with old people, the words of the young and beloved such as Faruk was to her are triggers to memories of their own youth when they had been beautiful and earnestly believed that they could reach out and grab hold of the sun.
The mention of Dije had elicited such a recourse through memory and the relevant facts upon recall brought a smile of hindsight to her face, not because the memory was particularly pleasing to her but because she realized once again how much all they, in their beauty and in their character, were bound in the mind of fate, a fate that had bequeathed a tragedy she now recognized was turning full circle into the legacy of Bolewa.
“Yes,” she said, “Dije was very beautiful”
Yagana Hussena remembered the shy, beautifully budding girl and she wondered how she was and she thought that perhaps in the aftermath of Faruk’s return she too should visit Bolewa and maybe move there.
“She was about Ummi al-Qassim’s age, her father was Margi while her mother was a Shuwa woman from across the border. She was madly in love with Ahmed Anwar, but he, in turn, only had eyes for your mother. She was your mother’s rival and she too is a scion and a victim of our shared history. Many times, I have thought what would have happened if Ahmed had taken her when he returned, how different the variation would have been.”
Faruk picked up the book and was just about to continue reading when Yagana Hussena and her house girl, Zara, came into the verandah, bearing trays of food. The smell of couscous, pancakes and pepper-meat sauce filled the warm air, inducing a rumble of appetite in Faruk’s stomach.
“Come, my darling”, she said, sitting on the sofa just as Faruk folded himself upright, “Come and eat with me.”
Zara, a saucy little girl of about fifteen, had already drawn a long table of woven raffia leaves in front of Yagana Hussena and Faruk and was arranging the trays in front of them. Then she went out and presently returned with blue plastic bowl and hand washing water in a jug.
They sat and ate.
“Your girl. What do you intend to do now, you say she has left the city?”
“Yes. I’ll find her, I know exactly where she is.”
Yagana beamed at this. “And you love her still? What are you waiting for?”
“The right moment,” he replied.
But she still wanted to test him.
“How will you know when that moment will be?”
It was his turn to smile and he enjoyed it, her unspoken support for the course of action he was going to take, so he made her wait, rolling up a pancake, dipping it in the spicy sauce, chewing and swallowing before he answered her.
“My heart will tell me.”
A week later a red taxi drew up at the end of the long drive in front of the Bible School at Barkin Ladi, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. It was a late model Peugeot 206 with black tinted glasses and the sticker “I Am a Winner” placed right in the center of the windscreen. It was just about ten a.m.
Faruk, kitted for the morning chill in blue jeans and a dark brown College sweater, stepped out of the car and walked a few steps, stopping to ask directions from a girl before walking up the short flight of six steps into the administrative building of the school.
He opened the door and Rahila was standing right there in front of him.
Beside her was a plump light skinned girl, behind them were about twenty people crammed in the narrow room. An elderly woman sat on a desk in the center of the room.
Faruk Ibrahim felt as if he had moved one step forward to claim some of the space between them. Rahila, her face alight with a grin, felt as if she had taken a step forward to be closer to her man. Yet, there was a persisting spell of silence in the room as everyone participated and watched. No one, not Faruk nor Rahila, had moved so much as a breath.
Then Faruk’s twenty-five years and Rahila Pam’s twenty-one years canceled themselves out when the distance of six months erased itself in the presence of an attraction that transcended culture and religion and politics, that rose so high and clung so close without a breath in between it, one that reached past the summits of the twin mountains of Barkin-Ladi, the Vom-Bukuru mountains and the mountains of Du District, the plateau itself and from that height it surveyed a Nigeria that was so perfect and auspicious in its beauty that it burned the eyes just to see it.
Tear fell down the eyes of the old matron as she looked on at the two young people caught in the force of silent embrace.
“I was just leaving”, Rahila said again and again through her sobs, her head burrowed in his chest, her face pressed close to his, their hearts beating together in synergy, she repeated it again and again. Faruk held her as close as his skin cleft to his body, stroking her hair, his eyes set so they might not betray him, stroking the silken strands of the hair of a woman, of Ummi al-Qassim, of Rahila Pam, that had nursed and nurtured him from his first breath and through the portentous expedition of his self-discovery.
“I know”, he said simply, “I know.”
Only then did the room heave a sigh, taking its first draft of air since the young man in the brown sweater had entered the room and broken up their send-forth effort so dramatically.
There was a love that withstood in that room that day and they all felt a part of it, keeping it in pieces in their minds forever.
Continued next week...