The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Antebellum: Layers of Dust
The mountains of the Jos plateau assume a hylic aura that is at once spiritual and sanctified, reminiscent of childhood celestial dreams. An unspoiled defiance lingers about them and the very sound made by the hamartan season breeze rustling past their amiable solidity whistles out a long forgot song familiar only to native ears.
The girl in the orange tee shirt with her hair packed in a bun above her head believed she could hear that celestial poetry and that she lived her life according to its oracle. Not for her tales of the wise owl or elves or pillars of fire seen at night, not for her the traditions of aljanu haunting the riverbanks. For her it was always the mountains of her native land, aged, enchanted and steeped in wisdom. Even at those times when the gods of her people had not protected them, the mountains had proved beneficent, first from wild primeval beasts and then from the horsemen of the Fodio jihad. And now the mountains had formed themselves into a cusp within which she and her people could live in peace, bothering no one, caring nothing of politics and empire save each man his own portion of earth, the strength to till it and beer to help bear the fortitude of the seasons.
Yet hard by her idyllic imaginings was the reality of encroachment, of yellow bulldozers burrowing stealthily into her mountains like a virus or a parasite, leaving nothing, or worse, an emptiness, where the resilient heart of mountains once beat and tempered the pride of summated crests. The fools said it was development, the damned did not even realize it. They needed to take away the peoples land and their identity in order to build acceptable suburban housing projects. Why did they try to strike at the spirit of people, why did people bare their souls to so fatal a blow? It was her opinion that the only thing worth dying for was ones identity and she thought of identity in an all-encompassing cultural sense.
Now they were at it again, new ones. Parasites. In the First republic, the mountains were drawn into a "monolithic north", from then on, the parasites in Lagos, then Abuja, never grew tired of minting new misnomers to include a people who did not seek to be so included, who desired merely to be left alone. Pray, what does "north-central" mean on a compass? Then it was a constitutional conference and a "government of national unity". Thank God, the coup had put paid to all that silliness. But, the parasites were still there, she knew, bidding their time. They would be back. She knew that.
Rahila sighed and looked up from her notebook and the newspaper essay she was writing a week behind schedule. Her head hurt. She lightly touched her temple and ran her fingers through her long jet-black hair, removing and replacing the brown hair comb holding her bun in place. Her thought always ran this peculiar circus, flowing into each other, sprouting from each other, making her head hurt with the sheer dialectic of exertion. She sighed again and bent her slender arm, fitting her palm under her cheek. She had a pleasing but unusual complexion, the light brown color of a cardboard carton, yet her hair was dark in a hue as rich as the night sky. Her lively eyes had a melanin rich glow like dark polished pearls that turned the curiosity that normally met her complexion into haunted fascination. She had an unintended indescribable effect of endless appeal on most people and there never came to any who knew her that anticlimax that dogs familiarity. She was slim, a little over five feet five and twenty-one, that bus stop age for young girls when the possibility of living still exists and when the chance of slow death from a settled drudgery was starkly nearby.
She was keenly aware of both.
The classroom was deserted and save the noisy whirr of ceiling fans, the only sound heard was the slow escape of her breath. On the walls was an assortment of dusty charts acquired by the university over a decade before during a half-hearted bid to incorporate visual aids into the school curriculum. Like too many other policies, the whitened skeletons of which adorned the academic nooks and crannies of the University of Jos, it had been doomed to fail from its birth. A jade had long entered the minds of the dons and so long as it was firmly rooted there and replicating itself nothing done could escape a fall into an inconclusive hubris of contrariness and hypocrisy. Her eyes took in the cobwebs that formed distinctly Nigerian patterns at the corners of the ceilings and the numerous nests that generations of wasps had made undisturbed, all in harmony with the nation’s finest with which they shared the building. She always noticed things such as that.
Now her essay was ruined by this impulsive habitude of writing her thoughts so long as she had a pen in her hand and paper. She read it and saw that the last three paragraphs had to be excised for they had nothing to do with her article on Southeastern Nigeria in the period 1920 to 1960. Pah!
She gathered the loose leaves of foolscap sheets into her blue plastic file, which went into her little brown knapsack. Minutes later she walked down the Freedom Square, it was a little past five p.m. and students had started congregating at those spots where there would be music and the possibility of that noisy palaver they alone were capable of. As she passed, many male eyes sought to discover what made her symmetry so perfect, so much so that lost in their euphoric cocoon of wonder, she embarrassed them with a pert quizzical smile. She loved to see such rude ones as these squirm. Other students shouted their hellos and a couple of times she had to stop for more elaborate salutes. It is the price of my one escapade, she thought, my sole sin of prostitution.
She had to pay for having cheapened herself so much as to contest a Student’s Union post, yet, it tired her, this aimless sitting up to talk of what was talked of yesterday and the day before. However, sometimes, she wondered whether there had been a part of her growing up she had skipped and somehow missed. How was it she found no pleasure in drifting? She said her hellos in turn and escaped as soon as she could to the main gate where she took a campus taxi to Naraguta hostel where she lived.
It was a cool evening; her fingers and exposed arm were getting numb though she gathered unqualified warmth from the plateau top chill. She could not help it and wondered how anyone could live in such an oven of a town as Makurdi, or Maiduguri. She was sure the heat fiddled with the brains and she believed some scientist would prove soon that people who lived in cooler climates were better off, in terms of culture and intellect, than those not endowed with so beneficent a climate. She was aware of the vague racist underlining of her thoughts and dispelled it with a smile at the very thought.
Rahila Weng Pam made her way up the deserted stairwell to her room where she put on the television, kicked off her shoes and flopped on the bed in one fluid motion. She felt the vague stirring of hunger while fighting the lethargy that invisibly glued her to the mattress on which she reclined; her losing fight was interrupted by the zany ringing of her mobile phone. Ah. Its mother, she thought indifferently.
"Hello", she said, flipping open the mobile phone and placing it gingerly on her left earlobe, "Hello mother"
"Hello" said her mother’s voice, sounding scratchy through the speakers, yet, she always noticed, it was a strong voice, with a tone in it that would not have been out of place on a parade ground, like the voice of that soft spoken Quartermaster she knew at the 3 Army Div, who had a reputation for unfeeling discipline amongst his men. She thought how the voice fitted the woman so well, how from a voice, one can like with a glance tell the story of a persons life and the deeds they have done. Her mother, she could not say if she loved her mother or not and these thoughts coursed through her mind when the voice interrupted, "Can you hear me? Hello?"
"Yes, mother, I can hear you. How are you doing?"
"Ahn ahn!" the older woman said in a disapproving cadence that made it clear this call was not entire out of love, or care either. "Where are you?” The daughter immediately caught the anger in her mother’s voice and a smile flourished on her face even as she too got her replies ready in a tone that would meet the others.
With her mother, it was always politics; an inch given was lost forever.
"Where else, mother mine, if not where you sent me. I am in school"
"Listen girl. . ."
"How is Abba?"
"Fine, fine. Listen. . . "
"And how is the business of politics?"
"Fine", the other snapped, and almost shouted, “Girl, what sin did I commit against you that you so wish to make my life miserable?"
Rahila smiled again and felt a flitting happiness, so this was what this was about. "Haba mother mine, why would I do that? I am in school like the obedient girl that I am. Surely I have not been up to any mischief?"
On the other end of the line sat a woman in her early fifties and though she sat in a soft comfortable camel brown leather settee, comfort was the last thing she felt. She rather felt as if the long expected heart attack or something worse could come for her at any moment. She agonied as to what sin of hers made God give her such a complication as Rahila for a daughter. She had always been a good member of the church, was it not normal for her to expect blessings in return? However, Rahila, her second child and her only daughter was described best as a series of inopportune surprises. Selfish and self centered; where had she gone wrong? The girl meant to kill her; she knew that, but why? A fortnight ago she had wanted to marry some Muslim and now this abominable demonstration, abducting the Vice Chancellor and embarrassing a Cabinet member, hah! What could a mother do?
"Rahila, I did not send you to the Ministry of Education."
"But you don’t need to. You did send me to get an education, the ministry administers my school", Rahila Pam said and while her mother suffered, she added, “ . . . and Uncle Joe is the Commissioner. I paid a visit to my family. Surely did no wrong."
Mrs. Pam took it calmly and cursed herself for getting agitated in the first place, she had taken His Excellency’s words too seriously and in the agitation, she had given the vixen the satisfaction she craved.
For the first time since she had called her daughter, the older woman relaxed. She was a very attractive woman and unlike Rahila whose attraction lay in her delicacy, her mother had a strength in her face that exuded from deep within her; she was a well built woman, heavy boned and comely in the old sense. Dark skinned. Though in her middle age, she could still command desire from a certain type of man, those who wielded enormous power and those who sought to wield power over their fellow citizens. That quality had served her well throughout her career and she had succeeded in all she tried, in everything save over her headstrong daughter who refused to be any like her elder brother.
Now, Mrs. Pam was calm again, she said
"Rahila, I have been here a long while before you and I know that the greatest misery in the world is a fraud - to live in the bubble of a lie. Truth, finding truth and living with it, is better and really is the only way to live. When you go around inciting students and causing scenes with your expired leftist talk, I admire you and in the same breath, I feel sad for you because you are my daughter and the day will come when you will be unable to face your reflection in the mirror. What greater irony than a prince with a social conscience?
You despise what I represent yet it is that thing I am that keeps you from tasting of what the lower classes live. It is that me that keeps you from being locked up. I wish I could reach out to you but you would rather cut off your limbs - so be it. When you are tired, I will be here"
The willful anarchy in Rahila felt was instantaneously drenched with cold water, for such was the deliberate calm of her mother’s words that it made her feel pain much like the one Mrs. Pam felt. It lingered about her heart and distressed her that her mother was learning how to hurt her.
"I think you should lock me up. I do not love you mother"
"I know you don’t. I also know you cannot unborn yourself much as you would like to - you will always call me mother"
"Good night mother, send my regards to Uncle Joe"
Her mother laughed from the new fangled gaiety of finding a pivot where she could poke at the granite that was her daughter’s emotion. It felt good, really. "Goodnight my child", the older woman said.
Then there was the click of disconnection in Rahila ears and soon, something close to tears formed at the corner of her eyes.
Mrs. Pam had caught the germ of feminism in the 70's while a student in the United States and after Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm had spoken at Columbia in late 1975, there was no turning back for her. When she got her Political Philosophy summa cum laude from Columbia in 1976, she had headed back for Nigeria where she worked in Lagos for a couple of years. It was in Lagos that she saw what women could make of themselves; what fascinated her was that these Eko women were not achieving under the banner of an imported feminism but rather from a personal feminism that had grown bit by bit from the centuried colonial experience.
In postbellum Lagos there were a lot of strong women, Ibo women ruined by the war who had returned at the helm of their families to claim a spot of ground for themselves and their children, the Yoruba women with their characteristic high sex appeal and understanding social norms, Ijaw women who were building empires for themselves in the years before oil became important to the nation so much so that it ruined their land. All these women had a sort of strength that seemed as if they had discovered a primeval ancestral resilience, a strange powerful potency that believed, more than anything else, which believed they could do anything. Eunice Pam fell into the ambience of this climate and soaked it all in, every ray of that still rising sun of "girl power" until it was viciously eclipsed in the mid 80's when the economy was turned over to the men who ruined it spectacularly.
However, by then, she was back to her native North Central State, having left Lagos in 1979. The turn of the 70's was the atmosphere of politics and her American education, very rare in those days amongst her Taroh ethnic group had catapulted her into a secure position within the GNPP party machinery of Solomon Lar where she watched the drama of the second republic play itself out and where the last of her American belief in the ability of people to be great if they are free was eroded forever. In its place, she was never to realize it, crept in a veiled cynicism and despised contempt for people. She could not understand how the ruling elites could be so stupid and how the people could be so shortchanged and yet there was no revolution in the streets, she surmised it was a failing in both of them.
She had been young and had resigned her position in late 1982 to form a new grassroots party to contest seats in the North Central State Congress. She had given her blood to crisscross the nooks and crannies of the state, enlightening the people, conscientizing especially the women, spending all the money she had from her inheritance in the service of that ideal.
And with every turn she danced around the political circus that came before the 1983 elections, with every deceit she endured, with every psychological battering ram thrust her way, her soul gave way bit by bit and in place of that heart that believed, there had become an encrusted hardness like the accretion of layer upon layer which forms a pearl.
After leaving her political post, she no longer had the influence to grant favors and she found the people she wished to emancipate had no use for her; her friends with whom she had broken ranks to join the downtrodden classes now despised her. Her party did not win a single seat and she knew it was not because she had been rigged out, the people had simply not voted for her. She withdrew into her shell until the military gave the nation their Christmas bundle late in '83.
By 1984 she was back in power as a Undersecretary for Youth Development but she was not the same person, though she was still in her twenties; something not meant to break had broken inside her and it was from that time on that the strength which her daughter saw as a self serving ruthlessness had formed a halo round her. She had married a man, had two children and gotten divorced while keeping his name and plotting her ascendancy. And she succeeded. It was only her daughter who despised her and it was only her daughter, more than anyone else was, that she wished she could justify herself to. So she could protect Rahila from the hideous mask of altruism behind which there was no face.
On the other side of town, Rahila, through the dour melancholy that descended on her following her mother’s call had found her feet and was putting together two scrambled eggs to go with the half-frozen bit of bread she found in the refrigerator.
The coffee kettle whistled and she reached around the electric stove in order to put it off, scalding her hand as it touched its side. She cursed out and for the second time in as many hours she successfully resisted the urge to break down and cry, she rather bit her lip and salved the bruised skin already turning a darker brown with a bit of red palm oil. She was soon through conjuring a passable meal and settled back on her bed to eat and contemplate the events of the day, which had assumed a new significance in the light of her mother’s words.
Early that morning the girls in her Naraguta Hostel had woken up without water supply for the fifth day in a row, by then all the girls had become irritated, resenting the early morning trek to the leatherworks a full 100 yards away to get water and then hauling the full bucket up between one and five flights of stairs. She, as the other girls, knew that the boys were not suffering the utility seizure as much as they for in the boys hostels, it was merely a matter of giving a ten naira note to the many "yaro boys", itinerant Islamic school students only too glad to earn the note with a bit of exertion. However, in the girls’ hostel it was a different matter altogether.
Years earlier, while she had been in her freshman year the two girls hostels, Naraguta and Gomwalk had been fenced in after too numerous cases of sexual assault. The "yaro boys" were suspected and since then an uneasy relationship existed between them and the girls; "yaro boys" were banned from the vicinity of the two hostels. A mini market was fenced in but nobody had remembered to add a water reservoir and in spite of repeated letters of protest to the Student Affairs Dean and the Vice Chancellor, the school management had taken no action to look into the issue. Usually utility seizures never lasted more than two days but in this case, it had gone on to five days and by that morning resentment was riding high. And she had merely ridden the wave of that same resentment.
"Greatest Nigerian students!" she had ululated at about 7 a.m. that morning in a voice that demanded that any present bend their ears to her words, and there were many who did that morning and more came out with wrappers tied across their bosoms, wearing sleeping gowns and with hair in myriad states of disarray, some clasping metal or plastic buckets full of water or empty, all of them came out to hear what one of their number had to say. Rahila stood on top of an upended dustbin and she was taken aback that her call had produced such a response for in no time over two hundred girls were standing on the quadrangle with her and more stood by the balustrade in front of their rooms. She lost her words then.
"Greatest Naraguta queens!" she hailed, drawing all the strength she could from her slender frame and the whole hostel block shook with the reverberations of "GREAT!" and everyone got ready to listen to what their recently elected student governor had to say. There was long brief silence in which a thousand thoughts of significance and consequence flitted through Rahila's mind and were neutered by her own spirit and the daimon that controlled her. She looked up to the faraway peak of Naraguta Hill, drew inspiration from it, and started.
"Water is life", she paused, “like my father before me I do not have the gift of words but the few words he spoke to me were words of wisdom and today I remember he once said water was life. I asked him, Daddy, I thought life is life, how can water be life? He laughed and told me that water is the firstborn of all creation, that even before the mountains of which every inhabitant of the plateau is proud, there was water and everything in the world bathes itself in water for water is the mother of everything else. You are ladies and you each know how important water is to our daily lives, from our toilette to cooking; to deny us water as has been done for the last week is the same as a child repudiating his mother, it is not a thing done or accepted lightly and we have complained and complained yet the VC is hard of hearing, the Dean has no ears. And what we ask for is nothing more than water so that we can hold our dignity and respect; we are after all the mother’s of all these men. . ."
Some boys, drawn out of their hostels by the scent of possible anti-establishment behavior, had filtered into the Naraguta quadrangle while she was speaking and there were now about as many boys as there were girls. The students had listened to her in rapt attention and she wondered if all her rambling would get her somewhere sensible for even though she had felt the pulse of action she had no inkling what action she had to take, she was much like a cowboy on his first bucking bronco, one could only learn by improvisation.
The girls however heard in her voice something honest in its unrefined drift, they understood that she was asking a call to arms and that she was sacrificing herself to be the arrowhead of that incitement and they felt a sense of solidarity cut through the class conscious divides that was always simmering under the surface of feminine interaction. Rahila too felt a response to their understanding and immediately, like a revelation, she found the words she sought.
"Let us march on the VC and then to the Secretariat! This bullshit cannot go on anymore because we are not going to put up with it! Let us show them that they must never forget . . . .“. But by then her voice was already drowned out in the many voiced chants and the strains of "Solidarity forever!", and the students marched as one body, with her carried aloft on the shoulder of one of the boys, and headed to the VC's lodge.
The long and short of it was that she had offered the VC the choice of following them peacefully or that they would ensure he followed them anyhow. Rahila said this with a calm voice, knowing that over three hundred students were behind her.
When the Vice Chancellor got over the shock of the puny girl in front of him and the words she had spoken, he saw reason and knew that if he did not do as they wished, the school would inevitable by closed down. Silently, save for the singers of morale boosting songs, they led the VC to Naraguta Hall where he inspected five toilets and replied that the toilets stank. He felt thoroughly humiliated but he feared these students and their leader who did not heckle him or shout or cause destruction, they merely sang solidarity songs and watched him like little wolves. And this girl, who was she?
Strangely, she reminded him of his youth at the Ahmadu Bello University in the 70's, then the hotbed of the Nigerian student radical leftist movement. The memory she provoked was one he could not come to terms with, one he had merely outgrown, time does that to you, he thought; yet he was not at peace with that memory. When he said the water scarcity was caused by a shortfall in quarterly allocations from the Ministry of Health and Utilities, he had the distinct feeling that he had fallen into a trap prepared for him. The girl, her skin of a pale disturbing brown, on the thin side, wearing a black tee shirt and traditional lappa looked up at his eye, six foot up, and smiled; then she turned to her fellows and a hush fell on the crowd.
"Greatest Nigerian students, let us go to the Ministry! We must help our VC get the message across to the Government!".
Unbelieving, the VC heard the words and a pulse of horror beat in his chest at the thought that these students were going to further humiliate him on a morning already so rich, and it was not yet 10 am; the Secretariat was barely an hour away and he knew for a fact that the Commissioner would be in the office, waiting for him on an entirely different matter. How would he hold his head up after this? If only they would destroy some buildings, then he could spin a story and expel some of them especially this understated imp of a virago. But they gave him no occasion and within fifteen minutes, through a shortcut he never knew existed that cut through the University's perimeter wall, the mass of them including the now very small VC stood in front of the Ministry of Health and Utilities.
And then the fun began.
Rahila sighed, wiping off the last of her scrambled eggs.
Barely two hours after they returned to the hostel, a tanker of water was hastily arranged by the VC as well as a circular indicating Managements understanding of the students plight bla,bla,bla explaining why there was a water scarcity and that they would provide a tanker each day for every hostel until the utility was fully restored.
After that, Rahila had thought no more of it and had gone on with her day until her mother’s call and the accusation of fraud. What had she said again; a prince spouting a social conscience? That was the hardest thing her mother had ever said to her and they had had numerous run-ins in the past.
Rahila was afraid, yes, she feared she would not have led the students out on demonstration had she not woken feeling bored and jaded that morning.
And she had known that no matter what came of it, she would not get into trouble mostly because of her parents; so, what would have happened if there had been a breakdown into violence during the demonstration? And soon these thought began to torment her.
What would have happened to those girls of the downtrodden classes for whom a university education had to be scratched for without thought of manicured nails, who had followed her merely because they believed? What would have happened to them? It was the thought of these that made her wish to cry for herself and make her doubt, not her identity, but her true humanity. And then, how could she run away from it, there was the letter.
She had gotten Faruk's letter the evening before and even then, it lay face down on the brown carpet where it had fallen out of her hands, the unusual feeling of anger and doubt that had coursed her upon reading it upset her so much that she could not even hold it up any longer.
How long had she lain there in her thoughts, her myriad dogged thoughts, before sleep mercifully came to claim her? But, what manner of sleep is this that breaks into a dawn of recklessness and treachery?
"My beloved ", he had started, "I do not believe you when you say you wish we would forget the events of the last week had not happened. I do not believe you because they did happen and I know it had been a long time coming. So, how can you now deny the effects of our love when the love itself cannot be denied? You might think you are not strong enough to withstand the social pressure but I tell you, you are, and it is what you were born to do. I am not afraid of that at all, and you know that I can damn the society and the whole world, if you stay with me.
You have always made an issue of history and identity and how important it is to you. It never was that important to me. Yet, now that we are at this juncture in our lives, I think it is time for me to let you alone so you can gather that strength I know you posses, that strength of the Plateau, so you can summon it to our aid. You will discover it yourself.
I am going off to the Northeast to find my mother, what is left of her there. I cannot say how long I will be in Bolewa but I know that at the right time, I will return to find you prepared for a decided fate and me.
I want to know, all of a sudden, the story of my mother when she was young, before I was born, before she moved to Jos with my father. There are so many questions.
I do not wish to ask my father, I do not wish to ask anyone. I wish to rediscover it myself. The Northeast calls me and I go to seek my mother’s history and identity, I go to buy us the time for resolution; but I will always have faith."
He signed it "Habib"; it was his mother’s name, it also meant beloved. She could not understand the sadness and anger and hurting quandaried remove she felt.
She had not thought he would leave; she had not wanted him to leave her because she loved him though their affection was impossible. And he had left, mocking her, his excuse being to find history, something she cherished. When would he be back; the letter did not say, it would be long. Only last week they had wanted to get married and breach the walls of their parents and what they stood for, only last week, she was sure he would never leave her. Last week was gone and now he was gone too. She wished they had just stayed lovers, not demanding that they be accepted. Now her lover was gone. She hated him for leaving her and the rest of the evening was spent exploring her sense of misery and anger.
She had slept off, that anger still there, only to wake up the next morning and risk the futures of so many people who did not deserve to be let down, who had only trusted her, hoped and had faith.
So she decided she would weep and tears would be the only way she would expiate the feeling of perfidy she felt, somehow her tears would placate the accusations of her own doubt. If she wept today, she would feel better tomorrow and slip back into a normal day when distressing questions would be bearable because there would be no occasion to ask them.
Yet Rahila knew that for her it was an entire philosophy that tinkered on the edge of exposure, an exposure that would cripple her and make her just like her mother. She did not know why but she felt it in her gut that she needed her own personal ideal and that her life would be miserable without one.
So she cried.
Later that evening there was a knock on her door. It was Nnamdi, her friend. His smile vanished when he saw her puffed up face. Nnamdi came in and spent over an hour cheering her up and after that, she told him what bothered her and he had not dismissed it. He told her that he too sometimes had such doubts as to his own intellectual authenticity, that same authenticity that he thrust in the face of society; he, in his closet, sometimes doubted it.
Nnamdi was one of her dearest friends, amongst her ideological friends with whom she was free and unguarded and who when they were with her, washed off the many layers of paint that concealed their thought under the guise of public personae. Nnamdi was a half-caste Igbo artist who had graduated the same year with Faruk Ibrahim with whom he was also friends, one of the few they shared between them; he owned a very popular gallery along CBN Road and had earned notoriety for his anti-establishment art. And he was Igbo.
The popularity of Nigeria Galleria began when he started exhibiting weekly four-foot paintings and sometimes metalwork installations caricaturing North Central State politicians from the Governor down. His arrest had proved his launch pad to personal fame in a Jos that forever loved scandal especially if it was seditious and had politics thrown in. While at the police station, he had somehow slipped out an "interview" in which he asked the Governor if he really needed to put him, a mere Ibo boy, in custody for expressing himself, 50 years after the Civil War? In that same interview, he had replied that the only way the Governor could stop him would be if he could stop paint and art material from entering the state. This, following the imprisonment of the Ibo sovereignty leader, Ralph Uwazurike, by the federal government, had made Ibo affairs touchy in a North Central State that had contributed sixty percent of the officers and men in the Nigerian Army during one of the most horrible African civil wars.
Overnight, Nnamdi was released and became a cult figure amongst so varied a following as the artistic set who frequented the gallery-garden-museum triumplex along CBN road, Ibo neo-secessionists and the Niger Delta marginalization crowd. In all these, his gallery thrived and he obligingly became the face of a hundred campaigns, his name becoming the rallying cry for a hundred more. He even bought a Mercedes yet he could not answer when Rahila asked him what his Ibo identity meant to him, what it meant to be Igbo. Yet, that apart, his work, his true artistic work, was the art of a genius and Rahila considered that his technique was a new movement entirely.
So, their friendship was that of an attraction with an underlying context and the unspoken promise that he would answer her question at the womb of times rupturing. When he was not speaking about art and dispensing platitudes with the ease of Oscar Wilde, he was the funniest, most self-deprecating person she knew. And he was Faruk’s friend. She had a bath while he listened to music.
Nnamdi was a large jolly fellow with a smile like melting butter, so easy to spread. He was of that peculiar Ibo oyibo complexion, quite yellow in the oriental sense with a thin Semitic nose gotten from an Israeli mother; he had clear eyes and an impeccable sense of dressing. Now he wore a brown polo shirt with black blazer, black jeans on bespoke suede moccasins. He had formed the habit of twirling his keys around his right index finger and was doing just that when Rahila came in, half draped in a long blue towel, from the bathrooms at the end of the hall. Because of their friendship and his friendship with Faruk, the flicker of a thought sputtered and died in his mind. He would have loved to paint Rahila and had asked on many occasions but she had refused, saying she always wanted to remain whole and unstated, not scattered into a hundred thousand canvasses in as many indifferent homes and galleries.
"I was told Faruk came around while I was out, that he was going to the Northeast, he said on a pilgrimage of discovery. I hope you haven’t had a quarrel or something?” he added with the merest tinge of concern in his voice.
Rahila paused and then, affecting a sham smile, replied "No, nothing like that" in that falsely breezy manner that wished no probing.
Soon, Nnamdi left for an appointment, promising to call her soon. As soon as Nnamdi left, animation returned to Rahila’s face and the color returned fully to her cheek. Faruk, to hear his name mentioned! Even while she had been crying earlier she knew her tears were for her and her impossible love. That granted a quality of stirring underlying tension to the events of the morning for she had given birth to a students demonstration at the same time her love had become stillborn.
Rahila lay down on the floor of her room, her head and part of her back on the bed and the rest of her body on the dark brown carpeting, she assumed her most open pose with her torso spread-eagled like a sacrifice on an alter. She held the letter close to her breasts and tilted her head far back, her neck in an unusual position, her eyes closed, she was very aware of every cell in her body and she felt a calm come over her, from the tears she had shed, from the visit of her friend, from this letter here on her breasts from the man she loved. She took a deep breath and opened the letter again.
But this time, when she finished reading it, there was none of yesterday’s anger, only resolution. She dressed up and headed out to enjoy the nightlife of the city, to dance and be flirted with, to drink and feel the warmth of talk, to forget. Before leaving her room, Rahila bunched up Faruk’s letter and squeezed it into a ball in her palm, feeling its round compactness and there it into the waste bin. "God damn you, Faruk Ibrahim; you think you alone can make grand gestures, eh? God damn you!” she said under her breath as she stepped out of the room.