The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Postbellum: Petals of Roses
As far as eyes could see a certain duskiness robed the body of the earth, giving it a sheen of light powdery white dust, as if Nature, in a feat of overkill felt the fields would be more comely with just a dab too much face powder.
The weather typically blew with a cold, cool breeze, but not so cold, not as cold as it had been anyway. And then, this was Jos; the parameters used to register weather elsewhere in the country wouldn’t be so appropriate here. Jos was the garden of God, Eden itself, and as such it was a description unto itself, it could not be described against the backdrop of other cities, much in the same way Eden, with the fatal tree of knowledge still had to be considered as the perfection of God’s creation. Yet, there was a smell in the air, picked out by native tuned olfactory much in the same way a wine aficionado could in a single sip tell where the vintage had been matured and tell its characteristics with simple authority. And that morning, Faruk could perceive it and that made him glad in a way he hadn’t been in a long time.
Grace. Over bearing pore suffusing grace. Of all words that possibly compromised to come close to distinguish the loftiness of what he felt in his heart, the beatitude of grace came closest. With every breath of air, with every expansion of his lungs to take in the sweet chill, it felt as if he reached out to God himself, achieving a sort of purity and sanctification and with each exhale, it was the accomplishment of little nirvanas of harmony.
Faruk stood there looking unto the old train tracks, clad in a heavy camel brown, jacket zipped all the way up to his neck, his palms tucked into the side pockets over blue jeans and white sports shoes. He turned to the little boy standing beside him.
“It’s going to rain soon,” he said.
The boy just nodded and continued doodling on the sand with a spinning top made of blue battery caps and the cover of a Bic biro. He was still young enough to take the mood of the seasons for granted, hadn’t reached the age when you cannot hear that music anymore because you have stopped paying attention. Faruk smiled; rediscovery is better, he thought, how much worse to have lost that grace and never rediscover it, to be doomed to live life without ever knowing what was wrong and when and how it all came so undone.
For a few seconds, his eyes followed the motions of the little boy, one of the children who strayed here from the Islamic college just across the train tracks, on the other side of the terminus. The boy would set the blue top spinning from between his right thumb and index finger by an agile snap of his palm and then out would jump the top, spinning like crazy and doing a dance of incomplete circles in the dust. They boy would watch enthralled for a second or two and then it seemed just at the right moment he alone could determine, he would whip his palm under the top, cupping it in the groove of his palms and then immediately in yet another motion he would throw it down again. The object of it all was to have to top fall perfectly on its flat side and the boy was quite adept at this. Spinning tops.
They both stood inside Faruk’s cement distributorship and behind them menial workers walked up and down a ramp into a long sixteen wheel freeloader; the driver of the trailer was huddled asleep under the shade of its bodywork, oblivious of the workmen’s noise, calming his nerves for the pothole riddled journey ahead to a university project site at Bida. A number of girls hawking groundnuts and sundry other snacks well patronized by the menials sat under a tree chattering girl child gossip near Faruk’s white Toyota.
Beside them was the warehouse where the bags of cement were kept; the warehouses had been built there originally because of the railways in those long decades when trains still hauled merchandise across the country. Now, all that remained of the terminus were the tracks overgrown with weeds and a large building in front of which were the metal carcass of two trains, the ‘Altamira’ and an old Bedford Hunset engine called the ‘Dan Zaria’. The wide expanse of tracks crisscrossing each other had become a shortcut for people who wanted to cross from Ahmadu Bello Way where they were standing to the Terminus market whose yellow crown he could above the trees about five hundred meters away from them.
The rain would soon be here.
He had arrived just the day before and after letting the Colonel know of his arrival, he had slept off until a call came in from his manager who had somehow known his boss was back in town saying he was having problems with the trucking union; it turned out their freeloader was being detained on orders of a Captain at the cantonment.
Faruk had gone there to see the captain, in company of the aide-de-camp of the 3 Armor Div. Commander and explained to the Captain why he should go look for another freighter and not one already mobilized. The man was easily convinced. By then however, the trucker started saying he did not want to travel that day on account of its being late already and how he was accustomed to leaving before 7 a.m. and how it was now 8 a.m. Faruk had no choice but to bring the man down and supervise the loading himself. He had long since realized that influence gives authority and if that authority was not exercised, it was inevitable wasted because everything would fall apart. He had had to take on the corrupt truckers union more than once.
So long as he was Colonel Dibarama’s son, they had to bend to him and he had no qualms about throwing that influence as far as it could go. His distributorship flourished. He now had five staff and a slew of menials all times preoccupied with hauling bags of cement unto a varied assortment of tanker-trailers. And since he paid them fair wages, the menials union loved him genuinely, evenly balancing out the delicacy of his relations with the truckers.
“I’ll be going into town”, he said to his secretary, a sometimes quite silly girl called Hajara who was buying fura da nono from the hawkers under the tree, “Tell Wale to ensure that everything is loaded and if I am not back within the hour, that truck should leave for Bida.” His wristwatch told him it was 9:30 a.m.
“Yes sir. Sir, you are not going with your car?”
“No”, Faruk replied, “I won’t be going far and I will be back soon.”
Ahmadu Bello Way was the commercial center of Jos metropolis and its streets were already full of cars and commuters on their way to offices and trades. Most were kitted in warm clothing and Faruk mused that Jos was probably one of the few places in the tropics where wearing a three-piece suit was comfortable enough to complete sense. Those people not dressed in suits wore jacket, buttoned all the way up, especially the numerous Okada riders on Jincheng motorcycles zipping in-between the sometimes held-up cars. Their brave passengers risked losing their lives and freezing to death in the morning chill rendered even colder by speed. Faruk passed them all, noticing everything, picking out the traders opening their stalls to the day’s business, VIO officers contributing to the holdup by selectively stopping commercial vehicles for choice offences until the green N 20 bribe was slipped to them. Most of the Ibo shops were already open and ready for business.
Ahmadu Bello Way is a four-kilometer stretch with shops and supermarkets on both sides selling merchandise ranging from clothes to carpets to restaurants with music seducing passersby from invisible sound systems. The way started with banks and financial institutions. Then the warehouses of merchant concerns stood tucked behind shops selling everything imaginable.
The distinction of Jos was that walking the side streets, one could still bump into other people making their way through the day and it is much unlike the monstrous spaces like Broad Street where individual faces were grim, the multitude vast and impersonal; here in Jos, a person you never met and never might meet again could smile at you and communicate a commonality from which it is possible to find fortitude for the day. Even on chilly days as this one, there was still warmth in the air, a feeling of care and community and solidarity. That warmth is what forms the cultural backbone of the Tin City, something about the air the city’s denizens breathed which made all instantly one and cosmopolitan.
He passed the roundabout where Greg’s sculpture had stood for three months and he felt a little suffering creep into his heart for he realized immediately that unlike Bolewa which fascinated by paradox, on the Plateau there was usually irony. It was the plateau’s peculiar quirk of fate to be saddled with a decadent upper middleclass that spent their year attending the burials of mummified former members, forever seeking a crusade in order to do a good deed, any good deed, it did not even matter if the deed did good or not. And so they had hounded Greg Azubike out of the most urbane city in Nigeria. The spot where the sculpture had stood was now bare space, an open gaping sore in the city center. They had launched a crusade against Art, he had launched a campaign for Art and he had lost; but it did not make him sad, no greater indictment of the Jos intelligentsia could be found that in his losing the campaign to protect Gregory Azubike.
Faruk took a shortcut between rows of shops and found himself on Rwang Pam Street, the haven of bookshops and the hawkers of pirated computer software, and after buying an Adobe CD, he cut through the perennial cool of the Museum to link up with the State High Court and the GRA.
Nnamdi’s black Mercedes V-Booth was parked prominently just beside his gallery and as always it seemed a showpiece of waxwork, spotlessly clean and the leather of its chairs so polished it hurt the eyes. He had teased his friend many times for indulging the vanity of over projecting that art indeed could pay. But I am projecting the truth, Nnamdi would reply. No, it’s your marketing that pays, not just your art.
The public area of the gallery consisted a fairy large room with white walls and black and white alternating tiles all drenched in a clear fluorescent lighting. Arranged in this space in the most eclectic manner imaginable were Nnamdi’s art. His art was as assorted as the arrangement, paintings in different styles depicting scenes from the deeply introspective and brooding to the trivial and absolutely hilarious. There were sculpture, many of them were masks -masks being a form Nnamdi was fascinated with- while others were effigies of spirits and men and of women bearing children on their backs or seeking children with arms outstretched before them. At the far corner was a startling scrap metal man welded together in such a way that as the eye took it in, you felt as if the eight foot giant of a scrap man actually moved and would drop the heavy mallet in his hand on you any moment. One Step Forward, it was named. It was one of the oldest works in the gallery and one that had attracted many offers but which Nnamdi refused to sell, further appreciating the value of the work even though he had privately told Faruk that he did not much care for it. It was merely to show how tasteless the ‘art collectors’ of the city were; they collected with their brains based on sentiment and not with their hearts predicated on emotion. And it was emotion that Nnamdi scattered in some of his work, the ones he treasured most that wound up with little women who without knowing anything about art were nonetheless struck and paid for them.
“Hi Ndidi, how you dey?”
“Well, well, see who just commot for Sahara Desert! Come, come and give me a hug!”
Ndidi was a lively, light skinned Igbo girl who tended the shop for Nnamdi. She was very beautiful in an almost supernal way and that brought many young people to the gallery, to lust and flirt and try their luck, so long as they bought one or two of Nnamdi’s outrageously priced objects, neither he nor Ndidi had a problem with that. She had really been one of Nnamdi’s strays, born artists desperately needing help, that his friend had a knack for finding. Her story was that of unwillingness to enter a forced marriage and the soon to be sorely tried belief that she could live by painting pictures and photographing the emanations of the soul of things. She had been on the streets, just on the verge of descending into prostitution when Nnamdi found her and gave her a job and for a while, a place in his heart. Their affair had ended years before but she still kept the job, as his feminine concept, she said.
She had this unnerving habit of switching from pidgin English to private school English as the whim hit her and she spoke both languages masterly.
“The Northeast is hardly the Sahara”, he said as she came round the counter and enveloped him in a full frontal hug. He smiled and she smiled. She had told him many times she was jealous of his girlfriend.
“I don’t know much about geography but I’m glad you’re back. You will tell me all about it?”
“Of course. But, after seeing my friend eh? It wouldn’t do to mix business with pleasure; you could lose your job that way.”
Ndidi laughed and shook her head at the impossibility of that.
“He’s inside. I don’t think he knows you’re back.”
A connecting hallway led to the workshop, a space about three times the size of the public gallery. A quarter of it comprised a roofed square with wide doors where sensitive supplies like canvas, paint and work tools were kept, it was always neat seeming as if everything was labeled. The rest of the workshop was bedlam of sawhorses, metal scraps, unfinished carvings rulers, paintbrushes and a hundred thousand obstacles Faruk had to carefully navigate through.
Nnamdi was in the center of the hissing noise of a soldering lamp with sparks flying off all over the place from whatever it was he was welding. Even beneath the others dark welding hood, Faruk could feel the intense concentration of his eyes willing the metal to join perfectly. He pulled the plug out of its socket on the wall and had the rare pleasure of seeing Nnamdi push the hood back in a rage and turn with a curse on his mouth before freezing just there.
“Dan iska! Did they send you from the Northeast to find my trouble?“
“I don’t know about that, but I do know that is not how to welcome an old friend.”
Nnamdi was already standing before Faruk grinning from ear to ear, and then hugging him.
“Welcome. Welcome. How was the trip? When did you return? You didn’t tell me, or did you lose your manners over there?”
“You nko, how many times did you call me?”
They were glad to see each other.
Nnamdi was dressed in a faded blue jeans pinafore over an equally faded red tee shirt. He did not seem to mind the cold very much.
“Come, my friend. I am about through with this for now, let’s go to the office so we can talk okay? I want to have my bath and then go into town for some supplies.”
Faruk sat alone in the little office drinking Turkish coffee, an indulgence to which he had successfully initiated Nnamdi. He drank from a cup part of an old China service he had bought years before, kept always in the bottom left drawer of Nnamdi’s unvarnished brown ebony wood table. The room was done in aqua blue paint with deep red carpeting and walls intimately adorned with pictures, including that of a much younger Nnamdi and his Israeli mother, and objets d’art. An old violin lay suspended just above where Nnamdi’s head would be if he sat on the quite comfortable black leather swivel chair just behind the table, The Needles Eye, he called that. The table was bare save for a long disused telephone with a chain dial the sort they don’t make anymore and a large piece of white cardboard on which there were calculations and doodling of hundred different things, some of which, Faruk knew, ended up in actual work.
The thing with Nnamdi was that he was a commercial artist but had somehow managed to change the definition of that term to remove from it the natural disapproval Faruk would have felt. Nnamdi could sell just about anything. Yet each work, he labored over and spent his heart and his talent in its such that it never came out as the sterile things other artists in Jos City produced. And it was, of course, in the labor of love that the personality of the artist in his work is revealed and made manifest. For Faruk, it was the spirit of that labor that tipped the scale from trash to art.
He drank his coffee, taking in the rich aroma of each sip, savoring it with the same sensitivity he had savored the cold and noted the coming of the rains earlier that morning.
Nnamdi came in, looking typically dapper in a black leather jacket, red polo shirt and blue jeans over black calfskin boots.
“So, how was the long search for self discovery? Tell me all about it, I am after all, an ogre who preys on emotion first hand or second hand.”
Faruk laughed at that.
“The Northeast was fine. Much hotter than it is here but then, there is a certain nuance about the people, I don’t know if nuance is the right words but that comes closest. I met my family, my mother’s family at least, an Emir, a little girl, I taught in a school with very bright students who started lectures midmorning because many of them had to either hawk stuff or put in a couple of hours at their parents trades.”
“You say ‘nuance’; what did that nuance feel like?”
“I can’t really say, it felt like a nuance. I can try to describe it. Bolewa is harmonious, something in the sound in the streets and in the soul of the talk at night, when it’s cold and when men gather to drink tea, the way the houses are built. One thinks of Jos as being serene and it is necessary to compliment by comparing, but one cannot compare Bolewa, can’t even say it’s serene, ‘calm’ is more in order, you know.” Faruk was thinking even as he spoke and he was speaking of something he hadn’t thought of while in Bolewa, the quality of the town itself. He remembered something Miriam Bazza had said.
“Bolewa is like the picture of a woman sitting in a canoe in the middle of a clear calm creek or river. It looks pretty and virginal and even when you ask yourself ‘but what is she doing there all alone in a canoe in the center of a lake’, you are all the more intrigued by the entire calmness of its equanimity.”
“I think I understand you. I will go up there sometime soon, it is possible there is something I need to experience there. And then, tell me of the social life.”
“It’s deep in the Northeast, strangely, a Muslim society for a thousand years that is not conservative in the stuffed shirt sense of the way. Religion, like culture, is simply a way of life for them. One cannot imagine them condescending to prove or defend either or despairing they would be called upon to do so. Both those are so in sync, just like Christianity and culture on the plateau. I met a lot of fine people.”
“A girl fell in love with me.”
“A real girl, you know. She had never been out of that town yet her mind was so virginal, I could have dropped her in the center of Amsterdam and her mind would not have felt addled even for a minute. Our relationship was beautiful, platonic yet symbiotic.”
“You’ve not asked about your woman here?”
“Is not that question in my eyes?”
Nnamdi smirked at this.
“She is at so me religious seminary school just outside Jos.”
“At a what? What is she doing there?”
“A long story, all I can say is that she too is looking for something, in the same way you went off searching in the Northeast. She moved there about a week ago.”
Faruk’s mind reeled with a thousand discordant thoughts; had Rahila become a nun or something? He could not bear to ask it.
“No. At least I think its temporary” Nnamdi said.
“Tell me what happened”
“None of this came up in the mainstream, you understand, but your father placed Mrs. Pam under house arrest for about four days.”
“Kai, Nnamdi, stop playing with me. Why would he do that?”
He knew well of Mrs. Pam’s disapproval of his relationship with Rahila, he knew that her politics might have been at odds with his father’s but he also knew the two were simply not on the same plane.
He knew intuitively that all this had to do with him, one way or the other, he was linked to the events in the North Central much in the same was he had felt integrally connected to the yang of Ummi al-Qassim and her history. For the first time, he was afraid, because he knew that an onion bulb had no heart thus enclosed in concentric skins of parable, there became no life to live. The cold in the office, through the fabric of his jacket, became all the more personal and real.
“Tell me”, he said.
Nnamdi replied, “As I said, none of this got to the mainstream. But we did have some disturbances in parts of the state around the Benue, you know, the usual Tiv and Fulani altercation only this time it was quite bloody, I think fifty people were killed or so. I think about twenty Fulani’s drowned tying to escape the wrath of Tiv’s. The thing was that it wasn’t just in the Benue regions. Some people were killed in the Nassarawa lowlands and belligerent noises were being made all over the place, even here in Jos. The next thing that happened was that in less than an hour the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops, the Chief Imam, a score of traditional, cultural and religious leaders including Mrs. Pam, numbering about thirty-five were all brought in by the Police Commissioner under what he called ‘protective custody’, effectively house arrest. The violence in the Benue abated almost immediately and the loudmouths went silent and the religious leaders were ‘released?’ the next day. But Mrs. Pam and the others remained out of circulation for four days. Now, my sources tell me your father was running things behind the scenes.
“All I have said is my reconstruction. As I said, none of this entered the mainstream news but the backwater reports always have an element of truth in them, how much, I cannot say. So, is your father powerful enough to have had all those people arrested?”
Faruk considered this for a few minutes scratching his nose, the last of his kahveh having gone cold in his cup.
“Yes”, he said, “He is. But I don’t understand if he could have done that. Or why?”
Nnamdi nodded silently.
Of course Ibrahim Dibarama was powerful enough to do anything he wanted with General Abba in power. General Hassan Abba was one of the few people Faruk had grown up knowing as friends of his father from his Army days. And as it turned out, Uncle Hassan’s family had also lived in Bolewa a long time though he was a baKano of Kanuri extraction. The web of possibility was already spinning wildly in Faruk’s mind; I will see my father tonight he thought and know the truth.
“Just after all that went down, she came here and told me she was leaving her home. Why? She would not say. Where she was going; did she need money, what? She said no; she had enough money. She said she was going to a protestant school in Barkin Ladi. Why on earth for? To clear my head. How long will you be gone? A week, weeks, a month, more, she replies, I really don’t know yet, maybe longer. I couldn’t stop her because I did not know why she was going and you know how she is sometimes, like a priestess, you know, that surreal composure.
She sent me a letter to say she was okay.”
Faruk leaned back into his chair and stared past Nnamdi’s head, considering the new complications that had just entered his life.
Rahila Pam sat alone in the bare room.
She wore a dark grey sweater over a featureless, ankle length booboo made of a white cotton material, her hair was packed neatly into a white cap that looked for all the world like a sawed down chef’s hat. Because it was so cold there in Barkin Ladi, she wore thick socks on her feet; the room had no heating and indeed the few windowpanes that were missing had merely been covered quite inefficiently with a wood panel by one of the more industrious of the brothers.
The cold still seeped into the room. The room was about eighteen feet square and she shared it with timid little sister Evangeline, an Igbo girl who tended to snore deeply in her sleep. They had not really hit it off but then, here in this school, it did not really matter whether you got along with anyone or not, everyone was much weighed by the problems of the world and trying to salve them by trenchant prayer and simple faith. Everyone except her. Which was why she came here, to think and to clear her head, to put her hand to the wind and see where the breeze was blowing.
The floor of the room was unembellished grey concrete which she and Evangeline took turns scrubbing each morning; it had been her turn that morning. Then there two eight-spring beds placed about three-feet apart, which was all well and good for Rahila. Then a coarse wooden chair and an austerely functional reading table at one corner of the room with a rechargeable lantern on it; this was the only part of the room that was not a state of vestal neatness, books and writing things lay scattered on the table and underneath it were the filings of sharpened pencils. A jacket hung over the back of the chair.
The other piece of furniture was a large wooden closet where they kept their clothes and such odds and ends as the broom, candles and the like.
The room was in the corner of the building and two curtainless windows brought it more than enough lightness at the price of an ever-seeping chill.
In a corner of the room sat a piece of technology Rahila had never seen before and one she marveled she never would have seen had she not come to this place. It was a coal pot. A coal pot was a large earthenware pot in which live coals were placed in the evenings, around six p.m. such that by nine p.m. when the lights went out, the entire room was comfy and warm. This central heating kept giving off enough heat to keep the temperature tepid enough to be quite comfortable. They poured a handful of salt into it just before going to sleep so that the pot gave off heat and not the carbon that could so easily murder them in their sleep. All these were a part of her education. She knew.
Barkin Ladi was a town also on the Jos Plateau but at a lower elevation than Jos; what made the school very cold, as cold as even Shere Hills on the plateau peak was that when the original missionary Fathers from Scotland had come, they had compromised by building the mission station in the most picturesque spot they could find, never minding that behind it were two immense granite mountains.
Rahila though that perhaps the spirit of the mountains was displeased with the new religion and thus vented out its resentment by giving that spot of Barkin Ladi seven and a half months of the most punishing chill without end. The Christ Church, made up of indigenous Christians professing a polyglot Protestantism with more than equal elements of Calvinist, Wesleyan and Anglican dogma, who took over the Mission from the Scots had turned it into a school where it could train mainly its pastors and catechist’s. But on the plateau, women were a very powerful group in society and it wasn’t long, by 1952 that the school was also open to young women who sought greater communion with God, culminating in a C.R.S Education Degree. So long as they were willing to abstain from the vices of the world, at least for a while, all was well.
Rahila had lost some weight and each time she noted it in the mirror, she was pleased with the self-mortification for indeed while her coming here was about self-discovery, it was also one of exorcising a stain from her blood.
The pale skinned girl stood up from the bed and went over to the window to look out to the fields, dry but hopeful savannah land stretching as far eyes could see. At the far end of the horizon lay the wicker-like fence made of evergreen cacti standing over thirteen feet high, hiding the seclusion of Rahila Pam from less pious eyes. And somewhere farther away was Jos City and the hills there, her own hills that unlike these ones did not emanate a chill. She stretched her arms wide and a dreamy look came in her eyes.
It was ten a.m. The next session of prayerful intercession was still two hours away and after that would come lunch. She did not mind it all. She was very aware and fascinated by the things she saw about the daily lives of the lowercase she had championed in school. And though she did not know it, it was the same lowercase her mother had once championed until the fatal point when Mrs. Pam’s faith had become cynicism and her social conscience had gradually corroded itself into sterility.
All Rahila knew was that her mother had directly been involved in the killing of over a hundred people she knew nothing of, people whose dreams had ended in unpremonited death. For Rahila, those men and boys and women were her own sacred people. And her mother had killed them. She could not live with that because she knew, as Mrs. Pam had told her that last morning, that she could not un-mother her own mother, the woman was her blood though the love in her veins had become jaded. Her sympathy for her mother could no longer be from close quarters because Rahila feared and was horrified by the subtle spread of decay. She knew that her mother loved her, for what was all the trouble in the Benue if not a show of love, twisted as it was? She could not un-mother Mrs. Pam but that did not mean she had to live with her. So she had packed her things and left.
For a while, she did not know how long, Barkin Ladi would do. And when she was ready, she would move on.
She shook her head woefully at the unhappy birth of her maturity.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in”, she said.
It was Sister Funmi, her closest friend in the whole school.
Rahila turned round and gave a reassuring smile to the other girl and not for the first time, she thought how funny it was that her only friend would be a girl who was so obviously Yoruba. Funmi was a normally silent girl, known for her reticence until Rahila had arrived and seen the refractive intelligence in those brown eyes. Funmi, like Nnamdi in Jos, so obviously had a story and somehow she and Rahila had found the string of communion and friendship twirling between their hearts.
The eyes of the other girl smiled at her through her treasured eyeglasses. Funmi Boyega was a striking girl who had excellent closely pored skin much like Rahila’s only that the Southwestern girl’s was light by way of yellow as against Rahila’s light by way of brown. Her other striking feature was a pair of magnificent breasts and a beautiful smile.
“What are you doing here all alone?”
“Just looking through the window”
“I can see that. Its much warmer in the dining hall, the others are there and their talk is the sort of warmth that would do you good.”
“So why are you here?”
“I am feeling sad.”
“Oh” the other girl said, “Poor baby! Are you ill?” inquired Funmi coming over and feeling her brows before enveloping Rahila in a hug.
“No, I am not. I am just sad in my heart, that’s all.”
“Okay. Maybe this will cheer you up. You have a visitor.”
Rahila’s eyes lit up.
“I don’t know, can’t remember the name,” she said sheepishly, for her sole flaw was the trifling but sometimes embarrassing inability to remember such snippets of information as names.
“No, it’s a young woman. Like you. She said she’s a friend of yours.”
“Okay Funmi, thanks. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Where is she?”
“Sitting in the dinning hall.”
Rahila had feared it would be Faruk and then when Funmi said no, her thought had briefly gone to her mother.
But it was not Mrs. Pam.
It was Sekyen.
Rahila’s face lit up at the sight of her friend and they hugged each other without the consciousness of embarrassment or even noticing the straying glances of the other Brothers and Sisters in the hall.
“Shegiya, how can you leave Jos in the way you did and not tell me?” Sekyen demanded, after they had sat down again, her face clouding with the righteous anger of a slighted friend.
She was not happy that Rahila had left without so much as an explanation yet, she was also glad that at least she had found her even if here of all places and even if she was not sure of her friends mental state, what with the outfit?
“Hush, hush. I am sorry, really. I had to leave in a hurry and when I got here I knew somehow you would find me. The mobile phones don’t work here and I don’t want to go to Jos, at least not in a while. My car is here though, I just didn’t want to leave.”
Sekyen nodded as if she understood.
“I met your girl, Nabila and she told me you had had a fight with your mother and you said you were going to a religious school in Barkin Ladi. It took me a while to find this place. ”
“I am glad you’ve come. I know we have much to talk about.”
“But why? Why did you up and come here? You have grown so lean. What are you doing to yourself and why? Tell me this”
“No, tell me about Jos first. What is the news?”
“Not much. You know school is out of session. I hope you will be back by the time the semester begins? The town is quiet; it’s been two weeks since you’ve been gone. Not much has happened. But people keep asking me about you. Some of the girls in our hall, you know, I keep bumping into them and they all ask of you. But I couldn’t tell them I did not know where you were. I myself was looking for you until I ran into Nabila just outside the school gate. She told me she had been with you and you had a fight with your mother, then you left. That’s that and here I am. Do you know how lean you look?”
“It’s not like you had any flesh on you to start with.”
“Why did you leave home?”
“Something happened between my mother and I and I needed to clear my head. So I came here. I needed the space to evaluate myself and think who I was and what it was I wanted, you know. She did something I could not forgive and it shook me down to the very sinews of my being. So I came here, out of anger and frustration and despair. I did not plan it, really. I was with Nabila that day when I found out what my mother did. I just packed my things and drove away; I dropped Nabila off later. Then I found this place.”
“Your mom was arrested?”
“Who told you that?”
“Someone. Said something about some political beef between her and the Governor and this Colonel Dibarama man. Just vague gossip talk. But I saw her just last week; she looked distraught when I saw her. I think she also is looking for you.”
Rahila merely puffed an indifferent shrug and said nothing.
They sat there awhile, Rahila taking in the human interaction in the dining hall, noting the aroma of lunch; it was almost 11:30;
Sekyen took in the astonishing transformation, how her friend had grown leaner and yet how beautiful she still was, something she had never noticed before; and then, there was a difference in her manner, more wise and knowing and in a way, more sad and deep. But Rahila Pam had always been strange, right from their primary school days. She had always seemed haunted by some primeval weight on her shoulders, as if she had a secret as long as time itself. And that secret wearied her. Was this the end of Rahila’s idealism, did it end in giving up and religion? Her wild ideology, what had happened to that?
“What happened to you?”
Rahila bent over and buried her face in her palms, thinking about what had happened to her and how she could explain it to Sekyen. Faruk would have understood it, but he was not here. She resolutely refused to cry, steeling her will.
“I saw my private demon for the first time and I have been running away from confronting it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know that quote from Nietzsche about fighting monsters and how when you look into an abyss, the abyss stares right back at you?”
“What he meant was about identity, true identity. He was talking about the authenticity that gives people their true identity. Most people just live average lives with only the necessity of average observations and average philosophies fed to them by newspaper editorials and the like. They abdicate their faculty of thinking and live secondhand lives, neat little potato cutter mean vicious lives. Then later on, they realize that all their lives have been lived for other people; that it had all been for something vague in the future that they knew would never happen. And when they realize this, they become vicious. They don’t undo their familiar conformity, they are afraid to do so, so they rather try to ensure everyone else conforms, so that if everyone is dirty, no one can complain of dirt, do you understand me?”
“I am following you”
Rahila smiled and the light furrow on her forehead straightened a bit
“Since I was born, Sekyen, I have had a revulsion with the second hand in every facet of my life. I could understand by merely looking and observing that our society was the way it was, I could have accepted that; but what killed me was the ‘why’? Why were there so many nice, beautiful women in our society who were neither nice nor beautiful? Why so much philanthropy from people who despised the lower classes? Why the pretence? And the only answer I could get was that mediocrity had become a common standard.
“I could not understand it and I set out to redefine my nature and my place in the scheme of history. My relations with that society, with the class I was born in and all the other social variables. My political place, everything. My mother could not bear it, that I would not accept the comfortable decadence she expected, demanded of me. It wasn’t just about her as a person, she loves me very much, and I know that. The things she did she did because of her social circle. So we strove and contradicted each other. My coming here is the maturing of that contradiction.”
“Why, Rahila, is Marx so important to you?”
“Marx. What do you mean? Marx means nothing to me. You see; his ideas have fascinated me only because I have reached some of the conclusions he reached. But he was also wrong on so many things. Half of Marxism is wrong. Half of any philosophy is wrong. That is the problem, Sekyen, I don’t know how to follow prophets and fads and philosophies. I see myself as a priest, pattern and ideology unto myself and I am dangerous because of that.”
“But you are not.”
“I am because our society cannot understand anyone who questions its principles, who cannot conform to the argument of long convention. And I am a woman.”
“All this has to do with Faruk?”
“Yes. He brought everything to a head. A confrontation that has been brewing long before he was born, long before I was born. Our relationship was the catalyst to its flare-up.”
Sekyen fell silent, thinking of what to say, what to ask.
“Colonel Ibrahim Dibarama is Faruk’s father.”
“Lah, lah, lah!” exclaimed Sekyen, shaking her head from side to side as she began to understand.
Mrs. Pam had opposed her friend’s liaison with the Muslim boy and now she understood why, how easily Rahila’s natural obstinacy and not giving Faruk Ibrahim up could mix with her mother’s politics and set the scene for an inevitable showdown. Sekyen did not understand the nuts and bolts of what had happened but she could clearly comprehend the scheme of it, how easily it would all fit together. Sekyen thought of the first day she had met Faruk and how she had fallen in love with him long before he had even met Rahila. ‘Confrontation brewing long before we were born’.
“My mother had a hand in the deaths of those people in Guma and the recent uprising in the Benue. A hundred people died there, because she wanted to hit back at Faruk’s father, because of me. She was jealous that I was in love and that she had lost my father, somewhere deep beneath it all, she could not bear the thought that I would be happy when she had thrown her happiness away. The motives are complex and I do not understand them, and really, I do not even want to.
“That day with Nabila, she was under house arrest then and I asked her why. And she told me. Everything. And do you know what she said? She said she loved me. And she was crying, I have never seen her cry before. And I was crying too, because I had looked into the mirror and seen myself in it, in my mother’s eyes. And I could not stand myself anymore, that myself that I saw, I grew sick of it and I knew I had to leave the ruinous love of my mother, there in the mirror, in her eyes. So I left. I did not choose this place on purpose. I just wound up here and soon as I can face the trial that the rest of my life will be, I will leave and come to Jos once again. I am weak and I need to be strong enough to challenge the superstructure for the life I have cut out for myself. I cry every night. I love Faruk. I am a woman. I know I will be strong, strong enough, without becoming hard.”
Sekyen had the beginnings of tears in her eyes, Rahila’s words, she too was seeing the truth in all her friend said, she could understand how trying their long friendship had been for Rahila who understood and she who was just now understanding. While Rahila had been talking, Sekyen had reached over the wooden table and placed Rahila’s palms under her own, keeping them warm and taking warmth away from them with Rahila’s every word to warm the forge of her own heart.
The food was about to be served.
“Do you want to eat with me? The food is about to be served.”
“No, I came with a car. I want you to eat some good food today, I am taking you into town.”
“Its not the food, Sekyen, it’s my heart.”
“Whichever”, the friend smiled, “Whatever!”
Rahila told the head matron she was going out to town with her friend and the older lady approved, and when she heard Sekyen had come with a car, she gave Rahila a shopping list of supplies the others would be needing. Sekyen followed Rahila to her little cubbyhole room and watched her friend change into civvies before they went out in Sekyen’s red regular edition 200E Mercedes.
They drove out to Bukuru where they ate a full lunch, Rahila having salad with rice, something no one thought to cook at the school because, of course, it was impractical. Yet it was Rahila’s favorite dish. They had not really said much since they had left Barkin Ladi thirty minutes earlier. When the plates were cleared, Sekyen settled the bill but did not get up to leave.
“So, when you leave here, what are you going to do?”
“I will get an apartment for myself. I have money, my own money, money my father set aside years ago and money I inherited from my grandparents. I intend to finish my degree. After that, I don’t know, I will be in life. And life is very creative at giving us challenges. I just want to clear my head.”
“He is in the Northeast. We had a fight before he left; he left because of the fight. I had wanted to break up with him. But he refused. I knew I could not break up with him, what my mother wanted was a thing impossible to do because while love may wear out, you cannot unlove when you are in love. He too is looking for himself, you think he is complete but even with him, there are things he misses and I think he will find them in rediscovering his mother. She died with a neural degenerative disease when he was young. She has a story. When he comes back, well, I don’t know.”
“You love him?”
“Like a child in my belly I love him.”
“Maybe he is back and is looking for you?”
“He will find me when he wants to see me.”
“That is our love, it’s not a duty. We accept our love as being a given. I think he is already back. There’s this thing he said about the rain once, and the rain is coming. The drought between us has been a long one. It is inevitable that the rains will be here again.”
There was a brief faraway look in Rahila’s eyes
“I am happy for you, my friend.”
“There is something I want to tell you. About Faruk.”
“What is it?”
“I met him before you did.”
“How do you mean, what do you mean? You slept with him?”
“No. I was just in love with him. We met just briefly.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You remember during the September 9th crisis in Jos, you remember I was not in hostel?” Rahila nodded, her eyes saying, “go on”.
“I was with Nansel then and when I left his place, I decided to go home instead of coming to the hostel. What I did not know was that the killing was already in full swing. I took a City Service bus from Mista Ali junction to the State Locust through the Miango-Rukuba route. We were just outside Bauchi Road when we first saw the smoke, burning tires, buildings. We were afraid, a hush fell on the bus, there were about twenty of us in that bus. It was a forty-seater.
“Someone picked up the BBC, that there was a religious strife going on in Jos. Jos? Our Jos? But we were in Jos. We could not believe it. But we saw the smoke, and we passed boys with machetes. We heard the wailing, of women, children. We saw a dead man by the side of the road. We were afraid and we all started praying.”
Sekyen heaved a sigh. This was a story Rahila had not heard before, she had not told her because she preferred to not have seen the dead man looking butchered and horrible by the side of the street, she had preferred not to remember the day she had been picked for death because she had gone to be with her man. She would have been among the dead. Many girls she knew died.
“Some Muslim women were wailing at the back of the car. Which side would catch us, Christians or Muslims? What would they do with us? I was afraid. I knew girls could get raped and I knew if that happened to me I would kill myself. I was very afraid. The driver was a Yoruba man; I did not know what religion he was. But I did know he could just as well give us into the hands of Muslims or Christians, depending on who caught us. I knew him from nowhere, couldn’t even remember his face, still can’t. He drove sedately, in a manner not to attract attention. But we were the only bus on streets full of burnt cars.
“Out of the blues four boys, none of them above nineteen, appeared in front of the bus, in the middle of the road. We had to stop. One of them had a gun. My heart was in my mouth. I peed on myself. I was not the only one. They are Muslims, I thought, I am going to die.“
“A boy opened the side door and climbed in. He was a boy, no more than seventeen. But he had a machete in his hand and there was blood on it, there was bloodlust in his eyes. He was stripped to the waist and apart from the machete, a dagger lat in a scabbard tied to his left upper arm. ‘Dukkan Chrishen a motan nan za su mutu ’, all the Christians in this bus will die, he said. Rahila, fear has a smell and I perceived it in that bus, emanating from my own heart and the heart of others. I don’t know how many of us were Christian and how many were Muslim. I knew I was not a Muslim and could not pass for one. Our ordeal was to recite a verse of the Koran. I had never seen a Koran before. My heart was beating. I knew God would not save me. I was saying the Ave Maria over and over again –pray for us sinners now and at the time of our deaths.
“A man sat in the front of the bus and three rows of seats were unoccupied before mine, and then the others sat behind me. The bus was only half full. I had not noticed the man when I entered. His back was to me. He stood up, he was taller than the boy, but he did not have a machete, or a gun. But he was a Muslim. ‘La’illa illa lahu, Muhamad rasul’Allah’ he said, and then he proceeded to recite the required verse in Arabic. The boy was puzzled a bit, by the Arabic I am sure, and he asked his other collaborator standing just outside the bus door ‘Ya fada kwarai?’. But he had barely gotten his answer when the man who had just recited the verse stepped from between the seats; I have never seen a person so angry, so anguished.
“He grabbed the boy, cursing him in Hausa and Arabic, that he was a disgrace because he knew no Arabic. That he did not have Islam, that the boy was a kafiri. He was so angry. The boy, taken aback, had yielded space for the man who promptly slapped him very hard and punched him out of the bus. The man jumped down and started kicking the boy, still cursing him in Hausa and Arabic. The other boys, at a loss at what to do, their bravado melting in the face of this mad man, a Muslim who spoke Arabic, a language they did not understand, the boys were taken aback. They began begging the Mallam. Then abruptly, he stopped cursing. He asked them in Hausa who their Mallam was and they were afraid. They begged profusely and he asked why they, Muslims, would harass the family of a fellow Muslim when there were so many pagans to kill? That he would report them to their Mallam for having assaulted his aged mother and sisters.”
“Wallahi, Rahila, we in the bus were just looking as if we could not comprehend, as if our brains were addled and frozen. The next thing we knew, the boys ran away, the one with the pistol had dropped it. The man entered the bus with the pistol in his hands; he held it like he knew how to use it. He locked the bus door.
‘Driver, I want you to drive as fast as you can and get us out of here, they will be back. Where are you going?’ he asked us all.
We still could not believe what he had done.
He was not angry at all, he too, was afraid now. We told him and while the driver put as much distance as his engine could crank up, the man, he was a young man planned out how we could all get home in safe groups. That was how I survived that day.”
Rahila was silent, remembering her own ordeal that trying day and how Nabila had come into her life that same day.
“The man, who was he? Did you get to know his name?”
“No, but I did see him. The next time I saw him was the day you took me to meet him at Apollo Crescent. That man from September 9th was your Faruk. He risked his life to save the life of strangers, my life amongst them. That is why I am happy for you. Don’t lose him, Rahila; don’t let our society come between you by default. I love you too much to see you become the very monster you are fighting. I know you are stronger than you think and can overcome. Wallahi, Rahila, the man from that day is your Faruk Ibrahim.”
Faruk stood with his elbows resting between the ridges of the chest high picket fencing, looking at the sunny still dry fields with nostalgia in his eyes. Sani or one of the men had a tractor inside dropping the dry hay the cows loved so much. Just a few years before, he used to do all that. He used to enjoy riding his bicycle and standing just as he stood now by the fencing daydreaming away, creating scenarios from the clouds, imagining what the cows were saying, wondering if his mother had liked the cows before she died. It felt nice to walk in the paces of childhood and enter once again into the poses of bygone years when life was as simple as cumulus clouds floating dignifiedly across the sky.
He counted. There were thirty cows in the field, most of them were around the spot where the crunchy hay had just been offloaded and the others were making their way there. He recalled that cattle enjoy the dry dusty stuff very much. The tractor had already made its way out of the field and someone had gotten down and locked the gate after it. There were five lots like this and altogether a little over a hundred beef cattle. He used to help Rose run the ranch and he had learnt to drive a tractor when he was thirteen. He had watched countless births and knew how to deliver a calf as much as any other man on Zinder Ranch.
Ibrahim Dibarama looked on at his son from the passenger side of a little Suzuki jeep and he too reminisced when Faruk had been the little lord of the manor with the bright red BMX bike he had gotten him for his fourteenth birthday. Most times, the boy spent his breaks from school here on the ranch. He had loved it here, amongst the brown fields and the smell of nature. But of course, in so short time, Faruk had grown old enough for university and gradually had begun to find his own way around life, which was inevitably away from his father and the ranch and ranges of his childhood.
“He looks like he used to years ago, you remember?”
Rose Dakyen smiled. “Yes, Colonel, he does. Your son is a fine man now.”
Faruk had spotted them while they were still far off and he waited for them, turning his back on the field. Rose drew the little Suzuki to a stop just on the other side of the road from him and his father stepped out, wearing a simple polo shirt, jeans, sandals and a face cap from some golf club.
“So, our teacher has finally come to see his old folks?” the Colonel said when Faruk reached him and the son grinned, wondering if his father would let the emotions show. Sometimes he did, sometimes not.
“I cannot forget my father”, he said.
His father nodded, gripped his hand and hugged hum, kissing him on both cheeks and Faruk returned his father’s warmth.
“Welcome back, son.”
“Thank you sir. Auntie Rosie, how are you doing? You look like you’ve just turned sixteen again”, he said, enveloping his surrogate mother in a big hug. She did look good, there was a glow in her skin and he noticed that like his father she was relieved he was home and he wondered what part in the drama of the past six months she had played.
“There you go flattering, just like your father!” she said, smiling good-naturedly “You’ve grown so tall! What did they feed you in Bolewa?”
“Surely you flatter me, aunty Rosie. Everyday I kept on thinking how much I missed your cooking and was sad that I couldn’t just drive over and be sure to have my stomach a fine fill of food. But really, you look very good.”
“Thank you”, she said.
Faruk turned back to the field and his father and Rose followed his gaze.
“It seems like yesterday, I was just thinking, when I had the run of this place. It’s been years yet it doesn’t seem to have changed at all. Just like yesterday.”
“You gave us memories. That is even closer than yesterday, it is in our hearts and sometimes when I go about seeing everything is in order, I think of you riding your red bike all over the place. You never gave me any trouble, much less than any of the cattle.”
“Kai, all this sentimental talk is not fit for my ears wallahi, I have just been listening to grandma and grandchild. Tell me about your trip and how you found Bolewa?”
Faruk laughed at his father’s antics, as if it was not the same man who had just hugged him and kissed his cheek twice.
He laughed again and spread his arms around their shoulders. He was just a little bit taller than the old Colonel and he stood a shoulder above the dark-skinned Taroh woman.
“The trip was okay, bumpy because of the potholes and all that but it went well all through. And Bolewa was just fine. I met the Emir and he said to say hello and that you should visit sometime, that history was too long and life too short. But, let’s go back to the house so we can sit and I’ll tell you everything and you will tell me all that’s been happening while auntie Rosie make me some salad. How does that sound, aunty Rosie?”
A quite forsaken look had come in the Colonel’s eyes, lasting less than a second as sentiments were with him, when he heard the Emir’s message. He thought, what stops me from going back now, to visit at least? Jos and the North Central State were his home now, true, but he had done his duty to his wife, their son was safe from the drag of the harmful antipodals that had taken Ummi al-Qassim’s youth from her, the boy was free now to make choices for his own life and to captain his destiny.
And that was all Ummi al-Qassim had asked for.
“That’s just fine with me”, Rose said, “But we will have to stop over at the office. I want to make sure some work has been done there.”
So they piled into the little jeep, Rose and Faruk sitting in front while the Colonel, who liked to complain he was old, unthinkingly and easily jumped into the back of the two and they laughed at this reprise of his military days and its ingrained nature.
And the Colonel laughed too, because his son had come home and he was happy. The mood of the day had also changed in subtle degrees; gone was the cold chill of the morning and its persecution - in its place existed warmth from the dispersal of thousands of little sunrays to the brown earth and to the grass, to the grazing cattle and the Vom-Bukuru mountain who watched over them all, watching the bathe of sunrays fall upon the heads of the three people in the cramped little jeep who were content and who would not, for the first time since the death of Habib Ummi al-Qassim, hold back from each other their feelings and the story of their fears.
Continued next week...