Poets at War
By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo (Nigeria)
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The first time Obidike came to Tijani Wali’s house was to quell Tijani’s anger. As an adviser to the students’ literary society, Obidike had organized a well-received showing of an Indian film, Mother India, at their Government Girls’ School, Kano. The film offended Tijani.
“Our girls should not be exposed to filth like that,” Tijani protested after the show. “Their young minds should be groomed with elements of our cultural heritage and not struck open to foreign cultural imperialism.”
It was the first time Obidike came into direct contact with Tijani since he resumed at the school as an Arabic teacher. His published profile said he was a recent graduate of the University of Cairo.
“Would you have preferred a Hollywood movie?” Obidike asked.
Tijani did not find it funny. He walked away. His lanky body swung along with the same gait as a wheat stem being blown by a mild wind. As he walked, the flapping of his leather slippers on his heels covered his trousers with dust.
Obidike followed him, pleading along the way that he did not mean any harm. Rumour had it Tijani was the Islamic religious leaders' eye and ear to censor what the girls were taught. Obidike would have asked him where his sense of humor was, but the bearded teacher had never been caught smiling.
“Do you mind if I come over and we talk about it over tea?” Obidike asked, as he continued to tag behind, fully aware that he must lessen the situation before the sun rose the next day or he might be fired.
“What is there to discuss?” Tijani said as he approached his quarters that stood about a hundred meters from Obidike’s.
“Oh, a lot,” Obidike answered. “Like what you dislike about the movie. And what I think are the similarities in the theme and what these young girls we teach need to learn about life.”
Obidike knew nothing would save him should his case get to the religious police monitoring un-Islamic teachings in schools. Not even the minor literary stardom he acquired when his poem was published by Christopher Okigbo in the journal, Black Orpheus. He had seen finer minds asked to leave schools because of infractions considered blasphemous by the religious police.
Despite the perennial outbreaks of ethnic clashes between his Igbo settlers and Hausa indigenes, Obidike had never considered leaving Kano. He had endured being ridiculed as money-loving Igbo who locals called nyamiri. He had mastered Hausa language with so much flair that he now sprinkled his sentences with their proverbs. Obidike found the North soothing in a way that was impossible in the South. The mellowed mood of life was the kind of creative environment he felt he needed to bloom. Though, sometimes, he wondered if he was really afraid of the competition in the South. Recently, however, Ngozi, a beautiful daughter of an Igbo chief he discovered in Sabo Ngari – land of foreigners-- had become his strongest reason for staying. He had continued to woo her and was hopeful that he would succeed in marrying her.
The two teachers were now standing at the front of Tijani’s house.
“Thank you very much,” Obidike said as Tijani reluctantly invited him in. On Tijani’s face was a mixture of curiosity and hatred. Obidike sat on a wooden chair outside the corridor of a modest two-bedroom bungalow that looked magnificent amongst thatch houses that littered the landscape of the ancient city.
“It is a shame that we are neighbors but have not had time to visit each other and exchange views.” This was Obidike's way of igniting a conversation between him and Tijani. The latter offered him a bowl of local brew, kunu.
Tijani did not talk much, Obidike observed. Even as they drank kunu, it did not decrease the tension.
“Mother India,” Obidike said, redirecting their discussion, “for me, was about one woman’s struggle to restore the dignity of her family and her society against manmade evil and personal misfortune, more in the mold of a triumph of the human spirit. That’s what I got out of it. What did you get out of it?”
“For me,” Tijani said almost immediately, rolling his eyes for maximum effect, “Sukhilala’s greed and corruption of his society was a nagging reminder of what your Igbo people do in Kano and other Northern cities.”
Words came out of Tijani’s mouth cold and calculated. Their hyped aggression sent chills down Obidike’s spine. But Obidike decided he would not be scared.
“That’s rather a narrow interpretation of the movie,” Obidike said, “but I respect that. Each viewer has the right to take out of the movie what he wants.” Then he paused. “All I want is for these girls we teach to develop their own critical mind so that they too can arrive at their own conclusions, chikena.”
“If it produces water,” Tijani said, “it is a well; if it doesn’t, it is latrine.”
For the rest of the evening, Obidike kept trying to describe to Tijani the reasons why Lebanese distributors felt Indian movies would appeal to people in Northern Nigeria. Obidike pontificated that irrespective of the plot, the movies were always a struggle between modernity and traditional values.
He was not sure if his effort was making any impact on Tijani. For the most part, Tijani listened silently. He was however irritated when Obidike began to speak of specific similarities like the tension in arranged marriages common in India and Northern Nigeria. If he was talking to someone with a sense of humor, Obidike would have mentioned that people in India chew sugar cane like people in Northern Nigeria.
“The girls we teach,” Obidike said, “can relate to some of these similarities.”
“Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense,” Tijani said. “We see the neck of the monkey before we tie it up from its lower back. The trouble with you foreigners is that you all think up North we are dumb and do not know what we are doing. In case you don’t know, the tortoise knows how to embrace his wife.”
“I take it that you think you know what is good for these girls,” Obidike suggested. “You really don’t. Until you walk in their shoes you cannot claim that you understand what forced marriage does to these young girls. Mba, no, no, no.”
“What you’re espousing is against Islam,” Tijani warned.
“Or is it your cultural interpretations of Qur’anic codes?” Obidike asked, almost regretting that he took it this far.
“Useless thing, a nose without a hole,” Tijani muttered as he walked into his room, leaving Obidike sitting in the corridor.
Obidike waited for a while. He walked away when he began to hear the guitar-like music of the kuntigi Tijani was playing in his room.
Obidike and Tijani met several other times but none was as tense as the first time. Not even when Obidike’s short story, “The Importance of Gada Prostitutes” was a runner up at the 1965 Commonwealth Prize.
“What a bundle of contradictions,” Tijani said to Obidike as other teachers came to congratulate him on the news. “On the one hand you advocate a challenge to traditional mores and on the other hand, you blame society for the prostitutes of Gada. You can’t eat your tuwo and have it.”
It was in the cafeteria full of staff. Standing in as a moderator was the recently acquired American Peace Corps volunteer, Vivian Boyd.
“Why do they choose to be prostitutes?” Obidike asked. “Why do they locate to Gada? Does it have anything to do with the fact they were married out at age ten and eleven to men they didn't love? Those are the questions my story tries to ask and find answers to.”
“Inana, not true,” Tijani protested. ”You may not have glorified prostitution but you surely made them look like victims of society who should not only be pitied but also embraced. Ba za a jirayi girman wada ba, domin ba a yi shi don ya girma ba, one cannot wait for the dwarf to grow because he was not made to grow.”
The debate continued until the school principal walked in.
Tijani and Obidike finally came at each other’s throat over a poem one of Obidike’s students, Amina, wrote for the school magazine. As a deputy editor of the magazine, Tijani insisted that Obidike who was editing the magazine should remove Amina’s poem.
“Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense,” Tijani screamed. “Soyayya is not literature. It corrupts the minds of the young. It is badly written by poorly educated kids.”
Obidike won, but the cost was high. At the end of the confrontation, Tijani had come to the conclusion that Obidike was on a mission to corrupt and destroy just like Igbo folks who were trading in Kano. And Tijani believed that Obidike was more dangerous because he was destroying the mind and soul of young people.
“Ana ga doki kana g aura, one sees a horse, but you see dust,” Obidike said to Tijani as he arrived at his own conclusion that Tijani was beyond reform. “If you do not agree with the phases of the moon, don’t cover it up or tear it down. Just get a ladder and repair it.”
Obidike smelt dust. He looked out of the window and it had engulfed his quarters. He prodded his six month pregnant wife to get herself together and follow him. “We have to run to Tijani’s house and beg him to protect us,” he said, lifting a wooden box into which he and his wife, Ngozi, had been putting their belongings.
Ngozi, mad about leaving behind her wigs and china, wanted to protest the idea of going to Tijani’s house but the shout across the street was deafening Allah Akhbar, Allah Akhbar, sang wild-eyed young men with blood dripping from machetes, axes and arrows that had gone in and out of many bodies.
“Kill off all nyamri,” their leader screamed. “Don’t let any of them see tomorrow.”
And the mob chanted:
“Away with the military regime
Away with the nyamiri
Independence for the North.”
Obidike grabbed Ngozi’s hand. Standing beside Ngozi, he looked shorter than he actually was, for Ngozi was almost six feet. If they were in the village, knucklehead boys would say that she could give him a knock on the head with her chin.
Together they tiptoed across a dead maize farm and millet field that demarcated his house from Tijani’s. Obidike was careful not to shake the sugar cane plants by the wall lest he attracted the attention of men still dragging their feet along the dusty street behind the wall.
“You know Tijani doesn’t like us,” Ngozi sobbed. “Can’t we run to some other place?”
“His is the closest house around,” Obidike said to his wife in a faint whispering tone. His broad nose was running. With the back of his hand, he wiped off his nose. “All the streets are full of angry mobs. And soon they will come here for us and eat us alive. Our only chance of seeing tomorrow is with Tijani. It is something hotter than fire that forces a toad to jump into a fire.”
Obidike and Ngozi found Tijani’s front door open. They walked in and made their way into the spare room adjacent to his bedroom. They were sweating from head to toe when they stepped in and found Vivian Boyd and Patrick Carroll, two American Peace Corps volunteers standing by a corner of the room. They felt relieved to see the two Americans. Vivian, a math teacher at the school, was talking to the camera while Patrick, a producer of educational television programs for Kano schools, was recording.
“They almost mistook me for an Igbo woman,” Vivian said looking into the camera, her face still frozen in horror. She was in her late twenties, from Virginia. A little chubby, when dressed in traditional African attire she always passed for an African. The scorching sun of Kano had finally returned her black skin back to its African origin. “One of the men grabbed me and another pulled his sword off the sheath. He was about to strike when one of my students screamed that I was an American.” She wiped the sweat off her face and lit a cigarette.
Patrick, a white boy from Iowa, instinctively turned the camera on Obidike and Ngozi and began to ask questions. “What do you feel about the state of Nigeria? Are you for Nzeogwu or are you against him? Will you go back to the East or will you stay in the North? If there is a civil war will you fight? Where do you see Nigeria ten years down the road?” The madness had turned him into the reporter he had always wanted to be.
Obidike and Ngozi were still trembling with fear and incapable of uttering a word. Patrick screwed the camera to the tripod and walked over to them. He hugged them and held tight to them. Vivian came over and joined. They all sat on the floor and for some minutes did not say a word.
Obidike knew Tijani was back when he heard feet pounding the ground beside the window. Though cold harmattan wind was filtering into the room, hot lines of sweats dripped down his face. His heartbeat increased with each second that passed. Ignoring reassurances from Patrick and Vivian, he listened to the angry chattering of the men outside. Goose pimples crept over his skin as he overheard Tijani instructing them on where to pick up bundles of machetes and spears. He looked at Ngozi, and wished he had agreed to send her to his hometown, Nnobi, at the moment riot first broke out in the West. But he loved her so much that he could not stand to live apart from her, especially now that she was in the last trimester of her pregnancy.
“Yaya dai, How now?” Obidike asked in Hausa as Tijani walked into the room. His voice was subdued and quaking. Anyone who had watched him play Julius Caesar in the Shakespearean play would not recognize his pathetic voice. On his cheek were streams of tears, some dry like dead river beds others fresh like newborn springs. Tijani was sweaty; the helm of his white flowing dress had blood stains on them. He had released weapons and the school vans to the mobs as they headed for the Igbo residences. He walked in almost knocking down Patrick’s tripod. He did not look at Obidike. He did not acknowledge his greetings.
“Hope you don’t mind if we stay here until it is safe for us to go home,” Obidike continued. He watched in fear as Tijani ignored him again and instead walked up to Vivian and Patrick. “Here is the key to my Volkswagen Beetle,” Tijani said. “Take it to your hotel and pick up your things. Vivian can go with you. I have a friend outside who will accompany you for protection. When you come back, I will take you two to the airport for your journey to Lagos.”
Vivian and Patrick stood up, took the key from his hands and thanked him. They walked out of the room quickly, patting Obidike and Ngozi on the back.
“See you when we come back,” Vivian said.
For a while, Tijani stood there and glanced at Obidike and his wife without saying a word. His blank eyes made him look like a hyena taking a final gaze at a goat before the pounce. His tall and skinny frame was lean and firm.
“Please let us stay here until things quiet down,” Obidike pleaded, his voice cracking. Ngozi knelt down and joined him to plead. As she bent her back in a bow, her belly grazed the cement floor.
Tijani did not answer until he heard the sound of the Beetle driving off.
“Why would I want to help you?” Tijani asked. “Why? Wasn’t it your Igbo brother, Kaduna Nzeogwu, that killed Saduana, the Premier of the North in their bid to dominate everyone in Nigeria? He murdered the Saduana in his room and here you are in my room asking me to save you. Why will I do such a stupid thing?” He pumped his fist as he spoke. His furious voice swirled in Obidike’s head like the ceiling fan over their head.
“Consider that I am not part of that military and political class,” Obidike pleaded. His knees gave up as he spoke. He joined Ngozi on the floor in a kneeling posture. “You have known me for more than two years and I take you as my friend.”
“Please,” Ngozi begged, her hands holding tight to her belly.
“You really want me to help you so that when it is all over you will continue to corrupt my people and treat us like shit?” Tijani asked, his voice rising.
“Please, Tijani,” Obidike begged, with head bowed toward Tijani. Ngozi followed suit. Tears rushed out of their eyes. Filling into their nose was a strange odor of raw sewage mixed with burning tire.
Tijani looked away in disgust. The lines of agitated veins popped out across his face.
“Mene ka ke so? What do you want? I will give you everything I have if you save our lives,” Obidike said.
“What do you have that you can give?” Tijani asked, dismissively. He did not look at Obidike as he spoke.
“I have some money that I have been saving for a car. It is in this box, you can have it.”
“Money,” Tijani sighed. “Nyamiri and money… It is always about money for you people.”
“It is all that I have. You can take anything in my house. Anything. Just let us live.”
“Musa,” Tijani called, ignoring Obidike’s plea.
Musa, a fifteen year old house help ran in from the backyard. He shared the same physical features as Tijani, except for his neck that was a little longer.
“Am here, Megida,” Musa said.
Tijani walked up to the boy and whispered into his ears. The boy walked out and came back in with nylon ropes.
“Please, Tijani, spare our lives,” Obidike begged in-between sobs. “I will give you anything you want.”
Tijani took the rope from Musa and together they began to tie Obidike’s hands behind his back. Obidike kicked in the air several times before he struck Tijani in the groin. He was quickly subdued by Tijani and Musa. His wife jumped in, scratching Musa on the face and biting him on the bottom. Musa gave her a blow on her neck and she fell down.
“You want to run out there and save your life?” Tijani mocked. “Have you ever seen a cockroach that is innocent in a gathering of fowls?”
As tears rolled out of Obidike’s eyes, his wife wailed.
“Shut up that stinking mouth before I smash it,” Tijani ordered, his eyes red with anger.
Hands and legs tied, Obidike lay on the floor and watched as Ngozi’s hands and legs were tied too. Her wailing stopped when Musa stuffed cement paper bags in her mouth, then pulled his pants down, pushed up Ngozi’s skirt and forced himself inside her, thrusting his slender body right on top of her belly.
Tijani walked to the backyard. Minutes later, when Musa was done and gone back to the backyard, Tijani reappeared with a sharp butcher’s knife in his hand, the kind used to slice a cow’s throat. He walked up to Ngozi, without saying a word he placed the knife underneath her brown blouse and sliced it from her belly area to the neck, cutting half her black bra, exposing her big stomach and breasts.
“Please, don’t do that,” Obidike begged. “Please kill me instead. Please, please.”
“I will kill you,” Tijani said. “But first, I want to take care of the unborn. By the time it is over, when we are done with your kind, the battle will just be with the unborn nyamiri.”
With one hand, Tijani yanked off her skirt. Her belly popped out like a ripe boil. On a careful look, Obidike could see bumps of the baby kicking on the walls of the stomach. It was more frequent than he had ever seen it. He thought the baby had assessed the situation and was desperate to come out. At one point, he could see the prints of his tiny foot on Ngozi’s belly.
Obidike twigged and wangled toward Tijani. He stretched his tied hands to grab Tijani. In one swoop, Tijani kicked Obidike in the face with his left foot. The knock tore Obidike’s lips. A line of blood dripped down his chin.
Tijani bent on top of Ngozi and in one stroke slit her stomach. The knife ran through layers after layers of flesh with the ease of a surgeon’s cut. Blood gushed out. It splashed on Tijani’s hand and all over his face.
“No, no,” Obidike screamed. “No, no.”
Tijani was unmoved by Obidike’s screams. He wiped the blood off the knife on Obidike’s face and took a deeper cut into Ngozi’s abdominal wall, exposing the uterus. He slid in the tip of his knife and cut the uterine covering. He slashed the body down until it made an incision as wide as a donkey’s mouth. Ngozi jerked violently for the last time and stayed still. Tijani dipped both blood-stained hands inside and pulled out the child. His precision showed he had done it many times before. He raised the child up, the umbilical cord hanging along the way.
“A boy,” Tijani said, “another trader of fake goods or nonsense teacher?”
Obidike let out a sorrowful cry. He swung up with all his weight and hit his head on Tijani’s back. Tijani swaggered but quickly regained his balance. Obidike charged again but Musa who had walked in knocked him down with a wooden pestle used to grind pepper.
Covered in the slimy birth fluid which was still oozing from its mouth and nose, the baby seemed to be attempting to open his eyes.
“Now he is here,” Tijani said as he took his knife to the baby’s face. The baby tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. Obidike managed to raise his head up. In a brief moment, he looked at the baby who had the broad nose of his grandfather. He opened his eyes wider to see the baby’s forehead; what he saw was Tijani’s knife going to the baby’s throat. In a stroke he sliced open the baby’s throat. “And now he’s not,” Tijani said, gleaming.
Tijani dumped the baby on Ngozi’s breasts. “Now go ahead and suck, you bastard.”
Tijani then stretched himself and moved over to Obidike.
“Here comes your greatest story and what did you do? You passed out! Shame! Shame!” he taunted. “Where is your pen, Shakespeare? Where is it? Nonsense teacher. I don’t think you will make it to the big league. Not like this.”
He swung at Obidike and stabbed him twice in the chest. He pointed the knife to his left eye, in a quick circular motion he plucked it out. “When you reincarnate, you will be blind,” he said. He did the same with the right eye.
Then he pulled down Obidike’s trousers and sliced open his scrotum, letting the testicles fall on the floor. Tijani raised his hand slowly back to Obidike’s head and slit his throat. Satisfied, he dropped the knife, just at the tripod of Patrick’s camera.
“Musa,” he called out.
Musa walked in and looked unfazed at the sight.
“Clean this mess up,” Tijani said, as he walked out.
One after the other, Musa dragged the corpses out of the room towards the backyard.
When Vivian and Patrick returned, Tijani was outside waiting for them. He loaded the camera into the trunk and got into the car.
“Could we say goodbye to Obidike and Ngozi before we go?” Vivian said.
“They are not here anymore,” Tijani answered. His wild eyelids blinked.
“I hope you did not send them away. It is dangerous out there,” Vivian said. “If not for the driver you gave us, we wouldn’t have made it to my quarters.”
“No,” Tijani reassured them as he started the car. “I sent them to the only place I know where they will be safe.”