A Tough Turf
By Olusola Akinwale (Nigeria)
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Every morning I wake up the same way. The voice blaring from the speakers of the mosque three buildings away from ours calls adherents to Subh, the 5:30 a.m. prayer, and wakes me up from my sleep and dream too. The dream could be sweet and it could be terrible. There were mornings I was upset, wishing the mosque’s Tannoy developed an electrical fault. These were mornings the booming voice abruptly cut my sweet dream, like the morning I dreamt I was appointed the Managing Director of a conglomerate. There were mornings I also had reasons to thank the same voice for cutting me off from a terrible dream, like the morning I dreamt a half-human, half-goat creature was pursuing me in broad daylight, with no one to rescue me.
“Wait, wait, my friend! Let’s talk, let’s have lunch together,” said the strange creature.
“No, no, I’m not your friend,” I replied, darting away with a speed that would make the Olympics sprint champion green with envy.
I had never seen a goat as fast as that before. I could have taken her for Black Bengal dwarf goat of Bangladesh, one of the breeds we were taught in Agriculture in high school, if not for the human head. She was almost catching up with me when the voice blared from the speakers and woke me up. I’m not one of the religion adherents, but that morning I said “Allah Akbar” thrice when I woke up. It was a great escape.
There are mornings I defy the voice and continue sleeping. These are mostly Saturday mornings. The church behind our house holds vigil every Friday night, and the singing, drumming, clapping and praying do keep us awake. No one is able to sleep until the vigil is over about 4:00 a.m. on Saturday. And when the Subh call blares from the speakers not too long after, I turn in bed to continue sleeping, after all there’s no rush to go to work by the household.
I’ve been living with my elder brother since three years. This was after I had graduated from a university east of the country. There’s nothing special about my typical day. After the voice had woken me up, I would lie still for some moments, arms folded across my chest, thinking about my life. I think of no other thing than my joblessness. For three years I had moved from one office to another, looking for a job. I had made several copies of my CV and given it to those who had promised to help me get a job. I’m still expecting the miracle job.
"Maybe it will come today,” I hear an inner voice say whenever I think in bed.
It’s six 0’ clock. I hear the ringing of the bell from the sitting room. It’s time for the early morning devotions. I get out of bed and stretch. I could hear the creaking of my limbs. They seem to be saying, “Andy, please put us to work, we are tired of being made redundant.” I’m often the last person to get to the sitting room for the devotions. I’m not eager for prayers like my brother. Brother Paul, as the brethren call him, is very crazy about his faith.
His wife, Leah, knocks my bedroom door and urges me to come out for the devotions. I leave for the sitting room to join them and take the seat at the corner of the room. It’s my usual seat, no one else occupies it. Their three children know this. They do tell their friends, "It is Uncle Andy’s seat."
The session is always short, just twenty minutes. One thing I like about Paul is his time-consciousness. He wouldn’t’ want to get late to work neither his children late to school. Leah is not time-conscious. When Paul travelled out of the country for a two-week capacity building workshop, she had handled the devotions all alone and dragged it to over sixty minutes with her prayers. The morning she released us earliest was when she spent forty minutes. It was because her children had complained that they got to school very late. I need not blame her. First, she is her own boss. She had employed three girls to open her shop before she gets there. In the shop, she sells fabrics, shoes, bags, jewellery, children wear and other accessories. And as their brethren do say, the Lord is blessing her indeed! Second, she belongs to the prayer band in their church. I think it was the spirit of intercession that descended on her and made her to prolong the devotions.
This morning she says the opening prayer and leads us in a few songs before Paul signals to her to round off. From the Daily Devotional Guide, he reads out the Bible text for us to open our Bibles too. Paul has never attended any School of Theology, but he’s very good in the Word. I once told him he could become a Pastor. He would say he understands Bible verses through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But one thing I don’t like Paul for is that he manipulates the topic of each day to hit my joblessness.
There was a morning the topic was, “Giving thanks in all situations.” When Paul mentioned different unpalatable situations we may find ourselves, he harped more on joblessness. He said, “Even if you’re jobless, give thanks to God.”
Another day the topic was, “It shall not prosper!” The Bible verse was the popular “no weapon formed against us shall prosper.” I was thinking how Paul would manipulate the topic when he said that “no weapon of joblessness formed against anyone in the house shall prosper.”
Then I began to think if my joblessness was an attack from the enemy. Paul manipulates each topic as if I’m the only one having a problem in the house.
Today’s topic is no exemption. It is entitled, “Take it by force!” Paul had read the Bible verse which says “the kingdom of God suffereth violence and only the violent taketh it by force” before he began to expatiate on it. Paul says we can never get whatever we desire on a platter of gold. I agree with him. He says it’s high time we began to take our rightful place. Expectedly, he adds that anyone that needs a job must be ready to take it by force. I find Paul’s message this morning confusing. I’m confused because I don’t know how I would take a job by force. Does he mean I would walk into a company, like an oil company I had thought I would work in, and force the management to offer me a job? How would I apply the force? With the use of a gun, a machete, or what?
With the devotions over, I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, waiting for Paul’s children to be dressed-up for school. It has become my duty to take them to school every morning. Bimpe, one of the girls working with Leah, takes them back home in the afternoon. After taking them to school, I call at the news-stand at Ketu bus stop as usual.
The news-stand is the convergence of angry young men, an army of jobless youths who could soon take up arms. It is a place where we agree and disagree and vent the anger of government’s failure to provide essential services on ourselves. It is a place where one comes across economic, political and sports analysts who have never been fortunate to be on TV and radio.
The vendor, Bello, has this great grin on his face. He is our host, though he may not really agree to it. The truth is, if he didn’t put up the news-stand we wouldn’t gather there. He has a long table, which should be about three hundreds metres, on which he displays the newspapers. He shelters himself from the searing sun under a lemon green parasol having the logo of a telecommunication company. On the table, there’s a section for soft-sell magazines. There’s also a section for business newspapers. To the far right hand side of Bello is the section for Yoruba newspapers. The dailies are displayed in the centre, followed by the weekly news magazines. There’s another section for Christian religion magazines while all-sports papers are displayed at the other end of the table.
There is nothing to cheer about all the papers except the sports ones. The soft-sell magazines either tell of celebrities whose marriages had crashed or two actresses fighting over a London based man. The Yoruba papers either tell of how a man had died mysteriously or the infighting among Fuji musicians over an unofficial title. The business magazines tell about the dwindling economy, job losses or depreciation of the nation’s currency at the inter-bank market. The religion magazines tell about the end time signs, “666” or how a man turned to a goat and a woman to a snake.
I exchange banter with Area Father and join the folks standing in front of the table to read the headlines. Some had been there as early as 7:00 a.m., before Bello started to arrange the papers on the table. The majority of us don’t buy the dailies. We constitute the Free Readers Association popularly known as “FRA”. The headlines bring no good tidings.
“Sectarian violence erupts in the North.”
“14 died in building collapse.”
“Adulterated teething mixture kills 16 children.”
“Anti-Graft agency arrests Senator Olowo over $40 million contract scam.”
As it is the tradition, we split into discussion units to discuss the headline that interests us. New units would be formed now and again. But these units wouldn’t last long before we break up again and form new ones. I do make Area Father’s unit my first unit because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the nation’s political history. He knows the genesis of the nation’s political crises, right from the days of the nationalists. He was the one that told us how Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for self-government on April 1, 1953. He had explained it as if he was part of the then Parliament. And he seems to flaunt his decaying incisors whenever he speaks.
Area Father had retired from the civil service. He had served the nation for thirty years as a driver. But like other retirees he finds it very hard to collect his pension. His children had dropped out of school because he could no longer afford sending them there. He now depends on Baba Ijebu, a popular lotto, to feed his family. I do pity him because of the unpredictability of the game. In a day, he may play ten times with none of his selected numbers, or “jokers” as they call it, corresponding with the winning numbers. The day he won five thousand naira, his highest ever, we all ran to him for our own shares. He only went home with less than three thousand naira.
Area Father had begun to tell us another history when I see Embassy pick up the Guardian, one of the foremost dailies, on Bello’s table. I walk up to him and ask him to give me the job advertisement pages. I read through the job vacancies. None has a place for me. People who have five, seven and ten years experience are wanted.
“How will I have a working experience if I’m not employed?” I voice out in frustration.
“This country has nothing to offer you. You’re wasting your time here, I’ve told you to travel abroad,” Embassy says.
“Embassy, where would I get the money to travel out?”
“Don’t tell me you can’t get one thousand naira to apply for a visa lottery.”
“Even if I won I would still need about three hundred thousand naira to process the necessary documents and buy the flight ticket.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t have a family to assist you. No brother, sister or uncle to give you the money?”
“It’s not as easy as you think, Embassy.”
“Continue to waste your time here then. Those who are not better than you are there.”
Like most people who come to the news-stand, I don’t know Embassy’s real name. He’s called Embassy because he knows the address of most Embassies and High Commissions in the country by heart. He had travelled to six different countries: England, Greece, the U.S., the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Russia. He was deported from these countries because he was an illegal immigrant. I once heard him say he had ten International Passports with ten different identities. He has become an immigration consultant of some sorts, and had aided some to travel out of the country with fake documents.
Embassy believes travelling out of the country with fake documents is no crime. He says one is only being smart to get out of “hell” that one’s motherland has become. He believes one is not an illegal immigrant until one is apprehended. The last time he was deported was about a year and a half ago, and he keeps saying he will again leave the country soon.
At the news-stand, Embassy leads the section that believes nothing good can come out of the country again. He respects everyone. However, one will draw his anger if one says “the country shall be great again” when discussing national issues. He will call one a fool and defend his stand with five reasons he’s sure the country can never be great again.
“How would the economy improve or things change for good when your leaders have put on the garment of corruption?” he would ask. Those words would always drop like the clappers.
Only an optimist, a strong one, would not agree with him. Embassy is somewhat right. Corruption covers the land as water covers the sea. Many live in penury in the midst of plenty. Even a blind man could see it.
A heated argument had started among the cluster of football analysts. I leave Embassy and join them. Everyone is speaking atop his voice, arguing over a Portuguese footballer, Christiano Ronaldo, who we only see on TV. He had just completed a move from Manchester United of England to Real Madrid of Spain. It was a world record signing. Some say he is not worth the whopping 130 million dollar transfer fee Real Madrid had paid to Manchester United; others say he is really worth the fee. One man supporting the former argues vehemently as if his life depends on it. Others subtly avoid him because saliva collects in his mouth as he speaks. Amidst the cacophony of noise, I make my voice heard, backing the latter group. An argument of this kind doesn’t lead to a consensus. It’s always a case of no victor, no vanquish. Everyone returns home with his view. We only argue to forget our plight for some moments.
I leave for home after spending two hours at the news-stand. On the coffee table I see the note Leah had left for me before going to the shop. It says my food is left in the pot. I eat the food straight from the pot and wash the pot and other dishes left in the sink. I don’t know if Leah deliberately leaves the dishes or not. But I have realized that whenever she leaves them and returns to meet them unwashed, she reduces the measure of food she serves me the next three days. She had punished me the last time by giving me a bony piece of meat for three consecutive days. I think it is her way of telling me I should help do little chores in the house. I have since got the message.
I take a bath, wear another clothes and then move to the sitting room to put on the TV. I switch from one cable channel to another, watching movies, sports, news and documentaries till Bimpe brings the children home from school. Bimpe wriggles her behind like a belly dancer. Every so often she would squat -turning her back to me - to unlace the children's sneakers, and I would see the brightly coloured beads that dot her waist. I think she deliberately does this to make me pant for her. Occasionally I do imagine how it would feel touching that part of her flesh. I do resist the temptation to make advances to her as well. I know I would be doomed if I got any girl impregnated now. Who would bear the responsibility?
A quarter past five in the post meridien. I return to the news-stand to check the evening papers. Embassy had got there before me. I see Area Father trying his luck at the lotto kiosk. The traffic on the Ketu road is not that heavy and it seems no one would make a scene. Every evening we witness one form of pandemonium or the other, like a bus conductor and his passenger exchanging blows over five or ten naira change. It could also be a commercial bus driver and a private driver fighting over the first right to a part of the road or a motorcyclist running into one of the roadside hawkers. And the results? Chaos, a mad one, which had hitherto been lying low, sleeping, is let loosed. Unimaginable gridlock. Shrieking horns. Cursing voices. That is the picture of a typical evening at the bus stop.
Embassy buys roast maize. He cuts it into three and gives me and one other guy. The guy bites the maize like a hungry dog devouring a bony meat. I guess he had also talked to him about the visa lottery because he tells us both to make haste. Then I decide to apply for the visa lottery. I think Paul should be excited about my decision to travel out of the country.
It’s now late in the night. I'm sitting with Paul in the living room, to tell him about my new plan. The only light in the room comes from the TV which shows some fuzzy pictures for a brief moment. Paul likes the bulbs switched off when watching TV at night. He doesn’t have a specific reason for this. He says he just prefers it like that. Leah doesn’t like this at all, so she goes to bed early most times.
“Paul, I’ve decided to travel out of the country,” I begin.
“When did you make the decision?” he asks.
I could see shock and disbelief leap into his face.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“And where are you travelling to?”
He stiffles a giggle.
“You think it is that easy to enter the United States of America?” he says, faking a cockney accent.
“I will apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery.”
He giggles again and looks me in the eyes mischievously.
“Yes, or do you have any other idea?” I ask, my voice dropping to diminuendo.
“Look here Andy; there are so many things you don’t understand. Your miracle is not abroad; it is above,” he says, gesturing to heaven. “Don’t you know that visa lottery is visa mockery, a civilizing slavery?" he hammers. "When you get there you will be treated as a lower class citizen just like the Untouchables.”
“You had better stay in a place you are a first class citizen,” he continues, “Andy, you had better wait for God’s time and...” he trails off.
He picks up the TV remote control and begins surfing the terrestrial channels, not staying on one for more than a second or two. Not bothered about me any longer.
Tiny beads of sweat had formed circles on my face. I leave him quietly and go to bed. The carapace of my emotion has been shattered. I couldn't believe him saying such things. I never knew him to be poetic until he rhymed “lottery and mockery” and “abroad and above.” I need no seer to tell me that Paul had told me he would render no financial assistance. Impliedly? I think he enjoys seeing me lassoed by joblessness. I don’t agree with everything he had said. I think it is still better to live abroad as a lower class citizen than staying in this hell of a place. It didn’t dawn on Paul that this land has become a contradiction and a perilous abode to live in for the vast majority. He wouldn’t reason that most people here are not different from the Untouchables he mentioned. Maybe because he’s able to provide food, clothes and education for his children. What about people like Area Father and Hassan, the cobbler?
Sadness covers me like the dampening shroud of the mortician. I cast a vacant stare into space. The thought of going to Europe through the back door runs through my head as water to a pipe. I will join the desperadoes and leave the country for Mauritania en route Burkina Faso and straight to Western Sahara. I will journey from Western Sahara to Canary Island and then to Tetouan in Morocco. From there, I could stow away to Malaga or Seville in Spain. There, I would lie that I'm an asylum seeker from one of the war-torn regions of the continent. Asmara or Dafur or Mogadishu. Anyone of them that springs to mind, readily. No one should be oblivious of the crises in them.
"Do you think it is that easy, Andy?" I hear the inner voice say. It reminds me of countless numbers of souls that had been lost on the route. In the Sahara desert. I push the suicidal thought away from the threshold of my mind immediately.
Can I really wait for God’s time as brother Paul had said? When would the time come? Waiting for God’s time has become a cliché here. You hear it often. Even when Messer Julius could help his friend to meet a need now, he would still tell him to wait for God’s time. When a man rues a great opportunity that had passed him by, people would console him, saying it wasn’t God’s time for him. Everybody, young and old, male and female, says it. Even the feotus learns to say it in the womb.
I close my eyes, expecting sleep to take me away. Perhaps I would get a consolation in my dream, seeing myself seated by the window side on board Arik Air Airbus A340-500 flying to J.F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. There, I should be grinning like a Cheshire cat, delighted that I have finally left a tough turf. I could only hope the Subh voice won’t cut me off from the dream.