By Nonso Uzoze (Nigeria)
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Good Bye, Lagos
By Nonso Uzozie
Ekene was not a talking type. He only nodded to the advice his mother gave him that night as he packed his few old clothes into a raffia bag. Oga Obi would be taking him to Lagos the next day. Many things were going on in his mind, but he managed to listen to his mother, a woman who spoke with great weakness caused by hunger. He imagined his life in Lagos. He began to imagine his return as a rich man. Finally he built a wonderful picture of her mother’s life when he would return a rich man. It was a life where his mother would change her old torn wrapper; a life where they would never feed in palm kernels and boiled cassava, a life where there were no ringworms and lice on the big heads of his siblings. These gave him hope and precious confidence to follow Oga Obi to Lagos, because his dream had to come true, he had to rewrite his house’s story.
'Ekene, my son,' his mother called him in a tone of finality. He knew what it meant. He should not fail her. His going to Lagos meant a lot to her; he was her hope for a new life. He was the husband she missed.
‘Mother,’ Ekene whispered and wiped the tears in his eyes. He did not know if they were tears of joy or tears of sadness.
One could say that Ekene was lucky, or that his dreams came true. Just like every other village boy, Ekene had dreamed of going to the city. In his own case, he could not stop dreaming because the burden of his family was on his shoulders. Since the death of his father, his family had been used as an example of hardship. That was why two nights ago, when Oga Obi declared his interest in taking him to Lagos, as a servant, he had accepted without thinking twice. That night he had stared endlessly on the roof and could not sleep for fear Oga Obi would change his mind. If Oga Obi would take him to Lagos, that would be the beginning of the end of his family's hardship. He would come back and wipe away the shame of poverty and the burden of widowhood from his mother, he thought. He kept assuring himself that Lagos was the only hope of their survival, and he would make it there. He must make it because his family must not suffer forever.
His mother too, a sullen-faced woman who spotted poverty all over, believed Ekene would make it. She knew her son was hardworking, humble, and honest, so she did not fear if he was going to be sent back like other boys who had stolen their master's money or were too stubborn to be handled. Her confidence in Ekene was strong _ it was as strong as her confidence when her husband was suffering from tuberculosis. She had believed he would be fine until that night he coughed out the darkest blood and stopped breathing. That was the night the smile vanished from her face, leaving a once beautiful face hard and ugly, sullen and hungry. The death of her husband was where her journey of hardship began. And it seemed to have no end.
In the morning Ekene stood in front of his father's hut with a raffia bag under his arm, his eyes avoiding the eyes of his mother and his siblings, who were obliviously unhappy with a man dressed in jeans and canvas who was taking their elder brother away, the man who was taking their hero away. And later, he pitied them, when he heard the jingling of coins and his siblings saying 'tankiu sah! tankiu sah,' he knew Oga Obi had given them some money. He did not want to respond to their 'bye byes,’ he only nodded and moved on. He did not want to look back. He walked quickly ahead of Oga Obi. And although inside him there was a feeling of sadness, he decided to be strong. Being strong was better because crying would not change anything. The next time he would see them, he would be dressed like Oga obi, or even better, sharing them more money, smelling good with his shoulders high like Oga Obi.
Throughout the journey to Lagos Ekene didn’t sleep. He wanted to keep a clear memory of his journey to Lagos. It was the only sacrifice he could make. When they got to Lagos he wished there was an lroko tree where he could climb to announce his arrival in his land of hope; in the land of his dreams. He wanted everything good to begin to happen. He wanted to go into the street to start making it happen.
Oga Obi was not as rich as he carried his shoulders in the village. His room and sitting room in a face-me-I- face-you compound were carpeted, with black and white television, gramophone and a long cushion. The rooms were small with low and brown ceilings with maps of rain drops on it. Oga Obi played Fela in his gramophone that night while they prepared egusi soup together with fresh fish and meat. Ekene now believed that someone could make a pot of soup with meat and fish at the same time. In his house in Achina, his mother cooked with a manageable quantity of fish, no meat, and most times, there was no fish at all. He sat at a corner in the kitchen that was shared by many tenants and watched the miracle before him.
'I did not want to tell your mother my plan for you,' Oga Obi suddenly spoke as they ate eba and egusi soup. 'If you work hard ... if you work very hard, I will settle you after four years. Then you will become a master like me and own your own business and house.'
'Tankiu, Oga.’ He was happy he did not forget to address him as Oga, as his mother had advised. It would sooth him and it would make him feel important according ro his mother had said. Ekene believed it.
In Boundary Market, the next day, the neighbours gathered to welcome Oga Obi’s younger brother, Ekene, as he told them. Oga Obi did not know why he did not swank in the market like other young men who came to market to sample their eczema-faced apprentices as 'nwa boys', or odibo, a servant. To bring a boy from the village, as nwa boy showed how rich they were or how big their business had grown. Ekene was surprised too that Oga Obi claimed he was his younger brother. He promised himself to behave like one and to work hard to impress him. And so he did for one year and won Oga Obi’s heart beyond words. He was also loved in the compound where Oga Obi lived because he was a different child; he was respectful and humble.
Ekene's one year with Oga was wonderful. He never spanked him like other masters did to their 'nwa boys'. They ate the same food and the same meat on Sunday and sometimes went to Bar Beach to have fun. When Oga Obi was drunk he danced Fela in sitting room before Ekene. He was free with him because he had impressed him so much. He was faultless. He was doing well in business, and was a good cook and could wash all the clothes in the house in an hour. He mopped the house four times in a week. Oga could not hide his fondness for him. He nick named him Kay boy.
‘I’m not trying to spoil you, or to bring myself down,’ he would tell him. ‘I just want you to be happy. When someone is happy he works harder.’
‘Yes, Oga. Thank you, sah’
‘Very soon you will understand what I’m saying. You may not understand it now. Keep working hard.’
‘I want your mother to be happy when we get to the village this Christmas.’
‘Thank you, sah.’
Ekene was happy that he would be going to the village for Christmas.But his joy did not last. It was three weeks before Christmas when Oga and Ekene heard people shouting along Orodu: 'Boundary dey burn o! Boundary market dey burn! Boundary market is on fire o!’
Oga Obi did not want to hear it many times before he believed. He ran towards Boundary Road in shorts and singlet. Ekene was behind him, wishing it were all a rumour, but it wasn’t: the left wing of the market where Oga Obi's stall stood was on fire. The bags of rice, beans, groundnut and maize they offloaded that evening were all inside. The fire was burning severely, searing the roofs. It might have started long ago. Ekene tried pouring some sand but he knew it was useless, even water could not stop the damage at that stage. He sat on the ground and his mind quickly ran home, to his mother and his siblings. He wept.
Behind him people were saying 'Pour am water na'! ‘Pour him some water!’ Ekene saw a man on the ground. It was Oga Obi, lying faced down on the ground, sweating. A man was fanning him with a slipper. Ekene lifted him on his shoulder. He could feel something wet on Oga Obi’s shorts. He knew what it was. He battled to hold his. He did not stop running until he got to Ajeromi hospital. Then he realized that his pair of shorts too had been wet with the same thing on Oga Obi’s shorts. He wept throughout the night as he sat beside Oga Obi. .
Oga Obi recovered quickly. ‘Everything will be fine,’ Oga Obi was always saying.
Ekene believed it whenever he said that things would be fine again, even though he could not remember the number of people coming every day to remind Oga Obi that they had been patience enough with the money he owed them. There were few bags of rice in their shop and they were also bought on credit. They began to manage life. It was not easy, but they were leaving happily. It was what people like them did in Lagos; they managed in every condition, because managing was better than dying.
It surprised Ekene that Oga Obi had began to sell the valuable things in the sitting rooms: the gramophone was first, then the cushion and the television. Before the end of March the rooms were without carpets. They slept on the mat. The tone of Fela's 'ITT' was never heard in Oga Obi's sitting room, there were no meats and drinks on Sundays, yet Oga Obi kept assuring Ekene that things would be better again. He believed him because he had to do so to keep the hope of putting a smile on his mother's face alive. He believed him because he did not want his dream to die.
Luck smiled on them when they could hardly eat once a day. Oga Obi’s old friend, Kabiru, who he had housed five years ago, visited him. And when he heard Oga Obi’s story, he pitied him. So the next day he came back and gave Oga a key todanfo bus parked outside the house. Oga Obi could not hold his tears. He remembered how he took Kabiru to stay in his house when his landlord threw his things on the street.
‘Kai, Oga Obi, no dey cry for here. I no like am.’
‘Thank you very much, Kabiru,’ Oga Obi said as he wiped hid tears.
'Walahi, Oga Obi, no thank me at all. You be beta person. I no go let you suffer for this life. Walahi!’
The next day Oga Obi entered Mile Two road with his new danfo. Ekene had asked him to let him serve as his conductor, which he accepted. It was a day before the Election Day. The fever of the presidential election was on air. Lagos was busy. Lagos was preparing. Ekene enjoyed sitting as a conductor in a bus that was driven by his master. He was proud of him. Somehow he wanted to announce to the passengers who the driver was; his master. There was a little prestige in it. There was a new life in him that kept him smiling all day. Things would surely normalize, he now believed as his master had always assured him. He also enjoyed the beautiful landscape and buildings in Island. It was unlike Olodi Apapa where houses are built so tightly together one could hardly get fresh air. That day, they made three turns from Mile Two to Lagos Island, and there was a delicious meal at the end that kept smiles on their faces. It was like they had their lives back.
The next day Ekene sat in front of the house and stared at the posters on the fence of the opposite house. It was the Election Day. The poster he loved most was the one, which read: ‘Hope 93. Farewell to Poverty.’ Like every other Nigerian he hoped the hoping hope from Moshood would come true,' if he turned out to be the winner of the election that was going on that day. Ekene wondered how this man smiling on his picture of the poster would sweep poverty away from his house in Achina. He watched the people vote. He wished and prayed for more people to vote for the man that would bring peace.
But later that day Lagos waited impatiently for the declaration of the result. They all knew the winner from the turnout of the vote, and from the long lines in different polling centers. Even the Hausa drivers in Mile Two confessed how their brothers in the North voted for Moshood and Kingibe. But there was rumour in the air that the man that would bring hope could be cheated. Lagos could not bear the suspense. It was a suspense that left everyone agitated.
The next day it was no more rumour.
'The election has been declared annulled,’ the caretaker, Baba Shola said.' He was walking up and down the compound shouting it; saying it was not fair.
Ekene did not understand what the caretaker meant by the election being annulled, but he wished it were not something that had to do with the Man that would bring hope, losing the election. The caretaker was saying 'Kashimawo, don’t let them rob you,’ that early morning when Ekene was living with Oga and Kabiru. Kabiru was sitting in the front seat with Oga Obi as they drove to Lagos Island. There were no passengers on the road. Kabiru was condemning the annulment of the election while Oga Obi listened to the breaking news in the radio on City FM: 'Epetedo is not smiling.' 'The protest is likely to be a riot.’ Ekene’s heart was beating fast because he saw fear in Oga Obi’s face.
Ahead of them smoke was rising to the sky. A group of young men had placed a roadblock, smashing windscreens, beating people and burning cars.
'Trouble dey o. There is trouble. Na wa for ndi ala!' Oga Obi said.
'Reverse! Reverse'! Kabiru shouted. But there was another danfo, bumper to finder behind theirs. Kabiru was the first to come down and took off. He ran so fast that Ekene could not tell which way he took.
'Don't run,' Oga Obi told Ekene.
The boys, with clubs and different weapons, were now closer, all sweating with furious faces.
'Talo o wa pelu e? Who are you for?’ they asked Oga Obi.
Oga Obi tried to recollect a simple Yoruba to use, but it was too late as one of them with marks on his face, slapped him. Oga Obi could not count the stars that found their ways out of his eyes. For a moment he saw only darkness. They dragged him out of the bus and he found himself saying 'wetin I do? What have I done? I voted for MKO!' Another slap that made him stagger came on his neck. It happened so fast that he could not tell how he got to the ground. The ground swirled before him.
'Free this man,’ one of them said. Ekene could detect Igbo tongue from that man, though he did not look Igbo. He was fat and too dark with a simple mark on his face.
In a minute the windscreen was smashed and the glasses shattered inside the bus. The tires were punctured. Ekene rushed out from the bus, trying not to be afraid, but he could not control the shivering of his body.
'Omo lbo, you want fight us?’ the one that slapped Oga Obi asked Ekene as he searched his pockets. Ekene shook his head furiously.
'We dey vex! We go help them scatter this country.'
'Dem think say we no get sense. Dem think say we blind. We no want the military cuny cuny anymore, make dem pack and go!’
Now the bus was on fire.
'Run', the one with tribal marks ordered Oga Obi. He ran, knowing fully-well that Ekene was behind him. They stopped when they were far away from the scene. From the bridge they watched the bus burning down. Ekene's head swirled so terribly that he thought he was not alive. He kept pinching himself to be sure.
Before noon Lagos was on fire. News was on all the radios: the riot in Lagos Island was terrible! And rumour had it that the Ikeja protest had turned to riot, lingering to Oshodi. Ojota was in total fracas; tires, cars and houses were being burnt. For days the riot lingered continued. Everyone living in Lagos was in danger. No tribe was safe. Everyone started packing up with many sending their wives and families to their native homes. Ekene knew without being told that there was no money for them to travel or rather to run for their lives. Oga had not said anything to him since their car was burnt. He usually came back smelling of sepe; a locally made gin, sighing aloud every minute. Ekene always pitied him.
There were stories that made Ekene’s stomach ache: the riots would turn to a religious war, others called it a civil war. There was going to be revolution. And a civilian rule would precede the coming revolution.
‘There is certainly going to be a revolution,’ the caretaker was saying whenever men gathered to condemn the annulment of the election. ‘I like this riot. For once, let us act and show our anger.’
Oga Obi met the caretaker three times before he agreed to give lend him some money. He only gave him the money because he said he wanted to take Ekene home. The Mile Two motor park was crowded with passengers the morning the caretaker gave them some money to leave Lagos. The crowd was too much that 911 Lorries were also loading. However, Oga Obi did not want to go to the village but he wanted to take Ekene home to his mother. It hurt him so much that the life and desire in Ekene had suddenly disappeared. It hurt him so badly that he almost apologized. But it was not necessary. It did not matter. What mattered was going home, taking him home to his mother was what mattered.
As the lorry drove out of Begger, Ekene knew it was all over. He knew he was saying good bye too Lagos in a heartbreaking silence. He did not want to look back because he did not want to remember anything. He did not want to remember, because his heart was failing him. There was no room to even remember those years in Lagos. All he wanted to keep in his mind was that it was not Oga Obi's fault. So he thought he would tell his mother when he got home. He hoped she would understand. He hoped she could bear the disappointment the way he had bore it.
He watched the children, some of them his age, sleeping in the coach of the lorry, and he wondered if they had worries, if they had siblings like him, in the village who would come out to see them coming back with nothing.
He watched the tall grasses waved past in swift goodbyes. He knew why Oga Obi had refused to look at him. He knew his eyes were still red. He too, did not want to look at Oga. He did not want to look at that face that once danced Fela and Lucky Dube in the sitting room in Lagos as it sank into the silence of shame and anger. To him, it was as if it was all a dream, although he knew it was not. He wanted everything to be dream.
It was not his fault, Ekene thought again. They would have made it in Lagos, and would have gone home for Christmas like other Igbos, to show the fruits of their labour by sampling their new big canvasses and jeans. If only their goods were not burnt down by the strange fire. If only the unfairly annulment of the election did not result in riots in Lagos. If only those wicked rioters did not burn Oga Obi’s danfo. If only the riots and the fracas had ended in three days. If only those that caused the emergence of the riot and those involved would understand that there were people like him who were in Lagos to actualize their dreams - to put smiles on the faces of their wretched mothers and siblings. If only they would understand how disappointed his mother would be, emerging from her hut to welcome a son whose dream never came true - a son who returned with somber face and hungry eyes of failure and forlorn hope – a child who left his dreams and hope in a far away land.
He did not want to remember his two sisters and two brothers who would run out to welcome a brother who they had waited, patiently for three years, to come back with loaves of bread, new clothes and fatted-cheek.
He could imagine the disappointment on their hungry faces, seeing him return with raffia bag, and nothing good for them, unlike those boys who their return aroused shouting and screaming in their houses, because their hands were heavy.
Not until the lorry entered Niger Bridge that he knew there was no need trying to endure: he began to weep. He wept until the bridge he had admired on his way to Lagos now blurred and ugly - and a sign of finality and a confirmation of forlorn hope. He wanted to stand up and scream, and shout for help. He remembered how many times Oga Obi assured and reassured him that they would go to East for Christmas ‘If things normalize. If things turn out good again, we will smile again. And I believe me, things will be good again.’ Just the way he also assured him that he would slaughter a big goat when things would change for good. But they kept eating the cheapest fish in Lagos, shawa, the fish with thousand of bones. Ekene remembered all this as he wept. He did not mind that people were looking at him. He wept even more when he realized Oga was also weeping.