by tolu ogunlesi
(originally appeared in the short story anthology ‘Eko O Ni Baje’, published by Nelson Publishers, Ibadan, in 2009)
There are six or seven of us. Most have been to church in the morning, to confess outstanding installments of sins – accumulated since our last appearances. We are seated around a table that seems to be shrinking – our beer bottles are finding it increasingly difficult to find space on the table – until one of us has a brainwave and suggests we stack empty bottles on the floor. But, unanimously agreeing on which bottles are empty, and which are not, is – under the influence of booze – not the effortless task you’d expect it to be.
It is better to drink in daylight than under the cover of darkness. In daylight you are far less likely to be labeled a drunkard. Night drinkers are viewed far less sympathetically than their daytime brethren. Think of it – Darkness and Drunkard seem somehow to belong together
Someone has just finished cracking a joke about another difference between the two species of drinkers when the rain starts. It just pours suddenly, as though someone up there were absentmindedly emptying a huge basin of water. No prior warning. In some odd way, I am quite relieved. Some part of me has been imagining hearing fresh blasts in commemoration of the first year anniversary of last year’s explosions. So when the rain starts I am relieved that the forces of evil have on this occasion settled for a low-keyed re-enactment.
We refuse to relocate from our table on the verandah of Mama Nnedi’s Cool Spot, despite the fact that the rain is fierce, and sudden gusts of wind are regularly spraying us rudely with rainwater. We are not so bothered. We politely turn down Mama Nnedi’s offer of space for us within the cramped confines of her buka. It is amazing what beer emboldens you to endure. The rain forces our voices to rise, till we are practically screaming. The intensity of our voices causes us to veer off into coarse jokes – they are always easier to manufacture in raised voices. And so we decide to play a game. One by one every member of the circle has to supply a Very Lewd Joke, and we are to do it in quick succession of one another. No breaks, no hesitations, no variants of the same joke.
Predictably, I’m the first to drop out. I switch off and content myself with watching the growing flood, using the tyres of a Toyota Cressida parked across the road as a benchmark. The Cool Spot is perched on an elevation, so we are still somewhat comfortably detached from the rising flood.
It doesn’t take too long for it to hit me hard thatLagosis in trouble. What I find hard to acknowledge is the fact that I seem to consider myself absolutely qualified to have that premonition.
Barely a year ago, Lagoswas torn almost clean from its roots by a series of explosions. At first, it was like a joke, a cosmic prank from a bored heaven. By the time the storm cleared, more than a thousand people had made a grave for themselves in a swamp. They didn’t do it intentionally. I can recount all this because I am a fairly good swimmer. NUGA Gold Medallist for theUniversity of Jos in ’83. That’s why I can tell you this story you are about to hear.
…Bodies. Thrashing bodies, still bodies, baby bodies, elderly bodies, ballooning bodies… those memories travel with you like a blob of saliva on the other side of your car glass. You can’t wipe it off, at least not while you’re still driving. So you force yourself to stop looking at it, at least till you can’t help but stare again.
That afternoon, one year ago – it was a Sunday too – we were seated at a table, like we are now, discussing politics and sports. Back then I didn’t have any bottle of beer standing in front of me, unlike today. I busied myself with Malt and Coca Cola while everyone else increased their number of empty beer bottles with gusto. Back then drinking and smoking were businesses I didn’t deal in at all.
Back to what I was saying. When we heard the first explosion, no one said anything about it. At that point in time, I remember we were in a Very Heated Argument about who the richest man in Nigeriawas. How did we even get into that particular argument? Some ignoramus had brought up that crap again about the fact that the poorest man in Americabeing better off than the richest man in Nigeria. I first heard that blasphemy when I was in Primary Two, and I have heard it countless times since then. I stopped believing it in Primary Five. Various folks were swearing with their fathers’ private parts that so-and-so was the richest Nigerian. Evidence flew back and forth, every once in a while someone knew someone who knew someone who knew one Accountant who managed so-and-so’s wealth, or who knew someone who had been so-and-so’s personal driver who used to drive him (never her) to his Swiss bank.
I was about to start querying if retired Army Generals had any moral right to be included in our local Forbes Top 10, when the very first explosion came. It wasn’t at all alarming as I remember I was still able to complete my question. The second one came about thirty minutes later, and sounded more insistent than the first. The ground stirred beneath us. Someone dived after his fallen half-empty bottle of beer, cursing. After that, I lost count. The explosions came in more frequent successions, like once every five to ten minutes, till they were too present for comfort. It was unnerving waiting for something that you knew, no matter how often it came, you would never get accustomed to. By now all of us had joined in diving for the bottles, even I the teetotaler.
Folks were beginning to gather on the street, discussing in loud tones. I began to notice people gathering excitedly around the white-garment church some distance down the road. I thought I could see them periodically nodding in our direction. I suspected their excitement had to do with the fact that they were finally going to be vindicated. I remembered my Sunday School Lessons of many years ago, when our Teacher would paint a very vivid picture of The Rapture, and White Horses and The Mark of the Beast and Trumpets, and how everybody Jesus found in a beer-parlor would immediately be dispatched, by what sounded to me like some kind of divine DHL, to the Lake of Fire. We kids would listen attentively, partly in excitement, and partly benumbed by fear, and we would pray fervently not to be caught in a beer parlour when Jesus came back. Now here I was. But I had a consolation. Jesus – omni-present and omni-potent – would know that I hadn’t been drinking.
Some people suggested an earthquake. Others swore it was a coup d’etat, and instantly began to regale us with tales of how they lived in Obalende close to Dodan Barracks those days when it used to be the seat of power, and how exciting those days used to be when coup plotters struck.
“I saw Gideon Orkar with my koro-koro eyes,” one man began. As expected a small crowd assembled around him instantly. He continued, his voice now more assured, arrogantly insistent. “…Orkar himself… he sat on an armored tank and blasted straight through the Dodan Barracks Gate, heading towards Babangida’s bedroom…Babangida’s very private bedroom, the one even Maryam was not permitted to enter… only Babangida and the Israeli engineers who built it knew what the inside looked like…it had this secret door hidden under the coat of arms on the floor in the center of the room that led into a tunnel which opened out at the Airport…”
I tried to imagine a scared-out-of-his-pants former military President Babangida stumbling along in an air-conditioned, carpeted, miles-long, tunnel, grumbling to himself that the last time he was subjected to such an exertion was decades ago in the military academy.
“Ojoo Cantonment nko?…Did Orkar capture it… And Bonny Camp?” someone had asked, more in an attempt to show-off his knowledge of military formations in Lagos than in genuine curiosity.
“Alfa jona, o n bere irugbon!” the mouth whose eyes had seen Orkar growled, waving his right hand dismissively for effect.
I didn’t think a coup was likely, not at this time when the politicians hadn’t convincingly proved just how adept they were at ruining us. Another hypothesis soon bobbed to the surface, emerging as a slight stammer from a tall, thin, baby-faced man – that Lagos, albeit Nigeriawas being bombed.
Now that seemed likely. We began to brainstorm on possible invaders, and theories. In between two explosions – which means in a space of about five minutes – if I remember well, we had come up with an impressive list of Conspiracy Theories. I was getting excited. It reminded me of the heated discussions we used to have in POS 411 – The Cold War and Theories of Global Conflict in A New World Order – in Jos back then. Someone mentioned Cameroon. Reason – the conflict over theBakassi Peninsula. As doubtful as we all were of that postulation, we half-hoped it was true. The Coup plot veteran rose to the occasion to voice out our reason:
“Cameroon cannot stand a chance beside Nigeria. We have the best military capability south of the Sahara…”
“… Except forSouth Africa,” I chipped in.
The man frowned to show that he didn’t entertain interruptions, only the respectful questions of ignoramuses. He continued. “Imagine, Nigeriahas sixteen MIG-29s, Cameroonhas only four. We have a combat strength of eighty thousand soldiers; Cameroon’s army is less than thirty thousand…”
He would have continued had the next explosion not been especially intense. We heard the sound of breaking glass, and felt the earth rumble like diarrhoead bowels. By then panic was beginning to break forth amidst us.
Then someone mentioned a name. Osama bin Laden. He who had single-handedly broughtAmerica to her face in the dust of ground zero. That same Osama had now turned on Nigeria. Why he did it did not seem far-fetched. Nigerians were among the dead in the World Trade Centre tragedy, and the President had not only publicly condemned Al Qaeda, he had also placed a reward of one million American dollars upon Osama’s head.
We all knew the party was over at that point. We marched on, trotting specimens of excitement-oscillating-with-paralyzing-terror; sometimes breaking into a half-trot. Every now and then a crazy driver would hoot furiously and weave through the snaking line of refugees. But most people were walking. There were abandoned cars at every point on the road, some with the doors wide open, others with their engines still running. The explosions were crazy now. Sometimes they would come in a volley, three four seven explosions, all as though they came from the ground beneath us. Then they might cease for a while, then a single one, and all of a sudden another volley.
The crowd was getting confused. Some folks would just break out and run. Somebody would suddenly postulate that the explosions seemed to be coming from, say, Ikoyi, and people would change direction. We clustered around the few men who clutched transistor radios, in a bid to catch some information from …the authorities?…goddamn it…anybody! Virtually all the stations were playing hip-hop, the few that were not were either about to shut down to rest their generators or hooking in to BBC or VOA to bring us foreign news. One man angrily tossed his radio into the drainage. Someone waited for him to move ahead and then dived after it.
Everywhere I passed through, people were headed in all directions. Yet we were all running from the same thing. Even more strangely, we didn’t know what we were running from. Somewhere around Ikotun, I saw a danfo calling passengers who were interested in heading for Badagry, enroute the border Nigeria shares with the Republic of Benin. The danfo was almost full.
Our street was deserted. The landlord’s twenty-something year old son emerged from the building clutching some electronics. I asked about my family.
“Dem don comot. Everybody comot,” he said.
“All of them? My wife and all the children?… where did they say they were going?”
“I no sabi,” he said. “Even Iya Agba no wait,”
That last statement was designed to put an end to what he must have concluded were my stupid questions. Iya Agba was the oldest occupant of our building. She claimed to be a hundred and two years, and, considering her looks, no one doubted her. If Iya Agba could disappear, then I should know everyone else had too.
The landlord’s son was also about disappearing, and he immediately did, into the alley beside the house, still clutching his loot. I entered the building, the long corridor that all our apartments shared, knocking halfheartedly on the doors one by one. I entered our apartment, easily picturing the scene just before my family moved out. There was a half-eaten bowl of eba on the center-table, its efo-elegusi asleep beside it, but without the meat. They had forgotten to put the stove off, and it still burned brightly in its corner. Blessing’s shoes lay scattered where she usually played, together with a half-eaten packet of biscuit – meaning her mother hurriedly snatched her from play – or sleep – and carried her off. I switched the TV on. I had to fiddle with it at the controls on the panel itself. The remote control was nowhere to be found. Samuel must have been clutching it when he ran after his mother. Only one station was on air, and it just displayed its logo, while Shina Peters crooned on.
Bribery and corruption,
Caused by men
Mo – tor accident
caused by men
Na wa o…
Another time, I’d have stopped all I was doing, to dance and engage my wife in an argument over the veracity of male culpability in the fallen state of society. Maybe tomorrow, we’ll do that again. If there will be a tomorrow, that is.
I looked at my mattress, and was tempted, I’m ashamed to say, by the thought of sinking into its inviting warmth. Losing myself to dreamless slumber, and waking the next morning to see my wife beside me, in the favourite iro she wore to bed; and my children on their beds, bodies splayed at the usual impossible angles.
Besides, I always slept on Sunday afternoons.
I wasn’t so sure what to do next. Was I to go in search of my family at my mother-in-law’s? No one is at home in Lagos, I argued with myself. Everybody is on the run. Even the rich, I thought, remembering that a significant percentage of the abandoned vehicles we had come across on the streets were glossy SUVs. Someone had even pointed out a 2005-model Lexus that sped past. I decided to get back onto the streets and join the crowd. If something evil had to happen to us, I might as well be in the midst of other victims. Dying is more pleasant by the dozen.
And who knows, all this might just be a nightmare; an extended hallucination I (and we) needed to endure first in order to get rid of. The consolation was that this was a nightmare or hallucination that seemed to chose not to discriminate between the psyches of the rich and the hopeful. We were all in it together.
I decided to take my car. Usually the engine never started at the first attempt. Countless mornings half the neighborhood had to help in pushing it while I manipulated the pedals. But this afternoon was different. It roared into life without hesitation, without even the dark cloud of jubilant smoke that usually heralded its awakening.
I made my way out of the compound, and decided to head for my in-laws’. I guessed my wife might also have decided that perishing was nicer when you did it with family. That was the least privilege you could accord yourself when you didn’t know what you were going to perish from. I soon discovered that I couldn’t ignore the growing mass of refugees on the roads. So I decided to fill my car with fellow sojourners. It was unthinkable that I’d drive an empty car to oblivion when so many folks were walking.
By now the explosions were very intense, and they seemed to have lost their sense of timing. And I noticed I was finally beginning to get accustomed to their presence, such that I was able to conveniently miss hearing one or two. My passengers expressed the same sentiments. The radio still had nothing to say. My car radio brought forth crisp, static-free music, another highly unusual occurrence. In the absence of any hints about the goings-on, we polished our conspiracy theories.
“The Osama story sounds most plausible,” said the man sitting beside me. We hadn’t bothered to introduce ourselves. Perhaps we all thought it pointless. “Our president has succeeded in bringing us this final dividend of democracy – annihilation by Osama bin Laden, a man half our population wouldn’t even recognize if he showed up in their nightmares”
“The man has loosed what he can’t tight,” echoed the only lady. She looked like she was midway into extensive renovation work on her hair and make-up when the explosions started.
“You mean the president, or Osama?”
“Na president o,” she hissed.
“You are right! Osama is not a man who, when offended, will tamper justice with mercy,” someone said.
All of a sudden I lashed out at the brakes. Purely on instinct. The traffic light burned red. Ordinarily I shouldn’t have bothered to obey the light. The car in front of mine had raced past in disobedience. And from the cars behind me I could feel the irritation that burned toward me for halting. But since I had stopped, they had little choice. A minute later the red light disappeared. In its place the light panel glowed meekly like a dying bulb and died out. In irritation I started the engine and as I made to move, the green light came on. I let my foot down impatiently on the throttle, unaware that the leading driver approaching at a right angle to me from the left had chosen the same response. We met in a messy metallic tangle at the junction, like the tight-clasping embrace of long lost friends. We would have had a vicious fight if not for some observant genius who pointed out that it wasn’t any of our faults. The traffic light-box had apparently shown green to both of us at the same time.
My in-laws’ family house is a crumbling eighteenth century colonial structure in Isolo, with the words NOT 4 SALE, CAVAT EMPTOR, THIS PROPATY IS NOT 4 SALE graffitied all over its façade. As I spotted it in the distance, I could picture my wife and children huddled on the 100-year old Arabic mat that formed the sole furniture in the cobwebbed living room, worried about my whereabouts.
I don’t know if I may say I was surprised when I met the house empty. It was puzzling, I must confess, since this was a house that held, at any point in time, sixty inhabitants at the least. Now the only living creature I saw was Kekere, my mother-in-law’s lame, slightly deaf and perpetually-pregnant mongrel.
I entered the rooms one by one, remembering the many moments I had spent in the house, right from the time my wife and I were courting. A smile came to me when I remembered the times we used to steal kisses off each other under my wife’s grandmother’s nose, in the one-windowed room that opened out from the living room. The old woman spent all her days in the room, and since she was extremely shortsighted, we took advantage of her to carry out our slightly-less-than-chaste liaisons in her presence, at a carefully calculated distance of course. We couldn’t afford to do that in any other room, where normal-sighted folks were bound to be. We would just lock ourselves in with the old woman, and experiment – with kisses…(nothing more, God knows).
It used to amuse me that such an easy means existed of outwitting my father-in-law who was a perfect epitome of that personality type Nigerians love to interpret (mostly in the obituary notices of their beloved patriarchs and matriarchs) as “Strict Disciplinarian”.
Then I heard that people were trooping towards the weed-choked, rubbish-choked canal that ran through Isolo, all the way to the other end ofLagos. I joined the crowd. It was at this point that I first felt a pang of panic ripple through from my head all the way to my feet. I madly hoped my wife hadn’t chosen this moment to repress her morbid fear of water.
I had the feeling that this canal news was bad news. I arrived at the canal and saw human beings plunging into the dark, slimy depths, attempting to head for God-knows-where. The water surface, buried under profuse water hyacinth, deceptively looks like a lush soccer pitch, and this day, it was no different. I plunged too, only realizing that I had done so after the fact. It was as though I had been pushed, as though an invisible family of hands lurked around the banks, taking delight in pushing people into the canal. Now I imagine it was like that for every other person too who entered those murky depths that Sunday.
I think it’s clear now why I have (and feel qualified to have) that hollow, sucked out feeling that today is another festival of Death. Another Death by Immersion. One difference is that last year, we went to meet the water. This time around, one year after, the water has chosen to come to meet us, to save us the trouble.
I have recently read about Closure; it’s supposed to be psychologese for some kind of coming to terms with life-altering events in one’s life. The Americans talked a lot about it after 9/11. And I’m beginning to feel that seeing and touching those mass graves one year after might bring to me some sense of much-needed closure. Especially since I wasn’t present that day they lowered the 1000-strong flag-draped coffin congregation into the moist tomb on the banks of the canal. I refused to go because my pastor said going would mean doubting God. If I went, I would – more or less – be declaring that God had failed; and be handing over Victory to Devil.
Faith is the evidence of things NotSeen. We have NotSeen your wife and your children, and so therefore, this is the perfect time for Faith to operate. Faith is the evidence that they are alive, that they are safe and sound. The evidence, the proof, of things NotSeen.
His argument sounded plausible. One year ago. Since I hadn’t identified my wife or kids amidst the bloated corpses stacked in the fourteen or so mortuaries I visited, I just had to wait on God and not do anything that would challenge his ability to handle the situation; anything that would show unbelief. For lots of people, seeing their loved ones’ corpses meant closure. For others it meant every other thing but closure. For me? How can I know? When, one year after, I haven’t seen my family, dead or alive. I have no idea what became of them. No. That’s not true. I cannot honestly say I do not know what became of them. I know what happened to them. I don’t.
But I keep those memories of the last time I saw them, that Sunday afternoon just before I stepped out of the house. My wife, hair crying for a hairdresser’s attention, crouched on the kitchen stool scrubbing a stubborn pot, and singing one of the boisterous songs she learnt in church that morning, Samuel, hands on his arithmetic book doing homework, eyes on the TV doing cartoon-work, and Blessing, biscuit-in-hand, in one of her rare foul moods, crying like the world was coming to an end.
Now, Lagos is in deep shit again.
I can imagine the Atlantic greedily rolling its eyes as its stomach bloats with water, waiting for that perfect moment when it would in one bowel movement belch the water onto an unsuspecting Lagos. My friends are soon forced to suspend their game and acknowledge – even in their drunken state – thatLagos is indeed in for it. We watch in silence as the tires of the Toyota disappear. We are all soaked, and still aren’t bothered. I don’t think it dawns on anyone that it is almost exactly a year now since we consigned a Sunday to the dustbin of Tragedy. And I certainly do not feel like letting them know.
Soon no fingers reach onto the table any longer to caress beer bottles. Just the silence. Our silence, of course, for the storm is nothing near silent. We have no radios to switch on. Good riddance.
One man begins to worry aloud about the wife and one-week-old baby girl he left at home. My heart goes out to him. He lives in a mansion in Lekki peninsula, built upon a plot of land that has been snatched and re-snatched countless times from the ocean.
In the absence of such worries, my mind is free. Free to commiserate with the many who will this year take their turn to wade through bloated bodies stacked on mortuary floors, awaiting that Aha! that comes when you recognize a face, or faces.
I don’t know why I’m saving this till the very end. Maybe it’s because I have always felt that a story should be told like a good joke – with one-hell-of-a-punchline. And back in Jos I was one hell of a comedian.
Hours after Lagos plunged into a canal, and wove a mausoleum out of seaweed, we learnt that Osama was innocent. And the President was still firmly in power, under no threat whatsoever from coup-plotters. And Cameroon had not been stupid enough to invade us. The explosions we thought belonged to others, turned out to be ours. Turns out they came from the tonnes of explosives warehoused in the ammo depot of the Ikeja Military Cantonment – stockpiled there by our second-best-in-Africa army because they didn’t want us to be helpless in the event of an attack by such enemies as Osama and Cameroon. We only chose that late January afternoon to unwrap our belated Boxing Day gifts, perhaps.
Whether the explosions were accidentally set off, or an act of sabotage – perhaps by one of the thousands of unpaid army pensioners who daily roam the streets of Lagos, only the Good Lord knows.
And perhaps the victims too would know. I have always reckoned that the dead are closer to possessing God’s omniscience than the living.
That, if you will agree with me, must be one of the fringe benefits of being dead.