"When the canoe overturns, do the fishermen remain aboard?"
Papa, Mama and I sprang out of our separate beds. We heard loud voices outside, then someone wailing. It was not yet cockcrow. Papa flung a wrapper round his waist while Mama still had her nightgown on. I was clothed in singlet and shorts. We all rushed outside and met smoke rising and spreading across the sky. I thought another pipeline had burst and our farmlands were burning, just as it had happened many years ago. Westoil had brought in fire fighters then from Germany to prevent our village turning extinct. A crowd had formed. Some people were scampering about - like the Moslems in our community who often ran pell-mell whenever they heard Christians were being killed in the north - trying to find whatever they could save, trying to put out the inferno with buckets of water. My heart started to pound. Bobo's father's building was on fire! Bobo's mother was rolling on the ground. Sympathisers tried to pacify her. She was inconsolable, wailing louder. Her husband was too grief-stricken to open his mouth.
I looked around and did not see their son. Papa hovered around the men-folk but Mama was standing with a few women, their hands on their heads.
"Look at what our children have done."
"Not my children. It can't be."
"Who did . . . ? Who could have done this?"
"It was Jachi. Only God will deliver us from that agwu isi."
"I still can't believe Ezinne is the mother of that criminal. I find it shocking to even think she must have carried him in her womb for nine months."
One of the women moved her right hand in a circle above her head. "This is wickedness! This is an abomination!" she ululated.
I noticed the other members of The Brothers, and walked up to them. "Has anybody seen Bobo?" I asked.
"He's dead," Chiedes said.
"What?" I looked into their faces one by one. "Is it . . . true? But we were . . . " I struggled with words. Yesterday evening. Bobo and I had downed some soft drinks at Madam Sunshine's, a woman who sold bush meat, pepper soup and alcohol. Her stall was a short distance from the industrial buildings of Westoil. I clasped Uzzi on the shoulders and shook him. ""H-how . . . how did it happen? Was it the fire?"
"He was clubbed," he said.
Before I could take in what I had just heard, Chiedes said, the pain in his voice was very stirring, "And he was burnt to death. Those shit water baboons. They'll pay for this."
I knew who was responsible for this atrocity. Bobo was not supposed to die so easily, very early, when his idea was barely a year old. He founded a faction comprising seven boys and named it "The Brothers." Our rival faction was five boys known as "Jachi's Gang."
The clouds suddenly gave a loud deep sound. Everybody started dashing inside as rain fell like pebbles on to the earth.
We decided to meet at dawn.
Papa berated me as soon as I walked into the room. He was smoking a cigarette quite harshly, maybe to ease the tension eating him up.
"Thank your God. You could have been the one lying out there like a roasted goat. That could have been your mother and I battling with the fire," he said.
Mama was sitting close by. She said nothing except gnashing her teeth. Papa told her to stop that irritating sound or vamoose out of the room. Mama apologised and kept still. I was not listening to Papa; I was simply thinking about Bobo.
Papa's words, full of anger, tried to break off my thoughts. "Since you've decided to gather hot coals in your hands, bear the blisters. When a dog ignores its master's whistle, it is doomed. I have told you repeatedly that I'll look the other way when anything happens to you. Don't ever think I shall be moved if you hurt yourself. Get out before I crack your skull!"
He threw his cigarette at me. I stared at him and he threatened to pluck my eyes out if I looked at him like an Ogbanje. I walked away. Mama followed me. I flopped on to the bed; she sat down beside me. She and Papa had warned me several times to stop associating with The Brothers. I remembered when Mama had pleaded with me to keep off youth activities (the devil's workshops, she called them) which had grown rife like a plague throughout our village. She'd also pleaded with me to go and stay with her elder sister and her husband in Lagos so they would register me as an external candidate in a private secondary school since I was finding it impossible to pass WAEC.
I sensed fear in Mama's eyes as her lips moved:
"Sonny, you are our only child. I beg you, for heaven's sake, do not allow ekwensu to use you as his tool. Or," she paused, "you've taken a blood oath that you cannot see the pit before your feet?"
I put an arm over her shoulders. "Mama, you worry too much," I said.
"I carried you in my womb. You want to get yourself killed. Go ahead. Go ahead!" Then she went out, almost hysterical, saying, "I hope the death of Bobo will teach you a lesson."
I stretched out on the bed, realising that death hovered above the remaining six of us. What I had fancied as an exciting pastime now seemed a horrifying trip. I could not really sleep, not because of fear that Jachi's Gang would surround our house but because I did not want to be taken unawares. They would surely beat me lifeless, start another fire. I'd rather they break in and run me through with a blade. Lately, I usually held off sleep. Sometimes I lay on the floor close to the window, the curtains drawn tight, watching out for any sign of our opponents, a dagger at my feet. This gang had become a menace to our village. They beat up any youth who spoke against them. So Bobo had brought some boys together: fearless youths, who could fight for their right.
All this began three or four years before . . .
Some policemen had arrived at Mr. Elechi's house in a Peugeot 504 car to arrest his son. He was not seen. They handcuffed the father instead and drove off with him. Mr. Elechi returned home a few days later. His son, Jachi, had nearly killed a teenager.
Kele loved extorting PR from the engineers of Westoil whenever they drove along the road to one of their oil heads. It was the nearest road. Narrow and rough. Seldom used (except by cyclists). And his parents lived along this road. A river cut off the other road. However, there was a derelict wood-and-rope bridge. As soon as Kele heard the approaching sound of a jeep, he would rush out with his younger brothers and erect a barricade of bamboo. Then they would sit on the ground, clutching an axe or any other deadly object.
"Drop something!" Kele would bark.
The vehicle would have screeched to a halt by now.
"Like what?" the engineers would respond.
"No PR, no pass."
"PR? For what?"
"This is our land, not your father's own. Here is tollgate. So drop something!"
The engineers were not natives of Odera, so in the end they obliged. The extortion went on. One day the engineers sat back in their offices: they were not moving an inch near that oil head unless their employer managed their grievances.
Chief met a European with a girl on his lap in the Staff Club. Mr. Laggard was stingy to men but generous to women. He employed the locals to 'fish' girls for him, preferably below sixteen: small and ignorant. He shied away from the other girls who stole dollars, or fought with their partners if they felt short-changed.
"I got your message," Chief said, sitting down on a settee.
Mr. Laggard grinned and said, "Glad, you're here." Then he signalled the bartender for more beers.
"Just a couple of crooks."
"Hm. These boys."
"You can handle them?"
"What's their grouse?"
"That's their headache. I don't give a bloody wink. Chief, you can be relied on?"
"Of course. Money counts, Mr. Laggard."
"Yes, my friend. Money makes the world go round, right?"
Anytime both men met, the European remembered when this African had threatened to make him and his boss lame should they deprive him of his property, a land that was also being claimed by another family. Chief often wore a string of black beads around his neck, a sort of talisman, which a medicine man had given him. One man who had confronted him over the land issue had died of a strange illness - a swollen kwashiorkor-like belly.
The following day, Jachi single-handedly ambushed the extortionists. It was bloody. Kele was rushed to a hospital in town, where doctors had to stitch him up. He had been severely stabbed in the neck. Hours later, his mother ran half-naked to the Divisional Police Officer, her breasts dangling, screaming that an armed robber had attacked her son. Her husband chased after her, as if she were raving mad, trying to quieten her, trying to drape a wrapper over her body, before she reached the police station, completely unclothed.
The engineers resumed work on that site. They no longer complained of extortion. Then words spread that some plainclothes men had arrested the assailant guzzling tombo at Madam Sunshine's. All of Odera imagined he would spend some time in jail. Jachi reappeared. Many people looked baffled as he sped through the village on a bike. That evening, his friends welcomed him home - like a warrior - with ample beer and loud music and lively girls. Only a few families didn't complain about his release.
Nobody would have heard of him again but for another incident . . .
Five boys charged through the premises of Westoil. Osy headed this group. You recognised him by his bad eye; its pupil was sickly yellow, floating, so that it somehow looked like a fish eye in a bowl of soup. When he was barely eleven, he was involved in a scuffle with some boys, and was pierced in the left eye with a biro.
Armed with cutlasses, this group rounded up most of the staff, and held them as hostages until Mr. Blimp, the base manager, Mr. Laggard, the community relations manager, and a pinstriped-suited Nigerian came out. The boys were invited into the boardroom. There was a table in a corner of the air-conditioned room with trays of food and drink. The boys refused the refreshment outright and blurted out their demands:
"Are these approved local taxes? You give receipts?" Mr. Blimp asked.
"Did we approve sticking your dirty red prick into our girls?" Osy said.
"Please give us some time. We can come to some understanding, I'm sure. We need to contact our headquarters," Mr. Laggard said.
The boys argued among themselves.
"Three days only . . . or your blood will flow!" Osy said and led his cohort out of the room.
Three days elapsed.
A security force was deployed to guard the oil company. Head Office would never succumb to local terrorists; after all the state government had promised safety in Odera. Oil exploitation went on, smoothly. The boys mailed a couple of reminders to Mr. Blimp.
The gloom was so dense you hardly saw the moon the night Osy and his group fell on the snoring security personnel, seized their weaponry, and tied them up with sisal ropes. They locked up the gates from outside with padlocks and chains so all the night workers could not come out. The morning shift resumed; they could not enter the building. Before they could ask any question, the boys emerged, snapped branches off nearby trees, and lashed these staff quite viciously. Then the boys camped at the gate.
Roughly forty eight hours later a chopper whirred overhead. Some Nigerians had flown in with suitcases. They quickly negotiated for the freedom of the captives. The captors unlocked the gate and returned home more fulfilled than the negotiators. Life turned into an extravaganza for Osy's group: they had become nouveaux riches. They bought tokunbo cars. They vied among themselves who would sleep with the most girls. None of them ever thought of investing his spoils, and, very soon, they went broke.
Again, they picked up their guns. Again, they captured the oil company. Again, Osy's demands were met. All this went on, intermittently though. Every indigene was incensed. Yet no man dared to speak out, not even the parents of these mobsters.
Mr. Blimp called on the Eze.
"Would you continue to allow these rabid dogs? Well, if you'd prefer to sit by we might as well stop dealing with your Highness, and alert the federal authorities!" he said, and fuming, he walked away, accompanied by his aides.
The Eze and his cabinet felt abject. His village had never experienced these appalling happenings before. Even when there were only kindred heads, this kind of rebellion was unheard of. No youth had ever terrorised residents so wantonly!
"Why now? Just this time we're trying to be progressive?" he asked his advisers.
Everybody knew the Eze was to celebrate his first anniversary, six months from that time. We never used to have a king until some politicians started to agitate for more local councils, to widen their political base. Autonomous community meant progress, they proclaimed. A council of elders comprising the five oldest men from our five kindred used to preside over disputes. When complicated, the chief priest consulted his charmed cowries. The Eze was then a primary school headmaster who came from an influential lineage that produced the first graduate. When autonomy was granted, he emerged as the ruler, without a contest. The council of elders became palace chiefs.
These titled men were still pondering when Chief appeared in the palace: he seldom visited. Now he was clutching a bottle of Pink Lady. The Eze was puzzled. His cabinet seemed even more puzzled.
"Eze birikwa O! Birikwa O!" the visitor said, bowing twice.
His Highness acknowledged the greetings with a wave of his large fluffy fan. Before Chief could place the wine at the foot of the throne, an official came over, collected the wine, and motioned him to a chair. Chief sat down, cleared his throat, and bared his feelings. The Eze reflected: it was truly not wise to support anything that involved Jachi. But some pig-headed youths were causing him nightmares.
"Hope it wouldn't involve loss of life?"
"There's blood in every sacrifice, your Highness."
"There is only sweat in some sacrifices. Is it really just to shed blood - now?"
"It becomes necessary to do unjust things to bring about just ends, your Highness."
"I still think it is proper we get the police involved."
"That doesn't speak well of our community. We are incapable of bringing order to our land?" Chief sounded derisive. He glanced around as if daring any person.
"How then do we repay you?" one of the cabinet members asked.
Chief shook his head as if displeased with that remark. People saw him as a man who could even sell his mother to satisfy his heart's desire. His first son was a loony, always wandering about, always grinning sheepishly. Children liked to tap him and run away chuckling. It seemed his father had used him for juju. Chief reminded them that he was a true nwafor; he was selfless.
Yet his Highness could not help feeling he himself was stroking the tail of a tiger . . .
Normalcy returned. Fear died down. People went to their farms and markets as before. A new group had replaced Osy's, as unexpectedly as a coup. Like the military coup that took place last year. Papa had stuck his ear close to the radio all day, listening: "Fellow countrymen, it has become a matter of necessity to . . . "
This new group had overpowered the five 'rabid dogs' as they marched towards the oil company for the umpteenth time. Severely wounded and bound up, they were eventually handed over to the police. The villagers found out that Jachi whom they so much despised was responsible for the calm. After the parley with the Eze, Chief had driven down to the Staff Club. He saw Mr. Laggard caressing a beer and a little girl, as usual. They contrived a plan right away. Chief would receive a Ghana-must-go bag of naira if Osy was silenced. And the unrest ceased.
Every person was happy at last. Yet, many distrusted Jachi.
He looked like a hippopotamus, huge and lumbering: the kind of boy you would see in the night and your breathing would quicken until he had passed by. He had shunned school at the age of fifteen because he kept repeating SSS1 . His parents could not force him back to the classroom. He used to forage in refuse dumps for scraps, which Onye Scrap, a man who traded in junk, bought from him. Jachi was once seen as a robber. Some bandits frequently waylaid traders very early in the morning along the village road that linked the East-West Road, and made off with valuables. These robberies soon stopped when the kindred heads convened a meeting, and decided to empower the police to arrest any youth with suspicious character.
Chief heard this and dropped in on the elders.
"Every progressive community should have a vigilante," he reasoned. "Organise one. Every person who lives here will pay a small levy for its operation. Other communities are doing it. Do you know Okoko - that tiny community also operates a vigilante?"
Jachi thus became the head of the vigilante. They set up lookout posts at strategic rural roads. Cases of robbery dropped. Now some boys were roughed up, and girls had their breasts or buttocks squeezed by some members of the vigilante. When complaints grew, the elders sent for Jachi. He begged for forgiveness, kneeling down. He assured them that such a thing would never happen again.
But the incoming military governor passed an edict banning all youth activities: any uncooperative youth would serve four year's imprisonment; and half-heartedly, the vigilante split up. Its members began playing draughts most mornings, drinking most afternoons, womanising most nights. There was no serious robbery incident except infrequent pilfering of fowl, palm fruits, cutlery, etc.
Soon Jachi was back - in power - like one of those African rulers who found it intolerable to step down from government. It became normal to regard him as the village's Youth President since he represented our village in intra-and inter-village meetings. Sometimes he went with some friends to summits of oil-producing areas. In less than two years, he'd traversed many capital cities. He was also among the Niger Delta Youths hosted in Abuja. Whenever he came back, he would distribute schnapps to some elders. His Highness would receive Remy Martins. No one was sure what he gave Chief.
"All the wrongs of marginalisation and despoliation will be put right," Jachi kept declaring like the minister of petroleum matters. "Oil communities are the golden eggs of the nation!"
He never mentioned that the organisers (the oil and gas industry) gave him small envelopes of mint naira notes. He was also making money from the oil company. Like a bouncer, he fought off any villager who tried to harass the Europeans or their colleagues, or prevented Westoil's jeeps from plying the roads. Through Chief, he became a contractor providing labourers to cut the overgrown grass, girls to do the laundry, and any other service requested by the Europeans. He and Chief and Mr. Laggard were now closer than business partners. They drank and womanised together.
Jachi began riding a Toyota Camry while he bought a motorbike for his parents. He became ubiquitous, like posters; his voice rang everywhere too. He spent so much money on clothes, and unceasingly, showed off. Some boys began calling him "Puff Daddy." Maybe he was popularising himself for a council election. He had become a lord.
It was during this period Chinwe jilted me. She had been visiting Jachi but when I accosted her, she denied.
"How can I? - I only go there to see his sister," she answered. "We are in the same class. You don't know? Sonny, I'm surprised."
Her visits became frequent, so I confronted her again.
"That's a lie! Who told you-? Oh God, you don't trust -" She broke into tears.
She dumped me anyway, even though I was spending the little money I had to win her back. She was already Jachi's lover.
I heard Jachi would be taking a title, Omereoha 1, during the month our village would be celebrating its one-year anniversary. The Eze was giving out one of his snobby daughters, who had recently graduated from a polytechnic, to a young man. Jachi went about telling every person he would be wedding shortly.
Nobody would ever imagine a mere teacher would spark off a change. Bobo had often turned down offers of vice president of the Youth because his primary interest was to teach students in Odera High School.
Silence gripped every home like a curse after Bobo was killed. Most people spoke little: you had to strain your ear to hear what the person next to you was saying. They expected a reprisal, no doubt. The Brothers had met. Our plan was exact.
Later in the day we attended Bobo's burial, dressed in black, and our heads shaved, hairless. Bobo's parents sat like zombies, ashen and traumatised. I could not believe the burnt tyre-like, charred remains in the coffin belonged to our leader. Anger searing through my veins, I spat severally. We left the funereal scene. Their son's murderers were in hiding, and we did not know where.
"Let them think that the heat would vanish. None of them will experience peace until his death is avenged. Until his spirit is appeased," Uzzi pronounced like an oracle.
We'd appointed him as our next leader. A short fellow, with bulbous nose, and quick reflexes, that, if provoked, he could smash your head against a wall, before you could lift him off his feet.
We visited those escapees' home one noon the sunrays felt prickly on our backs. Jachi's parents were sitting on a bench outside their building. His siblings were in the farm harvesting cassava. As we stumbled upon the parents they burst into tears.
Hands grabbed the father, and shoved him down.
The wife cried.
She was dragged by the hair, and flung to the ground, close to her husband.
Lousy old bastards!
We brought out all their household items, the motorbike, and emptied a gallon of kerosene on them. A bonfire rose and roared. We glimpsed their son's car parked under a tree behind the building. We damaged that car. Next, we repeated more bonfires in all the homes of Jachi's Gang, against a background of cries.
Let hell come down!
Our bravado had spread throughout the village. People dropped out of sight as we sang and raced towards the Villa. Like the Bakassi Boys, we brandished our machetes. Years before, Chief had seized a land belonging to the Ibes. Crude oil had been struck there. With the support of Jachi, he had stormed through the security posts of Westoil. Since then he became the landowner. From the royalties, he built a mighty Villa. We hardly thought of his charms anymore as we chased his wives and children out like chicks. We battered his car, and burnt it up together with most of his belongings.
Damn crook escaped through the window!
Nobody was around the oil company by the time we arrived. We thought of damaging the flow station. That could burn down the entire land, so we walked away, no longer spirited, but nursing a spleen.
There was calm. But the Eze and his cabinet chose to remain tense. They feared we would carry out destruction of their property as well. We almost did. It would have seemed irreverent somehow. Like pissing on the village shrine.
The town crier went round the village, announcing, "The crickets hear the crash of the iroko, so he who has ears let him hear. We demand an end to this senseless disturbance. Any youth caught with firearms will be sent to prison! Fathers, advise your sons."
The Brothers did not comply.
The town crier came the next day, and the day after that. We only hid our arms.
A few villagers were acting insecure: they hid indoors, moved sneakily, or withdrew if they saw us because of strange reports from the FM and AM stations: thugs have hijacked Odera . . . thugs are slaughtering natives as Christmas chickens . . . thugs have buried some expatriates in the forest . . . the farmlands are now scorched black . . . the rivers float with rotting bodies. The radio then announced in a news talk that our village was now a gory reminder of how villages looked like during Biafra. Blasted parrots!
All this was mere falsehood to enkindle some sense of insecurity in our community in order to alarm the state authorities without cause. But we did not mind. Besides, many villagers began regarding us as heroes. Little children ran after us, shouting: "Brother, brother . . . Carry us!" whenever they saw us. Girls giggled and winked coyly at us. Other boys raised their fists in solidarity. Mothers greeted us fondly as though we were their sons-in-law. Old men nodded their heads approvingly at us.
We did not bask in vanity. We only felt just the same way you'd feel if you did what was right, like ridding a pathway of rubbish.
Jachi's Gang was simply one giant heap of cow dung!
I ran into Chinwe the next day. She looked lean, pawpaw-yellow. There were spots like eczema on her neck and arms and legs. I sometimes convinced myself that taking sides against our opponents was enough reason for me to join The Brothers because their leader had slept with my girlfriend and had bragged about it. I still found it hard to believe she could submit to that notorious gangster easily! I'd spent so much money to get her affections and she'd proved too difficult the very first time I undressed her; even so, I wasn't allowed to stay long inside her.
"Please forgive me, I'm sorry. It was temptation . . . It was . . . "
She begged and begged.
I would never take her back, though I took her to bed, forced her to suck me, swung her legs freely, wildly, like a wheel, and then jabbed my penis into her.
Bitch of common currency!
Despite our VIP treatment from most of the villagers, Papa treated me as a disowned heir. Mama still rebuked me hard, calling God to have mercy on my soul. I did not know if they sent for Uncle James. But he came into my room one evening, after I had seen off some members of The Brothers.
"Boy, you're ruining your life. You know that?'' he said. "What do you hope to gain from all this, Sonny?"
I gazed at the wispy beard on his long thin face and nearly shook my head at him. Five years younger than Papa was, and yet he looked older, ruined by his love of ogogoro. He kept telling my parents that he had long given up alcohol. He was born-again. Occasionally I saw him sneaking in or out of beer houses, a Bible in his hands; maybe to convert other drinkers. If he only understood or saw what we were fighting for! He was just small-minded.
"I don't know," I said.
"Look at Jachi - at least, he was able to buy a car. You've only brought woes to your mother and father. Think again."
Just like Bobo, I was not interested in material gain. Many a time money cannot replace the satisfaction derived when you are required to make sacrifices for a dear object.
"Have you thought for a second - I mean, only for a second, how much you can make from Westoil if you direct your energies well?" Uncle James asked.
He thought I was insulting him and almost flared up, when I gave him the grin of a well-fed baby. "You think it's funny? Let me tell you something. Your friend, Bobo, was nuts. He thought Odera was one big campus ground where any idiot could display his fireworks. Now the rest of you have become nuts, too. Very well. Let the wasp sting the head that rocked its nest. You hear, Sonny?"
Days later, we were eating breadfruit at Madam Sunshine's.
"Sad, I tell you," a little old drunk said. "See hoodlums have sprung up everywhere. The Brothers should be happy now."
The room was suddenly hushed as the other drinkers glanced at us. Just then, Madam, the owner of the bar, came in and asked if someone had called her, or requested for more beer. She was ignored. Like a shadow, she hung on. Then she collected some empty bottles and plates, and went back into her kitchen.
It was obvious how damaged the staff residence of Westoil was. Doors had been broken, louvres smashed. Furniture ripped. Some boys had turned housebreakers. I knew many youths had acquired electronic gadgets, expensive clothes, footwear, and other things. Even the Staff Club had been broken into. Also some shops had begun dealing in stolen property.
After a while the other drinkers went into an outburst of words:
"Blame Jachi and his followers because he caused all this."
"What about his High-mess, Eze? He's only concerned about his throne and the 'gifts' he gets from the whites, so should he be free of blame?"
"Even juju couldn't help Chief. Poor fellow - Oh, I have not seen him of late. I'm afraid anyway."
The old drunk was staring at us. "What great ruin in a teeny-weeny village. I still blame these boys," he said.
"Odera was never like this. Our boys were never violent. Remember; they used to take farm work seriously, and contentedly. They never felt lowly or deprived. Now they want to live big as the staff of the oil company. Look at our girls - nearly all of them want to strut as beauty queens. So, what do they do? Look for money in every nook and corner. No girl wants to carry firewood anymore or pound yam again because they would turn out muscular. The Brothers have their own blame; but the oil company worsened all this. How many of our people have they employed since ten years ago they started operations? They employ strangers. They say we're good enough only as gatekeepers, gardeners, stewards, and drivers. The most annoying part is the reckless manner in which they sleep with our daughters. Tomorrow, one fake white scientist would tell the world that AIDS originated from here. Ha! Let us not talk rot because I don't want my drink to sour in my mouth."
One of the drinkers clapped for this speaker.
"You've spoken well!"
"I support you!" a tiny voice piped. A man sat in a corner smacking his lips, a bottle of palm wine on his table. "Jachi is a first-class disgrace, the worst thing to have happened to our community since that fire incident. Where's the coward now? I suggest we build a monument for Bobo . . . " He shut his eyes and murmured some words. " . . . Amen!"
Everybody, even the little old drunk, broke into laughter.
We did not laugh because our minds instantly went over to our rivals who were now outcasts. We heard, though, from a source that Jachi was in a neighbouring village making efforts to talk some boys into joining his gang; he was planning an attack. We were ready, untroubled - because many youths had shown more than enough interest to become members of our faction.
The Eze invited us thereafter. When we entered his palace, the officials refused to offer us seats, so we stood up. He was sitting on his throne like an elephant, fat, menacing. As we leaned forward to greet customarily, he broke into a fit. Words of bile just rolled off his tongue. He said that Jachi was at least tolerable. We were like the man who defecated in his father's well; enemies of progress.
"We will no longer watch nuisance disrupt our peace! For your own good, the state government has approved the use of any means necessary to check vandals."
Before we took our exit, Uzzi told him that The Brothers was not sorry for what had happened. We would never regret our actions. It was a community service.
"Our land is only passing through a brief phase. Your Highness, it is rather unfortunate that you do not want to look at the bright side," he said.
We were going back home when we saw two familiar figures coming out of the barber shop. They were members of Jachi's gang. Amazed, we glanced at one another and wondered if they had come to spy on us. As we approached them they looked up and took off.
"Get them both!" Uzzi yelled.
We pursued them. The two boys ran fast. We ran after them, with all our might. Then first boy slipped and the other members circled him. As he tried to get up, a savage blow on the head threw him backwards. The second boy leaped over a low barbed-wire fence and we chased him hard. We got hold of the second boy and kicked him on to the ground and dealt him some blows.
"Let's finish them off?"
"No blood, yet," Uzzi said. He seemed absorbed for a while, then an elfish grin showed on his face.
"Undress," he told the captives in a very mean tone.
The two boys stared at him, their faces a rumpled sheet of disbelief and dismay, sweat oozing out of their bodies like wet cloth, and breathing as if choked.
They bumped into each other, and squirming, they took off their clothes like shamed criminals.
An army-green canopied pickup appeared afterwards. About twenty men, fierce-looking, frightfully armed, jumped out. The Divisional Police Officer and his men had fled our village because of Eddy, a roadside mechanic nicknamed Akpi for his inability to stand even the slightest joke on his person. You'd imagine humour was an itch on his skin.
A police officer had seen his girlfriend holding a walkie-talkie. When he tried to find out where she got it, she told the officer to go and hang himself. Eddy heard that the police were detaining his girlfriend. Infuriated, he rallied some other mechanics and visited the police station and vandalised it.
So when those Mopol stormed our village, virtually every youth ran off into the forest.
For two days, we made an abandoned sawmill our home. It was made of thatch and wooden planks, its windows cracked and covered with old newspapers, and surrounded by rubber trees and plane trees mostly. We felt very safe hiding close to this forest - where trees grew so tall they wanted to touch the clouds and lumber was obtained - although, we suspected those Mopol were busy like raiders trying to sniff out our whereabouts.
On the third day, the moon was warming up, and we were inside when we heard a whistle. We stopped talking. Then we heard the crackling of a twig at the door of the mill. We considered rushing out headlong but somehow caution stopped us as Chiedes peeped through the keyhole.
"It's Nkiru," he said. She was Bobo's youngest sister.
We all stepped out.
"Who told you we're here?" Uzzi asked.
"I guessed. It is a safe spot, here," she said. "See, I brought you something . . . " She showed us some akara and bread in a black nylon bag.
We sat down on the grass and started eating.
"Those men are from the barracks," she said in a chilly tone that made me remember the slain citizens of Odi. "They've killed Akpi because he tried to fight with one of them. His brains spilled about because they shot him in the head."
I stared at her and wished she would keep quiet.
But she was talkative, a bearer of grim news.
"Do you know Chief is still missing? His wives have been looking for him since that day. Someone mentioned that he's been hiding in New Owerri. Oh, before I forget. Those men have set up a post. Can you believe it? They've turned our girls into 'housewives'. They pass them around like kola nuts." Before Nkiru left, she told me she would tell my parents that she had seen me. Then she added rather hesitantly, "They're harassing them."
I felt anger ram into my heart. I tried not to imagine those fierce men butting Papa and Mama around with machine guns, or forcing them to frog jump the length of our compound, because they wouldn't answer questions about my hiding place.
Night was closing in. Bats were crying overhead. I was in the forest, alone, imagining boots crunching the dry leaves, claw-like hands gripping my neck. Fear was tormenting me like a toothache. Anyway, I think I was very lucky to have escaped. I'd never thanked God for once but now I pressed my palms together in prayer because I would have been passing through the torture being inflicted on Uzzi and the four others.
We had planned leaving the village in the midnight after yesterday's visit from Nkiru. But rain had broken out and fell all through the night.
On the fourth day, we woke up late, the sun was starkly bright and the sky a buoyant blue. I felt a kind of hardness in my stomach like it was wedged. The six of us were still holed up in that musty old sawmill. I could not bear the soreness any longer.
"I want to pass out shit," I said, gritting my teeth.
"Do you need permission?"
"He wants us to see his monkey arse."
"Come sit on my head and swarm your shit on me!"
They all laughed at me.
I crouched among some cocoyam plants, enjoying the breeze caressing my anus when gunshots burst in the air. I ducked to the ground and lay unmoving like a log.
The voices that followed sounded metallic:
"Don't let him escape!"
"See the other one - there!"
"Are you mad? So, you want to run away?"
I heard a thwack. I heard an ear-splitting cry. Something or somebody dropped to the ground with a thud.
"Are those all? Search in and out; now!"
Then silence filled the air.
I couldn't say how long I stayed on the ground but finally, I raised my head. I knew I might not see my fellow members again.
As flies began buzzing around my waste, I pulled up my pants, and skulked behind the bushes, deep into the forest.
I am somewhat hazy about why I actually joined The Brothers. Maybe I found it tempting, an adventure. I remembered the first time I climbed a hill. I had gone to spend a weekend with a cousin in Plateau State. Every morning I looked out the window, wondering what it would feel like standing on top of that hill. And it seemed to dare me every other time I looked out. It reached out to me in my dreams like a girl that desired you to take her in your arms. I was convinced that hill wanted my 'embrace'.
I climbed it.
I felt exultant.
Since then every experience was a hill. Conquer it.
Yet some adventures come with a cost, Bobo once said: though he never said what it was, and I never considered asking him either. Change surpasses every other factor if it is for the community's benefits, he further convinced me.
"You may not understand. Do you understand the role you are playing?" He fascinated every other member like a diviner as he gesticulated. "You are all agents of change!" His voice would float out, a poignant song, stirring your body to dance.
There was a time he spoke about the future of our village, as though he were reciting an elegy:
Westoil will impoverish us
our condition will be worse
we shall not live as slaves in
save we act like activists . . . !
I'd never been to Oloibiri before, but I had heard of it anyway. In my imagination it was a land of fumes and vultures and corpses.
Bobo often called the Eze a puppet, Chief a fraudster.
"You may not know that Jachi has been hoodwinking the entire youth. He's been stowing away money in banks!"
We had to put an end to all this oppression. We had to reform this notorious criminal, even if it meant chopping off his finger. We agreed and gave full support to our founder.
His father also stood by him for the fact his son was advancing a worthy cause - just as he, too, had fought on his people's side during the Civil War. After all, nobody complained that his son bullied, harassed, or extorted anybody.
I pitied Mama. Her worries were needless. She failed to realise I was old enough to face any situation. She would grieve, no doubt, for an only son, whom she might think was missing, or dead perhaps. I prayed she would understand and learn to forgive me: I wasn't trying to be foolhardy.
Papa would not feel sad. I think he had always known beforehand how I'd turn out, what lay ahead of me. He often reminded me:
" . . . a fly that scorns advice follows a corpse into the grave; only a fool is drenched by a rain after the rumbling in the sky . . . "
Papa would be burning away his disappointment with cigarettes, nevertheless.
I remembered one night. He had woken me up, taken me out into the moonlight, and then told me to look at the horizon. But for the familiar tongue of the gas flare flickering against a sable sky, I could see nothing.
"You see that flame?" Papa asked.
"Can you hold it with your hands?'
I shook my head.
"So, what are you doing to yourself?"
"Aghotaghi m?," I said, yawning.
"What is it you do not understand? I should use a belt on you? You are no more a child, Sonny. I ask, what makes you think you can put out a flame that wild? You think you're cut out to be a hooligan?"
"Somebody has to speak against this mess-"
"Now you are Martin Luther King, Jr.?" he asked. "Son, I don't want to believe you're stupid. You are almost twenty years old. Foolishness does not run in our family. Let this be the last time I have to speak to you on this issue. I don't want to see you attending any youth meeting - again!"
That particular night I slept like a drunk. I didn't even consider Papa's words. Rather, I dreamt about Bobo's sayings:
Revolutionaries are like prophets who lack honour in their country.
Time ripens all that is good:
The Brothers would become a legend in Odera.
I sat down on the bank of a river and gazed out over the waters. Then I closed my eyes and saw myself in a canoe gliding towards the horizon.
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