Tell Him I’m Here

Tell Him I’m Here

Tell Him I’m Here 720 905 Zenas Ubere

I should start from the evening I played ayo under the mango tree with Onduka. The setting sun, with its orange glow, had a sense of serenity in it, like the type my village enjoyed before things went south.

“Nama! Nama!” the children on the streets shouted, singing along as they clapped their hands.

Onduka and I ran outside to look. The children trolled the herd but kept a safe distance. The hoofs of the animals thudded against the ground, stirring dust behind them. Their jaws twisted from left to right as they cut and chewed grasses on the shoulders of the road. Some of them had horns as long as my hands. Droppings fell from their behinds as they marched and wagged their tails. Two men with sticks on their shoulders walked behind them. They spoke to the cows in a strange language. Big head-ties crowned their heads and their loose clothing swayed behind them. One of the men hung a roped raffia-hat on his neck, which rested on his back. They looked like magicians, and that explained why they could speak the animal language. We returned to our game of ayo when they vanished behind the bend in the street.

The next day, my mother came back home complaining that the cows had eaten her crops to the ground, her face twisted in annoyance. I had never seen her angry, not even when I refused, against her instruction, to wash the plates, or sweep the house. She would just sigh, roll her eyes, and do it herself. My father once said she pampered me too much because I looked like her. I carry her narrow face, straight nose, and almond eyes, which are in direct contrast to my father’s broad features. Sometimes when she didn’t get angry at my misgivings, he wore the anger in her stead and punished me. But that day she got angry. Her eyes reddened. Beads of sweat glided down her face. She used her wrapper to wipe them off, and her eyes brought forth their liquid, waiting to be wiped, too. Before she came in, I had been drawing shapes on the sand with my finger. I added a drawing of my mother flogging the cows, the way my father flogged me when he claimed that I misbehaved. The cows misbehaved. They, too, needed flogging.

But my drawings didn’t stop the cows from misbehaving further.

 

I sat in the parlour with my father, playing ayo — it was he who taught me the workings of the game — and, being the better player, he had secured two houses from my six, making his eight and mine four. He sat across from me, on the couch opposite mine, the wooden table holding up the ayo between us. It was his turn to play and his large palm picked up the stones in one of his houses and distributed them accordingly, each drop of stone clacking in the wooden holes, punctuating the silence that engulfed the room. My mother had left in the morning with Onduka’s aunty to weed the farm. The parlour door was open and the curtain dangling in the threshold kept the inside view private. We had not noticed my mother’s approaching footsteps and as she pried open the curtain, we both looked at her, surprised – she was back too early.

“Mummy welcome,” I said as I made to take her hoe and sack from her hands.

“You don’t look happy,” my father said. “What happened?”

I was taking the things I collected from her to the backyard when she started the story. I returned quickly and met her slouched on the couch, shoulders slumped, narrating how they had reached the farm and found it in ruins. All her vegetables, corns, everything was damaged. Her eyes were sunken and framed behind tears. My heart began to hurt, too. She added that she heard a woman was raped, the woman had been on her farm when the cows and their owners came, and she protested but ended up getting raped.

“I don’t just know how we cannot be safe in our land again,” she said. She raised her hands and crossed them behind her head. Her legs were crossed at the ankle and she dangled her knees, her wrapper flapping in the space between her legs.

My father got up to his feet, snapped his fingers and paced about, each step thudding on the cemented floor. His anger began to smoulder like the coal my mother used to roast corn. The farms were usually cleared by him before planting; he also executed the tilling and ridge building, then planting and weeding was handed over to my mother.

I stood at a corner, wide-eyed, not knowing what to say or do. Still pacing, my father paused, clenched his teeth. His broad chest heaved, expanding and collapsing like the stomach of a sleeping dog. With his right hand in the air, his index finger pointed to the ceiling, he swore by God that those cows and their herders would pay for the damage they had done.

Only if I had learned that animal language, I would have told the cows to stop eating my mother’s crops. Then every other thing that followed wouldn’t have happened.

 

You see, my father was not known to be a troublesome man. Or a man who would support the damage of another man’s life or property. Despite his large and intimidating frame, he never bullied anyone. I know he always saw it fit to flog me when he felt I deserved it, but he was not a troublesome person. He was just an easy-going man, contented with his okada riding, his family, and the life God had given him. He may show his temper when he was angry, but he quickly forgave, and forgot, too. So, when he said they would get back at those cow people, I didn’t expect the outcome to be as damaging.

 

One afternoon, my mother ran past me into the house and emerged with our big stainless basin. It reflected the sun’s glare on my face and I shaded my eyes with my palms. She went away with the same speed she came in with. I continued tinkering with the toy car I had been building with carton. Minutes later, she returned with chunks of meat in the basin; they were fresh and sweating blood. We didn’t have any occasion in our house that required that much meat. She called me to assist her as she washed blood and sand off the meat.

My father came back and met the pot steaming. It was evening, and he was rolling his motorcycle to the spot where he parked it, underneath a shed in the backyard. I sat on a wooden stool beside the pot boiling on a tripod stand, aggressive yellow flames from the tangled woods engulfed the pot’s bottom like hands holding up a bowl. The aroma from the pot had expanded, filling up the compound. My mother straddled a bench, a tray in front of her, chopping leaves for the pepper-soup.

“My people,” he said, smiling. “What is cooking?” He flashed a toothy grin.

“Daddy welcome,” I said. I stood up to greet him.

He ruffled my hair and it made me smile. It always made me smile. My mother welcomed him too and, without hesitation, ambushed him with the gist.

“Those men came to our village today again o. But Onjefu and his boys were prepared for them.”

“Yes. I heard they killed some cows,” he said, nodding in approval. “We had talked about the herders in our last meeting with the village security, and that was their befitting punishment.”

“It did not end there o. They beat the herders very well. One was lucky to have escaped. But I heard the other one did not survive.”

My father didn’t say anything. His grin dimmed, he shook his head and sat on a free bench.

My mother served the pepper-soup later that night. We ate it with white rice and the meats in my plate heaped like the dome of the National Assembly building my father pointed out for me on NTA news. As we ate, my father announced that he had spoken to a friend who worked at Science School, Kuru and he was told that soon their forms would be on sale. He promised to get it for me when sales commenced. My heart leapt. My head went giddy with excitement. I was finally going to become a secondary schoolboy, a big boy. I thanked him and continued eating my dinner with renewed elation.

“Soon-to-be BuTech boy. Our engineer,” my mother said, twitching her brows and poking a finger on my arm.

I chuckled and responded to her poke, moving in the direction of her finger as though it had pushed me so.

The rice and pepper-soup began to feel like a celebration for my imminent secondary school entry. When I finished the fleshy part of the meats in my plate, I focused on the bones, cracking and sucking the marrow from the ones that allowed me to.

The next day I went to Onduka’s house to show him the toy car I had finished building and, also, break the good news to him. Their zinc roof had more rust than ours and their house was shorter. My father’s head would hit the door frame if he did not bow to pass through it. Onduka came out of the house in his usual combat short and robust stomach. A smile crinkled his face when he spotted me.

His smile always made me laugh, the way his flat nose would push upwards, his eyes crease at the edges, and his lips stretched so much that you could count all of his teeth — everything on his face smiled with him. The features of his face were broad, like my father’s. He wore his slippers and walked towards me. Onduka acted in a funny manner, he always walked as if the floor threatened to bite his feet, raising it as quickly as he placed it down. When he talked, his voice was slightly above a whisper.

“Why don’t you like wearing a shirt?” I asked him.

“It makes me feel like I’m in a cage.”

“One-day cold will enter your body.”

“It’s a lie.”

“You will see. With your stomach like calabash.”

He rubbed his stomach, and we both broke into laughter.

“Ah, you’ve finished the car!”

He took it from my hands and examined it.

“My mother brought plenty of meat back home yesterday, she even made pepper-soup with some.”

“It’s true, even my aunty came back with meat too. She said some vigilante men killed some of those cows that were killing people’s crops.”

“Hmm. Eh-hen, I will be entering secondary school this year. My father will soon buy BuTech form for me.”

“Ah, Science School. Your own is good o. You will soon become a big boy.” He raised his shoulders and swayed them back and forth.

I chuckled and patted his arm. He still had a year to finish primary school. I sat on the wooden stool in front of the house.

Onduka put the car on the ground and dragged it by its rope around their compound, making engine noise with his mouth as he drove.

 

One morning, after we finished breakfast, my father sat on the couch, legs spread-eagled on the wooden table in the middle of our parlour. He told my mother, who sat with me on the couch opposite him, about some people that got killed in their farms at our neighbouring village Nghar. He said those cowmen cut their throats like that of domestic animals. He said we have to be prepared for such a thing if it comes here. He said they would have a meeting with the village security soon. He said other things which I could not hear anymore because I had zoned out. The whole story sounded somehow to me; those type of things happened only in films. I untangled myself from my mother’s embrace and sat up.

Morning fell into sundown. The evening birds returned with their songs, cooing and hooting as they flapped to the trees in our compound. Branches danced as the birds perched, and dried leaves fell to the floor, those dried leaves my mother would tell me to sweep and I would say no. Because of the heat inside, I had come to lay on the bench under our mango tree. Onduka strolled into our compound in his usual combat short and robust stomach. His signature smile plastered on his face. As I spotted him, I sat up.

I envied Onduka sometimes, he could walk around without a shirt. My mother told me that as a baby I had caught a very bad cold that nearly killed me, so if I did not wear a shirt it may come back to kill me.

“Aboh, go and bring ayo let’s play,” he said.

I had thrashed him the last time, and he came back to redeem himself.

“I will still thrash you again,” I said, then laughed as I scurried off to get it.

“Did you hear that those cowmen are killing people?” he asked when I returned, the ayo clenched under my armpit.

“Yes, my father was telling my mother something like that this morning.”

“Me, I’m afraid o. What if they come here now and start flogging us with that their stick? I don’t want to die o.”

“Onduka, nothing will happen. You have forgotten we have a vigilante group?” I said. Onjefu and his boys had been keeping our village free from criminals and the likes. I had faith in them.

We settled into our game and played.

 

On that red afternoon, the hotness of the sun made me suspect someone sprayed pepper in the air. My entrance exam was the next day, and my father had gone out for his daily hustle. I and my mother sat on the wooden bench under the mango tree, eating groundnuts.

“AB, you know your exam is tomorrow, you’re here following me to eat groundnuts.”

“Mummy, you know I have been reading.” I blew my cheeks, widened my eyes, and dangled my head on my neck. She laughed.

“Won’t you revise today?”

“Mummy see how hot the sun is. I will revise later.”

“Okay o. Make sure you are well prepared. Your father has been so excited by the prospects of you becoming a secondary schoolboy. Even me, I am excited.”

She threw a shell at me and I dodged it. I brought out my tongue to mock her for her failure.

“Mummy, have I failed an exam before?”

“No, my engineer.”

She smiled and stroked my cheek. I smiled, too. And we continued breaking open the boiled groundnut shells and chewed the nuts inside until we ran out of groundnuts.

My eyes felt drowsy, and my mother, noticing, said I should join her as she made to go in, but the heat said otherwise. I listened to the heat.

“Don’t worry, I will lie down here for a while,” I said. “I will come inside later. Let the breeze blow me small.”

She went in, and I lay on the bench.

An agama lizard fell from our roof, nodded twice, and scuttled into the little bush beside our house. A mass of cloud in the sky formed an image of a cactus plant, like the ones at the entrance of our compound. I traced its edges, then looked out for more shapes in the clouds around it.

The unease I felt in my lower body drove me to my feet. I walked to the back of the mango tree to find relief. And as I brought my penis out from my shorts, the shouts of people from a distance spilt into our quiet compound like air. Thumping footsteps followed. A dog barked in the distance. As the running feet got closer and the crowd came into view, my heart drummed against my chest. Those cow herders, about ten or more of them, in loose clothing and big head-ties, held machetes and guns above their heads, swinging and cutting people down. Gunshots rattled, vibrating the air and working fear into my bones. Two women from the crowd ran into our compound. Four of the men followed them. I froze where I stood. The warm urine ran freely down my legs. As the women made towards the door, my mother who had been startled from her sleep stepped out in hurried concern, she parted the curtain at the door, her eyes to the bench I had been lying. One of the herdsmen fingered his trigger and bullets riddled the air, puncturing holes in one of the women’s body. She fell to the floor. Blood splattered everywhere, dotting the floor and the front wall of our house with red splotches. The other woman and my mother had retreated behind the curtain and the men went in after them. Screams, from inside our house, pierced into the air. I couldn’t tell which was my mother’s and which was the other woman’s. And after a while, there was a loud clank of metal and a shuddering silence.

The men plodded out of our compound, one of them tying up the rope of his trousers, into the street, their faces furrowed and blank. I tried to talk, but the words stuck behind my throat. My legs, my whole body, could not move. My eyes rolled in my head, darting from left to right and back. My head swooned as the stench of blood and gunpowder overwhelmed my nostrils. Tears dribbled down my cheeks. My heart ached like a stone sat in it and my throat became bitter. I remembered my father and the thing stiffening my knees left me. I ran out to find him, past the cactus plants lining both sides of the entrance of our compound, towards the exit of our street, but halted at the sight of a shirtless boy with combat shorts, his robust stomach painted with dust and facing the sky. He lay there on a mat of his blood. I dawdled towards him. A slash ran across his temple, exposing the white of his skull. I fell to my knees. My head swooned again and everything faded to black.

People surrounded me and said lots of things in whispering tones. “This one is alive,” one of them said. I oscillated in and out of darkness, picking up movements from my surrounding and fading out of it. It kept happening that way until nothing happened again.

I woke on this hospital bed. The doctor said I was in shock and had passed out. He also said I’ll be here until a relative comes to claim me, if not I’ll become the government’s responsibility. And for now, I should not worry because the hospital would take care of me. I haven’t heard anything from my village since then. Since you’re going there, as you said, if you see my father, please tell him I’m here.

Header photography © Martins Deep.

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