By Festus Ogun My name is Cynthia. I came into…
By Aliyu Jalal
David Okon will go to hellfire. He will be roasted on a pitchfork in hell, and all the while being lashed by a fork-horned ugly demon.
I wouldn’t have known that if he had not presented a poem one morning during meditation period, at NYSC camp in Oyo State. I wouldn’t have spoken to him if the beautiful poetry did not match the comfort lying on his face to present a display of aesthetic ecstasy. I wouldn’t have gotten to know him, if after he had finished, amidst clapping, I didn’t manage to slid my body among the rows of the marching nation’s future leaders that were ready to die for N19,800 for the next 11 months – under the sun or in the rain–as we excitedly swore–and stood behind him hesitatingly, thinking about what words to use for compliment.
“Beautiful work, nice rendition,” I said a little nervous, trying to appear genuine.
He turned back, smiling like he had already expected hearing that and shook my hand.
“Thank you very much” he said, “God bless you.”
Before I said amen, I wondered which of the gods would bless me; mine or his? He was obviously Catholic for the gold crucifix rosary beaming around his neck testified that. And I was a Muslim, at least because I considered myself one. We instantly began discussing poetry and even arranged to meet later in the day to analyse the ones we’d read and our own works. He seemed delighted to have found somebody with equal artistic passion. So we were left with the only option of becoming friends.
We would go to mosque together and he would wait for me outside to finish my prayers, then we would go back to camp activities. I would do same to him in the evening service at the camp’s Catholic chapel. He would even ask me to come into the church where I would sit and watch them rendering beautiful and touching hymns. Because it was Ramadan, David would also fast with me according to Christianity. He abhorred having me accompany him to Mami Market and watch him eating alone. He said that was cruel of him. So he fasted almost all the days we spent together in camp like I did. He told me everything about his family. His father, I learnt, was a successful businessman that rarely stayed in the country. And David was the first and only son of a family of five. I even spoke with his mom twice on phone and she sounded so nice to me. I was happy she understood some bits of Hausa formalities despite being Efik by tribe from Calabar like his father. David later told me she had attended a northern university for her first degree.
A Friday came that I spent longer time than usual at the camp’s mosque that David had to call to enquire if I had forgotten about his existence outside. I apologized and told him what was happening: somebody had lost his phone and it was presumed to had been stolen within the mosque’s premise so the mosque’s officials were checking everybody before exiting. David said he was coming and in a short while, he appeared. I was in the queue they tactically arranged us as if we were about to march to Paradise. I smiled mentally at the thought that it was actually paradise that got us here in the first place. But here we were, in marching rows to find out who would go to hell that day; who had stolen a phone in the mosque, the God’s own zone.
“Whose phone has been stolen?” David came close asking.
I turned around and pointed the guy for him. The guy was a short and dark fellow with chaffed lips so dry that they desperately needed an urgent meeting with a lips balm. He looked so sullen as to make one think his whole life was an app installed in the phone. There was dust on his forehead that he was unable to wipe after prayers probably from the horribleness of losing his phone. His eyes were unsurprisingly red, there was a war between impatience and fury in them. I heard his name was Habu from Kano State. I couldn’t remember the exact phone model, but I heard it was one of those cheap Tecno products.
David held his hand and they walked to the mosque’s backyard. Few minutes later, they resurfaced and then the guy announced that he forgave whoever had stolen his phone. He made the announcement at exactly the moment one of the checkers held me tightly with his left hand while his right one going up and down my white vest and shorts – that he knew fully none of the garments had pockets but he searched anyway – perhaps to find the hole he felt I had in my body. I knew the entire process was dehumanizing but I didn’t protest for it was a mosque; everything I did there had to be right in the eyes of the Lord and I would appear like a deviant. Besides, since nobody protested, I thought my voice wouldn’t be loud enough to do it. So it was a huge relief letting me go with a squeezed shirt spotting hand stains after the victim announced his generous forgiveness.
As we were walking away, David noticed the uneasiness on my face which deciphered a quest for details. He began to narrate what transpired between himself and Habu, the victim of thievery. He said he’d removed his SIM and Memory cards and gave one of his two phones to the guy and asked him to announce apology for the sake of harmony and also warned him never to tell anyone that he was compensated with another phone. I came to an abrupt stop, frozen as I stared at David for of some seconds, imagining how he comfortably gave that expensive phone away. An original Samsung product. David had had two phones – a Samsung Galaxy and an iPhone. I held his hands and told him the most honest truth my heart ever felt about someone: “you have a good heart, too good for this world.” But he only smiled, hung his arm around my shoulders and continued walking. When I persisted with the gratitude and compliment later in the evening while breaking our fast at an eatery, he said: “we are here to be good to each other, that’s the only way to make the world liveable.” He smiled again and continued eating. But I thought David’s goodness wasn’t a mere testimony of being “good-to-each-other.” It was a dramatic generosity I could only read in fiction books.
It was three days to leaving camp when David informed me that he had to leave the camp the next day. I already knew about his masters program in Dublin but didn’t know it was that close because he had only told me that there was a possibility he wouldn’t stay up to the end of the camping period. He requested for an exit letter and the next day, he was fully prepared waiting for the driver that would carry him to Lagos from where he would fly out of the country.
At around 10 o’clock in the morning, we were already standing close to the gate with David’s luggage beside us waiting for the driver who informed that he was close to arrival. We were talking about nothing, just standing, watching tree branches as they swung reluctantly from the stifling breezes at short intervals. David broke the awkward silence with the jokes he was never tired of. The jokes about all the girls I denied following and those that tried too hard to grab his attention. I laughed dryly at his jokes because deep inside my heart, I was analysing the cruelty life was about to do to a blossoming friendship. The cruelty we both managed not to speak about as though it was a blasphemous topic.
A black BMW SUV strode into the gate. It slowed down before the military men for security clearance before reaching our stand. It put a brake right in front of us and the driver opened the door. A tall dark guy within his mid-thirties with noticeable machismo and a long tightly weaved hair climbed out of the car. He wore a tight black shirt that exposed the mercilessness gym had done to his physique and would’ve looked normal if his face was not full of different marks that told stories of a childhood spent on streets and under the bridges of Lagos ghettos.
“Wedon sah.” He addressed David smilingly out of the aura of somebody whose job thrived on how frequent he used those words.
He didn’t even care to look at my direction and I felt hurt despite not knowing why I had to. David did not respond to him. The driver who exhibited excess exuberance whistled nonchalantly as he raised up the car’s trunk lid. I lifted one bag and David lifted the other. He quickly received David’s load with another grinned “wedon sah” that made an advert of his tobacco-stained teeth. He allowed me to drop mine into the boot by myself – without “wedon” or “sah” or even a “tan-kyu.” He shut the boot and went back into the car.
David opened the backdoor, then turned and firmly clasped my hand for the last time. While shaking, we found ourselves bereft of what to say, what to talk about, as if what we would say determined the fate of the friendship itself.
“Meeting you is the only good thing about this place,” he finally admitted, turning his head to look at the camp’s surrounding indicating its landmass and all the people in it.
“You’ve changed many things about me,” I said with the serious demeanour of how sincere statements were said in films, “including how I look at the world.”
“When shall we see again?”
“Perhaps in the hereafter.”
He laughed and covered his mouth with his left hand, which surprisingly evidenced how humorous he found my reply.
“Well, if so,” he said, composing himself, the laughter dying on his lips, “then we shall meet in Paradise.”
“Okay, may God put us in Para…” I abruptly stopped, remembering we had different ‘Gods.’
He stared at me, I stared back at him. Our eyes met and spoke between themselves, by themselves. Our minds also spoke to each other; reminding each other of our different faiths and supposedly, different destinies. Our eyes continued searching for answers from each other as if to roll out of their sockets and share intimate whispers.
Would your God burn me in hell? He asked, with his eyes. Would yours too burn me in His? I responded, with my eyes also. It happened just like that, without words, like an extrasensory revelation.
Then it began to dawn on us, that there were series of questions unasked, topics undiscussed, and destinies unexplored that gathered like rough pebbles in our throats. It was so strange to have felt so close to someone – to tell many aspects of your very personal lives – yet abandon what determined your mutual destinies simply due to forceful insecurities of bullying the relationship.
He raised his left hand and wrapped my hand that was still in his. He didn’t speak. But I understood what he said. It meant: “It’s too late to ask questions.” I lifted my other hand and put on top of his too; making our four hands together in one place. And it responded with: “questions that have no answers.” All, with our eyes and hands and minds. I didn’t know how we did it. It was mysterious; magical.
The driver made a short horn. David tightened our handshake before we let go of each other’s hands. He entered the car and I slowly shut the door after him. I watched as he moved down the shade-glasses on his forehead down to his eyes and stretched the seat belt across his stomach. As the car reversed, the tinted window beside David lazily began to roll up as we waved goodbye at each other. The tinted glass covered the window completely and the only thing I could see then was his golden Catholic necklace that glittered and casted some rays through the black shining window frame. The car drove out of the gate and away from my sight.
**** **** ****
It was the last day of the camp – the passing out parade day–stylishly called POP, and two days after David had left camp–and after I sent him the WhatsApp message that he didn’t reply; the message he would never reply. All the corpers, in their full, well-ironed NYSC regalia stood before the pavilion where the invited guests and other camp’s officials were seated. We were arranged in rows by the military sergeants who treated graduates like heaps of garbage. Seventeen Corpers including myself, who wore the black mourning outfit were lined at the forefront of each row. There was a handkerchief in my hand that I wiped the unending tears washing my face frequently. Right before me, watching directly at them, were the state governor, the state’s traditional ruler, the NYSC state coordinator and other distinguished guests and camp officials.
I was the only non-christian, the only non-catholic, that was allowed to wear the black dresses supplied by the camp director. I wore it despite warnings from different mosque officials that I shouldn’t wear it. I heard there was even a special impromptu meeting about me at the mosque during morning prayers that I didn’t attend, where topics about my “worrying” closeness with “unbelievers” were discussed. But I wore it because I wanted to wear it. I wore it because I must wear it. I wore it because on that day, there was no difference between the colour of my heart and the colour of the dresses. One of the mosque officials even told me to my face, at the hostel, that I would “unfailingly” leave Islam if I wore it, and I told him I would wear it for him to occupy my space in the religion, so that God could find enough reason to give him two paradises.
After formal introductions by the MC, the first person to give an opening address was the state coordinator. She rose from her seat after giving us enough time to clap at her long Yoruba names. She used her hand to pull back the silky Brazilian Hair that haughtily fell to her shoulders in loose curls, covering a part of her face. Her skin was fair, which had the milky complexion supplied by expensive body creams. She held the microphone with a hand bejewelled, and with the ease of a person used to holding microphones. “Elegant” was the simplest word to describe her. She was the kind of woman I imagined David’s mother was.
Her speech began with the usual speeches I’d been tired of hearing to corpers – to serve the nation loyally; to be good ambassadors of Nigeria and our tribes and religions, and I wondered if there’s a way of being loyal to one of the three without hampering the other. She also said we were among the lucky ones to have a degree among millions of others above our ages, and I had to turn back to look again at the type of luck I had, among over two thousand graduates times 36 states, plus the thousands of jobless ones on the streets. Then she began talking about David; and everybody maintained a pin-drop silence, anxious to hear the full details of his death that had earlier been dispensed in varying degrees of colourless narratives, two hours after he left camp on their way to Lagos. She said: “we all should pray for him because of the huge unusual donations he had given to the renovation of the camp’s religious places of worship, the chapels and even the mosque.” She stressed ‘even the mosque’ in a way that showed extreme generosity. But David’s usual donation was something I had no idea about, something he did not even care to tell me. The Christians began clapping, and the Muslims, reluctantly joined them. The Catholics clapped louder. And it seemed to me David’s “unusual donation” had made them forgotten he was dead; he didn’t need clapping.
The next speaker was the state governor. A potbellied tall man wearing spectacles, before giving the address, as he stood at the podium, he shrugged and lifted one side of his white robe back to his shoulders; just the way big guns do to emphasize their importance at public gatherings. He too, said nothing special before dawning on David’s fatal road accident.
“You should know the value of your lives and be wary of the type of drivers carrying you,” he turned around in a gesture that suggested he was giving some good advice, “these days we have lots of irresponsible people driving on our roads,” he continued without telling what his government was actually doing about those “irresponsible drivers” he talked about, neither did he mention anything about the death-traps called roads in his state.
I wanted to go and forcefully grab the microphone and tell the governor he was very stupid. I wanted to tell him he was one of the major reasons that had made David’s driver drink alcohol and throw them down the bridge. I wanted to tell him a government was supposed to make its people responsible and it had failed in doing that because the leaders themselves were not responsible.
“Mtsschew! See stupidity! How does he expect people to be responsible while the system is doing nothing to make them so?” I didn’t know when I blurted out with tears trailing down my already-brutalized eyes, not minding if he would hear me.
“Maybe he wants us to be asking drivers if they are responsible and are not drunk before entering their cars,” a female next to me with same black shirt whose face I could blurrily see joined in.
“Abi o, these politicians are follow-come idiots,” said another guy also in black, with the accent of a Yoruba native whose throat must’ve been a rallying ground for Amala daily festival.
I blew up my nose trying to hold it back from running, “besides how could responsible people be found in a career that’s seen by the society as an irresponsible one?”
“I dunno o,” the Yoruba guy responded to me again, with his thick lower lip.
About three others, all in black, also joined the fury, each one telling instances of calamities government’s carelessness was causing in the country, as a result of inept and corrupt political leaders. Then the outrage subdued and they lowered their voices and began talking in whispers, about their choirmaster that was caught on top of a female Corper in the chapel around 2am the previous night, who said he was only giving her intimate “spiritual deliverance.” I would’ve wanted to hear if the girl also admitted to receiving that spiritual deliverance from him but their voices went too low when they realized I was eavesdropping. And I knew I was not supposed to listen. It was a behind-the-scenes issue for Catholics, and Catholics, only.
I didn’t realize the end of the speeches and even the parades that followed. I wasn’t even aware I was the only person left on the parade ground as all the corpers had excitedly gone to find out where they’d been posted for their primary assignments. I was thinking deeply about the blowing goodness of David—a friend whose destiny now depended on my definition–when I heard somebody’s voice behind me. I quickly turned back as if waking from a shocking nightmare. It was Habu, the Muslim Corper that had lost his phone at the mosque a week ago.
“So you insisted and wore the Hell’s outfit?” he said with the aggressiveness of a self-righteous Muslim mixed with a thick Hausa accent.
“What he needs now is your prayers please,” I almost begged walking closer to touch his shoulders, “let’s stop all these brother.”
He jerked himself back a little away from me, widened his red eyes like a frightened toad and raised his hands to his chest as though I had admitted Jesus Christ was God.
“Kutumar uba!” he exclaimed, “how could I fray for an unbelieba?” He wul neba go to faradise!” He pronounced the “f” in Paradise by hissing out enough air from his mouth that landed on my face. Perhaps he was mistaking Paradise with the phone he was tightly holding in his hand; David’s expensive Samsung Galaxy.
Aliyu Jalal is a young Nigerian poet, fiction and nonfiction writer from Zaria, Kaduna State. He holds Bsc in Political Science from ABU Zaria. He dreams to be an influential sociopolitical activist that would help in reforming crude social and political norms in the society. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org