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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

EVERY SO OFTEN

Image from here


I've been at a loss as to what to post, so I asked my friend and fellow Farafina Trust workshop participant, Tolu Talabi, to let me post this story, which I really like. The story isn't complete yet, but this will leave you aching for more. I promise.



Every so often a young girl disappears.

It has happened enough times that the people who live around here know it to be a pattern. But that hasn't stopped them from living their lives. And it hasn't stopped us from continuing what we do.

We pace ourselves, careful not to strike too frequently from the same place. Careful not to pick too often from the local populace. Careful not to stir the people up enough to act. Nigerians have typically been lethargic, rural Nigerians even more so. Things like this typically get attributed to supernatural forces. But I know better. We know better. We get paid well to do this. 
  
Work comes easier on Sunday nights, when everyone is rushing back home after their weekends. It is the time you are most likely to meet lone travellers, flagging down cars by the roadside, willing to take a risk by riding in a car that isn't officially marked as a taxi. But Fridays evenings are cleanest because no one notices people are missing until the following week. Not that it matters anyway. The police would set up ineffective roadblocks and half-heartedly search anyone who isn't willing to pay the 20 naira fee they charged the passing cars. By the end of the week, the checkpoints would be gone and police would return to their original posts with their pockets full, but the girls would still be missing.

Moshood drives, he speaks Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba fluently, and never stops complaining. He complains about the roads, he complains about the government, when it rains he complains about the rains, and when it doesn't, he complains about the sun. It works well. People bond easily over shared grief. Anita chews gum incessantly. She spends her time picking at her nails or looking out of the window with a distinct lack of interest. Sometimes she tells Moshood to slow down, says it loud enough so that everyone hears, then goes back to chewing loudly and rolling her eyes. It is all an act.   

I am the logistics guy. I'm mousy one that looks like he doesn't fit in. I always have my glasses on, and an open book on my lap. I think it makes me look smarter. I imagine that people look into the car, see me with the rest of the group and automatically think, "ok, this is safe. They can't all be together." One time last year, this girl looked to me for help when she realised what was going on. I took off my glasses and looked away. She started crying and cursing us in Yoruba. Without taking his eyes off the road, Moshood hit her with a massive closed fist. There was a painful crack as her neck snapped back and her body went limp. She was unconscious for the rest of the ride. I took him aside when we got to the house and told him to be careful next time. He broke her jaw, and damaged goods are bad for business.
  
That is not a problem we have often, we are not violent people. We sometimes have a knife, but never carry guns. Or at least that is what I would like to think. Sam is the one who carries the knife. He is a scrawny man who always wears huge flowing native outfits. With his skinny frame, anything he wears hangs around him like a curtain, blowing in the wind, folding in on itself. The knife emerged out of those folds once, within the folds could be a gun, a sack, even another Sam. I never ask for specifics, as long as he has whatever he needs. He is constantly smiling nervously, and he fidgets, packing his clothes in with hidden hands. Mr. Most likely to get us caught.

It is always just the four of us, leaving enough room in the car for only one more passenger. Two if they are together and if we are feeling generous. We rarely are, it complicates things. I am always amused when I see those movies where five muscle bound guys jump out of a Peugeot 505, three of them carrying guns, and they open the boot to bring out the girl they grabbed. Are they serious? 

A girl in the boot is an unpredictable factor outside your field of vision and beyond your reach. She could scream at a bad time, she could call someone with a phone hidden in her underwear, she could try to kill herself, all this and you can't put a knife to her throat to keep her quiet. I have a simple rule: Dead bodies go in the boot, troublemakers sit up front with us. And you can call me afraid, but I wouldn't feel comfortable in a car with three guns. How would they even play it off if they ran into an army checkpoint? "Officer, we are just five huge innocent guys, wearing singlets and sunglasses... at night. We are not suspicious at all." Where would they even hide the guns? They would be shot dead before their car even rolls to a stop. 
  
Worst case scenario, the girl would be armed with long nails and tears. Yes, tears, they always cry and they always beg.

"Please sah, I will do anything you want, please."

Yes, you will. You will do everything we want. Even if I don't let you go. 

The ones that beg are not too bad, they are predictable because they still have hope. They cry, but they behave themselves because they think it will help, like they will get time off for good behaviour. Once while we were cruising, before we picked up a passenger, I saw this quote in the book I was reading: "I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing." I thought it was appropriate and underlined it. Later on the way home when our passenger that day started crying and begging, I considered reciting the quote, but that would have just been cruel. This isn't a film.

The girls that give up are the worst. Sometimes they snap, try to jump out of the car, try to break the windows with their heads or hands. They don't even try to escape anymore, they use their nails, their teeth, they just want to get blood on the upholstery, or scar one of us.  If it gets too bad, we pull over to the side of the road. Moshood waits in the car and plays the impatient driver. Anita and I pretend to pee, while Sam drags the passenger into the bushes. When they come back, she is usually mellow. The first time this happened, I asked Moshood to go with him, in case she tried to escape. Sam shook his head, laughing like it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard and dragged her off alone. 

It has been two months since the last girl disappeared. She was 17, and probably a virgin. The man we call Chief verified later that she was, and we got an extra bonus. Tonight, the four of us are riding around together again, if only we would get that lucky.




Monday, August 8, 2011

EVERYTHING GOOD COMES FROM ABROAD

This is one of those "works in progress", though it hasn't progressed very far. It's one of my more recent pieces, and even though it has that title (which I've been itching to use for a while now) I know not where it's going, really, so ask me not. Just enjoy!


When I asked my mother why she wanted me to marry an oyibo she said it was because they were better; they just were. See all the things they’d brought to us: aeroplanes, vaccines, GSM, the Internet, God. Everything good came from abroad. Oyibo people were more beautiful too. And see the way they spoke… shiriri shiriri. Hadn’t I seen Diamond's daughter, the way she spoke through her nose like one of them; the way she had milky skin and curly hair, just like one of them? And Diamond wasn’t even as beautiful as I was. I was too good a child to remind Mama that Diamond had sold herself to expatriates, not that she would have cared. Diamond had gotten married to the highest bidder like I had known she would; a Wilhelm from Germany, who worked with Total. Mama wasn’t there when Diamond came and told me all the things she had to do to keep her oyibo happy. Diamond had just shrugged. She’d known before she married him that he was a pervert. She only had to bury herself in the luxury he provided; there was no need to resurrect her shame that was long dead and buried.

But me I wasn’t like Diamond. If mama knew the right words she’d call me an idealist; a dreamer; one who walked around with her head in the clouds. Wasn’t I the one who had sworn as a child that I’d grow up to be a ballerina and dance the great stages of the world? When everyone said to be realistic, a ballerina would die of hunger in Nigeria, wasn’t it me who said, okay I’d be an astronaut instead. Wasn’t it me who, when Papa ran away with our neighbour’s wife, said they would surely be back; they were only playing. Thirteen years after Papa had left there was no ‘gotcha!’ and I no longer wanted to be a ballerina or an astronaut. I wanted to sing. I wanted to summon tears and greatness from the hearts of men, stretching forth my voice to touch their souls. And I could; I knew I could. Everywhere I went they said it: I had It.

But that didn’t matter, Mama said; not with people like us. After all she had had gifts too, and where had they got her? All I needed was to find a good man and settle down. Why did I think she was struggling to put me through school? A polytechnic degree would increase my worth in the eyes of potential suitors. And any suitor worth anything had to be from Abroad; a white person preferably, but she could settle for Asian or black American, only they would have to be very rich. She wasn’t giving out her precious daughter to any person whose pocket was not visibly strained from holding all their money.

Mama knew it wouldn’t happen by chance, this wish for her daughter to marry well, and so she made her plans. If Mama knew the right English she would have called herself a strategist. When I was in year two, Mama, who had never regarded my singing as anything worthy of her time, or mine for that matter, had come up with, like a magician pulling tricks from a hat, a "friend" who owned a bar on the island where expatriates frequented. This friend had had a falling out with the person who used to sing at her bar and needed a replacement like she needed air. I was not there, but I could see the way Mama’s eyes lit up when she heard this; see with her the wedding pictures that flashed through her mind. I was glad to sing at the bar, but for different reasons. In the dreams that I had I was discovered, not by some shriveled oil worker, but by a famous producer or talent scout who would fall for my voice.


We hadn't known it then, but neither of us would get our wish.
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