Barawo

 

By Cuba Ukoh

cubaukoh@wordpress.com

Twitter: @CubaUkoh

 

 

Barawo

One boyman is afflicted with sympathy in my platoon. There is nothing more irritating than a compassionate robber. A few days ago, for the third time! I had to snatch his gun and pull the trigger.

“Didn’t you see she recognized us?” I jacked the bastard when we returned to base. “You will rot in Kirikiri one day because of pity! Listen, boyman, you’re not better than me o! Shey you dey hear me?” The foolish giant nodded, and then I told him, I said, “You be barawo, I be barawo. We are going to hell already, so next time I give you an order and you fumble, I might just help you reach hell first.”

“Yasah,” he mumbled, shivering … the toothless bulldog.

I shook my head. “Boyman,”

“Yasah?”

“I mean it.”

 

*

My Oga thinks I’m a fool. Okotie and I are the new boymen in the platoon. Okotie is still a teenager but he guzzles shots like cold water and takes shots at any glint of opportunity. Fatal blood the mass of the Red Sea I imagine is on Okotie’s head. He claims he’s nineteen. I have reason to believe he’s seventeen, but that is another story.

I swear I’m good at my job. I bear the symptoms of success: I’m loyal, always punctual; I work hard, even put in extra hours. I’m also great with leads. Oh boy, I’m great with leads. My only problem is my conscience; I still have one, and I’m easily troubled by it. But know that I am no virgin, I have nearly killed before; struck a man into the spirit world for almost a week! It was a mistake though. The drunk had provoked me, and well, my fist is all bone and thunder. I remembered why the stranger’s face was so familiar weeks after the death-blow that went down at Akipu’s bar. We had sat close to each other in a Young Shall Grow bus almost a year before. He was that sort that went on and on about politics. I remember it was the trip to my grandmother’s funeral. What are the chances?

It embarrasses me that I have this problem–my, conscience issue. I’m old enough to be Okotie’s father; if he is the age I suspect. Yet between him and me, he’s become the exemplary boyman in the eyes of our platoon. If he gets promoted to real-guy soon and another boyman is recruited to join me, I would forever be the official clown of our platoon.

I’m tall, hefty; my body has worked against me all my life. The cement weights I lift at Fela’s backyard have turned my bulk into fine waves of robust muscles. The smell of sweat pursues me with ease. It doesn’t take much to win a resounding first impression. When I huff or heave against a grimace, I promise you will shiver. But this selling point has now put me in hot soup, because for my stature and poise I am automatically expected to be Okotie’s mentor. But … I have a conscience problem.

When a baga is acting stubborn to show money, we blast their ceiling. That, I don’t mind; ceilings can’t bleed. One shot, two shots, and they shiver to their safes, underneath their beds, cupboards, or wherever they have hidden the pepper. One man hid his stash in his kitchen oven, thirty-five thousand naira!  We took some bread and sardines with us as we left.

But it isn’t really like we play with guns. Just like police, we shoot to protect ourselves, I mean sometimes, we are even attacked by these people. We also shoot if the baga recognizes us, any of us.  Of course this doesn’t happen every night.

I can swear on my grandmother’s coffin that on our previous round I believed I was ready for blood. My line of mercy was thin; Oga had already threatened me on three different occasions. I just never imagined we would end up there. I’m an armed robber, not a soothsayer. How could I have explained the situation to Oga.

Anyway, I had a serious conversation with a green bottle of courage last night, chastising and chest pounding in dizzy circles around my room. I have to shoot without hesitation next time. I have to. Not because I’m intimidated by the bloody teenager, or even Oga’s threats. Truth is, I simply have not gathered enough honour to afford me one more visit with failure. My pride is stronger than this conscience of mine … I only feel sorry for the stranger who will pay the price.

 

*

 

I’m tired of wearing black. Each day I’m more convinced I should have chosen to mourn in white. Changing in the middle would be confusing to my husband’s people. But this black is tormenting me. I can feel it, poisoning my aura, feeding the endless nightmares that began after Thomas died. I wake up tortured by the memories of bitter dreams that will haunt me all day long. In these dreams he’s still alive and life is going on as it used to, he even goes to the shop … I cook dinner… but then I wake to find I did not bring him to the world of breath with me.

I’m thankful this week insomnia found me, but it has come with its own problems. Once I hear an odd sound at night, I jump out of bed. All I can think is that the thieves have broken into my compound again, or that my husband’s spirit is hovering about the house like the ghosts in those 90s Nollywood movies; white nightgown and powdered face, but my own ghost is anything but funny. Usually, my cat is responsible for the racket. Other times, I can’t account for these strange noises.

Hoping for peace of mind, I gave her away this morning. I have missed the simple pleasure of slumber without the torment of nightmares so genuine I wake up feeling I have just returned from a voyage overseas … over-dreams. I hope parting with Bell will help. Bell is the cat, a gift from my ex-boyfriend. He used to tease me because when I sniff, I wince my nose like a kitten. So one day he surprised me with Bell.

Before my gift I had thought last of pets as a child. But love did stupid things to you, stupid things that were good for your heart. And Bell came with all the warmth of my childhood in Kano. My husband despised her though he did not suspect me of anything short of loyalty, even though it was obvious I was unhappy. It was obvious. He hated the poor thing. When Bell would curl around his leg along her stroll minding her own business, he would snap, “I don’t know why you brought this hairy thing into my house!”

I was always tempted to reply, “It’s called fur.”

One noon after Bell defiled his newspaper with two lump droppings, I decided to try and return my gift.

“Return it to where?”

“I don’t know Tolu. I don’t want trouble. My husband is getting enraged by her. Ah, it’s as if he knows.”

“Do you know I am a jealous man?” Tolu ripped off my wrapper and flung me into his arms. I laughed for days.

Now something from that incident has risen with new meaning. And I remember this because I had said it in a playful spirit to watch him laugh. “Take your cat back to where you bought it, take it oh!”

To this he kissed my forehead and replied, “Ramatu, I don’t remember where I stole it from.”

Tolu has caused suspicion to riddle everything I do now. It is a mix of guilt over our affair and rage at his betrayal. I can’t help but magnify everybody’s words to numerous meanings now. I’m not to blame. How else am I to feel, when I had awoken, three in the morning, to find my lover in my new house, with a gang of hounds, guns and money sacks ablaze.

The room was lit a dull blue by the blank TV screen. Even in the black facemask, at once I knew who I was staring at. I knew his body, this man I made love to at Moonshine hotel Apata, every weekend, shivering with a gun in his hand pointed at my husband’s head? In my guiltiest of moments, I had never imagined it was this way they would meet if they ever did.

I closed my eyes, praying our new neighbours had alerted the neighbourhood vigilante. They were faster than police.

“Please sir, have mercy sir! I have given you all the money.” My husband started weeping. “Check anywhere sir, check everywhere sir! Everywhere!” He flung his arms around the room.

A smallish member of their gang was still scampering around our bedroom, filling up their sacks with our days old unpacked fixtures. The room went pitch-dark. Then a flashlight came on. I watched the criminal hobble our television set into a Ghana-must-go bag.

I heard a strong whisper, “Oga, the man we sold that microwave last month, it’s him. He keeps looking at me.” Another torchlight danced around the room, then settled on my husband’s face.

“You sure?”  Their Oga said his first words.

“Yes, that shop, the one at Bukuru road.”

Their Oga collected the torchlight and moved closer. He bobbed his head, left, then right, haunting familiarity. My husband’s fate weaved as he shivered, helpless. I perceived urine. Even in the moment I felt ashamed for him.

“You,” their Oga whispered, “you are the electrician shop man?”

“Me? No! I don’t have any shop at Bukuru!”

Oh Thomas, his shop was the first one on Bukuru lane. He had the habit of sitting in front with his friends to play draughts and sip palmwine.

“Please Oga! Before God and Man who made me I shall not reveal this to any third party sir, Please! Before God and man who made me!”

The smallish jackal giggled each time my husband said, before God, and man who made me.

“Boyman,” their Oga muttered switching off his torchlight. At once the room became a darker shade of dim. “Faya.”

My head shot to Tolu. He was staring at me for the first time.

“Boyman, you are wasting my time here.” Their leader muttered.

I was still searching his eyes when the blast went off. Tolu whimpered this womanly sound. My scream ran away forgetting its shadow–a gasp. As instructed, I lay down and laced my fingers over my head. The room was quiet later.

 

*

I have two boyfriends; one for rainy season, one for harmattan. My rainy season guy is Chidex. I spend up to six months at Port-Harcourt working with him every year. He sells imported seafood for my madam’s husband. Madam’s husband has plenty money oh, and he’ll soon settle Chidex with a small shop of his own. Harmattan is for me and Shay, Madam’s nephew. He’s a small boy but he knows how to shop for a big girl. But the main guy I want to marry is Tolu. Tolu is kind, gentle and so handsome. I know all the houses his gang has robbed in Madam’s area. I know he didn’t finish school. I even know the time he first became a thief. I know him up and down, but I still love him. Love has covered my eyes with Tolu.

Anytime he comes to buy food at Madam’s shop, I serve him extra meat. “My man of all seasons,” I wink. I’m not shy.

When he’s about to leave I tell him, “You never have to pay a dime baby.”  I wink again. I heard that in a movie. He always pays still. You see why I love Tolu?

I was seated in Madam’s restaurant last Friday evening when he rushed in. I jumped and covered the money I was counting. I started laughing once I saw his big head.

“My man of all seasons! The hunger is strong today?” But I looked at the worry on his face and stopped laughing. “Tolu?” I said wringing my hands, “Wetin happen?” Ah-ah, he started crying, right then! It’s not a manly thing but because it was Tolu I overlooked it.

“Who die?” I did not expect to hear someone was truly dead.

I calmed him down, wiped his beautiful eyes with a kitchen towel and locked the doors. Then we sat on the floor and he told me everything. To be honest, I was irritated by what he had done and I never really thought he was capable. But for Tolu to do it, I just believe it was somehow deserved.

“Are you sure?” His deep voice rumbled when I had finished advising him.

I nodded without hesitation. “There’s no problem, ah, what are friends for?” I smiled. A good woman supports her man.

My journey to Port-Harcourt was in three days but because of his emergency I gave Madam a long excuse and travelled that night with him. The funny thing about fate is that some days before, I had told him to come on Friday or even Saturday and say goodbye, because I would be gone by Monday morning and he knows he wouldn’t see my face for a longtime. He just chuckled with a toothpick dangling in his fine small mouth.

My heart sunk because I knew he didn’t care to come. He doesn’t have time for me. His girlfriend has possessed his mind like he has possessed mine. They have eaten in Madam’s restaurant together, right under my nose. I knew she was a married woman; I used to see her at Madam’s church with her husband. I notified Tolu never to bring his lover bitch to my work place again or I would report to her husband when I see him in church.

“This is not a place for adultery! You can take her to a cheap hotel if you like!”

“I’m sorry,” he smiled, then he hugged me, for the first time ever. After that day, I always used the girl’s husband to blackmail Tolu into little big things, like hugs. But I stopped after her husband died last month. They announced it at Madam’s church–he had died fighting armed robbers, defending the stupid wife.

Tolu has been depressed since the man’s death because his woman has refused to show him face. I’m happy the relationship is finally over. I started dishing him extra food after that so he doesn’t grow lean from heartbreak, “Consolation prize,” I say and rub his huge shoulders after serving him. He always replies with one weak little smile. I love Tolu.

 

*

I’m still a simple man. My grandmother’s home town is the kind of place I will like to settle down.  I can no longer trace the village stream by myself. Trees, tarred roads and one small bank have rearranged the childhood map in my head. If I could locate it, I would have gone to wash my hands and feet before reaching my grandmother’s grave … to show some level of cleansing, so she can forgive my sins.  But the sort of migraine and exhaustion that has eaten me up is not small. Eunice must have discovered my absence by now. I keep reminding myself to send her an apology text once I charge my phone. I settle at a provision stall close to home to buy pure-water. I request for the most expensive brand, Grandma deserves the best.

“Divine waterfall,” the sales boy smiles handing me a plump sachet.

I also request a sliced bar of duck soap to give my feet and hands a thorough wash. If I can’t find the stream, at least I should put all effort in the easier way out. I sit on the curb and scrub my sole and hands clean. I notice a fast food restaurant has been built across the road. When I am done, I decide I can do better. I return to the stall and purchase a XXL singlet and a pair of boxers.

The boy asks with a restrained smile, “Sir, shall I add toothpaste?”

“Yes, yes-yes, and a comb.” It’s not until I collect the comb I realize he had been teasing.

I go behind the stall and brush my teeth with my index finger because he’s out of toothbrushes. I strip my trouser there too and change into the boxers. The Chinese model on the singlet pack looks petite compared to me. I hear tender rips as I pull the white cotton down my torso. I dash the sales boy my change and instruct him to throw away my former clothes. A brand new man walks into my family compound soon. I haven’t told anyone I’ll be coming. I know they are probably at the viewing centre, I overheard the boy at the stall say it was ManU versus Chelsea today.

The white tiling cresting Mama’s grave is still neat as the first day it was laid over cement. I am relieved to have cleansed myself before coming. The sight is peaceful and this reminds me of my Ramatu. She is the only thing in my life I am proud of even though in true fashion of my living, I stole her too. I wish she had met my grandmother, or come to my village to see the type of family man I could be. I wish she had waited for me to exist in her life before deciding to get married. I wish hard I deserve her. I doubt she could ever forgive me but I hope she would come to believe all I have confessed.

I am thirty-one but already old with regrets. I regret everything from that drunk man I nearly killed and every crime I have ever met before that. I even now remember a Mallam I once stole a pack of cream-crackers from as a child, and I have not recalled this incident with this much guilt since I was maybe, eleven? Depression weighs on me as though I have exchanged my karma with the weight of Okotie’s.

But even in my regret I’m still feverish with anger. It happened the morning of our first round for April, at base–the old warehouse we gather for final discussions. I had come there right after leaving Ramatu. She had just sworn never to have anything to do with me again. “My house is haunted with spirits because of you Tolu!” She wailed cursing herself before me. She said she butchered Bell, like I killed her husband. I embraced her but she wrestled out my arms with a ferocity that terrified me.

“Ramatu! You know my Oga fired the gun. You saw it your–”

“So? You are all the same!” She spat on my foot–decent girl, she spat the sound alone–and beat her chest weeping. “Tolu if you ever touch me again I will buy rat poison and drink it. Then my blood would be on your head as well!”  I knew I had to leave then. Ramatu is also honest.

I carried my anger with me, preserving it for midnight rounds, and any baga, any bloody baga to provoke me. I expected to be the only one at base since I was hours early but I met Okotie, sipping ogogoro from a water bottle and dismantling parts of Ramatu’s television. No one had agreed to buy the bulky thing–the problem with old models. I walked past him. He didn’t greet, but childish matters do not bother me. The gentle clanking noise of screws and spanners against the cement floor was what I found annoying.

“Who asked you to do that?”

He didn’t even answer.

“Okotie!” I shouldn’t have been making echoes in a hideout but I was getting irritated with this boy.

His reply came unfazed, “Better to sell off the parts. One month has passed; no one will buy this thing like this when LG plasma’s are everywhere.”

“My question was who asked you to do that.”

“Must anyone ask before I use common sense?” Humour sizzled somewhere on his face and I felt the thing sting.

“Who are you talking to like that Okotie?” I tried to sound as impassive as he was but he had leverage over me. He had been sipping ogogoro; I had been deserted by Ramatu. “Okotie, I’m talking to you.”

“Oga calm down, I did electrician training when I was small, I know what I’m doing guy.”

“You’re still a bloody small boy! What do you think you know about life because you play with guns and steal old televisions?”

He stood up too, then strolled past me. “Compose yourself, boyman.” I knew he was mock-smiling even as he had his back to me.

“You have no respect, I don’t blame you! Your days are numbered in this platoon, bastard!”

“Are you sure?” He turned to flash me his bad dentition. “I doubt,” he winked then turned back and climbed a stool.

He was reaching for the spanner shelf when I snatched out my gun. I remember hearing the sound of the spanners falling. I realized myself in the process but anger is a selfish thing. “You think you’re better than everyone!” I caught my voice in an ugly roar. “You wicked pellet waster!” I stammered, “wicked child!”

I ran out to the road through the front door we never used. I took an okada across town, hoping to meet Eunice before the restaurant closed. I could trust her. She’s good with advice and nothing ever seems to shock her.

“Come with me to Port-Harcourt, let’s go Tolu, you will hide there till things calm down. I know a place we can stay. We don’t even have to leave Port-Harcourt unless you want us to.”  She embraced me. “Don’t cry Tolu, I’m telling you it was a mistake.”

“He’s just a child. I should not have done it!” I started weeping until she shook me with a violence that both calmed and surprised me.

“We will go to Port-Harcourt with night bus. Nothing will happen, no shaking.” She leaned closer and cupped my jaw with her small palm. Her smile flashed, militant. For a moment, I wondered if like me, she had killed before.

 

 

There is No Such Thing as Depression

By Cuba Ukoh

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Some stories can’t afford a once upon a time, they just spring from the middle of things. My relationship with Grace began, or rather, awakened as such; a gentle ensuing attachment, its repercussions–amorous, as helpless as the certainty of an echo in an empty hall. I liked to notice the littlest things about her, silly things; like how when she slept deep she seemed to inhale twice before exhaling, and then her nostrils flared. It wasn’t feminine–the flaring, but all the woman did was beautiful.

I’d run out of excuses to my little daughter and my wife, so I had driven down to Town hall one Friday, exhausted from work. The place was as stunning as the commercials but thirsty for a crowd compared to the inauguration events we’d watched at home. I submitted the form and stopped by the pin-board. The hallway still smelt of fresh paint.

“That’s the workers attendance you’re signing.”

My drowsy eyes reassessed the board, and I chuckled to myself. “And when can I return for the ID card?” I asked without looking up.

“I don’t work here.”

I turned to see this woman with low-cut hair; her sideburn tuffs, slick and almost grey. It was a Harmattan evening; she wore a long sleeved cardigan underneath her bubu. It made her pretentiously chubby.

“Thank you, my daughter says she must learn how to swim. All her friends have registered here.”

“Eyaah, that’s nice.”

For the sake of cordiality I was about to ask what she had come there for, but I saw her little smile, sincere and alive with sadness. I recognized it; her masked timidity, because it reflected a part of myself. I too had driven there for the same reason, not that particular day, but once before. It was a selfish pleasure, the idleness of it–embarrassing. Nigerians were people on the move, not imitators of western society who sprawled on couches to lament over life, as if there weren’t people who had it worse. Therapy, it had the weight of an ungrateful thing.

“Dr. Suzie is organizing a spelling bee for registered children. It’s also free.” She pointed at the list where I could sign up.

I was impressed. “There’s a doctor here too?”

“Not medical,” she hesitated a second then surprised me with her honesty. “She’s, our therapist.”

I nodded. Memory flashed to the flyers that circulated my office building the first time I learnt of Town hall. Let’s Talk! FREE Therapy every weekday was highlighted in green.

The next time I saw Grace, I found her on the waiting bench outside the therapist’s office. We sat, patient, conversation flowing through and into silence as though we had always come there to do this. She looked formal sitting upright with her bag firm on her thighs as if she were awaiting a job interview. But when she laughed there was little inhibition.

Like me she had lived in Jos most of her life. We were products of Missionary Secondary schools. She was a graduate of St. Louis’ Girls; I had attended the all boys St. Murumba. She told me two of her three sons had graduated from there.  It was nostalgic, twenty eight years on, to see the schools still existed. I figured she was about forty-seven too. She looked it, except for this fragility in her eyes, and then when she laughed … when she laughed.

It became a habit to meet her there though I only saw her about twice a week. She came more often than I did, usually very early in the mornings. I only came in the evenings on my way home from work. An hour or so there, then I raced home to meet up with dinner. Margret assumed I was fixing more rotten teeth at work.

I only talked about my little brother with the therapist; tales of our childhood adventures before we settled in Jos. Due to my father’s erratic postings we had toured Nigeria by the time I was fourteen. I speak six languages. The therapist was enthralled by the stories Margret had become tired of.

She picked a different State each time and I would tell her about when we lived there, what it was like. She had a curious mouth. I didn’t think it was very ethical for her to be that chatty, but she was smart. Sometimes I drifted, imagining what would happen if a bee pursued her. She always had one distracting flower tucked in her hair.

“You should have studied Contemporary African history.” I told her one day.

“I know,” she sighed.

“So Bako, could we talk about why you have never been to visit your brother’s grave.”

“Eh?”

“Clearly you loved him, love him.”

I chuckled, embarrassed. Then I scoffed, insulted. Soon my shoulders slumped from shame.

“Things had always been down for me … financially. I used to actually pray to God, to help me with work, something to save, for Margret, and Lisa, she’s only eight.”

“Yes?”

“Well, he took Philip away and gave me all his money. What does one say to that?”

“Philip left you his money?”

I nodded.

“Then I say his will was his will.”

My eyes were smoke stained wet as I smiled away the feeling of tears.

“If Phil left all his money for you Bako, don’t you think he wished it to be so? He wanted you to have it if anything ever–”

“I didn’t ask him for it!”

“It was his choice.”

She said Phill as if she even knew him. I smirked, “Did Phill wish to die at thirty-nine, Doctor?”

“Bako–”

“I didn’t speak to my brother for three months before his death. We argued sometimes. Three months! Now I have to live with that. That’s just how I am. I never went ahead to study engineering. I still live with that.”

“I am sure there are many great achievements you overlook in your life Bako.”

I actually did stop to think for a moment. “None Doctor … except that I am a rich man now, aren’t I?”

*

 

Grace was the first to discover the news. She always branched to Town hall after her morning rounds of designated sanitation at Ahmadu Bellow way in that calm part of early morning that smelt of dew and fresh starts ferried by the banter of waking birds.

What she met that Monday morning was a cardboard paper notice in blue marker that read, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DEPRESSION. WE ARE NIGERIANS. SEEK COUNSEL IN THE LORD AND YOU ARE FREE, TODAY! Signed Management was misspelled.

It was almost nine and she was late for her other job at the post office. Deserting her Plateau State sanitation broom and facemask, she took the cardboard paper she had ripped off the door down to Halima’s house. Halima was her son’s childhood friend and a fervent visitor of Town hall. The young lady had more than enough problems to share; still unemployed three years post graduation, borderline diabetic–the doctor had revealed a month before, engaged to a man she didn’t so much like, then her facebook boyfriend had not replied her last message for a month even though he had liked two photo’s of different girls during this period. But Doctor Suzie didn’t need to hear that last problem which though seeming puerile, bothered Halima the most. By evening, an enraged Halima was banging on Pastor Fred’s gate.

His thick brows caved into affection till they kissed at the top of his nose bridge. “Halima, calm down.” He smiled letting her in.

She was seated on the floor, legs spread to a constricted frustration by her long skirt, gele fallen off her head to wrap around her shoulders. Despite her teenage migration to Christianity she’d kept the veil out of habit. It was something odd to see long black hair turn oval the usual round protrusion of her plump face.

“Halima, what can I say?” Pastor Fred pursed his lips at the now crumpled cardboard sheet. He didn’t exactly agree with the insensitive conduct their lawyer had chosen to relay the message but in his opinion the man still did have a point where he’d written, seek counsel in the Lord.

How credible was this psychologist that had come into the picture anyway? When he’d supported the Town hall project, he wasn’t lobbying for a whining ground. It was becoming a distraction, this therapy thing.

“Pastor, you have to do something.”  Halima sobbed into her veil.

He hadn’t seen her as often since she switched to a different church but they had remained friendly despite the betrayal. “I will try,” he smiled. He was fond of the converts.

It had been the Miner family’s idea to start up an NGO … eventually. So over a period of two years, surplus funds were diverted into land acquisition and building the skeleton of their eventual NGO. Gabe Miner was a teenager when the project was first conceived; a young adult when it was deserted. Carefree exuberance in the Miner household had begun to sober with the certainty of change. The world was a more demanding place again; investments were calling, a few debts had gathered here and there, the UK University scholarship for Gabe and his sister hadn’t come through as expected, they would have to dip into family funds to cover tuition and travel costs. With each new demand from life, the NGO project reclined further into the background.

When Gabe returned to Jos six years later, it seemed affectionate and highly strategic to make a generous donation to an old friend of the family–the Commissioner, at a time when Jos was craving positive image reconstruction following the embarrassing splash of its religious and political troubles from local to international media. Commissioner of Trust as he was nicknamed by tabloids, and his friend the influential Pastor Fred would have several talks about public reforms until one fine noon at his daughter’s wedding reception, over drinks and diluted critical thinking, the idea of Town hall was born. The arrangements that followed were fleeting, he already had that half completed building the Miner’s had donated in support of his tenure.

Town hall was commissioned on the news channels, complete with ribbon cutting events by potbellied philanthropists. It seemed a new section of the Town hall Centre of Excellence was launched every other week–anything to emphasize normalcy as promoted by Commissioner of Trust was back for good. When the media coverage of launch events started becoming as common as toothpaste commercials, excitement began to wither, especially since the centre’s equipments were yet to surface three months after the general inauguration.

But then along came news of Dr. Suzie’s forthcoming, and it managed to garner refreshed buzz over the change promised to reinvigorate Tin-city in what the media had tagged: The Town hall Experience. Still, most people appeared indifferent to the need for a therapeutic arm at the center. Granted, the woman was a specialist from abroad, but therapy? It was a hilarious thing. Didn’t it smell elitist already?

The anticipation down at Town hall however was almost feverish amongst its workers. It was far too impressive a detail to overlook that one of their new bosses was American. So in the week preceding Dr. Suzie’s arrival, enthusiasm busied the grounds of the centre. It was no longer going to be only the shuffling of cleaners, security men and grumpy civil servants conducting free registration for sloth paced empowerment projects.

On the day of her arrival, the workers went about in refreshed optimism and unusually peppered accents though no one would openly acknowledge the embellished decorum pumping the morning.

A chubby woman pranced in just before noon. Her glistening ebony was as dark a shade as the hands of the women who sold domestic charcoal at Kasuwan Gowayi down Tafawa Balewa road. She carried in her hair an actual flower whose stem clung behind her ear and furled into bloom above her eyebrow. It matched the plush red of her painted lips.

It wasn’t until she greeted that it hit them. This was the American therapist! A black woman; blacker than most of them, and almost annoyingly polite, as though she weren’t at all a big Madam. She spoke in a soft nasal voice and her words all gathered to pitch into a questioning tone at the end of each sentence. She converted every e and r with an effortless curling swiftness. Anyone who wasn’t staring at her skin would think a real Oyinbo was in the building. She was a black flower watered white. Her ringing laughter echoed maternal warmth through the halls already. She brought with her aura an instant likability, but there was still a unanimous disappointment in the unexpected turn of things.

An impish quip in Hausa starting form one of the security guards travelled quick through Town hall; Commissioner of Trust could not afford a white Oyinbo so he had hired a black Oyinbo. The sniggers stalled once Emily, one of the center’s managers arrived. Emily was in fact a freckle faced Oyinbo with startling aquamarine eyes, and hair blonde as any Brothers Grimm tale could spin. But she had grown up in Jos–a child of a Barkin-Ladi based Doctor and a granddaughter to Anglican missionaries. Like most foreign settlers in Jos, she had attended the mostly white-man private schools–an unintended segregation not by racism, but American curricula over the existing British system … and high priced school fees.

For all those who knew Emily, she was not consciously considered white beyond her looks. She spoke as any urban Nigerian would but with a tint of an American accent sustained by the influence of daily family life and American cultured schools. Still, she used Hausa-English phrases like yes mana to emphasize the affirmative.

She said typical Nigerian stuff like, ah-ah, sha, and bah. The fresh arrival of an Oyinbo ripe from America who would always say things like, Nope and uh-huh was more exotic to the workers though Emily’s long-inhabited adaptation to Jos granted her a degree of special attention. So it was no wonder that the office staff looked to her for an explanation the sporadic afternoon the therapy section came to be shut down.

“I am sorry to have to announce the indefinite suspension of this place.” The lawyer had declared, with a partial smirk. “A notice will be posted on Monday informing the clientele.”

Doctor Suzie’s chair grated the tiles as she sprung up.

“Ah-ah, is this because Ugo’s been away? His father passed for goodness sake.”

“Emily, I do not doubt Mr. Ugo’s skills as a co-manager, and I have texted him my condolences. But this particular office, it’s become a hub of .…”

“Hub of what?”

“It’s just not working out.”

“Excuse me?” Doctor Suzie cried, “We pride ourselves in our great work here! Did you know we just installed a library programme? Imagine a township sweeper, quoting Guy De Maupassant!”

He laughed a short snort. “You don’t realize the complaints that have flooded my office table Mama.”

“Like what!”

“I would just go over the most pressing, to spare us long–”

“The most pressing being?” Dr. Suzie folded her arms.

“The Pornography,”

“Huh?”

Emily’s gasp came out as a bewildered chuckle. “Pornography?”

“That thing you have hung on your wall.” He pointed at Dr. Suzie’s fondest part of her office, a framed painting, very much reminiscent of an Octavio Ocampo. It was a contoured lily-like flower which emerged as a nude woman on closer inspection.

“My painting?”

“We don’t do that over here Mama. It’s not moral.”

“This lawyer must be joking Emily.”

“One of your patient’s is a pregnant teenager Mama. Her Father sent her here to have a fellow woman to open up to because her Mother is a late.” He thinned his voice to disappointed fragility, “what is that picture actually telling her?”

“Oh, you’re serious. Emily, he’s serious! You can’t, he can’t just do this.” Her Friday hibiscus slithered to the floor escaping her notice.

“I can’t, but the board has. Women just gather here to complain every day. Well, I’m only relaying a message Mama.”

“Now you better stop calling me that! Yeah, and you know what? You can go tell your Owga’s that there will be more art coming to my walls! Ridiculous!”

“Mr. Kayode, what’s all this really about?” Emily said after the door had slammed.

“I apologize,only doing my job Ma.”

Emily repeated the same question two days later after booking lunch at La Cuisine for herself and Gabe Miner. They were childhood friends from Hill Crest School. They had won Prom king and Queen. When Gabe left for Birmingham, and she touched down in Nairobi for her Degree course, their relationship disintegrated into a somewhat platonic fondness.

“How’s the therapist taking it?” He chuckled a mean sound gulping down his shrimp.

She smacked him with her napkin. “It’s not funny! She’s still furious, and I as well.”

“Millie I had nothing to do with it.”

“When you offered me the job you should have told me about your short term plans.”

“It isn’t, it wasn’t, this is a board decision. I don’t own the place.”

“But it’s your building.”

“It was my parents’ building. Listen, I don’t want the program to stop either. But funding is tricky, and maybe someone is sitting on her salary, I don’t know. But right now therapy is the least of our worries for that place.”

“What are you saying?”

“Six months post inauguration, six! and only one third of the facilities ordered have arrived. Investors are asking questions.”

“But–”

“Let’s be real, there’s no life in that place.”

“The swimming lessons just started last week! There’s even going to be a Mathematics contest for the kids. And an African Drama Night of entertainment. We were looking forward to that-”

“That’s all very sweet, but investors couldn’t care less and frankly, those are side attractions. Town hall was set up to develop grass-root projects.”

“I know but–”

“Where are the market women looking for someone to replace their burnt down stalls?”

She shook her head.

“The youth development programs? Emily people are tired of registering for dreams on paper. The sole purpose of this was financial empowerment, job re-creation, not a country club. How do you think my family is going to look in this mess if everything collapses? I didn’t sign up to be tagged corrupt Nigerian man crap.”

“So then you scrap off the one efficient program that is working?”

“Toh, where is the money to continue pampering your doctor? Have you taken a moment to ask your dear charitable friend what she charges us, per month? Eh?” He gushed a dry laugh. “Funds are being redirected to hasten supply and installation of equipments. Investors need to see something going on there, fast! Would you prefer the whole place shut down?”

“But there were so many pledges and donations on the news, all that money.”

“As for the pledges that did come through, I know for sure there’s a ware house stuffed with sewing machines, sport sets and catering equipments waiting to be signed off. And I’m monitoring that like a hawk. But we’re still waiting on the big stuff people really want to see, lab equipments for the science program for example, computers–”

“Who’s on the board with you?”

Gabe leaned into his chair. “Me, Pastor Fred, Commissioner of Trust, a few bad men …”

“Waiter,” Emily called tipping her glass up, “more wine please.”

 

*

She called it her Nigerian name; Damilola. When I asked why she’d chosen Yoruba, she winked, “Everyone says I could pass for a Yoruba woman with my high cheekbones.”

Doctor Suzie was a funny person even when she didn’t intend to be, a very colourful woman too. When I told her my problems she always started by saying, “Grace, I know I shouldn’t be talking about myself, but I can relate. Much like you, I was searching for identity, in my case–my African roots.”

She was very dramatic with her hands, wringing them in the air but not in a worrisome way. She took me back to my Theatre Arts days in Ibadan. “Sister, I’ll tell you something deep!” She would squeal, and the words to follow matched the preamble, most times.

I preferred to lie on the couch than sit, until I slept off once. I always left her office feeling lighter, and more … Nigerian, I think. Green white green littered the place. Above the couch she even had a framed photo that read, My Home is Nigeria. She made notes in an ankara embroidered journal and kept her pens in a tiny calabash. There were two African masks hanging on opposite ends of her walls. She still made it clear where she had come from with that American flag in her car, on her desk, and even in the background of a gold framed photo. It was taken in America. She said the two women beside her where her adopted daughters, she had never married. She didn’t seem to care, but often her eyes seemed lonely.

She was a good person to talk to. She knew what I was feeling, usually, but not always what I was thinking, even though she concluded she always did, but I don’t like to argue. She listened a lot, and made me think and rethink. She reminded me of a version of myself that no one had met, a version that was just an acquaintance to me.

When I told her the crazy things I wanted from life, she would say, “It sure ain’t my place to judge honey.”  That was what everyone else in the world had forgotten.

I bumped into Halima once at the waiting room, my son’s friend. She’s a Hausa girl, waif-thin with broad shoulders and knees that tenderly knock each other. She’s got all the unconventional traits to ward off the usual idea of beauty, but there’s something so attractive about her, besides her youth. I don’t know what such a young girl was doing therapy for. She still has enough time to fix things.

“And do you know my pelvis will be too small during labour … no! … I checked google!” From the hallway I heard Halima crying this the day we discovered each other there. Poor Doctor Suzie and the things she had to sit and hear.

Halima didn’t reveal our incident to my son, but I took precaution to only go in the mornings from then on. It was as embarrassing as my other secret–no one knew I had taken a job sweeping streets except Dr. Suzie. She didn’t flinch when I told her. And somehow, I didn’t flinch when I revealed it. I would come into a third secret later that month.

The first time I met him, it was such a punctual morning that I met the gates locked. I sat on a bench shaded by this tree that looked like an overgrown flower bed. My body jolted when he slammed his car door. He noticed me no more than one would notice an apparition. When he realized the gate was locked he shook his head laughing this furious unhappy sound. I watched him light a cigarette and then the most amusing thing transpired. He sucked with a wincing desperation then exhaled impatient pain. But whenever he dusted the cigarette with his middle finger, even in his apparent rage, he made sure to direct the ashes into the trash bin as not to litter, each time.

He muttered things to himself when he walked past my existence again, still possessed with sadness; his hands in his pocket, face heavy. I’d always hated smokers, but I found I was smiling at him, this tidy man. The next time I saw him, he was in the hallway signing the worker’s sheet instead of the registration paper. He had come for his daughter who wanted to learn to swim. He returned a week later, for therapy. I wasn’t really surprised. He had looked lonely, like I was, he just had a different way of showing his. We became lonely together, and it was beautiful.

Town hall days are long gone now. It’s been almost seven months. The place is still running. The therapist’s office is now a store room from all I’ve heard. Most programmes have taken off. They involve more work and less talking so I think people are happier with this. Registration is no longer free, and there are monthly fees for training classes. People complain that for a grass-root project centre, taxing is pricey. But on the news Commissioner of Trust insisted all fees are subsidized. I think people are okay with it because the place is most popular now. I try not to pay attention to much of what goes on there anymore. The memories are now too much on the bitter side of nostalgia. I smile at them–the memories, then I hurt, inside.

I got a letter from Doctor Suzie last week that got me thinking of Town hall again. She sent it to my house address instead of my work address, and because I was at work my husband received it. And because he is nosy, he opened it. And because I was furious I told him I how much I wanted a divorce.

“Do you even know I had an affair?” I screamed. No one had ever found out, not even Doctor Suzie. But I remember she noticed something had changed. “Look at you, glowing, I told you all you had to do was talk to your husband! And what do we take from this experience?” I said what she expected me to say, “Dialogue is key.” I didn’t want to disappoint the woman. Besides she was half right. I was happier than I’d ever been. She just had the wrong name.

After screaming at my husband I slept at a motel that night, and we don’t have that kind of money right now. But our family friends are his friends so I had little options. I waited for the analgesic to sink in before I began to read Dr. Suzie’s letter. She said she was very sorry for leaving without a proper goodbye. She swore the suspension of the therapy centre had come as a surprise to her as well. But she offered no explanation for why she relocated to Ghana so damn quick. It took only two weeks for her to give up. “You should have waited!” I cautioned my voice, the lock on my room door was as secure as a plastic button. I hissed and tossed her letter, but I picked it up again when I lay down later. I couldn’t give her all the blame, even if she didn’t fight for us.

Paragraphs flowed in and out of her talking about how she missed us, how her daughters missed her. She said they still didn’t understand why she’d left America. She revealed she was contemplating branching out into a consultancy business in Ghana soon, and maybe she could come visit Nigeria by then … set up a sister branch? I stared at the question mark, who was she asking? I hissed and rolled my eyes. Best wishes Grace, ended her letter. She never called me Mama Alake. She said I was my own person, besides being someone’s mother.

She signed the letter, Doctor Suzie Ashanti–apparently her adopted Ghanaian name. Whatever happened to Damilola? I laughed at this, I laughed and laughed, and then when I slept off I dreamt of Bako and his school boy smile. In this dream, we had not gone our separate ways. We were even at a swimming class with Lisa over at Hill Station. I have never met Lisa. In this dream she looked like a mix of the two of us. We laughed at everything. I had on my ring finger this emerald ring Doctor Suzie liked to wear. It didn’t consume Bako anymore–his brother’s death. He didn’t say this to me but I was omniscient, as we often are in dreams.

I checked out the next morning and drove back to reality.

“Mama Alake,” My husband embraced me before I could walk in the front door. “Ha! you scared me, it’s okay, I am sorry.”

I don’t really know what he was sorry for but I replied, “Thank you Baba Alake.”

The man thinks I am too timid to have an affair.

 

Golden Baobab Prizes Shortlist 2013 Announcement

Accra, Ghana, 1st November, 2013: 180 stories were submitted to this year’s Golden Baobab Prizes. Of these, 25 made it onto the longlist and 8 to the shortlist. The 8 shortlisted stories are:

The Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books
The Princess with a Golden Voice by Philip Begho (Nigeria)
The Little Hippo by Liza Esterhuyse (South Africa)
Grandma Mimo’s Breakfast by Carol Gachiengo (Kenya)

The Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books
Seven by Sabina Mutangadura (Zimbabwe)
Rhino by Richard Street (South Africa)
What’s going on at 179 Jabulani Street? by Karen Hurt (South Africa)

The Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers
The Little Secret by Fego Martins Ahia (Nigeria)
Pieces of Africa by Kanengo Rebecca Diallo (Tanzania)

Chair of judges for the Picture Book Prize, Zetta Elliott, whose first picture book, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee and Low Books’ New Voices Contest, commented on the shortlist saying, “I’m very impressed with the range and originality of the stories. This year’s shortlist suggests that there are plenty of emerging authors who take seriously the task of nourishing the imagination of African children. These stories have magic, mystery, and important lessons about the value of community. They confirm what we already know: Africa’s literary landscape is rich and diverse!”

The Golden Baobab Prizes, now in its fifth year, were set up to find the very best writers of African children’s literature. This year’s shortlist suggests that the judges; Bernardine Evaristo, Esi-Sutherland-Addy, Nonikiwe Mashologu, Zetta Elliott, Annette Hansen and Osayimwense Osa, all have varying ideas about what constitutes good fiction for children. This has ensured a very diverse 2013 shortlist.

Osayimwense Osa, founding author of the Journal of African Children’s and Youth Literature (JACYL), is a firm believer in the power of literature. He says, “It transform the world from confusion and violence to peace is immense and so it is wise to get children reading in their formative years. They must have access to literature which is in touch with social functions, individual lives, and world realities and some of the stories in the shortlist do just that.”
The shortlist comes out after over 8 weeks of the rigorous Golden Baobab Prizes evaluation process. It is evident that African writers are passionate about creating beautiful stories to ignite the imaginations of African children everywhere. The winners of the 2013 prizes will be announced on 13 November.

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About the Golden Baobab Prizes
The Golden Baobab Prizes for literature was established in July 2008 to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by gifted African writers. The Prizes invite entries of unpublished stories written by African citizens irrespective of age, race, or country of origin. The Prizes are organized by Golden Baobab, a Ghana-based pan African social enterprise dedicated to supporting African writers and illustrators to create winning African children’s books. The organization’s Advisory Board includes renowned authors Ama Ata Aidoo, Patrice Nganang, Jay Heale and Maya Ajmera. Golden Baobab is proudly supported by Echoing Green, Reach for Change, The Global Fund for Children and The African Library Project.
For further information, photos or to arrange interviews, please contact: Nanama B. Acheampong via info@goldenbaobab.org
Tel: +233302 265215
Website: http://www.goldenbaobab.org

Golden Baobab Prizes announce 2013 Judges

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Now in its 5th year, the Golden Baobab Prizes for African children’s literature were established in July 2008 to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by gifted African writers. The prizes invite entries of unpublished stories written by African citizens irrespective of age, race, or country of origin.

Formerly known as the Baobab Prize, the Golden Baobab Prizes are the most prestigious annual awards for stories written by Africans for African children. The evaluation process of the prizes is two-tiered: the reading session and the judging session. The longlist was announced after the reading session. The judging session begins on 1st October 2013. The 2013 judges for the Golden Baobab Prizes are:

Esi Sutherland-Addy Educator
Bernardine Evaristo Author
Osayimwense Osa Author, Editor and Professor
Nonikiwe Mashologu Children’s literature reviewer
Zetta Elliott Author and Educator
Ahmed Farah Winner of the 2010 Golden Baobab Rising Writer Prize

Nonikiwe Mashologu, Chairperson of International Board on Books for young People South Africa branch (IBBY SA) says, “I have been involved with the Golden Baobab Prizes for about 3 years as a reader and so I am aware of the absolutely wonderful work being done. I am honored to be a judge for this year’s award because I am always so happy to add and contribute to literature for African children.”

The judges will use three weeks in October to read the longlisted and the final week in October to decide on the winners for each prize: The Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books, The Golden Baobab Prizes for Early Chapter Books and the Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers.
The winners of the Golden Baobab Prizes will be announced on 13 November 2013 and will receive $1,000 (USD), the opportunity to publish with and receive royalties from Golden Baobab top tier African and international publishers, the benefit of increased publicity that comes with being named a Golden Baobab winner, and opportunities to attend exclusive Golden Baobab workshops. In addition to the above, the winner of the Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers will serve on the prestigious panel of judges for the 2014 Golden Baobab Prizes, bringing a critical young perspective to the evaluation process.

Nanama B. Acheampong, the coordinator of the prizes stated, “We’re really excited to see the prize become bigger and better each year. We’re looking to form meaningful partnerships with corporations that share in our vision of a world overflowing with African children’s books and are willing to help make it happen.”

Last year’s judges were CNN hero, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, professor and author, Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, publishing expert, Carol Broomhall, award-winning author, Atinuke Akinyemi Sears, doctor and award-winning author, Kopano Matlwa and accomplished librarian, Tanja Galetti.

ABOUT THE GOLDEN BAOBAB PRIZES

The Golden Baobab Prizes for literature was established in July 2008 to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by gifted African writers. The Prizes invite entries of unpublished stories written by African citizens irrespective of age, race, or country of origin. The Prizes are organized by Golden Baobab, a Ghana-based pan African social enterprise dedicated to supporting African writers and illustrators to create winning African children’s books. The organization’s Advisory Board includes renowned authors Ama Ata Aidoo, Patrice Nganang, Jay Heale and Maya Ajmera. Golden Baobab is proudly supported by Echoing Green, Reach for Change, The Global Fund for Children and The African Library Project.

For further information, photos or to arrange interviews, please contact: Nanama B. Acheampong via info@goldenbaobab.org
Tel: +233302 265215
Website: http://www.goldenbaobab.org

2013 Golden Baobab Prizes Longlist Announced

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Accra, August 30th, 2013: The 2013 Golden Baobab Prize longlist has been announced.

The prize, celebrating its 5th year, was set up to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories. Golden Baobab offers three prizes: The Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books, The Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books and The Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers. The Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books and The Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books is open to all African citizens. The Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers is open to budding African writers under the age of eighteen years.

According to Nanama B. Acheampong, coordinator of the Golden Baobab Prizes, “Golden Baobab is really excited about this year’s stories and we are looking forward to growing further by publishing a collection of these amazing stories we have received. We are currently looking to partner with corporations that share in our vision to bring these stories to the doorsteps of African children everywhere.”

The longlist had the strongest representation from Nigeria and South Africa. Other countries that featured were Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. Philip Begho and Ayibu Makolo, both Nigerian, had two stories each on the longlist. Below is the full longlist:

Longlist for the Picture Book Prize
Carol Gachiengo – Grandma Mimo’s Breakfast (Kenya)
Mandy Collins – Dad Goes to School (South Africa)
Philip Begho – The Princess with the Golden Voice (Nigeria)
Liza Esterhuyse – The Little Hippo (South Africa)
Nneoma Ike-Njoku – Elelenma (Nigeria)
Philip Begho – The Two-Headed Monster (Nigeria)
Regina Malan – The Butterfly Tree (South Africa)
Ansie Nel – Thumisang and Pulane (South Africa)
Ayibu Makolo– The Little Yellow Frog (Nigeria)
Nahida Esmail – Bibo Learns to Speak the Truth (Tanzania)

Longlist for the Early Chapter Book Prize
Fawa Conradie – Kay Cera Cera (South Africa)
Sabina Mutangadura – Seven (Zimbabwe)
Edith-Susan Uchenna – Christmas in Kemah’s Home Town (Nigeria)
Richard Street – Rhino (South Africa)
Sedem Abla Agbolosu – Kwame Gets a Job (Ghana)
Tunji Ajibade – In the End (Nigeria)
Karen Hurt – What’s Going on at 179 Jabulani Street? (South Africa)
Ayibu Makolo – Madam’s Maid (Nigeria)
Derek Lubangakene – Of Ghosts and Grave-Robbers (Uganda)
Olorunfunmi Temitope – Grandma’s Hens (Nigeria)

Longlist for The Rising Writer Prize
Jennifer Sarfo – Songs of Gods (Ghana)
Kanengo Diallo – Pieces of Africa (Tanzania)
Fego Martins Ahia – The Little Secret (Nigeria)
Asantewa Owusu-Darko – The Busting of the Greedy Gangster (Ghana)
Freda Sarfo – Making a Wish (Ghana)

The shortlist for the Golden Baobab Prizes will be announced on 30th October and the winners will be announced on 13th November, 2013. Past winners of the Golden Baobab Prizes have included Joy Nwiyi from Nigeria, Jenny Robson from Botswana and South Africa and Rutendo Chabikwa from Zimbabwe who won the 2012 Rising Writer Prize.