اصلی Welcome to Lagos: A Novel
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ممکن تاسی علاقمند شی Powered by Rec2Me
Hairdresser of Harare is a beautiful read
19 April 2020 (14:44)
I lack words to express the writer's proficiency to bring alive the scenery and experiences of the characters and capture at same time the decaying state of the nation from the Niger Delta to the capital and oh the chaos of a circus called Lagos.
05 September 2020 (12:11)
About to read.
Hope to learn one or two things grom this novel ?
Hope to learn one or two things grom this novel ?
23 January 2021 (12:50)
lagos the place i ever been to
20 April 2021 (14:54)
I have read Hairdresser ,it depicts the real situation in Zimbabwe at that time and it's well written ,i really enjoyed it .
29 July 2021 (18:59)
????????The ending had me?Farida ,"said you're asking me over the phone?"Oh I'm very saddened by Chief Sandayo's death ,ha who would have thought he won't get to his home I'm even more saddened by the fact that Chike did not have the opportunity to go visit Chief .I would take the Bakare's up on their offer if I were Isoken but her decision to stay shows her commitment to this little family of theirs.Fineboy has been a treasure and I'm glad he kept with them ,perhaps he'll be able to become the Golden Voice someday. I'm happy Yemi has found something to do which makes him happy.Oma must see I.K and sever all ties with him so she and Chike can be together properly. This story has moved me and I know for some time to come I'll keep relieving parts of it in my mind.Did the Bakare's leave the country? I hope Ahmed and his dad are able to bridge the gap between them and live as father and son.Big ups to the author ,we your readers have indeed been welcomed to Lagos.?.
30 December 2021 (13:55)
I’m Unable to download this lovely book?. It’s showing “ epub “ in the download icon. What could be the reason?
27 March 2022 (19:59)
I think the writer was so detailed that my imaginations of every scene was perfect. I love the book even if it has that ending that’s not perfect
14 August 2022 (14:18)
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Copyright © 2018 by Chibundu Onuzo First published in the United Kingdom in 2017 by Faber & Faber First published in the United States in 2018 by Catapult (catapult.co) All rights reserved Ebook ISBN: 978-1-936787-81-4 Catapult titles are distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West Phone: 866-400-5351 Library of Congress Control Number: 2017950942 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 To God be the glory Contents I. Zombie Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 II. Monday Morning in Lagos Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 III. Water No Get Enemy Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Chapter 58 Chapter 59 Chapter 60 Chapter 61 Chapter 62 Chapter 63 Chapter 64 Chapter 65 Chapter 66 Chapter 67 Chapter 68 Chapter 69 Epilogue Acknowledgments I Zombie 1 Bayelsa EVENING SWEPT THROUGH THE Delta: half an hour of mauve before the sky bruised to black. It was Chike Ameobi’s twelfth month as an officer in Bayelsa, twelve months on the barren army base. His first sight of the base had been on an evening like this, bumping through miles of bush, leaves pushing through the open window, insects flying up his nostrils and down the dark passages of his ears. They came to a clearing of burned soil with charred stumps still rooted in it. Out of this desol; ation had risen the grey walls of his new home. Later, he would note the birds perched on the loops of barbed wire wheeling around the base. He would spot the garganeys and ruffs gliding through the sky, their long migration from Europe almost over. He had grown quite fond of the canteen he was making his way to now, a low, squat building with thick plastic sheets tacked to the windows, the walls crumbling with damp. Officers and lower ranks sauntered into the building in an assortment of mufti: woolen bobble hats and black T-shirts, wrappers knotted over the arm or tied around the waist, the slovenly slap of slippers flip-flopping their way inside. Colonel Benatari sat by the door, watching the soldiers file past. Chike’s commanding officer was a stocky box of a man, his bulk filling the head of his table. The most senior officers on the base flanked the colonel. They ate from a private stash of food cooked separately in the kitchen. There was always a struggle to clear the colonel’s table, lower ranks jostling for the remnants of fresh fish and the dregs of wine left over in the bell-shaped crystal glasses. Chike threaded his way through the hall, edging past square wooden tables and round plastic ones, past benches, stools, and armless chairs, no piece of furniture matched to another. His platoon was already seated. He was in charge of twenty-three men, charged to lead them in battle and inspect their kit, to see to their hygiene and personal grooming. They were all still in uniform, not a single button undone. When he sat down, they stretched their hands, the clenched fists of their salutes blooming like doorknobs on each wrist. The conversation did not stop. “Oh boy, you see Tina today? That her bobby.” “What of her nyash?” “Like drum.” “I go beat am.” “Nah me go beat am first.” “You think she go ’gree for you?” “Why she no go ’gree?” Tina was a new kitchen worker. His men could talk of little else these days. Chike, too, had opinions on whether Tina was more beautiful than Ọmọtọla but he knew not to add to these conversations. If he spoke, they would listen politely and then continue, a column of ants marching around a boulder. Still, he ate dinner with them instead of joining the junior officers’ table. He felt an officer should know the men he was in charge of even though these soldiers under his command would rather not be known. They obeyed his orders but questions about their lives and families were met with a silent hostility. His only friend was Private Yẹmi Ọkẹ, the lowest-ranked man in his platoon, now seated next to him and eating his beans without bothering to pick out the weevils. It was the fourth day in a row they were eating beans and dodo but Yẹmi did not seem to mind. “Did you shoot today?” Chike whispered to him. “No.” “Good. Meet me by the generator hut when you finish.” There were a few slices of dodo left on Chike’s plate, overripe and soggy with oil. Yẹmi would eat them before coming. Chike left the canteen and went outside to wait for his friend. NIGHT HAD COME, AND with it the sense that Chike could be anywhere. The sky was wide and open, the stars visible in a way he never grew used to. The militants would be out in the creeks tonight, piercing the pipes that crisscrossed the region, sucking out oil, insects drawing on the lifeblood of the country. The army would be out too, patrolling the waters. He stood with his back to the generator hut, the tremor of the machine passing through him. It drank more than two hundred liters of diesel each day, its belly never satisfied. The land sloped away from him, a scattering of buildings and tents running down the mild incline of their base. Soldiers clustered in groups, their cigarette ends glowing like fireflies. The air was warm and heavy, almost too thick to breathe. It was the flaring that did that, great bonfires of gas burning night and day like stars. The oil companies worked at all hours, filling and floating barrels of oil to overseas markets that decided what they were worth: fifty dollars today, a hundred tomorrow, and the whole of Nigeria’s fortunes rose and fell on what foreigners would pay for her sweet crude. Chike had seen the spills, black poison running over the waters, fish gone, fishermen displaced, flora destroyed. Who was to blame? Not for a soldier to answer. He saw Yẹmi approaching in his slow, loping gait. “Sah,” Yẹmi said, saluting when he arrived. Chike returned his salute. “At ease. You were saying.” “I no shoot. When Colonel order us to kill that boy, I ready my gun, aim, put my finger for trigger but I no fire am.” “I didn’t either,” Chike said. “When those white journalists came, I should have found a way to talk to them. I should have whispered to them that they should look out for freshly turned soil. Must we destroy a whole village before people start to notice?” The futility of his and Yẹmi’s resistance, the cowardice of it, fingers bent but never pressing down. They would be found out. Someone would notice their limp index fingers or see them slipping their unused ammunition into the creeks. But for their sanity, he and Yẹmi must register their protest in some way. Chike had not taken much notice of the lowest-ranking member of his platoon until he came upon him one day, crying. “Nah young girl. E no good,” was all Yẹmi would say. There were others who felt the same about the woman shot for allegedly harboring militants but the only protest he had heard voiced was from the runt of his platoon. Their friendship had begun then, an unequal one where he gave the orders and Yẹmi obeyed, but a friendship nonetheless, based on their mutual distaste for the colonel. A treasonous friendship. The 9 p.m. bell clanged. The generator would go off in half an hour; the water would dry up soon after, the electric pumping machines silent till morning. “Sah, I wan’ wash my cloth,” Yẹmi said. “Dismissed. Thank you for your report.” Chike walked to the room he shared with three other junior officers. The space was small for four men, eight foot by twelve with only one window, but they were all disciplined, neat with their possessions and clothing. A single naked bulb hung from the ceiling, drawing a lampshade of insects to its hot glass surface. His roommates would be in the junior officers’ mess, a tent he rarely went to these days. There was a bottle of gin passed around and drunk in thimblefuls, there was a radio with a long spoke of an antenna, and there was guilt, evident in how fast the alcohol disappeared. He sat on his bottom bunk and unbuttoned his shirt before drawing out a slim Bible from his pocket. He read the Bible often now, flicking to a new passage each day, one evening on the plains of Jericho, the next in the belly of a whale, sunlight streaming through the blowhole and into his underwater cell. He liked the improbable images, flakes of manna falling like dandruff from the sky; the formal language of thees and thous, begetting and betrothing betwixt the Jordan and the Red Sea. There were stories of rebellion in the book, of slaves standing up to their masters and waters parting for their escape. Things were less straightforward in real life. He lay down and stared at the wooden slats of the bed above him, the Bible unopened by his side. His bunkmate had stuck Nollywood starlets to his portion of wall: actresses Chike did not recognize, clutching handfuls of synthetic hair and thrusting their hips at the camera. Chike’s patch of wall was blank. He had put up a picture of himself and his mother, her arm around his waist, her head below his chest, and her left hand raised to the camera, asking the photographer to wait. As the months passed, the hand became a warning, an accusation, a signal from beyond the grave. The photograph was facedown in his trunk now, stowed away under his bed. Even to witness Benatari’s crimes was to take part in them. There were strict rules of engagement, fixed codes detailing how soldiers should deal with a civilian population, and the colonel had broken every one. Chike could desert, drop his gun and run off into the darkness one night. He could abscond to Port Harcourt, or Benin or perhaps even Lagos, any large city, with backstreets and crowded houses he could disappear into. And what would he do when he got there? He was not fit for life outside the army. His four years on military scholarship studying zoology at university had proved that to him. He had held his first gun at twelve: induction week at the Nigerian Military School at Zaria. By fourteen, he could crawl a mile under barbed wire, shoot accurately from a hundred paces, lob a grenade, curving it in a neat arc that landed on its target. He was nothing more and nothing less than a soldier. He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep, anxious over what new blood the next day would bring. 2 THE NEWS THAT TWO sentries had been killed was all over the base the next morning. No one in the ranks saw the bodies before they were buried. Breakfast was stale bread with a watery egg stew, eaten with murmuring throughout the dining hall. After breakfast Colonel Benatari assembled the entire base of almost a thousand soldiers on the dirt expanse that served as their parade ground. The colonel was dressed in full regalia, his hand resting on the hilt of a sword. “It is with great sadness that I report the loss of two brave soldiers. We have been gentle with these people because our superiors have told us to promote national unity. They don’t know what is on ground. The Niger Delta is not a place for ideas. I am from here and I know. You tell an Ijaw man about nation building, all he wants to know is what’s for lunch. These are stomach people and it is time to show them we are muscle people. This evening, we attack!” The colonel’s wildness seemed barely constrained by his starched uniform. Hair spilled out of his collar and cuffs, climbing down to his knuckles and creeping up his Adam’s apple. Chike sensed that if permitted, the colonel would string the scalps of his enemies into a belt and do away with the leather-and-steel contraption that encircled his waist. No work was given that day. No marching in the afternoon. Double lunch rations. A smoggy expectation hung over the base. Tina was not in the canteen today. Was she a spy, Chike wondered. CHIKE’S PLATOON WAS CHOSEN. His men were skittish in the back of the van, knees knocking, starting at every sound in the bush. They all wore charms, amulets, and talismans strung around their necks to ward off evil. Their battalion had been cursed so many times. After each execution, the victim’s mother or sister, or aunt or grandmother or wife, would call on native deities to devour them, half-fish, half-man gods to swallow them up. The land was against them, the water, the air, conspiring to smother and drown and bury them alive. At any moment they could be ambushed. There was no tarred road, just this narrow path with the bush pressing close, leaves and branches swishing against the bodies of the vans. A hundred men in total snaked quietly to the village, the line of vans rolling forward slowly, headlights dimmed with strips of dark paper. At night, the Delta was as it had been centuries ago, black and seething with spirits. The moon appeared, a full white disk spilling light on the thatched mud huts and squat concrete bungalows that lined the village entrance. The colonel was in the first van. He was always first in an attack. Chike’s men said bullets bent when they touched Colonel Benatari, that metal bounced off skin made impenetrable by juju. He saw the colonel now, walking into the village with his indestructible body, a compact black shape with a line of soldiers following him. They flung petrol on every roof they passed, quick and efficient in their movements. The first hut bloomed into flame, and the next and the next, a garden of orange flowers. Was it the heat that drew the villagers from their huts or the smell of smoke? Village men were dashing into houses and rescuing the bric-a-brac of their lives, boxes, chairs, clothes bundled and dumped by the feet of their families. Women were carrying babies and smacking children that strayed too far from the family group. Chike and his platoon stood by their vans, watching this scene and waiting for their orders. “When you hear the gunfire on that side, start shooting. Between us, these murderers will be destroyed.” The voice belonged to Major Waziri, a thin, pallid man with a loud voice. “And what if we refuse?” Chike asked. “Who said that? Anyone who refuses will be shot.” The villagers’ panic was giving way to common sense. Some were still blindly surging into their homes and emerging with items that would be useless without a roof over their heads: bedsteads and pots and kerosene stoves. But most were organizing themselves into firefighting units. Buckets of water appeared, thrown wildly and then with precision on the largest part of the flames. The humid air was on their side. One house was doused and another, then another. The women joined in. Even the children. They were winning when Colonel Benatari opened fire. Chike had seen it enough times, civilians, at the sound of gunfire, dispersing like light spreading from a source. Mothers forgot children, husbands left wives, the old were pushed down and trampled. “Fire!” Major Waziri said. For a moment, there was silence. Only Colonel Benatari and his contingent were shooting. This is a mutiny, Chike thought. Unplanned and unconcerted, they had all decided to revolt. Then the first gun stuttered into life and the others found their voice. “Let’s go now before we take part in this,” Chike said. The men of his platoon turned when he spoke, fingers relaxing from triggers. Chike did not know the words that would make them drop their guns. Perhaps if he had led them, really led them instead of only giving orders, they would have followed him. “Oya make we go,” Yẹmi said, “I don tire for this their army.” 3 THE TWO SOLDIERS WALKED through the night with Chike leading. They would make their way to Yenagoa, the closest city, and from there find a bus to Port Harcourt or Benin or perhaps even Lagos. Even now, Benatari might already be searching for them. In theory, they should be given a chance to defend their refusal to carry out the colonel’s order. In theory. They still carried their guns, another crime to add to their desertion, but it would have been too dangerous to wander through this bush unarmed. Morning was already starting to show. Without hesitating, any party of militants that came upon them would kill them. “Remove your shirt,” Chike said to Yẹmi. They could do nothing about their trousers, which announced their occupation, camouflaging nothing. “I wan’ rest,” Yẹmi said. “We stop when we reach the main road.” “I never drink water. I no fit.” Chike eyed Yẹmi but his former subordinate did not drop his gaze. “At ease,” he said, just before Yẹmi flopped to the ground. The semblance of command must remain until they reached Yenagoa. After that, they could go their separate ways. For now, two were better than one. DAWN CRACKED OVER THE forest. The sun rose slowly, an orange yolk floating into an albumen sky. He was hungry. Beside him, Yẹmi was starting to doze when the young man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder walked into view and began to urinate, his back turned to them. Chike left Yẹmi and crept up to the man, who had squatted to defecate. “I am officer of the Nigerian Army. You are under arrest. Hand over your gun. Do not turn. I said do not turn. Throw your gun on the ground and stand up with your hands behind your head.” “How do I know you have a gun?” “I should shoot?” “My people are close.” “So are mine.” “Chike.” The man stiffened at the sound of Yẹmi’s voice and dropped his gun on the ground. “Stand up. Slowly.” “Can I pull up my trousers?” There was a foreign tang to his speech, something in his diction striving to be American. “He fit take us to the road,” Yẹmi said. “We’re trying to get to the main road.” “I wanna see you first.” “You can turn. Slowly.” It was a boy, not a man, just leaving his teenage years. His eyes were deeply planted in his face, giving him a starved look, but the rest of his features were regular. A furrow ran along the middle of his forehead, a crevice that deepened when he looked beyond and saw no signs of a Nigerian army. “If I refuse?” “We go shoot you. You think say we be soldier for nothing?” To the best of Chike’s knowledge, Yẹmi had never shot a living thing, but his bravura was convincing. “If you lead us into a trap, we will still kill you before your friends get to us,” Chike said, adding his own threat. “No, no. I was going to the road myself anyway.” “Your name?” Chike asked as the militant led them into the undergrowth, his gun a few inches from the boy’s spine. “Fineboy.” “Na which kind name be that?” “Na my mama give me,” Fineboy said, for the first time dropping his accent and sliding into pidgin. 4 CHIKE HAD GROWN ACCUSTOMED to the back of their hostage’s head, his thin neck, the pulpy scar behind his ear, the scattering of razor bumps on his otherwise smooth hairline, clipped within the last few days, in a militant camp no less. Perhaps, as well as a barber, the militants had cinemas and shopping malls. The militants said they were fighting for compensation for the millions of gallons of crude that had gushed out of the ground since the 1950s, when a Shell-BP drill struck oil in “commercial quantities,” the magic phrase that would draw the French, the Dutch, the Chinese to this small corner of Nigeria, destroying the land and water from which the Niger Deltans gained their livelihood. The government called the militants criminals who spent their days hacking into pipelines and causing oil spills, kidnapping petroleum engineers, and smoking insensible amounts of weed. If he were a civilian, Chike would have had sympathies, would have tried to puzzle out the rights and wrongs of each side, but his military training disposed him to neutrality. It was for politicians to decide who they fought and why, which causes were just and which were not. Soldiers dealt in orders alone, and it was because the colonel’s orders were illegal that he and Yẹmi were wandering through the bush now, following this young man who might or might not be leading them into an ambush. He was thirsty, almost deliriously so. The sun was now high in the sky and still no sign of the road. “Halt,” Chike said. “In which direction is the road? North, south, east.” “I don’t know. I just know how to get there.” “We’ll kill you if you’re leading us into a trap. I swear it. Your water. Please.” He had just noticed the plastic bottle tucked into the rebel’s belt. “Please? When you’re pointing a gun in my face?” Chike took four sips, letting the water sit in his mouth before swallowing. It was warm with a back taste of petrol. The oil seeped into everything in this place. His first urge was to spit it out. He passed the bottle to Yẹmi. “Don’t finish it. Do you have anything to eat?” Chike asked their hostage. The boy put his hand to his pocket and Chike followed the movement with his gun. “What the hell? You asked me for food and I’m getting it.” The boy drew out a black polyethylene bag and then a newspaper-wrapped bundle from within it. “Smoked fish. Maybe the last fish in the Niger Delta.” Chike saw the longing in Yẹmi’s face. “We’ll take a short break.” They sat on the ground and the boy placed the fish between them. They all three stared at the white flesh, charred and blackened on the outside. “You think it’s poisoned.” The boy smiled, showing even teeth. He took fish in his fingers and shoved it in his mouth. “More for me.” The fish was dry but flavorsome. Beside him, Chike could hear the workings of Yẹmi’s jaw as he ate the flesh and then the slivers of silvery bone. “So what are you two running away from?” “Na who say we dey run?” Yẹmi asked. “Soldier man wey lost for bush, no dey find fellow soldier. Dey look road. Looks like desertion to me.” “We want a change,” Chike said. “What about you? You’re young to be a militant.” “My juniors are back at camp. Don’t look at me as a small boy.” “Explain something,” Chike said. “How will kidnapping oil workers bring roads to the Delta?” “How will soldiers here bring peace? Money from our oil has built every infrastructure you see in Nigeria and yet we, the owner of the oil, don’t have hospital, schools, roads. When I was a child, you dip your hand in the water and you pluck out fish. Now everything is destroyed from oil spill. We didn’t start with violence but no one wants to hear the way of peace so the people have chosen war.” They were borrowed words, the manifestos of others delivered with a conviction that would have been catching if Chike had been a journalist or a person passing briefly through the Delta. But he had seen the villagers harassed by militants and soldiers alike, just wanting to be left alone. “The people have chosen?” “Of course. We could not keep up the struggle without them. They feed us, their sons join us, they even send their women. You should see how many of these girls want our babies. Just yesterday, one came out of a tree and opened her legs.” There was a loud rustling above them. It startled the soldiers to their feet and they took aim with their guns. 5 WHENEVER CHIKE DESCRIBED WHAT happened next, he began by saying it was mythical. Not like the silvery European myths of winged men and wood sprites but like the denser African myths of living trees that devoured human sacrifice. He saw a girl appearing as if from the tree itself, her legs sprouting from the bole, her arms from the branches, her hair a compost of twigs and leaves. He heard Yẹmi release the safety on his rifle. “Hold fire!” She was running, upon them and past them, straight into Fineboy, plowing him to the ground. She struck him, with her elbows, with her hands, straddling him like a wrestler, her trousers fitted to slim legs, too thin surely to keep a man pinned under her weight. Fineboy cried out in a tangled stream that was rising in pitch. It would not do for them to be discovered. “Cover me,” he said to Yẹmi. Chike dropped his rifle by the private. Then he approached and took the girl by the elbow, dragging her halfway to her feet. Fineboy lunged, catching her on the right side of her face, and in a grotesque reversal, she fell to the ground. Chike held him back but it was too late. The strange girl had fainted. “SHE DON WAKE O,” Yẹmi said. “Oya make we dey go.” They had lost time waiting for the girl to come around. Even now she was conscious, she seemed too weak to stand. Chike stood over her, looking down on her face. She was very dark, black as crude. Her lips were dry, whitened strips of skin standing out on them. “Are you all right? Bring the bottle,” he said to Yẹmi. “Don’t give my water to that bitch.” She flinched at the rebel’s voice. “That’s enough from you.” The girl took the bottle from Yẹmi and poured the water down her throat without pause for breath, slurping until the empty bottle contracted from the pressure. Chike was standing over her, he realized, in a way that she might find threatening, a gun slung over his shoulder, his hand resting on the stock. He stepped back. “What’s your name?” “Isoken.” “Where’s your home?” “I’m lost.” “But your village. Where are you from?” “I came from Lagos with my parents. To my mother’s village. It’s somewhere in this bush.” “Where are they now?” “I don’t know. There was fighting near our village. We ran but my mum was too slow. She’s ill. That’s why she came back home. For the local medicine.” “Is that how you got separated? When you were running?” “I left them. My dad said I should go. That he would stay with my mum. My dad is a hairdresser. He does his work in Lagos but none of the women in the village would let him do their hair. They said they can’t put their head between a man’s laps. He taught me how to do hair. Any style you want.” “How long ago was—” “While you’re asking twenty-one questions,” the rebel said, “find out why she attacked me.” “You.” She gathered saliva in her mouth and spat in a clean arc. “If I hadn’t been wearing jeans.” “If you hadn’t been wearing jeans what?” “You would have raped me.” The revelation slipped easily from her mouth. “Are you crazy? Do I look like somebody that needs to rape girls? Me. Fineboy.” “Hold him back,” Chike said to Yẹmi. “I was in a tree yesterday evening,” the girl said, turning to him. “I had been walking the whole day, trying to get back to the village, but I was tired. I dozed off. When I fell, I hurt my back and I couldn’t move. There was a group and he was in the group. They attacked me. They beat me, see my face, but they couldn’t get what they wanted because of my trousers. He said I offered myself to them. It’s a lie. I’m still a virgin.” The rebel was stepping forward again despite Yẹmi’s gun aimed at his chest. “Who dash you virgin? See this prostitute.” “Your mother is a prostitute.” The boy charged past Yẹmi. Chike fired in the air, a single clear shot that resounded in the bush. “You. Stand back and put your hands behind your head. That’s how you’re walking from now on. Hands behind your head, I said. Yẹmi, if he lowers them, shoot him. Isoken,” he said, turning to her last, “we must go. We just waited to see that you’re all right.” “You have to arrest him. Are you not a soldier?” “Soldiers don’t arrest people. That’s for the police. We must be leaving. Anyone could have heard that shot.” “They’ll find me, then. Let me come with you. Where are you going?” “Yenagoa.” “I have an uncle in Yenagoa.” “She go slow us down,” Yẹmi said. Chike gave Isoken his hand and helped her to her feet. “You’ll walk between me and Private Ọkẹ.” 6 “THANK YOU,” CHIKE SAID to Fineboy when they got to the road. It was narrow, barely wide enough for two cars, but it would take them to Yenagoa. He flagged down the first bus he saw. It listed to one side from the weight of yams strapped to its roof. The other passengers were thin and hard-looking, their clothes threadbare and ill-fitting. There was a smell of toil in the bus, of sweat and labor in fields whose yields had decreased since the oil companies arrived. A woman with withered lips stared at Yẹmi’s camouflage trousers. She looked away when she caught Chike’s eye. The four of them squeezed into a backseat designed for two, Fineboy suddenly deciding that he wanted to see his mother in Yenagoa. “Don’t let him sit next to me,” Isoken said when the militant started to climb in after her. Chike placed himself between the two of them. Isoken’s body was warm, almost febrile in its heat. Chike could feel her knee against his thigh. Once he shifted in his seat and his hand brushed her arm. She shrank, her elbows contracting onto her stomach, and there they remained until they reached Bayelsa’s capital. Yenagoa was more town than city, a settlement of dwarf houses, roofs level with the raised road. Billboards were particularly effective in this stunted landscape, malaria drugs, Alomo Bitters, Coca-Cola, Durex, Indomie, Winners School, and churches, plenty of them. Evangelists, pastors, apostles, prophets, and bishops beamed down, inviting Chike to Amazing Grace Ministry, Fire Fall Down Tabernacle, Jehovah Always on Time Assembly. The air above Yenagoa must be thick with prayer, petitions flying and colliding on their way to heaven. At the bus park Isoken stood blinking in the sun. She was just about a woman. It would not have been long since she was asking “Mother, may I?” in a backyard. There was still something of the child about her cheeks and the way she balled her fists into her eyes when Chike asked, “Can you get to your uncle’s house from here?” “I only know the address. Plot Sixteen, Dongaro Road. We went just once. We stopped there on the way to the village.” “Please tell her how to get there,” Chike said to Fineboy. “Or what? You’ll shoot me?” They had abandoned their guns in the bush, taking out the cartridges. “I can have you arrested for your time spent in the creeks.” “I’ll deny it.” “The word of a Nigerian officer against yours.” He expected the boy to see through him. Two soldiers deserting were in no position to threaten arrest. Instead, he kicked his foot in the soil. “The place is not far,” Fineboy said in words shorn of every trace of an accent. THE BUILDINGS ON DONGARO Road had not seen fresh paint in years. The road was worn in many places, the thin asphalt stripped to the red earth beneath. “This is the place. His flat is on the ground floor,” Isoken said, in front of a house streaked brown with rain tracks. “Should we come with you?” Chike asked. “Please.” THERE WERE CHICKENS IN the yard, a mother hen with a troop of grey chicks marching in line behind her. A car stood rotting in the sun, propped on four cement blocks, its tires, mirrors, and fenders long gone to a younger model. The uncle was sitting outside on a bench, fat with adolescent breasts that showed through his worn singlet, a raffia fan idle in his hand. “Isoken, is that you?” “Yes, Uncle.” “What are you doing with these soldiers? Have you brought trouble to my house?” “No, Uncle.” Briefly Isoken told what had happened to her hometown, saying nothing of the attempted rape. Hers could not be the village Colonel Benatari had torched. That had been in the evening. “Wonders shall never cease,” the uncle kept saying, as if his niece had come from the bush to thrill him with anecdotes. “Come and sit next to me.” She sat at the end of the bench, but the uncle moved towards her and put an arm around her, his hand resting on her stomach where her shirt stopped and her jeans began. “Officers, how can I thank you for bringing back my daughter to me?” Isoken remained rigid in his embrace. “No thanks are necessary,” Chike said. “We’re just doing our job.” “At least tell me your names so that I can remember you in my prayers.” “Chike.” “Yẹmi.” “And you?” Isoken’s uncle said, looking at the militant. Why had Fineboy come into the compound? He had seen this kind of fatuous curiosity in the lower ranks. Before the boy could give his absurd name, a man appeared in the door of the flat, addressing the uncle in a language Chike did not understand, the words locking into each other without space, like pieces in a jigsaw. Their exchange was short. It seemed heated until the uncle laughed and the man returned into the flat. “Officers, don’t mind my business partner. Will you take something to drink?” “No, we must be on our way,” Chike said. “Goodbye, Brother Chike,” Isoken said to him. “Thank you.” Chike had never had a sibling and the filial title pleased him. Outside the gate, he noticed the smirk on the rebel’s face. “What are you smiling at?” “From frying pan to fire.” “What do you mean?” “Something her uncle said.” “What?” “I’m not sure. He was speaking Kalabari.” “Tell me what you heard.” “He said she was ripe.” “For what?” “I think sex.” THE UNCLE’S HAND STILL rested on Isoken’s stomach when they returned to the compound. Chike swung his arms stiffly as he walked towards them, a reminder of his military status. The chickens scattered at their second entrance, darting behind the old car in a streak of clucking feathers. “Please, sir, will you allow your niece to escort us to the end of the road?” They could take the girl by force but he preferred to try a ruse first. He did not know how many “business partners” this uncle might have. “Officer, my niece is tired.” “Please, Uncle, my parents would want me to see off these people that helped me.” “It would only be to the end of the road,” Chike added. “OK. But don’t be too long. You need to rest.” Isoken glanced at Fineboy, who was still standing outside the compound. “Pay him no attention. Just walk with me,” Chike said. They moved in silence, her head drooping on the slim stalk of her neck. Yẹmi and the militant walked a few paces behind. At the top of the road they stopped. “How well do you know your uncle?” “I— When we were going to my mother’s village we stayed here overnight from Lagos. That was my first time of meeting him.” “Fineboy. He heard something your uncle said to his business partner. Something like what happened to you in the bush. Is there any way you can reach your parents?” “They have one GSM they are using but I don’t know the number. It’s new. Uncle Festus has it.” “Is there anyone else who would have the number?” Chike asked. “They live in Lagos.” “Don’t cry. We’ll go there and drop you.” “Say wetin? Who tell you I wan’ go Lagos?” Yẹmi said. “We can go our separate ways, then.” “Na who tell you I no wan’ go?” “You,” Chike said to Fineboy, “the drama is over. You can be on your way once you give us directions to a motor park that will get us to Lagos.” 7 ISOKEN DID NOT SPEAK until they reached Edepie Motor Park. It was a large trampled field with vehicles of all sizes coming and going, small, dusty minivans, large, sleek, luxurious buses, trailers with art twisting all over their bodies, movement and noise and dust rising from the spinning tires. A market had sprung up for the human traffic, clothes, books, food, toys on display for the discerning traveler. “Please can I go to a call center,” Isoken said to Chike when they arrived. “Maybe I’ll remember my parents’ number with a phone in my hand.” The owner of the kiosk stood by Isoken as she dialed wrong number after wrong number. With each try she grew more flustered. “There are others waiting,” the kiosk owner said after her sixth attempt. She cried out when the phone was taken from her, a harsh, bleating sound. “Don’t worry. I won’t charge you,” the owner said, beckoning to the next customer. Chike would have preferred tears to Isoken’s twitchy silence. Her hand rose to her hair, then her collarbone, then her elbow as if she were counting her body parts, checking nothing was missing. “So we’ll have to go to Lagos, then,” Chike said to her when her fingers were resting on her ear. “My mum used to say that if we ever got separated we should meet at home. The first time it happened was when I was a child. I ran off in the market after an orange and when I caught it, she was gone. I clutched so many strangers that looked like her from behind and then I got tired of disappointment and decided to go home. She came home that night with dust in her hair. She was already planning how she would tell my father that she had lost their only child.” “So you think they’ll be in Lagos.” “I don’t know, but I can’t stay here.” She stared away from him when she spoke. There was swelling on her cheekbone, the skin puffed and raised, encroaching on her eye. The cut on her temple had formed a deep purple scab, the shade of an onion. He had not asked for this new responsibility. He hoped there would be someone to help her in Lagos. Yẹmi and Chike bought trousers from a stall and went behind a tree to change. They emerged civilians, their muddy boots the only sign of their former life. Their dinner was a simple meal of beans and stew, eaten on the same bench with Isoken as far from him and Yẹmi as possible. They found a Lagos-bound bus and waited for it to fill up. It would not depart until all its seats were taken. Chike paid for three spaces and climbed into the front seat. His knees touched the dashboard riddled with stickers preaching platitudes. GOD’S TIME IS BEST. NO FOOD FOR LAZY MAN. A silver Christ dangled crucified from the rearview mirror. He and his mother had always sat in the front seats when she accompanied him to his military school in Zaria. All through the journey from Ibadan to Zaria, his mother would hold his hand and he would look out the window, Ogbomoso, to Jebba, to Kutiwenji, to Machuchi, breathing in the changing air, and the landscape changing, and the people changing, growing leaner and more dignified, calmer and more reposed. It was years later, reading the memoirs of a colonial officer, that he realized he had seen the north like a white man, looking for differences: thinner noses, taller grass, different God. “Don’t sit at the back,” he said when he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw again that Isoken was as far from him and Yẹmi as possible. In his last year in Zaria, on his way home for the holidays, there had been an accident. A bus hit them from behind and the whole back row died instantly, spines snapped. He had bled from a few surface wounds but he had made the trip back to Zaria when the holiday was over. He would be an officer and a gentleman before he let the vagaries of an expressway stop him. And now he was an officer and a deserter. Even at sixteen, he had known it was partly rubbish, the dross of an empire, the dregs of a martial philosophy that had led countless Africans to fight for “King and Country.” But there had been something seductive about it, something about these military principles, stated like the first principles that governed the world: honor, chivalry, duty. Evening was falling. The bus was filling. A couple boarded, the man’s frayed Bible held to his chest, the woman in a skirt that covered her ankles, her earlobes smooth and unpierced, her neck and wrists bare of jewelry. A man was moving from bus to bus, peering inside and then darting to the next one. He disappeared into one of the luxurious buses, behemoth American imports as large as whales. A moment later, like Jonah spat out, the man came rushing down. Their trail had been picked up from the guns abandoned in the bush, their movements traced to this motor park. Were they so important? Would the colonel expend so much energy to find him and Yẹmi? The man was only a few buses away. Chike recognized the brown singlet he had spent the morning walking behind. “Brother Chike!” When had Fineboy picked up his name? He was knocking on the side of the bus now. “You know him?” the driver asked. “Brother Chike, please, I need to talk to you.” Brother. Such respect. The boy had put his hand through the window, stopping just short of touching his arm. “I know him,” he said, opening the bus door. “Na why you dey answer this boy?” “Don’t let anyone take my seat,” Chike said to Yẹmi. Chike climbed down and faced him. “Yes. What do you want?” “Please can we move away?” There was the carcass of a trailer truck stripped to its frame, resting on its side and waiting for the resurrection to rise again. A rubbish heap grew like a shrub beside it, emptying the area of passersby. Fineboy led him there. “I need to get out of Yenagoa tonight.” “Your affairs do not concern me.” “Please. I take God beg you. Soldier is looking for me. I could not go home. I saw my friend Amos on the way. He said there are people watching my house. I don’t have the money to leave.” “What about your family?” “They have my picture. They will kill me. They have already killed one of the boys who came home on my street.” “I should put you and the girl you tried to rape in the same bus?” “I wasn’t even there. It was a story they told me when they came back to camp. Nobody raped her. That’s what she said. I got the story wrong. Let thunder strike me if I am lying. Let thunder kill my whole family.” He touched his index finger to his lip and raised it to the sky. “You can come with us to Lagos. Stand up. What’s that your name again?” “Fineboy.” “Fineboy, stand up. It’s a loan you’ll pay back when you find your feet. Make sure you don’t sit next to her.” He paid Fineboy’s fare and the boy climbed into the back. The last space in the bus was next to Chike. Whoever sat there would feel the driver’s hand each time he reached down to change gears, his knuckles brushing against legs and knees. Women in particular hated this seat. “This driver is too greedy,” a passenger said. “So because of one seat, we will leave Bayelsa so late.” “Driver, make we dey go o.” “Look, I can’t take this anymore. Do you know who I am? I’m coming down from this bus.” “Lagos?” a woman asked, running and out of breath. “Yes.” She paid and he got down for her to enter. She smelled expensive, like the clear alcohol perfumes his mother sprayed for special events, crushed flowers and party stew, the scent of an occasion. The driver started the bus. “Wait!” the man carrying the large Bible said. “Mr. Man, I have an appointment tomorrow morning. Let’s be going.” “What if you die before then? Can a dead body attend a meeting?” “God forbid.” “Then let us pray. Father, in the name of Jesus, we commit this bus journey into your hands. We command that no accident shall befall us.” “Amen,” the other passengers said. “We declare that we have not set out on a night when the road is hungry.” “Amen.” “I cover each and every one of us with the blood of Jesus.” “Blood of Jesus,” the passengers intoned. “I wash the wheels of the bus with the blood of Jesus.” “Blood of Jesus.” “I soak the driver’s eyes with the blood of Jesus.” “Blood of Jesus.” “He will see clearly and by your grace, tomorrow morning we will arrive safely in Lagos. We thank you, Father.” “Thank you, Lord.” “We give you all the glory for in Jesus’ name we have prayed.” “Amen.” “And all God’s people said?” “Amen!” 8 Lagos “REPORTS ARE COMING IN that the army has destroyed a whole village in Bayelsa State. We need someone to go down there and find out what happened,” Ahmed Bakare said to the senior editorial staff of the Nigerian Journal, the paper he had founded and run for the past five years. They sat in the boardroom, the windows and doors flung open, the output of the generator too low for air-conditioning. Ties had come undone, buttons were following suit, a moist triangle of chest flesh visible on most of his employees. Ahmed had taken off his jacket but the knot of his tie still pressed against his throat. “You must see why it’s so important that we send somebody down there?” he said. It was not the first time Ahmed had tried to get one of his journalists to go to the Niger Delta. They felt the shame of reporting what they had not seen, news of oil spills and militants, fleshed out from the dry summaries on Reuters. Yet shame was not enough to risk their lives. “The men from BBC, CNN, any sign of trouble, they’ll send a helicopter to fly them out,” his political editor said to him. “Can you guarantee that? Can you even afford it?” “I’ll send you a speedboat.” “With Rambo inside?” The meeting ended in laughter as the group filed out of the boardroom. They were competent staff, diligent with deadlines and precise in their prose, but they were more interested in the business of newspapers, in ink and paper quality, distribution channels and advert space, than in the ideas that could be read between the lines of the text, the very principles that had propelled him to found this newspaper. Nigerian news, by Nigerian people, for Nigerian people. Telling our own stories, creating our narratives, emphasizing our truths. They were tired mantras but they would have been sparks to people with imagination. Meeting with his staff was like holding a flame to a wet rag. Port Harcourt was only an hour’s flight away. He could go and see for himself: charter a boat, take a recorder, a notepad, a toothbrush, and some gin. Surely the militants would welcome him. They must grow tired of these white journalists who mistook their bravado for real menace, missing the irony of the stylized war paint, branding the movement something atavistic. Or they might use him as target practice. He was an only child: a caution that had sounded in his ears since his sister’s death. For his eighteenth birthday, he had wanted to jump out of a plane over the English countryside, a billowing nylon cloud the only barrier between himself and death. His mother had spent two NITEL calling cards crying down a bad phone line. He was indispensable to her. And what of his reporters? To whom were they indispensable? Their wives, their husbands, daughters, elderly parents, younger siblings still in school. He returned to his office to sift through tomorrow’s leaders. He had committed to publishing at least one anticorruption piece in each issue of the paper, and in the five years the Nigerian Journal had been open, he had not failed. The intercom rang. “Good morning, Mr. Bakare. There are some men here to see you from Chief Momoh’s office.” “Show them in,” Ahmed said to his receptionist. Chief Momoh was a former minister of petroleum and a billionaire, two facts that Momoh insisted were unrelated. A few days ago the Journal had run a piece on an oil rig that the chief was alleged to own by proxy. Ahmed had been expecting a visit. He picked up a feature on a former Miss Nigeria and stared at the gap in her front teeth, a dark slit in her wide smile. The men knocked and entered before he said, “Come in.” There were three, dressed in black, dark caricatures of hired thugs. They filled his office with a sharp, astringent odor. “Yes, how may I help you?” “Chief Momoh is not happy with the story you published about him.” He had gotten phone calls before, but it was the first time anyone had physically been sent to threaten him. He felt a tense excitement as he waited for them to finish their business of intimidation, their presence a validation of his work. There was no place for a gun to hide. Not in their shallow pockets nor in their hands hanging loosely by their sides. They could beat him up but they did not seem inclined to. “Chief Momoh has told us to warn you to get your facts straight. You know where his house is. You can come for an interview anytime you want.” He did know the mansion in Palmgrove Estate. The chief and Ahmed’s father had rotated in the same circles for a while, and when he was younger, he had swum in the pool that occupied half of Momoh’s massive garden. The man closest to the door, his stomach protruding more briefly than the others’, reached into a small briefcase that Ahmed had not noticed. Ahmed gripped the phone but did not lift it to his ear. Sudden movement. That was what always killed people in films. “He also said we should give you this.” The man drew out two envelopes and placed them on the table with a small bow. “One is for your parents. Chief has been finding it difficult to reach them.” “All right. You have delivered your message. Leave my office.” And they left, the envelopes remaining cream and expensive against the stark white paper that cluttered his desk. He opened the one addressed to Chief Mr. and Mrs. Bọla Bakare first. He slid a penknife under the envelope flap, careful that his hands did not touch whatever was inside. The families of Chief Herbert Momoh and Admiral Joseph Ọnabanjọ kindly request your presence at the union of their children Jemima and Akin He remembered Jemima. She had been two years his senior in secondary school. She had big breasts that ballooned out of her school uniform and a sharp mouth that teachers and students alike had suffered. He opened the envelope addressed to him with steady hands. It was an invite also, no death threat slipped inside, no warning. He felt sorry for Akin. He felt sorry for himself. His irrelevance confirmed by a flat, square invitation card. His father thought him a fool for moving home to start a newspaper. His mother still loved him, a reassurance she had taken to repeating more often these days. How long before he called it a failure? 9 AHMED’S PARENTS’ MARRIAGE WAS strong, incongruously so. His father read widely, understood the foreign stock market, conversed with ease. His mother and her friends wore matching clothes to weddings. His parents were rarely seen outside together but in the domestic space they were courteous, loving even, attentive to how many spoons of sugar and how many cubes of ice. It worked for them, especially after the death of his sister. Morenikẹ’s smile sketched outlines on the edges of his memory but he could never recall his sister’s face without the aid of a photograph. From her pictures, he knew she had been angular with bulging eyes, but the presence of those few hanging photos had not been a reproach to his childhood. Ahmed wished she were alive, if only to shift the weight of his parents’ disappointment. He had left his good job in England. He was not yet married. He insisted on carrying on with this ridiculous newspaper project. “The media mogul has arrived,” his father said as he walked into their living room. “What will he drink?” Once a month, for his mother’s sake, he spent a Sunday afternoon with both of them. “Bọla, stop teasing him,” his mother said. “I’m not. I read the damn paper. I saw the piece on Chief Momoh’s alleged oil rig. Why did it take you so long to get to it?” “We were gathering material.” “Is that so? Perhaps you should rename yourself The Stale Journal.” “Bọla, leave the boy alone.” “I’m just giving him some paternal advice. If he’s going to try and embarrass my friends, at least be the first to the story. What are you drinking?” “Star.” “We only have Guinness.” “Guinness, then. I’ll get it.” “No. You’re a guest now. We see you once a month, so we have to be on our best behavior or your mother says you’ll stop coming.” His father brought the bottle on a tray to him with a slim glass, setting it on a side stool. “Dearest, what about you?” “Orange juice. You know we shouldn’t be drinking so close to Ramadan.” “Live and let live, Mariam.” They drank in silence, his father tapping his feet as he sipped his port. When their glasses were empty his father stood. “Right. Lunch should be ready. Let’s not keep the newspaperman waiting.” As always, there was too much food. The table was heaped for guests that would never arrive: his dead sister, her imaginary husband, and their six obese children. The chairs were stiff-backed, with wrought copper arms uncomfortable to rest on. On the walls were paintings, trite European landscapes in greens and blues, and in the corner an aquarium bubbled softly, the pale fish darting behind its glass walls. He would have preferred to eat in the living room but his mother liked to create an occasion, complete with gold cloth napkins and heavy silver cutlery brought from storage each month. “You remember Layọ Adenuga?” she said when they had begun eating. “No.” “You do. You went to primary school with her. Short, a bit chubby, very light-skinned.” “Vaguely.” “She got married last week. Such a beautiful wedding. Her colors were burnt orange and magenta. It was so difficult to find matching shoes. Your wife better pick simple colors.” “Who will let their daughter marry this newspaperman? He’s not trained for this. He’s an amateur and it damn well shows.” Ahmed would not let himself be goaded today. “When is your next wedding, Mum?” “Da Silva and Ajayi. Hundred thousand naira for five yards of aọ ebi. These people want to empty our bank accounts. But you know how close Mrs. Ajayi and I are. I can’t refuse.” “Yes, this is what your mother spends our retirement funds on.” His father seemed relieved that he had not risen to the bait. For the next hour, conversation continued with little to disrupt it. At five o’clock Ahmed pushed his chair back from the table. “Until next month, then,” his father said, shaking his hand and leaving the room. His mother walked him to his car, his trunk full of yams and plantains from her kitchen. He would give it all to his neighbors once he got home. “Don’t mind him. He just wants you to do well.” “Yes. I understand.” “Will you come with me to the Ajayi wedding? You know your father always leaves me to go on my own. And you never know, you might meet someone.” He had been stunned by these society weddings when he first moved home, dazed by the towering cakes, free champagne, fresh European flowers, chocolate fountains, and ice sculptures as cold as the unmarried belles, aloofly desperate, sitting stiffly in their new clothes and lacquered faces, waiting for a “hello” from a prosperous-looking, preferably unmarried man before they would let themselves thaw. And when you stepped outside for a smoke or a phone call or to talk more deeply to the pretty bridesmaid, you would see the small economy that had grown around the spectacle. There would be beggars waiting for crumbs, touts watching your car, photographers pointing out your pictures taken that day, men selling money in bundles, freshly minted naira to spray on the couple, cash littering the dance floor, the happily ever after turned into a capitalist boom. “I can’t make it. And you won’t be on your own, Mum. You’ll have all your friends around you.” “You’re a snob. That’s your problem. Why can’t you marry one of my friends’ daughters? Poor people’s children marry themselves all the time, so why shouldn’t rich people do the same?” “We don’t have the same interests.” “What interests? Is it newspaper? I’ve told you, Rẹmi Okunọla’s daughter has moved back and started a magazine. Let me introduce you. Her mother can bring her to the wedding.” “You didn’t like my last girlfriend.” “She had dreadlocks, for goodness’ sakes. And she was Igbo and you could hear it when she spoke.” “Don’t start that.” “I don’t have anything against Igbo people. Mrs. Eze is a perfectly charming and—” “Drop it, Mum.” “Well, even if it’s the gardener’s daughter, just bring someone soon. All I ask is she has a degree and knows how to handle a—” He opened the door and got into his car. Disdain from his father and this biting prattle from his mother. Sometimes his one visit a month felt too frequent. “Wait, before you go, how are things at work? You know we can never talk seriously when your father is around.” “Fine, thanks. We’re trying to see how we can monetize our website. Traffic on there is encouraging.” “Just make sure there’s no accident.” “Where?” “In the traffic that you’re talking about.” “Yes, Mum. We’ll try to keep away from accidents.” “You had better, ọkọ mi.” “Your husband is waiting for you inside the house.” “Then hurry up and bring our wife so I’ll stop calling you that.” “I’ll see you soon.” 10 THE PAPER WAS DYING. Advert subscriptions had dwindled since the Journal’s honest coverage of the last election. There had been eyewitness reports of ballot boxes stuffed like birds, bursting with voters that did not exist. Long after civil society voices had fallen silent and President Hassan had been sworn in, Ahmed’s editorials continued to call for a rerun. Eventually they had moved on but the damage was done. No one would advertise in a paper that was rumored to be unpopular with the First Family. In a way it was flattering. It meant the politicians in Abuja were reading. president calls for national day of prayer: this was the headline his editorial team believed would turn their fortunes. “But it’s not news,” Ahmed had said in that morning’s meeting. “We need advertising.” “It’s not news,” he said again. “It’s midweek paper. There’s no news midweek. Just let it pass. His boys will see it. They’ll start buying our pages. We need a positive story about the president.” “And when you find one, we’ll publish it.” Prayer was all the recommendation he heard for Nigeria these days. For every crisis, eyes were shut, knees engaged, heads pointed to Mecca, and backs turned to the matter at hand. He did not remember the country being so religious in his childhood. Faith used to be a part of the landscape, glimpsed in wax rosaries and white celestial robes, in wooden prayer beads and the vivid scarves his mother wore when she went to the mosque. None of this obtrusive proselytizing, loudspeakers on every corner, blasting calls to prayer and songs of praise. It showed a certain tolerance that his street in Surulere should boast both a church and a mosque, tolerance from his neighbors, with whom he should have long since banded to demolish both buildings. He had chosen Surulere because it stood in opposition to everything he had known of Lagos as a child. He had grown up in Ikoyi, an island physically and metaphorically cut off from the city, a quivering bubble of privilege that he had burst out of once he returned to Nigeria. Surulere wasn’t quite a ghetto. His street was affluent, with high walls and rosettes of barbed wire, but close by lay a grittier Lagos that on occasion spilled into their world in the form of armed robberies. The few times his mother had visited, she offered the boys’ quarters of their house, done up and ready for him to move in. “You’d never even have to see us. You’d have your own entrance.” “But what of my own pride?” There was always traffic on the way home, as constant as the sunset, a swarm of engines throbbing heat and irritation, the strain of clutch control, poised on the biting point, starting and stopping until his shoulder ached from changing gears. He refused to get a driver, refused at his age to become an oga giving orders to a man who would glance in the rearview mirror when he thought Ahmed was not looking, eyes filled with hate. Once he got home, he ate his dinner over the sink, his fork clinking against the ceramic, the lonely chime of bachelorhood. Then he began an editorial, congratulating the president on his new role as spiritual adviser to the nation. He wrote in his study, a converted bedroom with wood carvings on the walls and an adirẹ cover for his desk. Only a select few were allowed to sing through his complicated sound system. Fẹla he played when the comfortable, cud-chewing life in England began to look attractive. Makeba’s voice was a running stream he slipped into after meetings with the paper’s accountant. And Ndour was his personal gateway into the spirit world, into a trance where ideas moved easily into sentences. There were books everywhere, spines facing outwards, Fanon and Tolstoy, Achebe and Maupassant, piled eclectically on top of each other. It was the study of a modern Pan-Africanist, a room that Nkrumah would have relaxed in, he liked to believe. The rest of the flat was spacious and bare. It would have been minimalist in England, a glass coffee table, a white sofa, a pine chair, and a long flat-screen TV. In Lagos, the room looked like a cell. A cleaner came once a week, sweeping, mopping, and polishing, down to the security bars on the windows. Only the study was out of bounds. He sometimes wished for a woman to interrupt his work and drag him to bed. He had found many women to sleep with in Lagos but none to split his life down the middle for. He ruled out the mercenaries fast, women who approached men like prospectors, striking for rent money, fuel money, weavon money. As for those left, who found his work meaningful and shared his love of black-and-white films, would these slim compatibilities last them forty years? Perhaps his mother was right. He was not looking hard enough. He was too obsessed with his paper. And to what end? He would not bring down the government with the Nigerian Journal. Those days were gone, when newspapermen were feared and hounded and despised and worshipped for their recklessness. When a headline could force a paper underground and audiences risked much to read an editorial. He could no longer be a scourge to the Nigerian establishment but he could be a thorn, a brittle thorn in its buttock. The article on the president was ready. It would run on the weekend. The paper would lose more subscribers. He would run the Journal into the ground before he let it become popular reading in government circles. 11 Abuja CHIEF SANDAYỌ, THE HONORABLE Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, slid up his drooping agbada sleeves and glanced at his Rolex, gifted to him by his late wife, Funkẹ, a twenty-year-old watch, still telling accurate time. Two hours gone already. On the podium, the minister of health droned on, stuck on a slide about malaria prevention. Each minister would give a special presentation to the president in this dome-ceilinged hall with low-hanging chandeliers that caught the sparkle from rings and chains and bangles. The room was cold, the air conditioner set to chill, transporting them to a region where scarves and thick socks were necessary. The president was flanked by his predecessors, four former heads of state, all human rights abusers, lined like sphinxes, inscrutable in their chairs. They had been defanged now, overthrown by one coup or the other, paraded in the capital once a year as “elder statesmen.” Chief Sandayọ turned his eyes to the rest of the room. You could not speak when a minister was presenting, but nothing stopped them from looking, sizing one another up, going over the battle lines in their heads. It was like the polygamous household he had grown up in, except the stakes here ran to billions. His late wife would have mocked him for how fast he had learned to play Abuja politics. He bobbed a greeting to the Senate president, who had just walked in with a cloud of assistants. As well as the ministers, the room was choked with their ambitious aides, men and women in sharp suits. The aides held files for the ministers, they straightened the folds of their clothing, and if necessary, they presented for them, careful to ascribe credit where it was due. Chief Sandayọ had come with two assistants of his own, Harvard MBA and PhD from Warwick. The agriculture minister had brought seven to bolster her. She was a new appointee, rushed into a job she had scarce qualification for. During each presentation, her lower lip disappeared into her mouth, emerging more mangled as Petroleum, Defense, and Tourism gave their reports. Finally it was Agriculture’s turn. “Your Excellencies, Former Presidents of Nigeria, His Excellency the Senate President, Honorable Ministers, Honorable Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, Special Adviser to the President on Performance Monitoring, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, all protocols observed.” She was trembling, her knees touching and untouching like the wires in a faulty cable. Her makeup was bold, provocative even, her lips too red for this hour of the morning. Her fellow ministers were either plain, potbellied men or motherly women, past makeup and seduction. Who had she slept with to get her job? Rumors were flying around already. Sandayọ’s bet was on President Hassan himself. One of her aides stood and whispered to her. “Forgive me, Mr. President. I omitted you in my opening address.” She looked ready to display the contents of her breakfast to the room. “Your Excellency, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Commander in Chief, GCFR—” “Perhaps we will hear from the Honorable Minister of Agriculture another time,” the president said, cutting her off. “My honorable predecessors and your brother and sister ministers will agree that it is not fair to expect a presentation at such an early stage of your new job. Chief Sandayọ, if you will proceed for us.” His ministry, the Ministry of Education, was of little interest to his present audience. A small budget considering the army of teachers, professors, and vice chancellors that fell under his command. Education was of importance only when university staff went on strike, demanding higher pay for their worsening services. Sandayọ breezed through the introduction: observing all protocols, naming all names. The ministry had begun implementation of its five-point agenda on toilet provision in northeastern Nigeria to increase female pupil attendance. The ministry had made a detailed plan of a three-tiered approach to combating the increase in adolescent dropout rates. The jargon came easily to Sandayọ now, each technical phrase linked to another, forming a chain of incomprehensibility that passed as knowledge in front of this crowd. “And what of the Basic Education Fund?” the president asked. “We are beginning a strategic positioning of how best to direct this new resource.” “I have high hopes for you and your team. I hear you have done good things in basic education for the Yoruba people. Now I want you to do the same for the rest of Nigeria.” The president was speaking of Sandayọ’s time in the Yoruba People’s Congress over a decade ago, a time that Chief Sandayọ seldom remembered in the whirlwind of meetings and gala dinners that was Abuja. He had joined the group at the invitation of its founder, Francis Ifaleke, a charismatic, simply dressed man, compelling with no manic fundamentalist air around him, the opposite of all he had imagined the YPC to be. He still remembered the first meeting he attended, brimming with skepticism, ready to walk out at the slightest provocation. YPC members were rumored thugs, gullible in their violence, obsessed with invincibility charms and amulets. He discovered that first night a mini utopia, it seemed, bricklayers and doctors, vulcanizers and bankers all gathered for the good of the Yoruba race. They were committed to education with the zeal of their guide, Ọbafẹmi Awolowo. He had been honored to accept Francis’s offer to become the group’s education officer. That was over fifteen years ago, a time of slimmer waistlines and larger ideals. As he swung the sleeves of his agbada onto his shoulders, he wondered what most of his former comrades would think if they could see him now. 12 “MR. WỌLE ODUKỌYA IS here to see you, sir,” Chief Sandayọ’s receptionist said into the intercom. The ministry waiting room overflowed with teachers, students, widows, pastors, marketwomen, journalists, Student Union presidents, principals sacked for indecency, parents with photos of sons expelled for hooliganism, daughters dismissed for pregnancy. Yet no matter who was in line, Wọle Odukọya must be shown through. Sandayọ knew Odukọya from his YPC days, when the latter had been one of the younger members, flashy but earnest, eager to please. “Great Yoruba people,” Odukọya said when he swaggered into Sandayọ’s office. It struck him anew each time he saw Odukọya how tasteless the man was. Rhinestones glittered down the seams of his agbada and his shoes shone a patent red. Sandayọ did not rise to greet him. Godfather or no, the man was still more than a decade younger than he was. “I hope I’m not disturbing you. The work of a minister is not easy.” People said Odukọya made his money from drugs. He also dealt in philanthropic causes: widows and young girls who couldn’t afford their university fees. People said he slept with them. Sandayọ had wondered what Odukọya would demand for passing on his name to the president. A year had gone by and still no requests, not even for one of the smaller ministry contracts. All the man wanted to do was play this “do you remember” game. “Do you remember when we went for adult education in Kwara and they didn’t want us to enter because some of the women were wearing jeans?” With the YPC, Sandayọ had set up classes in village clearings, evening schools for city workers, language courses for the culturally estranged children of the rich, children like his son in America who stumbled over the simplest of Yoruba phrases. He had not known himself to be an organizer or a public speaker, gifts hidden from him and all who knew him. “I was speaking to Mallam the other day about giving my friend an oil block.” Mallam was their code name for the president. “I know Mallam wants to give him, but that witch he married is stopping the deal. Between the First Lady and the new marabout Mallam has hired, I don’t know who is running this country.” “There’s a new one?” Odukọya often let titbits like this fall; gossip swept up from the corridors of Aso Rock. “Yes. The old one’s prophecies were not big enough. This one has predicted that Mallam will win his second term and he will be honored internationally when his tenure is up.” “Wouldn’t that be nice.” “Abi. But on a serious note, Chief, Mallam is expecting big things from you.” “Is that so?” Sandayọ’s exploits had not been scalable. He had found himself at the head of a body paralyzed with bureaucracy, almost laughably so, his orders reaching their destination months after being issued, replies reaching him after a year. He could not find his way to the field of illiterate Nigerians he was supposed to educate, his path blocked by strategy meetings and PowerPoint presentations. “OK, let me leave you to all these papers,” Odukọya said. “Yes, I must return to them. Greet your family.” Odukọya’s visits always left Chief Sandayọ with contempt for President Hassan, a man in the pocket of his simpering, vindictive wife. After winning a suspect election, the president now wished to play the reformer on the global stage, desperate for foreign money to flow into the cracked pipes of local industry. Mallam’s newest World Bank–approved plan was the Basic Education Fund. Ten million dollars to improve literacy at primary level. Ten million dollars to leak through the bureaucratic holes in his ministry. The fine teak detail of Sandayọ’s table was hidden by a forest of paper, trees pulped and bleached into minutes, memoranda, appendices, and addenda. If you bribed his receptionist, she would place your file near the top. In his early days as a minister, he had thought pressing matters were being hidden by this system. He would choose from the bottom, from the middle, from the folders that did not make it to his table and were left in a column by the door. Only to discover that in one way or the other, these crisp sheets were asking for access to ministry money. No matter how innocuous the heading, the end was always the same: funds. Next, an application for a fifty-man delegation to Scandinavia. The Norsemen had the best education these days. The trip would be all expenses paid. Stipend large enough for tribute: handbags, perfume, et cetera. His permanent secretary had signed her approval. He wrote his signature under hers and began gathering his things. He was scheduled to attend a gala that evening. He would make a quick dip into the hum of the hall, champagne slopping into wineglasses, young carnivorous women flitting around in semitransparent silks, an excitable MC announcing his entrance, bland food, expensive crockery, handshakes, backslaps, and then outside again, his ears relieved from the din. Perhaps he would just go straight home. 13 TWO WEEKS LATER, AFTER a meeting at Aso Rock, Chief Sandayọ ran into Senator Danladi, an old friend from university with whom he had never lost touch. Danladi was a career politician who had swung through every level of politics, a democrat, technocrat, and diplomat as the occasion arose. “Have you put on weight?” Danladi asked, prodding him in the stomach. “Have you married a new wife?” Sandayọ parried. “Four is the limit, unfortunately. You really should remarry. Bachelors get up to all sorts in this Abuja. I have some news for you. Walk with me, please.” Aso Rock was a sprawling complex of offices, halls, and private residences for the president, vice president, and their families, heavyset concrete structures with pillars and domed roofing. There were a mosque and a church on site, an imam and pastor always on standby. The buildings were joined by neat gravel, landscaped with shrubs and cut grass, watered every day, even in the dry season. “I am afraid you might be fired soon,” Danladi said when they had wandered behind a Ministry of Transport office. “Where did you hear that?” “I have my sources.” Danladi was a well-known confidant of the president. “Perhaps not fired exactly,” Danladi added, casting around with his eyes. “Cabinet reshuffle. You might get another ministry. You might get something else. Maybe a parastatal.” “It can’t be. Odukọya would have told me.” “Which Odukọya? The drug baron? What does he know about anything?” “He’s the one that recommended me for my job.” “Who told you that? I was the one that mentioned you.” “But the president said it was an admirer from my YPC days.” “I, Shehu Danladi, admired the work you did in the southwest. News of it reached us in Kano, backward and illiterate as we are. Kai. You think it’s only a Yoruba man that can do you a favor.” “Then do me a favor again.” “The president has made up his mind. He can be stubborn when he thinks you want to use your influence to push him.” “Please arrange for me to speak to him, then.” “No. You can’t know of it. I’ve told you so you can prepare.” “I’m not leaving.” “You won’t have a choice, Sandy. My advice: start gathering your papers.” HE CANCELED ALL HIS meetings that day and returned to his mansion, large with small block windows that gave the building a squint. It was an ugly house built on land worth its weight in government contracts. He had little there: a few suitcases, some paintings from his Lagos home, his favorite armchair. It was not his house, only a loan from the government until his ministerial term was up. And yet it could so easily have belonged to him. These things could be arranged, as could all the other suspect perks of being a minister in Abuja. He climbed upstairs to his room. The house was empty, his maid and cook gone God knows where. He did not often return this early. He lay flat on the four-poster bed, staring at the brocade canopy embroidered with birds in flight. His wife would have hated this master bedroom. It was lit by yellow bulbs that glowed garish from the chandelier. Funkẹ had loved natural light so much, she had designed large glass windows for every room of their house in Lagos, glass windows that had to be covered with metal sheets at night, except for the window of their bedroom, a single bulletproof pane that let her watch the sun rise. He certainly would not wait to be fired. He would return to his well-lit Lagos home with his suitcases and his armchair and his paintings especially. On the wall hung his favorite Grillo, an indigo long-necked woman, her gele opening like petals around her inscrutable face. It reminded him of Funkẹ when they first met: the elegant, almost scrawny neck, the flamboyant clothes, the pervading mystery in everything she said and did. If his wife were alive, he would never have taken this job. She hated Abuja with its sterile parks and lit-up avenues, wide freeways that led nowhere. And behind this ordered, meticulous cleanliness, the most unjust, most grotesque, most perverse of transactions. No, Funkẹ’s puritan sensibilities would not have withstood the capital and he would not have come without her. Theirs, in the beginning, had been a fairy tale. The village boy from Ikire; the Lagos girl with no concept of lack. She had not been the most beautiful but she had embodied his aspirations with her foreign education and the English surname he almost regretted her exchanging for his own. And then she had some sort of experience in a church, a vision, a blinding light, an angelic visitation that had changed her. Stopped drinking. Stopped swearing. Begun building celestial houses, four-story mansions in the sky. It was partly why he had been driven to the YPC, where the goals were more solid. Their marriage had broken down long before he buried her but they had never lived apart. No matter how far he strayed, Funkẹ remained under his roof, a pious, holy, chanting talisman. He would return to the house she had designed at the height of their love for each other, a mansion charming in its unevenness. Let them keep their Abuja. He was going home to Lagos. 14 Between Bayelsa and Lagos THE HEADLAMPS SHONE ON an empty highway, the driver barely dropping speed as he swerved around potholes. Chike felt safer watching the road. When a bump appeared, he pressed his foot on the bus floor. When they swung around a car wreck, he tilted his head to the left, his reflexes joined to the driver’s. On either side the forest crowded, the arc from the front lights brushing its outermost branches. All around him was the rhythm of sleep. Gradually, as the driver did not fail and no accident befell them, the road began to lose interest. He brought out his pocket Bible and the emergency flashlight he always carried with him. The book slid open to the Psalms. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. How easy it was to appropriate these words and twist them into something personal. The snare was the army. The fowler was the colonel. And the bus, where did the bus feature in this nest of metaphors? The men of his platoon would have been interrogated by now. He hoped they had returned to base before reporting him missing. Not just for his sake. They would need a story with details they could all remember. Even if questioned separately, they would not budge. Or so he hoped. It was misplaced concern. He should have stayed to challenge Benatari and add his corpse to the body count in the Delta. He turned off his torch and put the Bible away. How long till Lagos? It was like London, they said, everything was new and expensive. Big cars, models you would never see anywhere else in Nigeria. Large houses. Money everywhere. And under these fantastic stories of riches, always a layer of unease: of daylight robberies and mysterious disappearances. The woman beside him no longer breathed evenly. She gave no other sign she was awake. Her arm remained resting on his, where it had fallen in her sleep. She was crying, he realized. “Excuse me, is everything all right?” Chike asked. “I thought everyone was asleep.” “Do you need a light?” “I’ve found what I’m looking for.” She blew her nose softly, the mucus sliding out in a rasp. He laid his head on the window again and watched the road. A few moments later, she began to cry again. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you?” “I’m tired but this man’s driving won’t let me sleep. And I checked before getting on the bus. He looked responsible. How am I going to manage till Lagos?” “Will it be your first time in the city?” he asked. “No, but I can’t wait to arrive. I tire for this Niger Delta. It’s so dangerous these days. Once you step out of your house, you’re afraid. If it’s not kidnapping, it’s armed robbery or assassination.” “Yes,” Chike said. “It’s becoming something else. I hope you don’t mind my asking, but if I was trying to find somewhere reasonable to stay in Lagos, where would you advise?” “You can try Ojota or Ketu. That’s around where I’ll be staying. I haven’t even told my cousin I’m arriving tomorrow morning. I called her number but it’s not going through.” “Do you have an address?” Chike asked. “Yes, of course. I just hope she won’t turn me away.” “I’m sure she won’t.” “Why are you so sure? Nobody knows I’m going to Lagos,” she said, her voice suddenly cracking in a sob. “I’m running away.” Chike was the one who had drawn her out into conversation and now he wished he had left her to her tears. “My husband beats me. Often. My mother said I should prepare his favorite soup for him, ofe nsala with plenty stockfish. My brother says I should beg him. They’ve all told me to stay. Stay so the police can discover my dead body.” She blew her nose, a loud snort rushing into her tissue. “Softly o. No injure yourself,” the driver said. “Instead of him to focus on what he’s driving. I’m going to feel very embarrassed tomorrow. I wish I could make you forget everything I’ve said.” “I can tell you my own secret,” Chike said. “Grown man like me, I’m scared of Lagos.” “Why? Because there are too many Yorubas?” “And how do you know I’m not Yoruba?” “You just have this Igbo look about you. And anyway, what’s a Yoruba man doing in Bayelsa if he’s not in the army?” How had she guessed, Chike wondered. Was there something about him that spoke of death? Over a decade in the military not so easily disguised by plain clothes? “As for me,” she continued, “the first time I arrived in Lagos, stepping down at the motor park was a shock. I grew up in the east, so to have everybody crowding around you, speaking this language you don’t understand, I fear o. Somebody can sell you in the market, you won’t know.” “I speak enough Yoruba, but Lagos just has this reputation.” “Armed robbers. Ritual killers. Drug dealers. It’s like that and it’s not like that. I always enjoy my visits. There’s something always happening there. Ngwanu, let us sleep. You don’t want to be tired when you get to Lagos. Good night.” “Thanks. Good night.” Chike put his temple on the window and continued to watch the road. A year ago, he would never have believed he could leave the army, so set was he in the routine of military life. Yet here he was on his way to Lagos. He was not too old to adopt and adapt new methods. There was a new life waiting for him in Lagos. He would make his way. II Monday Morning in Lagos 15 Lagos bus parks attract an assortment of individuals. There are those who wish to make honest money, lifting bread and bananas to the newcomers as they fall out of buses; charging prices that would make black skin blush. Those who wish to steal from the arrivés, offering to carry bags and promptly disappearing. And of course those who are there solely for entertainment: to chase a thief, to fetch petrol for burning if the thief is caught and to fall into any diversion that comes their way. As for the newcomers, two types only: a JJC with a destination and a JJC whose ambition saw no further than reaching the city. At first, they are indistinguishable. They both study the bus park with a dazed expression, taking in the hawkers with large trays of groundnuts wobbling on their heads, the young boys walking aimlessly in groups. Lagos is no different from anywhere, except there are more people, and more noise, and more. But when they are done marveling at the sameness of it all, one type continues on his way and the other remembers that he has nowhere to go. —Nigerian Journal editorial CHIKE HAD SLEPT FITFULLY and yet even in that shallow surface sleep, his dreams had been violent, of hands clutching him from behind, of being buried under a wall of water, eyes fixed on a sky that was burning. There was a time he looked for symbols in his dreams, oneirology of the most absurd kind. The phase had ended when he found himself pondering over a recurring bucket. The bucket meant nothing, as it would have meant nothing if he had seen it when awake, broken and disused on the side of the road. He knew these memories of Bayelsa would gradually recede and then disappear from both his conscious and subconscious. When he killed his first man, in Jos, he had thought the image of the man jerking backwards, blood pouring from his mouth, would never leave him. And now, years later, the features were indistinct, blurred into caricature. He remembered a bald head and a large scar on his cheek. Or perhaps that was the second man he killed. Memories were deceptive. The woman from last night was awake but she had not spoken to him. They had smiled at each other at the filling station in Ọrẹ, her top teeth resting attractively on her bottom lip. Their approach to the city did not interest her. She stared down at her lap, ignoring the billboards that welcomed them to Lagos. Bournvita Welcomes You to Lagos: the Center of Excellence. WELCOME TO LAGOS. PAY YOUR TAX. EKO O NI BAJẸ. Welcome to Lagos. Stuck in Traffic? Only One Station to Listen to: Rhythmic 94.8 FM Who would he be in this new city? His experience would be of little use here. When the bus slowed in traffic, he had scanned ahead for an ambush, a useless precaution now. The sun was rising over the city. People were already amove, dashing across the expressways in their office clothes, hurdling over cement barriers and dashing to safety again. Women in bright overalls sprouted like fluorescent lichen along the highway, sweeping dust into piles blown away by rushing traffic. There were roadside saplings planted at precise intervals, a regimented attempt at beauty. Near the state boundary, they passed three statues, white stone men in flowing robes, their fists clenched, their heads covered with square caps. The men stared away from the city towards the newcomers, menace in their stance. “Who are they?” Chike asked the driver. “We call them Aro Mẹta. The three wise men of Lagos.” “What are they saying?” “Shine your eye.” OMA CLIMBED DOWN FROM the bus a step behind the man from last night. Her husband would be looking for her by now, going through the rooms in their house, opening and shutting drawers, locking and unlocking doors. He would call her brother and her mother, then he would call her “friends,” that tight circle of wives whose husbands were professionals in Yenagoa. Her husband, I.K., loved her, in the way you loved expensive shoes, to be polished and glossed but, at the end of the day, to be trodden on. He would never believe she would dare board a bus to Lagos and sit beside a strange man with their legs touching. Yesterday, she had woken up beside her husband, planning to spend her morning in the salon. I.K. liked her to look a certain way, hair curled, eyebrows shaped, and skin the color of building sand. She served his breakfast of steaming yams, body-temperature eggs, and a glass of watermelon juice, blended minutes before I.K. sat down. At the door, he had noticed his footprints from last night, dark tracks she had not yet mopped away. “You sit at home and do nothing. At least you can make sure this place doesn’t turn into a pigsty.” As he walked towards her, she thought, He’ll be late to work and in the evening, that’ll be my fault too. When he was gone, she spat out the blood, a red trickle she rinsed carefully from the basin. Then she arranged her possessions in the bag that now sat on her lap, brushing against the stranger from last night. “Brother Chike, good morning,” a young girl said when they disembarked. She was filthy, almost deliberately ungroomed. I.K. would have sniggered at her matted hair and clothes smeared with dirt. There were two other men with this Chike. “Good morning. I hope you slept well. I didn’t introduce myself yesterday. I’m Chike.” “Ifeoma. But everyone calls me Oma. What are you doing now?” “Taking my friend Isoken home.” “You know what. My cousin may not be awake yet. Maybe . . . I was thinking that . . . I said that I would help you find somewhere to stay. How about I follow you to drop Isoken, if the place is not too far, then I’ll show you a good area.” “I don’t want to disturb your plans.” “Not at all. I need to be doing something while I’m waiting for my cousin.” On the strength of a midnight conversation, Oma trusted this man who did not know enough of Lagos to threaten her. Better to walk with Chike than remain in the bus park until touts began to circle her. They boarded a bus, a metal carcass on wheels with a floor like a grater, coin-size holes through which you could see the road streaking by. She would find a space for herself in this city. Even if her cousin should turn her away, Lagos was big enough. “Owa,” the girl said. The bus slowed for them to disembark. I AM AN ORPHAN. The thought came unbidden to Isoken as she stood in front of her apartment. The door was worn with age and termites. Termites were of the Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Arthropoda Class: Insecta Subclass: Pterygota The syllabus had not demanded you know past phylum but she had crammed it all anyway. Isoken: the virgin geek, sat with her legs crossed because she wanted to marry a suit man, read her textbooks because she wanted to be a pharmacist, invent drugs, and name them after herself, Edwina, her Christian name. “Is this the place?” Chike asked. “Yes.” She was still wearing the jeans that the villagers thought an abomination, that her mother said made her bum shoot out, that she wasn’t going to change because some dunces felt a woman shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. If ever men set upon you, you would want to be wearing the tightest trousers in your wardrobe, trousers that stuck to you and cut off your circulation, trousers that neither you nor a stranger could slide off without a struggle. “Won’t you knock?” Chike said. Knocking: a colloquial term for the introduction of the groom’s family to the bride’s. She did not know the origins of the practice. Only that virgins were preferred, fresh ground where no one else had trod. Knocking: present continuous verb for the repeat application of one’s knuckle to a hard surface to produce a rapping sound. The door shuddered, termites scuttling, alarmed and incensed by this assault on their food. “Who is making noise?” It was her landlord running down the stairs in his singlet and boxers. He had made a pass at her once, lunging for her chest, missing and squeezing the flesh over her rib cage. “My parents’ number, Mr. Alabi.” “Is that why you’re disturbing everyone? And you can’t greet? You see somebody in the morning and is that the first thing you say?” “Good morning, sir,” Chike said. “As you can see, the girl is in distress. She’s been unable to locate her parents.” “And who are you?” “A friend of the family.” “You said her parents are missing. I thought they all traveled together. Wait, I will bring my phone. You will find them. Stop crying.” Her parents’ number did not go through on Mr. Alabi’s phone. If they were alive, they would be crying too, secreting salt water from their lachrymal glands. Her parents did not know the word “gland” nor “lachrymal” nor “didactic” nor “encyclopedic.” With her mother, she wore her education loosely, but her father reveled in her vocabulary. “Your English can break rocks,” he would say when she dropped a word of five syllables or longer into a sentence. She would imagine a sledgehammer joined to her tongue by a thick artery, grinding anything that stood in its way. “Open the door, let me take my things,” she said to Mr. Alabi. “I would have said you should stay in the house and wait for them, but you know your rent is due.” Her clothes were in a metal chest. She left all her skirts, flimsy things that would betray you. She took her mother’s shoes, worn in the heels but still glamorous. She took her father’s workbox, full of tongs and combs and bright plastic rollers. She slid her hand into the pillow foam and felt the empty space. They had taken all their money to Bayelsa. CHIKE DID NOT KNOW how he had come to exchange the command of one platoon for another. There was Yẹmi, constantly running his mouth, and the girl, on the verge of crying into her rice, and the boy who had somehow attached himself to them, asking to borrow money for his meal. Oma was the only person he did not feel responsible for. She had gone to meet her cousin, promising to return and show them a place to stay. She shook his hand when she said goodbye and it had felt permanent, a small panic rising in him as she walked away. When he saw her on the other side of the road, loose skirt billowing from the rushing cars, he felt the kind of gratitude he had not known since his childhood when his mother shook him from his dreams. “Oma, welcome. If you can just give us directions, we’ll find our way.” “The place is called Tamara Inn. I’m going there too.” “But your cousin—” “She doesn’t live there again. I don’t know her new address.” “A number?” “I foolishly left my phone behind.” They passed through a neighborhood of small businesses and modest houses, the industrial rumble of generators filling the air. Roadside food was there for the foraging, suya skewered and grilling, meat pies trapped in lit-up glass cages, golden nuggets of puffpuff bobbing in vats of hot oil, boli and groundnut to be mashed together in one mouthful. The hotel’s electronic sign flashed from afar, the letters expanding and contracting, restless on the building’s facade. There was no one else in Tamara Inn. The dining room was empty, the TV tuned to CNN at odds with the shabby cloth napkins, folded into collapsing shapes, waiting for guests to shake them free. They would all share one room. Chike and Oma would split the cost. Yẹmi took him aside before he paid. “Which kain thing be this? Maybe she wan’ use us for ritual o.” “She can’t kill all of us at the same time.” “No be joke matter.” They were led to their room by flashlight, single file down the corridor, Chike last in the column, stumbling in the dark. Their room lights were working, thankfully. He noticed the room’s curtains first: a pale yellow that showed the dirt from the countless fingers that had twitched them aside. A concrete view lay behind the mesh of mosquito netting nailed to the wooden window frames. The bed was large enough for three, four with imagination, not that Oma or Isoken would imagine such a thing. Isoken went to the bathroom and locked the door. They heard the gush of running water and then the sound of bathing, rain crashing on zinc. Oma stripped the pillows, baring their lumpy foam bodies. She turned their cases inside out and began to dress them again, stuffing them into their sacks. “Are you going to do that for the sheets as well?” Chike asked. “Should I?” “I don’t know. I was joking.” In the bathroom, Isoken was crying, the sound passing through the door and into the room. “What’s the matter with her?” Oma asked, holding a pillow to her body like a baby. “A difficult time recently,” Chike said. “Well, whatever the matter is, there’s no use crying for so long. We’ve all had difficult times.” She grasped the edge of the sheet and tore it off the bed. “Difficult times are made better with good music,” Fineboy sang. “That’s one of the jingles from Bayelsa Beats, isn’t it?” Oma said. “Yup. I used to work there.” “Really? I’ve never heard of any presenter called Fineboy.” “I did the opening lines. Like: ‘You’re listening to High Life Monday on Bayelsa Beats FM. Don’t touch that dial.’” “Chineke! It’s like the radio is inside the room. Isn’t that marvelous,” she said, turning to Chike. “Yes,” he said. “There are many marvelous things about Fineboy.” “How do you know each other?” “We met while we were working,” Chike said. “You worked in radio as well?” “No. I was a government worker.” “I hope I’m not asking too many questions.” The mattress lay exposed. In its center was a large brown stain, some waste product excreted or blood released, the mark too spread out to be ordinary menses. Blood from a deflowering perhaps, a quaking teenager and his girlfriend, fumbling until they soiled the sheets. Oma began to lift the mattress. “Please come and help me. It’s heavy.” Chike and Yẹmi joined her. Only Fineboy remained aloof on the floor. “Don’t bother,” the boy said when the mattress stood straight, needing only a push to be flipped over. “Why?” “The other side is worse.” Chike walked around and saw the green growth, spiraling in all directions. “You don’t want to see,” he said to Oma. “Let’s just put it back the way it was.” Isoken came out of the bathroom in cleaner, freer clothes and they took their sleeping positions. Women on the bed, men on the floor, Fineboy as far away from the women as possible. CHIKE WOKE UP AT three in the morning, the time ticking on his watch face. His platoon would be on night patrol, creeping through the Delta. “Yẹmi. Are you sleeping?” “Wetin?” “Your family nkọ?” Chike asked. “My mother is dead. My father dey for Ijẹbu.” “Why didn’t you go there?” “I no fit stay for his house. I have junior ones at home he is feeding and work plenty in Lagos pass Ijẹbu. I even get family members for this Lagos. They are useless people. If I visit them, they go say they wan’ help me, that make I come do houseboy work. How I go dey wash toilet for person wey get the same surname as me.” “So what will you do?” “Maybe driver. You nkọ?” “I don’t know.” When the army had offered to sponsor his university degree, so certain had he been that he would always be a soldier, he had chosen zoology out of his interest in animals. And now of what use was his knowledge of the migratory patterns of West African birds? Who would hire him for being able to distinguish a dolphin from a porpoise? Most important, the certificate that could prove his higher education was locked in his trunk in Bayelsa. “I’ll find something,” Chike said. “I’m not worried.” 16 With the UK charity Jobs Plus estimating that more than two million people are unemployed in Lagos, the jobless of this city outnumber the populations of Gabon, Luxembourg, and Kiribati combined. The Lagos State Commissioner for Job Creation, Wasiu Balogun, stated that these new figures were “rubbish lies.” “Jobs Extra, or whatever their name is, should go back to the UK and face their own problems,” he said in an interview granted to the Nigerian Journal. “In their country, jobless people will just sit down at home and be collecting money from government. We don’t have that dangerous system here. Who is really unemployed in Lagos? You might not wear suit and tie but no matter how small, our people will always find something doing. Go to Mile 12 Market; you’ll see boys there washing mud from your feet as you’re leaving. They’re collecting money for that, you know? So they, too, are they unemployed? If a female graduate can’t find any work, she can begin to make jewelries, do makeup, tie gele, and all that stuff. The only thing is all these people are making money and not paying taxes. Maybe that’s why those people are saying they are unemployed. There’s no record of their money.” —Nigerian Journal SOMEONE HAD LEFT HAIRS in the drain. Oma picked out the curly, possibly pubic strands, stark against the white tissue. A bucket stood in the cracked zinc tub. She had grown accustomed to hotels with continental breakfasts and satellite TV, to service on silver trays and in-house dry cleaning. On her honeymoon in Dubai, there had been a king-size bed strewn with dark rose petals, a clichéd touch she had secretly relished. She bathed quickly but carefully, not wanting water to splash back from the walls. She dried her body with her nightie, disdaining the threadbare towels the men had left unused. Her toilette remained unchanged. She had packed lotion, roll-on, face cream, toothbrush, toothpaste, a bottle of perfume, three shaving sticks, changes of underwear, six sets of clothes, and yet no phone. It was a fastidious show of impracticality. She strode out into the room with the scent of lemon under her arms. The men had left but the girl still lay on the bed, the covers pulled over her head. “Isabel, you’re not going to get up today? Isabel, I’m talking to you. You must be awake by now. The bathroom is free for you.” She moved closer. “Isabel, did you hear me?” The girl slid the covering off her face. Her eyes were red and there was dirt on her lashes. “My name is Isoken,” she said, and disappeared under the blanket again. “Not our class,” I.K. would have said after one glance at this Isoken. And it wasn’t just the girl. Chike’s right-hand man could not speak standard English, and the other young man, despite his pretensions, was not quite authentic. She had seen Fineboy’s feet when he came out of the bathroom. Hard with tough skin around the cuticles, his toes irregularly thick, dirt crowded under cracked nails. She did not know where the boy had acquired his accent, but it was not in America. Chike alone did she trust, if only for his strong and gentle manner. He was handsome. I.K., for all his money and expensive clothes, was not. “Monkey in a suit,” her grandmother had said at their wedding, the first time she saw I.K. “For a much younger bride,” her brother’s wife said when Oma was zipped into her snow-white wedding dress, tulle frothing around her, paste jewels sparkling in her ears. “I’m going to find some food,” she said to the shroud on the bed. No reply. Was she expected to feed Chike’s hangers-on as well? In the empty dining room, she looked through the laminated menu. She had grown used to ignoring pr