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An unusually heavy rain had fallen that night and had gradually mellowed into a persistent shower.
Babatunde Aleshinloye swerved into the wide beginning of Allen Avenue and bumped into the fender of a stationary Mercedes 560 SEL. He failed to slow down even as the enraged driver came yelling out of the car. Instead, he shifted to a higher gear and pressed down on the accelerator. He was being reckless, he knew, but he was unrepentant. A man devastated by his self-inflicted failure, he had since shed such minor virtues as caution.
As he drove through the busy traffic, his mind wandered back to those months - seven years ago now - that marked the genesis of his political ambition.
Unquestionably one of the wealthiest men in West Africa, Otunba Ayinde Aleshinloye wielded enormous influence. At twenty-five, he had married Alice Ikeji, the eldest daughter of a rich cocoa merchant, who had borne him two sons, Babatunde and his younger brother, Olabode. Coming from a poor family, Aleshinloye’s fierce ambition and brilliant entrepreneurial gifts had lain redundant for many frustrating years until he met Alice. After her father’s death, she became the source of the initial capital with which he financed his maiden business idea. Within three short years he was a millionaire. Within a decade he was one of the richest men in Nigeria, a shining example of grass-to-grace success. Alice, for her part, was highly esteemed for standing by her husband through poverty and obscurity.
Sometime during the third year of their marriage, Aleshinloye met a beautiful young woman during a business trip to London. It was she who approached him and introduced herself as a Nigerian student
who had heard a great deal about him. She said what a wonderful coincidence it was to be shopping in the same store with him at that moment. Intrigued, he settled her bill and promptly invited her to dinner. After a two-day tour of the most expensive fashion stores in London and a romantic trip to the opera, they embarked on an affair. Before long, he was arranging regular visits to London to see his young mistress.
It naturally didn’t come to him as a shock when, the following year, she announced that she was pregnant. Aleshinloye was ecstatic and bought her a lovely house in suburban Lagos and furnished it with all the conveniences that would soothe any woman’s needs, complete with a BMW in the garage. By and by, Remilekun Davies was delivered of a baby girl, Toun. The chief managed to keep his affair secret for a full ten years until one day Alice received a strange phone call. The caller described himself as someone she knew and told her about her husband’s illegitimate affair and even his schedule. Alice was stunned but now understood the reason for her husband’s incessant business trips. A woman of volatile emotions, she was nonetheless able to calm herself down. Ayinde Aleshinloye was the loving, fatherly type. The possibility of an illegitimate affair was almost unreal.
Tormented by the precariousness of her situation, Alice took a taxi to the address given her by the caller. She saw her husband’s Mercedes as soon as the taxi turned into the street. Just then, she saw the gate of a house open and Aleshinloye stroll out hand-in-hand with a pretty young woman. His other hand rested on the shoulders of a smart little girl. Alice felt a sudden jolt in her heart. The girl’s resemblance to her husband was astonishing. Alice was initially tempted to jump out of the taxi but instead she smiled a queer, painful smile and told the driver to retrace his route. As she turned to look back, she saw her husband kiss his concubine before entering his Mercedes. Never in her entire life had she been so disillusioned.
When Aleshinloye arrived home that evening she called him into the privacy of her bedroom and confronted him. Alice would never forget the shameful look on his face as he confessed to everything. Strangely, he didn’t offer any explanation or attempt to justify himself. He merely told her the truth.
Alice became hysterical. He watched solemnly while she ranted. When she was done he looked at her fixedly and in a few unsentimental words declared his love for Remilekun and his intention to take her as his second wife.
Alice was unable to assimilate what he was saying. It was such a rude awakening after twenty-six years of marriage. She grabbed at his suit and rained abuses on him. Aleshinloye lost all sense of decorum and slapped her.
All through the night Alice buried her face in her pillow and cried. The following morning she moved out of the mansion into an obscure, two-bedroom flat. A divorce was promptly arranged in her favour, although hardly enough to soothe her battered ego or douse her bitterness. She bought a small house in her hometown but when she came for her children Babatunde solemnly requested that he be left behind.
Alice was taken aback but put it down to the boy’s closeness to his father.What she didn’t know was that, small as he was, he was also greedy. He knew the implications of his position as the eldest son of this chief and what an impulsive act might cost him. He was ambitious enough to incur the grudge of his mother and secure his place, knowing that, when the time came, he would make it up to her. Mothers, he knew, were forever.
Two months after the public and very sordid divorce, the chief married Remilekun Davies in a flamboyant ceremony. Although angered by his father’s lack of etiquette, Babatude was outwardly in solidarity with him.
It took another six months before Remi moved into the
Aleshinloye house - a period during which she had secured admission for her daughter in a London school and sent her off to an aunt. Remi was a beautiful, intelligent woman and Babs didn’t have much trouble liking her. However, because he was envious for his mother’s sake, he fought to keep his affection within acceptable limits. Pitching tent with his father was bad enough; monkeying around with his mother’s foe would be plain treachery.
For six years Babs lived with his father and his new wife, visiting his mother and brother occasionally. Gradually he began to win back their love although not their trust. He also never failed to notice the tinge of contempt in their voices whenever they asked how it felt living under the same roof with his mother’s adversary.
During those six years Toun returned to Nigeria only once, which caused her father great displeasure. That Christmas, he warned his wife that should her daughter refuse to come home before the next Christmas he would absolve himself of all financial and moral responsibility for her. Understanding the gravity of the threat, Remi hatched a plan to seduce her daughter back to the shores of her fatherland.
It took Remi another seven months to woo Toun home and the otunba threw an extravagant party to welcome her back. Babatunde watched in amazement how much his stepsister had changed over the years. She had grown into a mature woman. At a little over sixteen, she had the elaborate features of a voluptuous twenty-five year old. During the first fortnight Babs maintained a strict, distant relationship with her, partly because she was spoilt and ill-behaved but mostly because he felt physically attracted towards her, a feeling which he fought with all his strength to contain.
One evening he returned from the university to find Toun alone in the living room watching a classical romance movie. He flopped into a chair and gazed at the television for some time
wondering how odd it was that he was her brother yet he felt nothing for her in that direction. He glanced at her and noticed that her whole attention was focused on the screen, apparently oblivious of him. He almost giggled at the ludicrousness of their brother-sister relationship. Bored by the movie and irritated by her silence, he got up and started for the stairs. What he needed was a cold shower and his bed.
'You wouldn’t want to leave me here all by myself, would you?' Toun whimpered.
If he hadn’t seen her lips move he would have sworn the sound had come from the television. He smiled indifferently. So his little stepsister could talk, after all.
'I could use a shower and some sleep. Why don't you just enjoy the movie? I thought you were doing that before I came in?'
'This happens to be the fourth movie I've seen today. I want to do something different - maybe play a game. What about Scrabble?'
'I told you I want to sleep, Toun. One can't play Scrabble asleep!'
‘Come on, Babs, just a few minutes.’
‘Only if you insist.’
‘Well, I do.’
‘All right, all right, but not until I’ve had a cold shower. I’ll be down in a few minutes.’
‘You won’t have to come down,’ Toun offered. ‘I’ll bring it up to your room.’
Babs hesitated momentarily then, finding no adequate reason to protest, agreed. ‘But give me enough time to shower, okay?’
Ten minutes later, he stepped out of his bathroom to be met by the cold breeze of the air-conditioner and the unmistakable smell of marijuana.
Toun was sitting Arabian-style on the thick carpet on the bedroom floor, arranging the Scrabble pieces and pulling leisurely at the base of a deftly wrapped joint.
Babs went to a corner of the large room and, shielding himself with the doors of his wardrobe, slipped into a pair of jeans. As he settled before Toun and held his tile-rack, she offered him the smouldering joint.
‘What gave you the impression that I smoke?’ Babs asked defensively.
‘Your eyes,’ Toun said with confidence. ‘Come on, cut out the bullshit.’
With a shy smirk on his face, Babs dragged expertly. Meeting each other’s eyes, they smiled in solidarity.
‘Not bad,’ Babs said in a husjy voice. ‘Yeah,’ Toun nodded.
The game was slow. Toun took her time and Babs was reluctant to hurry her up since he had a comfortable lead. Toun, however, didn’t seem to be paying much attention to scoring points. She lost several turns at a stretch as she gambled for tiles which she would later arrange to form such words as ‘kiss’, ‘caress’, and so on. Initially, Babs sensed a peculiarity in her choice of words but, observing the seriousness on her face, was forced to dismiss them as mere coincidence, although some faculty in his mind told him these words were several coincidences too many. He found himself smiling ambiguously when Toun played her next word, ‘rut’, and, in return, she pulled a sly smile. He played his turn and, as he waited again for Toun to make up her mind on her next lewd word, he closed his eyes and fell into a weed-induced sleep.
A kiss on his lips roused him. Before he managed to open his eyes he felt a tender touch on his face and a woman’s body against his chest. And so it all began.
About two blocks from the house, Otunba Aleshinloye was being chauffeured home in one of his limousines. As he pulled delicately on his cigar he allowed his mind to wander over the prospects
of the fax he had just received from Japan and the potential merits of the contact he was about to make. Having earlier directed his secretary to arrange a flight to Tokyo, all he needed to do was collect some of his personal effects before he departed.
As he climbed the mansion’s twisting stairs with the butler he was informed of his wife’s absence. Confirming that his son was home, he decided to leave some instructions regarding vital domestic affairs while he was away. As he strutted along the first-floor corridor he passed Babatunde’s bedroom door and decided to give his instructions to the boy at once.
Ayinde Aleshinloye opened the door to encounter a sight that left him overwhelmed. His honour had never been so violated. Turning around sharply, he continued hurriedly to his room, his body trembling with rage, his face contorted by strange emotions.
Babs scurried out of the room and found his father sitting on the edge of his bed watching his fidgety assistant pack his suitcase. On seeing his son, Ayinde breathed fire.
‘From today onwards I disown you! Get out of my house. Pack your things and leave. I reject you as a son. You’re nothing but a bastard.’
News came from Japan the following week that Ayinde Aleshinloye had suffered a stroke and had been flown to Britain for surgery. Remilekun and her daughter joined him and remained with him for the eight weeks he spent recuperating. On his return, Ayinde Aleshinloye summoned his lawyer and amended his will. Babatunde Aleshinloye was vilified and disinherited, but the scandal was kept within the family and their confidants.
Afterwards, Babs made fervent attempts to see his father and narrate his version of the story. But on all occasions he was turned back at the mansion’s heavy gates. He found himself imagining how much hatred the old man had allowed to foment in his mind. He didn’t try to understand. Why must he be the only one to be punished? How about
Toun? That was when he learnt from one of the gatemen of his stepsister’s version which his father had swallowed hook, line and sinker. At that point, Babs tried to burst into the otunba’s office to recount exactly what had happened that night, not because he cared anymore what the old man thought of him but because he wanted to rip the veil off his ‘maiden’ little sister’s face - for the record. But the old man had given his security staff strict instructions and Babs was physically ejected from the premises.
As he climbed into his car and started the engine, Babs had to suppress a sinister inclination to return in the dead of night and set the building ablaze. Instead, he drove out with a resolve never again to set foot in any of his father’s properties. One sweet day, he vowed, the stupid old freak would plead for reconciliation, but by then it would be too late. On that vengeful day, he, Babatunde Aleshinloye, would be the one to call the guards. The day would come, he assured himself. All he had to do was put himself there.
And that was when Babatunde Aleshinloye began to lay his plans for attaining the most exalted seat of political authority in the country.
The Porsche obeyed its uncouth master all through the busy Allen road and brought him to a halt in front of Club Arcade. Aleshinloye unfastened his seat belt and lit a cigarette. He gazed uninterestedly at the wet pavement in front of him punctuated by an array of empty beer cans. He paid scant attention to the hookers who sought his attention. He smoked his cigarette halfway then flung it into a puddle and got out of the car.
As he approached the club entrance one of the muscled minders recognised him and made way for him. He parted with some
fifties as he went past them into the club to be met by the usual heavy music and frenzied crowd of tipsy, happy youths.
Pushing his way through, he emerged at the back of the club and ducked into an obscure passage under the stairs. At the end of the passage he arrived at a thick mahogany door marked ‘Private’ and rapped sharply. There was a click and the door opened.
‘What do you want?’
Babatunde Aleshinloye was just about to blow his cool when he remembered it had been almost a year since he had come here. The little thug was not to blame. Besides, he knew the protocol of the house. He reached under his jacket and produced his complementary card. A hand snatched it and disappeared, slamming the door behind him. Babatunde Aleshinloye felt unimportant, undignified.
The door opened again. Aleshinloye was frisked by a big black man dressed in a black suit that doubtless harboured a weapon. He was invited in.
‘Sorry for the inconvnience, sir,’ the man said. ‘Necessary protocol.’
Aleshinloye nodded irritably and followed him down a wide corridor dotted by a small army of stern-looking minders. They travelled up a flight of stairs that brought them to a landing with two doors on either side, one of which was manned by two well-dressed men. Aleshinloye was ushered into an enormous office, complete with a sitting area and a conference table.
The albino behind the giant desk rose and took Aleshinloye’s hand firmly. He was six-foot-two and well proportioned. He presented a remarkable sight in his white linen suit and dotted black shirt. Pulling a bright smile, he offered his guest a seat.
‘Babatunde Aleshinloye. Long time,’ the man said.
In the Lagos underworld he was fondly referred to as ‘Admiral’. Aleshinloye was among less than fifteen men outside the organisation who had direct access to him and the only one who knew
his true identity.
‘I heard the news,’ Admiral said. ‘It’s regrettable.’
‘That’s an understatement, Admiral. It’s a disgrace,’
Aleshinloye said sadly. ‘I appreciate your displeasure,’ Admiral said. ‘It’s no great achievement losing an election to that rural mongrel.’
‘I was poised to win,’ Aleshinloye protested, his voice edged with an uncontrolled hatred. ‘He only managed to pull that publicity trick on me. If not for that unfortunate publication, thirteen of his type couldn’t have stopped me.’
‘But it was your deed, anyway. You blundered, as we all do sometimes, and you had to pay for it.’ Admiral reached for a cigar and pushed the box across to his guest. Aleshinloye picked one and fiddled with it subconsciously.
‘He will forever regret pulling that dirty stunt on me,’ Babs raved. ‘He has to pay.’
Admiral blew smoke into the air. By instinct he knew that his slighted guest was about to become a client. But he hated time-wasting.
‘So what exactly do you suggest we do?’
Babatunde didn’t mince words. ‘I want his filthy rural life terminated!’
Admiral wasn’t surprised. It was why people came to him. For over a decade he had controlled an underground cartel engaged in organised crime, from drug trafficking to armed robbery to assassination. The few who knew him feared and respected him. For the majority who didn’t, his military sobriquet was mentioned with a mixture of mystery and awe.
The Admiral’s face was granite-like as he spoke. ‘When do you want it done?’
‘Left to me, I’ll say tonight. But that would make it easy for those bloody police boys to come knocking on my door. So I’ll be
patient and we’ll wait till all this fuzz clears up.’
Admiral nodded assent as he puffed on the cigar. ‘I’ll put my best man on it.’
Aleshinloye hesitated momentarily as though considering the appropriateness of his next statement. ‘I wouldn’t know, Admiral, but maybe I need to speak to this best man of yours personally...’
‘Go ahead,’ Admiral cut in.
‘You mean…?’ Aleshinloye was puzzled.
‘Yes, me, so shoot.’
Babatunde couldn’t hide his surprise. ‘You mean you’ll handle it personally?’
Admiral casually tapped the ash at the end of his cigar into an ivory ashtray. ‘It will be a personal pleasure.’
He lay down his cigar, lifted his left hand and peeled off the black leather glove to reveal a badly mangled appendage. The tissues at the centre of the hand were drawn together in a heavy stitch that was intended to cover a gash in the middle of the palm. The forefinger had been amputated; the remaining digits were spread apart and bent at the tips like an eagle’s claw. It shook uncontrollably as he held it out to Babs. When he spoke, his voice was a cold, sinister drawl.
‘That rural bastard is the cause of this. Twelve years ago I thought I’d done him in. By some miracle he survived. But this time he won’t. He will be feast for the bugs.’
Babatunde stared speechlessly at Admiral, wondering what manner of anger could so easily rob him of his composure.
Dudu - for that was Admiral’s original name - rested back in his chair and pulled lingeringly on the cigar. ‘Now, friend, shall we proceed with the details of this little business? Let’s begin with his full name, Taofeek Olupitan Ogunrinu. Correct?’
As Babatunde leaned forward to answer he knew his job could as well be regarded as done.
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The noise cut through the air with sharp, persistent, crunches; rather like the screeching brakes of a halting train; or any one of a thousand odd sounds that could be conceived in the vilest depths of a torturer’s mind. It came continuously - five every second or so – and it carried a jarring sting down Disun's entire torso, shuddering him out of his distant world of dreams and delight, into the here and now. The angry grunts that emanated from beneath his breath were instant, unrehearsed. The Makoko rats had a penchant for bringing out the worst in people.
Fat, feisty and downright fearless, the ghetto rat was a unique breed. Every morning, the streets were littered with the carrions of those among them that had been vanquished during the trampling of the previous night, succumbed to the ubiquitous mouse trap, or the extra-potent poison fomented in a the vilest depths of a frustrated ghetto mind. Still, many more surrender to the ill-intended bucket of water, or the nimble old man’s foot. Yet, the following night, in spite of the casualties, they would re-emerge from their crevices, and those that made it through the night would live to feed and fight again. Procreate, even. Thus, the cycle of life and death would continue, and Disun would live to bear the brunt.
The rodent must have played an intricate part in the culture of the Yoruba people, judging by the breadth of proverbs and folklore dedicated to it. Disun’s inadvertent lesson in history bore tales of legendary rodents in which the vermin had left its indelible mark. The common house rat, the ekute’le, for instance, was of scant prominence, but the treacherous okete was loathed to have turned around and betrayed its covenant with the Ifa oracle – the custodian of society’s moral fabric. It is ironic, however, that in modern times the same okete could be found on fringe menus, joining the acclaimed mother-of-all-rodents – the Oya – in contention for the ultimate gastronomic treat. Yet, an ancient fable endures of the nut-pilfering ikun’s ultimate demise after continuously failing to heed to the farmer’s warnings.
Indeed, many mischievous children have been reminded not to behave like the eku-eda, with its controversial and inciting ways, and, somehow, the Ologbojo, in spite of its reputation as the king of all rodents, remained elusive and unidentifiable within Disun’s encyclopaedia.
Somehow, the ghetto rat seemed to have broken away from these historical paradigms, and to the mortification of its victims, forged a brand new reputation for itself. This contemporary rodent had evolved into something never before known to man – something extraordinary – a hybrid, perhaps, of all the other species combined, and, by all accounts, a freak mutation, given that only the horrid genes of its ancestors were randomly selected. Whatever strange evolution brought about these mutants, Disun hated them from the core, not least because they had the sole prerogative of waking him up every blessed morning with their agonising crunch.
Somehow, the rats had built a myriad of tunnels in the walls of Disun’s room, indeed, in every concrete block wall in the ghetto, wherever you could find them; and once the rats crept out at night to forage on the snippets of the day’s activities, they often returned to find out – to their chagrin – that their chain of tunnels had been altered. This incessant modification was an obsession of Disun’s father’s, who would set out just before midnight, just about every night, dutifully blocking as many holes as he could with stones, cans, blocks of wood and any make-shift material he could lay his dexterous hands on. Disun would often hear his father swearing along as he went about his rat-track-disruption business.
“Nonsense,” Baba Disun would curse as he forced a myriad of dissimilar objects into the tunnels, one after the other, “Jagbajantus!”
The rats would like to get back on track afterwards – naturally – hence their eternal crunching at the man-made stumbling blocks in the way of their progress. Disun, however, remained at the receiving end of the unearthly noises that resulted from this perpetual struggle between good and evil, as his father – Baba Disun – had always been inclined to term his quest.
In the hierarchy of pain, the sheer agony of the ghetto rats’ crunching was comparable only to the racket that Mama Disun made whenever she ground her Carnation milk cans back and forth on the pavement, wearing off their lids to fashion out the little tin-cups within which her moin-moin paste would be steamed. Now, that was pure torture also, only then, unlike with the crunching rats, there was sufficient break in-between the deafening bouts to grant a human being some respite – Mama Disun’s grinding featured merely once or twice in a year. Over the years, the ubiquitous Carnation tin had become indispensable across the generations of Makoko dwellers prized and despised equally among its dwellers.
Disun opened his eyes halfway, and allowed a few sprinkles of the morning light to shine through. Then he closed them again, knowing that he had a few more minutes to snooze before his father would show up at the door, yelling as though to bring the entire roof down in a disproportionate effort to get him out of bed and prepared for whatever the morning held, be it the routine yard cleaning before school, the occasional mass at the Cathedral down the road whenever Baba Disun was in a light-enough mood to let his wife have her way and take the kids with her to church, or an early set out to Baba Disun’s work on the random weekend or during the holidays.
Today, it was May Day – Workers’ Day – but, of course, Baba Disun was working. When he showed up at the children’s bedroom door, his voice was classically loud, urgent.
“Disun, it’s morning. You had better get your lazy back off the mattress right now or I might have to help you with a sprinkle of water.”
Disun grumbled, eyes still closed, “Yes, Daddy ... Good Morning, sir”
“Good morning. Get up and get set. We have work to do this morning.”
As always, Disun awakened to the thick smell of mosquito coils, camphor and the faint, but distinct, whiff of ammonia from the cocktail of domestic wastewater and bodily fluids streaming past his window from adjourning households. Invariably, Disun bore the full brunt of this stench, since his bedroom window oversaw the communal gutter serving as the fortuitous sewage disposal system for that area. This tingling musk represented the preternatural third step in his wakening regime, after the chipping of the rats and the bellowing of his father.
Disun got out of his bed, an old, naked mattress, lain on a weathered mat that resembled a piece of brown Swiss cheese, with holes gaping from every other square foot, corners bitten off and liquid-stain maps telling a chorographical tale of human accidents that had occurred in the depth of the night, or, perhaps in glaring daytime, over the years, equally in slumber as it might have in the state of reckoning. Disun gazed at his now vacant section of the mattress, tracing the indentation left behind by his departure with tired lustful eyes – if only he had a few more minutes! Next to his bodily landscape, lay his little brothers, Olumide, stark naked, snoring away quietly, peacefully.
The envy on Disun’s face was manifest. That moment, life seemed unfair. While his younger brother got all the sleep that he wanted, he had lost all such privileges. At sixteen, he was already a man by his father’s calculation and had to “earn” his living. He had to work alongside his father and contribute towards the family upkeep. This his father had been drumming into his head since he was nine. Theirs was not a regular family and for their family to survive they must pool their resources. All hands had to be on deck, his father would say, including the innocent, yet untainted pair of Disun’s.
Disun threw a worn Ankara wrapper round his body, crossed its corners at the back of his neck and tied the knot. Then, he stepped into the courtyard that he and his family – by virtue of their two-room face-me-I-face-you accommodation – shared with the other tenants in the one-level, rental complex, or compound, as the residents preferred to describe their small community. Once outside, he was met with the usual flurry of people from within the compound who, just like the Faloduns, were artisans and trades people, and, therefore, cared little, if at all, about the May Day holidays. It was, indeed, a frenzy, and if you still had any illusions about what was planned for the day and if you harboured any notions about going back to the mattress to huddle up under the sheets all day long, the flurry of activities in the compound would help you to focus.
Disun went to their locker among the row in the shared, outdoor kitchen and retrieved his toothbrush and a tube of Pepsodent. He laced his toothbrush with some of the paste, lined up with a group of adults by the communal gutter – the same one that ran by his window – and began to brush his teeth. In line with him was Baba Afe, a middle-aged taxi driver from Ogbomoso, chomping fervently at his chew-stick, spitting here and there, and Wenu, a young bachelor carpenter from Badagry, who was making a guttural, offensive sound, as he dislodged what seemed like a reluctant toad from the pit of his throat.
Disun’s mother was leaving the line as her son was joining it, and they had their ritual, quick morning chitchat.
“Adigun, how are you?” his mother said.
“Fine, Mummy. Good morning ma.”
“Hope the mosquitoes were lenient last night.”
“They weren’t too bad, but the rats were annoying. I have been up since five thanks to their chomping.”
“Pele, oko mi. Not to worry, your Father’s found a new remedy. He got a really potent poison from one of his friends. Those who have used it said it works like magic.”
“I hope it does,” Disun said, knowing that even if the poison was as potent as its reputation proclaimed, it wouldn’t wipe out the entire rat population in the neighbourhood. The damned ghetto rats had no territory, no boundaries – once some succumbed, a new colony instantly took their place.
“I will go and get some akara for you and your father. Once I am back, your pap will take a few minutes, so you had better hurry up so that you don’t keep your father waiting.”
Disun was intrigued by his mother’s plans for breakfast. That, at least, was one upside to the way that morning was playing out. He relished Ogi and akara, especially as Mama Disun only prepared the recipe on special occasions; either the mornings after Baba Disun had brought in a fat wad of currency the previous night, or, on the rare occasions when important relatives from a far-away place had arrived to spend time with them. Every once in a while, it was difficult to make out her motivation for the meal and Disun enjoyed these pleasant surprises the most. In Disun’s private little world, ogi and akara was a la Carte.
The akara was the highlight of the meal, its dry, crunchy crust fried glowing amber in red oil, an occasional dry shrimp sticking out here and there and the unforgiving chilli poised to singe the tongue. The side shows were two, rare cubes of St Louis sugar which took a little sourness out of the ogi and the occasional splash of evaporated milk from a freshly poked tin of Carnation or Peak or Coast or any of the dozen imported brands that the big, multinational trading companies threw at the masses. Disun wondered what ogi would have been like without milk and sugar – pap bereft of these two ingredients, was a culinary crime.
Come to think of it, what was life without milk and sugar, anyway? Really, what was life, without it? Disun and his neighbourhood friends were without toys, for example, until empty boxes of St Louis and empty Carnation tins provided the much-needed medium, with which they engineered cabins and tires and brought their visions of an automobile to life.
And what a commotion the Carnation wheels caused as they rolled down the streets of Makoko, spinning diligently at the base of the St. Louis cabin, conquering sand, stones and the occasional cadaver of a vanquished rat. As a visitor once said, nothing pleased the heart more than the sight of a barely-clad, Makoko kid, tugging along at the end of an owu-ikorun – the thin black hair-plating thread – with which he summons torque and traction to the virtual engine of his toy, achieving motion and manoeuvrability with each tug, and delighting in the merits of his sweat and senses.
Owu-ikorun had its own multiple uses, including summoning torque and traction to yet another inventive ghetto-boy-toy – the paper-or-polyethylene-bag kite. Disun, like many of his co-travellers, partook of the competitive sport of kite flying, each wanting to out-design and out-fly the other by crafting the fanciest and farthest-flying kite.
It was either a race to the top or bottom – which is subjective, depending on whether you were a partaker or an onlooker – and the informal kite-flying competitions had been rumoured to have triggered-off many a neighbourhood feud, with the kids from the one street sabotaging and stealing the kites of the kids from another, usually out of envy. Sabotage was achieved by climbing to the topmost balcony of the tallest building on the path of an alien kite and launching a stringed stone over the kite’s thread. A tangling of threads would summarily ensue, crashing the infringing kite on hostile territory. The array of multi-coloured polyethylene sheets from kite casualties swaying from every meter of the neighborhoods’ electricity transmission lines bore stark witness to this unspoken battle and the Makoko skyline paid the price. Yet the effervescent kids were unperturbed, their budding ghetto spirits insurmountable. The Makoko kid was bereft of glittering battery-powered toys from China or anywhere else in fact, but with a fair share of inquisitiveness, wits and brilliance, they were self-sufficient in their play.
Compared to the silence of the kites, however, nothing pleased the ear more than the rhythm of the Carnation wheels as they spun dependably along the contoured Makoko landscape. Somehow, Disun could not help but wonder why his father and many-a-Makoko-elder, who ordinarily would yell and curse at the emanating from the product of an offspring’s ingenuity, never got it! What better testament to the worthiness of one’s seeds than the genius of the generations that it sires? He wished that he could one day pose that question to the elders.
With the breakfast barely finished, Disun found himself scurrying after his father, the bubbly cocktail of pap and bean balls rumbling in his stomach like magma and rocks beneath the earth. As he jostled after his father, he prayed that this self-induced volcano would fail to erupt.
The first streaks of sunshine were just gracing the young Makoko morning and the azan from the mosque mixed with the fervent prayers and occasional clanging of bells from the neighbourhood churches. In the same vane, fresh offerings to the old deities sat in calabashes and earthen pots at the street intersections. In Makoko, all religions were in harmony, all peoples found a fragile peace. Disun and his father meandered expertly through the dark alleys and as they progressed, Disun took account of the now familiar sights, sounds and scents of their ghetto world.
“E gudu mor’ing o!” Came the throaty greeting from a fat, bare-chested woman, flopped on a stout wooden stool, stirring away at a bowl of the little something that she was always stirring away at about that time of the morning when Disun and his father walked by. She had her side to the alley and she didn’t turn to look at them. But through some extra-sensory perception of hers, she always knew when they walked by.
“Good morning, Iya Abe.” Disun’s father replied. “How are the children?”
“Alaafia,” Iya Abe said. “E maa ya’se o.”
“Thank you. Till dusk.”
Disun wondered for a minute why Iya Abe would never put her clothes on.
Next door to Iya Abe, Caroline, the lanky young daughter of the neighbourhood thrifts-master was sweeping the fallen leaves of a Dogonyaro tree, and a few yards away from her, an old woman splintered wood. Alhaji – the neighbourhood butcher – nodded an off-beat response to Baba Disun’s greetings, looking away briefly from his ablution as father and son trotted by; and, just then, Disun was quick to duck a paper missile whizzing past his ear, courtesy of Bajo, his school mate and a little neighbourhood rouge. Disun smiled, looked over his shoulders and snapped his fingers in an encrypted threat that foretold great reprisal. Bajo smirked in defiance, returning a retaliatory finger snap. With their coded bartering of threats, a mini friendly-feud had thus ensued.
Finally, Disun and his father emerged in a wider alley at the end of the thoroughfare, into the semi-openness of the Makoko Main Road – essentially, the only proper street in the entire area, and, by far, the widest and longest of them all. Arguably, Makoko Main Road is the only street in the area, period. The others were narrow alleys at best, terminating abruptly at the feet of a compound gateway, or in submission to the boundaries of one of the many accidental foodstuff markets that blighted the area. One way or the other, these timid fake-streets never prevailed, their journeys suffering a humiliating end at the instance of a more formidable form, be it an obdurate yard, or a mushrooming pseudo-market. This architectural race to the bottom was in essence a perpetual war-game, some sort of a construction jigsaw-epidemic, consuming all relics of nature in its path, and, having exhausted the generosity of nature, turning eventually upon itself. With the unexpected rush of light and the sudden sense of orientation, bursting into the main road resembled an entry into a clearing in a jungle. In any event, that could explain the jungle sobriquet with which the ghetto was often described – the other being the predatory food chain that these unnatural habitats fostered.
Father and son meandered through the storm of people, animals and vehicles, struggling, as they would inevitably have to do, to hear their own voices through the barrage of deafening noise. Then, suddenly, it hit them like an ewe’s below to its lamb.
“Obalende! Obalende, ten Naira!”
If a typical man’s voice could be compared to the sound of a brand new salon car, cruising down an avenue on a fine Sunday morning, at its peak, the bus conductor’s – coarse, gritty and downright belligerent – mimicked a gravel-laden thirty-tonne truck, grinding up a steeply incline.
His raspy bawl simulated the sound of a thousand frogs, croaking in unison, his decibels, alone, bore forensic evidence to a weed-smoking, paraga-sipping, bitter-kola chewing decade, coupled with a culture of shouting oneself hoarse on a day-to-day basis.
“Obalende! Obalende, ten Naira!” Each bellow sprung forth with the volume of molten lead, coloured with a burnt-orange tinge of rusty steel. A thousand decibels, or so it seemed, or felt, since you could actually feel its vibration on your skin if you happened to be in close proximity.
But, as offensive as it might have seemed, that was the sound they were waiting for. Disun and his father scampered through a frantic crowd into the Molue and made themselves comfortable at the front, right behind the driver and next to a pile of vegetable leaves squatted splat on the spluttering lorry-engine and heading for the market.
Disun leaned away from the dirty, wet sacks of steaming vegetable beside him and settled against the mass of a middle-aged market woman to his right. Though only a few miles, the journey to Victoria Island though CMS in the shimmering early-morning sun and blaring car horns would take an hour. A coalescence of obnoxious scents reeked through the sweltering cabin of the Molue, jarring up Disun’s senses and, as it always did, unsettling him. The soft body of the benign market woman and the faint fragrance of her mentholatum gave much-needed succour from the hot, bumpy, fusty hour ahead.