NUWAMALABO a short story

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Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature

~ George Bernard Shaw

“Masquerades are dead people who came back to be with their relatives,” Nuwamalabo, my cousin said with a mischievous grin on his face as if there was a secret he knew that I didn’t. He was my favourite cousin and a daredevil, he often got us in and out of trouble and was always running clandestine errands for young adults and the elders in the village, and for that; they let him into the spirit world where some dead people turned into masquerades and came back to their loved ones. They said Nuwamalabo was far too old for his age, they said  an old soul dwelled in his eleven year old body, they, also, said he was the re-incarnation of  the oldest man that ever lived in our village.

“You mean you see dead people when you go into that shrine?” I asked, imagining all sort of things in my little mind.

“Yes, I saw all our dead relatives and they are all alive in the spirit world,” Nuwamalabo said.

“And you are not afraid of them?” I asked.

“No, when you are in their world and they recognize you as their relative from the physical world, they welcome you with open arms.” Nuwamalabo said.

I was completely mystified because Nuwamalabo was about my age or a year older, and I thought there was something morbid about him and the village. I swore I would never be part of anything that would take me to the land of the dead. I was wrong.

My mother brought me to the village to meet and know some members of our extended family; she said it was important, she said I was a toddler the last time we visited. In the village, I discovered I had so many aunties and cousins and nieces. They called me “City Boy” and marvelled when I told them about my father’s black and white TV and Big bird and Elmo and Ernie from Sesame Street

“But how is it possible for people to be living in a box?” Nuwamalabo asked.

“I don’t know.” I said.

“He is lying.” Nuwamalabo said, and that turned into a fight and our Uncle, Shaka-Jabari intervened.

Uncle Shaka-Jabari was a man of gentle disposition and few words. Maybe it was because he stuttered when speaking. He was about twenty years or so then and kept very much to himself. Everybody said Uncle Shaka-Jabari was the strongest man around. Some said he was twice the man every other man in the village was and partly the reason Nuwamalabo was dare-devilish, because whoever dared to touched Nuwamalabo, faced the full wrath of the gentle but ruthless Uncle Shaka-Jabari. There was something mysterious about the man; he was always going out at nights with some strange people who came to my grandpa’s compound to look for him.

“The Warrior” the strangers would call out and Uncle Shaka-Jabari would come out in his usual taciturn and unassuming manner. There was plenty of respect and fear on the faces of the men who came to fetch him in the dark, before leaving, Uncle Shaka-Jabari always called Nuwamalabo aside to discuss something Nuwamalabo never discussed with me, Nuwamalabo said I was still a boy and there are things boys shouldn’t know, then we argued about who was older and he called me a city softie and I called him a bush boy and we quarrelled and settled there and then. Then one night those strange faces came under the cover of the night and disapeared with uncle Shaka-Jabari. Nuwamalabo and I joined our mates on the moonlit village playground, moments later, there was a strange and shrill voice that sounded from afar but echoed in the ears of everyone in the village. It was not a human voice, but it spoke in human language.

“The people from the great beyond are here!” someone screamed, and there was pandemonium under the glistening moonlight as we all ran from the playground, but the daredevil, Nuwamalabo remained and was laughing at us. I ran into our compound and the women and children had all disappeared behind closed doors leaving my grandpa who was rocking himself back and forth in his chair and humming a gentle tune to himself unperturbed by the approaching eerie voice of the dead  

“Father,” Grandpa called me “You don’t have to run like everybody else, you are almost a man now,” he said, he called me father because he said I bore a striking resemblance to his father

“Where is my mama!?” I screamed, she was the only one I felt I could be save with that moment

“A man is not supposed to run to women for protection,” my grandpa said.

“But that thing is coming!” I cried out.

 “Don’t be afraid, spirits pass only the main roads at night,” grandpa said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Of course I’m sure,” my grandpa said.

“Why do there pass the main road grandpa?” I asked.

“Because they come out exactly the way they were when they were alive,” my grandpa said, and asked me to be quiet and listen to what the spirit was saying. I sat quietly beside him as the spirit spoke, but I could not make anything out of what the spirit was saying. I was afraid of the dead

“The spirit is here to settle a dispute that happened earlier in the day between one man and his wife.” My grandpa said.

“Spirits see people when they quarrel?” I asked.

“Yes, they are always watching us, they wants us to live in peace,” Grandpa said, and added that our ancestors want us to observe the customs of the land, and the people, he said, are careful not to incur their wrath. He said it was the White man that brought his God and built churches in our land that brought confusion to our people. That night, as my grandpa later told me, the spirit warned sternly that no one should go against the words of the ancestors. When the spirit finally went back to where it came from , women and children found their voices again and normal life returned to the village and I left my grandpa to see my mother

“Mama did you hear the voice of the dead man’s spirit?” I asked.

My mother was reading the bible and she stopped to pay attention to me

“I did, but you know we don’t believe in the spirit of the dead, have you forgotten what you were taught in your Sunday school?”

“No mama.”

“Whose voice were you told in church to listen to and obey?”

“The voice of Jesus mama,”

“What did Jesus do for you?”

“He died on the cross of Calvary for my sins Mama.”

“Thank you my child” my mother said, and pulled me close and told me not to believe in the spirits of dead ancestors and masquerades. She said Jesus had been made a sacrificial lamb for all my sins and I must not eat all that was offered to idols or ancestral gods; she said all those that do not believe in Jesus would die and go the hell. 

“Nuwamalabo and grandpa would go to hell mama?” I asked.

“That’s what the Bible says unless they repent and become born again.” my mama said.

Then she open the bible and told me the story of Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel who defied the command of the King of Judah, by refusing to eat foods that were offered to idols and gods by the king, she said the boys were thrown into the fire but they were not harmed because God was with them

After that story I refused to eat the chicken and goat meat that were offered to the gods of the land and ancestors, not because God was watching, but because my mother was watching, but the thing about the village that I liked, gods or no gods, was that everything was fresh and natural. The vegetables were fresh from the garden. Fishes were caught straight from the river. Palm wine was tapped fresh from the palm tree. Mango, orange, coconuts, papaw all fell fresh from trees. The water we drank was from the spring and we swam in the river after farm. The air was fresh and cool. Life was beautiful in the village, but one day, like Nuwamalabo, I too was taken into the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the ancestors and to see how they turned into masquerades and came back to the world to their living relatives and loved ones.

It was on the day of the worshiping of the gods and ancestral sprits, distant relatives came from far and wide to take part in the ritual of the cleansing of the land and to ask the gods to allow for a bountiful harvest and ward off evil spirits and protect the people from diseases and misfortunes. That day, my mother went to church and asked me not to go anywhere near those Idol worshipers, but I defied her, she has too much soft spot for me, my father was the one I couldn’t go round, but he was far away in our home in the city. The village priest came out to a thunderous ovation from the crowd that waited to see him in his glory, and he responded by waving to the crowd in acknowledgement. He poured some liquid on the ground and made what they said was libation to the gods and ancestors and chanted incantations to them. Moments later, a little girl that was clad in white apparel came out and someone said she is the priestess  and had the power to commune with the dead on behalf of their living relatives. The person also said she was a virgin and her name was Aminata. Aminata entered the shrine with the priest and some elders and came out later to pass messages from the dead to their living relatives, some of whom broke down in tears on hearing the news from the great beyond. There was the spirit of oneness and common bond amongst the people as they shared their sorrow and joy together. But it was the big masquerade that caught my attention when it came out in all majesty and grandeur. The people went wild in delirium. It was as if a spirit had possessed the entire village. The elders and young men danced and rallied round the big masquerade and women and children sang praise songs from afar. I was spellbound as I watched from the side of the women and children. Nuwamalabo was right in front of the masquerade and was dancing with the men and elders and I felt there was something eerie about the way they danced around the big masquerade.

Then I saw a woman crying and wailing as she walked towards the big masquerade and the masquerade danced towards her but paused when she got closer and looked at her with some kind of sombre expression. They said it was her late husband’s spirit that came back to her as that big masquerade. As I ran around trying to get a better view of what was happening, my grand pa saw me and beckoned to me to come. I was afraid and hesitant, but somehow I took some sluggish steps towards him. Grandpa said it was time I stopped running and he asked me to follow him. I refused, but he insisted and assured me that nothing would happen to me; I followed him in fear as we queued with the others behind the masquerade. Later when the masquerade had finished the rituals and returned to the spirit world, my grandpa said it was about time I visited the spirit world and see how dead people turned to masquerade and came back to the world 

“No!” I protested, trying to run away

“Don’t you want to be a man?” Grandpa asked.

“What?” I asked, almost passing out

“Don’t you want to be a man like Nuwamalabo?” Grandpa asked.

“Yes, I want to be a man.” I said with a bold face but scared stiff within me. I wanted to get on even with Nuwamalabo. I was fed up with him taunting me to be a little boy. I followed my grandpa as he took my hand and led me towards the shrine. I was terrified as some of those who were already initiated into the world of the dead fixed their eyes on me and I wondered why they were so relaxed and not in the least afraid of the dead

“City boy is going to visit the ancestors!” someone said.

“Is he not too young to be initiated?” another person said.

“No he is of age” Grandpa said.

We entered the inner chamber of the shrine and I imagined that the ground was going to open and we would descend into some abyss where we would be in total darkness and the spirit of dead people would be all over us, but all I saw in the inner room of the shrine was the familiar faces of boys and men I saw in the village. Was I living among the dead? I wondered as some of the boys were busy removing the clothing on the masquerade, layer by layer, I was tensed but everybody around me was chuckling and looking at me, my grand pa too chuckled when he saw the horror in my face, and when the clothes were removed and the mask on the supposed dead man came off, I saw a human face, but it was not a dead man’s face, it was a face that I was very familiar with. It was Uncle Shaka-Jabari’s face. 

“City boy!” he said, smiling and sweating

“Yeeees” I managed to say trembling

“Look at me and don’t be afraid…what’s my name city boy?” Uncle Shaka-Jabari asked. 

“Masquerade!” I said, my voice was shaky and everybody around me, including my grandpa, let out a guffaw. Then they let me into the secret and the conspiracy by the elders in the village.

“Masquerades are mere mortals like you and I, we are the masquerades,” Grandpa said, and then he added that it was a secret handed down to them by their forebears and kept away from the uninitiated and women and children. He said if I divulged the secret to those that were not suppose to know, I would burn in a hell like fire, and then he said that was not to say that our ancestors are not watching us from the great beyond.

When I came out of the shrine and that woman was still crying and wailing for her Masquerade husband, I moved on without looking back. The village too have moved on since that day, because everybody, including women and children, have been let in on the big secret by time. Grandpa has since joined his ancestors; Uncle Shaka-Jabari is still holding it down for our culture and tradition, Nuwamalabo is now an evangelist of the lord. As for me, I decided to keep my mind  open, knowing that I’m not walking alone.  

 

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN NIGERIA AND THE WORLD

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1970S

My father said the country got her independence in 1960, thirteen years before I was born. I was so young and innocent when he told me that and I wondered what independence meant, he said white people, the British, ruled the country before 1960, and they did that indirectly and sometimes directly. He said the British asked parents to send their children to school to be educated and civilized, but when in school, the children were given British milk and other beverages to drink. The British said it helps in the development of a child’s brain, but my father said his father, my grandpa, and most parents back then, said the British people were given the children in school British milk because they wanted to control the children’s brains. So when the British people and education officers came to town,  children scampered into the bush because they did not want their brains to be tampered with. My father said he was not so lucky he was caught and taken to school and given British milk too , and when he returned home, his brothers, my uncles, laughed at him and called him and his likes in school Sissies, real boys they said don’t go to school but work on the farms and get married to as many wives as they could and bear as many children as well.

 My father said when he saw the way the teachers were smartly dressed, he thought teaching must be the noblest profession in the world. The teachers, he said, inspected the children’s hair, teeth, finger nails, and uniforms every morning before letting them into the classrooms. My father said he made up his mind that he was going to be a teacher, but he never realized that dream, he left the village for Kaduna after his primary seven to see an uncle who  made him join The Nigerian Police in1968, the police was a noble profession then and nobody offered them bribe that time my father said with nostalgia many years later after he had retired from the police and the country had veered completely off track from what he said they had all envisioned at independence.

I was born around 2: am in November of 73 in Maiduguri, Borno state of Nigeria my parents told me and four years later, I was out of that infantile amnesiac phase of life and began to understand the world around me. I realized I was existing in time and space, and the name Nigeria somehow registered in my subconscious. My father said it is the name of my country and I am a Nigerian. That was thirty something years ago. I was a little child in a teenage country that seemed a beautiful place to be. One of the images that left a mark on my impressionable little mind then was that of a man in military uniform on our neighbours TV, my father said that man was the President of the country and his name was Olusegun Obasanjo and he was addressing the entire country. I thought Maiduguri was the world and my father the only alfa male alive. I thought that the rank of a police Sergeant was the highest rank anybody can aspire to attain. To me, my father was the super man, especially when he wore his uniform and carried his gun in his hand and walked briskly in his shinny police boots. How can anyone be the President and be above my father? How can anyone be the President when he does not belong to the Nigerian Police force, the greatest force that they was? That time I imagined a big fight between the police and the army and the police annihilated all the armies of this world. Reality, however, dawned on me one day when all the police men in my father’s division came out of the barracks wearing their ceremonial uniform. My father had being ironing his for days. He said somebody important was coming to their division and that important person was coming to inspect the barracks as well and he asked me and my friends to be of good behavior that day. When that man came, he was in military uniform and all the police men including my father saluted him as he inspected what they said was the guard of honour. They said the man was the military Governor of the state. Then I began to suspect that soldiers may have more power than the police, because everybody clearly stood in awe of the Governor soldier. Then I began to understand that there was more to life than me and my father and sadly began to come to term with the fact that some men may be higher ranking than my father, and Nigeria to be more than just Maiduguri town. 

But I loved the Nigerian police, and I love my father, then he walked tall and held his shoulders high and was very proud of his profession and spoke well of his country. I was proud to be my father’s son. Life was beautiful, there was Bazooka Joe chewing gum advert on TV, and every kid then loved the Bazooka Joe cartoon character. There was also the advert of one big motor bike called the Road Raster 175 which made us want to be macho and supermen. We hero worshiped any man that own a Beatle car in the barracks then, ‘Motan Kunguru’ we called it then in Hausa language because the Beatle car was shaped like the tortoise. The music of one man called Fela Kuti played in most people’s homes that time, they said the man was a thorn in the flesh of those soldiers and government people and he called them Zombies, they said the Zombies killed his mother by throwing her down from a story building. I saw the picture of one musician called Bongos Ikwue on the back of an album sleeve in our  neighbours’ house and they talked about how well Bongos sang. They were posters of a certain footballer and a boxer on the walls of some homes and in the newspapers and magazines. The boxer was good looking and they said he was a fighting machine and the strongest man in the world and could beat any man alive, they said his name was Muhammad Ali, but I knew for sure back then that my father would beat Muhammad whoever that boxer was. The footballer was said to have the ability to dribble past everybody on the field of play from one end to the other, they said he allowed the opponents the ball when he felt like, they said his name was Pele and he was from one place called Brazil. There were, also, images from FESTAC 77’. I remember one very beautiful tall woman singing  on TV, they said her name was Miriam Makeba and she they said was the mother of Africa and they were plenty of African masquerades on TV, some were scary I couldn’t sleep after watching them. I did not understand African culture then. 

Being kids made us free spirited and uninhibited, we were running around with no shirts sometimes because the weather in Maiduguri was so hot our parents begged us to remove our shirts to avoid body rashes. Sometimes we unknowingly strayed far from home and our parents came looking for us, and when that happened, that meant one thing, we were going to get flogged for almost giving them heart attack. I remember straying one time from home with my best friend then, his name was Ahmadu, we had followed a long procession of cars and people beating drums and singing and dancing on the streets of Maiduguri town, the people waved flags and chanted GNPP! GNPP! GREAT NIGERIAN PEAOPLE’S PARTY! In the midst of the pomp was a man in an open roofed car waving to the crowd, they said his name was Waziri Ibrahim and he was going to be President and that soldier man Obasanjo would leave. They said Obasanjo became President because somebody shot the man that was the President before, that President’s name they said was Murtala Muhammad. I remember we sang a song in school about Murtala Muhammad who was shot on Friday February 13th on his way to the mosque in 1976. I did not know the significant of the song and what had happened then. But as we join the procession, and danced to the beat of the drums and hailed GNPP! I couldn’t imagine that Waziri Ibrahim was not President already. We followed the procession  to the polo ground were a rally took place, but I did not see much of what had happened because of the crowd, but I was happy I was part of GNPP! I came home to my father and some flogging because he had gone looking for me earlier that day and almost had a heart attack, but that did not deter me when another man flew into town in an ‘Elicofta’ and people ran in the direction of the Polo field chanting Awo! Awo! Awo! UPN! UPN! UPN! The people made the V sign with their fingers in the air as they ran after the ‘Elicofta’. Ahmadu and I made the V sign and ran in the direction of the Polo field to see Awo and his ‘Elicofta’. We had no shirts on. So were many kids around. The crowd was Mammoth at the polo. We were small and could not see Awo, then a voice boomed from the public address system shouting “UPN! UPN!” and the crowd responded “Unity Party of Nigeria!” I did not understand what that meant, but the crowd was ecstatic, and I heard some people around us saying Awo gave his people in the West free education. I attended the police primary school in Maiduguri, I did not know if people paid money to go to school or not. Something happened and the crowd erupted again, I couldn’t see what was happening, then one man picked me up and put me on his shoulder and I became taller than the people around me and I imagined what it would be like to be a grown up someday. While I was on the shoulder of the stranger, I saw a man dancing on an elevated podium with his two fingers in the air, “That is Awo in brown shirt and brown cap to match” the stranger said, and I saw Awo! He wore plane glasses and was waving a white handkerchief. The stranger dropped me and picked Ahmadu too, and when he dropped Ahmadu, we did not say thank you to him, we were too excited and also wary of strangers because our parents warned us to be careful with them, we dashed home and on our way we heard the sound of the ‘Elicofta’ as it flew by in the direction it came from and I knew it was Awo on his way to where he came from. Awoo!! Awoo!!  I screamed happy I saw an ‘elicofta’.

I came back home to my father, but this time he took a stern look at me and said “Solomon you are joking with me eh!? Solomon!!” I trembled, but my mother begged and that was it, I got the message that time, but by the time one man, Nnamdi Azikiwe came to town to campaign, my father was out of town. I went to the Polo ground again, and when I came back home, my mother said she knew I had followed Azikiwe to ‘that place’ again against my father’s warning. She threatened she was going to tell him when he returned, but I pleaded and she let me be. She loves me so much! My mother made our simple home a wonderful place; I didn’t know if it was because of her or the general mood of the 70s, our neighbours were very friendly and people very easily wore smiles on their faces. There was no such thing as hunger as far as I knew, especially in our house, They were left over foods in dust bins and fungi infected breads that were eaten and thrown away in ‘Bolas’, but rice was not so common then, we ate rice and chicken stew on Sundays and on special occasions.Life seemed better then. There was a Nigerian currency, a coin, called the Kobo that my mother rewarded me with when I behaved well, that time candles took a long time to melt, Tin milk was creamier and I looked forward to my father making tea in the morning, like most kids then, I too loved tea and bread, or  bread and Blue band, and rice and beans, and Coca-cola which was more concentrated and had more gas then , I was afraid to belch after drinking one because the gas came out of my nose and made water run down my eyes, but coke was irresistible. 

Then one day In 1979, my father came in and said he was on transfer back to Oturkpo in Benue state, our state of origin then because Kogi State was part of Benue State in 1979 and they were 19 States all together in the country that time. I was sad because I was not going to see Ahmadu and our friendly neighbours again, and I was not sure if there was a Polo field in Oturkpo for an ‘Elicofta’ to land. Until that time, I never knew there was another home apart from Maiduguri because the place felt like home.

 We settled in Oturkpo and I was enrolled in Army children school. The same Army that I hated because they made my father and the police and everybody else look small. I thought the Boy Scouts was children’s version of the Army, and The Boy’s Brigade that of the Police. I told my father I wanted to join The Boy’s Brigade, he laughed and said he preferred I joined the Boy Scouts instead, he said the Boy Scouts is like the Army and is for smart boys. I screamed inside of me at my sell-out of a father. I asked him which between the Police and the Army is more powerful. My father laughed and said they were all powerful, but have different roles to play. He said while the police protects the people from bad people inside our country, The Army protects the country from bad people from outside, unless on one occasion between 1966 and 1970, that the Army  stopped one man called Odumegwu Ojukwu, who had said his people, the Igbos, were not safe in the country and he wanted his people not to be part of it again. My father said I was too young to be told the details of what had happened, but he told me they was a terrible war and so many people died, most of them women and children my age. My father said war is a bad thing and I saw the dread in his eyes as he said that. I prayed there should never be anything like that in our country again. My father said the man that made the country to stay together as one was General Yakubu Gowon who became head of state at 32. Then I asked him if a policeman can be the President, he said it had never happened before, he said even soldiers were not suppose to be Presidents, unless in emergency situation, he said that was why the country had elected a new president that would be sworn in on October 1st, 1979, he said that was the best way to become a president. 

I was glad when I saw Obasanjo on TV in the back of an open land Rover waving goodbye to a teaming crowd that waved back at him, and beside him was  a Man in flowing white ‘Babanriga’ or ‘Agbada’ and a Hausa cap, the man too waved at the crowd, my father said he was the new President. I asked him if the man had an Elicofta “Eli what!?” my father said. “cofta!” I said, “Don’t you know Elicofta that is like ‘Eroplane’ Papa?” I try to school my father who laughed and said I should say helicopter. I did, but it didn’t sound cool in my mouth. My father said he did not know if the new President had a Helicopter or not, then I asked him if that place on TV where that event took place was the Polo field in Maiduguri. He said it wasn’t, he said that was Tafawa Balewa square in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, he said Tafawa Balewa  was the name of Nigeria’s Prime Minister at independent and Nnamdi Azikiwe was the ceremonial President and had no power. My father said the new President had power, and his name was Alhaji Shehu Shagari, and in my understanding of Hausa as a child, Sha gari means to drink Gari, I asked my father if the man drank Gari, my father laughed and said no. He said the man is a Hausa man and was of a political party called the NPN, National Party of Nigeria; my father wore a smile on his face as he watched Shagari take the oath of office on Television. He seemed to like the man. “Who is the new President of Nigeria?” he asked me. “Alhaji Shehu Shagari.” I said, “That is Good my boy” my father said and patted me on the back, but in my little mind I was seething and screaming Awo! Awo!! Awo!!! 

Obasanjo saluted Shagari and handed him something like a flag. “This is democracy in action”  my father said, but days later I overheard him and his friend saying Obasanjo was said to be afraid of the Northern Mafias (whatever that meant) that was why he chose Shagari over Awo who was his brother and a fellow Yoruba man from the Western part of the country, but as we entered the 80s, Shagari stole my heart because there was plenty of rice everywhere, the country flowed with imported milk and vegetable oil and plenty of sugar, “Essential commodities” my father said Shagari called them, but soldiers had other ideas and twice they struck in the 80s. The first time they were led by two Generals, the Generals were no nonsense Generals who had problems with Shagari flooding the country with “Essential commodities” and they knocked senses into the people’s head; but the two Generals too were later upstaged by another General in the mid 80s, the General a charmer who smiled a lot and won hearts early on when he came, he was my childhood hero because of the way he looked in military uniform, he made me dream of being a soldier and a President someday, but he was a Houdini as we all came to realize. In the 80s my father was transferred all over the place. I entered a boarding school and I was wiser than I was in the 70s and I understood the country and the world better. 

1980S

To be continued…