We did meet in class later on, where I learnt that his name was Dele. Our friendship grew, but it never became anything more than a friendship, mostly because of my insistence that it remain just that way. I valued my independence, and I had seen too much of the emotional drama that ensued once a girl let her heart become entangled in a romantic relationship. I wasn’t too sure how Dele felt about this, since he never raised the issue.
Nevertheless, I also valued our friendship highly – we spoke and joked about everything under the sun, and it was a pleasure to find someone who appreciated my individuality. I often got asked about our relationship; people wondered what kind of ‘friendship’ this really was.
“Can’t you see that the guy likes you?” Tope, one of my roommates said, one evening after he had visited.
“Of course he likes me,” I replied. “That’s why we’re friends.”
“Come on, you know what I mean; he really likes you. But you self,” she added, shaking her head. “Continue to do strong-head there as though you don’t know.”
I shrugged my shoulders and reminded myself that this was the reason that I didn’t have many friends.
Even my ‘assistants’ did not let the relationship pass without comment.
“Aunty Kemi, when are you going to marry Uncle Dele?” Diran asked, one day.
“Kai!” I shouted in annoyance. “Mind your business. Shouldn’t you be concentrating on your studies?”
“So it is true, Aunty? Will you serve jollof rice and chicken at the party?” Niyi chirped up.
I could only respond with an exasperated sigh.
One day, a few months later, I caught up with Dele outside our lecture hall.
“Giver of unsolicited advice,” I teased.
“Hello, Kemi,” he replied.
“Ah-ah, what’s the matter, now? You don’t seem your usual cheerful self.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just the usual study worries.”
But after several days, I knew that it wasn’t just ‘nothing’. Dele began showing up less and less in class, and he even began avoiding me. So one evening, I arrived unannounced at his room.
“He’s not around,” Femi, one of his roommates told me.
“That’s OK. I’m prepared to sleep here until he shows up.”
Femi and the other roommates looked around uncertainly.
“We don’t know when he will come back. These days, he returns at very strange hours.”
“Eh, no problem. I too can sleep till very strange hours, too. Wake me up when he comes back.” And with that, despite the bewildered looks on his roommates’ faces, I promptly took of my shoes and stretched myself out on Dele’s mattress.
I must have dozed off, because a few hours later, I felt myself being shaken awake.
“Kemi, what are you doing here?”
I squinted groggily at a very surprised Dele.
“Well, since you’ve been avoiding me, I decided to take drastic measures to see you.”
Dele looked around the room. Most of his roommates were already asleep. He motioned to me to follow him outside. We walked for a while, away from his hostel and down the path towards the lecture halls. Then Dele stopped, and stood for a while, fidgeting. This was beginning to scare me.
“Dele, what is the problem? Are you in trouble? Please, you can tell me.”
He let out a long sigh. “Kemi, yes, I am in trouble. I didn’t want to involve you, because… well, I care about you a lot. But you this stubborn rebellious girl, you couldn’t take the hint when I started avoiding you,” he ended, smiling wryly.
“OK, no more secrets. What is the problem?”
It turned out that Dele had fallen foul of ‘Dragon’, a prominent member of the Slash and Burn Cult on campus. Even Dele himself wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was – all he knew was that one day, Dragon told Dele that he had disrespected him, and that he was going to deal with him severely unless he came up with two hundred and fifty thousand naira within four weeks.
“I don’t know why he is asking for this amount. Do I look rich? I don’t even have two hundred and fifty naira to my name right now as I speak,” he lamented. “I’ve had to go from person to person to see what I can raise, but I have not had much success.”
But I still didn’t understand why he hadn’t told me.
“I didn’t want to expose you to any danger,” he explained. “Who knows how he plans to deal with me?”
“Dele,” I said, frowning at him in mock severity, “I am your friend, and if there is any danger to be faced, we will face it together. Now tomorrow, I want you to point out Dragon to me, and then just leave the rest to me.”
At this, Dele protested loudly and vehemently. Over his dead body would he reveal such information, he said. But I can be very persistent, and eventually, he promised once I told him that I wasn’t going to be involved; I just wanted to contact a friend who was an ex-cult member and ask for his help. Of course I had no such friend, but sometimes, the end justified the means. Yes, I was being rebellious again – but this time, I was a rebel with a cause.
A few days later, I was hanging around Mama Joy’s, a local bukateria. One of my ‘assistants’ had told me that Dragon came here often, and I was hoping that I might run into him here.
Soon enough, a lithe, tall man walked up to the buka’s entrance. As he was about to enter, I signalled to him that I would like his attention.
Dragon gave me a dismissive look, hissed, and walked on. So, it’s going to be like that, eh? All right o…
“No problem. I will tell Alhaji that Dragon isn’t interested in the deal. Bye-bye!”
Before I could take another step, Dragon reached out to grab me.
“What deal?” he growled.
I smiled. “Eh-hen, that’s better. Let’s go in and eat. You’ll pay, sha.”
Dragon glowered at me. “I don’t have time for jokes, girl. If you want to say something, say it now or get away!”
I looked around, as though checking for eavesdroppers, and said, “There’s this Alhaji – I cannot give his name now – but he is looking for someone to teach a business rival a little lesson. Someone mentioned your name as one of the main men in Slash and Burn as someone to talk to.”
“So you can put him in touch with the leader of Slash and Burn to organise something. Or,” I added, slyly, “you can decide to do it yourself…”
I waited as Dragon mulled it over. Would he bite?
Eventually, he looked up at me. “I may be interested. How much is this Alhaji ready to pay?”
I named a figure large enough to make him definitely very interested.
“OK, o. I will like to hear more. But we cannot talk here. Come to this place tomorrow at 9pm,” he said, scribbling something on a piece of paper and handing it to me.
I watched as he walked into the buka, and grinned in triumph.
The next evening, I was walking towards an uncompleted two-storey building in a remote part of the campus, torch in hand; this was where I was going to meet Dragon. I could just about make out someone standing in the open space on the ground floor; shining my torch, I could see that it was Dragon himself.
“So,” I said when I came up to him. “So you want to know about this work that Alhaji wants to hire you for.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice thick with greed.
I smiled. “Actually, there is no deal, and no Alhaji. There’s just one thing – I want to you stop harassing any student for money as from today.”
Dragon’s face contorted in an ugly scowl. “Girlie, I told you not to mess with me when we spoke earlier. You must be crazy if you think I’m going to listen to you.”
Still smiling, I continued. “You are going to listen to me, because if you don’t, the leader of Slash and Burn is going to find out how one of its members was thinking about taking away food from the mouth of the cult.”
He stood for one moment, stunned. Then he lunged for me, fists flailing.
I was not expecting that reaction; I had thought that he would just cave in and back off. One blow connected and sent me and my torch clattering to the floor. On the ground, I curled up to protect myself from the continuous kicking, and just when I thought that I would pass out from the pain, I heard shouting.
Dragon heard the shouting too, and in a flash, he slipped away into the night. A few moments later, my consciousness fast fading, I felt an arm cradle me, and I heard the voice that I finally realised that I most wanted to hear in the whole world.
“Kemi, my love… stay, stay with me.”
I heard the rest of the story from my hospital bed. My ‘assistants’ had followed me at a distance that evening, and initially, Niyi had been filming the encounter on the mobile phone that I had given them earlier. Once things got ugly, Diran had run off and gathered students to come and intervene; because of the filming, Dragon had been identified, and was now facing criminal charges. In addition, he was in serious trouble from his cult members, who themselves were now facing a lot of heat from students on campus.
“You rebellious girl,” Dele chided. “Why did you not tell me what you were going to do? How could you risk your life like that? And to think that I believed you when you said that you weren’t going to get involved.”
“Well, if I had told you, you wouldn’t have given me the information I wanted. And anyway, it worked, didn’t it?”
“Yes, but it was very risky to go it alone. What if Diran and Niyi had not been following you? It would have been a very different story.”
“Kai! I bail you out of a situation where you have to pay money to a thug – I even risk my life – and not even a ‘thank you’?” I joked.
Dele looked at me levelly. “Of course, I’m grateful. But not just because you helped me out of trouble. I’m grateful, I have the chance to say something that’s been on my mind since we met many months ago; the chance to say how much I love this most stubborn, wilful, contrary, reckless girl who would put her life at risk ahead of mine.”
My face began to flush, and for once, my tongue was tied. I’m a rebel, but I realised then there are some things that I could not, and did not want to rebel against. Like the way my heart responds when the song of love is played.