Chijioke sat squashed up in the minibus as it grunted and creaked its way along the potholed road. Seated next to him was his father, who stared out the window in a sullen mood. Chijioke glanced at him anxiously, wanting to ask him again what the matter was, but he held his tongue; the last time had asked him, shortly before they set out on this journey to the market, his father told him angrily to shut up.
Chijioke thought sadly about how changed his father was from a few months ago. Then, he used to get up early in the morning with a big smile on his face, telling everyone to get ready because according to him, “it was a brand new day for us to do brand new things”. His cheer was like a warm fire in the harmattan season; it would send him off ready to face school, even when he hadn’t finished Mr. Kalejaiye’s maths homework. And in the evening, when the family was together for supper, he would fill them with laughter and wonder as he told them all the interesting things that had happened during his day at work.
But all that had changed when, one day, he noticed that his father wasn’t getting up as early as he used to. He also began to notice that his father was still at home when he got back from school.
“Papa has lost his job,” was his mother’s curt reply when he asked her about it.
“What is going to happen? Will he get a new one soon?” Chijioke asked anxiously.
“I don’t know. Go and do your homework and stop troubling me.”
But he could see that things were getting worse. Meals became smaller, and were even skipped occasionally. Instead of his usual smiles, his father now slouched around with a frown, and supper was now a graveyard of silence. The tension in the household increased, and this led to quarrels breaking out between his parents. The latest of these quarrels had happened today; what had caused it was that Chijioke had presented a letter from his school asking for payment of a mandatory ‘construction levy’. Angry words had been exchanged about men who lay around all day not doing anything for their children and women who felt puffed up just because they had miserable jobs as nurses, and then his father had angrily grabbed him and stormed out of the house.
“Papa Chijioke, where are you going with my son? It is bad enough you cannot provide for him; do you now want to expose him to danger?” his mother had shouted after them.
In response, his father had muttered something angrily under his breath about showing her who he was, but he had carried on walking resolutely towards the nearest bus stop to catch the bus to the market.
The bus rumbled on, and then eventually, they got to the market, which seemed to have more than usual of the riotous mix of people, wares and noise. The conductor yelled out the destination, and Chijioke and his father leapt off, managing to avoid the scramble of passengers anxious to board. Then his father led him to a less rowdy part of the market, drew him close, and with a quiet voice, said, “Listen to me very clearly. Go and stand near that junction near the bus stop that we got off at. I will come and join you soon, but I want you pretend that you do not know me. In other words, do not say ‘Papa’ when addressing me; treat me like a complete stranger.”
Chijioke was alarmed at his father’s request. Why would he want Chijioke to disown him like that? But he looked up and saw the insistence on his father face, mixed in with something that looked like pleading, and he nodded his head and started walking. His father must have a good reason, even if he didn’t understand it.
Once over at the junction, he stood for a few minutes waiting and watching for his father, wondering when he would show up. Maybe he had gone to see someone to help get the money for the levy that his school wanted. He didn’t understand what the school needed the money for; they hadn’t even said what they were planning to build. Maybe the headmaster and teachers were just going to share the money amongst themselves…
His reverie was interrupted as he noticed his father emerge from the the crowds milling around the bus stop and walk towards him. He tried to catch his father’s attention, but then he remembered… he wasn’t supposed to know his father. Right… but why was his father not even looking at him, even though he was heading his way? What was he hiding in his arms, there? It looked like…
Before Chijioke could process the rest of this behaviour, his father had closed up the gap between them, seized his neck in a vice-like grip, whipped out a dangerous-looking knife and pressed its point close to his face, all the while yelling wildly.
“Everybody, stand back… now! I said NOW!”
The crowd of people around them drew back uncertainly, not knowing if this was some kind of act, and if so, what their role in it was supposed to be. His father gave them a look filled with fury.
“Are you deaf? I said stand back, or I will kill this boy now!” As if to underscore his point, he lifted the knife and plunged it down, stopping just a frighteningly short distance from Chijioke’s neck.
Up to this point, Chijioke had been in shock, but at this act, he became truly frightened. His own father could not be doing this to him! He immediately burst into tears.
The spectacle of what seemed to be a man with homicidal intent holding a crying child seemed to snap the crowd out of its stupefaction and it drew away in horror, creating a wide space around him.
“Better,” he yelled, turning this way and that to survey the people gathered around. “Now listen to me, all of you! I want you to start dropping money here, fast! I must get at least one hundred thousand naira here in five minutes, or else I am going to kill this boy here. I mean it, so don’t try me!” He pointed to one of the women in front. “You, oya, go round and start collecting money.” Turning to the crowd again, he grinned mirthlessly, “You should all be very happy to pay money for this; after all, it is good entertainment!”
The crowd began to murmur. Some people said that the man was obviously mad, and the best thing to do was to get the police to arrest him. Others said that he was a criminal terrorist, and the police was not enough; the army was what was needed. Still others chimed in, saying that if they all rushed in at once, they could subdue him. This suggestion was ridiculed by others, who asked if the people suggesting this could not see that the child would be dead even before the crowd was half-way across the space separating them and the man. Yet others said that time was ticking away, and they should donate quickly to save the child from being killed.
It seemed as if Chijioke’s father had picked up on these last comments, because he raised his voice once more, still scanning the crowd warily. “Two more minutes… how much have you collected, madam?”
The woman who had been assigned the money-collection task paused to count. “Around twelve thousand naira,” she announced.
“Twelve thousand naira!” he exclaimed in anger. “Only twelve thousand! You people are just evil! You want this child to die, because you are too stingy to put your hands in your pockets!”
Someone shouted back it him. “Shame on you! You are the one whose knife is close to the boy’s neck, and yet you are blaming us to wanting him to die!”
Other voices joined in, murmuring their agreement; theirvoices grew louder, until Chijioke’s father screamed at them to shut up.
“I am telling you, it is you people that are responsible! All of you! People like you steal, ask for bribes, make things difficult for businesses, make people lose their jobs…” His voice began to falter for a moment, but he continued. “Yes, I am holding the knife, but all of you are killing this boy here, all of you…”
While he had been delivering his tirade, Chijioke’s father had been squeezing his neck ever tighter. Suddenly, Chijioke began to cough and splutter uncontrollably. In a moment of distraction, his father relaxed his grip and turned towards his son to see what was wrong. That moment was all the time that someone from the crowd needed to take careful aim and send a stone whizzing through the air. The stone hit him sharply on the shoulder, causing him to yell out in pain and drop the knife with a loud clang on the ground. That was the signal that the crowd had been waiting for…
About an hour later, a very subdued Chijioke, along with his distraught mother and his bloodied and beaten father, was at the nearby police station where they were all being interviewed by an increasingly incredulous desk sergeant. His father had been lucky; not even Chijioke’s pleading that he was his son had been enough to douse the rage of the crowd when it descended on him. It was only the timely intervention of the police that prevented a much more tragic outcome. His mother had been contacted and had arrived, shocked and weeping.
“So – you are telling me that because you lost your job and you had no money for this child’s school fees, you decided to take him to the market place and hold him hostage?” The sergeant’s eyebrows were raised to the maximum possible extent at this point. “Mr. Nwobosi, you are a very stupid and irresponsible man. Do you not see that you were putting your son’s life in danger?’
“But… but nothing happened to him… I would not have let anything happen to him…” his father murmured through swollen lips.
“Look at you. So because nothing happened to him, everything is fine, eh? What if the crowd had thrown something that had accidentally hit your son? When the crowd rushed upon you, what if they had trampled your son? Did you even think about how you would escape when you had collected your money?”
On hearing these horror scenarios described, Chijioke’s mother escalated her hitherto quiet weeping to wailing aloud.
“Papa Chijioke, when I asked you where you were going this afternoon, why did you not tell me that you were going to kill yourself and my son? Eh? Things are hard, but how could you do something reckless like this?”
In response, Chijioke’s father hung his head in shame and embarrassment.
The desk sergeant was becoming very uncomfortable with the spectacle, so he interjected. “Mr. Nwobosi, as I said, you have done a very foolish thing today. We should charge you on the count of criminal endangerment of a child. But you are very lucky today; I want to believe that only desperation could have made you do what you did today. Let me tell you; you will not be the first person to lose your job; the thing is to stand strong and be a man. Look at your wife and son; they are looking to you for strength and support, not to behave like a lunatic. Because of them – because it won’t pay them if I charge you – I will let you go.”
Chijioke’s mother rose to her feet in gratitude. “Thank you, officer, thank you! God will bless you plentifully, officer.”
They all trooped out of the station wearily, not saying anything to each other. Chijioke noticed that his mother was keeping a careful distance from his father; he wondered how this would change things between his parents. As for him, he was still confused. Yes, what his father had done today was very hurtful, seizing and choking him like that. However, he had done it to collect money for the construction levy. Still it was a very frightening experience; he hoped his father found a job soon so that desperation did not drive him to do more crazy things. Anyway, he did not want to think about it for now; he just wanted to get home and rest…