Close your eyes. Listen. Can you hear it? Can you hear the beating of the drums in the nearby distance? Boom. Badaboom. Boom. Boom. Badaboom. Yes you can. You place your hands close to your chest to feel the thumping of your heart. It beats in tandem to the wild drums; your chest rises and falls in rhythm with the hoots of excitement hovering somewhere above.
On days like these, with its azure skies and humid breeze blowing from the borders of the North, you may have propped on low mud walls with your favourite lads, Audu and Aliyu, cheering for your favourite wrestlers and cursing at their opponents. You spent lazy hours wishing hard and dreaming out loud. Your shoulders rubbed. Your laughter rang high above as the delicious trickle of cold kunu slithered down your throat.
Unlike all the other boys who liked wriggle their way through the sweaty mass of bodies just to sneak a peek as the deathly blow of a glove-clad hand connected to an unsuspecting jaw. Or watch a tooth fly out, enthralled by the spray of coarse sand against their cheeks, settle on their eyelashes, their shoulders. And if they were very lucky, maybe they would get a few of those crisp naira notes that were rained on the victorious wrestler. But not you jolly lot. You would rather sit in the distance, enjoying the warm glow of the sun against your backs.
And this afternoon should have been the same, with its cloudless skies and relentless sunshine. Somewhere along the northern horizons, you can see those low mud walls. And you imagine if Audu and Aliyu will be there; cheering you on, praying to Allah to guide your feet and oil your limbs. Or perhaps it would be another three, just as jolly as you lot. Your mind wanders back, beneath these gmelina leaves and the sandy arena before you. So you rise and stretch your limbs, yawning noisily. You swing a right, a left, juggle a few combos. You knot the ropes of your gloves tighter, pace back and forth restlessly. Then you rest your back against the rugged bark of the gmelina tree, before walking back to the innermost circles of the arena. The crowd paths a narrow road, makes way for you to enter.
You crouch with all the others in the front; side by side, arm in arm. You can feel the grains of sand against your cheeks, feel the drops of blood and sweat on your skin, hear the groans from the wrestlers against your ears. You cannot but flinch when you hear the crunching sound and hope it is not a bone broken. Through a squinted gaze, you watch the ferocious Shago swing his gloved hand at his opponent, a smaller mouse-like man. You admire the way his dark skin gleams in the light, the grace in which he throws his punch; the confident arch in his brow as the punch connects.
The two men are unevenly matched. Shago knows this. The Mouse knows it. The crowd knows it. It should be the third round now and you desperately wish that the minutes tarry a little longer. The mouse scampers around with an obvious limp. His left eye is swollen, the size of a mango yet to mature. Shago struts about with the grace of a peacock; he jeers and leers at his opponent. He punches the air as though there are imaginary fiends suspended midair. And the crowd around you cheers him more, thirsty for more gore, for more blood.
Shago raises his gloved fist to the air, the applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. Shago the Great. Shago the Great. They chant on and on. Shago beams at his spectators, his back to his opponent. He is missing a few teeth. The mouse seems slightly distracted for he would have lunged forward and struck the unsuspecting Shago. As though the mouse reads your mind, he creeps behind Shago for a surprise attack. Shago instinctively turns round and plants another blow to the shin of the mouse. Through the haze of red dust upturned in the arena you can see the punch slam to his jaw. The mouse lets out a sickening grimace as his back touches the earth.
Shago pounces on him like a maddened cat. His gloved hand, laced with shards of broken glass gleaming in the fine light of noon as he punches repeatedly. With each punch, harder than the last, the crowd grows more excited, yells for more. You wish he would stop now, not only because the mouse has stopped moving, stopped raising his arms in a weak surrender but because the breeze blows the foul odour from the mouth of the man beside you, the sight of his teeth stained reddened by years of chewing kola nauseates you. The referees scuttle in and unlock a relentless Shago from the lifeless form trampled in the ground.
With this, the ring – a perfect circle formed by the cluster of wide-eyed and high-spirited crowd – is broken. The excited boys and men fill the sandy spaces within. Their babarigas and caftans of subtle blues and white lifted by the breeze float dreamily around them. They haul the victorious Shago on their shoulder effortlessly and raise him loser to the skies. They chant his name. Sing his praises. They shower him with crisp naira notes which they deftly pick up and crumple back into their pockets. He is swirled around in dizzy loops. His hands remain suspended to the end as though they are reaching for the sun. And for a brief you two lock eyes.
He sneers at you. Through those beady eyes you see something familiar. Loathe. Hatred. You gulp. You take in selfish nostril full of the humid air, acrid with dust. Amidst the crowd, the mesh of faces, you seek desperately for the reasons why you have chosen to duel today, in a battle you will most unlikely emerge with your ego and limbs together. The answers lie somewhere within these crowds.
The Baba you liked to fondly remember was the man with broad shoulders and a spirited laugh. He made you giggle as he tossed you in the air and caught you with his callused palms. He who would let you sit with him by the crackling fireplace on the chilly harmattan nights while he told you stories and legends that his own Baba had told him. The same fables you would tell your own little boy when your shoulders grew broad enough for him to sit upon. This was the old man you saw in your dreams. He was the one who made you wake up with fuzzy feelings in your belly.
But when the first rays of the morning sun kissed your skin and warmed your toes he became the man with the hate that clouded his eyes and burdened his heart. This was the man who wouldn’t look at you when you greeted him because the fairness of your skin reminded him too much of your mother’s.
Her stories were well known. It had even been spun into a little ballad hummed by the women whilst they milked cows; the girls while they ploughed vast fields of wheat. Her skin was fair like the Fulani women, her hair always bound in a kinky fro. Baba had loved her fiercely especially her naivety, the sheep-like meekness in her spirit. She made the muscles in his face soften, the ice in his heart thaw. But after your birth she had runaway with a band of wanderlust dancers, they said she had been charmed and mesmerized and intoxicated by the tunes of Audu their flute player.
Baba did not trample across the savannahs and torrid dessert dunes in search of his bewitched bride. His pride, or rather all that remained, laced with undertones of fear of rejection will not let him. Instead he threw all that was left in him slaughtering cattle in the butcher’s house and men in the rings of Dambe. He came to be known as Al-Mage, as his back was never stained with the red dust of the earth in a duel. He was lithe like a cat despite his bulky frame. You came of age watching his several conquests, your heart welling with pride, the dimple in your cheek vivid while you heard all the children in the yards mooning over him, wishing that he was their Baba also, the damsels swoon and giggle in open admiration whenever he walked by.
You basked in the comfort of his shadows. The secrets hidden behind your effervescent smiles. No one knew about the resentment you saw whenever you looked in his eyes; or how though you kept trying, you were never able to live up to his expectations. And you had finally doused any hope when you had decided to follow the paths of being a cattle rearer instead of taking over his business. He had often told grandmother that he deemed it necessary that you had your head checked, when he noticed you taking walk with your herd to green pastures, talking to them as you led them to the cool streams. He said you were less of a man because you could not plunge a blade into the throat of a cow.
But instead of telling them all of this, you simply smiled and made up stories of how you and your Baba sat by fireplaces on most nights, smoking the pipes while you shared stories on love and war.
Things would change for the better today. He was the reason why you had come, the reason why in a few minutes you would lock legs with Shago in a duel in which you were certain that the odds were against you. The crowds began to simmer, the men in the front forming a fine ring once again. They spoke in hush-hush tones, pointing and exchanging naira notes as they placed their bets. You knew that very few, if any would bet in your favour, not even Audu or Aliyu if they were here. Perhaps they would say a fervent prayer for you, you the butcher’s son.