Nayo shuffled slowly along Bintan Street. The scorching sun was relentless, its rays seemed to literally beam down on the tarmac and bounce back up directly in his face. From behind, he looked beaten. Lost in thought, his head hung to one side as he moved. His threadbare clothes flapped in the gentle wind revealing his gaunt frame, his knapsack, hung across his shoulders moved rhythmically, in tune with his footsteps.
Unnoticed all around him was the frenzied excitement of the bustling city as people on their daily commute bumped into each other trying to get to their destinations. Loud music could be heard coming from several shops with large speakers outside, cars tooting their horns “pa-a-a-m, p-a-a-a-m” impatiently, as they attempted to go past each other without any success, hawkers both young and old balancing tomatoes, iced water, groundnut and other wares delicately on their heads and yelling out the names of whatever goods they were hawking. Various smells emanated from roadside cafeterias littered around the city.
Once he turned onto Goriola street, people started waving at him and calling out his name “Pastor Nayo, Pastor Nayo!” A few came up to him and pressed wads of money into his palm. He kept walking, oblivious of the people, some of whom were now trailing behind him.
Unaware of the commotion he was causing behind him, Nayo gingerly navigated the little wooden plank that bridged the debris-filled open gutter in front of a dingy brown one story building that was clearly overdue for a painting.
“Pastor!” cried a voice excitedly, running towards him “welcome!” Nayo almost fell into the gutter – a black-greenish thickened mass of food remains, unrecognizable remains and fungi – trying to avoid being knocked over by the outstretched arms of the greeter.
“Thank you” he responded a little absentmindedly when he regained his balance and kept walking towards the building, only stopping in front of a door at the end of a long dark and narrow corridor. He paused briefly but before he could touch the door handle, the door opened and a young woman stopped abruptly.
“Obi m” she said softly as she stepped aside for him to come in. Lowering his head slightly, Nayo entered the semi-dark room. When his vision had adjusted to the room, he was able to make out a brownish sofa opposite the door, a standing fan beside it and a center table. On top of the center table was a vase holding some cheap plastic flowers. On the left side of the room was a crib with a little girl in it waving a plastic toy excitedly and babbling to herself. Nayo made a quick dash across the room and picked up the baby.
“Olufunmilayo!” he cried out as he tossed her up in the air. The baby shrieked excitedly, still waving her toy. He kissed her on both cheeks then put her back in the crib. By now, the young woman had made her way across the room to stand beside him. He wrapped his arms around her in a strong embrace. “Urenna” he whispered into her hair. She felt the wetness of his tears dropping on her scalp as she clung to him with all her might.
That night, Urenna turned on the small generator that provided electricity to the small one bedroom flat. As she prepared dinner in the kitchen with Ada her 11-year old cousin that lived with her, she could hear Nayo praying. He was always praying. Peeking through the kitchen door, she saw him holding up his bible, speaking in tongues. His eyes glowed, the look on his face – one of pure delight and sheer ecstasy as he worshipped.
Her eyes narrowed and arms crossed over her chest, she watched him. How come he could come and go as he pleased and leave her with all the responsibilities of carrying the family? Why could he not establish a church and she could be by his side while they worshipped God together? She too loved the Lord. It was just not fair!
That night, when he finished his rice, he held his plate out to her silently. “There’s no more food in the house” she stated quietly, her eyes on the floor. He put his plate down, grinning sheepishly “well better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” and picked her up. “I love you obi m” he repeated over and over again kissing her on the forehead as he carried her into the bedroom.
It was always amazing how Nayo always just fit in into her life Urenna thought to herself. No matter how long he was away, it was always as if he never left. Never one for too many words, in the mornings, he watched Funmi while she went to work and Ada went to school. By the time she returned, she knew exactly where to find him. Anywhere there was an open field and a crowd, Nayo was sure to be in the middle teaching the word of God. There was always a multitude hanging on to his every word.
On this day, Urenna watched him from a distance. She could see she was not the only person captivated by his charisma. Today’s crowd seemed even larger than usual. As she drew closer, she could hear him roaring “People of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, that he may return to you who are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria!”
Pounding on a wooden makeshift podium, he continued, sweat dripping down his face “Do not be like your parents and your fellow Israelites, who were unfaithful to the Lord, the God of their ancestors, so that he made them an object of horror, as you see.”
As he swayed from side to side, the crowd seemed to sway with him “Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord.”
“What did I say?” Nayo asked the crowd loudly. “Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord!” the crowd repeated.
“Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. I say “Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you!” he entreated loudly pointing to the crowd
“My brothers and sisters, the bible says “If you return to the Lord, then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.”
“Do you know our captors are too many? Greed has captured us, jealousy has captured us, wickedness has captured us, idolatry has captured us! Brethren we need to return to the lord!” Nayo continued fervently, his eyes sparkling with excitement.
Even in the stifling heat, the crowd was still, as if waiting breathlessly for his next words.
Watching him, it was hard not to reminisce about a time long ago and far away when life was so much simpler. Now sometimes she felt like she was operating in two separate but parallel universes. One with Nayo in it and one without and somehow she was supposed to juggle them both perfectly and still maintain her sanity. Urenna shook her head slowly, turned and started walking back home.
There was still dinner to be prepared. Tonight she was going to make Nayo’s favorite food; yam with fish stew. When she got home, there was no electricity as usual so she quickly turned on the kerosene lanterns, placed one in the living room and took one into the kitchen to start fixing dinner. She did not want to waste petrol by turning on the little generator too early. She knew Nayo would soon be home, exhausted and tired.
They rarely had any conversations about his disappearances. She had learnt long ago not to broach that topic because it always seemed to turn him from a mild, lovable gentleman to a barely lucid, ranting and raving lunatic spewing bible verses like weapons of mass destruction. She could tell those conversations rattled him because he was unable to control those “wanderings” as she called them. She always wondered how he fared, how he got to the places he had been seen; interior villages in the Eastern part of Nigeria, the South and even the South East. The only place he had not been spotted was in Northern Nigeria. And something told her it was just a matter of time before he would get there. She shuddered in fear and angst.
That night when he got home, there were four teenagers following him all carrying various foodstuffs that he had been given by his “flock” as she loved to call the crowd that always surrounded him. She likened him to the lilies of the field and the birds in the air that never had to worry about what to eat or drink.
“Was it his childlike faith in God or the fact that he sought first the kingdom of God that his needs were met so easily?” Urenna mused. She shook her head uncertain. But whatever it was, he always seemed to come out ahead. Never an empty pot or account when he was around and even when he was gone! And to his credit, he never demanded any monies or gifts from anybody. They just came flowing in, pouring in. Enough to meet their daily need and more.
She loved the fact he did not abuse his charismatic nature because she knew for a fact that if he were in it for the money, he would make a lot of it.
The next morning when she went to take the trash out, she overheard two women talking in the communal area where people parked their cars.
“That pastor don come back again oh” said a voice she could not identify
“Na so I hear oh. But how she dey manage?” asked the other woman
‘My sister, na God now, wetin she go do?’ replied the first voice she suspected was Gladys that lived two doors down from her.
“Hmm, she dey try. If na me, I for don go” the other woman stated firmly as they slowly went out of earshot.
Urenna ruminated about the conversation between the women. If only the women knew! She had left before. After Nayo’s fifth disappearance, Urenna packed all her stuff and moved to Jos to stay with her mother’s sister, Auntie Sally. She had had enough.
Ajoke begged and begged and begged but there was nothing Ajoke would say to prevent her from leaving. She hurt so much that he had left six weeks after the baby came. He had left her to face the challenges of first-time motherhood alone. They were supposed to go through that together. Wasn’t God supposed to be a fair God?
So her parents had disapprovingly rented a coaster bus to help move her effects. They would have preferred for her to have moved in with them since Olufunmilayo was barely three months old. But she refused, she knew that would be the first place he would come looking for her.
Jos was a much needed change of scenery. Auntie Sally was a lecturer at the University of Jos and also the owner of a very popular campus cafeteria called Spices. Urenna assisted in the daily running of the cafeteria while she waited for her transfer to be approved so she could start teaching at Hillcrest Secondary School, a school that was close to the house.
She tried hard not to think about Nayo as she busied herself with her new baby and working at Spices. In a couple of years, she planned on going back to school to get her Masters in Education, maybe even a Ph.D being that she was right around the corner from the highly acclaimed University of Jos.
Her days and nights seemed to blend into each other because the cafeteria kept her busy so this particular day was in no way different from any other day for the last two months other than the vaguely familiar face walk in through the cafeteria. Her heart skipped a beat. It was Nayo! She rushed into the backroom that led to the kitchen because she did not want to see him at that point.
When she closed for the day around seven in the evening, she was not surprised to see him sitting on an old rusty barrel drawing stick figures on the ground. She knew he would wait patiently for her to finish her day. He followed a few feet behind her as she walked to the motorbike park.
“Ure” he said softly as she flagged down a motorbike “please, let me talk to you.”
She ignored him. The motorcyclist sped on without stopping. Soon he caught up with her. As she stood side by side with him, she continued to ignore him. Two more motorbikes sped by leaving a little dust in their trail.
“How did you find me?” she asked through clenched jaws.
“I don’t know. I just knew where you were” he replied in a low voice.
“Indeed” Ure countered, rolling her eyes at him. She swallowed slowly “I’m tired Nayo, please go away.”
“I miss you and the baby” he said softly, rubbing the back of his neck in anguish as another motorbike sped by them.
Urenna ignored him. Instead she looked up in the sky. It was getting dark and a little chilly. The gentle breeze in the air carried titillating smells of different assorted foods. A few of the women across the street hunched over their open charcoal stoves glanced over at the two of them disinterestedly and then continued with what they were doing. Finally two motorbikes stopped in front of them
“Where?” growled one of the cyclists between bites of his sugarcane. Urenna told him and they both hopped onto the bikes. Aunt Sally was standing in front of the house when Urenna and Nayo pulled up. One of the servers at Spices had told her that Nayo had come to the cafeteria and she wanted to make sure Urenna was fine. As they both walked up to the house, Aunt Sally studied Nayo intently. She had never met him before and was pleasantly surprised to see this tall, skinny quiet man walking alongside Urenna.
Inside the house, Aunt Sally offered him a seat and proceeded to set the table for dinner.
“You will eat abi or you will like to take a shower first?” she asked Nayo. Urenna rolled her eyes at her aunt. She did not want her encouraging Nayo.
“I don’t think he will be staying” she responded sharply before Nayo could reply
“Shhh” Aunt Sally motioned at her with a wave of hand frowning
“I will first take a bath, Ma” Nayo answered quietly under his breath.
After dinner, Nayo played with Olufunmilayo while Urenna sat at the computer in the living room with her back turned to them, pointedly ignoring him. She watched him from the corner of her eyes as he talked to Auntie Sally. She pressed her lips together. Just like everybody else, Auntie was falling for his charisma. She could see her listening with bated breath, nodding in agreement to almost everything he said.
“Goodnight, I’m going to bed” Urenna declared, rising stiffly from the computer desk. Nayo and Auntie Sally both looked up at her as she walked across the room to the bedroom she shared with Olufunmilayo.
“Goodnight’ they both chorused in unison and continued talking.
In the middle of the night, Urenna was awakened by a choking sound. She quickly got to her feet to make sure nothing was wrong with Olufunmilayo. She was startled to see Nayo rocking himself from side to side in a corner of the room crying softly. Moving closer she could hear him speaking as though to himself.
“Please Lord, don’t let her leave me, please don’t her leave me.”
“Nayo” she whispered softly to him as she shook him “stop, what is wrong?”
“Please don’t leave me,” he cried, looking up at her with blank eyes, “please.”
“You are my life” he said, choking with tears “accept me, I did not choose this life, this life chose me.”
“Nayo” Urenna whispered crouching beside him as she stroked his head “shh, its okay” She struggled to find words “Maybe we can …”
“Please” raw emotions strained his voice “don’t leave me again”
“I panicked when I returned home and couldn’t find you. Please don’t leave me. I’ll die without you. I need you” he continued “promise you’ll never leave me again”
“Nayo, I can’t …”
“Please, Ure. Just forgive. Just bear with me. I love you. I can understand the pain you are going through. Can you understand mine? he asked looking up at her
Urenna averted her eyes. Her heart was breaking. She could not bear to see the pain and despair in his eyes nor did she want him to see the tears rolling down her cheeks “This is too hard, Nayo. This is not what I signed up for”
“I know. I know. Me too. Its killing me” he croaked. Urenna hugged him tighter
“Its like fighting this unseen force. Its stronger than I am and its killing me” he continued dejectedly.
“I understand” Urenna whispered into his left ear, kissing his cheek.
“Promise you’ll never leave,” he gripped her hands.
“I promise,” she whispered. “I promise I will never leave you.”
Later, as they both lay on the bed, Urenna thought about the first time they met.