When I was a little boy, around the age of six, I was strictly warned by my PA and concerned neighbours not to pick money found along the streets or anywhere, no matter what. A certain scary tale was always attached to it; its either you turn into a yam or a tortoise. Mgbe ahu ejiri gi gwo ogwu ego (Then you will be used for money rituals). The ritual part always got me. It made me very scared and sensitive. As a child, the mental image of me wearing the thick skin of a tortoise with my small head safely tucked in its scaly domed shell, also kept my senses in check. From thenceforth, anytime I set my eyes on a misplaced cash along the road or anywhere, I go just face my front waka pass. E no concern me. And if at all I decide to have second thoughts depending on the condition of things, somewhere inside of me, that little voice of reason that was readily on tap, will pipe up gently and remind me of the aftermath of my impending action.
On several occasions, I was ordained a ‘mugu’ for not having ‘spunk’ enough to make pick ups. This came from my circle of daring play mates who were without fears, three boys who were always ready to make a dive at any naira note found lying around. Even coins. And all through their pick ups, I never saw any of them turn into anything strange. Rather it was always with a blend of intrigue and fascination that I watched. Sometimes, they argued over who makes the pick up first, that is if it was seen by both parties at the same time. Not satisfied, they will engage their clenched fists and exchange hard slugs while their scrawny bare foot danced in scattered pattern, upseting plumes of calm dusts. This was for a “naira note” that came from hell like my primary ‘four’ teacher called it, but my hyperactive friends never cared. Always, they were driven by glutton. And right after the pickup, it was one way to any nearby store where they will treat themselves to their desired confections. I was never a part of it. I clung firm onto the warning that always guided my hands. I also reasoned that one might still turn into something strange even after he had traded the money for something else. My then fear was king sized.
“Hapu ihea ha na ekwu, onweghi ihe oga eme gi, just wuo ya aja or inyuo ya mamiri–Forget all those things they told you, it won’t do you no harm, just pour sand or you urinate on it” Ikechukwu always advised, hoping one way or the other, it will make well of my fears.
“Not this boy’s urine, uh-uh.” I told myself. Even if it was going to take a drop to kill the potency of its charm, I still was not going to risk it. What if my ‘Willie’ goes missing while on it? It was also part of the ritual. I knew my three friends were crazy, but it was in a cool way and that was the basis why I conformed with them. Ikechukwu was the bravest of us all and our tour guide most of the time. Our bare foot and bare chests travelled afar, outside our playing jurisdiction by virtue of his never ending discoveries. Nzube was the opposite of Ikechukwu, pigeon hearted and without a mind of his own. He drew courage from the circle. The ill-tempered setting of Sopuru gave him status and we related with him accordingly to avoid bad bloods. And myself, well, apart from being the tallest, I was the most scared. By and large, my friends were carefree and always ready to explore. So was myself but with a disciplined mind and leg.
“Inaghi eme k’nwa Aba, ina eme anya ura too much–You do not act like an Aba boy, you are too dull” my play mates seldom attacked me. Who cares? “Better to be a dullard, than a money minting machine”. These comforting lines never left my senses. It was invariably on tap to bring me calm whenever they tried to bend my mind.
One hot Friday afternoon around 2pm, I came home from school, tired and spent, and found clusters of strange faces inside our compound. There was something disturbing their body languages, something I couldn’t get my finger on. I didn’t need a diviner to tell me something was wrong. Jaws were propped with hands, hands folded across chests while forlorn expressions sat on faces. I ran into the house immediately and flung my school bag onto the well-made bed, removed my dust coated brown sandals and tossed my dirty white socks to god knows where. Without removing my school uniform, I stormed out of the room on bare foot, driven by something bigger than me. I could feel the erratic beat of my heart. With my little frame, I wormed my way through the maze of clustered neighbours. Their numbers had increased. My eyes were fixed on people’s lips, so was my pricked flappy ears as it strained to make sense of what their moving lips were saying, but no luck. They talked in toned-down voices. It was torture for me.
Closing in on the next cluster by my left, I saw a familiar figure. It was Sopuru. I got closer and tapped him gently on his left shoulder and he whirled around immediately. Upon beholding his face, it confirmed my fear. His round face was moist with tears, his cat like eyes very red. I felt a sharp burn across my chest instantly. With a disturbed expression all over my face I asked…
“Sopuru, kedu ihe n’eme–What is going on?” I watched as his trembling lips struggled to assemble an answer while his tears flowed freely. Tears of the heart, so strong. I felt a warm wet line seep through my eyes and I choked it back immediately. My waterworks was raring for an expression but I had to be sure what the disturbing scene was all about before I obliged it. So with a slippery voice, I pursued the question the second time and he pointed at the far end of the wall on his left where a woman sat. From her saggy arm muscles and loud complexion, I quickly recognized her, it was Ikechukwu’s mum. The woman was an emotional wreck. She was crying bitterly. She could not contain herself.
The heart wrenching sight activated my bare foot again and I found myself slowly moving towards her. As soon as I came within sight, a wave of relief momentarily came over her moist face. She reached out, pulled me very close and searched my teary eyes with desperate intensity.
“Nna, biko, gwanu’m, Ifugo Ikechukwu nwa’m– My dear, please tell me, have you seen Ikechukwu my son?” She cried.
“Mba” I waved my head and lines of tears seaped through.
“Chi’m egbue’m o!” She bellowed out in agony as she reached for the skies with both hands and threw herself to the concrete floor and it engaged the consoling stretched hands of the sorrounding neighbours. Some of them cried along and it made me cry some more. It now became obvious something terrible had happened to my friend. But what was it? “Was he knocked down by a car or….” My head was filled with disturbing imaginations.
Unable to deal with the heart tugging scene in front and around me, I walked back to Sopuru who was now joined by Nzube. Both kids looked worn out from tears. Pale faces with crimson eyes. I began to press for detailed explanations and Nzube walked me through it all. Ikechukwu has been missing for past thirty six hours. That he had left home for school early yesterday and is yet to return. I felt my breathe caught in my throat. My waterworks flowed freely this time and I allowed it. I wept until I lost my voice. I wept until my tear duct had nothing left.
One after another my two friends parted and left for their various houses but I remained there until sundown began to close in. Finally, I picked myself up and lumbered into our nearby room with shoulder slouched like a sad puppy. I lay curled on the bed quietly while I sniffed back tears. Weeks passed, months passed, yet none of it came without past fragments of Ikechukwu’s memory; the fun old times and fights I once had with my departed play mate. They played in my head and It was as clear as a polished mirror.
Six months later, I was whisked off to the boarding house and till date, the sudden disappearance of ‘mgbogbo’ as he was fondly called, still remains a mystery. But somewhere, I was convinced beyond every doubt he fell victim of the naira note that came from hell.