A childhood memory of Christmas.
It starts with the sun: the large red disc that appears at dusk up behind the houses and right atop the Fadama. The sun and then the smells: the scent of dust and bush fires and finally the aroma of fried meat and frying tomatoes. The sun assumed that colour and particular position only when Christmas was near. As far as we knew, Christmas, fell from that red disc and arrived floating on the scents of the harmattan.
In those times, Christmas celebration was not confined to any religion. It was a communal festival that got all the angwa involved. For us children, it was the best time of our lives. Parental discipline reduced in severity as the scent of dust and bush fires changed to that of fried meat. On Christmas day itself, childhood freedom knew no restrictions. With merry hearts and with heads sporting the latest Bobby Brown or MC hammer hairstyles, boys knew Christmas was the onetime they could get away with any mischief.
The Chief and Supreme ruler of all the pleasures of the season was the Bangers or Knock-outs. It was the largest singular cause of disappearance of coins, naira notes and other loose change from purses and beneath pillows. Any boy in those days who could not boast of his exploits with Bangers or embellish his favourite scenes in the movie Sinbad the Sailor or The 7 Lucky Kids might as well not be alive.
With Bangers wars were fought, territories claimed, manliness confirmed and girls impressed. We smoked them, exploded lizards and frogs with them, besieged rat holes, scattered fowls in poultry and disrupted church services. It was a feat to hold a Banger and have it explode in ones hands. The braver boys even lit Bangers and stuck it to their lips. Heroes were born from these feats. It did not matter that many lips suffered from blisters totally different from the ravages of the harmattan, or that many hands suffered burns that had nothing to do with the bush burnings in search of rats.
Exploding knock-outs was a grievous offense as far as mothers were concerned. But fathers pretended not to hear the bangs and in some cases unobtrusively placed cash were it would be pilfered by sons.
I recall a particular Christmas Eve that ended in tragedy, although we didn’t know at the time.
I was with Danlami and Ibro that evening in the Tudun Wada Housing Estate Minna. The large red disc had almost climbed out of site behind the houses, many doors were open to the harmattan wind and the aroma from the chimneys mixed up in the air reminding everyone that tomorrow was Christmas. The estate houses were built in rows of twelve 3 Bedroom flats, such that, block A faced block B and block C faced block D flats. The three of us lived in block E. A large space between the blocks served as car park, playground, football pitch, and venue for naming ceremonies and birthday parties. Danlami had managed to obtain one stick of the Rocket Banger – an expensive brand of Fire cracker boys loved because when stuck in the ground and lit the banger will fly high into the air before exploding with a loud bang and fireworks. But the Rocket Banger didn’t always fly straight into the air. That evening as the air resonated with bangs and the estate grounds filled with children enjoying and cheering the Banger throwers, Ibro and I served as back up as Danlami did the honours.
He stuck the Rocket into a mound of sharp sand and lit the fuse. Other kids who had gathered round us scattered as the Rocket sizzled and rose into the air. The Rocket didn’t maintain its upright trajectory. As we watched, it took a dive towards Mama Enoch’s open door. Mama Enoch had always been old to most of us, her grandson, Enoch was some years older than we were, and like his uncles had the habit of sending us on errands to buy things without giving us money – and we had to go if we wanted to keep watching Chucky and Home alone through their window.
The Rocket flew through the open door vacated by the billowing curtains and in the instant it exploded we saw the old woman topple from a chair in the sitting room. Few seconds later Enoch and his uncles rushed out and we fled. We later learned that she suffered a stroke and died in January. Nobody said it was Danlami’s Rocket.
Blue Pickup was a man named after his blue Peugeot 404 truck. The truck had become the means of free transportation to all the children in the neighbourhood – those fast enough to avoid Blue Pickup’s Koboko whips. This transport system was forced labour, as neither the man nor his vehicle had any opinion in the matter. Blue Pickup’s children attended school in Bosso area of town; unfortunately for him most children in the town also attended schools in the same Bosso. As his truck was open-ended he found himself constantly overloaded by hordes of children to and from school. The children had taken the habit of hiding behind his gate in the mornings or waiting for him after school when he comes for his own children. It wasn’t that Blue Pickup was mean; there were just so many kids that his truck could endure. And countless young bodies have fallen from the back as he drove. There was a time the Pickup was so overloaded that it couldn’t climb the Shiroro fly-over bridge. After countless appeals to the children who preferred to spend their transport fares and ride the free awoof, the man, frustrated, bought the Koboko to help remedy the situation. His Koboko proved useless for as soon as he stopped to flog the illegal passengers off his truck the children would scamper away only to return immediately he got behind the steering wheel. Many times this war between Blue Pickup and his insistent passengers happened on the high way, and was usually very comical to other commuters and road users.
And so on this same Eve, a gate in a block E flat opened and the Blue Pickup backed out slowly. Children were waiting for him. Like bush fires in harmattan, news quickly spread that Blue Pickup was heading to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Niteco Road. In minutes the truck was piled high with children, Muslims and Christians alike, many sitting atop the car roof. Blue Pickup, perhaps, knew that his koboko would be useless against this particular throng as he made no effort to combat the assault. He drove us slowly to the church.
Adults might go to the church to receive mass and to worship, but for us, Our Lady of Fatima was Children Centre, a place for gymnastics, deflation of car tires, smashing of windows and Police-and-Thief games.
It was on this Christmas Eve and in this church that Spanzy became famous. 1-Rounders or 2-Rounders as we called the Bangers according to their explosions was all most of us had ever seen. 8- Rounders were very expensive and rare. But Abdullahi Jubril Kuta a.k.a Spanzy, son of Commissioner Kuta had managed to acquire a 32-Rounder. Unthinkable! Word spread. All other side attractions were suspended as we gathered round him. Spanzy knew how to prolong suspense to maximum effect. With baited breaths we watched in awe and envy as he gingerly removed the fire-cracker from its wrap and slowly lowered it to the ground. Match boxes appeared from eager hands but Spanzy nonchalantly dug his hands into his USA jeans and brought out a Lighter. Whispers carried in the harmattan that Spanzy had a Lighter. His kingship was instantly reconfirmed. In those times, Lighters and Telephones were property of the rich. With exaggerated thoroughness he lit the banger and as it sizzled we scattered. There was a lull after the sizzle and then the explosions came. It was glorious! Cheers followed the staccato. Spanzy, the hero beamed as he received pats and handshakes from his admirers. For many, that Christmas Eve was the height of the whole season. Tales of the 32 -Rounder would be told far into the January school term.
After the Christmas Eve, things usually simmered down until New Year Day. Christmas Day, aside from the overfeeding was a quiet day for many homes in Minna. Most of the day was spent watching videos of Devil Sword, Big trouble in little China, No Retreat, No Surrender and Commando. 26th December would have seen better excitement as visiting day and a day to explode more Bangers but the excitement was usually hampered by constipated stomachs and indigestions from the previous day’s over feeding.
Nostalgia drew me back to Minna last Christmas. The red disc looked forlorn and as dry as everything else. The acrid smell of bush fires was not tempered by any aroma. The town seemed to be trapped in the Minute-Silence observed for Blue Pickup who crashed with the Pickup 10 years this harmattan. Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church was as quiet as its graveyard. Where were the children? What happened to Bangers?
Who killed Christmas?