Our principal, a no-nonsense man, was always guided by his word. Last week, he had repeatedly asked us to pay our school fees to avoid dismissal. Some students had complied; others had not. In what he called his own magnanimity, he had given us the grace of extra four days. So when he came to school this cool, Friday morning, he went to every class and drove out students who had not paid. I was one.
We were now outside, milling around, reluctant to go home. Some were saying that the principal had increased the fees to enrich himself, that students in other State secondary schools were paying less.
The man, perhaps observing our reluctance to leave the premises, came out of his office with a bamboo cane and began to herd us out, the way nomads drive their cattle. He threatened that he would make anybody he caught go through the mill. But his threat goaded the students on to jeer at him, to call him names such as Isi-Udele, in reference to his bald head resembling that of a vulture.
Sensitive about the possible consequence of the row, I slung my schoolbag over my shoulder and left. I wanted to go straight and see Daddy in his shop at Oye Awgu in Enugu south and to tell him what had happened. It was a distance I could walk.
When I reached the line to his shop, some traders started calling me to buy cloths from them. Some of them, especially young men, tugged at my fraying short-sleeved white shirt and fading dark-blue trousers, telling me that they had quality material for school uniform, unwilling to accept my explanation that I didn’t want to by any cloth. One of them, a robust middle-aged man, pulled me into his shop to show me what he called “quality material made in Holland.” But after I told him that I needed the one made in Nigeria, that it was better than imported one, just to make him leave me, he got irritated and said in English, “This your head, which is like a pumpkin, is not correct. How could you say that made-in-Nigeria material is better than imported ones?” I finally broke free, and as I walked out of his shop he added, “You look like somebody who will eat government money if they give you a chance.”
I laughed and told him to go and learn the art of correct expression in English. Annoyed, he started cursing me, but in whisper I was saying, “Back to the sender.”
Lucy, Daddy’s salesgirl, was standing beside a desk at the front corner of the shop when I got there. She was slim, like fashion show girls, tall and twenty-two; she had on a sequined red dress. Although her narrow face and nose were inviting, she had a deep voice that might repulse some men. She had been Daddy’s salesgirl for a year and two months.
“Welcome, Ejezie,” she said.
“Daddy is not around?” I entered the shop.
“He went to see his sick friend.”
“When will he be back?”
“He didn’t tell me, but I guess he won’t spend much time there.”
I pulled an empty stool and got seated. The shop was stocked with tailoring materials, which Daddy dealt in, and I was glad that his business was flourishing.
For about five minutes, I remained silent, thinking that Lucy might ask why I had come at this time of day since I rarely came there. But she didn’t ask. Instead, she faced outside, her lips moving. I bent down to unbuckle my right sandal, which had started hurting my big toe. As I slipped off my feet, I heard “since morning.” I looked up. Lucy’s lips were still busy.
“What did you say?” I asked.
She kept silent.
She turned. “Did you call me?”
I was not amused. “Why did you say ‘since morning’?”
“Did I say anything?”
“You said ‘since morning’. What’s wrong?”
“Don’t mind me. I was thinking of sales. Since morning, I haven’t sold anything.”
“It shall be well.” I bent down again to undo the buckle.
Gram, gram, gram rang a bell outside and then followed by a sonorous male voice. He was giving out a message to the traders. And this was the message: People should go to their wards and register and obtain their voter’s card. “Your vote is your power,” he emphasised, “and you should not sell your soul in the forthcoming elections. Enough of evil and uncompassionate leaders. If our country should be better, we must exercise our franchise wisely. We must not elect those with poisonous and stinking profiles. We must not elect those who dream for our country without waking up from their dreams. We must not elect those who claim to have visions without a clear roadmap to realizing them. For an unrealized vision is dead. We must say no to evil government with our votes. We must stop allowing our children to be used as cannon fodders for election thuggery.” He rang the bell again, now with a high pitch. “Where are the Mandelas of our time? Now is the time to show yourself or never.”
I had moved closer to the door to see this messenger of hope. He had now come down in front of our shop, a medium-sized albino, between twenty-five and thirty. He had on a black cowboy hat, a navy blue V-necked polo shirt, white jean trousers, and white canvas shoes with deep grooves. The tightness of the black belt round his waist gave his belly a slight protuberance. His skin, as smooth as the egg of a hen, had successfully resisted the Nigerian sun notoriously merciless to his breed.
After he passed, he rang his bell again and gave the same message. It was like something rehearsed. While some traders and passers-by were mocking him as a madman for announcing an election that was still two years ahead, others were urging him to carry on, saying that they liked his English, that his madness was with a difference. A woman passing by said she knew him very well. He had a mental case when he was at university and had to drop out.
In a shop opposite ours were sitting two women. One was fat and fair; the other, extremely short, had average body. Her feet could hardly touch the floor from the stool on which she was seated.
“Don’t mind that beggar,” the short one said. “Perhaps he has been paid to do this job.”
“Yes,” responded the fat one. “He has. How many people in this country perform a selfless service anymore?”
“If a politician gives him only five thousand naira now, he will be the first to snatch a ballot box for that politician.”
“Of course he will. He is now sounding like a saint.”
I tried to pinpoint where the young man had erred to deserve these women’s criticism, but I could not. He was simply sensitizing his audience to be wise during elections, and he was non-partisan, at least from his message. I counted him a patriot, even if he had a mental problem, or had been paid to do the job.
“I wish I were educated enough,” the short woman went on.
“Why did you say so?”
“You are asking me why, Lebem? See you oh. I would have closed my shop here and joined in politics, the quickest way of becoming a millionaire now in our country.”
“Yes, there is no doubt about that. But can you do what many politicians do to get power?”
“When I join them, I will learn to walk on the steps.”
“You had better learn to walk on your business here.”
Both of them laughed.
“Politics is sweet,” the short woman said.
“Very, very sweet, I tell you. During elections in my State, politicians share us bags of rice and salt, cartons of milk, tinned tomatoes, noodles, biscuits, and yards of cloths. Politics is sweet.” She drawled the last word and laughed louder.
“I disagree with you if that is your idea of ideal politics.”
“I can’t accept anything from anybody to avoid voting against my conscience.”
“Ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaa! I thought you had something important to say. Stay there, Lebem. Stay there and die of hunger. Virtuous woman. Who talks about conscience these days?”
“What happens after the distribution of those gift items? Do such politicians fulfill their election promises after emerging victorious?”
“That’s not my concern, whether they fulfill their promises or not. When they get power, they can do whatever they like, but if they give me something before then, I’ll receive it and vote for them.”
“Well, if you insist on receiving their gifts, go ahead but do vote for the right candidate.”
“You amuse me, Lebem. Who is the right candidate?”
“The person who will not betray his or her conscience and the collective will of the masses.”
“How can you know the person?”
“People don’t yet come from the moon or other worlds. Politicians were born somewhere and so have profiles. Through their records we can assess and identify the better ones.”
“How can you be sure that a person you judged as good now will still remain so after acquring power? Haven’t you heard that power corrupts?”
“Power doesn’t corrupt. It is politicians that corrupt power. Power is as pure as a virgin.”
“I know you are a teacher. So when you go to class, teach your students that one.”
Lebem stood up. “We should always assess those vying for political posts and choose the right candidates.”
“Who has time for such assessment? You talk as if you were not in this country.”
“You know I am. Fully.”
“The right candidate for me is the one who gives me money or cloths or foodstuffs. After all, what you have eaten is the only thing you can take to your grave.”
“So much for your ideology, Ije,” Lebem sneered. “What about those who have no grave after their death?”
I had the urge to go and shut the short woman up, to tell her that as she was short, so were her ideas. I wanted to tell her to listen to her more enlightened friend. I wanted to tell her that her types were pulling our country a century backwards. I wanted to make her understand that the future of the youth depended on the brand of politicians we had, not on the quantity of blasted foodstuffs and other damn gifts people were given during electioneering. But the albino had turned and was coming back, still ringing his bell.
“Yes, my people,” he shouted. “What our senators did is right. Banning gay marriage. Such a ban will make our democracy work better. It will give us good roads. It will give us potable pipe-born water and low-cost housing. It will help our educational institutions function better. It will provide us with constant electricity and quality health care. It will give employment to our jobless youth, and provide food for the helpless orphans and widows. Above all, it will force some government officials to vomit the money they have stolen. Our corrupt-free senators, kudos for the law. Kill off all the gays! We may tolerate them in future, but not now.” He rang his bell again and walked past.
People started laughing. I became convinced that he had a mental problem, though he was still making sense.
While he left, a shrill voice down the passage changed the comic atmosphere. I looked and saw a lady, bare-footed, galloping up like a horse. Pursuing her was an angry mob shouting after her. Two shops before ours, she stumbled and fell. Before she could get up, her pursuers caught up with her. A young woman was the first person who biffed her. She staggered, fell down and her handbag slipped off her hand. Others joined in to beat her up. A boy tugged at one of her big, circular earrings. The ring tore her earlobe and blood began to issue. He chucked away the ring, held her permed hair, and shook it violently. Some tufts filled his hands. Throwing them away, he slapped her cheeks, and a piece of chewing gum jumped out of her mouth and her nose started bleeding. Another boy grabbed her yellow sleeveless and backless top and tore it together with her white bra. He quickly hooked his hand on her waist and pulled off her perforated white belt that had held her tight, black jean trousers. Within two minutes, she was stripped naked, except for her white knickers whose crotch had been discoloured, perhaps by her menses. She rolled her body, the colour of light brown leather, and struggled vainly to break free. She cried out with poignancy that she had committed no offence. But a girl, about twenty, saturated with sweat, rushed and picked the handbag on the passage, unzipped it and fished out a sparkling golden necklace.
“Look at it here,” she shouted and raised the chain. “She bought a finger ring at our shop down there and gave me money to find change for her. When I went out to look for the change, she took the necklace and left, thinking that nobody had seen her. She is a thief!”
“She has to be necklaced!” a boy thundered. “Somebody should get petrol quickly.” The boy dashed out, his naked upper body glistening with sweat. I feared that he was going to fetch a used car tire for burning the lady.
Now they stood her erect and began to rough her up again. Having lost so much energy, she slumped backwards. I thought they would leave her and run away at this time, but never. Some seized her hands and started dragging her on the floor back to where they had come from. I knew that before they reached their destination, her body would have been bleeding profusely from grazing the rough passage. I prayed that they would never find any car tire, and that the police would intervene at once.
“It has been long such a thing happened here,” Lucy said. “How could such a beauty have disgrace herself publicly? Just for a mere necklace. She is a disgrace to her family.”
I could not talk. The incident chilled my whole body. My head became dizzy as I imagined the girl struggling to get out of a pit of fire. I felt for her as if she were my sister—no—my wife. I hated the way she had been mauled. I hated the boy that had torn her top and bra. I hated the manner her enticing, conical breasts had been punched. I imagined delicious milk oozing from those breasts, looking for a baby to quench its hunger. The whole picture upset me, and quickly I got back to our shop and got my things and left, wishing I had not witnessed the barbarism.