Like every other day, I was buried in the deep slumber I finally had the chance to savor, and like every other night, it was predestined to be another short sleep. Needless to say that it was necessary to make the best use of that moment before we were awoken to the new day’s burdens.
I had not closed my eyes for ten minutes when cold hands stabbed my feet gently. I struggled to keep my eyes open, Was it morning already? Mornings came quite early, but how was this day’s earlier than the usual? And the waking too, was calm, almost the soft touch of pure fraud, unlike the hit from oga’s boot which came more times than I can recall. Something was wrong, I told myself as I scratched the itchy point I had been tapped. I was still held in the world between dream and reality, fighting very hard to get as much of that sweetness I could before reality unplugged me.
‘Liyu!’ A whispered voice called out, and I knew immediately who had uttered my name.
‘Ladi.’ I yawned, as my eyes squinted to greet the brightly shining torch directly confronting my face. ‘Is it morning already? Is there a problem?’
‘Shhhh!’ My 14 year old brother shushed, gesticulating with an index finger across his lips. ‘We are leaving today… now in fact!’ He said rapidly, although in a whisper.
It took a few seconds before the words sank in. I repeated the words again and again in my brain, so that I could fully comprehend the meaning. ‘Today? Leaving?’
‘There’s no time to think about this Ladi. I already told you.’
And just like that, his hands pulled mine up and I instinctively began to crouch after him in the morning darkness. For a brief moment, I wondered if it was safe to run out of this house wearing just my shorts and a torn shirt with no foot wears; it wasn’t like I had any meaningful foot wear any way, but the different pair of torn slipper I usually wore still meant something to me. As soon as we crossed the main passage through to the backyard door, I heard Ladi lift the wooden frame to avoid its notorious noisy creak, then I realized that our other clothes had already been tucked into a small Ghana-must-go bag which my brother carried against his back as we started making our way out of the compound.
First, we tiptoed in a single file, ensuring that no sound escaped us, until we got to the open gate of the compound. It wasn’t a surprise to see the gates open, the goats that paraded the neighborhood and littered the entire compound with dungs ensured that always. We made our way in that dark, out of the compound, and then walking as fast as we could, so that we would not raise suspicion of other passerby.
It was hard to believe that we were actually going to leave the notorious residence we stayed finally, this amusing thought made it difficult to swallow a fist of phelm that congealed in my throat. It still appeared to me like one of my early morning duties of errand running. I still felt that when we got to some point around, my brother would just turn around and laugh at me for actually believing that we were going to run, and then send us back into the most unwanted compound we usually lamented about.
As we proceeded, I kept smiling to myself, it was too sweet a thought to consider where an eleven year old boy like myself was heading, with a brother that’s barely four years older. To me, it was anywhere but back. Our feet made over joyous sounds as it scrunched the sandy path that led out of the district.
The morning breeze was misty, and I could feel droplets of dew perching on my hard skin. There was no electricity in the street, only a few houses had weak lights reflecting from them through their windows, but as we walked, we came by no one, and we didn’t hear the sounds of people sweeping their compound, as was the first activity in every home once someone in the home was awake.
‘Do you know what time it is?’ I requested politely, after we had walked a few miles.
‘I don’t know,’ my brother responded, ‘But I could still hear Oga snoring when I woke up.’ Ladi panted, he was trudging under the load he carried, but he made no attempt to invite me to assist him.
I exhaled, as we kept moving. It still seemed like a dream. I was still somehow expecting that by the time I woke from this sweet dream, even Ladi himself would laugh me to scorn. A few more miles, and some birds chirped and flew. They were obviously not expecting such an early disturbance from their secret lovemaking. The sounds of crickets chirping and croaking toads emanated from virtually every dark spot. Ladi deliberately turned off the big Oga’s torch he had carried along. I didn’t disturb myself to imagine what would happen when Oga finally wakes up to discover that his precious touch was gone. I could not say for certain that he would miss us any more than he would miss his precious torch, and I did not even bother to think about how Ladi had been able to sneak it from Oga’s watch. This would be another sweet story for another day.
We kept walking in silence; only our scrunching feet and our labored exhales supported the noise from the morning animals. The cold harmattan mist settled on our lungs providing the chill necessary for our great mischief.
We walked past the popular Ikebe Super Spot, where most of the touts in the area kept their late nights drinking and sleeping with cheap prostitutes. A few bottles of beer lie fallow towards the entrance of the interior section, with a dozen crates of well-arranged bottles. That section was only demarcated by a railing of wooden construction covered with curtain, behind the curtain was a glowing flicker of local hurricane lamp. It gave the room a dim illumination without grotesque shadows on the wall, most of the occupants were still very much asleep and as we walk by the spot, we could hear the dead snores of drunk men.
‘Avoid walking near the light!’ Ladi called out.
His voice sent me crossing to the other side of the road immediately, but my ear already caught the unconscious talks of one of the drunken men as he insentiently demanded for one of the sweetest chicks. I smiled, not knowing whether to laugh or not.
We crossed the muddy lane rightwards, the entire street was silent now but still murky, thick droplets of fogs blurred our views even more despite the natural darkness that hovered around us. Even the crying crickets seemed to have been fumigated away from this new ominous street. It was the more modern part of the area and we hoped that people here would have been awake. But as we kept walking, we encountered no one still. We turned again to the right, and walked past Merciless Football Centre. I stumbled on a frame, it was the huge black board which sat had earlier balance weakly on its wooden tripod feet, on which match fixtures were written for fans’ notice.
‘Careful!’ Ladi bellowed, ‘Watch where you are going.’
I stood and nodded, and we kept moving in that dark. Walking past houses, and shops and complexes; some were lite from the previous night, while others were thickly dark. We walked past closed stalls. It was the first time I would witness the emptiness of a well crowded market. The traders resumed early and closed late, but with there not being a single soul in the arena, I began to wonder what time Ladi had brought us out of the house.
Suddenly, amidst the dark and quiet grotesque silhouettes of the market structures, a bright torch reflection flashed in our direction. It took some minutes to discover that it came from a fearful night watchman who was supposed to be watching over the market but had been undoubtedly caught unawares from a comfortable slumber, obviously because he wasn’t expecting any intruder at such hour.
‘Who is that? I said stop there!’ He yelled sporadically, in a much shaken voice.
This was going to be the end of our attempt at an escape, I told myself, as I watched my brother reduce the gap of his stride and finally stop at a spot, and having no choice, I stood just beside him.
The man was too afraid to come over, as was the way of Africans, he feared that we might not be mortals, he simply withdrew his whistle from his pocket and began to alert the others by blowing at it very desperately before we would think of transforming into our actual forms and probably flying away. I froze. I wondered what punishment oga would serve us when we were reported to him. There was simply no end to what would befall us. Oga might have anticipated anything but this; An attempt to run away from him? – being our savior! – the only man who had boldly decided, amidst all odds, to take care of us since the death of our parents, and this was how we chose to pay him back? Running away? I simply couldn’t reach the end of it.
I swallowed a gulp of saliva with great difficulty. My brother’s bravery had now become stark folly. I was overwhelmed with the same feeling the children of Israel must have had after Moses led them out of Egypt to confront an overpowering red sea without any means of escape… Even our family members would not forgive us for such a foolish venture. No one was ever willing to take up our responsibility since the death of our parents, and with this outcome, we have only given everyone a strong justification to back up their intentions. Now, we would have to survive with so much hardship staying with oga, and that was if the old soldier decides to take us back in.
I began to wish that we had been more reasonable about the approach. I hadn’t even been let in the know, the entire idea had been cooked up by my elder brother, and like an human lemming, I had just allowed myself to be used by him. Only now was I wishing I had somehow protested and perhaps kept us both safe.
The watchman’s whistle still bellowed wildly, and his torch light still remained glued to our backs. From a distance, we could hear a similar whistle. The concept of this whistling was to unite the entire guards in the area, so that they can all apprehend whoever the culprit was.
‘Liyu.’ Ladi beckoned me over.
I made attempts to walk towards him, but a quick stern instruction from the guard drew me back.
‘Liyu,’ he continued stubbornly, keeping his voice so low so that the guard would not hear from where he stood, ‘we have to go, we can’t afford to go back and stay in Oga’s house.’ My brother declared finally.
A second guard finally made it to our position. He walked closer to his partner and they began to talk about us. They were considering apprehending us immediately or waiting for the others to arrive before they did, – needless to say that they were afraid that these seeming small boys could be immortal spirits taking human forms.
Ladi dropped the big bag behind himself, and he began to count down from three. I knew what to do when he was done, and immediately he yelled; ‘Go!’ we both began to run swiftly in criss-cross paths. Our immediate move scared the guards so fearfully that immediately they heard the sound of our races, they were disoriented and they also ran in completely different paths, giving room for us to come back to pick our bag if we wanted too, but we were only too excited at the turnout of our action that we kept running for a long time.
With the renewed strength, Ladi ran ahead while I followed closely, until we entered into a different area and we began to hear the sound of early Morning Prayer from a nearby mosque. Morning was here already! we slowed our pace, and panted heavily as we sought a place to rest a bit.
We were now sure that no one could apprehend us now since morning was already over us, and brightness had chased the darkening clouds away, but where we were going to head towards from where we now were still remained a blurry hope. What kept this hope alive however, was where we were coming from. It didn’t matter if we were going to remain poor all our lives, it just didn’t fit that we stayed in a place where we were incessantly confronted with hunger, pains and hatred. We found comfort under a table in front of a container shop, above the table were chairs and benches, all chained together to avoid theft, and a cloth was spread over it to conceal the furniture, so that market thieves would not be enticed at seeing it. We simply lay underneath the table, nestling in each other’s arms as we covered ourselves with the cloth. The cloth didn’t keep the cold off, but I felt completely safe in my brother’s arms, with that satisfying feeling that we were never going back to oga’s house.
I didn’t know what Ladi was thinking about this adventure, I didn’t even know how he was hoping to keep us through all of this, but what I was very sure about was that this freedom meant something. It was to be the beginning of our actual life since the death of our parents. We were never going to be told to do what we didn’t like to do anymore. For me, I believe that we could now watch other kids with caring parents, and then act like them as proper children were meant to do. The feeling of freedom was quite sweet, and for a ten year old boy, it was just as sweet nonetheless. I snugged myself into my brother’s arms, it was comfortable and as sweet as the feeling of freedom and sleep gently took me away, only this time, I knew that I was never again going to be awoken by oga’s boots.
Written by ‘Deji Akin’
Author of “The Ujuzi”