By Michael Emeka
A brisk wind stirred up waste papers, old cellophane bags, dead leaves and empty containers from the refuse dump by the roadside and chased them across the street. I didn’t see the objects because it was pitch-dark. But I felt them skitter past me, some getting caught at my feet. And I heard the solid ones knock against the walls of buildings just as the wind pushed past me on its way.
On other nights, even if I’d had occasion for these experiences, they wouldn’t have registered in my brain. I would have been disconnected from the world to take note of them. On those nights, the sky receded further from me; the stars shone with hostile intensity; the road developed vast and terrifying undulations, and I’d trip along, lifting my feet higher than is necessary, trying to master the bumpy road; seeing the surrounding darkness peopled with dark and shifting sinister forms, but seeing nothing, hearing many sounds, but hearing nothing. Onwards I’d go, propelled by the demons of liquor.
My wife Amuche passed away eight months ago. Throughout that time, this was one of a few nights I was going home sober.
Since the woman’s death, I had lived my life borne on a great tide of denial. Why didn’t I stop her from going on that trip? Why wasn’t I the one driving that vehicle? I would have been more careful. If only… If only… I’d lost her in an auto crash.
Alcoholism was my prescription for the sorrow that swamped me following the accident. And I’d chosen that path to quieten the many voices in my head. Sobriety had become a torment, arriving each morning with the rising sun. And I’d wake to find myself in our bed, alone, clear-eyed and fully conscious of my surroundings, the voices muted the night before chattering away.
But tonight, to my surprise, I didn’t drink. Why I chose not to, I couldn’t fathom.
I stepped on an empty plastic container and almost lost my balance. Angry, I kicked out at the container and sent it hurtling into the darkness. A black cat jumped and let off a vicious hiss. Young lovers huddled in the blackness went rigid for a few seconds as I trudged past them. “Why is that fellow so grumpy?” they must have wondered.
Reaching home, I lifted my right hand and banged on our front gate. The gate shook, the noise carrying in the silent night so that in no time Ada, fifteen, the elder of his two children, came and unbolted it.
‘Ilo. Welcome,’ she greeted in Igbo.
‘Ehe. Thank you.’ I stepped into the compound, closing the gate behind me. ‘How are you two?’
‘Anyi di nma. We’re fine.’ She lingered for a bit after I’d bolted the gate and then followed me towards the living room.
She’d been sniffing the air.
‘I didn’t drink tonight if that’s what you’re checking,’ I told her.
‘No. I…’ She trailed off, taken aback. When she recovered, she said, ‘I wasn’t thinking about that.’
‘I just thought you should know.’
Emerie, Ada’s younger brother, had appeared and now stood on the front door’s threshold. He greeted me, and I returned the greeting.
‘There’s no light?’ I asked the children. The whole place was in total darkness.
‘No.’ Emerie shook his head. ‘They took it this evening.’
‘We’ll not see it again tonight then?’
‘I heard they’re rationing it,’ Ada said.
I hissed. ‘When I hear they’re rationing power in China, I know there’s massive industrialization taking place there, which has resulted in the power shortage. Here, there’s no marked industrialization taking place and yet we can’t have a regular power supply.’
The metal front door clicked shut as Ada came in and closed it behind her.
The living room was lit by a candle stub standing on the shiny bottom of an empty beverage container turned upside down on the dining table. The amber flame trembled without ceasing, making the shadows it threw around the room dance endlessly.
I looked towards Ada. ‘What did you prepare?’
‘Yam.’ She rolled over on the settee she was lying on.
I sighed. ‘I’m not hungry.’ I glanced around the empty room. The room wasn’t empty per se. But since Amuche’s passing, the room, the house, now appeared that way to me. And then the silence. The house seemed so silent now, without the light melodious sound of her laughter, without her sweet soprano voice raised in singing. The whole place seemed shrouded in silence, deep, deep silence.
Sighing again, I rose, took the torch standing face down on the dining table and moved towards the bedroom I once shared with my late wife.
The room was spacious. A double bed with a prominent headboard stood in one corner. An imitation of a tallboy stood in another. Lace curtains hung down from silver rails above the two windows of the room.
The floor tiles felt cold under my feet as I walked to the bed and sat down. The bed creaked. It felt warm to my touch.
Glancing around the room, I breathed in and exhaled. The air still smelt of Amuche. Her musky perfume hung in my nostrils as if the scent was permanently embedded there.
I shut my eyes and then lowered myself on to the bed. But scarcely had I done that when a loud thud sounded in the compound. The sound transmitted easily through the house because of the prevailing silence.
Alarmed, my eyes flew open. Gripping the torch harder, I rose and moved towards the door. But just as I yanked it open, Emerie and his sister stood there, their eyes bright with tension.
Ada pointed towards the window. ‘I think someone just jumped into our compound.’
‘Wait here. The two of you.’ I went off towards the kitchen and then returned with a machete. ‘Stay in the bedroom. And keep the door locked.’ I didn’t fear someone might get in through the windows because of their metal protectors.
Gripping the machete in my right hand and with the torch in my left, I moved into the living room and then proceeded towards the front door. Halfway to it, I changed my mind and went to check things out through one window. But just as I reached it, parted the curtains and put my face against it, I heard my name ‘Osondu! Osondu!’ spoken with urgency from the other side of the same window.
Gasping, I fell back in fright, heart racing in my chest.
‘Osondu! Osondu it’s me, Jang, your neighbour. Please open up. Some people are after me.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I queried. I knew Jang, my journalist neighbour, and recognized his voice. But I couldn’t figure out why he should be in such a state. And to even think he had just jumped into my compound.
‘Some people are after me,’ repeated Jang. ‘Please open up. Please.’
‘Who? Who’s after you?’
‘Please open up. I’ll tell you everything later.’
‘Go behind. I’ll open the back door.’
I rushed through the house, unbolted the metal back door and Jang scrambled in. ‘Lock the door, lock the door,’ he told me in a breathless voice. I complied and snapped the door’s bolt into place. And then I turned to him.
‘What’s wrong? Who’s after you?’ The beam of the torch revealed Jang to be uncharacteristically rough and dirty. His dark face shone with perspiration and lined with worry and fear. His eyes were bright with anxiety.
‘Soldiers,’ Jang answered.
‘Soldiers. Please, where can I hide? Hide me somewhere.’
‘Hide you? What have you done?’
‘There’s no time now to explain. Hide me before they get here.’
‘Hide you? Before they get here? Are they coming here?’
‘They might. They might.’
‘They might? Oh my God!’
‘I’m sorry for bringing you into this, but I had nowhere else to go.’
I was silent for a moment. I knew that as long as the army was in power, no one could get justice anywhere. If they caught Jang, a military fugitive, in my house, they would also arrest me. If for nothing else, then for aiding him. As long as you worked against them, you were a criminal.
‘I’m sorry, Osondu,’ Jang repeated. ‘Please understand. I had nowhere else to run, that’s why… Just hide me somewhere. Anywhere.’ He began into the house, looking for somewhere to conceal himself.
‘Calm down, Jang. Just give me an idea what this is all about.’
The man lowered his voice. ‘There’s no time now. I’ll tell you everything later. Just help escape arrest.’
‘Help you escape arrest?’
Jang sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Osondu. My having jumped into your compound was just an intuitive act. I wasn’t thinking.’
I regarded him with narrowed, anxious eyes, unsure of what to say or do. ‘Follow me.’
I led him to a cubicle-sized room used as a packing store. Opening the door, I shone the torchlight into it. A musty odour assailed us from across the room. Disused clothes, old shoes of various sizes and threadbare sheets and bedclothes were heaped on the old desk dominating the entire room. On the floor and leaning against the walls were a variety of mops and jute bags stuffed full of old clothes.
I played the torchlight on the ceiling. The seriousness of the matter warranted just how well I was going to hide my unexpected guest. And besides, by choosing to hide Jang, I was as much into it now as the journalist.
‘Move aside that piece of the ceiling and climb in,’ I told the man.
The compound’s gate shook at that moment as someone knocked loudly on it. The noise reverberated through the quiet night.
‘Show me the light, show me the light.’
Though Jang might not have relished the prospect of spending some time in the musty room any more than he would have done climbing the ceiling, upon hearing the knock on the gate, and the violence of it, he scrambled into the room and, standing on the jumble of items on the old desk, moved aside the manhole cover and went up into the dark, dirty and hot interior of the ceiling. He slipped the cover in place just as I closed the door and went to answer the knocking on the gate. By now the sound had grown more violent and noisier as if whoever was on the other side was using a piece of rock as his knocker.
‘Who is there?’ I asked, injecting into my voice a tone that was as authoritative as it was indifferent.
‘Open the gate!’ a more authoritative voice bawled from the other side.
‘Who are you? I must know before I—’
‘Will you open up, Mr Man! Or you’ll pay dearly for this delay.’
I unbolted the gate. And although Jang had intimated me soldiers might visit the house in pursuit of him, the surprise on my face was still genuine as my torchlight carved out from the darkness, countless legs sheathed in army camouflage uniforms. The men all carried AK-47 rifles, looking very dangerous.
As soon as I unbolted the gate, they pushed it further open and spilt into the compound.
‘You stupid man!’ the first of the soldiers said to me, back-handing me unexpectedly. And before I could recover, he gripped me by the scruff of the neck and shoved me downwards, face first, to the concrete floor of the yard. I narrowly missed having my face brushed against the hard floor.
‘Officer… I did not…’ I tried to explain.
Grinding a hard knee into my hip, the soldier spun the AK-47 rifle in his hand around and hammered the butt into my back, once, twice, thrice…
‘Officer, please, I didn’t know it was you people…’ The soldier continued to slam the butt of his gun into my back, drawing a grunt from me each time. When he stopped, I heard a dry metallic click and wondered who he was trying to shoot. Could it be me? For what?
Levelling the barrel of the cocked gun at me, the soldier was about to pull the trigger when a voice commanded, ‘Hold it!
The crooked finger froze above the trigger of the cocked rifle.
‘Bring him to me.’ The voice was Hausa-accented, cool and confident.
Gripping me by the nape of the neck, one soldier hurled me to my feet and shoved me towards their commanding officer.
They shone a brilliant light in my face, dazzling me. And as they moved the light away, I was blinded briefly, seeing more stars than there were in the sky. During that brief interval, though I couldn’t see the soldier who had shone the light in my face, I glimpsed features—a light skin, a long straight nose—that distinguished the soldier as Hausa-Fulani.
‘You knew we were the ones,’ said the soldier, ‘so you tried to buy time for your friend by stalling.’
‘My friend?’ The searing pain in my back was enough to concretize the look of puzzlement on my face. ‘My friend?’ I repeated. ‘Which of my friends? We lock our gate early because of robbers. Please, you can ask around. This area is known for armed robbery.’
‘Really? So nobody entered this compound tonight? Nobody jumped in over the fence?’
‘No, sir.’ I fell to my knees and lifted my two hands in the air. ‘Officer, please, this is my house. I share it with my two children. My wife is late. Anywhere you want to search, do so. I assure you there is no one else in this house other than my two children.’
‘Alright. And if we find someone?’
‘Do whatever you will with me.’
‘Search the house!’ the soldier barked. ‘Get up, let’s go,’ he said to me.
‘Officer where? I’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘To your living room.’
‘Okay, sir. Okay, sir.’
The soldiers numbered over a dozen, mean-faced and full of purpose. As soon as their CO gave the order, they poured into the house. Torches flashing and guns at the ready, they tramped briskly from room to room, searching every nook and cranny, illuminating every dark and hidden place, revealing their secrets. They shone their lights under beds and behind curtains, in closets, where they pushed clothes around, tossing a significant number to the floor. They searched the toilets and bathrooms despite the horrid smells that assailed them. In the store from where Jang had ascended into the ceiling, they played their torchlights from wall to wall. They rifled through the items jumbled together on the old desk, casting a good number of the old clothes into the corridor. But they found no one. If they had been more observant and less brisk, they might have noticed the fresh stains of earth on the desk.
One by one they trickled back into the living room, confirming they had found no one in the house save for the two children in the room.
I let out a slow sigh of relief. They might not have been merciful with me had they found Jang in my house. And the CO told me as much.
‘You’re lucky,’ the lieutenant said to me, his eyes shining with feline intensity. ‘Do not harbour criminals. Whoever harbours them has automatically made himself an accessory. Do you understand me?’
‘Your friend is guilty of serious offences against the state.’ I wondered at what court they had tried Jang and who the judges were. ‘If we had found him in your house, you would also have been guilty of the same offence. Or worse even considering you tried to conceal him from officers of the state trying to rid the system of criminals and dangerous elements.’
‘Yes, officer. I understand.’ I nodded my head vigorously.
‘Move out!’ In an equally brisk manner, the soldiers trooped out of my house. I followed them tentatively. And as soon as the last of them had passed through the gate, I allowed a little time to pass before shutting it. That way I wouldn’t appear eager for them to go.
Drawing the gate shut in a casual manner, I snapped the bolt home. Car doors slammed shut in front of the compound and engines turned over. I waited until the noise of the vehicles had dwindled, then I turned and went back into the house.
I didn’t go straight to call Jang down from the ceiling as soon as the soldiers left. I feared they might have posted a soldier or soldiers to wait around for such an eventuality.
About thirty minutes went by before I went to the store. ‘Jang! Jang!’ A muffled, ‘Mmm!’ came from above.
‘You can come down now. They’ve gone.’
Jang was a different person as he climbed down from the ceiling. Covered now in dust and grime and cobwebs, he looked like a labourer after a hard day’s work. I showed him the light as he tidied himself up.
‘What did they say I did?’
‘They said you’re guilty of serious offences against the state.’
The man chuckled. ‘I see they’ve already tried me.’
‘And guilty as charged?’
‘Guilty as hell.’
‘That’s how they sentence and haul away thousands of Nigerians whom we never get to see again.’ He shook his head and began towards the living room.
The current military regime had come into power six years ago. The coup that preceded it was bloodless. The erstwhile Head of State, a Hausa-Fulani, was woken up in the middle of the night by his very aides and subordinates, and presented with two deadly options: either relinquish power or go to meet his ancestors. The surprised general, not wanting to die despite having ordered the deaths of countless innocent citizens, chose life and gave up power.
In an address to the nation, that had grown weary of coups d’état as to be indifferent to it, the new Head of State pledged to bring to an end the human rights abuses perpetrated by the former regime and to hand over to a civilian government in five years.
The regime was in its sixth year.
And in that time, it had beggared the human rights abuses perpetrated by the previous government.
Before Jang stepped into the living room, I went in first, shut all the parted curtains before asking him in.
The children came out, full of questions. But when they saw I wasn’t alone, they slowed their steps, greeted Jang and then politely left the room.
Ada replaced the candle with a long fresh one before leaving. At first, the room darkened. But as the candle’s flame sputtered and grew, shadows receded as amber light flooded the place, describing everything around in greater detail.
Jang sat at the dining, quiet and contemplative. He sighed every once in a while.
I pulled out one of the dining chairs and sat down. ‘So, what did you do?’
The man lifted his two hands. ‘What sin could a journalist commit when his country is under a military dictatorship?’
‘Running his mouth when he should keep mum.’
Jang sniggered, his eyes lustrous, reflecting the candle’s light. ‘If we don’t talk, who will fight for the masses?’
‘I always prefer to let the dead bury their dead.’
‘What then would happen to our country if journalists like you and I go mute in the face of the injustices perpetrated daily, deciding to, as they say, watch and see, letting the dead bury their dead?’
I shrugged, rose and stretched, looking thoughtful. I winced suddenly, feeling a sharp stab of pain in my back.
Jang went on, answering his own question. ‘Everything would happen to our county. And in our country.’ The determined expression on his face lent him the look of one delivering a sermon. ‘And to keep silent in the face of oppression and injustice is-is akin to death. It is death.’
‘Well,’ I remarked, face twisted in pain, ‘this is not a fight we can take on alone and hope to win. We must involve the international community.’
‘Okay. You’re right.’ Jang nodded. ‘But the much we can do, we’ll do.
‘What’s wrong with you, anyway? You look like you’re in pain.’
‘It’s nothing. Just a mild discomfort in my back.’
‘Take some aspirin. By morning it would be history. But what happened to you? You didn’t sleep well in the night or what?’
‘I slept well,’ I replied in a weary voice. I didn’t know how to tell him I’d been hale and hearty until he came jumping into my compound with soldiers at his heels.
Jang was silent for a moment, brows knitted up as he glared at me. ‘Don’t tell me those soldiers…’
‘Tell you what?’
‘… those soldiers roughed you up.’
‘I don’t look roughed up, do I?’
‘No. But they did do something to you.’
‘Something small. Just a few blows with the butt of their gun.’ I didn’t add I’d come close to being shot.
‘Something small? They hit you with the butt of an AK-47 and you call it small?’ The strength went out of him suddenly. ‘I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t have involved you in my radicalism.’
I made noises, letting him know there was no need for the apology. ‘Perhaps something good will come out of it.’
He smiled. ‘Thank you. On the other hand, I’m glad about what happened. Now you know the regime and its sins are real.’ A small noise outside made us turn and look towards the windows and exit of the room. For an instant, I felt eavesdroppers were lurking outside, listening in on our conversation. But I dismissed the notion as soon as it came.
‘In a recent article published in The Messenger,’ Jang said, ‘I accused the Head of State of responsibility in the sudden disappearance of Buomene Dickson, who had been campaigning against the destruction of the environment by Conch Petroleum and other oil companies in the Niger Delta. He had wanted the oil companies to compensate the host communities for polluting their farmlands and water supply. Before his disappearance, men of the State Secret Service threatened him a few times and asked him to back off. But you know who the man is. Only death can stop him.’
‘How old’s your article?’
‘Barely a week.’
‘How were you able to escape the security people?’
‘Someone alerted me before they got to my house. Actually, after the article’s publication, I’ve been very careful. Two days ago, while I was driving home, somebody flagged me down. As I stopped and wound down the glass, the man tossed into my car a copy of The Messenger bearing the article and asked me to be very careful. It was so strange. I didn’t know who he was, and I’d never seen him before. But there he was, warning me; in the manner of a friend. Even though he looked like one of the security types.’
‘When you wrote and publicized the article, did you expect anything less?’
‘No. I did not. Actually.’
‘What sin could a journalist commit when his country is under a military regime?’
Jang smiled. ‘I guess it’s running his mouth when he should keep mum.’
At that very moment, there were loud thuds in different parts of the compound as soldiers dropped into the place from the fence. The front door shook as someone banged hard on it and bellowed, ‘Open this door or I’ll break it down! I know Jang is in there.’ A gun cocked and bullets sprayed all over the front door.
Michael Emeka is a writer, a teacher and lover of nature. He has been published in Volney Road Review. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria and can be found on Twitter @michael64639151.
One thought on “The Face of the Oppressed”
Great read, intensely satisfying.