APRIL 18, 2011

burning house 

My father and I stood watching as his investments of 40 years go up in flame. My father had come to the North in 1971, just after the war and had prospered in palm oil trade. But a few moments after Jonathan was declared winner of the Presidential Poll, the old man’s house, car, bus, warehouse and my mother’s provision store began making the celestial journey by smoke.

We stood in the gate of the Anglican Church in Hospital Road watching as the Hausa-Fulani Muslim mob vandalise non-Muslim belongings in Kano Street. In retaliation, the Christian Youths were destroying Muslim belongings in Hospital Road. It was silly. I had expected a face-to-face battle when violence broke out, but instead the Muslims remained in Kano Street and the Christians in Hospital Road. Zoning. But I didn’t like it because for every one Muslim building in Hospital Road there were five Christian building in Kano Street, and my father’s house was one of them. And it was ablaze. And the cowardly Christian youths pretended it was 50-50.

My father and I were the only two who weren’t making a fuss among the mob over the handful of building torched in Hospital Road. We were guarding the women and children stored away in the Sunday School Building. I silently prayed that our opponents didn’t think to attack us for I knew the Christian youths will just run away, leaving the weak at the mercy of the merciless!

The burning issue now was my father’s burning sweat. My father was a rich man in Kafanchan standard, but tonight he would make the sinister transition into poverty. I rubbed my hands on my eyes and shook my head vigorously; but I didn’t wake up. It was no dream; it was happening real life.

‘I have 1.4million Naira in that building,’ my father said, speaking for the first time.

I looked at the old man’s moon-lit face. I knew he had lost trust in the banks after he lost a substantial amount when the banks failed in the 1990s. He had returned to the banks in the early 2000s but ran away for good when Sanisu announced the failures of banks in 2009. My father didn’t want soap to enter his eyes for the second time but it seemed fire was more painful than soap.

‘What do we do now?’ I asked not surprised at my weak voice. I refused to think of my novels, laptop, phone, wardrobe plus my darling diary in the house.

‘The fire is still in the roof,’ my father began, ‘so if we slip into the house through the window, you can get the money at the box in my bedroom.’

What was the old man saying? He had started with ‘we’ but ended the sentence with ‘you’. Who was ‘we’ and who was ‘you’? Certainly not us and me.

‘The Hausas are in the frontage,’ I said unnecessarily.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he dismissed; ‘if you plaster on the walls and shift noiselessly, you will get behind the house and enter through the window of my bedroom.’

The window in question had burglary proof. I sighed.

‘Are you afraid?’ he asked, trying to smile; ‘well, I don’t know… but… er… your school fees.’ He sighed.

At the mention of the phrase ‘school fees’ my blood became hot. But it was still not hot enough to boil the fear off my mind. ‘You are afraid, right?’ my father was searching my face. ‘Well, hold this cutlass for me; let me go get the money.’

A 65 year old man on a suicide mission! Oh no, I wouldn’t let that happen.

‘I will go,’ I said. I looked into the fire-lit street and saw my grave bright and clear. Even Achilles would be wary of this mob. So much for 1.4 million naira!

‘What is money to the life of a bright university boy?’ people would ask at my wake-keeping service, which was if I was lucky to escape mass burial.

I sighed again. I had nursed enormous dreams: Professor. Nobel Laureate. President. African statesman. A large family. Interviews with CNN… All to be cut short tonight because someone who would never know me was declared president of a country that treated me like a second class citizen…

Our house was number 10 so there were four sets of houses to pass before it (numbers 1 and 2 faced each other, numbers 3 and 4 the same, up to ours which faced number 9. The even-numbered houses were in the left side while the odd-numbered houses in the right). There was an old, worn out bus with the ironic inscription ‘no condition is permanent’ in front of number 2, a phone kiosk in front of number 4 and a pear tree in front of number 6. But between numbers 8 and 10 is a big gulf I couldn’t dream of passing, unseen. I would be shot 20 times before I make it.

But this was no time for brainstorming; it was time for action: So I acted. I quickly removed my yellow Arsenal jersey and tied my bandana across my face, sealing off one eye. Clutching the cutlass in my hand, I began the senseless journey to my grave. I didn’t even think to say goodbye to my father!

In less than sixty seconds I was leaning on the pear tree in front of Number 8. I was now less than twenty metres from the mob, and could hear them shouting obscenities as they hurl stones and rubbish on our burning house. Suicide mission, I sighed.

I put my head out from the tree and peeped into the madness. The mob was made up of almajiris, yaro boys and the ‘dan iskas’ of the town. As I didn’t recognise any of the faces, so I guessed they were from far away Bauchi and Borno streets. They were armed with machetes, sickles, swords and a few real guns (not the powder guns that the mob was carrying in Hospital Road, the type that wouldn’t even scare birds away!); but in these guns before me I saw my coffin, my over-sized coffin!

I must have been over carried by my shock for I extended my head too far, and someone spotted me!

‘I can see someone hiding behind that tree,’ shouted a fourteen year old voice.

I froze. My end was here. I grabbed the tree like a long lost love and implored it to swallow me. It didn’t.

‘Go check who is at the tree,’ a tough voice ordered.

Oh poor boy Kingsley! So this is your end? I asked myself–

Wait, but I could pretend to be one of them. My spoken Hausa wasn’t that bad and people did say I looked Fulani. Could this be my Fulani saving grace? But my heart was pounding with the violence of a hammer, distracting my thoughts. Now, I know there are no courageous men and cowards; there are only mad and sane people. I was mad to have come here. My blunt cutlass wouldn’t even scratch anybody. In few moments’ time my intestines will litter the ground: the death of another infidel!

But I could still pass as one of them. But I lost hope when I remembered that I had a rosary around my neck!

It was my tough luck because I was not exactly a Catholic. In fact, it was tonight that I snatched the rosary off the neck of Nneka, my neighbour who was more than my neighbour. It was one of our moonlight amateur romantic runs. She had ran after me but didn’t catch me so I kept the rosary. If only she ran harder! If only I ran like a gentleman!

My hand quickly made for my rosary but as I felt the Roman beads on my palm I saw Jesus at Calvary. Oh no, I couldn’t bring myself to remove Jesus Christ from my heart and put Him in my pocket! So I let the rosary be! If I perish, I perish, I said weakly.

The world stood still as I waited for my end.

‘It could be a trap,’ croaked a member of the mob. ‘These people are so cunning.’

‘It is true,’ supported another, ‘let’s shoot at the tree from here.’

I shut my eyes.

Crack! Crack! The gun reported. Whosoever shot the gun was so inefficient the bullets missed me by a mile. I almost smiled.

‘I doubt anybody is hiding there, or else the person could have panicked,’ the tough voice croaked again.

‘It is a false alarm. Let us go and pray, refresh and come back,’ suggested a mallam.

‘Yes, but first of all, let’s set number 8 ablaze.’

Now they would see that I was no false alarm. I shut my eyes and put my hands together. I had to make peace with God. But my brain refused to co-operate, or rather my tongue refused to take orders from my brain. I do not know which but I just couldn’t blot out a syllable. So I did the sign of the cross and kissed the crucifix. I knew that my sins were too great to be kissed away, but I had to do something.

‘No fuel fa,’ I heard one of the mob say. I held my breath. The fellow with the tough voice began to scold someone for wasting all the PMS on my father’s house. A long hiss followed. Silence. A minute passed. Silence. I opened my eyes. I peeped. The mob was going away! I kept sight with them as the last of them turned into Ibadan Street. I waited for a moment then ran towards our house.

The heat from the house was overpowering; it burned furiously. The furniture had caught fire but I still believed I could save the 1.4 million Naira box!

I took off my bandana to serve as glove for the hot door handle. I knelt before the door and grabbed the handle with my ‘bandanad’ hand. The heat was now unbearable. But I was determined to see the burning issue through. Then someone tapped me on my shoulder. My heart sank. So I didn’t survive tonight after all! I decided to turn if only to see the face of my killer, but it was my father! He was carrying the grave face that he mastered during his Biafran soldier days!

‘Papa,’ I gasped.

‘Thank God you still alive. When I heard the gunshots I thought they have killed you. But something told me you are alive; my God is never asleep.’

‘But you shouldn’t have to come here.’ Oh, how I so I wanted to hug him!

‘I came to take you away. The women have been evacuated to Zauru,’ he informed me. Zauru is a village just across River Wonderful.

‘What about the money?’ I asked.

‘What nonsense money?’ he snapped. ‘Let the money be. I can’t touch that money. It is like your blood money! And I will be too wicked to spend your blood; I will rather die than even think of it. Let the money go as a burnt offering to the souls of the departed. God will definitely see your education through. Let’s go.’

Sweat was pouring down my face as though I had just dipped my head on a bucket of water. We started marching towards Hospital Road. Myself and my father, the picture of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. I could hear the distant cries of dying people and the faint barking of dogs; I could see the sky been painted red with blood and the air thickened with smoke. Then I discovered my rosary was missing!

‘My rosary! Oh my God, I must go look for it,’ I stammered. My father stopped walking. ‘Who is on the rosary?’ he asked, and I said Jesus Christ. ‘Then don’t worry; Jesus is capable of taking care of himself.’

I shrugged. We resumed walking. As the gate of the church was locked from inside we must go via the fence. We stopped before the fence; I grabbed the top of the fence and hurled myself up. As I sat on the fence I tasted salty water on my mouth: I refused to accept that I was crying! And I refused to look at my father’s face so as not to see what I shouldn’t see. So looking away I set forth my hand and helped the old man up.