I should be delighted to be on the road to Damakuli for the first time since 2002. It should be able to thrill me in so many ways for so many reasons. Yet the apprehension hanging on my throat had flooded away all other emotions, safe tiny jots of grief in certain corners of my heart.
I wouldn’t have been grieved in any way for the death of Mohmodu if he wasn’t my sister’s husband. Even with that relationship of ours -which I think is most unwelcome- I didn’t lose a drop of tear when I got the news of his death. I was only sad for Ruqayatu who in her young age would have to begin to bear all the pain that comes with widowhood.
Sometimes I wonder how much that makes me a bad person. But at this time it bothered me the least. I had never dreamt of bagging the nicest-man-alive award and I know I wouldn’t. All I know is that I never want those I love to get hurt, not even by a teeny spider. And on that list of those I love, Ruqa my little sister perches unshakably at the top while her husband Mohmodu…well, he never showed up there for even a second.
I knew right away as the sad news came that I would have to travel to my home town instantly. What I did not want was for the visit to be the routine condolence visit. I had to do better than that. I wanted to see her with tangible help at hand. Something that would change the course of her life positively would be the best idea. As lean as my means was, this imperative was the only responsibility I must not shrug off.
I hence approached mama Musa for assistance. After she had brought me to Lagos eleven years ago to put me through secondary school, I imagined asking her to do same now for my newly widowed sister would be asking too much. Truly, that would be asking too much considering her meager means.
I asked her anyway, and may Allah bless that woman; she thought it was the least she could do to assist a young widow as Ruqa. Just like I am, Ruqa would be helpful in the shop on weekends and after school hours.
My task had then been in three folds. First was to plead -or do whatsoever was necessary- so that the family of Mohmodu would allow his widow leave the rest of the family and go to the city with his only son. The family -which has been reduced to an aged grandmother, a double amputee brother and a polio-crippled nephew-, would insist they need the only person who can work for food around the house. I had not yet framed a ground on which I would insist I want my sister in the city with me.
That is my number one task.
Number two was to make Ruqa not become like-minded with her husband’s family and insist on playing bread winner. On that, I had a million points to make my case with.
Task number three would be to then convince Ruqa to go back to school. That might be as impossible as giving the last camel in a caliphate to a beggar. Primary three was the last class Ruqa had in school and she’s now a mother at sixteen. Being in a classroom with toddlers ten years younger would be a big ask and I wasn’t willing to be spent on that argument. What was most vital to me was to take her to Lagos with me where I can protect her.
Together, we make up what is left of the Abdul-Hallil family. I wanted us together in a town safer than Damakuli. Most importantly, I wanted her son, Isa and my future children raised in a town free of the influence of religious extremists and militants and suicide bombers…. Not in a world where the next bomb blast comes quicker than the next lightening in a thunderstorm night.
It was not until I entered the capital city of Maiduguri that the worry of how to actually find Ruqa surfaced. Since she was married to Mohmodu three years ago, I had not had a better reason to visit Damakuli than just to go know where they lived. Not that I did not care about my sister enough or that I hated Mohmodu that much, but it is a two day journey on road from Lagos to Damakuli and the cost is beyond my resources if mama Musa does not assist.
I knew Musa from my childhood as the older kid who comes around to our play ground to destroy our sand castles. By the time I was ten and was fed up of his bullying, I developed an idea to fight back. It was as simple as building a gang of fellow aggrieved boys to waylay Mohmodu on his way from farm. The attack never happened because one of the boys leaked it to him. Then three years ago, I heard my little sister had been married to him.
Finding my sister now depended on me finding an old friend who was the closest to my family, Mukhtar Abdulraaman. Mukhtar would without fail take me to see Ruqa. In fact, he would be pleased to do that. I also decided Mukhtar would provide shelter for the night or nights, depending on how long it takes me to wrestle Ruqa away from Damakuli.
When I rode into Damakuli and I looked out the cab’s windows, I had to ask the driver for the sixth time if he was sure we were in Damakuli and not in the aftermath scene of a gruesome zombie invasion. It was one PM yet few people walked up and down the streets. Those few were all men. No single kid…no woman.
We drove past a number of armored vehicles.
A soldier in dark green vest and camouflage pants eyeballed our cab distastefully then put down his rifle that hung on his right shoulder. Till we drove past too far for me to see his face, I was staring at him but he seemed not to be bothered.
What harm can the long stare of a bloody civilian possibly do to him?
I saw two others drinking from green bottles and grinning stupidly at our cab.
Contrary to what I thought before I got to Damakuli, I was not hit by a wave of reminiscence. Damakuli did not turn out to be what it used to be for me as a kid. Nothing I could see, hear or touch reminded me of what used to obtain.
The shoulders of major roads that housed tea sellers and ware sellers were cleared. The noise of playing children from open spaces is replaced by bleating sheep and goats. And sometimes, intermittent running of rifles from a distance…or a blast from the next street. I only believe it because I saw and felt it firsthand. Gentle old Damakuli, once a traveler’s pleasure stop…now a journey soldier’s next stop.
Despite the changes, I had no problem locating our old compound. It is here I hope to find my childhood buddy, Mukhtar. The house belonged to his parents but since they were killed when Mukhtar and his siblings were very young, my father moved me and Ruqa into the house. That way, he could do the duty of looking after Mukhtar and his siblings, the children of his late friend.
Only that our house, and the few around it that still stood, assured me most convincingly I was in dear old Damakuli. The walls of brick were still naked and as dirty as they used to be ten years ago.
An old woman sat on a low stool and hunched over a spread of kuka seeds before her.
“Sanu,” I greeted with a polite grin. I kept the grin lingering in spite of my jadedness till she looked up slowly to see it. Then I let it fade quickly.
“Sanu,” she returned with a look of mild wariness.
I recognized her immediately. Mukhtar’s grandmother. The last time I saw her, she was very old. Now…
The three teeth she had then had now vanished. Her nose stuck out more and her ears seemed to have diminished into what now looked like little black coat buttons.
I doubt if she could see me at all but I could tell her sight had not disappeared completely because she picked the seeds from ground to basket. She did not look my way for longer than two seconds before she returned her concentration to the seeds.
I asked her if Mukhtar was inside the house.
She did not say a word or look away from her seeds. She only gestured at the entrance door with a gnarly left hand.
I pushed the entrance door gently. The loud creaking sound I got echoed gratingly from inside the hallway. How much has this place been unmaintained?
My father use to make us apply oil to the hinges from time to time to stop the noise.
I could hear a radio playing Darey’s Ba Ni Ki Di from one of the rooms. The third room on my right. That room use to belong to me and Ruqa. The first was used by my father and the second by Mukhtar and the ones on my left belonged to the old woman at the front of the house and the other children of the late landlord.
I walked down the hall-way towards the room where the music was coming from. Tugging along my Bagco super sac bag.
I knocked on the door gently. “Is anyone in?” I said with a husky voice, then I cleared my voice.
The music had played out and a male radio DJ with the voice of a thirsty donkey was now talking, saying the music was the best he ever heard all year.
“Who is at the door?” a slightly hostile baritone demanded.
“Abubakir,” I said.
“Is Mukhtar in?”
The thirsty donkey voice on radio hushed. I heard soft footsteps from inside. Then I heard it no more for three minutes that seemed like three thousand. The next sound I heard was of unlocking latchets.
The door opened slowly and stopped only eight centimeters wide. Then a swarthy narrow face appeared.
He inspected me from forehead to sandals.
“Abub?” He was just starting to thin his lips into a smile.
“Murkah, Murkah,” I shouted.
He flung the door as wide as it could go, pulled me into the room and squeezed me into a bone-crushing hug. I heard the clanging sound of a metal fall to the floor behind him the time he threw his arms apart to hug me. I did not bother to look.
It was one of the happiest moments I had imagined on the road. A soulful reunion. A warm hug to remind me that in the midst of the hostility on the streets, there is still love somewhere. A buoyant grin from a true friend to lighten the dark corners of a town that has become a vast rubble land.
We let go the hug after half of eternity. We studied each other a while. Then hugged some more.
“Is this you?” he said buoyantly.
He was as scrawny as a Sahara shrub in January. His beards had not welcomed a blade since he started growing them and he must be growing twice faster than I was. He locked the door quickly before he asked me to take a seat.
He wore greasy black denim pants and a worn-out yellow Ralph polo.
I nodded at the cutlass on the ground. “You have to go hold that each time you hear a knock on your door?”
“In this town you cannot be too careful. It pays to be prepared.”
I sat on the all-bare wood chair whose arm rest had broken off. I have heard all the news. How my home town was first a haven for terror operators then recently the bloodiest battlefield in the fight against terror. It is always on the network news.
He grinned at me happily, wanting us to not allow the worry talk take anything away from the joy of the moment. One of my fears before I saw him was that I might meet him and be shocked to see we have grown apart. Or that he might envy me for having moved on to have a better life. Seeing the excitement in his face, none of that has happened.
“How have you been, Murkah?”
He shrugged quickly, then his smile seized suddenly. “Sorry about what happened to Ruqa…it is sad.”
I nodded slowly then looked at the shut window of cracked wood.
“I knew you would visit soon for her sake. Though I also thought you might not be so willing because of the state of things in…”
“No matter what this town has turned to, the people I love the most still live here. It is madness to think that I would for one day shy away from coming home.”
“You probably do not know how bad it is. If anyone decides Damakuli is no longer their preferred destination, then I will not blame then.”
“How is my little Ruqa?”
He bent his head to stare pensively at the bare floor. He had his hands at his back. Left hand gripping right elbow.
“I have not seen her,” he said huskily.
“You have not seen her? Is there a problem?”
“Please pardon me…ple-ee-eze. It might be hard for you to understand. In this place a lot have changed.”
My eyes were narrowed at him. He took a step towards me, right leg first. Then his left moved half the pace of his right so that his right leg still stuck forward at me. I was eager for him to tell me all that has changed that would keep him from going to see Ruqa, our bereaved little girl.
“You know the circumstance…the, the way he died,” he continued.
Mohmodu was shot to death by militants who attacked the police checkpoint he was manning along with two other colleagues.
“Yes,” I nodded. In a manner intended to urge him on.
“Some folks around town, many people actually…they, they believe that, and that includes his family…that people like me are the enemy.”
His left hand was busy chaffing his brows while he spoke with a suppressed voice.
“What are you talking about? The enemy? What is that about?”
“You do not seem to understand.”
“You do not seem to be making sense.”
“They think I am one of them. Them that attacked the police joint where he was shot.”
I started to rise slowly but he put his hand on my shoulder and pressed. It was not a hard pressure, but I let it sink me right back to my seat.
“Do not be alarmed,” he said almost inaudibly. Of all the changes that could possibly have occurred in my friend, this was the one that never came to mind. Yes, it once came to mind that he might have become a lot more violence-prone, which is explicable by the events which have unfolded before him in so short a time. But I never imagined he would ever be driven to this edge.
“Are you Boko Ha…”
“Sssshhhhh…” he put his hand over my mouth, “do not say that name,” his voice still inaudible. More inaudible this time. He pulled a chair next to me and sat. He blew a washing stream of air from between his slightly parted lips over my right forearm.
I tilted my neck to my right, not wanting to miss a second of his quickly dimming countenance. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, staring back at me.
“Are you one of them?” I asked gently.
He looked away now.
Mukhtar my friend, or the version I last saw eleven years ago, was a thoughtful and strong-willed person. If he had joined the terror group, it would not have been by sheer peer pressure. It would take more of that or more than that to get him aboard the terror train. Except of course he woke up one morning and said to his reflection on a mirror, Me think I’m made for this shit, where ma bomb at?
Eleven years is such a long time to be away from someone and not miss an element or two in their character. We use to exchange letters right from the month I departed town up till 2010 when Mallam Yuguda died in a car bomb in Kano and there was no other means of sending my letters. Retrospectively speaking, in all the correspondence we exchanged, I now see the trend in his whimsical psychological metamorphosis. At the early years he was the sanguine lad always seeing through rose-colored spectacles. Full of all the buoyancy and energy needed to reach out and grab a world of opportunities. Then six years ago he started sprinkling doses of pragmatism to his world view. I could remember him writing, I must learn to accept some roadside pegs that have become trees. I think I have read that -and various variants of it- in several of his letters at that period. That was when he got his Senior Secondary Certificate and had performed poorly in Geography. He wanted to be a weather forecaster and work on TV or maybe at the airport if he was that lucky. He was very good at Math and Physics but Geography was the one that got away, as he used to say…write.
Among the last letters he sent me in mid 2010, what was clearly jumping out to be seen was his alarming choice of violent verbs. He had undoubtedly been snatched by anger and its many dark companions of irascibility.
That did not surprise me to notice. Any young person with no parent to depend on and a source of income which was thinning by the day could easily get that way. Not to mention the rising frequency of real life violence in the neighborhood. Two bomb blasts occurred in nearby compounds within a week that year. Also in that year, there were several gun battles between militants and security forces that fell a handful of the kids we grew up with. The same boys he probably just shared a bottle of bear with.
I cannot pretend to have as much psychological wit as was required to let me adequately put myself in his shoes. I may never be able to tell what nature of rock and form of hard place he must have found himself that must have forced him to make certain deleterious choices. What I can say notwithstanding is that whatever it was that pushed him, joining a terror cell remains an un-Mukhtar thing to do.
His hands were clasped. He bobbed his Adam’s apple up and after two seconds, down in a swallow.
“You know me, Abub,” he said slowly, “you, you…”
“Murkah, please tell me the truth just like old times. Please do not lie to me.”
“You know I will never lie to you.”
“Are you among them?”
He swallowed again…then again. Put his hand over his mouth only for a second. Then he licked his lips to wet them.
“Look at me and say it.”
He looked at me. His eyes bathing incessantly.
“As strongly as most people believe it…” he blinked, “I am not among them.”
We let a shouting silence build and cloud the room to the point it seemed we had both lost our voices. I did not know what to believe. “It is imperative for a man to bestow trust on his friend,” as my old man used to say, but Mukhtar’s response was not as convincing as I would like it. Yet trust was what I owed him for the sake of friendship. I gave it away wholly.
I nodded ponderously while we disentangled our locked stares.
That was his reason for not going to see how my little Ruqa was surviving. Was it excuse enough?
“Could Mohmodu’s folks have done any harm to you if you had visited to look at Ruqa?”
“They could,” he nodded with conviction. “Look, Abub,” he put his left hand on my shoulder, “Do not even think I do not worry every night about Ruqa and beat myself about my inability to see her for myself. I only have to hear from people who go to see her and return.”
“You have to go with me now.”
“I wish it was that easy.”
“I do not know the place.”
“I shall ask a kid to take you there.”
“I want you to go with me.”
“You still do not understand.”
“No you do no…”
“If you have no hand or whatsoever association with the death of Mohmodu then care less about what people strongly believe.”
“Some people have been crucified simply because the people strongly thought they should be.”
“I am not going anywhere with some finger-sucking toddler.”
He sighed quietly. “You are right to insist. The street is no one’s jolly pal. A new-timer needs some companion.”