(an excerpt from Roots in the Sky
Dawn is a sad time for an exodus; the multitude has a full day to roam. The purposive traveller has head in the shade, mind on the moon. Prospects of a rest is as assured as the death of a day in the epidemic descent and spread of twilight, the birth of dusk and darkness, the rise and fall of the hours, the taciturnity of the elements. But a people driven out of the sad old world at dawn are visitors to respite, slaves to mood. There are times I shudder to think of the waste that attended the end of our village. But was it a waste, or something worse, when one remembered that a whole race had no protection whatsoever in the world?
I ran far this time, ran beyond the dreams of direction and purpose. I needed no respite and sought none. Instinctive, like the urge to flee, was my departure for Lagos. On foot. I could barely remember Lagos; but I had a faint memory of the streets where I had spent money on all manners of joys and got spanked for recklessness. But this time, I was not going to Lagos, I was simply running away from the expired village. I had known Memuna for only seventeen hours, twelve of which I spent sleeping. I had developed a strange kind of intimation with this woman whom all held in dubious deference, especially from the evening hours when she was just emerging from the fluster of the cheering noise. But again, I had watched her wasted and I was confused as to the reason she didn't run, the reason she was willing to be swept away with the rubble.
I relented and relaxed a bit, having now completely veered off the road, walking through the nonchalance of a forest ravaged by harmattan. I had never ventured in that direction of the forest before, and I was beginning to be bothered about the prospects of getting lost when I heard voices. I went toward the noise and as I did, I began to see through the tangle of dry branches and twigs figures standing, sitting, stooping. Soon, I burst upon a company of men and women and children, people from our expired village, circled by heaps of hurriedly packed belongings. I recognised no one instantly, except Kilanko. I saw expectation through the dejection on the faces of the people. It appeared they were taking a rest of a lifetime. Stories and anecdotes about the fire, the rain in April, the demolition and how they involved individuals were highlights. Kilanko was talking and foretelling the days ahead and analysing the past and the people that harboured a pathological allergy to change and challenge and sacrifice, both past and people denying both the present and the future the autonomy of an interdependent existence. The grandeur of his rhetoric astounded my infant curiosity, making me feel empty and for a moment replacing with contempt my sadness and fear about the end of the village. He looked at me the way one would regard a boy, any stubborn boy. Not in envy, neither in reverence. A couple of people were drinking ordinary water and one man who was not, was laughing at them. Kilanko recalled the events of the night before, the fury of his friends who had stormed the church (they were present because he pointed at them that instant) and the intrigues in the village.
Society and the economy, he declared, had destroyed the basis of community, ‘Emi ni won n wi?' wondered an old woman confused by too much grammar. That explained his tourist attitude to the village which, he now admitted, he still visited because he had always believed he could provoke some organisation. If the village had been a truly communal one, if commerce and square meals had not been the new gods of the populace, he remarked, perhaps there could have been some mutual interest, something lasting enough to make for a worthy protest. Had the landlord not been preoccupied with politics, he wouldn't have continued to let the village be. In our land, politics would continue to determine everything, forever. (But most of the people I knew in the village, from the medicine-man down to even myself, with the single exception of Kilanko, were apolitical. What would Lagos and politics mean to us, save the prayer that the bulldozers never came?) Kilanko revealed much of what happened the previous night and what little the priest or anyone could have done to avoid the embarrassment. But many people, including the old woman who had earlier wondered, hissed time and again throughout Kilanko's tirade. One, a short cantankerous woman said, ‘No use crying when, the ‘ead is already hoff '. Another, a man, derided ‘big, big grammar without solution', and it was his opinion, which he boasted was shared by many of his friends, that when people began speaking ‘big grammar' they were either frustrated or looking for ways of ‘chopping money'. One man who housed the medicine-man for the night wept as he narrated the deceased man's ordeal as he tried to sleep. The body had been taken out of the village just before the bulldozers arrived. One of the members of the church seized a moment of silence to recall in great detail the event of the previous night in the church, the priest's insistence on revival and all that happened before ‘some men of dishonour' came. He didn't care that the men were present. That man was still talking, some children crying, others playing innocently, women gossiping women brooding and yet others packing and unpacking their belongings and the clearing had been turned into another impromptu village. A woman shouted and spanked her son who had just spilled their rice among the entangled weeds of the clearing. Another blamed herself for having forgotten a bucket she purchased two days before, finally resting the blame with the husband who was hurrying her without lending a hand. The churchster was still talking when the smell of burning overwhelmed the domestic smells and announced a fresh disaster.
Beyond the forest of grasses now shrunken and yellowing and wild trees middling between shrubbery and plantation, some wild fire was rapidly eating away at our temporary assurance. The fire cackled at twigs and licked leaves with its thousand tongues. Floating ashes of burnt leaves flew in the haze and settled on the heaps the women were packing in earnest. Someone suggested that we doused the fire with water, and his idea was shot down with laughter which sounded indistinct from the burning noise of the encircling inferno. The fire seemed too genuine to be ignored. It approached and retreated. We had started evacuating again, and the childishness of our attitude amused many, though it was the only thing to do then. The stampede was great and the cries of women and children mixed with the fire's hysteria. Everybody was trying to get away and for a moment I felt there was a design to make life difficult for us. In that chaos, I could spot one of the prominent members of the church, a naturally lively man. But now, he was far from being his normal self. Rather, he looked agitated, herding off his wife and seven children, none beyond the age of twelve. He was really about the exception, and I remember one man who, having run far off, stopped to call out to his nephew still entangled among the bushes. The man did not show up.
I was initially fascinated by the fire that appeared to have been kindled by the strong haze. Smoke mixed with the haze and hung above the forest, blocking our way. That fire, it reminded the reflective among us of the temporariness of of the humanity that we represented there in the forest; its helplessness against the fury of fires as of rains, against state terrorism and constitutionalised demolitions. There were no embers, take note, and that said a lot about the instantaneity of our disenchantment. That fire, it enlarged beyond the pointed bias issuing from the rifles of the shooting soldiers. That fire, even in the fury of its bound-to-be-brief reign, looked least like the bonfires of protesters. Up beyond the trees plucked clean by the season I could see hawks gliding, swimming in the smoke. Grasses relished flames. But smoke and ashes were the diminishing offspring of all the fury. Deep down in the forest the sun rose in response, and the company of coughing women and crying kids bumped against stumps and trees in the mad rush to preempt the double-bill of a sinister heat. Kilanko led me with his voice that dared the smoke. Our camp cut the figure of a second failure.
But I refused to go. Somehow, I felt close to the fire. It was strange to me that only the previous day almost the entire village had gone up in flames and down in a rubble, just hours before. And now, this. I remembered again the rains in April, the climax on the eighteenth. Everything getting excessive. Standing on the spot and gazing at the fire, it was as though I could throw myself in it and thus get it doused immediately. The babel of the escaping villagers resounded through the forest. I felt strange about the fire and an infant though I was, I almost thought Kilanko had caused it. I felt he had been responsible for every misfortune that befell the village, just as everyone had believed I was the culprit. I was inclined to disbelieve my mother's story until the incident about the baby on the bed which I quite recollected and for which I was taken to the church, stripped naked and whipped raw like an intransigent ass. It never ceases to bother me how people could see me as an evil child, even when I had no idea how or where I was or what took me there.
The fire seemed stuck at a point and just then I heard a rustle in the leaves and among the grasses. Before I could turn to look, a furious hand pulled at my arm. It was Kilanko. He practically dragged me, amused at my lame protestation and swept me off the ground. Soon, we came to an access road where the evacuees had regrouped. Two vehicles, the same Kilanko had promised before the fire started, parked by. Taking a firm control of the situation, he announced that we would be heading for a certain place beyond Lagos where lived Laifa Adigun, defender of the downtrodden, and where the whole world would be told of our plight.
‘We're leaving this city called failure', he declared, ‘to that failure called city. What must not fail is us, our will'.
We climbed into the open-backed prefabricated trucks, humans in one, their belongings in the other. But half the village had gone away, and two trucks were not needed. We settled into the one with seats.
For the first time in nearly two hours since I joined the group, I noticed the girl who had fought with the flood for her family's belongings during the rainstorm in April. I had seen her many times before then, but she had never really interested me. She sat with her mother and brothers, all four of them huddled up against their load in a corner of the truck. Her name was Esther and she seemed intent on being interested by Kilanko to the point of attempting to sit near him. Nevertheless, she was just as tired and despondent as everyone else and I thought her interest would wane sooner. Besides, Kilanko was too preoccupied with other things to really take note of her.
Where he sat away from me in the truck, I saw Kilanko writhe in the pain of unfulfilment. He swore and argued and debated and pleaded and lamented, shouting in every case and loud enough to rival the growling of the old truck. I dozed much of the time, in spite of Kilanko's tantrums, but each time I started out of my stupor, his eyes were a constant reproach. It seemed he expected something of me; on what account I couldn't understand. At a point where the vehicle stopped to fill some water in the radiator, he came over to me and asked questions, very strange questions about our life. He thrived on unbelief, that Kilanko. He was too concerned about our life to care definitively about anybody's view and I think that is one flaw of most people of universal vision. Kilanko looked least like a man capable of stepping ‘the promised land', so heavy was his view. As he quizzed me that day it was obvious that he doubted everybody. He graded his ideas above all else's. That is why I still cannot understand why he came over to me, of all people, to ask those strange questions. He asked what price of neglect was, and I just gazed at him, thinking he was out of his mind. And most people in the truck who were already bored with his enthusiasm, looked lost. He also asked, in earnest, how much I would place on the man or woman who would swap life for love. I just gazed back. No one would let the breath of their snoring blow in my direction, considering my reputation. Some even wished secretly, as I could see from the way they hissed, crossed and uncrossed their legs when I joined the truck, they wished I had been left to burn in the bushfire. So to have Kilanko, head of the homeless and at the moment the most clearheaded of men, come to me for counseling or ridicule or whatever was nothing but ridiculous. Of course I only gazed at him and let myself lapse into inertia. He suffered on - and I too felt the pain- like a man in the true throes of death.
He was in his agitation when the truck suddenly stopped, in the middle of the expressway. The driver complained of the fan-belt and Kilanko immediately jumped down. We began to push the truck on to the shoulder of the road. Suddenly, an army jeep pulled up behind us. People immediately scurried to the side of the road. Kilanko didn't know what was happening, for he was just about to wonder why people were hurrying on. Four soldiers jumped down and I thought I saw among them the soldier who had fought Memuna in the morning. They soon got into an argument with our men and those who had not alighted from the truck looked flustered. One of the soldiers called for the driver and dealt him several slaps without asking questions. Kilanko argued and described, trying to hold the reckless hand of the soldier in check. He got a backhand slap as a wish. As he staggered, he crashed into another who hit him with the butt of his rifle. Kilanko looked too cracked, too angered to stand the assault. The two men soon joined the driver and with great effort, the three of them tried to push the vehicle. Their footfalls on the heated tar were indistinguishable from the slaps which Kilanko, because of his protestations, continued to receive from the two soldiers. The problem was that he tried to tell the soldiers that they were wrong. He soon lost his temper and that was a greater mistake. He broke free of the soldiers' assault and hurled stones at them, boxing one whose gun fell. This was unheard of. He beckoned to us for support. He grabbed the weapon and ran. The soldiers ran after him, raining blows at him as he ran, he ducking and parrying the blows with the butt of the gun and the back of his hand. We raised alarms. The soldiers bounded after him still, scattering us into cowering individuals.
The driver and his assistants had pushed the truck off the road, but Kilanko's attackers brought him down with a shot in the leg. He fired a shot as he fell, but it was a poor aim, charring the body of the truck. Before he fell, another shot hit his right arm and the gun fell off and spun in the air like a tossed spoon. The soldiers got over, pulled him up and beat him with guns and belts and boots and fists and knee-kicks. Not firing a shot. They stamped on him like kids playing with muddied water. They made a mess of him. We scattered, all of us, like flies disturbed. The driver abandoned the truck and took to the bush. Women cried and rolled on the ground. The men shook their fists, retreating. The soldiers looked agitated and fearsome. One of them who had been behind the wheels all the while, watching the scene with implacable interest, kicked the jeep alive. In a flash, they bundled up Kilanko who was making a desperate effort to rise to his feet, and hurled him into the jeep and drove off.
Silence reigned now but my mind was full of shadows of Kilanko's disappearance about which none of us could do anything. Some men conferred but my mind was shadowed like a moonless night. Where I sat among the women in the grasses, I watched a group put heads together. Women unloaded the truck and unpacked several bundles. Still, I bore shadows in my mind like blood. There was no semblance of a settlement where the vehicles had broken down. But it seemed people wanted to settle down. There was silence everywhere, and shadows each time I looked inwards, I must have lost track of events from then, without even dozing. I was awake but the shadows in my mind crawled like smoke and blocked me out of sensory view. The feeling I experienced for some twenty minutes between the time the meeting broke up and the time the driver reemerged, that feeling was so strange I have never been able to re-experience it. I can't even describe it. But as the driver remerged dusting his hands, that moment, I went with shadows and smoke out of use.
What I lost to a twenty-minute inertia was coming back in the form of a bonfire. One of the men who had earlier helped the driver push the truck had fished out an old tyre and with the remains of the fan-belt lit a fire. I was still battling with my personal shadows. Three other men came with huge logs and dried grasses. The initiator of the bonfire pulled a massive rag and caused a major uproar from the women. The rag was burning and puffing smoke. The men raised a strange noise and there was fire on the back of the road and men dancing around it. They hurled stones at defiant vehicles driving by. The women and the children cried admonishingly, their deafening screams lengthening into ululation. The men paid no heed, but kept spreading fire in the roadside shrubs. They drove motorists into unforeseen stampede. They impounded the road and heightened the tyranny of the harmattan. Oncoming vehicles started to turn back and share the other half of the expressway with the vehicles headed for Epe. Our men looted vehicles of their passengers whom they tried to conscript into a fray without clear adversaries. Great like the soldiers' was the fury of these men who had lately lost the man of their last essential moment in a battle they hadn't initiated. If tar could catch fire, and air was combustible, all the road would turn into a stretching highway of flames. I saw some people stopping vehicles farther on the way to Lagos. I was genuinely surprised that some motorists saw it fit to help in the midst of that chaos.
I stood up, noticing no one, no one noticing me and headed toward the afternoon and its uncurbed violence. I soon caught up with the driver flagging down a vehicle. I pleaded with him and despite his insistence that I stayed behind, I got in before him, when the first bus pulled up. I got out of that part of the world in the afternoon, carrying shadows along with me.
© Akin Adesokan