This is a continuation of an excerpt series from Ope Olum’degun’s novel-in-progress. To catch up on the beginning of the story, click here.
The Hausas in Sabo had their own Chief, whose son, Yola, sat in front of me in class. Yola wasn’t bright at all. He had repeated the same class twice, and my friends and I always quipped that he couldn’t write the letter “O” with the butt of a bottle. And like most Hausas, he pronounced the “P” sound as “F”. He would say “feefool” instead of “people”, or “frais” instead of “price”. But he didn’t seem to care. His father was one of the wealthiest men in town and his tribesman ruled the country. That was all that mattered to him, and to me as well. My eyes were fixed on the back of his head as Mr Sada, our English, History and Social Studies teacher, was explaining something about Nigeria’s geopolitical zones. Although I liked Mr Sada, I thought it was weird that a Ghanaian would be teaching me about my country.
I wished Yola and his sisters – he had two – were the ones in that portmanteau. His father should be the one fleeing town because he’d done something crazy. Not mine.
“Melanin!” Mr Sada called me out of my reverie. The teachers called me called Melanin because my skin was darker than the other kids’. “Name two geopolitical zones in Nigeria and the predominant tribes in each of them.” I stood up and stared at the blackboard, observing the map of Nigeria he had drawn and drawn up into six parts. I hadn’t made out one full sentence Mr Sada made or taken any notes since the class started, but I remembered enough from Dad’s discussions with his friends during the campaign for MKO.
“The south-west belongs to the Yoruba people,” I announced. “Hausas are predominant in the north-east.”
“Good,” Mr Sada said, nodding. “Can anyone else…”
“And they should all stay there,” I continued, my voice quavering and rising.
“They should all go back to the north and die there.”
Yola turned and looked at me. I moved my face closer to his and yelled:
“Go back to the north and die there!”
Yola was also known for his quick left, which caught me square in the jaw and busted the wound in my gum from Kokonsari’s flogging. I spat the blood at him and shoved his chair forward with my foot, slamming his chest against his desk. But Mr Sada got between us before I could pick up my chair. He dragged us out of the class, and then made us hold our ears and frog-jump across the football field and back, until school closed two hours later.
I told Titi to go on home as I needed to see Kokonsari.
“Will you see Aunty Afusa? Tell her to send me some bean cake.”
“No, I think she’s still at the market.”
I watched her disappear down the dirt road with her friends before I flagged down a taxi. I hadn’t spent my lunch money and that was enough to get me there. If my uncle wasn’t home, then I’d walk back. I squeezed into the cab’s backseat where there were four other boys, only slightly older than me. Another boy sat alone in the front seat. The driver sized me up in the rear view mirror and nodded.
I nodded back and patted my breast pocket. The crisp note made a slight rustle and the driver pulled away. The boys were talking about the upcoming Ileya festival, and the ram their father just bought. The three main markets in town were bustling with rams already and several families had purchased one – often because the first rams on the market were said to be the best fighters. In the weeks preceding the festival, there were several contests where the rams, two at a time, would try to knock each other out with head butts. One of the boys in the back kept his gaze fixed on me. He had dark lips and his hair was tangled into small dots like goat shit. There were red circles in his eyes, and his palms were cracked like the palms of the kids who delivered planks in wooden wheelbarrows to the local carpenters from the town sawmill. Grandmother always warned me to stay away from kids like him. “They can kill or rob you,” she said. “Even their parents are scared of them.”
“I know you,” the boy finally spoke.
“Aren’t you Kokonsari’s son? I’ve seen you with him.”
“No. His sister is my grandmother.”
He pondered this for a while. “It’s the same thing.”
The other boys had stopped talking and where all looking at me. Even the one in the front.
“So your father is the one who ran away because of…”
“Yes,” I said, irritated at the idea that my father ran away.
“Ha! I salute him o.”
“He’s a correct guy,” the one in front said. “They say that Hausa soldiers followed him all the way to Lagos but couldn’t catch him.”
I nodded and fidgeted. It was the first time I heard people talk about Dad in public.
“Have you people bought your ram?” goat-shit-hair asked, apparently noticing my discomfort.
“No, my family is not Muslim.”
“Oh. Then you should come and watch our ram fight on Saturday. At St. Paul’s field behind Falawo market. We’ll be there after midday prayers.”
Even though I wasn’t sure where I’d lie to Grandmother that I was going, I told the boys I’d be there. Goat-shit-hair’s name was Saka. He’d dropped out of school to work at the saw mill with his father – who it turned out, was MC Hammer’s cousin – and was now training his brothers in the timber trade. Occasionally on some nights, he told me, MC Hammer took them along on patrols with the vigilantes. He had even learnt to shoot with his AK 47. Soon, the driver pulled up at my stop.
“Don’t worry,” Saka said as I reached into my pocket. “I’ll pay.”
Ope Olum’degun is a fiction writer who prefers to read non-fiction. He moved to the US from Nigeria in 2009 and is currently in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. When he isn’t selling books and magazines to finicky Washingtonians, he’s developing and writing a radio drama series for the National Museum of African Art.