This is part one of a three month series of excerpts from Ope Olum’degun’s forthcoming novel.
Before MC Hammer became a vigilante in Sagamu, he worked at a bottling plant in Lagos. For nine hours every day, Dad told me, he would sit on a stool in front of a conveyor belt and watch bottles ghost by. He was to look out for anything unusual in the soda in each bottle before it got capped in another line, and slouching or dozing at the job increased the risk of someone knocking back a cockroach with their Pepsi. He would stay alert by listening to loud and fast songs on his Walkman, which eventually made him restless. Soon he quit and joined the OPC. But he eventually fled Lagos because of something that happened between him and a Hausa soldier’s wife. That’s how Dad put it. “And when you’re old enough and get married,” he added, “always be leery of MC Hammer. Even if he’s old and grey by then.”
When MC Hammer returned home to join the vigilantes, he was placed on night duty first on Cinema Road, and later in other parts of town. Nothing escaped his watch. He knew who lived in what house; he knew who was out of town; who had a visitor; which kids snuck out of their parents’ houses; who was sleeping with whom; everything. Everyone respected and feared him, and he rose through the ranks until he became the head of the local vigilantes.
He walked briskly around town often wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, flip flops on his feet and his AK47 slung across his shoulders. If you saw him before noon, he would likely have a long chewing stick in his mouth.
He was chewing one of those when he drove up in his fairly used Peugeot 504 with Kokonsari and picked me from church. Olawuyi was on the radio again, but it was a repeat of his Saturday show, so no one was paying much attention.
“Did you pray for us?” MC Hammer asked with a grin as I settled in the back seat and he drove off.
“Beeni,” I said, trying avoiding my uncle’s gaze. Kokonsari reached back and rubbed my head.
I smirked. “Where are we going?”
“Iledi. There’s something we should show you.”
I’d never been to Iledi, the town jail, even though my grandfather had built it. He had taught government at the local high school where he was also the principal. He had also trained as a mason, which is why he was contracted by the Security Council, the vigilante group that was formed by the OPC when robbers took the town by storm in the late 70s, according to Grandmother. The police were by then, as she put it, “as useless as a monk’s penis.”
The jail was a story building. It was built at the mouth of a gully turned gutter and looked like an image out of a second grader’s drawing book, except for the lack of colour. The only lustre it had was its brown rusted roof, the sheets for which were purchased at the Mile 12 market in Lagos. The gutter was bridged with a large plank that supported the weight of the vigilantes’ rickety station wagon, which brought in new offenders and carried out lifeless ones every week. The building seemed to sink in the sand and float in the air at the same time. Bricks were stacked at the entrance to help you walk up through the front door – the only door. But once you were in, as Mukaila told me, you felt like you were underground. The ‘offices’ were on the ground floor. You could hear loud gossip and idle chatter and Haruna Ishola playing on the radio when you passed by in the afternoons. As the sun set, it was raucous laughter and the clanging of beer bottles. But once darkness fell, you had no business in the vicinity.
Olawuyi signed off and Micho Ade broke into the chorus of Oju Ogun Laye, his voice desperate and afflicted. My eyes lit up. Kokonsari turned up the volume and clapped. Grandmother said Micho complained too much, but his songs were my favourite. That morning, he was sad no one had told him that life was a warfront. He would have come prepared. He wouldn’t have left heaven for his mother’s womb unarmed. He would have made a bow and stocked thousands of arrows, bought bullets and gunpowder, and he would have commissioned Sokoti, the blacksmith of heaven, to make him a rifle with six barrels.
“…six barrels, to fight for my freedom,” we sang along. I had drawn what I thought the gun would look like in the back page of Dad’s old bible, which I kept in my schoolbag. And Grandmother beamed whenever she saw me fingering the drawing because she thought I was reading the bible.
Two vigilantes were playing mancala on a bench when we pulled up in front of Iledi and alighted. They got up and prostrated before MC Hammer, who waved at them to continue their game. The building was dark inside and sunlight stopped just short of the doorway. But it was just enough that I could see that each of the doors were unpolished and without a knob. A few voiced sang or argued behind the doors, punctuated by an occasional jangling of chains. A wooden staircase crawled up into the second floor without banisters. I’d heard Kokonsari joke that it was built that way to prisoners wouldn’t attempt to struggle while being taken up or down the stairs. “Or they can try to and get their heads smashed into the concrete floor,” he’d said.
We went up the stairs and opened the first door to the left. MC Hammer pushed me inside and flipped a switch. My eyes adjusted and settled on a huge portmanteau, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, the room was bland; unpainted, unplastered and windowless.
Only a dead body could be in something that large in a place like this. But what did I have to do with it? And why was it being hidden and not buried or thrown away like the ones whose families didn’t claim out of shame? I turned and looked at them both.
“What is inside?” I stammered.
“Just open it.”
“Who is inside?” I pressed, trying to blot out the image of anyone I loved lying in the huge leather coffin. Kokonsari shook his head and motioned towards the portmanteau. “Don’t waste time.”
I lifted the lid and removed the white cloth that draped the bodies. There were four of them: two placed side by side with another piled on top of each, but none looked immediately familiar. My stomach sank. The eyelids had been cut off and their eyes plucked out, and despite the empty orifices, they looked angry. There was that bitterness on their lips I thought I saw when Mom’s body was being fitted into her burial clothes. I sat on the floor and looked away from their faces. I wondered what had been done to the rest of their bodies that were wrapped in tarpaulin.
MC Hammer pulled me up and turned me to face him, while Kokonsari closed the portmanteau and sat on the lid.
“You know who those are?”
I nodded nervously. The incisions on their temples were unmistakable. They were the same ones Kokonsari and MC Hammer and the two men downstairs had. And Dad too.
“Now you see why we needed those kittens?”
I nodded more vigorously and wiped my eyes. I wasn’t sure why I was crying.
“It has started, Bobo,” he said. “The gambari soldiers have started it again like a casual conversation. And it’s because of the deaf that the skies darken before rain falls. This is a clear signal, don’t you think?”
“Where did it happen?” I asked between snorts and sniffs.
Kokonsari squeezed my shoulders. “You can’t tell anyone about this, do you hear? As far as anyone knows, these people are still in Lagos. We don’t want people to panic before we are fully ready to protect them.”
“But the Hausas…”
“They want us to openly strike first so they can put the blame on us. They have all the soldiers, remember? And their man is running the country. That’s why they are quietly killing OPC members in Lagos or anyone associated with them.”
“And we’re letting…”
“We’re safe here, Bobo. Don’t be scared.”
I wondered why everything that happened to us always involved Lagos. The OPC ran the local vigilante groups from Lagos, MKO was arrested in Lagos, the June 12 riots happened in Lagos, Dad fled to Abroad through Lagos, Mom was always afraid of going to Lagos, and now vigilantes were getting killed in Lagos. It was an entirely different place than the Lagos I’d been to with Dad. And I was sure I didn’t want the new Lagos.
They dropped me off at home and reminded me to keep mum. “You’re you father’s son, Bobo,” MC Hammer said. “Be ready to do anything for him.”
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.