The Calabar middle aged driver showcasing his danfo drove towards the one man check point, looking unhappy and in pain as he straightened a rumpled twenty naira note with his left arm, massaging its front and placed opposite his lap. Even as it was polythene, it took time before it briefly straightened. It indeed consumed meaningful time.
“Stop there, I say stop there.” The sweaty soldier commanded, shinning his bright torchlight fully and all the way into the eyes of the occupants sitting, scattered inside the yellow bus, outwardly and entirely regarded as danfo also as molue in some places such as Lagos, This wasn’t any of such places. This was Umuahia. This belonged to the Ibo tribe of the east. It was considered and agreed inherited from the ancestors, as there ways of living mightily portrayed their every behaviour and decision.
Umuahia is one of those towns in Eastern Nigeria where development settles at the lowest depths and upholds corruption from past and present governments. The government workers earn wages so low you will spit out saliva at hearing the numbers. A town with cultures as diverse as non-other and the breeze oozes through the River Imo. The place is cold. The place is also warm; high intensity of sunlight during the aftermaths of rainfall. Also with popular markets like Ahia-ukwu and Ahia-eke and Ndoru, places where entirely everything was traded.
So therefore, whilst clutching his rifle in agitation and muscly forward in attempt to quit the approaching danfo. The brightness blinded their eyes momentarily as the passengers kept idly shut, instantaneously and abruptly as a solemn silence spread. Swinging and dangling in the pregnant atmosphere that bore extortion. One of a kind carried out in the open, under the sinking sun and before the upcoming eyes of the moon, still crescent and lights brightening as the evening clinged firmly to time.
“Officer good evening,” he greeted as he stroked the gear of his half dead automobile sideways after the bus had skidded from a near distance and finally at a halt. The little distance it concluded as he roughed out his huge head outside through his window previously was seen as to require more space and time. He showed forth a fake smile.
“Oya roger me,” Officer Egele said. He was in a soldier’s uniform, although slightly aged and faded, he wore the camo with utmost dignity. The law enforcer demanding for prohibited grants from the public. Even when few retarded steps backwards and in front of where the bus was, a sign post displayed: “Do not give any form of gratuity from the general public to the army”. It was clearly inscribed in English and Ibo languages.
“Oga na now I just de begin work,” the driver said. He beckoned on the soldier to see, flipping the few notes in his hands and shrugging his shoulders.
“Roger me joor,” The solider retorted, now hanging his gun on his left shoulder, dangling loosely as he paced back and forth from the edge of the barricades partially blocking the road then to the driver.
“Officer abeg, I’m just coming out now. See na,” He pled and pointed his right arm towards the back seats. Four passengers, all market women dressed in Ankara and fine head ties were all silent, leaving the driver to do the talking. “Na only four passengers I carry na.” He said sidelining his neck from an edge to the other side.
“Ehhh, oya park there. I say go and park there!” Dishing out commands and insults was his resume. The driver frowned. He summed the amount of time wasted, if he continued this argument, which clearly he was losing. He, refusing to pullover toward the other side of the untarred road then waiting for this man do his usual routine check, remained thereafter in his half battered bus, carrying an accumulated degree of goods, ranging from fresh harvested tubers of yam and baskets of tomatoes and pepper, onions and recently horticulture vegetables. He offered a twenty naira note.
Egele refused, dangling his neck as he openly rejected it. “For wasting my precious time, fifty naira is my prize,” the soldier said as he stared at the cars spreading behind the driver, summing up the money he was about to make mentally. He continued, “I need white,” he added conclusively. “just white,,, eh,,,, only white.” His face frowned, squeezed tightly like a bunch of rumpled and worthless naira notes held together by an elastic knot as his black dirty palms watered for the naira.
In the town of Umuahia, white meant fifty naira. Why indigenes thought it somewhat whitish in colour, and short for easy communication is beyond understanding.
“Officer abeg na,” The driver begged more.
“I say park there you stupid man.” The soldier yelled, cursing and gradually getting infuriated, removing his rifle from his shoulder and jamming it slightly against the bus.
Still, traffic jammed as plenty cars approached the check point. No one dared to use their horn as Egele Onye Army owned this route. To them, they considered this an hourly ritual, paying their bids to the authorities, a tithe forcefully demanded, not just tithes but bribe forcefully collected from weightless pockets.
Contemptuous and in fury, disregarding his rights, his own sweats, he handed out the money – two disheveled twenty naira notes and a half torn ten naira . He withdrew his arm, stretched it further towards the ignition key. The bus cranked as he set to go.
“Ehee, oya begin dey go, move, move.” Egele waved at the pale faced driver who in annoyance stepped hard on the pedal, disappearing towards the village market.
“Nawa oo,” the market women chorused, “all this army people, they will not kill us oh.” They in unison consoled the thoughtful incensed driver, galloping further up, towards the popular Ahia-ukwu market via the bad roads.
Egele, usually referred as Onye Army returned to town following a dismissal from the army, few months until now. He sought to enforce his laws into his community, he called it community service. He called it ridding the streets off thugs and criminals. He was stubborn, too much of it that the army couldn’t curtail but you see, that happened several years back. He returned a victor after plenty years foretelling tales of his numerous escapades in Sierra Leone and in the borders of Burkina Faso, times when his services were regarded impeccable. His place of rest, a beer parlour up across the streets connecting the main road of Ahia-ukwu till the end of the adjoining brief street known as Boulevard Albert, owned by a local chief who had married three Yoruba women earlier in his vibrant days.
Onye Army was utmost punctual and present at places such as this. He craved so much social gatherings. He resided nearby, not too far from the joint located at the market. Temporally, he would sit at a plastic table placed at the rear side of the raffia thatched hut. Mostly keeping to himself and drinking his beer with his cigarette burning slowly in another hand. The other drunks consuming alcohol on the other seats would turn and listen to him uncap his piles of heroic tales. They were keen listeners, opening their ears as his polished words infiltrated through them, foretelling his fights as an ECOMOG soldier.
After this evening, he climbed a free okada. The okada man in an attempt not to piss him off tried to converse with him. They discussed openly, like fellow Nigerians not at all including ranks and all those bloody civilian jabberwocky – conversing with one another as the motorcycle galloped its way over the dusty Amizi – Ahia-ukwu main road. He recounted his wages, hiding both arms behind the okada-man who had already quit raising topics for discussions.
One thousand fifty naira, he thought smacking his thick lips.
“Oga na the usual place?” the cyclist asked.
“Yes my good friend, just park for that shop ehhn,” he replied as he pocketed his money.
The motorcycle throttled further, momentarily disrupting the silence as the cyclist applied the brakes to avoid running into a pothole. He wondered why the roads were still bad, no, not bad, but worsened as the rains flushed out the top layers of the red soils. Even though promises were offered following campaigns of several Ibo office holders. He sighed and found a free spot to park. Egele jumped down from the ‘okada’ still hanging his rifle on his shoulder.
“Ehe, thank you,” he said patting the cyclist hard on the back.
He wasn’t expecting payment so he marched the ignition, the engine shrieked letting out loud noises of worn out pistons and screws. He changed gear, returning it to one, swerved in to the main road as he dodged an incoming Keke-Napep then off he was as he disappeared out of the market.
It undoubtedly was ‘Orie’ market night. Even as time slipped towards eight, the place was likely busy – a beehive of monetary activities concluding soon before the silent night encroached their privacies. They said the Ahia-ukwu market was the largest. The most popular market stretched from other neighbouring villages down to the borders. They also said everything you wanted was abundantly available.
Ahia-ukwu never knew lockup shops just tables and kiosks. It was situated at the center of umuahia. A candid spot strategic enough for business and other illegal transactions. Near it stood the local primary school previously owned by the St. Peters Anglican church few miles away. It made it easy for mothers to sneak in from the market and monitor their children during and after lessons. This evening, it was completely empty except for most of the retired okada men who reunited there to smoke igbo. Igbo is the name for the local consumed marijuana smuggled from the borders of Cotonou. The vapours will drift from wherever they hid into the markets. It was profuse. The market women complained. The local police had long ceased apprehending them as there was no more space to bound them.
Tables decorated with basins and heaps of foodstuff ranging from garri, rice, sorghum and other cereals lay on top of each aged table shielded by umbrellas, dusty ones at that. On another end, two market women argued profusely over a customer. They dragged each other’s hair, twisting and curling to inflict pain. Passersby watched. Egele watched. He clung his gun tightly while he strolled to Nwanyi Enugu’s shop ignoring them. They’ve eaten this evening, he thought to himself.
His eyes mapped through the signpost in front which read “Nwanyi Enugu Bar and Restaurant”. It was inscribed on a Coca cola plastic sign. Below it read another message: “Food Is Ready,
Egusi soup, Uha soup, Vegetable soup, Pork meat, Kanda, Pepper soup, Fresh palm wine, Dry fish”. They were boldly written in white on the red plastic board.
Egele bent slightly, entering into the place. It was noisy, not much, but murmurs erupted following hails of “Onye Army – Onye Army”. The occupants cheered in merriment as he found himself his usual spot at the rear left of the little thatched restaurant. He waved at them showing acknowledgement as his brown teeth flashed towards them.
“Madam,” he called out “bring one small stout for me,” he demanded as his firearm rested on his laps. He wiped the dirty plastic table clean, pushing without much effort the bits of chewed bones and drops of water accommodating the table.
“Soldier man, welcome oh,” Nwanyi Enugu greeted. She was unadulterated. Her fat body was not mundane. She was bearded on the chin, not plenty but slightly. It was somewhat visible for an observant eye . She placed a tray on the table, removed its contents – a bottle of chilled stout and a washed rubber cup for measuring the beer.
“Ehee,” he murmured reaching forth for the metallic opener that sat idly on another table and uncorked his beer. He halfway filled the cup, waited for the foams to quench, then continued, filling to the brim the cup.
“Madam,” he called again, “bring pepper soup two hundred naira, ehh,” he said taking a sip of the cold brew.
“Okay,” she replied from behind the bar.
“Madam bring pork meat abeg,” another customer added.
She was behind the counter ruffling and jostling stainless steel cutlery from side to side. God knows what transpires in there, behind the wooden counter, behind the shut doors of the black kitchen painted with smoke. This is not the context of other regular beer parlours gracing the cities. Right in here, everything seemed readily available. The cheap fluorescent light hung loosely below the ceilings letting out a conducive atmosphere for pleasure.
She had returned bearing a tray holding the plateful of steaming beef drenched in a regular hot tasty peppery liquid. She unpacked the tray, then proceeded to place its content on the table.
“Anything else sir?” she asked.
“Yes, bring another Guinness for me,” He said reaching for a spoon. He wiped it clean using his uniform. He thence scooped a lump of meat with his spoon. She disappeared once again behind the counter as she jostled the cutleries once more. Seconds later and his recent order graced his table.
He scooped another piece of meat, chewed hard as his teeth ground the lump into tiny particles. He chewed slowly, sucking out the salty juice then washed his mouth with a cupful of beer. He reached forth for the meat once more throwing the last lump into his mouth. In so doing, he was accomplished, but not completely as the juice still remained. He raised the deep ceramic plate to his mouth and gulped. He was done. He soon raised his head, noticing the patient faces of his regular customers, expectantly waiting for his nightly stories.
“Ouh-ouh-ouh-ouh,” he cleared his throat, then reached for a cupful of his drink, sipped a little then continued, “this world is bad.” He said this aloud once his mouth was empty, captivating the listening ears of his little attentive audience. His throat was crackly like that of two bricks shuffled against each other. The lot of them turned around in their chairs, directly facing Egele the popular orator.
“Madam bring cigar for me,” he said before continuing, “I remember when things were very good. When you can buy bags of cereals for the least naira.” He sounded educated and learned.
Nwanyi Enugu walked by and handed him a packet of Benson cigarette. He ripped it open, brought out a stick then hit the bottom slightly on the packet, rapidly, letting the tobacco settle towards the base. A perfect smoker he was. He sparked it, guiding the flames on the burning match to the base of the cigar. It ignited letting out cloudy vapours which drifted towards the left short window of the restaurant.
“I have been to Togo. I’ve been to Cameroon and also to Sierra Leone. I have seen things. Nwanne, I’ve seen plenty things. My last visit to Burkina Faso as a Nigerian soldier was bad. They called us ‘soldats’. On reaching Ouagadougou, we were deployed to arrest some minor hoodlums orchestrating a coup on the then government. We accomplished all our tasks while few of us lost their heads. Their women had backsides that could make you grasp for breath. We fucked them. I fucked plenty of them.”
He beat his chest, “have you ever tasted an African French girl?” he asked the silent men. They shook their heads in disapproval. Egele chuckled loudly, lit his half burnt cigarette, sucked hard on the stick then puffed out a huge cloud of smoke into the room. The vapours spread around. His audience watched admiringly. They wanted to be where he had been. They wanted to see adventures.
Egele rounded up, finishing his cigar as he took his rifle from his laps. He strode to exit the restaurant, stopped halfway then handed some notes to the woman. He left the beer parlour as the eyes of the other customers got fixated on him.
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