Agberoby Kingsley Okechukwu
For the 2013 class of Nigerian graduates, with love
As hunger takes charge of my body and senses, I use my legs, which are the only apparatus yet to be completely shattered by hunger, to roam about the town. You see, I am a graduate, and I don’t have a job three years after my graduation; I do bricklaying jobs with Pa Jimoh but this past few months, work has been slow in coming, and, having exhausted my food stuffs, hunger creeps in and has since sworn to eliminate me. During my days in the university, our lecturer who usually colours his statements with a sly grin always sings about our country being the third fastest growing economy in the world; in spite of this, I, a graduate can only pray to outwit starvation.
I was careful with the routes I take because I now have enough creditors in the neighbourhood to fill a small exercise book. The mama-put food seller. The provision shop-keeper. The tailor who actually specialises in patch-patch. The chemist. The borehole water seller. Etc. I owe everyone in the street. I don’t mention my landlord because he is a very understanding Christian man. Although my rent is three months due, all I do to keep him off is attend their mushroom church every Sunday to be inflicted with a long, nerve-tracking sermon about prosperity and giving. My other debtors must have pitied me because they are not aggressive about having my debt paid. But I am not that stupid, they greet me with their mouth but their eyes beg me to pay. I cannot pay so I take to sneaking in and out of the compound. I will leave my room very early in the morning, before light and not return till it is dark.
I don’t usually don’t lock my door; I haven’t a lot to secure anyway. I own so little: a spring of mat that I called bed and a radio set that I abandon when it won’t stop mocking me, telling me that my country is experiencing ‘a transformation agenda’—it must have been referring to another country and not here where I, a graduate, can only wish my neighbours blindness so as to walk the street freely.
I walk everywhere. To the snooker joint. To the motor-park. To the railway. To the playing fields. But mostly I walk to the marketplace; there, I will stand in front of people’s stall as buyers and bargainers, sellers and liars, thieves and beggars, loiters and stalkers, thugs and touts, clowns and entertainers, the living and the dead fight for space with wheelbarrows laden with goods in the tiny pathways. It amazes me whenever I see a small boy of not more than 13 years carrying a dozen sacks of rice tied so high in the wheelbarrow that they obscure his view, yet he moves without colliding with anything including benches and tables of wares that take two-third of the passageways, without colliding with the fowls, cats, goats and rodents that are all part of the market people. I will stand there until someone, probably the stall owner or their accomplice say, ‘Oga, wetin you wan buy?’ or ‘Master man comot for road, no de block my market jor.’ Then I will move on.
Today, my legs are getting weaker and the riot in my belly, deadlier as I walk the market place. You need to see me, big head, long hands with veins that look like tree roots, bushy hair and dry lips, wearing dirty, torn shirt and trousers that my landlord’s wife once jokingly calls soap-haram—it is a joke but she is right, I cannot tell the last time I washed them. I continue to walk, dragging poor self to nowhere with the determination of someone going to an important job interview. At times I will continue on a path until I get to the end and discover the wall or the rubbish dump or the wild un-passable gutter of green mud-water. Then I will turn. Or while on my way some shrill unfriendly voice will declare, ‘Oga, where you de go? Dey no de shit for dia o!b’ and I will turn, accompanied by suspicious and hateful eyes. It is a shame but I am a graduate!
I finally decide to rest in a corner, sure that this will be my dead bed except if manna falls from heaven, which may not happen in the twenty-first century. I sit on a table in front of a locked shop. The shop owner is either dead or in a cell to stay away today. Or today is his wedding, or father’s funeral or child’s naming ceremony. Or eviction by his landlord-led thugs, or sudden labour by his wife, or an accident on his bike—a serious, body-damaging accident that is. Whatever, he is not around today so I have his table as my dead bed. While waiting for death or manna—or both—I discover that the area is a motor park. Just before me is a big bus whose seats save for the front seats are missing, in their place is a fleet of heavy motor engines. The bus is ready to go but there seems to be a problem. The driver, for he has a bunch of keys in his hand, stands between the owner of the goods, for he has the pot belly of established traders, and some touts in hot argument over something. I look away but my leafy ears strain to listen.
‘Dis ting na nonsense,’ the man is shouting. ‘How una go ask me to pay ten tousand naira for land? Dis place no be government land?’
The touts, there are three of them, disagree. ‘Dis place no be government land,’ one of them says, ‘it is our great gran papa land. Na borrow we borrow govement make dem de use am.’
‘Since una borrow govement the land why una wan collect money from me?’ the owner asks, looking around for support but obviously everybody is too busy to put their mouth in a business that is none of their business.
‘We give the goverment de land cos of say we go dey collect Land Use Act Revenue for am,’ the second tout says. It is hard to describe them independent of each other. Not that they look alike. One is tall, the other short and the third in between their heights. But they are all too thin, too hungry-looking and too good in their rags to make for distinction among them. And they speak in the same rough, dry and undisciplined voice, making it impossible to say that this is the voice of the tall man, or the short man or the un-short man.
‘If I give una the money, una go give me receipt?’
‘The receit na to allow you pass.’
‘So if I no pay, I no go pass?’
The thugs shrugged, the answer is obvious.
‘Just give them something,’ the driver says.
‘What is someting? Im money na fifteen thousand naira.’
The owner counts four five hundred naira notes and extends it but the touts laugh at him. They argue, shout and abuse one another. At the end they settle for twelve thousand naira. There is no pretence of sort, right there, in the glare of the owner, they share the money among themselves. Four thousand naira each.
Hmmm, I marvel at their confidence as I watched the angry owner turning to join the driver inside the bus. The ignition starts then two other touts approach the bus. ‘Stop the moto,’ they shout. ‘What again is it?’ the owner asks.
The owner stamped out of the car, his eyes blazing with red hatred.
‘Where is your receit for security?’ one of the thugs asks.
‘What nonsense security?’ the owner fires back.
The thugs laugh then threaten to deflate the tires, break the windscreen and seize the bus key if the security fee of ten thousand naira is not paid. They have been around, secretly guarding the bus and the goods since morning and if the owner will show lack of gratitude they will deal with him. They mean business. The owner fights with raised voice, shifted legs and popping eyes. These are useless because he still parts with seven thousand naira.
The owner sighs after the last touts turn to go but it is premature because a fat man appears from nowhere, shakes hand with the owner warmly. He is well-dressed or so in touts’ standard. He is wearing a white singlet over fubu trousers and a heavy pair of white canvas. He has a wrist watch, a necklace and a clean bandana flagging out of his trousers back pocket. A good fellow, you will say. But he is still a tout. He tells the owner that he is anti-touting and will stay around to stop the thugs from harassing him further because there are hundreds of touts lurking around the corner, ready to jump on him and defraud him. A security against touts, he promises. It sounds convincing, he looks matured in a thuggish way. All he wants is five thousand naira to water his throat. The owner gives him four one thousand naira notes. The tout thanks him and watches as the bus begins to move. But there are so much people crossing the road that the vehicle only moves in a crawl.
I see the ‘good’ tout ‘answering’ a phone call, then he moves away and disappears. I am fascinated and about to smile when I am interrupted by an idea. Why not become an agbero? I ask myself, for the main time, at least. My dressing, my hunger, my situation, all, are like the touts’ or even worst. The only difference is that I have a degree and they don’t. But my degree should not be an excuse for not acting; In fact, it should give me a greater skills over theirs, adding my classroom knowledge to the street life. The other agberos could be graduates as well, who knows? Who cares?
I jump down from my table—mine indeed!—, rushed to the front of the bus and gives an angry kick at the bumper with my bony leg. ‘Stop dia ma frien! You de craze? God punish you! Your father nyash!’ The insults come out of my mouth in quick, clear streams. I don’t know before now that I am capable of such bad mouth. It just goes to show that not so much can be put beyond a thoroughly frustrated graduate like me. The bus stops at my feet.
‘What is it?’ the owner does not even bother to come out of the bus.
‘I am supposed to pray for journey mercy for this bus,’ I say, discovering too late that I have spoken in good English.
‘Nonsense,’ the owner said, ‘my goods is covered in the blood of Jesus Christ. No need.’
I laugh a loud, throaty laugh. The frustration in my voice makes it convincing. ‘Who prayed for this car?’ I ask. ‘I am the chief pastor of this area and if I no pray for this motor, accident go happen.’
‘God forbid,’ the man says.
I shrug. ‘God forbid no go stop me from praying for mercy journey of this car. Na ma work I de do.’
The driver and the owner exchanged hushed glances. ‘Oya, pray for us,’ the driver speaks up.
I laugh. ‘I cannot pray in an empty stomach,’ I wink. ‘Pastor no go suffer, he no go beg for bread,’ I sing. He comes out of the car and extends a hundred naira note. I feel insulted. ‘God punish you,’ I shout at him. ‘For your information your money na twenty thousand naira!’
‘Haaah!’ the driver shouts.
‘Offering no be free from the mind?’ the owner demands, his temper rising to breaking point.
‘Here, it is no be offering, na tithe,’ I declare. My pidgin is poor and forgetfully but it does not matter. I am determined.
‘I will not pay that,’ the owner dares, ‘do your worst.’
I laugh wickedly then made for a rock in the roadside; I lift it up and rush for the bus. I don’t know what I will do when I get to the bus but gratefully, the driver stops me. ‘Wait o. Abeg, no demolish my motor.’
‘Then settle me,’ I shout, tiny beads of saliva pouring from my mouth. Passer-bys are beginning to gather but none even as much as uttered a syllable. I am the lord of the road.
‘I will give you two thousand naira,’ the owner fumes.
‘Your final money is fifteen thousand naira. Last!’
Then the man empties his pockets and shows me all that he has. Seven thousand naira. He and his goods are going far, to the north. If he gives me everything there will be nothing left for emergency, he pleads. I am obstinate. I ask him to give me all the money which is not even half of my initial demand, sorry, tithe. What is seven thousand to the over a million naira worth of goods in the bus? I ask. When he hands over the money he is close to tears. I pocket the money and feel warm for the first time in a very long while. I feel a surge of faith hit my forehead, rising to maximum heights. At this moment I can say to the mainland bridge ‘be removed and fall into the lagoon’ and it will obey me. A heavy pocket makes a faithful heart.
‘This bus shall sail sweet and sound to its location in Jesus name,’ I declare. The owner nods. Then I bow and I do a sign of the cross before the bus. End of prayer. I turn to go. I see the good tout standing in my way. My heart threatens to jump through my mouth. I—
A heavy object lands on my head and as I fall to the ground I know this is the end. I hold my bleeding head in my hand and watch helplessly as the good tout yanks my pocket of the money and returns it to the goods owner. I am sure I will die and in a way I am happy to die of tout discipline than of hunger.