I remember Usman even today. His memory lingers like a pale veil hovering in my subconscious. Sometimes I even seem to hear his voice ululating in my mind. The throaty clatter of his words used to make me laugh. I remember when I first met him. He had been quarreling with mama Useni, over the sizes of kwose she had wrapped into his package. They were too small, he had complained. As she spat angry words at him in reply, cussing in the most unholy tune, I came along with my flask, whistling under my breath. Words may no describe my consternation on seeing him quarreling with Mama Useni. Nobody ever confronted Mama Useni over her unscrupulousness. She had the most hideous voice and a wicked tongue and since she was the only one who sold kwose in the vicinity, we all grew to condone her egregiousness. The only other option was to give up the treat of having kwoko and kwose in the morning. For most of us, this was unimaginable. Usman must have felt as strongly, but he had always been too ornery. I was glad to finally find someone who could afford to antagonize Mama Useni. I hated Mama Useni. I really did. I hated her loud voice and her nagging attitude. I hated the fact that she always called me nyamiri with that particular disgusted edge to her tone. And she always sold me the smallest balls of kwose! But I was always too chicken to complain. And so I was rather shocked when I saw the skinny Fulani boy, barely my age, quarreling on an equal platform with the gorgon. When I eventually got served my package of kwose that day, I gave him one ball from it. Only then did he let Mama Useni to her peace. To me, it was my way of commending a bravery I could never afford. He thanked me heartily and left; heading straight to the bush market, where – as I came to realize – he lived. I was heading to school that day. Later on, he came to meet me in mama’s shed in the bush market, and invited me to play football with him. He seemed to have know me even before that morning. He was the first boy and only boy in the community to have asked me out to play. I was grateful. After that day, we became friends; me, the Igbo boy who just newly moved with his family to Tudun-wada and himself, the unusual Fulani boy.
He was really something else you see. The way his mouth twisted into an unexpected grin when his little mind conceived the most mischievous pranks, and the way he knew all the roads and all the games and all the scary stories. He once told me a story of two truck-pushers who used to live in the community and who killed themselves after smoking Indian hemp. Apparently, they struck each other to death in the bush, thinking each other to be demons. Their ghost were said to still linger in the bush market, looking for Indian hemp. You could only see them through the veil of smoke that streamed from a stub of Indian hemp. I actual believed his stories. He was the most exceptional almagiri. He could speak almost fluent English and knew things about school I didn’t even know. He told me everything I came to know about universities until I eventually entered one. He would have been a bright student. Usman soon became my best friend. I would give him food whenever he came over to my house, mostly from my ration. My parents too soon got fond of him. There was nothing not to like about the fair skinned, skinny, polite Fulani boy, with a knack for jokes. He taught me many things over the years of our friendship. I finally was able to pull together sentences in Hausa under his tutelage. In return, I taught him to read. The last time I saw him was ten years ago, on our last night in Kaduna.
That night, the rioters broke into our compound with their glistering sickles and sharp daggers. They blew into our building, the cold wind of doom. The sad realization that came with their chants left the stomach watery and the eyes weak. That night, they killed my father and my brother in their hysteric ritual. I watched my brother’s head get severed from his neck by Mallam Musa the butcher, from under the silhouette of our cushion in the parlor. I would have screamed, if saliva and the air from my heavy breathing did not leave a cloth in my throat. They didn’t find me, and they left. Papa was killed when he went outside to beg them, speaking Hausa as fluently as themselves, and soliciting in the name of Allah. After they came inside, they noticed my brother behind the TV and offered him to Mallam Musa. Chidi was two years younger than me. Mama had not being around that day. She too would have been killed, her pregnancy notwithstanding. They would have made a huge show of her too. As they left- the men who had killed my father and younger brother -they took several looks around our one room and parlor apartment as though sensing another presence. And that was the last time I saw Usman. His eyes met mine in one quick flash as he scanned the room before they left. The small dagger he held glowed in the dark, reflecting the red of fresh blood. He quickly took his eyes from mine as he chanted “Allah hu akbar”, easily stimulating a reply from his comrades as he headed for the door. But in the flint second of our interlock, I saw in his eyes a story, one of sadness, despair and guilt. One scary story, he would never get to tell me.
Today I hear his hearty laughter whenever I see another picture of carnage on the TV. And I pray, the warm, throaty sound of it, give me heart for forgiveness.
Written by Vincent Okonkwo (@der_Vinci).
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