The Known and the Unknown
As a family, I can’t remember a time we had it all. It was either we had to wait for my parents to get paid, or maybe father would go borrow from a friend. He tried his best to make sure the school fees were paid on time. In the morning, the grass on the pathway was wet, and crickets creaked beneath the dry spear grass. There was something beautiful about the sun, it hung in the horizon, as big as an orange. Okere and I walked to school in our pristine white short pants and ironed shirts with a badge on the breast pocket. Our face smeared with Vaseline to protect us from the hamattan dry wind.
Early enough, I learned that the world wasn’t perfect. I was barely fourteen, yet I had seen almost all of it; some nights without food, and some sober evenings of hope. Hope when you have nothing was something sober, like shrilling sound when you need solitude the most. How we smiled, how we laughed, how we forgot everything, made jokes, and walked miles and miles to get school. How we believed in the sun, that it shone for all, and for us, and hope, and hope, and hope. Okere wasn’t immune to all these troubles and tortures of hardship; his parents were civil servants too. His father was surveyor, and his mum taught in a local primary school. These were the days of General Sani Abacha, and heaven frowned on us, and upon many other civil servants whose salaries filled the Generals valise that found its way to European banks.
We were beginning to admire girls, beautiful girls that their parents drove to school. So, to avoid being seen by the girls, we walked inside of the streets only, avoiding the tarred roads, our shirts flying out, and the sun beside us, shinning. Sometimes, we walked beside the stream, and watched fishes swim in the muddy waters. The path by the stream was quiet, and serene, no cars, just birds chirping. Okere would talk about fishing like he knew a thing, and then he talked about Onitsha like he grew up there. I believed him, even though I knew that he lied a lot. But then, lying was part of our ways of existence, of making sense of the world we wanted and couldn’t have. I lied a few times too, like when I said that I had Sega game console, and we didn’t even have a functioning television not to talk of a game console. Well, that was why Okere never came inside our house throughout the school year, he would have discovered that was lying, and that would have made me depressed.
Okere was older than me by a year, brutish, taller, and with a fake American accent. Okere told me about his dreams of traveling to America like he was already there. He said his uncle who lived there had prepared everything for him, and life would be breezy. Okere had all the cassettes of rap music artists; B.I.G, Tu Pac, and Snoop Doggy Dog. He bought several cassette players that were seized by the seniors on campus. Close by the river behind the lump of spear grass, we wrestled a senior down and made him eat sand for taking Okere’s cassette player. The senior was small, his nickname was Small, and he followed a gang of tall men. That day, we took him by surprise and taught him a lesson he would never forget. He swore that he would kill us the next day at school.
The next week, we avoided school entirely. We walked around the river stealing mangos and guava that grew in abundance close by the hospital.
“Men, we garra eat this men,” Okere said in his fake American accent.
“But when will we go to school?” I asked. We’ve lived like this for a week, and I was beginning to get worried that my grades would slide and Senior Small would still deal with us after all.
“If that guy catches us, he will chew our bones,” Okere said with a mild terror and bewilderment in his eyes, as if he shouldn’t have dashed at him and lunched an uppercut first. I was the second to attack, with hot slaps that sent him staggering on the sharp-edged grass. Blood gushed out and stained his white clothes. I wanted to say I was sorry but he began to run his mouth. We had him real good at the corner and left him crying.
“I know, he will be waiting,” I said and stuffed my bag with our mangoes. Later we walked back him. I shared the fruits with my sibling who never questioned were it came from. I had an elder brother and a younger sister, Ada, cute little girl that loved school so much, precious and sweet; she could recite all the nursery rhymes. I watched her eat the mango, talk like a chatterbox, and I was happy.
The following day, we braved it. We walked into the school gate, senior Small saw us, our heart was beating, and it was time for him to take his revenge . I imagined what he would do to us at that instance, not good. His gang paraded the school gate looking at the new students, examining their footwear; whoever didn’t have black sandals, they pulled them off and made them walk barefooted. They were also flogging and molesting other junior students, whomever they didn’t like. This was the way of the school; life here was a matter of survival. Even the principal was struggling to survive, earlier on in the school year; he was thoroughly beaten by students during a riot.
Small saw us coming, his face lit with a smile. We tried not to smile. We expected the inevitable, a torturous end. I paced with uneven steps. Small walked up to us and shook our hands.
“Walk towards the right, and one will stop you,” he said to us in a low tone.
“Thank you,” we said and shook his hand again.
That was it; we walked towards the right, behind the gmelina tree, and no one spoke to us. That was how we became friends with senior Small too. He started walking home with us sometimes. He told us that why he didn’t punish us or retaliate was due to the fact we lived on the same street. I knew he was afraid of that, and he never expected we would have the courage to take him down and recover Okere’s cassette player. He thought about it and knew that it was a war he couldn’t win.
Evenings, we gathered all the courage we could and went to look for girls to talk to. We were beginning to know what our bodies was supposed to do, and we heard Small talk a lot about his girlfriends, and we wanted girlfriends too.
Father watched me dress up in my green short pants and red shirt. He sat at the corner of the seating with a box of snuff, his eyes red, while watching the evening news. He hissed over a million times at the state of the nation and other news.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“I want to go and collect my textbook from Okere’s house,” I said.
I watched him as if he was going to ask further questions, but he said nothing. He put a pinch of snuff in his nose, and looked away. I walked into the orange evening. The sun had receded behind the rivers, its shadows cast from the palm trees. A frog leaped on the cemented floor. I opened the gate, and walked towards the cul-de-sac. Okere lived there. I met him in the front gate. I greeted his father who sat on chair with a big chewing stick, gazing at me strangely. His father was a strange man; Okere treated him as a strange man too, he barely talked about him. One day, I found them arguing, I didn’t know what it was, and he never told me. Strange man, strange things, strange house that smelled like a medication box.
“Tonight you gonna get a girlfriend, my nigga,” Okere said, still refusing to let his acquired accent ebb; he had come to believe in it as much as he believed a stamped passport.
“Men, I saw a magazine yesterday, I found it in my house. People were naked, and having sex,” I said, with excitement.
“Have you done it before?” he asked.
“No, and you?”
“What is it like?”
“Well, when you release, something will come out your penis, and it is white.” That was all he knew about sex, he lied. Like I said, we lied a lot. He had an idea and hadn’t done anything.
We walked towards the market and greeted all the neighbors and elderly persons we found on the way. Yet we found no girls we knew or could talk to. We just found the ones that were too beautiful, and we were never brave enough to talk to them.
Rose walked past us, dressed in her checked red blouse, and a beautiful rosy skirt. We knew each other from Holy Communion class days. She waved at me, I waved back, and that was it. Ever since I had met her at the Holy Communion lessons, I fell in love with her. A part of me wanted to be with her, kiss her, take her out and tell her about the moon and the cloud. No girl wanted to listen to stories about the moon and the cloud, but I loved telling them anyways because grandfather taught me about them. I knew that girls just wanted a man that had “flows.”
“You have to have flows to be able to get this girl my man,” Okere said when he saw me stirring at her after she had walked past.
“How do I get flows?”
“Well, you gotta learn, my nigga. When you approach a woman, look into the eyes, don’t be afraid, say ‘hello’, and say nothing else until she replies. Then say ‘baby there is something I want to tell you’, and say nothing else until she replies. Then say, ‘I want to be your friend’. There is nothing there, she will either accept or reject your offer,” Okere said.
“Have you tried it before?” I asked.
“Not yet, but I asked my elder brother how to get girls, and he taught me these flows, I can write them for you too.”
“I will love to.”
We walked past the church, past chemist, past the bank, and kept walking towards video rental place. My heart was still beating from seeing Rose. Okere said a lot of things but I didn’t I hear him; I was busy replaying the part that she waved at me in my head. I wished that I had the courage to walk up to her and use “flows.” But then, I remembered the boy she liked during communion class. She would talk to him all day and even laugh with him. I wished I could make her laugh like that, and I wished she could notice me. I was like the only one that had no girlfriend then, and it mattered to me a lot because I was looking forward to my first kiss. My head was filled with all kind of imaginations, of her and me together. It never happened.
We walked until we decided that we were still losers, without girlfriends, turned back, and went home. That night, I stayed up when everyone had slept, reading the erotic magazine my brother hid under his bed. Women bent open, and men were sticking it into them. It made my body electric. I read until I couldn’t read anyone and slept off. In my dream, I kissed Ross so hard that I came.
I read two other books on how to find a girlfriend. I smiled often when I walked past girls, not to appear mean. Sometimes I tried to wink at them. I saw Rose a couple of more times, and yet I said nothing. But each time I walked past her, I wished I could have turned back and simply say the lines Okere taught me. Not that I was shy, I thought about other things like how I would get the money to buy her gifts or take her out. I barely had money; I could barely save. The little I had, I always tried to buy at least some clothing and a pair of shoes, which I normally did during the Christmas period.
One evening we trudged on the street, kitted up as usual, in our once-a-year Christmas clothes, looking for girls. We still needed girlfriends. Down by the Presbyterian Church, we saw the pretty girl Okere has been talking about. The father was a wealthy doctor, and she rarely came out alone. But today, she dressed like a hip-hop star, tight jeans, a yellow sleeveless shirt, and beautiful jewelries around her neck.
“I will marry her,” Okere said.
In our little minds, nothing was impossible, even for the lowest of the social strata. We believed we could achieve anything. We believed that one day we would be doctors, engineers, work in great companies, and provide for our families. We believed we could even go to the moon. We hadn’t accepted reality then; reality would have put us in our place and wiped this delirious malaria off our eyes to realize that we might never get there. For people growing up in so much hopelessness, to find hope in lies, in humors, in make believes stories, was worth all of it. All these kept us going.
“Ha, I will come to wedding and dance it off.” I laughed. “You should approach her, talk to her.” I nudged him.
“No, don’t worry, I have a plan, I know where she is going this evening. There is a party going on across the street, at the hotel. We will attend. There, I will talk to her and tell her everything I want to. Have you smoked before?” Okere asked. He brought out a stick of cigarette from his pocket.
“No, I will never smoke, it will hurt all your lungs and breathing,” I said.
“My nigga, this is the shit. You get high, and then you can be able to talk to any girl,” he said.
I walked with him in silence towards a bush part. He smoked horridly. He offered me a cigarette again, but I refused.
Since we knew were the party was taking place, we walked to the hotel, bouncing in our cheap canvas shoes and clean clothes. Okere brought out a hip face cap from his bag with the word “Bang” written on it, and he put it on. When we approached the hotel gates, other young boys were bouncing with confidence; almost everyone had Timberland shoes, so we looked a little off. Honestly, we didn’t care.
“My man, we are looking fly men,” Okere said, trying to ignore the fact that the other boys were well dressed, and that our best wardrobe wasn’t even close.
The bouncers let us in. The disco light was spinning, and some of our other classmates were at the party too. The girl stood at the opposite end of the kaleidoscopic lighted room, slim, tender, sipping a glass of what appeared to be wine. A young boy sat opposite her, and they were laughing.
“Man, what will you do? You really need to talk to this girl and get your mind to rest,” I said.
“Yes, I have a plan. This is my wife, no one is going to take her from me,” he said. He looked so serious; his face filled with agony of deprivation and rose with the hope of want. The same hope we kept alive each day as we trekked to school, miles and miles away.
“Remember, when you approach her, try to be at ease, don’t talk more than her,” I said.
“Man, where did you learn that?”
“I have been reading, I know a lot now that I can get a girlfriend with the snap of my fingers,” I said.
Okere stood up, and started walking towards her when three canisters of tear gas were thrown into the room. Then, three roaring gunshots followed outside of the hotel.
“This is the police! Everybody lie down!” a voice bawled in the midst of the confusion and pain. All I knew was that I ran into the bathroom, and the windows were barred. I looked outside. I saw some boys jumping from the two story building and landing in the nearby bushes. To be sincere, some of them may never walk again. I realized that it was stupid to attempt any other escape. I walked back into hall and surrendered. I tried to fake that I was sick and began to foam at the mouth. A police woman kicked me in the stomach.
“Turn your face to the ground, you bastard!”
I realized that I was dealing with animals that have no respect for human condition. Okere was already on the ground; I saw him: his shirt was torn, and he must have been ruffled in the process. They bundled the girls and the men separately, all seated on the cemented floor in front of the hotel. The girls went first; they were catered off in a bus by men wielding guns. A few minutes later, the bus returned, and we were bundled in and taken to the police station.
Everywhere smelled of urine. They kept us outside of the cells because the cells were already filled up. It looked dark inside of the cell, and I was happy I never went in there. We all took off our shirts and trousers. We wore only pants and boxer-shorts like criminals. I was so pissed at myself, I couldn’t even tell what I was into, and how our quest for love brought us to this end.
“My nigga, this is bad, what did we do?” Okere asked.
“I am still trying to understand too, maybe… we shouldn’t have gone there, and we would be home now watching television or something.”
The air was damp, the floor was damp, and everywhere was dirty. I cried inside of me. I needed to get out of there. I felt like I was in the strangest place ever.
“At least, they can start by telling us our crimes, and then we will know. Look at how we are being treated like dogs in our own country,” Okere said.
“Don’t worry, one day we will all leave and they will have no one to jail. I hate this place,” I said.
“I hate it too, I will improve on my accent more and hope that my uncle will really take me away,” he said.
I had an uncle in America, but he wasn’t even considered family; last year, he accused my brother of banging his car door and said that was why he wouldn’t give him the school fees he asked for. Mother had always told me that whatever we would become, we would have to work for it and fight for it. My brother had hopes of escaping this reality, but I was still thinking about it. But again, we were still here, breathing beside a filthy cell that smelled of rotten skin.
“Imagine that the world was different, and we don’t have to walk to school or fight so hard for everything, or maybe, maybe, if we were a little more handsome,” I said, and we laughed, the other people beside us laughed too. There was nothing like humor; it got us through moments of rough realism and heaviness.
“Many things we don’t know, many things we are yet to know. Maybe we can have it all and still be miserable,” Okere said. I had never stopped thinking about his words. It seemed more alive, more true, that the world wasn’t perfect, that human suffering was endless, and that we would always seek the unknown or believe in the sunny side of life.
My Uncle, a former police officer, arrived in his majesty, barking. I heard his voice from the outside. They were all saluting him.
“Who ordered you to make an arrest! Who ordered you to threaten my son as a criminal,” he said.
“We are sorry, sir, but these boys are cultists. Sir, we have evidence,” the police officer tried to explain to him.
“Where is the D.P.O.” My uncle screamed again. Then I saw him at the end of the corridor, his massive frame occupying the whole space; he was very tall.
“Stand up and let’s go,” he said to me. I stood up and followed him to the D.P.O’s office.
“Sean Sir!” The D.P.O saluted my uncle.
“Why was this arrest made?”
“Sir, we got information of cult activities, look at the evidence.” He pointed at a big pot covered with blood, a gun, and knife tied with red kerchief. “We recovered all these there.”
My uncle examined the objects and laughed. He knew they were lying, and he wasn’t ready to listen to him.
“Wait outside,” he told me. I walked outside; the junior officer that accompanied him went and brought my clothes, and other personal effects.
When he came out, he just waved at me to follow him. I wanted to ask him to help Okere, but I was so afraid of asking for a favor amidst all the things he went through to get me out. We drove back home in his 504 Peugeot car. He dropped at home and left. Mum stood at the door, and Dad wasn’t around. My sibling asked me what happened, and I told them. The pain was too much, so I went bed and slept.
Okere got out a week after. He told me how they later transferred him to the cell. He told me about the rats in the cell that had turned white due to lack of sunshine. He told me about three men in the cell with gunshot wounds that were rotting. He told me about the men he had to fan all day, and when his arm couldn’t stand it, they would beat him.
The same evening, we walked over to the Anglican Church at night. We sat down on the pavement, watching stars and moon, telling stories about our village and masquerades. We talked about girls and things we didn’t know. We still had no girlfriends. We laughed. We laughed. The world was out there, the unknown world, waiting. We kept hope alive. We laughed.
Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Ninth Letter Magazine, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. He spends most of his time daydreaming, and collecting wish trinket from sea waves. His website is: www.chikaonyenezi.com