By Adaora Raji
When sand flies with the whirlwind and lands in my eyes, I do not close my eyes because I know that if I do, they may never open again. I am not afraid when a dust devil takes a fierce swipe at my face. I am not afraid of the rattlesnakes that hide in the sand or the bandits who watch my every move from behind the mountains. I am afraid of falling, falling again and being unable to get up. I am afraid because my feet have turned sore inside my worn out sneakers. That my hands tremble and that my head feels like a heavy mortar has been placed upon it. But I do not stop walking except when the sky turns dark and I sink into the remains of a mesh tent and dare myself to shut my eyes.
Eki likes to be carried. So we will wait till about 1am, when nearly everyone else has gone to bed, before using the bathroom at end of the hall. She will dissolve in fitful giggles when I carry her on my shoulder, using both arms to support her weight, while I manage to hold the rubber bucket, bath soap, and sponge with my hands. It makes perfect sense to simultaneously towel our bodies, and afterwards, engage in a beautifully orchestrated coital dance. The kind of dance that makes Eki moan incessantly, eliciting a mandatory cough from Donald, my roommate at the other side of the room partitioned by a flowery curtain. His cough will cause her to stifle her moans briefly, only to continue when the tempo of our dance increases, this time loud enough for those outside to hear. In the morning when Eki returns to her hostel, Donald will approach me with the same question he asked me last week.
“Arinze bless me with the 411?” he says, insinuating that I give him the aphrodisiac I use.
“I don’t touch that stuff.”
“What is it then?”
“She loves me.”
“Story,” he says in disbelief before heading for the door.
I get it. It is hard to comprehend how a high flying-girl in her final year would fall for an ordinary boy in his third year, much more be seen holding hands publicly with him. For the girls in Eki’s clique, dating any boy on campus is an aberration to the basic world order. It must be some guy outside campus with a white-collar job and more importantly, he must own a car: in order to be seen being dropped off or picked up from campus in it. When life happens, and they begin dating an ordinary campus boy, they will never be seen publicly with him and when asked about the relationship, they will deny that such an affair exists.
“Arinze has a bright future, plus, he is a lot smarter than all these campus boys that don’t know jack outside their coursework,” Eki will say to the girls in her clique. Her way of explaining to them that she did not fall below standard, but merely changed the rules of their dating game. This is how I know that I am special.
In one of those days with no sunshine and cloudy skies with no rainfall, and in between is a stillness that hangs in the air that seems to suffocate. I sit outside the General Studies Hall with a handful of my course mates, waiting for a lecturer who we know will not show up. My phone beeps in my jean pocket. It is an IM from Eki that reads, pls come 2ur room now!!! When I arrive, I notice her Peruvian weave is in disarray and tear-stained mascara forms dark circles underneath her red eyes.
“He did it again,” she says, cleaning her nose on my sweatshirt.
“Who did what?
“I went to his office this morning for him to approve chapter three of my project, so I can give out the questionnaires, and he threw my work on the ground and started touching me all over. When I asked him to stop, he told me to shut up, that he heard I liked it so much that I always screamed for more at night. Since I always want it, I ought to take it from him too.”
“Did he put it inside this time?”
As she nods in affirmation, my stomach churns in a way that I know that if I did not stay still, that I will defecate on myself. When she stops crying, I prepare peppered noodles with fried eggs and urge her to eat, and she falls asleep afterwards.
I turn on my laptop and post a long rant on my blog about a certain professor in his late 50s who sexually assaults female students of the Economics and Statistics Department. I state hints on how he always ensures that he supervises the project work of the prettiest girls in any final year set. When the girls report him to the ethics committee, the committee will demand for evidence of the assault, and the girls will be too shamed to return. I conclude with the rhetoric “Will Justice Ever Be Served?”
The post generates sixteen comments, eight from anonymous commenters, three of whom admit to being his victims, and the other five who say, “the time for justice is now.” Two commenters call me brave for daring to expose the sins of the grandfather. The rest ask me to face my course work instead of digging my grave.
The biting chill of the morning cold wakes me. Violent spasms erupt from my throat, causing me to cough out yellow coloured phlegm in frightful fits. I get up, noticing a plastic bottle without a cover lodged between the sand and a tent peg. I reach for the plastic bottle and pee so that my urine will enter into the bottle, then bring the contents to my lips. I continue walking, not knowing if I am any closer to my destination or further from it. The throbbing in my feet resumes, the dry patch in my throat enlarges. I think I see a group of people walking toward me, but I figure that it is my imagination because my vision is blurry. My left foot sticks into a quicksand, and I fall in.
On the day I submit my 300-level course registration form, along with everyone, the adviser asks me to wait.
“I can’t find your file,” he says, typing furiously on his phone.
“How do you mean sir?” my voice cracks.
“I am supposed to put your course registration form into your file now, but I have looked everywhere. I can’t find it.”
“What should I do Sir?”
“You can check with the department’s secretary.”
His phone begins to ring, and he dismisses me by waving his right hand.
I half walk and half run to the departmental building, and the secretary, a middle-aged woman with skin bleached till it turned red, who makes everyone call her Aunty Joyce asks me to wait. She loiters round her desk for about twenty-five minutes before saying, “There are no records to show that you have been admitted into this university, much less registered with the department.”
“But you know me Aunty Joyce, you processed my admission three years ago.”
“How can I remember just you? More than two hundred students are admitted into this department every year. If there is nothing else I can do for you, please, leave.”
Instinctively, I jump over her desk aiming for the file cabinet behind her and accidentally smash into her. She falls off her chair, and lands on her back on the tiled floor. Before I can help her up, she runs outside the office which gives me time to frantically search for my file at the cabinet. Within minutes, two guards come in and force me out. The next morning, I receive a memo, asking me to vacate the hostel due to my reckless behaviour and attempting to murder a non-academic staff.
At the motor park, Eki pulls at her hair like a mad woman and in between sobs keeps saying, “I am sorry my love. It is my fault. I should have just kept quiet.”
I am too shocked from the previous day’s events to craft a soothing reply and plant kisses on her forehead instead. Donald stands with us, and is non-committal, until the bus is about to leave and he gives me a stiff hug with a jab on my shoulder. I sit through the two-hour bus ride from Ekpoma to Benin City transfixed by the past, and not interacting with the other passengers. It is only when the driver drops me at Uwasota Junction that I superimpose myself in the present and navigate my way to the four-bedroom bungalow on Imariagbe Close that I call home.
Daddy does not respond to my “Good Evening Sir.”
He sits still on the couch pretending to be engrossed in a live political debate. Isioma, my younger sister, pounces on my back and follows me to the bedroom. While we unpack, Mummy stands by the door and says quietly, “What happened is the work of the devil. You could have been more prayerful, but you keep taking the grace of God for granted.”
I dash quickly to the bathroom, too stressed to argue. When the electricity cuts off, I hear Daddy say, “Ahh NEPA! You people could have let me finish watching this!”
“Daddy lemme help you buy fuel for the generator,” I say to him, silently praying he will respond.
“The others that knew and kept quiet; Are you better than them?” His voice thunders through the darkness in the living room.
“See you now, after spending my hard-earned money for you to get a degree, you come home with nothing. But your stupidity baffles me. The person you were defending, is she not still in that same school?”
I cannot tell him now that she is my girlfriend because that will cement my stupidity. Isioma turns on the rechargeable lamp and leans on the armrest of the couch, watching us.
“Your elder brother is about to complete his master’s, you, the useless idiot of a son, is standing there asking for money to buy fuel so that you can watch television.”
“Food is ready ooh,” Mummy says from the kitchen. Her way of saving me from further tongue lashing, because of all things said and done today, eating a dinner of boiled plantain with smoked black fish steamed in garden egg sauce is of utmost importance.
My waking hours alternate between watching mindless television, helping Isioma prepare for her WAEC exams, and helping Mummy sell at her provisions store in front of the house. I take extra care in avoiding Daddy, ensuring that before he returns from work at the local government council, I will take long aimless walks around the neighborhood and slip in unnoticed through the back door after he has finished watching the network news and has retired to bed. I will then lie awake till 12am so that I can make free night calls to Eki, who always seems to be in a hurry to hang up. Leaving me with ample time to sneak into the sitting room and watch late night movies with the television volume turned down so as not to attract Daddy’s wrath. Occasionally, people will ask why I haven’t returned back to school, and I will give an elaborate explanation on how the department was foot dragging in releasing my graduating set’s results. It is only to Favour, who was my classmate in secondary school and lives a few houses away, that I open up.
“Do you know that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates did not graduate?” he says to me, admiration in his voice as he pronounces their names.
“Why does everyone always use those two as examples?”
“Those are the obvious ones. That is why I didn’t apply to write JAMB in the first place, because I don’t believe in all this going to university thing.”
I do not reply, because we both know the reason he didn’t apply is his parents couldn’t afford to send him and his two elder brothers to study at the university at the same time. So he was asked to wait until they graduated and got jobs to sponsor him. Favour, being the hustler of all hustlers, works in several places simultaneously. He is a salesperson for Premium Motor Oil, and doubles as a marketer for three microfinance banks. Still he finds the time to read books like 21 Secrets of Millionaires, How to Make A Million in a Month and Tapping into Abrahamic Blessings.
“My contact in Algeria says I can come. I am moving to Spain by the end of the month,” Favour says to me on one of those long days we sit alone in Mummy’s shop drinking stolen carbonated drinks and egg rolls because she has gone for another Divine Destiny midweek service, and will not return till about 10pm.
“When did you get your visa?”
“I am going by road.”
“You are not serious.”
“The only reason I am telling you this is because I thought you might like to go too.”
“How much is the tee fare?”
“500,000 naira. Half is for my contact, the other half is for travel expenses.”
“So are you interested?” he asks after belching loudly from downing two bottles.
“No. I am not suicidal.”
He gets up to leave immediately, disappointment and embarrassment plastered on his face.
My conversations with Eki have become stilted, often forced. As if she longs to say things but hides those things under clichés like “I am fine” and “final year is really tough, too many assignments” and “I am just hanging in there Arinze.”
I cannot figure out what she is trying to tell me, until Donald calls me on a cold Sunday afternoon, barely waiting for the courtesies to be over before saying, “I hope you know that a banker now picks Eki from her hostel gate on Friday evenings and drops her off on Monday mornings.”
“Maybe he is just a friend. She has many of those off campus.”
“Which friend kisses a girl on the mouth in his car before dropping her off?”
I am forced into silence.
“I just thought you should know, so that the truth can set you free.”
I hang up on him.
I immediately send Eki IMs saying I want to see her in person because I miss her giggles. She doesn’t reply and doesn’t pick up my calls for six days in a row. It is much later, when I am sprawled on the couch watching a late night movie on ENTV Benin, that I receive a Facebook message from her that reads, I didn’t want it to end like dis Arinze, but alot of things were beyond my control, dat I cannot begin to explain here. If dis is any consolation, know that I once loved u wholly n will always carry u in my heart. Then I notice that she has changed the relationship status on her profile page to “engaged.” For the first time since the ninety-two days I have been home, I allow myself to feel the sadness I have been trying to suppress for so long. I cry until my eyes hurt when I attempt to close them. So, I stare at the walls and notice that Daddy has taken down the framed picture of me winning the 200km race in Senior Secondary 2. My eyes revert back to the television screen. It upsets me knowing that this is the third time this week that ENTV is showing this movie, and it upsets me even more that I am comfortable seeing it again. I get up quickly and head to the kitchen store and take out the black poly bag, in the ceramic pot at the upper shelf. Inside is the trust fund that AKACHI cooperative gives to Mummy to disburse because Mummy is a responsible Christian woman. I go to my room and count all of the money. Then I call Favour.
A streaming sea of people in a hurried frenzy and hawkers knocking down on car windows greet us when we arrive Lagos. The air is flying with Yoruba dialects mixed with Igala, Ibibio, Hausa and other ethnic languages I can’t decipher.
“Tanker fall,” the danfo bus driver explains as we sit in a two-and-a-half-hour-long traffic gridlock that he says stretches from Mile2 to Okokomaiko. He will often get up from the wheel, stepping out to see if the lane ahead has moved. Beads of perspiration form on my forehead, and I am tired of breathing the same still air as the thirteen other people in the bus. Favour is sitting beside me and typing on his phone, then says, “They said your mother came to look for you at my house.”
“Did you tell her where we are going?”
“Am I mad?”
It is late evening when we get to Agbara, to board a taxi going to Lome. At the border, four immigration officials ask the driver to pack for routine inspection. When they are done combing through the car and searching our bags with those of other passengers, a balding officer stares hard at me before saying, “What are you going to do in Lome?”
“I want to buy first-grade shoes and bags to sell at home.”
“Has the government not warned you people to stop bringing those things?”
“So how much will you give us for turning Nigeria to a dumping ground for used goods?”
I grudgingly part with the 5000naira I stashed in my socks, before they let us go.
At Lome, we withdraw all of our travel funds with our debit cards and lodge at a low-cost motel close to the car park, then take turns scouting the park so that we do not miss the bus going to Bamako that departs thrice weekly.
When it is Favour’s turn to go to the park, I hook up with the dark-skinned voluptuous motel receptionist with faux dreadlocks who speaks passable English. Our series of quickies culminates in sex that is extremely exhilarating, making me wish the affair were not transient.
It is on the 28-hour journey to Bamako that I understand what it means to be suspended in time. Night merges into day until they are no longer different but one. When the bus stops at Burkina Faso to drop off and pick up passengers, I panic because I see three men in sweat-shirts worn over long sleeves with bugling back packs get in and I know that they are going to Europe by road. I panic again when patrol officers scrutinize our bus, and we present our ECOWAS passports and fake vaccination cards. My panic worsens when Favour falls sick and begins to vomit into brown paper bags.
“Maybe we should come down at the next stop and return to Lome,” I say to him after he drinks the herbal mixture the bus conductor purchases for him at the Dioila commune stop.
“Over my dead body, I cannot come this far to go back.”
“You look really pale. We can try again when you are well.”
“Doctor Arinze, this is just my body trying to adjust to the long trip.”
Between cheap motels, taxi drivers that speak only French, and narrowly missing deportation at the Ouchda border, it takes us nearly two months to arrive in Algeria and meet Favour’s contact at his two-bedroom apartment in Oran. He is unhappy when he hears we dipped into his money to offset some bills.
“That is not what I usually collect per head. After I settle the driver, how much will be left for me?” His voice is brash and loud.
“I am very sorry Bros, I miscalculated the expenses initially,” Favour says, his voice cowered in the humility he reserves when conversing with pastors back home.
“I am only collecting this because of your cousin Obohs. If not, I will have asked you guys to go back. By next week both of you will leave for Morocco. From there it is straight into Spain. Don’t you know it takes some people three years to go from Algeria to Morocco? But I have made everything easy, still you can’t show appreciation.”
He painstakingly counts the money and retreats to the bedroom. About an hour later, two girls noiselessly set down a dish of wheat meal and spicy lamb soup in front of us.
“They are waiting for buyers,” Favour whispers when they are out of earshot and I immediately lose my appetite.
We are sandwiched between wooden racks of processed fish in a trailer going to Barcelona through Morocco. The only source of light and air are three small holes drilled at the top of the container, and Favour is fast asleep after complaining of a nagging headache. I cannot tell how long we journey, but long enough to know the driver has made three stops and is changing a back tire. That is until I hear a furious argument between the driver and some people in a dialect I cannot place, followed by gunshots. Then the container door opens with a huge thud, and we fall out with the wooden racks we have been embedded in. Gun nozzles are pressed against our foreheads and I raise my hands in surrender as Favour starts to speak in tongues. In a split second, the men with guns zoom off with the trailer. What remains is sand, dust, processed fish in packets, an agonizingly hot sun, and the driver lying motionless with blood seeping from a bullet wound at the back of his head.
At first we run, then walk really fast. When we see nothing but sand and hills behind and in front of us, we slow down our pace.
“I want to sit down, my legs are shaking,” Favour says sinking into the sand, and soon he is lying on his back with his feet propped up.
“We need to get going, let just keep walking for now,” I hear myself say.
We wait till I can’t sit still anymore, and I shake him, urging him to stand up but he lies there not responding. I am getting pissed that he could sleep in such turmoil and kick him hard on his stomach but he doesn’t get up. My anger dissolves into fear when I check his pulse and find none. I shake him until I go numb from shaking him, then I scoop sand with my hands to cover him as much as I can. I start crying when I realize he will turn up on some YouTube video as the many skeletal remains of desperate migrants crossing the Sahara, and if I stop to rest for too long, I will turn up on one of those videos too. So I keep walking until too much dust, sweat, and sand lodge in my eyes.
I wake up with a start when water is splashed on my face and count the seven men standing over me.
“Qui etes-vous?” one of them says. He is heavily built, with a semi-thunderous voice.
“I don’t speak French.” I can’t even recognize my own voice.
“Where you from?”
They seem to process that for a few minutes, before conferring amongst themselves speaking only in French. For one fleeting moment I think of running, and I remember that I don’t have anywhere to run to.
“Why you here?” another one of them asks.
I stifle a chuckle, wondering why anyone would ask a black man why he is stranded in the middle of the Sahara Desert?
“Our driver was supposed to drop my friend and I in Barcelona, but we were attacked.”
“Where driver and friend?”
“They are dead.”
As if I had uttered a magic word, they all leave me at once, moving to the mountainous terrain beside me where I cannot see them. In a short while, the man with the huge build returns bearing gifts–a small plastic container with water and clothes, which he sets down beside me. So there is still hope for the human race, I think as I drink the water and use what is left to clean as much bodily dirt as I can while still wearing my boxers. The sleeves of my new shirt are too long, and the trousers too loose on my waist, but those are the least of my worries.
“I Simone, from Yaounde,” he says, picking his words slowly.
We sit barefoot on the sand as he brings a paper bag out of an inside pocket in his jacket. It contains dried out bread stuffed with canned tuna fish. He takes a large chunk and gestures for me to take what is left. My eyes water in gratitude as I imagine how he is able to squeeze out this meal to include me. We sit in a silence that is somewhat comforting and stare into the night. I am compelled to ask what his story is, but I don’t, because in the end, we are seeking a certain kind of happiness that we cannot possibly feel in our ancestral homes. Even if that happiness remains flawed because we chase what lies on the other side, not minding if we lose our lives.
Simone motions for me to come with him. I follow him and see the other men and their belongings encased in backpacks that serve as pillows and torn-out clothes are spread on the ground. Four of the men are fast asleep and the other two stare long and hard at me before making way for me to pass and lie at the extreme end. One of them calls out to Simone, and they get into a heated argument. From the urgency of their tones, I can tell that they are planning something big, but my mastery of French is too deplorable to make meaning out of what they are saying. Simone tosses me a wad of clothes to use as a prop pillow. Because I am so cold, I wear the clothes instead, sitting up, hoping he will say something to me, but he covers himself with a dark coat and falls asleep. The stillness of the night is interrupted by some of the men snoring more loudly than others. I try to stay awake, but sleep comes too willingly. I wake up with a start when someone kicks me in the foot. It is Simone standing over me with his backpack strapped to his shoulders. When I struggle to get up, I see that there is no one else left. Simone scurries out and I follow him, hurriedly putting on my sneakers. When we catch up with the others, they eye me suspiciously without saying anything. I understand now what the argument last night is about.
I cannot tell for how long we walk, but long enough that I break into a frenzied sweat and just want to fall down. But I know if I fall, nobody will half drag or half carry me anywhere, so I keep walking even when I lag behind, until we arrive at a place where black, white, olive and hazel skin tones merge to form a reluctant whole. Where the languages that emerge from their tongues could have been something taken out of the Pentecost scene in the Acts of the Apostles.
“Here is Melila, over fence is Europe,” Simone says to me, pointing to a three-tier barbed-wire fence opposite us with five baton-wielding border guards on patrol.
A curly-haired man in blue jean trousers and a white short-sleeve shirt with a camera hanging around his neck approaches me.
“Your face is new,” he says, standing beside me. I can’t place his accent and do not respond but begin to look around to see where Simone has gone to.
“You know I could help you apply for asylum if you just tell me your story,” he says, and I wonder how many people he has fed that line to.
“I am a factory worker from Ghana. My wife had a set of triplets last month and my wages aren’t enough to support her and our two older children. I want to see if I can make it to Madrid to work so I can send money back home.”
He brings out a small notepad from his breast pocket and scribbles frantically.
“How old are you?”
“32,” I say, putting on my best imitation of what I assume would sound like a Ghanaian speaking English.
He leaves me quickly to take pictures of a nasty a fight that just started between three men. Everyone stands in groups watching but nobody is willing to separate the fight, and the guards try to break it off. That is when I see Simone and three others leaning too closely to the three-tier fence. In an instant, they scale the first fence and are onto the second one. With a strength I do not know I possess, I fling myself at the fence and begin to climb. I don’t look down when the guards bark orders into their communication gadgets in a language I can’t understand. I don’t stop even when my right thigh slashes through barbed wire on the second fence. From the top of the third fence, I fling myself on the ground and keep running.
Adaora Raji earned a B.A in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Benin, Nigeria. Her fiction (Pushcart nominated) has appeared in Arlington Literary Journal and poetry in Voice of Eve magazine. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.