Fire On The Mountain

Sound City, Southern Nigeria 06:45am

I jump off the bed and scamper to my prayer mat. My journal and Bible lie untouched. I rush my prayers. I have 5 minutes for everything: thanksgiving, for all the goodness I have received; prayers for my pastor and the church; prayers for God to raise godly leaders for Nigeria; prayers for my family scattered around the world, the new babies we have, and their mothers; prayers for wisdom, grace and favour; prayers for patience, lots and lots of patience.

I read just a verse of the Word today.

“There’s a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof is destruction.”

It gives me shivers.

6.55 am

I dash to the bathroom. I brush my teeth while doing squats. Brown love handles wobble and wriggle by my sides, I ignore them and keep squatting. I bath in two, dress in three. Ten minutes later, I am guzzling down cereal like a refugee. My wife, Mfoniso looks at me, snorts and shakes her head. I focus on the food, on making sure it doesn’t go the wrong way.

“Is the commissioner coming again?” She asks.

“Maybe.” I reply.

She walks over to me and gives me a peck. “Take it easy soldier. This too will pass.”

“Amen.” I say closing my eyes, drinking in her lavender and mint scent.

In a blink it all comes back to me. The life I led before everything imploded.

Snapshots of : lounging around the house in boxers, tending my plants, reading the papers, flick past like a pantomime. Those were good days, good times.

Everything changed when the fire nation attacked –sorry– health commissioners were swapped.

I want to hold her closer and get a full kiss. I want to drink the mint and lavender in, but my eye catches the clock on my phone and I grab my keys and run. I jog to the car, tucking in my shirt while I am at it.

7.10 am

I take deep breaths as I ease my Benz 190 down the street. The potholes are craters that I sink in and out of; sometimes I imagine I am driving on the moon. Soon I am on the dual carriage road that was resurfaced last week. It’s only in Nigeria that some roads get ‘resurfaced’ six times while some others are made of mud and craters.

I fly past the serene green of the playgrounds. Egrets jostle atop dying palms, white rollers in a balding black woman’s hair. Three black birds cackle among them and I wish I had the time to stop and stare. I wish I could google them, these three brave black birds in a gaggle of white.

7.15 am

I am almost at the crossroads. I have to think fast and decide which route I’ll take to CassavaLand. It takes forty minutes to get to CassavaLand if I drive through Obasanjo Way. CassavaLand is an ancient semi-urban town. I work as a medical officer in its general hospital. I apply for transfers every year. The director of medical services just laughs “All of you doctors want to stay in Sound City, the capital, ehn?” He says and tosses my letter ┬áback in the file, transfer declined.

Goodluck Way will get me there in thirty minutes, the road is new, dual carriage, made by Julius Berger. When I’m on it, I think of Germany and the autobahn; and making a giant I love Julius Berger billboard. I am tempted to turn left and blaze down Goodluck Way like a Jason Bourne clone, but I don’t. It’ll gulp more gas and there’ll be less to see: just coal tar and grass. Obasanjo Way is where the fun is, and I know it like the lines that criss-cross my palm , so I head straight on.

Obasanjo Way has also been resurfaced. My tires roll on the uneven lumps and I almost regret choosing this route. I imagine the millions of Naira that this will cost the state coffers, it nearly screeches me to a halt.

Soon we are at the flyovers, another Julius Berger marvel. We never had theses sort of wonders in my part of the Niger Delta. God bless democracy.

A red Kia Picanto zooms past me and my eyebrows flip into my hair.

“You are losing touch man.”

It’s Alan. My ‘other self’. He’s silly like that. Sometimes you don’t hear a thing from him for days then when you least expect it he pops out and starts prattling.

I keep my eyes on the road while I answer. “What do you know about touch. Loser.”

That keeps him quiet for a while. He thinks he is something special. Just because he can bake and play professional chess and write novels. When we were kids, he wanted to go to Russia and become a real grandmaster, West Africa’s first. Somehow Mom got wind of it. That was the end of that.

“Akan, don’t say that to me that again. I am not a loser. I have dreams and I get joy out of what I do. You and your World champion worrier mother wouldn’t let me live them but they are still here. Soon I will find a way to make it happen. What can you brag about? Bottom cadre doctor in the civil service. Ha! The civil service Akan. I thought you were better than this–Watch it!”

A motorbike swerves across the road, inches from my bonnet. The rider makes a face that says, “What are you looking at? Are you blind?”

I exhale through clenched teeth gripping the steering wheel and quelling the volley of abuse that is at the edge of my lips.

Alan starts laughing and holding his sides. soon he is breathless and tears are streaming down his face.

The irritation I feel morphs into cold white anger.

“Oh lord, oh dear,did you see the guy’s shoes. Lawd have mercy! He must have stolen them from a museum.” He giggles some more and I find myself chuckling. The anger ebbs, I realise he isn’t laughing at me.

Ahead there’s a crowd in a circle. Young men form the core, women and older people are at the fringes craning for a better look. A young girl’s corpse is on the ground. Her pink dress is soaked with blood. We all slow down. Everyone. Even the commercial drivers that act like they have appointments in Heaven. The wreck is grotesque, metal mangled into a steel tomb. the carcass of an orange tricycle peeps out from the belly of the ex-Jeep. The ex-Jeep is empty. The driver must have fled for dear life.

In a moment, someone fetches fuel and a match. The young men work in tandem like they have rehearsed this; like it is just normal, setting a ten million Naira SUV ablaze. Maybe they have, it is the norm here, once a car kills someone it has to be burnt, preferably with the driver in it.

Billows of black smoke rise into the air and vultures begin to circle. I look away from the rear view mirror. I want to shout at the young men to stop. I want to take the other victims with me to the hospital where they can get help. I don’t do anything of the sort.

I look at my dashboard, it’s 7.40 am.

I bear down on the throttle and keep a straight face.

7:47 am

Relief settles on me like dew. I am going to make it. I won’t be late. The odd of queue of vehicles jostling along on the single carriage way isn’t bothersome anymore. I take my time to savour the rustic beauty of shops, shrubs and mango trees. Then Kuku the lunatic floats into focus and my spirits dips again.

It is hard to ignore his state of total neglect. The clumps of congealed hair that flap behind him, his dirt brown clothes, the ever-present vapid smile that dances around his lips. Kuku is a nickname; something I made up on one of the more leisurely drives before the madness began….

“Crazy isn’t it.” Said Alan with a smirk on his lips. “One would think science would have found a cure for manic schizophrenia by now. Or a vaccine. All they care about is beauty products and performance enhancing drugs. Viagra and stuff shame. That Kuku would have made a fine athlete.”

It is true. Kuku has the build of an athlete. His illness causes him to pace without rest. Morning noon or night, if you drive past that bit of the road you’ll see him prancing along the edges with his high stepping gait, like a gazelle. Or like model on a runway.

7.50 am

My trusted ride eats up the miles. I am making good time and I am sure I will be there before Dr Eduwem draws the red line.

He never used to do that before. But since the commissioner paid us a surprise call and someone told him he was being considered for a promotion, everything changed. Now he jogs across the road from his flat at exactly 08:00 to draw the red line.

Some people like Dr Akpan don’t care. He still saunters in by 10:00. Sometimes he signs 08:00 under the red line. Other times, he finds a spot to squeeze his name in the early bird section. Folks say the governor is his in-law. I don’t have any influential in-laws. I step harder on the gas.

7:52 am

I am cruising past my favourite stretch of the road. Four other cars bop ahead looking like they are heading somewhere important. Everyone knows it is a ruse. Unemployment level are higher than 30%. It is part of our national culture– struggling, we are used to scarcity and it shows in our driving.

“Don’t” Alan says.

“Why not.” I reply

“Cos you don’t need to. You’ll be there on time.”

” Yea, but this is more fun.” I say, slouching in a corner of the seat, a pilot about to take off.

Then we soar. It is dizzying, whizzing past the other cars, gauging their speeds, keeping an eye ahead. It’s a lot of mental math, but the thrill is electric. Beside me, a woman ferries a cage full of dogs, I wonder if they know they’ll be dog meat within a week.

7:55am

I drive into the premises humming to myself. Then I discover I have forgotten my tie. A low groan fills the car and for a moment I don’t know what to do. I scrap through my pigeon hole and find a wretched one with pink boxes. I toss it back it. I’d rather look casual than stupid.

I walk-run down the corridor to the Medical Superintendent’s office where the staff time book is. You can’t trust Dr Eduwem. Even though his car isn’t there he might be at the muster point: red pen in hand, trousers hoisted to mid abdomen, spectacles dangling dangerously close to the tip of his nose.

That’s when I notice the nurses. Gathered around the empty table with their arms folded making clucking noises like hens.

The time book is missing.

Alan starts laughing again. This time I know I am the clown.

Cupid’s Assistant II

A cool breeze swept through the grounds and Kendara shivered. Her eyes narrowed and she felt a muscle twitching in her thigh. In her mind a voice kept saying:

No, I didn’t hear him right, no…

She remembered the first time they met. She was an intern at the government hospital pharmacy. She had been rounding off her shift when he walked in with his security detail. He waved them off and came over to her.

“Hello pretty lady, do you happen to have anything for a sore throat?” He rasped. She smiled at him.

“Yes sir, I do.” She replied. Darting across the pharmacy she had helped to get him losenges and a pain reliever. “Take one each thrice a day.”

“I will…. What is your name?”

“Kendara, sir.”

“So, are you ‘always rejoicing’? He asked with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“I do my best.” She has responded, wondering where the exchange was going.

“Good. Then you must be at my birthday party next saturday. Here, this is my card. Write your phone number on my receipt so I can send you a formal IV,” he said.

“Oh no sir. I couldn’t.” She gushed, painfully aware that her supervisor was glaring at her.

“I insist.”

She scribbled something on the receipt as fast as she could. He won’t even remember this she thought. What were old men turning into these days.

“Thank you,” he whispered as he breezed out with two mobile police men behind him.

She had forgotten all about it when a young man walked up to her three days later.

“Are you Kendara?” He asked.

“Yes, I am, how may I help you?” She replied.

“I am Etiebet. My father sent me. Chief Essien. We couldn’t decipher what you wrote. I came to get your number and to give you an invitation to his birthday.”

“Oh. I couldn’t … ” She didn’t know what to say.

” You must.” Etiebet said. “Here’s your IV. Now say your telephone number slowly so I can dial it and be sure it is real.”

She gave him the number. He picked her up for the party. He liked her and wanted to marry her. Things were happening too fast. Eight months they were married. It was a good marriage. Etiebet was all the things she had ever hoped for in a husband. They disgreed sometimes and rubbed each other the wrong way. But it was always brief. And making-up was a passionate renewal of love. Everyday she thanked God for her marriage, her man. Now, that thankfulness was on trial.

Pa Essien seemed oblivious of this as he sat back and folded his arms behind his head.

“I am an old man. 75, most of my mates have gone. Etiebet is my favourite son. My Benjamin. Son of my delight. I wish you would reconsider your ‘trendy’ decision to have two children but I can see your minds are made up.” He smiled and took a sip of wine. “How rude of me, what would you like to drink? Juice, tea, wine or water?”

“I am fine Papa.” Kendara said. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was the man senile? Who asked his daughter-in-law to go wife hunting for his son? Irritation grated on her nerves like sandpaper on glass. This wasn’t what she had in mind when she drove the twenty odd kilometres to this place. Coming here was a mistake.

She could hear he mother’s voice in her head. “Be careful with your in-laws.” She had said, “they might laugh and smile but no one knows the heart. Remember, you are not form their tribe. Ibibio men don’t treat Annang wives the way Annang men treat their women. Laugh and smile but be careful.”

At the beginning she had been careful. She had avoided visiting her father-in-law and stayed silent gazing at her toes when he visited. Pa Essien would have none of that. He doted on her openly: sending the driver over with the largest , juciest fruits in season, planting herbs around her house by himself, climbing a coconut tree to get her coconut water when she couldn’t keep food down in her first pregnancy. She found herself responding to his affection. Now many people thought he was her father, not Etiebet’s. He called her Akemi. My own. The daughter he never had. Now, this…

“Very funny,” Pa Essien said as he walked over to the mini bar and fetched a bottle of wine from the fridge. At zero percent alcohol, it was grape juice, but everyone called it wine. He got a glass from the rack and came back to sit opposite her.

“I can’t watch my progeny dwindle. If you and Etiebet won’t have anymore children then at least I should have grandchildren from my other sons. I want you to find a wife for Ime.”

Kendara dropped her glass and some of the wine sloshed on the table.

“Ime? Papa tell me you are kidding.”
She said.

“No .” Pa Essien said. “I am dead serious.”

“Ime? The same one that hasn’t been able to keep a job? The one that sold off your Benz? ” Kendara asked her eyes wide with disbelief.

“I am sorry Papa. I can’t do that.” Kendara said. With that she got up and said. “I have to go now. The kids are through with their class.”

“Wait. Hear me out.” Pa Essien replied. “I am going to make it worth your while.”

To be continued.

Cupid’s Assistant I

She drove to her father-in-law’s house deep in thought. Why had he sent for her? Her heart-shaped, beniseed brown face twisted into a scowl. Ugly thoughts assailed her from every direction. Did he want another grandchild? Had she done something wrong? Had his blood pressure soared again?

She eased the sturdy Toyota RAV4 SUV past the gate with a perfunctory nod at Sebastian the gate-man. If her father-in-law, Chief Essien, wanted another grandchild, then he would have to adopt. There was no way she was ever getting pregnant again. Not after the near death experience she had the last time. The memory brought a sad smile to her face. The agony of developing every ailment in the book: hyper emesis, bloating, insomnia and finally gestational diabetes. Through it all she had prayed desperately for a girl; a replica of herself to dress up, make up and confide in. She refused to ask the baby’s sex at ultrasound visits. She was having a baby girl and that was it. Instead she had Duke, another son.

The moments she saw the boy, she felt resentment flip up her chest and chill her heart. Why? Why did she have another boy? Who would wear all the dresses and ribbons she had bought for her daughter? Over the next few days, the feelings of resentment receded. Duke was such a beautiful child. It was as though he knew that he hadn’t been wanted and made up for it by being so cute and well-mannered.

Before marrying, they agreed to have two kids. Her husband, Etiebet, had been particularly sad when he heard they’d had another son. Coming from a family of four boys, he wanted more than anything to have a girl. Sometimes she still saw a faraway look in his eyes when they talked about people having large families they couldn’t care for. He still wanted a baby girl and so did she, but another pregnancy was out of the question. Adoption in Nigeria was such a travesty. Everyday, there were stories in the papers– Baby Factory Busted, Private Clinic Caught In Baby Selling Scam, Teenager Sell Baby For Iphone. The legal government owned facilities were corrupt and inefficient. Thinking of the adoption quagmire gave her shivers.

She got out of the car and Joy, Pa Essien’s cook ran over to embrace her. It was hard to tell how old Joy was but Kendara guessed she was in her mid forties. She felt embarrassed to have an older woman treat her this way. She liked the way a friend put it: in Nigeria, behind every successful young lady there are women older than her calling her aunty. There was no use, best to play along.

“Aunty Welcome!” she said curtseying and smiling.

“Thank you, Joy. Is Papa in? Is he well?” Kendara asked, searching Joy’s face for clues.

“He is fine, Aunty. He said you should meet him at the backyard, by the fish pond.” Joy answered still looking very pleased.

“Thanks, dear. Here, have this for a little treat. I was in such a hurry. I didn’t remember to get you any bread or meat pie.” Kendara said

“Oh, Aunty, God bless you! You are too kind! ” With that she curtseyed again took the money and disappeared into the house.

Kendara strode to the backyard still trying to guess why she was summoned. She passed the main building, a large cream duplex that spoke of old wealth and good taste. Behind the house was a large garden, a playground and a fish farm.

Chief Essien was a retired civil servant and one time commissioner of Agriculture. He had reinvested the money he made while in office and was quite wealthy. He was a widower. His wife had passed on before Kendara and Etiebet were married five years ago. Now he spent his time overseeing his vast farms, resting at home and travelling to the village to settle petty disputes. Anyone could see that he loved nature. His spacious grounds were a buzz of flora and fauna. To her right lay large mango trees spotting swings from their lower branches. Ahead there was a large lawn; it’s grass so well cut it was like a giant green carpet. Flower bushes punctuated the lawn giving it an air of intrigue. During parties, anyone who went policing was bound to catch a young couple or two in various states of misdemeanour.

Chief Essien’s favourite part of the grounds were the fish ponds. They were dug in the ground designed to look as natural as possible. Pa Essien was beside one of the ponds, his ubiquitous glass of red wine in hand. He looked up when he heard her coming and smiled.

“Papa, good afternoon.” Kendara said as she gave him a loose embrace.

He held her to himself. Then let go to study her with obvious interest. “You look lovelier than the last time. How are my grandkids? I hope Etiebet isn’t giving you any trouble. Has he changed that old Rav4 of yours yet?”

Kendara laughed. “Oh Papa! It is a good car. Maybe next year. You know he has his hands full with the company. He is still awaiting payment on the consulting jobs he did for government last month. Also his oil servicing firm is just taking off so we need to stay as liquid as possible.” She kept her voice as gentle as possible, Chief Essien didn’t like being opposed.

Chief made a face. “Nonsense! That’s your husband’s problem. He is always planning and plotting and arranging. Life is to be lived! Anyway enough about him. How are you?”

” I am fine. We are all fine. I would have brought the boys but they had music lessons. Etiebet travelled to Port Harcourt yesterday.”

“Well, come then, let’s find some where to sit.” He led her to a large bamboo hut near the ponds. It was an Efe. Every chief had one. It was a hall outside his home where he received strangers and held meetings.
Chief had improved on the older functional design adding a minibar by the side, tables and fold-able seats, and an over head television. Clearly, he was a man that liked the finer things of life.

They sat down and he dropped his glass. Without preamble he looked up and said

“I want you to find a wife for my son.”

Paradise II

Work ended by 2pm. Here, there was no night, only different shades of morning. I watched as people milled out of the large beautifully furnished hall. I felt so alone. A dark lady with olive green eyes came towards me and smiled.

“Hi” She said, but she was gone before I had a chance to reply.

Amanti showed up then “Hello newbie, how did it go?”

Relief flooded my heart like a huge wave, “Oh Ama! Where were you? I thought you would never come. Wow! I had an amazing time today. We studied Francine and Dekker and Sidney Sheldon. I even wrote a little poem. Wanna see?

“Sure” Amanti said as we walked towards the exit.

“Promise me you won’t laugh…”

“Promise.”

I brought out the pocket writer from my purse. A few flicks and the screen was aglow in a lovely purple, black and gold. The poem was a simple one, it said:


Everything around me,
Every wish come true,
Eternity would still be wanting
If it didn’t have you.

“Nice! You have a way with words. That should be set to music. I’ll show it to Menim. His charge is a musician. I am sure they’ll come up with something.” He smiled again showing bright white teeth and a glint of gold.

“Woah! You have a gold tooth. Is that allowed?” I asked in shock.

He threw back his head and laughed. “Easy! Of course it is. There is no lack or scarcity here. Besides nothing about appearance is permanent. Here we can shape-shift to achieve different results.” He smiled again. Now, the gold tooth was diamond sparkling where his upper right canines should have been.

I swallowed. This was getting interesting.

“We can port to your place but I thought you would like to walk around a bit. Get used to the place.”

“Yes, I would like to walk a bit. Thank you.”

There was too much to see. Everything was a form of art. The lovely business premises on both sides of the street. People walking, running, surfing and skating down the streets. Amanti explained that there was no hurt here. Every one had a forcefield that made sure nothing hit them. You couldn’t slap or get slapped. Even if you jumped out of a 30th floor window, you just sailed down like a scuba diver and hovered an inch above the pavement.

I was awed speechless. If I wasn’t in Paradise I would probably have a headache. The possibilities were endless. No aeroplane crashes, no assault, no fractures, no gunshot injuries. Wow.

We passed a glass house named Photo Art and I saw my reflection. I stopped and stared.

To be continued…