Wednesday, August 22, 2007

PORT HARCOURT: an exaggerated account

Don’t ask me why I haven’t updated my blog, or patched the sole of my shoe, or finished my project, or been to see my lovely grandparents. Just listen to those increasingly familiar sounds outside. The crickets are quiet, in their stead, the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons, the worrisome whir of helicopters, the wailing of the innocent on his knees about to be executed.
What is terror?

Ask my tailor who used to live in Marine Base, he is lucky to be alive. Homeless, bruised, no more shop, no Butterfly sewing machines, no angry customers screaming at him that the traditional wedding is tomorrow, and that the etubo must be sewn by tonight. He’s lucky to be alive. Marine base is a ghost town. My aunt and her ‘battalion’ are now refugees in some relative’s house. The militants have retreated into the ever-welcoming creeks, the innocents have fled their modest homes, and even the fish in the area have gone off in search of less-troubled waters (I haven’t had a half-decent plate of fresh fish peppersoup in weeks). The soldiers man the streets. Fierce, unyielding, foreign. They make us raise our hands as we pass. They whip women for sport, and savage boys for show. The streets are littered with bodies and bullet-casings. Blood flows into the stagnant gutters, trying, but failing to clot.
What is peace?

Over here on this side of the city, we are a bit more fortunate. We go to sleep hoping that those gunshots are loud rather than near. We pray the girl screaming in agony as the soldiers rape her is not a friend, or worse, a sister. The explosions rattle our buildings and our bodies. Bravery becomes a sentimental concept. We wake up, shrug off the rubble, cough dust, and get on. The grass is greener here, they say.
What is sleep?

The curfew adds to the chaos. The ashewos are cheaper and desperate. The brothels do brisk business between morning and evening. The soldiers have their pleasure on the house. At 6pm the okadas stop running, at 7pm the soldiers start shooting…go ahead, make their night. The night spots are ruined. We keep away from the windows and walk bending forward. We make love whenever we can, on the floor, and with the heated passion of people who know that tomorrow is a big-maybe. Le petit mort as the French say. The little death. Many petit morts before the big mort.
What is death?

The city that was once garden is now full of wreaths. First were the inexplicable killings-armed gangs coming out in broad daylight and killing regular folk, you and I. For a week, in virtually every part of this metropolis, the guns rang out and we cowered in fear.
What is courage?

On Sunday the twelfth I was on an okada, zipping along, wind in my hair and all that. I got to a certain junction, and was told to get off, raise my hands, and walk all the way to the other side. I wasn’t alone. We were legion. No one knew that soldiers had been drafted into our city. We were shocked and yet submissive. Vehicles also had to offload their human cargo. We all walked, hands raised, to the other side. In the middle of the road, three soldiers with body armor, and long guns fitted with bayonets were dancing to Fela’s Unknown Soldier booming out of the speakers of an empty beer parlour. The irony, the frigging irony. So eerie, so messed up. Porter with hands raised, shaking his head and sighing. This is still Port Harcourt right?
What is dignity?

They say the hunt is on for the militants/cultists/kidnappers. I fit the profile: male, indigenous, with a great appetite for fish, and a village in the creeks. What else do they need? I’m old enough to carry a gun, detonate explosives, and kidnap whitemen and little children. I’m who they want. Some people say I should cut my hair. Apparently an afro can earn you a whipping. The military checkpoints are unavoidable in some parts. The last time I did this much hand-raising, I was in secondary school. Can I complain? In some parts they make you frog-jump, or roll in mud. I stay within my neighbourhood. Porter de Harqourt besieged in a small obscure section of his kingdom. At i night i fall asleep. In my dream, Osama sends me an sms:
we r brothrs, Portr. u&i r kin. huntd, pinnd dwn, h8d. me in these mntains u in ur room. we r brothrs u&i
What is freedom?

I see Miss X, in the evening walking past the shop where I’m trying to buy a recharge card. We’ve been eyeing each other for weeks. I decide to make a move now. Life is too short…these days especially. I call out to her, she stops. Hesitantly it seems, but girls are actors. I ask her if she’s in a hurry. Sorta, she says. I tell her I’d like for her to sorta slow down. Why, she asks. Because, I say, because it’s already past 6 pm and I’d love to spend my curfew getting to know her. She tries to suppress the smile, but she can’t, so she bends her head and pretends to look at her watch. She lifts her head and repeats the words. Because I’d love to spend my curfew getting to know you. She’s beaming. She takes my hand and we head for her room. On the way she asks if that was a line. I say maybe. By 7pm we are better acquainted. At 7pm, the soldiers at the junction fire warning shots to signal the beginning of the curfew. Her fingers dig into my back.
What is pleasure? What is pain?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Gulder and Guilt

u wit ur goldn bubblz and fabulous froth
i luv u dear Gulder, i luv u a lot!

It’s the beginning of the second half. Arsenal are two goals up and yet piling relentless pressure on their opponents. I feel good. This one is in the bag surely. I take another sip of Gulder. Bentico, my Arsenal-hating Chelsea-loving friend is a lot more sober than he was in the first half. Between puffs of his cancer stick, he tries to explain away his pre-game prophesy. He puts it down to ‘luck’, the opponents aren’t playing at their best, their main striker is having domestic problems, the planets didn’t align properly, blah blah blah! As he reaches for the suya, I ask him if he’d like some crow with that. The girls giggle. He calls me a smug bastard. I accept.

Someone, Tari I think, is playing footsies with me under the table. I look at her across the table. She sips her baileys with feigned naivetĂ©, and then throws me the briefest of glances over her glass. Tari is my ex-girlfriend and we ran into her and her cousin Ama at this spot. I wonder what this is about. But I’m not complaining.

Van Persie takes a fabulous Fabregas pass and almost puts it past the keeper. We all cheer and applaud the effort. Someone starts running across the bar with a huge Arsenal flag. The Gunners in the house cheer.

My leg starts to vibrate. Right leg, close to my hip. I look across at Tari again. Surely her legs cannot be that long. Or can they? And how can anyone’s toes vibrate like that? Then I remember it is 21st century Nigeria, and I have a cell phone. I reach into my pocket and fish out my phone. Unfamiliar number. I think twice about taking the call. There’s too much noise inside, I don’t want to step out and miss the inevitable third goal. I let it ring out.

About a minute later it starts again. I excuse myself from the table and make a joke about having to take an urgent call from my uncle Arsene. I go outside and answer.


-Hello, this is a policeman, hold on for your caller.


There’s a brief crackle at the other end, and then a familiar voice.


-Who’s this, David?

-Ol’ boy no be small thing. We are in a police station.

-Serious? You and who? Wetin happen?

-We been dey come watch the match, they stopped our car and brought us all here.

-You and who?

-Me, Tonye, Peter, Timi, and im younger brother you need come bail us abeg! The guys inside the cell don already dey nack us. We can’t spend the night here.

Police cells. Feaces in the back, urine on the floor, sweating walls, cramped space, hostile detainees, extortion, the stench and potential for infection. Flashback unbearable.

-Wait, which station?

He tells me.

-Na inside cell, or behind counter?

-My guy u no hear wetin I dey talk? We dey cell, dem wan kill us inside here.

-How much the police people talk say dem want?

He tells me.

For some reason, I laugh. Maybe it’s the alcohol; maybe it’s the amount of money involved and the fact that I’ve got no chance of raising enough money to bail 5 people and a car at this time of the night. Maybe I’m just a stupid, wicked boy.

-It’s not funny, I told them I would call my lawyer


-You of course.

I laugh again. Me, lawyer. Struggling student like me. I try to picture going down to the station with Bentico, breathing beer, and pretending to be lawyers. I laugh yet again.

-Abeg just come, dem seize our phones so na their payphone I dey use. 100 naira per minute, my money don finish.

-So na me be your lawyer eh?

-Just come abeg

And he’s gone.

I review the situation as I walk back into the spot. Here I was with friends having a great time with my team doing well, giving me a reason to taunt Bentico. Even the girls seemed to be on my side. Now I had 5 of my friends locked up in some dingy cell and they were counting on me to come and get them out. I was their lawyer. I never even go the school finish sef. Dem sabi how many carryover I get? And they couldn’t honestly expect me to come up with that kind of money for bail. Or could they?

I get back to the table. Arsenal is under some pressure now and the score line is 2-1. How did this happen? Where did my great night go? I shouldn’t have taken that call. Maybe I’d had a Joshua moment going- the team needed me to be watching for it to succeed. I took my eye off the ball and our fortunes changed. Bentico, the redeemed prophet is having fun, grinning from ear to bloody ear with all his ‘I told you so’s. Tari orders yet another Gulder for me. She’s done that quite a few times already and I wonder what her game plan is. Maybe she wants to get me drunk so that she can…

I take Bentico away from the table and we huddle together. The maybe-false prophet, and the maybe-Joshua. Me and my co-counsel. I tell him about the call and our caged comrades. He smiles.

-So we are supposed to be their lawyers? They should see our criminal law grades.

-And our lean wallets.

We both laugh. Wicked us.

On these oily streets of Port Harcourt, young men seem to be an endangered species. Long before this once-garden city became kidnap central, bands of armed men dressed in black were engaged in the abduction of young men at gunpoint. The name of this gang was and still is the Nigeria Police Force. When the men in black searched you, a nail-cutter in your pocket would be entered in your charge-sheet as a dagger. A lighter would mean you were an arsonist. A cyber café ticket would make you a cyber fraudster.

Their offences would be cooked up, totally fabricated. The ransom would be bail.

The whole restive situation and the militant problem have only made it worse. The police seem to avoid tangling with the real militants and criminals, preferring instead to harass the innocents. It is a ridiculous situation, they sometimes accost you, subject you to a body search, and when nothing incriminating is found on you, they take your cell phone and ask you for the receipt.

We decide against going to the police station and attempting any kind of rescue. We can’t afford it, and there’s no guarantee we won’t be thrown into the cell ourselves. We make a few calls and get some friends to commit to contributing to the ‘save our pals’ fund. We’ll go down to the station in the morning. Not tonight.

As we return to our drinks and the girls, I can’t help but feel a bit guilty. A police cell is a really messed up place to spend the night. David and the others will probably get beaten but they’ll come out with a few interesting war stories to tell over some drinks. Arsenal let another goal in. Damn you Jens Lehmann!

Bentico is rubbing it in. Ama is trying hard not to laugh at me. Tari comes to sit beside me to calm me down. She has her hand on my thigh now. I wonder how the night will end. I’ll get to sleep on a bed, and maybe even play catch up with my ex. Somewhere not too far away, my friends will get no sleep and for them the night will be a long and dreadful one. I feel something, maybe guilt. I drain my glass. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tari as she discreetly signals a waiter to bring me yet another Gulder.