Monday, September 15, 2008

The Legacy of Bolewa

Below is the first draft of my first novel. It is a story about identity in Nigeria, two lovers caught beween Christianity and Islam, between the cultural identities of Northern Nigeria and Central Nigeria and also between the contrary political forces {integrative and disintegrative} of their parents. It is a novel about seeking out higher ground in order to resolve contradictions. Do enjoy, comments are welcome!

A week after his fiancĂ©e left him, Faruk Ibrahim’s Toyota torqued a steady seventy on the dusty tracks of Nigeria’s northeast highway. It was about five months after General Hassan Abba’s coup d’etat and twenty-two years to the day he first fled the little town of Bolewa where he was born – Bolewa, to which he was now headed. The savannah sun bared its vexation on the white Corolla and not for the first time Faruk wondered why he had not fixed the broken air conditioner, for even with both windows wound down, he sweated like a man afraid. That morning, years ago, Faruk Ibrahim was only vaguely aware that the maelstrom of contrary winds swirled increasingly desperately around him.

In the coming months, it was all to come to a head, unimpeded, like a sudden dust storm billowing from the Sahara.

The toilsome journey wound on and on, passing towns no larger than suburbs of Jos City in the central Nigerian plateau from where he was coming. The car’s sedate speed did not compensate the sweltering air and he thought not for the last time that he should have fixed the car’s broken air conditioning. The roads weren’t always good either and sometimes they ceased altogether, becoming long patches of dry, powdery, russet-brown dust.

On both sides of the road was savannah seeming perennially dry, seeming to defy the sun’s fury by stubbornly refusing not to burst into flame. Yet, in the heat, some nomads were about with herds of white cattle, cattle more plentiful than men in Nigeria’s frontier Northeast State. Each time he passed a herdsman and his charge, Faruk hooted his horn in response to the others ecstatic hallooing and raised his hand through the window in salute to this close relative of the American cowboy. The American west is the Nigerian northeast and he wondered what tales of rugged living each hardy heritor could tell of his life. Unconsciously, he thought how many untold stories there are in Nigeria and how all one needed do was scratch the surface a bit and look inwards.

For company, he and the cattlehands had numberless cattle egrets, bubulus ibis, sentinel of the herdsman and watcher of the doings of men, even of his mother and father and their lives before him. He fought a losing battle with his thoughts, which always returned to Rahila and the city of cool climes he had left behind that morning.

“See, Faruk, ba na son ka kuma. We have to call it off, it cannot work anymore, please,” Rahila Pam had said.

Ba ki so na? You do not love me, or you are quitting me – which is it, Rahila, which?”

It doesn’t matter. Let me go!”

“It does matter, and you know it! Both things are not the same.”

Miles Davis 1959 Kind of Blue played from Bose speakers. The finesse of the recording now and again kept his mind off the insufferable heat. Somehow, and Rahila Pam had always wondered how, listening to jazz kept him alert to the road like at no other time. Faruk tapped his thumb on the steering wheel in time to Coltrane’s riffs and felt faintly lightheaded from experiencing the culture of a promising past each time Miles Davis’s trumpet said an undying flourish. Jazz awakened something foundational in him absent all the other times when the burden of living amidst the pell-mell pull of life drowned the music of nature from his ears.

He caught himself looking through the driving mirror in time to remember that on this particular stretch of road he was all alone and had been so for quite a while, an hour now, since he had passed a lorry laden with assorted farm produce and rustic farmers hanging on to the tailboards of the old Bedford, laughing and singing rural songs in their own peace. He had hooted his horn at them and they saluted noisily as he passed them. Minutes later when he stopped to check his tires, they also stopped to ask what was wrong and when they found there was nothing they could do, they commended his knowledge of the Kanuri language to which he said he was Kanuri and was presented a prize of bananas and oranges by Wabekwa, an aged untired man who was their king of farmers. Then Faruk was off again, leaving them far behind.

He caught himself looking at the driving mirror again.

Faruk had a thin face. Clear white eyes, which added calm kindness to a somewhat inscrutable face, offset the dark chocolate of his complexion. He had happy, even lips, and when he whistled his lips were sexy. His hair, like his father’s, was wavy, as had been those of his Kanuri and Fulani forbears. His eyebrows were slender and fine, however, and not the typical hawk’s perch. He wore a thin handlebar moustache and had spent much of his twenty-four years enduring the teasing of friends who swore he could never grow a beard. He was tall and lithe, like a Kenyan runner. The effect of these little details was a wholesome beauty that was concealed and enchanted all the same. When he smiled, which was the easiest thing in the world for him, a positive animation livened his features and he could will anything he desired then.

He wore a red polo shirt over white chinos and black sandals of cured snakeskin. Beside him was an already lukewarm bottle of water and in a cooler behind him were the rest of the dozen pack of bottled water he bought at Jalingo earlier in the journey. Beside the cooler was a battered suitcase of brown leather, a suitcase that had crossed continents and been the habitué of countless car trunks, indeed a suitcase that told much of his life story for he had gotten it for his fifteenth birthday. He whistled along with the modal jazz playing from the speakers of his well used, ever-faithful Toyota and gradually he lost himself again in the confusion of his thoughts.

After the last fight with Rahila a week before, he had decided to take a breather from the North-Central State where they lived. He wished to travel away from the differences and choices that tried relentlessly to determine his life and his joys. But he did not know how or where to go. So he visited Yagana Hussena, his late mother Habiba Ummi al-Qassim’s closest friend until she died when he was fourteen.

Prior to his meeting Rahila Pam, Faruk’s mother’s insanity and death had been a private trauma he had overcome, reconciled to the past. It’s related, I know, Faruk had thought, my mother and Rahila; Rahila’s complex with identity. I have to get away.

Rahila made him think of Ummi al-Qassim and wonder why, questioning in his mind the comfortable veneer of acceptance, seeking reasons. Faruk had become intrigued with finding out why Ummi al-Qassim had lost her mind. Insanity did not begin when a person started howling or losing track of things and time, the memory of faces, just like pain did not start at the moment of a beloved ones death but long before that, lingering on long after the fact.

On entering the shaded porch of Yagana’s house, which was filled with potted plants giving off an ozonic trace of well-being, she said -

"My God, what troubles you? Your face is as long as a Kaaba door!"

She was standing at the far side of the porch mulching compost with gloved hands unto the roots of a promising rose bush. She led him to sit on the cloth sofa and shouted for the maid to not let her son starve or thirst in her house. She was an old woman, about sixty, and her gray hair peeked out in neat cornrows from under her Dubaijin headscarf. Her skin was pale, as had been his mother’s; she had the kindest face he had ever seen.

Hussena, his yaya, always adopted the undying spirit of a young girl with him and now she smiled at him with the coquette of a lover. She called him Habib, her love. She called him that perhaps because it was also his mother’s name - Habiba. Habiba Ummi al-Qassim had been Yagana Hussena’s dearest friend, a sister of the blood.

Faruk took his seat beside her and told her of Rahila. She kept nodding, did not interrupt him save to bid him eat some of the food and drink that had been silently placed on a stool beside him. While she listened, Faruk noticed it seemed as if a film had appeared over her eyes, as if his words reminded her of something else.

The old woman’s complete silence was not so much because she was listening to him as because his words unearthed memories long entombed by the silt of many years. He looked up ever so often and only the alert questioning glint in her eyes made him continue his narrative. Of all cosmic jokes God played on the denizens of His world, deja vu was the most unnerving, the most improbable. It was exactly deja vu that coursed through Yagana Hussena’s mind as Faruk sat there on her porch, telling her the problems of his love and how dim the prospects of his joy without his love were.

Decades before, Hussena had listened to his mothers words - words striking in their similarity to Faruk’s and those words, these words, had so clearly been a cause of much suffering. It was impossible for her to draw a conclusion other than that another tragedy was in the offing.

She knew skill and tact would be needed to ward it off, as one might gently nudge a meteor off the path of the earth and catastrophe, and that the task had fallen to her. So be it! Colonel Dibarama, Faruk’s father, could not save the boy from the enigma of identity that even then reached out to grab Faruk and carry him unknowing to the depths of hell, a hell that had consumed his mother already. No, Hussena thought, I did not do enough forty years ago, Allah forbid that I do not exhaust myself this time around, what is life if one holds back from living because of life? So be it!

She wondered about General Hassan Abba and where he figured in this new complexity. Hassan was definitely aware, he was always aware. Her own Hassan who had tried to make the most of it, her soldier-boy who had punched up a ray of light at a time when twin dusks of the Arab and Usman Waziri stifled her dawn like an unrepudiable promise. And even though Hassan’s actions then had not been able to ward off the fatal confrontation - for how can one ward off a woe that one does not know - it had provided a leeway through which Habiba had escaped with this boy and lived for a decade, encumbered but alive and hopeful in time.

Now Hassan Abba was Head of State.

In the end, everything just begins.

But Yagana Hussena realized, even though it was imperative that he knew, telling Faruk what had happened in Bolewa when she was still a girl would do him no good. It was only in personal rediscovery that he would find the strength he needed to make the right decision, strength absent decades earlier and for which Hussena had never fully forgiven herself.

Just then, her pet macaw, Haruna, started chirruping "strength strength, haw-haw, strength!" and Faruk saw her smile one of her fine smiles and she looked up at him just as he finished speaking.

"Haruna has a habit of reading my mind. Did you hear him? He just said 'strength', just what you need."

"How do you mean, Yaya?"

"I mean that you should not fight on a field not of your own choosing. In knowing the field, lies strength”, she said.

"You mean a strategy?"

"Yes, in a way. Strategy is knowledge, foreknowledge precisely. Come, I have some of your mother’s things, I think its time you had them" she said, standing and grasping his arm lightly, leading him into the familiar house past the living room to her own quarters, which were neat as ever, where she bade him sit on her brown ottoman.

The room had large windows and its walls of fresh lemonade green, with the white carpeting and the gold green Oriental rug, suffused airiness much in the same way the potted plants gave rarity to the porch. He fiddled around with a paperweight, uncertain why she wished to give him his mother’s diaries just after he had told her about his own troubles with Rahila Pam. What had that to do with foreknowledge? The elderly woman straightened up and placed herself beside him on the ottoman, putting a large brown envelope in his hands. She stroked his face and told him what he had to do.

The next day Faruk went to the National Directorate of Employment and almost like something planned, he was informed that there was a placement for a social studies teacher in the Northeast, if he was interested. It was a six-month spot while the substantive teacher was on sabbatical.

Fine. Where?

Federal Government College, Bolewa.

Laughter bubbled up within him for at that moment he remembered what Yaya Hussena had always said, that something coming was on its way all ways. So, she had been right after all. Of course, he would go to Bolewa.

And here he was on the dry dusty roads of the Northeast.

His father had been surprised at Faruk’s decision especially on hearing the teaching appointment was in Bolewa. The Colonel believed he had instilled enough strength in his son for the younger man to make his decisions.

But Bolewa? Things must be getting dangerous here for the young man, but, again, Bolewa?

Who knows, the Colonel thought, it might all work out for good. The machinery of his brains began to assimilate the angles beneath the board. Everything was a chess game for Ibrahim Dibarama,

The music stopped but Faruk did not play it again or place another disc in the tray.

He drove on, his thoughts still far away in Jos.

“It cannot work, Faruk. It’s all broken down. I cannot marry you, I am sorry.”

Rahila, with her head bowed in tears, had tried to remove the ring, Faruk was angry and he held her hand.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked.

But she did not answer.

Here’s your ring.”

Rahila had turned away from him and looked out through the window. He then grasped her by the forearm and turned her slowly so she could face him. He wanted to play a game they used to play but his voice had grown husky.

“What are you?” he cried.

She had looked up at him then.

“I am the mountains; you are?”

“The breeze,” he interjected.

“We cannot be.”

“I am the sun,” he tried again.

“But you are not.”

“You are rain.”

“I am not. Not anymore.”

That was the moment the waters broke between them. His heart raged because he was afraid.

She tried again, “Faruk, I am sorry, I hate to be, but I am, now. You are from the North; I am from Central Nigeria, we are separated by a whole complication of history and conditioning. I thought it was possible, but I cannot, we cannot, be indifferent to our distinct identities. I am my mother’s child; you are your father’s son. We neither of us can undo that.”

Faruk had looked at her again, her bowed head. He was silent awhile, standing inches from her. Then he bent forward a bit and pressed his lips on her cheek feeling her shudder, he closed his eyes. Rahila’s eyes were closed also. Both were in pain.

You are breaking my heart,” he said.

Then he turned way, leaving her amid the contradictory swirl of her emotions and the memory of her dying joy.

A week before.

Thirty minutes later on the Northeast Highway, Faruk Ibrahim came to a junction. Straight ahead was Maiduguri, 200 km away. He took the road that led to Nguirama and then on to Maidunama and Bolewa.

He still had 300 kilometers before he could present himself to the native land from which he had been for so long sequestered, to say to the oracle of his mother, I am your son, tell me of our history.