Nineteen Ninety Eight 1998

When I was seven years old, I asked my mother why the jar of palm oil on her kitchen shelf was never full. She said, “Pray for God’s blessings child”. So I prayed and prayed to God for Him to open the floodgates of His kingdom so my mother’s jar of palm oil would be full. I was fixated on this because each time I went to visit my friend Chuks, I saw gallons of palm oil in their kitchen. I did not understand why they had so much palm oil and we had so little. There were many things I did not understand then. I could not comprehend the fact that Chuks’ father, Mr Okoli, never sat in the living room with his family whenever he came home from work. He went straight to his room and hibernated. I did not understand how Chucks always had new uniforms and new sandals, when  for me, a trip to Bata for new shoes meant I had to come first position in my class every school term. I did not understand why I often looked down whenever I spoke to Chucks’ sister Kosi. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was so scared of even sitting close to her. My heart would beat wildly and my palms would moisten whenever I spoke to her. I really did not understand these things. But even more puzzling to me then was why Chucks and Kosi always brightened up in my home. They laughed more, played more and ate more. Kosi particularly loved to hear my father talk. That, I could understand.

My father was a tall lanky man with a great sense of humour and an unbelievable appetite. I always wondered if certain aspects of his biology were not metahuman. He had and still has a Barry Allen level of body metabolism when it comes to processing food. My mum always said that one could travel to Lokoja through his stomach. His eating capabilities were of Olympic proportions and he could easily tuck away a gigantic mound of pounded yam in a time faster than it took Carl Lewis to win an Olympic Gold Medal.

He knew just what to say to light up a room and he could turn the most dismal situations into a cheery and light affair even when he wasn’t trying to. His words and facial expressions when relating a serious incident at home to his wife always made us laugh. Fifteen years later, he would come home one afternoon and simply say to us, “John Ikimi is dead”. John Ikimi was one of his closest friends, and we expected he would take the death hard. While my mum wept, dad simply bowed his head for like ten seconds looked up at my mum and said with an expression that made my siblings and I laugh amidst the sorrow, “Can I have some food?” That was my father. He wasn’t unfeeling but that was his own way of dealing with death and grim situations. And there were many grim situations in those days.

There was one particular incident when the police had my Dad as their guest for two nights. The bespectacled Ozymandias was president then, and one could get locked up, hanged or go missing for anything from criticizing the military government or hanging  around newspaper stands to chatter away. Dad and a colleague had done some private telecom job for one rich Alhaji like that but unfortunately, some hard boiled thieves broke into the Alhaji’s premises that very night. The robbers were obviously daredevils because the Alhaji’s house was almost an impregnable fortress. They carted away huge sums of money, jewellery, and other valuable items after beating the Alhaji within an inch of his life. Suspicion fell on Dad and his colleague and they were immediately seized at work and  whisked away to the police station. The conclusion was that the thieves could not have gained access into the house without inside information.

My father spent two nights in the cell. It was one of the most trying two days for my mother. She was agitated and irritable throughout this period. The first night of his arrest- my little sister and I already sensed that something was wrong because Dad rarely returned home late from work.  He was almost always home in time for the nine o’clock news every evening- I made a profound error of telling my mum the cooked up story that I had lost my school fees for the term while playing football. It was the wrong time for the wrong story. She slapped me hard with all the maternal strength she could muster. All of the anxiety and frustration built up during the day went on to solidify that slap. I woke up on the verandah outside with the cold nose of our dog in my face. I had been talking to mum in the living room inside the house. My little sister, Adesuwa, later told me how I sailed through the air after mum swung at me. I was fortunate to get away with that one slap. Mum soon returned to worrying about her husband and left me and Adesuwa to our antics.

Dad returned home on a Saturday morning. He said the police officers woke them up suddenly and asked them to go. I will always remember that day because two things happened. First, the rumours came that the country’s overlord had died(it was confirmed two days later and the talk around town was that his highness had expired on the thighs of some foreign Delilahs procured for his unmatrimonial pleasures). People came out on the streets and celebrated like every citizen had been given one hundred thousand naira. Second, mum returned from the market that evening with a full keg of palm oil. I went to the kitchen to stare at it for a while. The keg of oil sat solitary on the shelf looking proud and robust. Mum was by the sink cutting meat and vegetables. She turned round and smiled when she saw what I was looking at. “You must have prayed very hard” she said to me. I smiled in that stupid yet sweet way children often smiled.

I was soon drawn away by Dad’s laughter in the living room when his friends and some of his colleagues began to arrive to celebrate his release. I knelt behind the sofa and listened to my Dad regale his friends and colleagues with prison tales. He was having a laugh out of it. I was amazed at how quickly his hair seemed to have grown and how thin he had become in two days. He was also surprisingly fair skinned. All in two days. I thought to myself then that prison couldn’t be all that bad if it gave you skin like the colour of well made custard. Dad told us of how his colleague in the cell with him had to defecate on the floor because the officers on duty would never answer no matter how loud you cried to them when you were pressed. He told the listeners of how an innocent young  lady was brought to the station for questioning and was immediately taken to a room and raped by two red eyed corporals. When the commissioner of police came around that evening, he strolled past the young lady’s cell and she reported to him what his officers had done. According to Dad, the Commissioner listened to the girl with a grin on his face and told her that if she could produce as evidence the piece of cloth or rag or whatever the corporals had used to wipe their semen after the act, he would consider looking into the case.

Dad said that singular incident gave him the epiphany that the police in our country are completely beyond redemption. Our neighbour, Mr Makinde, laughed really hard after this story. The man spilled some of his Guinness Stout on our red rug. Mr Makinde, for some reason we could never explain always seemed to be in trouble with authority. He once rushed into the compound one night and dove into my parent’s bedroom. He slipped under the bed and was determined to live out the rest of his days there. He later told us that a tall man with beards, dressed in black kaftan and carrying a black bag had been following him all day. It was weird. Mr Makinde was a lecturer with Kaduna Polytechnic and everyone knew he talked too much for his own good. How he lived through ’97-when he was arrested fourteen times- remains a real mystery.

Dinner that evening was edikaikong soup and pounded yam.  Dad formed huge balls of yam, scooped up pieces of fish and periwinkle with soup and  swallowed the whole thing. He belched like a god after his meal and he used a broken matchstick to pick his teeth. “The spoils of war” he smirked. Dad had told some of his friends that the Alhaji had surprisingly been waiting outside the police station when he was released. He had given Dad and his colleague five thousand naira each as compensation. It was discovered that the robbers were assisted by the gateman who was a cousin to one of the robbers.

 

Dad was already dozing when he suddenly bolted up: “Akika! Its nine already. Where is the remote?”

“Akika” was a favorite expletive of my father. As far as I know it meant many things and meant nothing. I was busy playing at action hero behind the sofa using the remote as a gun.

“Dont be silly, bring that remote here now! In fact just change it to NTA. Do it fast now. Ehen! Loud it let’s know where this country is going”

 

For me, as long as my mother’s jar of palm oil was full, everything good would come.

 

 

 

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