It was a muffled cry that I first heard. It seemed to circle around above my head, before it receded into an empty darkness that existed in my imagination. A husky voice that continually whispered what I could not make out faded away with it. But it was a shrill, childlike voice, which asked, several meters to my left, ‘Where am I?’ that awakened me to the reality. I felt that something was holding me down. I perceived a nauseating odour. I turned my head to my left as I opened my eyes. Everywhere seemed so bright. All I could see were whites—blurred whites. I did not understand it. So I moved to get up. But my two legs, right arm and head were hurting. I gasped. A white figure moved and came over to me. The blur cleared, and I could make out the whites. They were window curtains with blue cross signs, bedclothes, the bandage on patients like me, and the dresses of three nurses, including the figure that had approached me. All were whites.
The nurse who had come over to me gently held me. Her fingers traveled from my left arm, over a tiny tube, to a transparent swinging bag, which contained liquid. She steadied it, and asked me to remain still while she goes for my mother. Her hurrying footsteps rang in my ears until they receded.
Again, the shrill voice came. It asked a nurse who bent over its bed, not to allow the aunt to come near the bed.
‘She forced me to do it. She forced me to scoop petrol.’ the voice said. The nurse implored for calmness, explaining that there were eleven other suffering girls in the ward. But the shrill voice would not stop. The aunt was wicked, the owner of the voice insisted. The aunt became her guardian after her mother’s death. But she sent only her own children to school. She had always starved her. And when the petrol pipe was broken, she damned the consequence and sent her to fetch her own national cake like the other people. She slapped her when she refused to go. I shivered when I heard her say ‘national cake.’ My mother had said the same thing. But she did not force me to do it, my mother. No, she did not force me to go on errands.
I still remembered some of the events that took place before that day. The shortage of fuel and kerosene had become agonizing in Ama and many other communities in Opokuma Local Government Area. Mother resorted to cooking with firewood. I hated it because smoke usually stung my eyes when the wood did not burn properly and I fanned it. My mother had said we should be careful how we moved about in Ama, because the bad men were on rampage. Every mother sang it like a song to their children. My own mother said though we were not rich, stray bullets may hurt or kill us when these bad men go after the rich men and their children.
’The men are really bad,’ she told me. ‘We thought they were after the foreigners who benefit from our God-given resources, though I don’t support that. Our people were not like this before. But they have now turned against their own people.’
Already, two rich men from Ama who lived in Port Harcourt and our Local Government chairman who hailed from my mother’s village but lived in Yenagoa, our state capital, had lost their children. Their kids were victims of what our neighbour, Uncle Tonye called hostage-taking.
‘Hostage–taking is bad,’ he told us—Zifa, my younger brother and myself. ‘They would take you away and ask your mother to pay millions of naira.’
I did not like it. Where would mother get money to give these men if they take me away? Or Zifa? Or Ibinabo my ten months old sister? Millions of naira! Mother did not have that kind of money. Even my father, who died six months earlier in the fire disaster, caused by oil spillage from the broken pipeline of Green Gulf Limited, GGL, did not have millions when he was alive. He just managed with what he was paid by GGL. People said it was these bad men who took away children of rich men that broke the pipeline. Rumours had it that they broke the pipeline to siphon the fuel and sell it to make money.
‘These bad men hide in the creeks,’ Uncle Tonye once told me. ‘Some of the buyers of the stolen fuel are foreigners such as Canadians, Chinese, Italians and the British who colonized our country, while some are from among us. Some of the bad men have access to the sea since their hideouts are the creeks where they sell the siphoned fuel to make money.’
Father and his colleagues had gone to the spillage site for repairs when the fire broke out. Both the government and GGL were yet to fulfill their promises to mother and other widows after the burial of father and his colleagues. I did not like GGL people. They did not treat father and his colleagues well. They said father and some of his colleagues were casual workers. I also hated the bad men who take away people’s children and ask for money. Would they like it if other people do that to their children? Uncle Tonye said they were doing it so that government and GGL people would look into our pathetic situation. He said the men claimed they were freedom fighters, who were fighting to free Ama and other communities from oppression by other parts of Nigeria. When we gain freedom, we would manage our resources. But Uncle Tonye said he refused to join others and call them freedom fighters because this was not how people fought for freedom.
‘So if they go about it this way, our pathetic situation will worsen,’ he said.
Uncle Tonye always said our situation was pathetic. But he never explained what this meant. So I asked him one day. He chuckled and replied, ‘Nimi, you are young. But ask your mother. That Local Government chairman from her village, Ekere, does not care about his people. He gets huge amount from Federal Allocation, that is, from the Federal Government in Abuja. But the entire Opokuma, including Ekere is suffering; even after all they have taken from our land.’
Uncle Tonye paused and looked at me. He opened his two palms the way people do to acknowledge their helplessness.
‘Ekere’s farmland is no longer good for farming.’ He resumed. ‘Their river is polluted. Do you know why?’
I stared at him.
‘Oil spillage, Nimi, oil spillage. It is not only in Ekere. Many riverine communities can’t farm or fish. That is our main source of living. And GGL and government just sit down and watch. But they make big money from our resources.’
I concluded that those in government must also be bad. I later prayed that the bad men will not take me away so that mother would not cry the way she did when father died. Someday, I would be rich and console her. I hope to become a university graduate and not a casual worker like father. He used to tell me to read my books and make him proud. I knew I must not fail him, even though things were more difficult now. Mother sold cooked food in a kiosk along Alabo Tamuno Road. But at times, she would not sell much and I would wonder how I will make it to the university without money. But mother was hopeful.
‘Quality education is not free, Nimi,’ she would say. ‘But we will survive. You will surely go to school.’
Every morning she strapped Ibinabo to her back with a load of boiled rice, a pot of stew, plastic plates and spoons on her head, and I will walk to school with Zifa. I was nine and in form five. Zifa was almost six and in form two.
My school, Ama Primary School, A.P.S was an old one. Father told me when he was alive that it was his father’s alma mater. It was also the one my father attended. Both father and grandfather did not go beyond Primary school. Anyone who saw A.P.S would praise the government and GGL. Its walls were painted green and white—our national colours—with what our headmaster described as the best paint that could be found in any Nigerian market. One would see the blue aluminum roof sparkling even as he stood at a far distance. We learnt from Mr. Goodwill, our class teacher, that A.P.S was to be fenced but the government later decided not to do it for reasons Mr. Goodwill said he did not know. At the front of A.P.S, by the road, a large billboard stood with the large picture of our State Governor, Dr Ekiye Amati and that of Opokuma Local Government Area, Chief Iginewari Taribo, the man who hailed from Ekere, my mother’s village. The caption on the board above the governor and chairman’s photos is: Lasting Legacies:
Below their photos, other write-ups read: Education Trust Fund initiated by our amiable governor, His Excellency, Dr. Sir. Alabo Ekiye Amati. We thank His Excellency for providing the Opokuma child with quality education.
Mr. Goodwill informed us that almost a billion naira was said to have been spent on the repainting and roofing of A.P.S.
‘It is outrageous! These politicians are funny. Just repainting a school block and replacing the roof with Aluminum sheets, and they are claiming they spent close to a billion naira. No one has talked about facilities like library and computers because this school is not in the state capital.’
Every morning, as I walked to school with Zifa, I stared at the board, eying the two pictures, especially that of Chief Taribo. I never forgot what Uncle Tonye said about him. He said that most of these bad men who kidnap rich men and their kids were political thugs who worked for Chief Taribo during the elections. Uncle Tonye said he learned from a reliable source that Chief Taribo gave each of his thugs a gun called AK47. They did his bidding and he was declared winner of the election. Now the bad men had turned against everyone with the AK47. Even Chief Taribo was not spared. He did not deserve to be our Local Government chairman. The presence of people like him in government, the actions of those who take rich people and their kids hostage and the activities of GGL make life difficult for us.
The entire Ama had been living in fear even before the fuel scarcity hit us. It was this fuel scarcity that changed me and rendered me useless. In those days that we lacked this commodity, I remembered Uncle Tonye telling us that the scarcity was man-made—that it was not real.
‘Some people are somewhere trying to make money out of our misery and misfortune,’ he said. ‘It is all this God-given resources. Perhaps this is a curse in disguise. Things were not this way before.’
Then, suddenly, the fuel scarcity got a remedy. Everyone forgot about the bad men. Some miles away from our lovely ghetto, a serene mangrove, which many children never knew existed, had turned into a centre for brisk trade. Nursing mothers with their babies strapped to their backs and even seven or six years old boys and girls trooped out with several Jerry cans. They returned later in the day with many naira notes, smiling and telling incredible stories. Ten litres of fuel had sold as high as one thousand, four hundred naira, they said. That was when my mother called me and said:
‘Nimi dear, the big men in Abuja and Yenagoa have been chopping alone. Now we must join others and grab this opportunity. This is our national cake.’
The following morning, I left our house with Zifa. When we arrived at the place, we saw a large crowd. Some big men stood nearby, paying for already scooped fuel. There were also hawkers of moi moi and banana. We were about to descend the slope, to where many people stooped or squatted, as they scooped the precious liquid, when it happened. There was a deafening explosion. At that instance, I did not wait to see. I dropped my kegs, grabbed Zifa and ran. There were screams behind me. The crowd at my front was in disarray. People bumped into people. Abandoned Jerry cans and basins blocked our way. Some gallons spilled their precious stuff. I jumped over them, dragging my brother to where I was sure there was safety and life. Then I noticed a thick, dark smoke overtaking us as it shot across the landscape. It all happened in seconds, and there was fire everywhere around me. Zifa had slipped away. I became fire. The smell of burning chicken feather was strong. But I continued running and the fire ran with me. I screamed and screamed…
My vision had blurred again. There was a gentle tap at my bedside. Then the nurse’s face came into my view. Beside it was my mother’s. It appeared anxious and tearful. I wanted to talk but my throat was dry.
‘Zifa?’ My lips felt heavy and hardly moved when the whisper escaped from them. The nurse motioned to me to be calm. But I knew my mother understood what I said because she began to weep uncontrollably. Then I knew. The nurse turned to her in anger and told her to be thankful that I have become conscious after seven days. Seven days! Five months followed those days before I left the ward—a ward that witnessed the passing on of seven of its twelve patients, including shrill voice.
It is now six months after I had been discharged. I now sit by the street, opposite the entrance to Municipal Hotel, asking for financial assistance to enable me go for cosmetic surgery. Some Abuja big men and lawmakers from the riverine communities visit the hotel on weekends in their beautiful cars. I always imagine that the trunks of their cars are loaded with ‘politicians-must-go’ bags that contained our national cake. My scarred face is capable of sending the shivers, instead of eliciting the sympathy I need. I am ashamed to display my shrunk skin and badly burnt limbs and fingers. Those screams and fires still haunt me.
These pains are my own national cake. But I would have enjoyed it, even better than the Abuja big men the lawmakers and Chief Taribo, if I had joined Zifa, shrill voice and the others.