PLEASE BE QUIET
By Olu Jacobs
Saturday, January 23, 2010.
I try to tell them, but there is too much yelling.
Words words words spreading like rash, pressing down my tongue so I can barely breathe.
I look at the Fulani man as sweat collect at the ridge of his nose and around his mouth. Red tongue darts out to lick the corners like a wall gecko, but he is silent; sitting in the same place since we left the train station at Minna.
His hat is at the back of his head now, held by a strap after it fell off in his attempt to stop the woman from throwing the stick out of the window. The gourd he carries on a rope across his left shoulder is bent over, dripping water, remnant of his ablution at the Mokwa railway station where he had first spoken to me.
He needed to say his la’sr and did not trust the water in the toilet or that the train would not leave him if he got down to pray, so he had looked around and caught my eye and said, “Salaam’alaikum yaro” calling me a boy, even though I am taller than he is and he doesn’t look more than a teenager himself.
Until the incident with the woman, he had been sleeping and his snores provided the rest of the cabin with conversation. It is a goods train with few coaches for passengers; the remainder of the train, which children nick-name woroworo because of its sluggish speed, is taken up by bales of kola nuts and yams and groundnut cake or kulikuli being transported from the north to be sold in Ilorin , Ibadan , and Lagos .
The harmattan pumps out a dry dusty sand used by the wind to paint everything in generous brown. With most of the window panes broken, the cold air and smoke from the burning bushes around the rail tracks lash at the face, drawing snort and cough and tears. Sitting by the window, the entire face of the Fulani has turned brown-white; a masquerade cradling stick, jug and sachet; a creature from another planet.
Every time the engine driver blows the horn, this man wakes with a start, gathering himself together like a bird ready for flight, and the cabin will convulse in laughter. To fight the boredom, Fate has given us a clown.
“Toyin, this one doesn’t even know where he is going”, says the dark, plump woman carrying an infant boy on her back, whom we call Iyawo because we see from the way she fusses over him that he is her first child. “I don’t think that he has ever been on a train before. And must he hold that stick in his sleep?”
I notice her companion. Lanky and vital the way only a teenage girl can be, she seems to have won over the harmattan.
Skin all golden brown, her breasts rise with every breath; large nipples hardened by the cold attacked the white T-shirt she is wearing as if they would, any moment now, bore holes through the fabric.
Why is she not wearing a bra? I read somewhere that in Somalia this would not be allowed. The Al-Shabaab people would take her to a corner and ask her to juggle the breasts, and then cane her. But what a job - to spend the whole day watching women bounce their bosoms, in the name of God.
Suddenly, I see her looking at me looking at her, with eyes that seem to shine through with unshed tears and laughter, without shame or pain: virgin eyes. She stops her reading and folds her arms over her chest in a way that tells me she knows my thoughts, then she glances at the apparition by the window and smiles.
And then she gazes right back at me, and the air is sucked out of the train. I feel so light I hold unto my seat afraid that I might fall off. I can feel her heat on my face, and her voice as she answers the woman seems like a whisper in my ear. “What is he looking for on a train?” She says, “I thought they trekked everywhere?”
I look away and see that we are across the River Niger on the longest bridge in the country. The train hurtles on, almost picking on speed, blaring its horn long enough for the people at the bank of the river to stop their fishing and washing and wave. And I remember my History teacher in form three who told us the story that in the year 1795 when the young Scottish doctor Mungo Park arrived at the Niger , he was met by the natives.
And then he asked: If the natives were already there, why do we say that Mr. Park discovered the river?
“Because they were just there, they didn’t discover it,” we answered.
“What does discover mean?”
“To find something.”
“So they lived in the place, but didn’t discover it?”
“They didn’t tell anyone that they have found it so people didn’t know about their own discovery.”
“White people sir.”
Below the rumble of the train I hear the big river and I shiver.
After the woman flung my family totem away, out of the window into the void, a spider crawled into my heart to sleep. I sit still so that I don’t disturb it awake or it will rise and choke me and I will disappear into nothing. This has happened before.
My brother Moddibbo and I were watching the lone goat in our herd trying hard to mate a cow. The tail of the cow was in the way and the goat was too short and kept prancing about on its hindquarters.
Its thing was already so stiff the muscles were bursting with blood.
The bleating grew desperate, but the goat would not give up. It started climbing up the haunches of the cow, which kicked it down. Every time it fell, it let out a big yelp, and Moddibbo would laugh until he had to stuff his right fist inside his mouth to stop the laughter from bursting forth into the wind and becoming a nuisance. Suddenly, I felt a slight prick on my leg. I thought it was a thorn, but the pain grew and spread until I looked down.
A short black snake lay there, almost covered by the shrub.
I screamed since I was only six at the time. Moddibbo dragged me and we ran through the bush to look for kaka, our grandfather. “Gobe da nisa,” he kept screaming, “it’s gobe da nisa”. The snake whose name is a promise: ‘you will not see tomorrow.’ It will hang around until it hears your scream - even following you home to make sure, and then biting itself in fatal fury if there is no wailing. We didn’t know anyone who had ever survived an attack.
“Didn’t you hear it coming?” asked Kaka in a whisper when we found him under the shade of a mango tree, drinking fura. And that was the first time I felt the spider climb over my body, hurrying up to lie down on my heart, so that it was a labour to breath. Now, 13 years later, the beast is back.
I am a leaf in the harmattan breeze floating and for a moment I forget consequences and lose myself in the rhythm of this vehicle taking me away, as I observe the woman now condemned to ride the whirlwind with me just sitting there, ignorant.
She takes the child from her back and begins to breastfeed him and I take my eyes away. Is it possible that she didn’t know what she had done, this loathsome woman?
I knew there was no hope when I woke to see the staff hurtling through the air to land among undulating hills and caverns and tall trees as the train sped past. When he gave it to me, Kaka had said the cane could tame everything - spirits, black magic, witches, ghosts, madness, wild animals; poison.
One of the amulets tied to the staff contained the stone that Kaka used to snatch me from the jaws of death after the snake bite. He had placed it on the mark of the teeth and tied a red rag round it as I lay on the mat for three days and three nights until the stone sucked out all the venom. The other one is for all kinds of protection; you place it inside a calabash of kindirmo once the cow milk has curdled and – but what’s the use. They are gone, all gone with the cane.
How am I supposed to win the Sharo now?
Have I become a girl to sweat so? It is dripping into my eyes and I see through a glass darkly. But I hear their voices clearly. I don’t know any of the words but they are mocking words I’m sure. They think their many words can protect them, that because I am in their midst now, alone and without any weapon, they can send a woman to rub my dignity in cow dung and nothing will happen.
Initially, they had formed a wall around the woman, thinking to protect her from my wrath. They were screaming at me. I was asleep and she had attacked me without provocation but no one was asking her why. Am I not also a human being?
I am a freeman, I wanted to scream. My people conquered these areas and your great grandfathers shat themselves silly when they heard the name Dan Hodio. Stop calling me Fulani, I have a name. The things that I see in the hills and the valleys, alone with my cattle among the rulers of the night in the blackest darkness, as the listless feet of death shadowed me, will make your ears shrivel if I were merely to whisper them in your lousy pagan ears, you excretal descendants of pagans . But that is not our way.
The boy sitting opposite, who had been writing on a paper, and snatching furtive looks at the girl in heat, glance at me uneasily. He was the only one who seemed to have tried to sympathise but they had shouted him down. The rest of the cabin had since decided I was useless and gone about their noisesome business. They are like children, and cannot abide silence.
I hear kaka again, saying, didn’t you hear it coming? Not, didn’t you see it? Because the eyes can only see what is in front of it but everything reaches the ears if there is silence enough. Even the lethal tread of a snake. And that is why we survive the jungle. Noise like this can wipe out a whole clan: cows, men, women, children, everyone.
Even our cows do not make so much noise.
Everywhere is so dirty and smelly. I didn’t notice this before. Not the smell of rivers, even rivers that you meet for the first time, or the transient odour of cattle and their dung but a hybrid smell, collected and blended and lodged in seats, floors, roof, sides, the rampant luggage that feed their pomposities; and the people move from coach to coach exchanging stench.
I didn’t know it was going to be like this. Moddibbo said it was the quickest way to reach the border so that I could join the team crossing over to Senegal for the Sharo which begins tomorrow. But it doesn’t matter any longer.
I had so wanted to be at the duels, to win. Kaka said before he was my age he had participated in tens of Sharo. Even now, whenever he is not wearing any upper garments, you can notice the welts criss-crossing his chest like ridges. Although there are some at his back too, the large eternal scars can be seen on his stomach right up to his neck. He remembers every wound and the names of his fellow adversaries and the women they fought for. “I never blinked,” he said, “not once.”
He taught me that once you face the opponent and raise the hand with the mirror up, presenting the part of your body you choose to be beaten, you must not look at anyone, not even the fellow wielding the cane. The drums and incantations, the crowds – even the nubile female, for whom you have affections - become mere distractions. “The mirror is your only friend” he said. “Look into the mirror because it does not lie. If your hand is not steady, if you’re breathing too fast, if your eyes are showing the fear in your heart, all these, the mirror will tell you.”
He gave me the same cane he had used in all his Sharo. Brown like baked earth, it was the most unusual cane I had ever seen, full of knobs and scabs, woven in strands like the rope we used for the most stubborn cows. There were dried blood in parts and bits of dried flesh that had embedded themselves into unreachable crevices. I asked kaka if he had ever killed a man during Sharo, but he wouldn’t say.
I knew that if I fought with this cane I could not lose because I would not be fighting alone. Besides, Kaka’s cane is enough to drive fear into any opponent and he had given it to me publicly. Now, it is gone - just like that. She has thrown it away with all the charms, and she sits there feeding her boy as if nothing was wrong. Which devil put me in the same place with this woman?
Before now, we used to just go to the kagara market, a day’s trek away and hold the festival. But last week, Moddibbo who is now working with Meyettillah, the group they formed to tell the authority about Fulani problems, said the government had announced the banning of Sharo. The new governor said the practice is barbarous. That people would no longer be allowed to beat each other in the name of sports.
“Sports?” said kaka testily, “And didn’t you people tell him that this is not a game? That this is our life”
Modibbo spoke of an important event taking place, a cultural fiesta in the state and the white people who would be attending. These are not people who stay where you tell them. The governor did not want them wandering around and discovering us practicing Sharo. They would say we are beasts.
That was when grandfather had walked away, leaving his bowl of fura.
When he returned, he brought me his staff and said, “Iro, you are going to Senegal to participate in the Sharo. They will not ban us there insha’Allahu.”
I should have trekked.
For every road that these vehicles follow, there are ten footpaths that will take you there through shorter routes. But the celebration was going to start in less than a week and I had to get there in time. So I took this accursed journey…
Dusk has fallen. The big river no longer shimmers but I can hear it all the same. It looks so placid but beneath it will be merciless . Once I had to cross a river with the cows and the trick usually, was to enter the water first so the animals would follow you in. Then grab a tail and hang on while the cow takes you across. I didn’t know how fast the water was moving under until I forgot to leave the tail when we have reached the shallow side opposite and the cow kicked me away as it tried to climb out of the water. There are more forces beneath the surfaces of things than the eye can see.
There is a chill in the air and I feel the waking of the spider in my chest. The woman has finished her breast feeding and now covers herself with wrapper. I think she is sleeping.
People think the Sharo is a lesson in courage, that it trains us to face pain without flinching.
Kaka says courage is easy. Sharo is patience. To wait with bare body as your opponent takes his time to deliver a blow, taunting you with words of his prowess ; to wait after the blow, as needles of pain spread through your body to places you never know, and yet not show any distress ; to wait knowing that you cannot hit back until the next festival presents you a chance for revenge, that is hard: waiting.
The child is climbing up and down the younger girl’s leg now but she is paying more attention to what the young man is reading to her. I see that they have grown bold. She had come to sit beside him, her hand resting on his leg as they look at the thing he has been writing.
The little boy crawls my way. I wait.
What kind of mother sleeps and leaves her child when there are monsters around?
I told Toyin to look after Isaac; that I wanted to take a nap. After all, she had followed me because her brother, my husband, said a train journey is not easy for a new mother alone; changing napkins, breastfeeding, backing the child and looking after the luggage at the same time.
But since she came on the train, she had done nothing but read that novel of hers.
And then there is the distraction of the shy young man who has obviously taken an interest. I had warned her that leaving her breast like that was looking for trouble.
God help me.
I didn’t throw the Fulaniman’s rotten stick away just like that. I am not crazy. I told him again and again to move the damned thing away, but he just looked at me like malu, like one of his cows.
The stick frightened me. There were these amulets tied to the thing and every time he slept off, they would dangle above my baby’s head.
Then after Mokwa, Isaac who had been asleep on my back began to fret and moan. He seemed to be running a temperature. I loosened the wrapper that I used in tying him to my back and I turned to move him to my front so I could feed him, only to see that the entire part of the stick with the juju, all three of them, were on top of my son, resting on his head.
I didn’t know when I screamed.
Have you ever woken up from a dream in which you see yourself lying down beside a snake? That is how I felt. Horrified.
Had Isaac licked those things? Who can say; children at that age will put anything in their mouth. I thought I was going to go crazy. These charms could have been made from anything. And these people who are always roaming the bush with their cows, who can say how many diseases they carry around? Polio? Mad cow disease? Cholera? Typhoid? Meningitis? Tuberculosis?
I told Toyin to give me the bottle of anointing oil, and I poured some on Isaac’s head and his mouth. Holy Ghost fire.
The idiotic Fulani was still sleeping can you imagine. I removed my slippers and pushed the yeye stick away. I tried to move as far away as possible, but there is hardly any space to maneuver in this local train. There is luggage everywhere; beneath the seats, under the feet, on the corridors, between the seats, by the doors, all over.
Somebody tapped the Fulaniman awake and I told him to remove the stick and put it under the seat or something. That it was disturbing my child. Of course, he could neither speak nor understand Yoruba or English.
“I beg who sabi speak this man language? You people should help me warn him about his stick o,” I said out loud. But all I got was analysis about the nomadic way of life from Toyin’s prospective boyfriend.
The Fulaniman opened his eyes, waved a lazy “sorry” with his hand, adjusted his stick, and promptly dozed off again.
I became restless.
Isaac would not drink my breast, he just kept bawling. If anything happened to the boy, what would I tell his grandmother, my husband’s mother? She had never liked me, never thought I was good enough for her only son. I didn’t want to travel but my husband said I should take the child to her in the village for her to see: my handsome baby boy as fat as any of those Cerelac babies they advertise on the television. She will have to accept me now. Isaac is her first grandson.
Everything we are taking to the village is brand new; the ecolac box, Isaac’s clothes, my wrappers, my underwear, my shoes and the necklace and earrings. My husband also gave me money to buy Hollandis for his mother so that she would not say I am eating all her son’s money alone.
My husband is the first born child and they had not wanted him to marry so early. He was supposed to assist the family for some time, to provide for their needs for at least three more years. However, barely seven months into his first job, I discovered I was pregnant and we had to marry. I was not one of those people who would be pregnant and remain in their parents’ house. I would not be a laughing stock.
His mother promptly labeled me a gold-digger. She said I had used the pregnancy as a trap to force her son into marrying me. I cried throughout that day. I really loved Joseph, that is my husband. I am not like those spoilt girls that sleep around. I was a virgin when he met me and I had plans to further my education. I wasn’t just sitting there with legs open waiting for a man.
The day she first came to visit, I ran to greet her but she looked at me with such hatred that my whole body caught cold and I had to wrap my hands around myself. I was shivering. She hissed “ashawo” – prostitute - and walked past. I felt like a cockroach who had wandered into the palace as the king was having his lunch. What hope did I have against such a force?
Now I am going to take her a sick child? God forbid. My boy was healthy when we left home early this morning, I don’t know what Fulani has done to my son.
I hold him across my arms, raise the lower part of my white brassier and bring out a breast for him to suck, singing him his favourite song:
I wish I had a plane
I wish I had an electric train
I wish I had wings
As large as a penguin’s
I would have flown
My son, my son, my son
I would have flown
Away to London
Eventually, he quiet down and is sleeping again. I touch his forehead and his temperature appears normal and tiny crystals of sweat cover his forehead. I feel drained. I am afraid of putting him on my back again. I look at the Agoi and observe the sounds coming from his end: he is snoring. He is slender as a rake, yet he snores. Well, at least he is holding his stick in an upright position.
I can never understand why he won’t just put the thing on the floor. Who is going to steal a common stick? Anyway, that is his problem as long as he doesn’t disturb me and my child with it again. How can I be suffering because of one bushman?
I am too gentle, that is what my friend Funmi says when I tell her things. She read computer science in the university and I think she behaves like a computer sometimes. She tabulates everything and gives out exactly what she gets, no more, no less. She is also the only person I know who uses the word ‘apparently’ like oxygen. If she were here she would have dealt with this man long ago. She would stand and scream and words would pour out so fast it would flood this cabin, drowning animal, place or thing and carrying Fulaniman, stick and all, flailing through the window. Flaming Funmi, we call her. I know exactly what she will say when I tell her about this experience: ‘One. Apparently you are a fool. Two. You should have thrown the man and his stick out. Apparently.’
I am still thinking of her when I feel the stick again touching the back of my neck. Now, I know what I have to do. There is no option. I move away gently and hand Isaac to Toyin.
‘Auntie, where are you going?’ she asks, but I don’t answer. This is no time for words.
He is sleeping when I yank the stick from his hand and I almost fall in my haste to throw it out of the window. There is commotion everywhere.
I remember someone saying ‘madam, you shouldn’t have done that,’ but the rest of the cabin, especially the women, support me and shout the voice down.
The Fulaniman stands up, his hands are shaking; he looks so small without the stick. All the men immediately turn and face him and he sits back again. I don’t run. I am ready to face him now that Isaac is out of the way. Nonsense.
Much later, after everything had quieted down, I see Toyin looking at me with something like admiration. I know she would tell mama when we get to the village and I feel proud of myself. I have never done anything like this before. Even my boy appears to have gotten back some of his glow and is awake again, extending his hands to me, so I collect him from Toyin now that everything is safe.
We are approaching the bridge and I start to fall asleep. But Isaac wants to play so I hand him over to his aunt. I haven’t slept two minutes when I hear a scream.
Even before I come awake, I know my life was over.
I knew somehow that it was not over.
He had been quiet since she threw his stick away hours ago and they all thought the matter was finished. I was composing a poem for Toyin so I didn’t pay him any attention, though once I looked up and I think I saw him talking to himself.
I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to give her the poem. Too many things were happening at once and the mood in the cabin was pretty low. I suppose that is why I titled the poem ‘ LONGINGS’, and under the title I wrote ‘for Toyin’. I had almost finished the poem when she leaned forward and asked, ‘what are you writing?’
‘A poem,’ I said.
‘Can I read it?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is for you anyway.’
She smiled. ‘I know,’ she said.
At this point the woman asked her to look after the little boy while she sleeps. She took the child and put him on her knees, swinging her legs back and forth and it was all I could do not to stare between her knees as the skirt parts slightly open, then closes. I went back to finishing the poem.
‘Have you finished’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, handing the paper over.
‘Wait’ she said, ‘shift. You are going to read it to me.’ And she came to sit beside me, holding the boy. I swear I felt an electric shock when her body touched mine and I’m sure she felt it too because she looked into my eyes for a long while. ‘Ok. Please read it.’ She said. And I began:
She is a flower
In the moment of
The bud’s breaking,
At the sea’s parting…
She is free.
She is a promise
Of life to be lived
Her tomorrows lie
Like sands before the sea
In her heart
Beats the rhythm
Of unending orgasms
In an age
When we hide our hearts
In iron faces
She wears her own like a hat
I see my eyes on her eyes
My lips touching hers
On her pulsating ass
She was a longing
Seeking a master
Nights, I lie awake
Dreaming of things
We will do
And words unsaid
Ring through my mind
Like cathedral bells
My mind is the
Bits and pieces of decisions
And actions stayed by
Do I dare?
Hang like fly feathers
On a cobweb
I am the voice wailing
In the wilderness
For sins not-
Suddenly I felt the pressure of her hands and I looked up. There was fear in her eyes. I was confused. ‘I am sorry about-‘, I began, but she was pointing somewhere else, and when I looked, a feeling of dread overwhelmed me.
The Fulani man was holding up the little boy. I stood up, instinctively. But in that moment, he threw the child out of the window of the moving train.
I heard little Isaac suck in his breath, a brief sigh, and then he was gone.
The horror the horror the horror.
Olu Jacob is a journalist, critic and a copy editor at the NEXT News Service, Lagos, Nigeria. A graduate of English from the University of Jos, he was previously the editor of the Niger State newspaper Newsline, in the city of Minna where he grew up. He has also worked as a senior aide to the Chief Whip of the Nigerian House of Representatives. Widely travelled, his hobbies include reading, travelling and watching movies and sports. He is married with children.