Bayan Layiby Elnathan John
The boys who sleep under the Kuka tree in Bayan Layi like to boast about the people they have killed. I never join in because I have never killed a man. Banda has, but he doesn't like to talk about it. He just smokes wee-wee while they talk over each other's heads. Gobedanisa's voice is always the loudest. He likes to remind everyone of the day he strangled a man. I never interrupt his story even though I was there with him and saw what happened. Gobedanisa and I had gone into a lambu to steal sweet potatoes, but the farmer had surprised us while we were there. As he chased us, swearing to kill us if he caught us, he fell into a bush trap for antelopes. Gobedanisa did not touch him. We just stood by and watched as he struggled and struggled and then stopped struggling.
I don't care that Gobedanisa lies about it but sometimes I just want to ask him to shut up. The way he talks about killing, you would think he would get Paradise for it, that Allah would reserve the best spot for him. I know why he talks like that. He tells it to keep the smaller boys in awe of him. And to make them fear him. His face is a map of scars, the most prominent being a thin long one that stretches from the right side of his mouth up to his right ear. Those of us who have been here longer know he got that scar the day he tried to fight Banda. No one who knows Banda fights Banda. You are looking to get killed if you do. I can't remember what led to the quarrel-I arrived to hear Banda screaming "Ka fita harka na fa!" Stay out of my business! Banda never shouts so I knew this was not a small matter. Gobedanisa must have smoked a lot of the wee-wee Banda gave him-he uttered the unforgivable insult: "Gindin Maman ka!'" Your mother's cunt! Banda was bigger than him and had a talisman and three amulets on his right arm for knives and arrows. Nothing made out metal could pierce him.
As Gobedanisa insulted Banda's mother, Banda dropped from the guava tree branch he was sitting on and punched him right in the mouth. He was wearing his rusty ring with the sharp edges. Gobedanisa's mouth started bleeding. He picked up a wooden plank and rammed it into Banda's back. Banda looked back and walked off, to the tree. But Gobedanisa was looking for glory. Whoever could break Banda would definitely be feared by the rest of us. We would follow that one. He picked a second plank and aimed for Banda's head but Banda turned quickly and blocked the blow with his right arm. The plank broke in two. Gobedanisa lunged with his bloodied hands and hit Banda on the jaw. Banda didn't flinch. No one separates fights in Bayan Layi except someone is about to be killed or if the fight is really unfair. Sometimes we just let it go on because no one dies unless it is Allah's will. Banda grabbed Gobedanisa by the shirt, punched him twice in the face, and twisted his right arm which was reaching for a knife in his pocket. He pinned him to the ground and with his right fist, made the long tear across Gobedanisa's cheek.
No one holds a grudge in Bayan Layi. Gobedanisa still has his scar but he follows Banda and does what he says. It is Allah's will everything that happens, why should anyone keep a grudge?
I like Banda because he is generous with his wee-wee. He doesn't like the way I tell him things that happen when he is away in Sabon Gari. He says I don't know how to tell a story, that I just talk without direction, like the harmattan wind that just blows and blows, scattering dust. Me, I just like to say it as I remember it. And sometimes you have to explain the story. Sometimes the explanation lies in many stories, how else can the story be sweet if you do not start it from its real, real beginning?
Banda gets a lot of money now that it is election season to put up posters for the Small Party and tear off the ones for the Big Party or smash up someone's car in the city. He always shares his money with the boys and gives me more than he gives the rest. I am the smallest in the gang of big boys in Bayan Layi and Banda is the biggest. But he is my best friend.
Last month, or the month before Ramadan I think, this boy tried to steal in Bayan Layi. No one dares come to steal in Bayan Layi. He tried to take some gallons of groundnut oil from Maman Ladidi's house. Her house is ba'a shiga, men aren't allowed to enter. She saw him and screamed. Then he ran and jumped over the fence. I like chasing thieves especially when I know they are not from Bayan Layi. I am the fastest runner here even though I broke my leg once when I fell from a motorcycle in Sabon Gari. Anyway, the groundnut oil thief, we caught him and gave him the beating of his life. I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch. So we sat this boy down and Banda asked what his name was. He said Idowu. I knew he was lying because he had the nose of an Igbo boy. I used my nail on his head many times, demanding his real name.
"Idowu! I swear my name is Idowu," he screamed as the nail tore into his flesh.
"Where is your unguwa?" Achishuru, the boy with one bad eye asked, slapping him across the cheek. He knew how to slap, this boy with one eye.
"Near Sabon Gari," the thief said.
"Where exactly?" I shouted. He kept quiet and I punched him in the neck with my nail.
Then he just got up and ran, I tell you. Like a bird in the sky he just flew past us. We couldn't catch him this time. Banda asked us to just leave him alone. He didn't reach Sabon Layi. Someone saw his body in a gutter that evening. See how Allah does His things-we didn't even beat him too much. We have beaten people worse, wallahi, and they didn't die. But Allah chooses who lives and who dies. Not me. Not us.
The Police came to our area with the Vigilante group from Sabon Gari and we had to run away. Some hid in the mosque. Banda, Achishuru, Dauda, and I swam across the river Kaduna, a part of which flows behind Bayan Layi and wandered in the farms and bushes until it was late, too late to make it back across the river. Banda is not allowed to enter the river at night with his amulets. He says he will lose the power if the river water touches them at night and he cannot take them off because that too will kill their power.
Everyone is talking about the elections, how things will change. Even Maman Ladidi who doesn't care about much apart from selling her groundnut oil has the poster of the Small Party candidate on the walls of her house. She listens to her small radio for news about the elections. Everybody does. The women in the market wear wrappers carrying the candidate's face and the party logo and many men are wearing white caftans and red caps just like him. I like the man. He is not a rich man but he gives plenty alms and talks to people whenever he is in town. I like more the way he wears his red cap to the side almost like it's about to fall. I will get a cap like that if I get the money, maybe a white caftan too. But white is hard to keep clean, soap is expensive and the water in the river will make it brown even when you wash it clean. Malam Junaidu, my former Quranic teacher wears white too and he says the Prophet, peace be upon him, liked to wear white. But Malam Junaidu gives his clothes to Tanimu the washman who buys water from the boys who sell tap water. Some day, Insha Allah, I will be able to buy tap water or give my clothes to Tanimu to wash and have a box where I will keep all my white clothes. Things will be better if the Small Party wins. Insha Allah.
I like the rallies. The men from the Small Party trust Banda and they give him money to organize boys from Bayan Layi for them. Sometimes we get as much as 150 naira depending on who it is or which rally. We also get a lot to drink and eat.
I like walking around with Banda. The men respect him and even boys bigger than him are afraid of him. Banda became my friend about the time I finished my Quranic training in Malam Junaidu's madarasa. When I finished, Malam said I could go back to my village in Sokoto. But then Alfa whose father lives near my father's house in Sokoto had just arrived the school and told me my father had died. I did not ask him what killed him because, Allah forgive me, I did not care much. It had been very long since I saw my father and he had not asked after me. Alfa said my mother still left the village to beg by the Juma'at mosque in Sokoto city, and I had two more sisters whose names he didn't know. So, I told Malam Junaidu I was going back to Sokoto even though in my heart I didn't want to go. I thought he would give me the fare. It was three hundred naira from the park in Sabon Gari to get behind the trucks which carry wood to Sokoto. Instead he gave me seventy naira, reminding me that my father had not brought any millet this year or the last to pay for my Quranic training. I told him my father had died and he paused for a moment, then said, Innalillahi wa'inna illaihi raji'un and walked away. It is not that I didn't agree that it is Allah who gives life and who takes, it is the way he said it in that dry tone he used when teaching that made me sad. But I did not cry. I did not cry until that evening when I heard Alfa telling some boys I was a cikin shege. A bastard pregnancy. I don't know where he got the idea from. They were sitting by the well near the open mosque Malam Junaidu built. I kicked Alfa on the thigh and we started fighting. Normally I would have just beaten him up but the two boys held me so Alfa could keep slapping me. I was kicking and crying when Banda passed by. Banda knocked Alfa down with one punch and flung one of the boys to the ground. I ran after Alfa and kept punching him in the stomach until my hands began to hurt. The other boys ran away. That day, I cried like I had never cried before. I followed Banda and he gave me the first wee-wee I smoked. It felt good. My legs became light and after a while I felt them disappear. I was floating, my eyes were heavy and I felt bigger and stronger than Banda and Gobedanisa and all the boys under the Kuka tree. He said he liked the way I didn't cough when I smoked it. That was how we became friends. He gave me one of his flat cartons and took me to where they slept. They slept on cartons under the Kuka tree and when it rained they moved to the cement floor in front of Alhaji Mohammed's rice store which had an extended zinc roof.
Banda is not an almajiri like me. He was born in Sabon Gari like most of the other boys but didn't attend Quranic school. Malam Junaidu had warned us about the Kuka tree boys who come to Mosque only during Ramadan or Eid's-'yan daba, thugs who do nothing but cause trouble in Bayan Layi. We despised them because they did not know the Quran and Sunna like us and did not fast or pray five times a day. A person who doesn't pray five times a day is not a muslim, Malam would say. Now that I am also under the Kuka tree, I know they are just like me and even though they don't pray five times a day, some of them are kind, good people-Allah knows what is in their heart.
Banda is an old boy. I don't know how old but he is the only one with a moustache among us. I hate it when people ask me my age because I don't know. I just know I have fasted nearly ten times. Some people understand when I say so, but others still ask annoying questions, like the woman during the census last year. But since the recent voter registration I have been saying I am nineteen even though I have to fold the sleeves of the old caftan Banda gave me. The men in the Small Party asked us to say so and gave us all 100 naira to register and even though the people registering us complained, they registered us anyway. My head was so big in the picture on the voter card Banda and Achishuru kept laughing at me. I don't like it when Achishuru laughs at me because he has one eye and shouldn't be laughing at my head. He is so stingy he doesn't even like to share his wee-wee.
"We have a lot of work to do for the elections," Banda says, coughing.
The Small Party has promised we may even get 1000 naira per head if they win the elections. They will build a shelter for us homeless boys and those who can't return home or don't have parents, where we can learn things like making chairs and sewing caftans and making caps. Banda hasn't coughed like this before, spitting blood. I think he is sick.
Ashishuru, Banda, Gobedanisa, and I have been going with some boys from Sabon Gari to the Small Party office to talk about how to win the elections. No one likes the Big Party here. It is because of them we are poor. Their boys don't dare come here because people will drive them out.
Banda is coughing and spitting out even more blood. I worry. Maybe after the elections, when the Small Party becomes the Big Party they can pay for him to see a doctor in the big hospital with plenty flowers and trees in the capital. Or if Allah wills it he will get better without even needing the hospital.
It is about one hour after the last evening prayer and the Small Party man's brother has just driven into Bayan Layi in a white pickup truck with the Party flag in front. He shouts Banda's name. Banda drops from the guava tree and I follow him.
"Which one of you is Banda?" a man asks from behind the truck. I can't see his face.
"I am," Banda replies.
"And this one, who is he?"
"He's my friend, we sleep in the same place."
"My name is Dantala," I add.
"Well, we want just Banda."
I am angry but I don't say a word.
"I am coming," Banda says to me, adjusting the amulets on his right arm. It is his way of telling me he will be ok. He hops onto the back of the truck and they drive off.
Banda appears just as the muezzin sings the first call to prayer. It is Election Day. I didn't sleep because I was anxious and I knew they would give him a lot of money for the boys.
"What did they tell you?' "I inquire.
"What do you mean nothing?" I am getting irritated. 'So they kept you all night for nothing?"
Banda doesn't say anything. He brings out two long wraps of wee-wee and gives one to me. We call it jumbo, the big ones. He also hands me two crisp one hundred naira notes. I have not seen crisp notes like these in a long time.
"After prayers we will gather all the boys behind the mosque and give them one hundred and fifty each. Then we wait. They will tell us what to do. Those who have their voters cards will get an extra two hundred and I will collect all the cards and take it to their office."
I am not sure why they want the cards because I imagine they want us to help vote the Big Party out. But I want the extra two hundred. I am excited about the elections and the way everybody in Bayan Layi and even Sabon Gari likes the Small Party. They will surely win. Insha Allah!
We head for the polling centre between Bayan Layi and Sabon Gari even though we will not be voting. The day is moving slowly and the sun is hot very early. I hope the electoral officers come quickly so it can begin. Plenty women are coming out to vote and the Small Party people are everywhere. They are handing out water and zobo and giving the women salt and dry fish in little cellophane bags. Everyone is cheerful, chatting in small groups. The Big Party agent arrives in a plain bus and takes off his party tag as soon as he gets there. I think he is afraid he will be attacked. He doesn't complain about the things the Small Party people are doing; he can't because not even the two policemen can save him if he does. He knows, because he used to live in Bayan Layi too before he started working for the Big Party and moved to get a room in Sabon Gari. Banda says he hardly stays there and he spends most of his time in the Capital where all the money is.
The voting is about to end and my wee-wee is wearing off but I still have some left from the jumbo Banda gave me in the morning. I am hungry and tired of drinking the zobo that has been going around. I can't see Banda anywhere and I turn around the corner of the street and find him bent over, coughing, holding his chest. He is still spitting a lot of blood. I ask him if he is ok. He says nothing, just sits on the floor, panting. I get him one sachet of water. He rinses his mouth and drinks some of it.
"We will win these elections," Banda says.
"Of course, who can stop us?" We are talking like real politicians now, like party men.
"Will they really build us that shelter?" I ask.
"I don't like to think of that, all I want is that they pay every time they ask us to work for them. After the election, where will you see them?"
I am thinking Banda is very wise and I should stop expecting anything from them. I light what is left of the jumbo and ask Banda if he wants some.
"I just had one before you came," he says.
We hear screaming and chanting. The counting is over and as we expect, the Small Party has won here. I don't think the Big Party has more than twenty votes in this place. We get up and join the crowd, chanting, dancing and beating empty gallons with sticks.
I am exhausted very quickly because I was up all night last night waiting for Banda. I slow down. I am still high and all these thoughts are suddenly going through my head-how I have hardly prayed since I left my Quranic teacher and how we only go to the Juma'at mosque in Sabon Gari on Fridays because there are people giving alms and lots of free food. But Allah judges the intentions of the heart. We are not terrible people. When we fight, it is because we have to. When we break into small shops in Sabon Gari, it is because we are hungry and when someone dies, well, that is Allah's will.
Banda disappears again. He comes back early in the morning and says we have to be out again today after the morning prayers.
"We have been cheated in the elections," Banda says, coughing, frantic.
"They have switched the numbers. We have to go out."
I am still sleepy even though there is a lot of noise around. There are unfamiliar boys standing behind the mosque, shouting. I just want to sleep. My stomach is rumbling and my head hurts. This is the moment we have all been paid for. I had hoped all this would end last night. Unlike the other boys, I am not used to this breaking and burning business. Under the Kuka tree, nothing is complete without some fire and broken glass.
"These Southerners can't cheat us, after all we are in the majority."
I don't know the boy who is shouting but he is holding a long knife. 'There are no Southerners here,' I think, 'why is he holding out his knife? We all have knives here.' I hiss. The crowd is agitated. Banda looks like he can barely stand and is walking toward a parked pickup truck-the same pickup truck the Small Party people came in the other day. I see him bent over talking to someone inside the truck. Banda is just nodding and I wonder what he is being told. He walks back with his hands in the pockets of his old brown jallabiya. He comes into the crowd and whispers to the boy waving his knife in the air. The boy starts calling the crowd to order.
"We are going to teach them a lesson,' he says. 'We must scatter everything belonging to the Big Party in Bayan Layi."
I must ask Banda who this boy is.
"Burn their office!" Gobedanisa shouts.
The crowd screams. I have always wanted to enter that office. I hear they keep money there. I scream with the crowd.
Banda tells us there are machetes, daggers and small gallons of fuel in the back of the truck. We will get two hundred naira each for taking back the votes that were stolen. Two hundred sounds nice. I can buy bread and fried fish. I haven't had fish in a while.
We file past the truck to get our two hundred naira notes and fuel and matches and machetes. The man handing out the notes doesn't talk. He just looks sternly into our eyes and hands out the notes. He gives a hundred to the smaller boys. I push out my chest as I approach the man, raising my chin so I don't look so small. I want the two hundred. The man looks at me and pauses assessing me to see if I will get one or two hundred.
"We are together," Banda says from behind me to the man.
The man is not convinced and hands me a one hundred naira note. I take it-I never refuse money- and pick up a machete from behind the truck. Banda whispers something to the man and then collects a note. He stretches it out to me-it is another one hundred naira note. I am glad and suddenly the sleep has cleared from my eyes. This is why I like Banda, he fights for me. He is a good person. He gives me something rolled up and wrapped in black polythene and asks me to hold it for him. My trousers have good pockets. It is money. I am not sure how much.
The first thing we do is set ablaze the huge poster of the Big Party's candidate in front of the market. I like how the fire eats up his face. I wish it was his face in real life. The Big Party office is on my mind-I can't wait to search the offices and drawers and take whatever I can get from there before we set it ablaze.
I am the first to get to the Big Party office. The others are trailing closely behind me. They are excited, delirious, partly because we have been paid and partly because they hate the Big Party and are angry about the news we have heard.
We push the gate until we bring it down together with the pillars to which it is attached. Tsohon Soja is the old man guarding the place. He tries to struggle with some of the boys, grabs one of them by the neck and blows his whistle. Another boy snatches the whistle from his mouth.
"You are an old man, Tsohon Soja, we don't want to harm you. Just stand back and let us burn this place down," I tell him.
This security man is stubborn. He is a retired soldier and thinks he can scare us away. He reaches for his long stick and hits one the boys on the shoulder. Gobedanisa charges forward with his machete, striking the man on the chest and on the neck. None of the boys wanted to be the first to hit the old man because they all know him. Now that he is down they strike at his body. Me, I think it's bad luck to be killing such an old man. But he brought it upon himself. I know Gobedanisa will boast about this.
I run into the building but a boy in front of me has already opened the front door. I hope there is some money in the office-there must be-why else would the security man be trying to fight a whole crowd. We all enter the place, destroying furniture, tearing papers and posters, searching drawers. We go from room to room. All I can get is a transistor radio in one of the drawers. Achishuru gets a really new prayer mat and a cap. I am disappointed.
Banda is holding a half-gallon of petrol and so is the other boy who was wielding the knife as he spoke behind the mosque.
"Get out we are burning the place!" Banda orders.
I put my transistor radio in my pocket and it falls through to the ground. The hole in my pocket has become very big. The radio has a little rope. I hang it around my neck and pick up my machete. I am also holding the matches so I wait for them to finish pouring petrol while the other boys run out to the next thing belonging to the Big Party.
"Pour more, pour more," Banda tells the boy.
"No, this is enough, we need it for other places. It is petrol not kerosene."
Banda concedes. I wait for them to come out. I strike the match. The boy was right. I love the way the fire leaps out of the window and reaches for the ceiling. I remember when I was very little and my father almost beat me to death because I burnt a whole bag of millet stalks. That was before the rain stopped falling in our village and my father sent me and many of my brothers far away for Quranic training. I don't know where they are now, my brothers. Maybe they have gone back home. Maybe they have decided to stay like me.
A fat man runs out of the burning building, toward me, covered in soot, coughing and stumbling over things. He can't see well. A Big Party man.
"Traitor!" One boy shouts.
The man is running, with his hands in the air like a woman, like a disgusting dan daudu. I hate that he is fat. I hate his party, how they make us poor. I hate that he was hiding like a rat, fat as he is. I strike behind his neck as he stumbles by me. He crashes to the ground. He groans. I strike again. The machete is sharp. Sharper than I expected, light. I wonder where they got them from. Malam Junaidu's machetes were so heavy, I hated it when we had to clear weeds in front of the mosque or his house.
The man isn't shaking much. Banda picks up the gallon and pours some fuel on the body. He looks at me to strike the match. I stare at the body. Banda seizes the matchbox from me and lights it. The man squirms only a little as the fire begins to eat his clothes and flesh. He is dead already.
I am not thinking as we move on, burning, screaming, cutting, tearing. I don't like the feeling in my body when this machete cuts flesh so I stick to the fire and take the matchbox from Banda. At first we make a distinction between shops belonging to Big Party people and those belonging to Small Party people but as we become thirsty and hungry, we just break into any shop we see.
As the crowd moves beyond Bayan Layi, they are stopped by the sound of gunfire ahead. I am still far behind taking a piss and I see the crowd running back. Two police vans are heading this way and they are firing into the air. As they get closer the policemen get out and start firing into the crowd. As I see the first person go down, I turn and run. I look back for Banda and he is not running. He is bent over, coughing, holding his chest. I stop.
"Banda, get up!" I scream, crouching behind a low fence.
Everyone is running past him and the Police keep shooting. He tries, runs feebly and stops again. They are getting closer- Banda has to get up now. I want to run; I want to hope his amulets would work. But I linger a bit. He gets up again and starts to run. Then he falls flat on his face like someone hit him from behind. He is not moving. I run. I cut through the open mosque avoiding the narrow, straight road. I run through Malam Junaidu's maize farm. There are boys hiding there. I do not stop. I run past the Kuka tree. I will not stop even when I can no longer hear the guns. Until I get to the river and across the farms, far, far away from Bayan Layi.