Apr/May 2007  •   Fiction

Come Away; Poverty's Catching

by Jumoke Verissimo

Artwork by KOB ONE

Artwork by KOB ONE

The houses in Bashir Compound were built with mud, so closely together they constellated the few acres of land on which they stood. Neighbours could hear the conversations being held in the next house without listening too hard, and sometimes they threw greetings to one another without leaving their rooms. The walls of every house in the compound were pasted with Portland cement. Several years' layers had given the walls a blend of auburns and dull whites. Some houses in the compound wore thin coats of paint, but this did little to cover the poor plastering or the scrawling made with charcoal by little children learning to write.

The landlords were great-grandchildren of Amidu Bashir, a settler who died several years back as an Aso-Oke fabric merchant. They "renovated" the place annually, making the compound appear like makeshift hen houses built by rural farmers. The roofs, made of second-hand rusty iron sheets from the black market, had so many holes in them, the sun shone through and dotted the floors. The landlords replaced the roofs only if the holes were big enough for rats to pass through.

The residents earned barren wages. They were people who had migrated to the city from rural areas looking for work, illegal immigrants from neighboring countries, students who couldn't afford better accommodation. The area was strategically buried with the dreams of many in the heart of the bustling city of Lagos, and only those who sought poverty or were a victim of it found their way to Bashir Compound.

I lived in building number nine. It was a house with 12 small rooms divided by a very narrow passage into six on each side. The structure of my house and the others like it were referred to as "Face-me-I-face-you," because the doors of the rooms were directly opposite each other. Usually, every Face-me-I-face-you was expected to have a communal toilet and bathroom, which all the rooms in the house shared, but we had no toilet or bathroom in Bashir Compound. We bathed in a stall made from corrugated iron sheets carefully arranged into a box. The box leaned against an abandoned building that stank always because it was used as a garbage dump and a burial yard for malnourished children and the aborted babies of teenage girls. When the Sanitation Officers demolished our toilet, we started throwing our shit in the abandoned building, too.

The day the Sanitation Officers came, after demolishing the toilet, they locked our house with a big Diamond padlock. Our landlords disappeared for fear of being mobbed by their tenants, and in their absence we wasted our frustration on cursing and sighing. We camped in different corners of the compound like refugees expecting relief, sleeping under the trees because no one else in the compound was willing to take anyone into their already overcrowded rooms. Those who could not find a place under a tree leaned against the wall of the house in frustration. We battled mosquitoes and soldier ants, who bit unusually hard that night. It was as if they had trained for the task of sucking us dry of our blood. Parents of little children didn't sleep, staying up to brush ants and mosquitoes from their children's skin.

I couldn't sleep. I spent the night listening to the snores of the others and driving mosquitoes away from a little boy whose mother had an amputated arm.

The next day when it was past noon, our landlords came with a key and opened the house. No one fought with them. We were too tired to start anything. Quietly, we entered our rooms and slept with heavy hearts. Our landlords had been able to collect the key from the Sanitation Officers by giving them a payoff, then promising to build a hygienic toilet by the end of that month. That toilet was never built.

An orange tree stood outside my room. Many people gathered under it for its shade during the day, but at night only some men who lived in the compound occupied the tree. Women, children, and newcomers stayed at a distance, except for one woman, who sold local gin mixed with roots to the men as they talked. The men gathered under the tree as they returned from work in the evenings and argued about politics, football, money, sex, women, and the events taking place in the compound during their absence. It was under this tree where they pronounced judgments and analyzed hearsays.

Some of the prostitutes who lived in the compound at times came to the men and cracked sensual jokes, the men laughing their appreciation. The rest of the women, the wives and the hoping-to-marry, sat at a distance engrossed in their own versions of how the day went. The under-aged lovers hid in dark areas where the light from the moon mingled with the shadows and turned their bodies into one, their soft conversations giving them up from their hiding.

There was hardly ever power in the area. Often the power was off because termites had again eaten the electric pole and it had fallen across the road, or the service transformers had blown up as usual. On such days, I turned the wick of my kerosene lamp low and lay on the mattress. I listened to the men talking outside my window, and then I fell asleep.

Sometimes, when misfortune befell one of them, the men did not gather beneath the tree for many days, tragedy triggering a break from their socializing. And when they finally returned from such an interlude, there remained a discomforting silence: no guffaws, no throat clearing, and it was many days before the vitality of their arguments was regained. At such times, knowing they were present and quiet made everything else seem rather melancholic.

One night I lay on my bed, tired from the overtime I had put in at work. The Super Eagles of Nigeria were playing against the Lions of Cameroon in the African Nations Cup final. The men had gathered behind my window, bantering with one another, while the woman who sold them gin arranged her bottles and roots on a makeshift table. There was power that night, and the flood of an electric bulb lit up their meeting place. A 20" television was connected to an extension cord running from one of the rooms, placed under the tree so they could all watch the match and place bets on the outcome.

One of the men, who had bet in favor of Nigeria, said of the Lions, "Those people can't come and disgrace us here now!"

There was tension in the air. The men fanned it with alcohol and invectives even as their anxiousness grew at the bets they had made. The woman selling the liquor was doing good business.

Baba Rasaki, known by many as a do-nothing, was one of those who had placed a bet. He had an irritatingly coarse voice standing out above the rest. He talked as if his brain were hopping around inside his skull, contributing little of any sense to the discussions. His gentle face contrasted with his voice and personality, which when he'd had too much Paraga gin became agitated and mean-spirited. Drunk, he would curse everyone he came across, but usually, it was one or all of his three sons who bore the weight of his drunkenness.

Baba Rasaki's sons had been forced to fend for themselves doing odd jobs, and their father always stole from them. When they challenged him, he would curse loudly and lengthily in Yoruba, "God finish your mother's cunt! You, this bloody, motherless boy. You think you have a mother; what you have is a murderer. And that murderer of yours is in Aro mental home with roaches in her buttocks!"

So on the night of the match, Baba Rasaki and the other men waited impatiently for the end of the game. While they waited, Rasak, Baba Rasaki's eldest son, returned from work. He went straight into his room, ignoring the neighbors who greeted him as he entered the compound. Rasaki rushed out barely five minutes later, dementedly clutching an axe in his right hand. At first the people outside, still nursing the unruly slight Rasak had given them upon his arrival, stared at him in confusion. Then they saw his eyes, which were dirty with fury, and concluded he had gone mad.

Rasak ran wildly to the center of the yard, screaming, "Somebody will die today! Ha! Nobody should hold me!" He waved the axe at the gathering crowd, ignoring the bewildered looks and the questions some of neighbors were asking in an effort to quell his anger—"What is it? Are you alright?"

Then Rasak sighted his younger brother trying to hide under a small table. Rasak dragged him out forcefully, the crowd of observers glued to the spectacle as he swung the axe around dangerously, the glimmer of the blade blending with the wrath in his eyes.

"Rasak, what it is it?" they asked, from a safe distance. "What happened?"

With a great hush, the power went off. My room's temperature had risen to a state where it could boil water, so I borrowed an apoti, a short wooden bench I could easily move around, and sat out in the courtyard to watch the growing unrest.

"Broda Rasak is mad!"a neighbor shouted, skittering to safety, but no one moved to take the axe from Rasak's grasp. He dragged his younger brother in the direction I sat, and I hastily moved out of the way, leaving the apoti behind. The boy's buttocks left ruts in the sandy ground as he was dragged along defenselessly. Rasak waved his axe ferociously and dared anyone to stop him.

"Who took my money? Who stole my sweat?" he demanded of his younger brother, who struggled to lessen Rasak's asphyxiating hold around his neck.

The boy stuttered between whimpers and harsh sobs, "Ask Ba-ba-ba, he entered the..." but Rasak didn't listen to the rest. He pushed his brother to the ground, where the boy lay coiled and shivering.

Baba Rasaki sat on a wooden bench under the tree, sipping the Paraga gin he had just bought. He had heard the end of the game on a portable radio, and his team had lost. Chin-in-hand, he was pleading for a refund or part-payment from the man with whom he had bet.

"If you had won," the winner of the bet asked him, "would you have given me my money back?"

The argument was still going on when Rasak rushed up. The winner of the bet flung the cup of Paraga he was drinking away and scampered to safety with the others.

"Baba Osi! You, this useless never-do-well. You go die today!"

Rasak slapped and kicked his father, who out of guilt and lack of strength from constant drunkenness remained on the ground, begging his first son for forgiveness.

It was a day when the devil was invited for a drink. Everyone watched with a barbaric curiosity as a tempest unveiled before them.

Baba Rasaki made his feet and tried to run, but he did not go far before Rasak intercepted him. Balancing like a baseball batter, Rasak swung the axe on his father's left arm, which cracked like the branch of a tree.

The act seemed to sober Rasak. A shockwave rippled through the now growing crowd, everyone staring at Baba Rasaki's dangling arm, his tissues, muscles, and tendons dripping with blood. Just a thin strip of flesh held the arm from falling off. Baba Rasaki collapsed, his blood flowing out onto ground as from a water tap. There was a grave silence, and then the air suddenly shattered as the carnal display registered in the people's minds.

Rasak stood still. Some in the crowd wanted to lynch him. There was an uncoordinated mix of emotion, and many stood in groups, debating what should be done. A few didn't join in the argument but concerned themselves with carrying Baba Rasaki to the nearby clinic, and two men held the boy to prevent him from escaping, although he remained calm, his eyes showing grief but not regret.

The story went round in the crowd that Baba Rasaki had stolen Rasak's money for the bet he'd made, thinking if he won, he'd return the money and earn some, too. Rasak had been saving in the kolo box under his bed for his university fees.

Later, when they dragged Rasak to the police station, he cried, "Let me cut off all his limbs. A father who decides he has no use for his hands should be left with none. Let me cut that indolent man's arms off!"

Baba Rasaki died at hospital. He had lost too much blood before the doctors were able to treat him. That night, the men didn't converge under the tree outside my window.