Art by Senon Williams
You have a dream. You want to be a soldier when you grow up. You want to be a soldier because you want to own a gun. You want to own a gun so that you can shoot your Baba. So that you can watch him die and no one will cough. Because it’s a soldier. Because a soldier’s job is to crack his gun and shoot. Because everyone is afraid of soldiers. Soldiers are mean, big and bad. You want to be mean, big and bad. In Anguwan Biri, when a soldier comes, everyone runs away. The boys do not tumble on the sands, their ribs naked and glistening with sweat. Quietness floods everywhere; children cringe, stuck behind their Mama’s wrappers, peeping, hearts boom-booming, catching the sound of boots crushing weed. The girls cannot be seen either. They can’t be seen gingerly clapping hands, singing and shaking thin waists. This is what a soldier does—instills fear. You want to be like that. To watch people quiver. You want your Baba to quiver.
“Your mother stands by the kitchen door. She has a scarf wound tightly around her head the way she does when she has a headache... You wonder how her face can hold so much glow despite all her hardships. For a moment, you want to believe she is happy, but her silence hangs like a dread, her hands trembling, her eyes wishing against this moment and what will follow.”
Today, your father is searching for God knows what in the sitting room. You can smell his agitation as you return from play, slipping in silently, watching him upturn and stumble past items in the sitting room. A room holding a few things—an old Singer refrigerator, a black and white Toshiba television, pale lemon-green walls, and two cushions. Your mother stands by the kitchen door. She has a scarf wound tightly around her head the way she does when she has a headache. You fear that one day her headaches will be an unceasing affliction, given how frequently they have become. Her loose gown is as pale as the walls. But in her eyes and plum cheeks lie energy. You wonder how her face can hold so much glow despite all her hardships. For a moment, you want to believe she is happy, but her silence hangs like a dread, her hands trembling, her eyes wishing against this moment and what will follow.
Where is the money? Where is the money I left here yesterday?!’
To you, your father’s voice is a thunderclap, booming, suppressing every other sound—the ear-jarring crank of the lazy ceiling fan; the voice of a seller announcing her wares at the mouth of your compound; and the drone of mosquitoes zooming away from the dark corner behind the curtain from where you watch your father raise his belt above your mother who is trembling on her knees, shouting, “I don’t know! I swear I don’t know.”
She pushes, and he staggers back, but he’s upon her again in a flash. She parries his whip with her hands, and when she holds the belt and won’t let go, staring him in the eyes, infuriated by her boldness, he strikes with his fist. Your Baba is of slight build, thin arms, with Jesus’s face; the one in textbooks, the way your teacher describes with a twinkle in her eyes, as though Jesus were her lover. If you weren’t your Baba’s son and never witnessed what he does to your mother, you would swear that this man cannot hurt a fly.
He stops beating her because his eyes have caught something among the mess from his search. You see him pick up that something. It is a wad of cash. He fixes his belt, straightens his shirt, and without a word, exits the house.
You have to kill this man. You have to save your mother.
You’re not joking. Your dream is like that of other boys who yearn to own bicycles or felele, that kind of ball made of latex with an astonishing bounce.
And if you turn a soldier and have a gun, they will teach you the trick of shooting without missing. The kind of soldier you want to become is that type who shoots without missing his target. Because when you eventually get the chance to shoot your Baba, you do not want to miss. You want to shoot him straight in the chest. You want to see his small eyes widen in astonishment. You want to see the instant sweat convulse on his brow. You want to relish the sound of his yell. How his mouth will open and say: “Brahimoh, what have you done?!”
You want to tower above him and mock his manliness. A man, no matter how strong he is, cannot fight something as tiny as a bullet. This is fact. You have dreamt of your triumph a thousand times.
The first time you talk to someone about this ambition is during class. Aunty Eliza had asked everyone about their dream profession.
Doctor! Nurse! Lawyer! Banker. . . You hear them spit out professions with the rapidity of water gushing from a hose. Your turn. You stand up and say you want to be a soldier. The class goes quiet. Nobody likes the idea. A soldier is mean, big and bad. If you become a soldier, nobody will love you. Everyone will run away.
“Why?” Aunty Eliza asks.
You assume she is shocked too.
“I want to protect good people from bad people.”
She says nothing. She only nods.
You did not lie. But you might have elaborated: “I want to become a soldier so that I can have a gun and shoot my Baba. He is a bad man. My Mama is a good woman.”
You imagined the kind of horror that would have crowded their faces then. Aunty Eliza would hasten to the principal. The principal would summon your Baba. And that would be the end of your dream.
It was in that same class you spelt out your Baba’s job. You do not know what your Baba does, but you tell Aunty Eliza that he is a “businessman.” By the way your mates stare at you know that they have never heard of the word before. You also don’t know what it means. You’d heard it on the radio and held on to it.
“What business does your Baba do?”
A businessman does business, you think, like a shoemaker makes shoes. But you say something different. The truth.
“He is traveling and traveling all the time.”
Your Baba is mostly away than home. And when he is home, your Mama suffers. You suffer.
Sometimes, you feel like running away from this place, from the people. You always feel that everyone knows you are up to something. And in your sleep, you are always running and running and sweating from something mysterious. But you know you cannot actually run away. Not yet. Not now. What about your dream? You are yet to become a soldier, own a gun and shoot your Baba and watch him die. You cannot run away. No. Not now.
The only person you tell the truth to is IjarFaru, your only friend. IjarFaru has eyes as large as oranges. They say he is a dullard because he is repeating Primary Five for the second time. You disagree. To you, he is the cleverest boy around. He knows the streets well, has a lot of friends and knows girls too. He knows how to climb trees and jump fences without sweating. He knows many things. Many things that others do not know. He alone knows how Mallam Abu’s dog died and who killed it. IjarFaru’s house is peaceful. You know this because, IjarFaru, whose mouth is like that of a parrot, never says anything like his Baba is bad. For this and much more, you envy him.
The day you tell him your secret ambition, the sun is burning fiercely in the sky. You both are on the sand, tugging, panting and groaning. Your bodies are tacky with dust and sweat. When you grow spent, you both lie on your backs, the sun scorching your eyes.
“I want to kill my Baba,” you say with the ease of munching gburugburu.
After some seconds’ silence, IjarFaru bursts into laughter. You both sit up. He sees the seriousness in your eyes.
“I want to be a soldier so that I can own a gun and shoot him.”
He looks around and speaks in a whisper as though he is afraid that someone may overhear the secret he is about to share with you.
“Why? Is your Baba bad?”
“Wallahi! He is worse than a soldier.”
“But if you become a soldier, everyone will run away. I will not be your friend anymore.”
“I will not be as bad as other soldiers. I shall protect you. You just have to point out a person and I will deal with him,” you say, feeling a surge of enthusiasm.
He chuckles, finding humor in the idea of you protecting him.
“To be a soldier will take a very long time fah. And you have to know big, big, people in big, big towns.”
You frown. Something tells you that he does not like the idea of you aspiring to be a soldier and wants to persuade you out of it. But you believe that IjarFaru has a solution to everything.
His eyes dart here and there again. He whispers, “You know Takwali?”
“Who is Takwali?”
“Takwali, the area boy.”
“If you become Takwali’s boy, he’ll get you a gun. He may even help you kill your Baba.”
This thing did not enter your insides. Takwali is a tall, menacing brute with coal-red eyes who always goes about with a giant gora. People fear the troublesome rascal. Takwali is strong. People say that he can even disappear, as in vanish into thin air.
IjarFaru once told you this:
“You remember that night after Ramadan when some boys entered Baba Ikilima’s house? Takwali led them. He did a very bad thing to Ikilima and shot her Baba in the leg.”
You remember that episode very well. But you don’t know the hoodlums who broke into Baba Ikilima’s house or what transpired there. All you know aside from that incident is that you woke up one morning and saw that Baba Ikilima had loaded a trailer with all his belongings and left Ungwar Biri with his family. Sometimes you wonder how IjaFaru gets his information.
So you despise his idea of joining Takwali’s gang. Takwali wears no uniform or heavy boots and does not show his gun in public like soldiers do. Soldiers are looking for Takwali. He is on the run and hiding. You do not want to be running and living like a rat. You do not want to be drinking sholi and tramadol dissolved in Benylin. You do not want to be evil and mad. Killing your Baba will have to wait because you must first become a soldier and own a clean gun which you can show in public. So that when you shoot him, you won’t have to run and hide like Takwali.
“Allah ya kiyaye!” you mutter.
Takwali is strong and you can attest to this because you have seen him fight, three against one, a fight that is still fresh in your memory. It had happened right in the heart of your small street, Layin Kosei. So named after Hajiya Larai, the old woman who has fried kosei every morning and evening for close to twenty years. It was on a fresh-eyed Saturday morning. The boys who attacked him— three of them—also mean looking—were riding a kabu kabu when they suddenly crossed paths with Takwali, all by himself. They quickly disembarked from their motorcycle and faced their opponent, gritting their teeth out of hellish hatred. Takwali did not run. You had thought that foolish. People hung close to their doors, peeping, hearts racing, waiting for this spectacle to unfold. Takwali stared at his assailants long and hard with no fear in his eyes as he gripped his gora. Even if he were afraid, he made a good job of concealing it. He yelled insults at them, taunting and urging them on.
“Ku shigo mana in kun chika!”
The boys also yelled. Each boy held his own gora. Collectively, they did not look afraid. Area boys, no matter how obviously weak they seem, don’t have the luxury of displaying fear.
You watched as one among Takwali’s opponents, a bald one, ripped off his shirt with the ease of tearing paper, and flaunted his well-formed muscles in the prodigious sunlight. You saw the sweat on three boys’ faces as they circled Takwali, and you saw the devilish smile on Takwali’s face and told yourself that he was mad. His unwillingness to be intimidated shocked you. Three against one? How would he survive? Mad indeed. Because no one would help him. Only soldiers and the police will intervene in a skirmish involving hoodlums. Sirens bring a quick end to battles. Spectators disappear as fast as they can. Otherwise, such skirmishes end when one side loses.
The well-built bald one who had ripped his shirt rushed toward Takwali, but the latter was as alert as a cat. His gora swirled and landed fiercely. Just one hit and the bald man’s skull cracked open. Made more crimson by daylight, blood poured eagerly from the man’s head where he lay lifeless, subdued. The onlookers released audible gasps. Takwali’s gora is not ordinary. The remaining two men looked flustered but were not ready to concede defeat. One of them drew out a long wuka and tried to pierce his enemy. The blade bent agonizingly against Takwali’s skin the way a nail scratches the surface of a concrete wall. No doubt, Takwali had eaten maganin karfe. He was well fortified. No blade made of steel could pierce him. His two assailants, seeing the impossibility of their mission, knowing fully well that they could not defeat him, jumped on their kabu kabu and sped away as fast as they could.
A short time later, the police arrived and took away the corpse of the bald man. They banged on doors, asked questions, and made threats, but nobody said anything or seemed to know anything.
You are sitting close to the old stove and watching the lazy flames crawl eagerly around the black pot. Your Mama is humming a song. Last night, in your sleep, the noises came. You do not know how to tell her that you are not usually a dead log on nights when such things happen. You fear her temper, more than anything else. Mama pours garri into the boiling water. You see the grains being absorbed greedily by the water until there is no space left in its stomach. You are going to eat eba and okra soup. You do not like this meal because you have been eating it for a couple of days now and because the okra soup is always so watery and tasteless. But you do not complain. You have learnt not to complain. The only option is hunger. Suddenly you think of Muntaka, another one of your good friends. If you are fortunate enough, you will find something to eat at his place. You decide to hurry.
You begin to eat.
Mama pauses and looks at you. “You are not happy. What is wrong?”
You look up at her. The way she stares at you makes you feel naked. You look down at the bowl of eba, at a loss of what to say.
“Tell me, Ibro,” she says.
“I hate Baba. I know everything that happens. I wish he would just go away and never return. I wish he would just die.”
You see shock course through Mama's veins. She drops the ball of eba adorned with slimy soup and stares at you. Instinctively, she picks up the ball of eba and dips it into the soup bowl. You watch her closely.
“Get me drinking water.”
You spring up from your chair. A few moments later, you return, cup in hand, already aware of your Mama’s antics. It is not the water she wants. You feel her fingers bypass the cup and reach for your hand. You slip away from her shallow grasp. The cup crashes to the ground, spilling water across the floor. Before she can stop you, you are standing by the door, panting, waiting to flee into the world.
“The day I’ll hear you speak ill about your Baba again, wallahi, that day will be the day I’ll finally break your big head."
You do not remember how you walked to Muntaka’s house. You are still hungry when Muntaka’s mother places before you an enticing bowl of amala and rich, pepperish, ewedu soup; you do not even care to wash your hands before you begin eating. Muntaka is not home. You wait for him until you grow bored. You thank his Mama and leave. In the street, you whistle a song to yourself despite the anger you are feeling. You kick small stones into malaria- and cholera-nestling gutters filled with filth. You watch boys your age play golf with sticks and a disc crudely cut out from worn flip-flops.
You keep wondering why Mama would defend Baba after all the evil things he has done and keeps doing.
There are days when your Baba is a bit like the man in your fantasies, although such days have become so increasingly rare with the passage of time. On such days, he comes back early from his mysterious forays. Even before the sun dies. He will sit on the verandah, staring at the busy road and the shaggy grass which no one cares to tame. He will call you and order you to sit on his lap. Then he will proceed to sing strange songs whose wordings you cannot place. Always like he is singing in a foreign language. You hate such moments. But why? Maybe it is his raucous voice that you do not like, his voice sounding like a small bird with a giant ant stuck in its throat. No singer’s voice. Or perhaps, the hatred you have slowly developed for him makes you despise his singing skills. He always grows tired of your silence and lack of response. Freed from your bondage, he will continue to stare at the busy road, the honking of impatient cars and kekes, the singsong bustle of hawkers, and the plateau of shaggy grass a few feet away that no one cares to tame. Sometimes, you gaze at your Baba the way one gazes at a stranger. He is a stranger. This man, you do not know him. You do not know him the way a little boy is supposed to be proud and familiar with his Baba.
You did get a gun. Not from being a soldier. Not from Takwali. But from your Baba. You find it beneath his bed. In the backyard, you show it to IjarFaru. You have never seen fear in his eyes before.
“That thing. That small thing that comes out of it and hits a person, taking him down, pouring blood, are you sure it is inside?” he asks, quivering.
“I don’t know.”
“How will you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“What will you do?”
And your chance comes. You will never forget that night—cold and dark. Your Baba’s growl. Your Mama clinging on to her silence but now and then uttering something like a plea. Then you hear her wail, and anger floods you inside. An anger that rattles the frame of your small body. You swallow hard and reach for the gun where you had hidden it beneath a pile of clothes. Quietly, you creak open the door to their room. But how can one aim accurately in the dark? You are not thinking. You aim at what resembles the looming shadow of the beast.
But you suddenly decide to turn on the switch. Your father looks flummoxed. Both assailant and victim turn towards you. It is your time of glory as your father gawks at the gun pointed at him. He is not used to this scene: being at the mercy of another. Your mother begs you to drop the weapon. And her voice does something to your unwavering resolve. For the first time since you began harboring this dream, fear creeps inside your heart and lingers. The magnitude of what you are about to do hits you hard, as though you have never thought about what it means to kill another human. Your hand begins to tremble, and sweat builds an ocean on your face. You hear the voice of the man you hate, urging you to pull the trigger. You hear the mockery in his voice as he kicks your mother one last time as though he is goading you, telling you that you can do nothing to save her; not even you wielding a gun will stop him. He strides towards you, yanks the weapon away from your slack grip, and strikes you down with a slap.
“Weaklings,” he sneers as he walks out.
A graduate of Pure Chemistry, Hussani Abdulrahim is a writer from Nigeria. He is a finalist of the 2022 Gerald Kraak Award and the 2021 Albert Jungers Poetry Prize. He is winner of the 2019 Poetically Written Prose Contest and ANA Kano/Peace Panel Poetry Prize. He was a semifinalist for the Boston Review 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, a 2018 Africa Book Club short story contest finalist, and was shortlisted for the 2019 ACT Award. He also won the 2016 Green Author Prize. His works are forthcoming or have appeared in Boston Review, The Other Foundation, 2022 Gerald Kraak anthology, 20:35 Africa, IHRAF, praxis, Africa Book Club Anthology 2018, and Memento (an anthology of contemporary Nigerian poets). He is currently working on his debut collection of short stories. He lives in Northern Nigeria.
Visual artist, musician and Los Angeles native Senon Williams, is familiar to psych-rock fans as the bassist of the band Dengue Fever. His works in ink and acrylic dwell on ongoing and at times devastating stages of human evolution, offering a poignant visualization of human struggle both ancient and contemporary. His staging of stark silhouettes in lush landscapes show the human form embroiled in acts of hope, pairing word and image to suggest a deeper meaning.