Wednesday, February 5, 2014

LOVE IN A TIME OF PROTESTS





You push through the growing mob of artisans, unionists, motorcyclists and drivers beneath the overhead Berger Bridge. At first the combined smell of sweat and cheap musky perfume makes you dizzy. It isn’t possible to hold your breath until you reach the front where the truck and loud speakers are; your lungs refuse to cooperate. If Uncle Haruna had known that when he told you the President, fed up, had approved the shooting of mischief makers in the streets, you would rush out despite the curfew with neither veil nor head covering, he would not have placed that call. You clutch your phone tightly; you do not know these people, you do not trust them. Some of the banners and hurriedly made placards make you afraid.  The back of a t-shirt reads, ‘Death to the Cabal’, and you read from many of your friends on Facebook, before you deleted your account last week, that the Minister of Oil was part of that cabal. Not that the people passing the rumours knew anything of the matter. Not that they even realised you were his daughter when they tagged you in the viral notes and links. You knew better than to defend him. Now you wonder if anyone in the crowd will see the resemblance in your slant eyes, or dimples, or sharp nose; whether the man in the t-shirt that wants death for your father, will turn around and stab you in the eye. Or worse take you hostage and promise to do horrible things to you unless your father and his friends give themselves up, let go of the country, make fuel sixty-five naira again.
You hold your breath again and keep pushing. Your heart is doing well. It is resolute. Only seeing Domkat can stop this push. One of the Labour leaders has just finished speaking and the music takes over before the next speaker takes the Mic. As the speakers boom out the first sounds of Fela’s ‘Zombie’, a tall placard-bearing man in front of you suddenly becomes animated. His elbow pokes you sharp in the chest. As you step back, stunned, your palms on your chest, he turns around with his placard in one hand and just waves sorry. His placard is written in two lines: Jonathan is a Bitch for the IMF. Sent to fuck Nigerians. It is shocking at first, then funny. A sigh is all you can manage in the urgency of the moment. You know what will happen when the tanks come. They did it in Kano to the protesters who defied the curfew; they dragged dozens of lifeless bodies through the streets just to make the point. The music stops and everyone cringes at the ear-splitting shriek of amplifier feedback. You cover your ears, even though that doesn’t help much. The boy next to you, he can’t be more than 16, drops his placard as he covers his own ears. You lose breath for a second at what he has written in red at the back of an old calendar. ‘Removing Subsidy Without Removing Corruption is like Trying to Have Sex Without Removing Your Pant.’ 
The sound dies down and in its stead you hear a coarse whispery voice, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather but louder.  Unmistakeably Domkat.

Your arms stretch out like a swimmer doing a butterfly stroke, to part sticky arms and bodies and squeeze through impossible openings. Some people complain, some just give way. No one stops you until you reach the white truck and hear him right above you. It is enervating to be breathing air that has bounced off clammy bodies. You still feel the point where the tall man’s elbow hit you; it isn’t pain, just awareness.
The t-shirt Domkat is wearing is unfamiliar- you know all his clothes. You bought most of them. The t-shirt is the colour of ketchup, round necked- it looks like something that will turn the water red when you soak it. On the front you read the words, ‘We will fight the invisible cabal, until they become visible’.
The words that he is speaking are not his- you’ve known him twelve years; loved him, until he became a habit, a duty. You do not remember not loving him. The years before his father joined your father on mission in South Africa, before they both were moved to Nigerian missions in Ghana, Australia and Turkey- those years are a blur. Before that you did nothing, preferred nothing, knew nothing. Your life was but a fact, meaning nothing, until he gave you that heart shaped button in the garden at the Nigerian Ambassador’s residence in South Africa. That was when you realised you loved Bounty and hated Snickers, like him; preferred Achebe to Soyinka, like him- you both thought The Interpreters you got from your father’s library needed interpretation. It didn’t matter that your father was always the ambassador and his father, always the assistant.
‘This regime courts danger,’ he begins, ‘but ours is a sacred duty to make demands of rulers that lead without a conscience. Power concedes nothing without a demand. And we so demand. We demand sixty five naira a litre and nothing more.’
You feel the air ripple as the crowd bawls in agreement. A chill runs through your body and you grit your teeth. Dust rises from thousands of stomping feet and you cover your nose with your hands. You want to remind him, that the wedding is only a few months away. You were supposed to be picking colours, making a final selection for the rings on the internet. It was solomonbrothers.com that had the rings you both liked. He was supposed to choose between the 6mm 14k white gold satin band, curved stripe, diamond and the 7mm 14k, machined contemporary diamond. He was not supposed to be in a truck fighting the government your father serves.
Domkat puts his hand up in the air. The crowd responds by going silent. The look in his eyes is the look you saw the day he heard his father had died. A stare both distant and defiant. The man behind you interrupts the silence with the dry crunch of Plantain Chips. You want to turn and pour sand in his mouth.

You need Domkat to stop. Stop instigating the crowd, stop telling them that ‘he who makes peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ Stop starting things he cannot finish. You need to tell him what you know, what Uncle Haruna has heard from the emergency security meeting with the President. The soldiers have different orders today; they will not arrest anyone. The prisons are and police stations are bursting with people with bloodied faces, swollen lips, and broken limbs.
You wish you had not walked out of his house angrily yesterday, when you could have stopped him. It had shocked you when you walked into his flat, and found nearly a dozen men, most in the same yellow t-shirt, milling about like ants gathering food, no one even acknowledging you. None of their resolute faces looked familiar. Someone stopped finally to ask if you were looking for someone. Written on the front of his too-small t-shirt was ‘Revert to 65 or kill us’. If he knew how badly you wanted to stick your car keys in his chest, puncture those man boobs protruding through the t-shirt, he wouldn’t have stood in your way. You pushed him aside and headed for Domkat’s bedroom. As you reached for the door knob, you saw inside the second bedroom, three spindly girls, one with low cut hair and a nose ring, the other two with wild, ambitious weaves that had lost their lustre from washing and re-use. They were making placards, talking loudly, laughing. You saw your slippers- the turquoise ones you bought in Malaysia- on the dusty feet of the girl with the nose ring.  You wished leprosy on the girl as you asked her to take them off. She looked both afraid and shocked as she slowly took them off. Your chest was heavy and your pounding heart was no longer yours. You opened the door and found Domkat engrossed in debate with more people you didn’t know, papers, phones, cameras and two iPads on the bed. They were discussing what routes were blocked and what new routes they could use. In a pile on the ground by the bed, were the same type of cheap yellow t-shirts that they are all now wearing, face masks, fez caps and banners. He looked up at you. You looked into his eyes for expression, for shock, for remorse, for guilt. Something. Anything. Nothing. His eyes were blank and all you could see was someone sleep-deprived. You had discussed it. You understood why he supported the protests and strikes; he understood why you thought removing the fuel subsidy was a good idea. It was hard to disagree, but that was it. He wasn’t going to join the protests; you weren’t going to discuss your views publicly. He broke the deal. You stormed out telling him you wouldn’t come to bail him out if he got arrested.

You blame yourself for him being here now, for letting the Occupy Nigeria thoughts fester and occupy his head and make him do foolish things, memorise the dangerous things he has googled and is telling this crowd. You hate Plato and Marx and Martin Luther King and J.F. Kennedy for the hazardous wisdom that they made available, hate them for writing it into books, hate the internet for making it available on his Kindle; for possessing your man. You will tell him, as soon as you can drag him away from this place, before the tanks reach here, that it is his ego doing all of this; that he does not care about fuel being twice the price it was; does not really care or know much about the Nigerian masses or socialism. The closest he has come to any hardship is the death of his father and even after that, he and his mother did not want for anything- but you will not go that far. You will not hurt him, like he is hurting you now, risking everything that you both have built together. If he speaks for two more minutes, you tell yourself, you will climb the back of the truck and drag him down yourself.
‘We will march until we reach Government house. We will march beyond the soldiers. We will push the boundaries until they hear our demands!’
Domkat is the last speaker and the crowd pushes forward as the men at the back of the open truck jump out one by one to lead the march. You move quickly to grab him by the shirt as soon as he gets down. He turns to see who is tugging at his shirt and smiles as he sees you. It irritates you that he thinks you are here to join him; that he cannot see what is in your eyes.
‘I need to talk to you,’ you say, trying to scream above the noise of the crowd and the loud music which has just started playing.
‘Let’s walk,’ he shouts back.
Talking will not help this. You drag him by the hand away from the truck.
‘There are soldiers coming,’ you say, not wanting your anger to get in the way of the urgency.
‘Of course, there are soldiers everywhere,’ he replies.
You want to slap his face.
‘They have orders to shoot, Domkat. Let’s get out of this place now.’
‘And do what with the crowd? This thing has already started, they can’t shoot everybody here.’
‘I made a sacrifice, Domkat, I came out here to tell you, and you tell me...’
‘Dinah, if I leave this place posterity will judge me.’
‘Fuck posterity! If you do not leave now, I will judge you.’

Your eyes burn with hot tears. His eyes that were white a few days ago, not puffy and red like they now are say that he has to do this. The veins standing out on his bulky arms, his pulsating jaw that tell you he is gritting his teeth, say he has to do this. Behind him the crowd moves away from the bridge, spreading out across the two lanes. You stare at him; dare him to walk away, to leave you standing. He doesn’t move. Then you feel it. The vibration of the armoured Scorpion Tanks grinding toward the protesters. His eyes and nostrils widen.
‘Please go now, let me take care of this,’ he says, his hand on your shoulders. ‘Please!’
Slowly, he backs away from you. There are shots, then a cloud of white smoke from tear gas canisters. The crowd goes wild. They have planned for this. Everyone seems to be putting on the same blue facemask.  Domkat runs to the truck and gets out a bottle of water and a blue, three-ply face mask.
‘For the tear gas,’ he says, ‘go now!’
He thrusts it into your limp hands and runs toward the scattering crowd sliding his own mask over his mouth and nose. The rattle of assault rifles jolts you. This is the first time you hear assault rifles fired so close to you and no, it is nothing like how guns sound in movies. This is crude, the sound of death. Nobody could enjoy a war movie with sounds like this. You start to run toward your car under the bridge. You stop and turn. He is hurling stones at the trucks and soldiers. People are screaming. One man throws a bottle and before the bottle shatters into shards onto the body of the approaching tank, he slumps. Some people are running in your direction away from the tanks and the shooting.  Your nose stings and your eyes burn as the tear gas diffuses into the air around you. You put on the mask and run. The tears from the tear gas and the tears from your heart mix and soak into the face mask. The burning in your eyes is unbearable. You stop, push your head back and pour the water in your eyes. The burning does not stop. It is everywhere. Your nose. Your throat.

Something has knocked you down. It burns your back. You can’t feel your fingers. Or your legs. It is not like the movies. You do not get to say last words. Your life does not flash before your eyes. The last thing you see is the cold concrete pillar of the Berger Bridge.


2 comments:

You fit vex, bet abeg no curse me. You hear?