Sunday, March 16, 2014

PROTESTS IN A TIME OF LOVE





You will go off Facebook. Not for yourself. You quite enjoy the addiction. Nothing like a good rant and letting a long list of friends contemplate the whodunit, making both stupid and hilarious guesses. Then that presumptuous fellow who takes himself too seriously even in his Photoshop enhanced photo, who thinks he knows you and goes ahead to appoint himself your life coach, writing more paragraphs than you care to read. You laugh. Boredom might make you reply but then Sadiya, your most ardent Facebook supporter never misses an opportunity to write in all caps at someone on your behalf.
You will go off Facebook for Domkat. Kill the weeds so that the flowers may grow. You have never liked him pasting long love poems on your wall anyway. Lately, he has become too radical about politics. He has even, on your Facebook wall for everyone to see, attacked your views about the fuel subsidy in a way that was too uncomfortable to reply to. It might have been easy to just remove him from your friends list but that would cause a big fight. The first time you tried that, was when he was campaigning for Goodluck Jonathan in the Presidential elections and you wrote on your wall that you were not sure you were going to vote because you didn’t know which of them was sincere. He attacked you and said that it was people like you who sat on the fence and watched while bad people got into office. He said that it was selfish not to vote. In short, you were evil for not wanting to vote.  But you felt all the things he didn’t say- he blamed you for the circumstances of your birth, for being the daughter of a former legislator, a politician, for living well. You removed him as friend and in less than an hour he had driven to your office to make a scene, to ask you if you were trying to break up with him.
People feel like you have killed them in real life when you delete them on Facebook, you can’t understand why. He will not understand if you tell him, it’s just Facebook and has nothing to do with your relationship. So, you will make the sacrifice, just tell him you got tired of the whole damn thing and went off Facebook. Too much drama.
He has always been your boyfriend. He has been around so long, he has become like wearing a bra- you can’t imagine life any other way. You both smell alike; wear the same unisex perfume- fruity without being feminine, strong, but not masculine. His old t-shirts fit nicely when you sleep; your clothes in his wardrobe are more than his as his books on your shelves are more than yours. You don’t sneak anymore to sleep over at his place; you don’t lie about it when your mother calls.
The windows of his mother’s house in Kafanchan are unusual, two meters by one meter. You know because you have changed her curtains, gone there yourself to fix it. You couldn’t say that her faded beige curtains looked hideous and made the rooms dark and feel stuffy, so you got her your best satin curtains- something to match her deep blue rug- aquamarine, with deep blue daffodils. His mother and your mother are about the same size- you buy them identical gifts at Easter and Christmas- always some fabric you find in Dubai or Malaysia. You have always wanted them to become friends but you realise after many years of trying, it may never happen. The best they can be is civil to one another. They try. They say hello when they meet at weddings or other public events. It is you who drags his mother out. She would much rather attend to her chickens and catfish in Kafanchan than come to Kaduna or Abuja to attend some event. You can’t trust Domkat to show up with his mother. You can’t trust him to show up period. He hates weddings. You wonder how he will sit through his own. ‘I’ll have to cuff you to the chair,’ you often joke.
Domkat is a comfortable habit. He comes to you naturally. You have learnt him. You know that his tea in the morning must have no sugar; salads must have both mayonnaise and salad cream- they are not substitutes like Pepsi or Coke, it is not either-or. He doesn’t eat chicken. He says he doesn’t like it, but his mother told you why. Lee, his pet chicken which he named after Bruce Lee (because the chicken liked fighting other chickens) was his obsession when he was 12. There were many other chickens in the house and his cousin Sam who had come to live with them was asked to kill a chicken for supper. Domkat had finished his rice and chicken when he realised Lee was missing. He cried, didn’t speak to his cousin for more than a month and swore he would never eat chicken again.
You are not waiting for Domkat to go on one knee and propose. The relationship has gone beyond that. He has told you several times that if you get pregnant, you are moving in. He just needs to resign from his NGO job in Abuja and start the borehole drilling company he has always wanted to do in Kaduna.
‘You can have an office in Abuja as well but I want to live in Kaduna,’ you tell him. Abuja is too sterile for you. A city without a soul. Cold and false. It is what your friends and relatives want for you. There is a house for you in Abuja if you want it and all of daddy’s friends will find it easier to buy your interior items from Dubai and London. Your dad thinks you have the heart of a man but your mum thinks you are just stubborn, head-strong. She thinks you are wasting your time with this Domkat who has been your boyfriend since you had breasts. You don’t tell her that in June he will come and ask formally for your hand in marriage because you want it to be a surprise.
You are returning from Kafanchan with Domkat. It is January 1st and you would not have travelled if you did not have to attend the dinner party at your parent’s house. His phone rings. He shouldn’t be taking a phone call while driving, you whisper gently to him. He takes it anyway. He will apologise later.
‘Fuck!’ he screams and drops the phone in his lap.
‘What’s the swearing for?’ You ask, irritated.
‘The bastard just did it! Can you imagine? They just announced the removal of the subsidy.’
‘Ah, Zums, is that why you are screaming?’
Zums is the pet name you reserve for tense moments like this. Zums is from Zuma, the Hausa word for Honey. It gets him every time, makes him calm down at least for a moment. You know what he is thinking. You think he regrets openly campaigning for this president against the other candidate who he thought was too old, too steeped in the past, too rigid for a modern Nigeria. He feels betrayed. Your father campaigned for this president too because that what he was supposed to do as a party man. That was the only way the contracts would keep coming.
He is breathing heavy and sighing. You cannot understand why he is so worried. He isn’t poor. He can afford to pay one hundred and forty one naira a liter. In fact, you think the removal of the subsidy is quite a good thing. You think it will encourage private investment and create jobs. It is better in the long run, but you dare not say it, because you want to enjoy dinner with your man tonight. No politics. No hating on the government.
A few kilometers outside Abuja, you stop to buy fuel and find that the price has indeed been adjusted. The fuel stations are selling their old stock for the new price announced only hours ago. You rub his arm to calm him down because you know he will lash out at the fuel attendant for adjusting the prices.
‘Let’s just buy it and get to Abuja,’ you tell him.
It is one hundred and fifty naira for a liter, more than what was announced. He makes a phone call to Bala his geologist friend, with whom he is starting his new company.
‘Wallahi, I just bought for one-fifty o. Overnight! This is crazy! They want to kill people in this country.’
‘Tell him I said hi,’ you whisper as veins pop out of his neck.
He complains some more before putting you on the phone. Of all his friends you like Bala the most. The one time you and Domkat had a bad fight and stopped talking for two weeks, it was Bala that called you both and reminded you how long you’d been together and forced Domkat to apologise even though really it was more your fault than his. Bala knew how to calm him down.
It is almost six o’clock when you reach his flat in Jabi. The dinner is for eight but you know daddy’s friends. They start coming at nine. You let him sleep because he knows how to take a quick nap and will wake you even though you too sleep off. It is a nice two bedroom flat on the second floor of a three storied building. Compared to your father’s towering mansion in Maitama, this place is small. But you would rather be here than anywhere else, because really after all his madness, Domkat is the only one who knows you and knows how to make you happy.
As you both lie down, he reaches for you. You push closer and he wraps his arms around you from behind, holds you like a pillow. His bulky arms are firm in the hold but not stifling. You feel warm. You feel safe. You wait for it- the light snoring that will soon begin because he is tired from driving many hours. His warm breath tickles the back of your neck. This is where you belong; this is the best thing you know, the only thing you know.
Sleep doesn’t come to you. Now that it is close, you are afraid of marriage. Your friends tell you it is different, no matter how long you have been together. ‘There is something about those vows that change a man,’ Safiya your cousin, swears. Safiya has come to your house twice with a swollen lip. Each time the initial story had been that she fell in the bathroom, but then she would break down and cry and say what she said or what text message she found from which girl that made her husband hit her. Domkat is too fixed in his ways to change, you think. He is not perfect, you know his flaws. You know he is a bad loser, so you don’t play ludo or race him in the pool- you always win and he always becomes grumpy. He swears when he is upset but always apologises later. He forgets to cover the toothpaste when he brushes his teeth, but that you have learnt to tolerate. He would never hit you; you know this from ten years of ups and downs. You have not caught him or even suspected that he was cheating on you. Sometimes you even worry that he doesn’t look at women at all. Even though you have told yourself it is impossible especially with how he holds you, you dread those Jerry Springer stories of straight husbands turning gay. This marriage will be for your parents and his mother. You are quite comfortable with things the way they are.
He hates these dinners but he is doing it for you. It is your job to prepare him, to remind him to avoid politics, because you know where your parents and most of the guests stand. As you fix his tie, which he is hopeless at doing, you tell him that if he wants you can leave at eleven after you give your mum her gifts. He tells you it’s okay, you can leave whenever you want to. He apologises like you know he would, for his outburst in the car, for swearing. He kisses you, deeply and messes up your lipstick. You don’t care. You close your eyes and breathe.
Uncle Haruna is the first person you meet in the house. It is too late to turn away from this old mischievous ex-Minister of Tourism. You are not sure whether he refuses to acknowledge Domkat or if he truly always forgets who Domkat is.
‘My favorite daughter,’ he calls you and hugs you tighter than you would like.
‘This is Domkat, Uncle,’ you say slowly, ‘my boyfriend.’
‘Aren’t you too old to be having a boyfriend?’
You want a stiff drink at this moment. You rub Domkat’s back with your thumb, wishing he would understand that your Uncle is just being silly.
‘Don’t worry sir, I am working on changing that very soon, with your permission of course.’
‘Ah, smart man,’ Uncle Haruna replies and shakes his hand.
Calmness returns to your heart. You want to take him away and kiss him breathless this minute. He smiles at you. He knows you are proud of him.
The dinner party lasts longer than you expect and you want to stay back to help your mum. Domkat kisses you goodnight in the car park away from the prying eyes of all the Big Men in the house. You know he has pulled off a feat so far and this is the right time to leave, especially now that the loud Special Adviser to the President is around.
You hear about the protests from daddy in the afternoon. He says you should be careful as you drive out. Your mother calls you just as you drive into Domkat’s compound to give you the happy news. Uncle Haruna just got appointed by the President to head a body set up to deal with the fuel subsidy issue.
‘Call your Uncle and congratulate him,’ she tells you.
It is not a suggestion. It is a demand. You dial Uncle Haruna and tell him how excited you are to hear of his appointment. It is a good thing. He deserves it. In turn he begins a long speech about all the palliative measures the government is putting in place to make the fuel price hike bearable. He tells you about the thousands of tricycles they are importing from India, about the committees that have been set up, about the contracts to be awarded. ‘You need to come and put in a bid for one of the contracts,’ he says. ‘Ok Uncle,’ you say wishing he would let you go off the phone.
Domkat is not home. His phone is switched off. Simi, the secretary in his office is at home, but is sure that no one is working today. Bala’s number has been busy for the past thirty minutes. You use your keys to open his flat. The half eaten food and television left on tells you he left in a hurry. The toothpaste is in the bathroom sink, left open, as usual. You send Bala a message, to call you as soon as he can. You clear out the mess he has made in the living room, the food, the dirty socks and t-shirt on the chair.
Bala sends you a message. He is at Police Headquarters where Domkat and a few other protesters are being held. What protesters? You know he was upset about the price hike but he didn’t tell you he was joining any protest. Pulling rank at the Police headquarters is easy for you- your father’s cousin is an Assistant Inspector General in the Crime division. But there will be questions you don’t want to answer, questions you have no answer to. Why was he protesting? Did he have a permit? Did you know he was going to be protesting? Does he realise your family is part of this government?
A senior figure in the opposition has posted bail for all the protesters. You do not like this small balding man because you think he is a hypocrite and only opposing the government because he is no longer there. He knows your entire family- he served as Minister when your father was in the National Assembly. It is impossible to avoid him and you curtsey to greet him like you curtsey to greet all older people. He asks how your father is and why you are here. Your friend is one of the protesters, you tell him.
‘Ah,’ he says and turns to talk to one of the Police Officers.
Domkat looks well but for his eyes that are the colour of the tomatoes you buy at Park ‘n’ Shop. He is smiling. He winks at you and stops to talk to the opposition man. There is bitterness in your mouth as you look at Domkat. You want to drag him out of this place by the ear and give him a good talking to.
No major decisions without discussing first- he knew the drill. He had better have a good explanation for this, you say to yourself as he takes a shower. The electric kettle hisses in the kitchen and you get up to make some Chamomile tea.
He collapses onto the chair with his towel on. He lays his head in your laps. At first you resist, but he turns over and looks at you and you melt like butter in a hot pan. There is penitence in his eyes. He is contrite. You smile a half smile and stroke the side of his head. There is no need for a long talk. He has acknowledged his sins.
‘Zums, don’t scare me like that again, please,’ you say.
He nods and closes his eyes.

In Kaduna, you are struggling with your workers who have not come to work since the strike was announced.
‘I thought there was strike ma,’ Beatrice says when you call.
‘Do you work for government? If you want to strike you had better go and look for another job o. If I don’t see you tomorrow, consider yourself sacked.’
You can’t believe the indiscipline. It is so hard to get honest workers these days, and when you find one like Beatrice, you excuse stunts like this. But the cleaner, that one has to go. You don’t like her cleaning, you don’t like the smell of the moin-moin she eats during break and you hate that she tries to keep your change when you send her for Phone cards.
At the end of February you will travel to Dubai. You are expanding into jewellery and high tech gadgets in March and you will need at least two more people in the store. Safiya has promised to bring you someone.
Even though you no longer follow Domkat on twitter, many of the people you follow are retweeting his tweets. All the tweets you read end with the hash tag ‘OccupyNigeria’. He writes, we will never back down and we demand a reversal to the status quo and we must say no to these capitalist dogs, pawns of the IMF. Now you are worried. You want to call and ask him who ‘we’ is. What will the ‘we’ do if nothing changes? This is something you have to do face to face. Sort this issue out once and for all. Ah, you should have had that long talk the first time. You won’t wait until the weekend to go to Abuja. You need to occupy his head before he thinks of occupying Nigeria.

This must be the wrong flat because nothing is as you left it one week ago and there are 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 looks familiar. Someone stops finally to ask if you are looking for someone. Written on the front of his too-small t-shirt is ‘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 stand in your way. You push him aside and head for Domkat’s bedroom. As you reach for the door knob, you see inside the second bedroom, three spindly girls, one with low cut hair and a nose ring, the other two with wild, ambitious weaves that have lost their lustre from washing and re-use. They are making placards, talking loudly, laughing. You notice your slippers- the turquoise ones you bought in Malaysia- on the dusty feet of the girl with the nose ring.  You wish leprosy on the girl, but it isn’t time to scream at anyone yet. Now you need to see Domkat. Your chest is heavy and your heart is no longer yours as it pounds against your ribcage.
You open the door and find them engrossed in debate- papers, phones, cameras and two iPads on the bed- him and four others. They are discussing what routes are blocked and what new routes they must use. ‘We need a new Freedom Square,’ Domkat says. In a pile on the ground by the bed, are the same type of cheap yellow t-shirts that they are all wearing, face masks, fez caps and banners.
Two minutes pass before he realises you are there. You glower at him as he excuses himself. You look into his eyes for expression, for shock, for remorse, for guilt. Something. Anything. Nothing. His eyes are blank and all you can see is someone sleep-deprived.
‘Hey,’ he says, ‘sorry the place is upside down.’
You take him by the hand and drag him outside.
‘What is going on here? Who are all these people?’
‘Emm, just some logistic support for the protests.’
‘Do you have to do this?’
‘Babe, what else can I do?’
‘Does it even matter what I think? Do I matter at all here?’
‘My dear, posterity will not forgive us if...’
‘Fuck posterity! I am your fucking posterity!’
He should know that things have gotten out of hand. He should know because you never swear. Your lips are pursed as the tears flow. You look into his eyes for something. He looks away. He takes your hand mechanically.
‘Babe, please understand why I am doing this.’
You wish you could understand. You really do. But you cannot agree with him that protests and banners and arrests are the way to go. With your degree in Economics, you are convinced that deregulation is good for the economy in the long term. How else will private investors ever build refineries if the government puts a cap on the price of fuel? Yes it is bad timing, but it had to be done someday.
You take your hand back, and wipe your tears.
‘I will not come to the Police Station if they arrest you again.’
You do not add that, you think he is not doing this selflessly, for the good of the country; that it is about his ego, that it is selfish and impulsive, that the President is ready, according to Uncle Haruna to have long strikes and a nationwide state of emergency if it comes down to it.

Daddy doesn’t like you driving every week from Kaduna to Abuja and back. He thinks you should get a driver or let him get one for you- he doesn’t mind paying. You agree but insist you need to head back to Kaduna today.
The big bottle of unlabelled wine is the first thing you see when you open the fridge. You can’t remember why it is in the fridge and not the wine bar. Daddy’s friend, the fair one whose name you always forget, brought you the wine from his brother’s vineyard in South Africa. You would have given it away because you have so much, but the clear square bottle is beautiful and reminds you of the chandeliers you saw at a mall in Dubai.
The wine is sweet and full bodied. It makes you tipsy, a nice kind of tipsy, without the headaches that red wine usually gives you. You channel-surf until you fall asleep.

Bala’s call wakes you. It is three o'clock in the morning. He has been calling since yesterday. Since they couldn’t find Domkat in the safe zone after police had tear-gassed the protest and shot into the crowd with rubber bullets. Since the protesters ran over each other in blind confusion. Since they found his body outside the square where the protest began. Since the doctor stopped trying to make him breathe.
It is hard for you to breathe. You drop the call and drink straight from the bottle. The wine is bitter in your mouth. You need to hate him now for doing this to you. You double over and fold your arms over your stomach which is in knots, and scream.

6 comments:

  1. Beautiful as usual. Kind of detached, unreal quality to it...

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  2. Wow! Exciting read and the tragic twist at the end....beautiful piece!

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    Replies
    1. I appreciate your comment Michael. Thanks

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  3. Made a good read and a different view from both sides of the #subsidysaga. Nevertheless, a heartbreaking end.

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