13 June 2010

No Escape by Clarius Ugwuoha

The sun was blazing overhead. The chekeleke seasonal migrating birds were chirping ecstatically, arrowing into the bright skies. I made a neat bundle of my possessions and swung it over my shoulders. In quietude, I picked my way through the wooded land. Here at last, lost among the towering trees, I began to think differently of my decision to leave Ibono. I began to think if I were not wiser giving up the whole idea. For now I was alone, my courage deserted me, and all the horror stories told about the Layan woods – of murder and of other cruel deeds that took place in it – played back in my mind and haunted me. I tried all I could to keep control of my nerves, but every rustle in the surrounding trees invariably gave me cause for fear.

At length I came to a track. It ran thin across a hill and led to a place, I knew not where. Here, the world was a shade calmer. Lush trees shot far and wide in the air, and the sun had hardly a space to pierce through. If anything made me much afraid here, it was these trees that grew thick about and enveloped me. It was also the wild call of the birds flushed out by me to disappear among a range of hills. By now, the sun had sunk low in the forest belt and darkness was creeping in. My idea was getting to the creek to board a speedboat for home. Now it became clear to me that this was not to be; and the harsh reality stung tears from my eyes.

I thought I heard a whistle. In close sequence a rifle shot rang clear from the nearby bush. I rocked backwards in fright, as there ran a trembling through the grasses. Startled birds rose high and scattered in the air. Wild rodents rushed into the thicker wood. In the distance, a lanky man rose up from among the grass. I gaped terror-struck at him. I needed no oracle to tell me that was Ibono, the fear of whom had haunted me.

Ibono fitted your idea of a cruel man - a six-footer with overbearing attitude, thick, pale lips and blood-shot eyes. He wore a shaggy beard and his voice was one of thunder. He had on a weather-beaten cap, which he pulled roughly over his face.

“One step and you are gone”, shouted he in a voice of thunder. I could see he was high, as always, the echo of his words ringing in repeated waves that ran cold chills through my spine. I set to as fast as my luggage could allow, while behind me came the man-beast and cohort, cursing and swearing, shooting aimlessly, his cracked ruffian voice sitting upon the report of rifles and the stir of the near and distant world. I ran till I was out of breath and gave up hope.

On the pale sand, I lay low and waited for what seemed an endless age. I had no sooner settled in this alcove by the track than I noticed that the echoes took longer and lost their pitch. This, strangely enough, was rather disturbing. The previous day, I had dreamt of people sweating through their clean daily rounds and picking a living from no more, of life without its horrors and uncertainties. It had ended all too soon and I was woken to the harsh merciless world around me.

Home, except for father’s menacing presence, was serene. Our little house was one of the very few on dry land in Ujanka. Across from our house, a winding path led to the swamps. Our compound, the Otekoro Hobobo extended family, occupied a cluster of houses, each, but for the last, roofed with iron sheets. The walls were of sun-baked bricks – the colour of our earth looking majestic in the sun.

Again I thought of Ibono. Memories of Ujanka childhood flashed across my mind. Ibono, for sure, lived only in the stories that regaled our childhood world. He was like a taboo, not to be thought of or admired. The notion that Ibono might someday reappear from his secretive exile to wreck havoc on the family exercised my father greatly as it did his brother, Ningi. But I had been driven by desperation, in spite of all I knew, into the hands of Ibono.

Father, Ibiama Otekoro, had a devil of a temper. He sat there, right in the shade of the orange tree by our little house, stern-faced, with smoke from his pipe playing in the air. Right in his eyes I would see sparks of fire fly as from a furnace. I had the impression of him as an active volcano, always smouldering and without friends. I remember my mother, Eunice Ibiama Hobobo, with the eye of a child. She was tall, though of small aspect, soft-spoken and industrious. Mother was not hard on Njari, my younger sister and me. She doted on us and did all household chores almost by herself, from wake of day to its close. Not father, whose resonating presence swallowed me up. We were never innocent in his presence. He beat us mercilessly with koboko whips whenever he thought we had erred, which was quite often. He was dark, like night, with heavy beard and machete tongue. He drank like a fish and sat late into the night, shouting and singing in his hard old voice.

Father was the family head. There was Ningi, his equally hot-tempered brother, who was of middle age, tall, slim, with sleepy eyes and a small beard. I used to think as a child that peppery temper was in our line. I was surrounded by the quick-tempered. I had only vague notions of our father’s youngest brother, Ibono, who seemed to me a creation of fevered imagination. He lived in father’s early morning invocation and in scattered stories in and around Ujanka. From what people said, I could form an idea of him as a rebel of unrivalled testiness and impetuosity. He was said to have had, five years earlier, bitter disagreement with Ningi about our family Communal ponds – Odara, Ire and Miniko - to which they usually went on fishing expedition and the monetary proceeds of which were kept with my paternal grandmother, Madam Jemina Hobobo, a woman described as quiet and forgiving and my only memory of whom was of sitting quietly by the hearth and telling folk stories. Ibono, it was said, had returned from the ponds on a weary morning, stormed the old woman’s hut and spirited away the entire family savings of two years. I thought only someone of their kind of hot presence dared treat father and Ningi with such contempt; and it was such a surprise to me that not much came of it. It did not take long for Ibono to enter my consciousness as a hardy soldier shouting loudly at others.

But the anger against Ibono raged within father and Ningi. Whenever anyone queried the whereabouts of their brother, they simply snorted in such frightening a way that the inquirer just had to change the topic, realising the enormity of pain his memory called up. Ujanka reeled with stories of how the daring Ibono had gone to live a life of debauchery off the coast of Guinea among easy women, drunkards and pirates; how he had been identified in a raid upon a speedboat carrying palm oil and local gin towards Ujanka. But it never occurred to me in those days, not even in my wildest dreams, that my path and his were to meet in one rough, daring and frightening a year!

I had only one sibling, Njari, who was to nearly drown in the Odara ponds in later years. I did not know if it was because she was a girl, she was peculiarly quiet, calm and loyal, unlike other Otekoro family members. We attended the same preparatory school before our parents’ demise, upon which our world fell apart. We dropped out of school.

All my memories of the preparatory school had shrunk with the years into an excitement one morning in form four when a white man came to our school. It was our very first close view of one. He had the complexion of cassava sap, his voice small and his accent quaint. Rikjard Vogts, by name, he had soon entered the villagers’ dictionary as Juggy, a rather obtuse corruption of his name.

Thereafter, Juggy frequented our class sessions. He had talks with our headmaster who would later rehearse their encounters clown-like before us, emphasising the importance of being in so close a proximity to the White Man. We soon learnt Juggy had to do with an oil prospecting company at Oloibiri, which had just found its way into Ujanka. They came with derricks, trucks, pipelines, flare-stacks and their quaint mannerisms. We liked the flare-stacks in particular, as they illuminated the distant groves in the thick of the night and created presences beyond the monotony of trees, swamps and huts. We could wander out farther than before, roast and eat the flying ants that chased the flare-stacks. Ujanka, a once tranquil community, suddenly became lively. Ad hoc jobs sprang up. Beer parlours and pepper soup joints mushroomed. And the effect on our childhood was phenomenal. We were filled with a new airiness inaccessible to our fathers. Why not, when our horizon had suddenly widened accommodating worlds and civilisations far beyond our dreams. We were simply rearing to go. So when a very rare opportunity came my way and it was bungled, I had the very license to hate Ningi, my father’s peppery brother, whose mischief came in the way.

I will not forgive Ningi for his conspiracy with my father’s ignorance. Juggy had, on one of his rounds of the classes, when I was in fourth form, singled me out. It was not so much for my academic brilliance as for just an indefinable liking he had for me. I was to proceed to Europe. I was to study in their big schools. Then I would return to unmask the secrets of the Nun soil, white, sharp, between gnarled mangrove trees. But father, Otekoro, driven by Ningi, had objected. Strongly objected. That I would be sold to cultures unknown and return to mock the fishermen and the boat boys that plied the Creeks. That I would return to be stranger to the earthy smell of the soil, the fresh tang of Udeku Creek, Odara, Ire and Miniko ponds. Father’s concern was real. Story had it that an oil prospecting firm had sponsored a man from Oloibiri to the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, to read engineering. That, as the natives related, had turned out to be a disastrous experiment. When, on completion of his studies, he came back, he had acquired the strange accent of his erstwhile hosts, turned up his nose on everyone and cultivated distaste for his roots. Buoyed by this account, father’s views percolated unhurriedly through Ujanka village, and then to the neighbouring communities being distorted out of context and creating disquiet as it went. Soon what we heard back was that whomever the white man took to his country was used for sacrifice or fed to a crop of cannibals. That devastating interpolation shut out Ujanka from Juggy’s good intentions earning him quizzical glances everywhere he went. But it suited Ningi as it did my father whose dream of me, his first seed, was woven around the farm, the Creeks and ponds. A retired service man that worked as messenger in the local council, he had nothing to show for that foray, not even pensions. So suspicious was he of anything 'government' that he clucked like a cock whenever there was mention of one. So, he would not let me repeat his mistakes. Nor would he let Njari, my younger one, though he would train us to be able to read and write - arts that frequently overawed him – but not beyond primary school literacy.

And then, there was the sudden demise of my parents, upon which Ningi became the head of the Otekoro Hobobo extended family. It took place when I was in the fifth form and Njari in the third. I will not forget that sombre morning, when the news of the boat mishap that claimed my parents’ lives broke like glassware in the village.

It was a year after the arrival of derricks. They were returning home from a nearby village, very late in the night. It was stormy. The wind tore noisily. Visibility, even in the intense beams of the boat lights, was null. The darkness was so thick it seemed - in the words of the few survivors - that the world was a dense black hue, thinly penetrated by a heavily struggling but inefficient light beam. The speedboat was adrift and all of a sudden bumped into a notched tree trunk, which tore it into shreds. It was a fatal mishap that shattered my world.

Close upon my parents demise, with my grief so overwhelming, was a strange visitation as though from outer space. Ujanka had suddenly become a home of surprises. For once, I had the very sense of being in a fabled land:

It was one solemn harmattan morning, three weeks after my parents’ deaths. A speedboat had raced up the waterfront. Three men had flounced out and headed in the direction of our house. They whipped their way in, raked through the rooms in a way no one else who was not familiar with the household would. There was no one within except Ningi who was taking a nap. I was certainly frightened. Only a month earlier, a gang of toughs had descended on a nearby compound, ransacked through it and left with every valuable. I was convinced no better fate awaited ours. I followed on them from a safe distance, wonderingly. There was a sudden burst of gunfire. Ningi came racing from within, saw the gang and beat a hasty retreat but, was halted in military pitch. Silences followed. I was now shivering, wishing I were an ant.

'Hands up!' shouted the tallest, who, in his professorial bearing, I took to be the leader.

Ningi threw his hands up, swept a rapid glance at his captors and shouted 'Ibono!'

Ibono? So this was the age-old riddle and he had come to eliminate his brother and take total control of the ponds.

'Ibono!' the words rang out again, chilling in impact. I expected Ibono to go berserk, as of him. But the sound of Ningi’s voice seemed instead to mollify him. The gang conferred among themselves and after some arguing and swearing led their weapons down.

'I wouldn’t know. But you would also shoot me after secreting our entire savings away?' Ningi spoke.

'And what about that!' snapped Ibono. The interjection went on for a time and seemed to light some fire within the men. Then suddenly all sounds died down.

'Our eldest brother died, you did not come throughout the burial,' Ningi tried to psyche him out.

'I am not the murderer,' Ibono snapped with an unfeeling defiance that struck my heart.

Ningi looked at him in complete disbelief. You have lost your wits was what he seemed to say. Ibono disappeared the next moment as suddenly as he had come, leaving many more questions than I could guess answers to in my entire life.

For the next week, Ningi brooded and seemed to be shut out, unlike him, in his own world. Sometimes I would catch him swearing and arguing deeply as with no one, like a dormant volcano lived within, awaiting inevitable eruption. It did erupt periodically, of course. The lava seared the very four walls of the compound. He beat his wife once in that eruption of fits, threatened me with a knife and did many more such nasty acts.

Then I began to observe a strange sight. A middle-aged man always stole in at dead of night to discuss in whispers with Ningi. After such secretive deliberations, Ningi looked brighter and happier. For a reason I could not tell, I was deeply suspicious of whatever the dark whispers held. I felt in an uncanny prescience that it might have to do with the ponds, betting, or even very sinister transactions of a kind I could never dream of. I formed the habit of eavesdropping on them. The only words that usually came through were: an end to it... I will take all... Only the person at large... I need the whole. And try as I might, I could make nothing of these. I was filled with presentiment that something greater than a catastrophe loomed within. I lived in utter fear I would spin like a silver top and orbit out of the sane world.

The months that followed were full of awful events. First, Ningi’s secretive transactions finally came to light. He had sold the ponds – our only means of income - to a foreign oil worker and disappeared with the proceeds as sure as Ibono had of old, leaving his wife and two children behind. The next I learnt was that he had settled in Onioro, a clan about thirty miles south of Ujanka and was into betting and binge drinking.

I was told a month later by an itinerant trader that Ningi was sighted in Sapele, a town in the neighbourhood of Onioro, carousing with women of easy virtue. I was downcast. Grave as the discoveries were and deplorable as my situation was, I could not help thinking of the hypocrite that Ningi had proved to be. I remembered his distaste for Ibono, whom he dismissed as debased and given to bottle and skirt, and now here was the moraliser trying to beat the debauched in their act. I hated Ningi with the last drop of my blood.

My confusion was complete, when, a few months upon Ningi’s disappearance, Njari came back. News had made the rounds earlier that she had eloped with a foreign oil worker and was carrying a baby for him. I had been terribly disturbed by this. But here she was, her belly, for sure, round like the full moon; her eyes apologetic as she sat down to narrate her pathetic story. At first I was livid with rage, but later, I calmed down. Lover boy had promised her heaven and earth, but had reneged and disappeared one bright morning, leaving her a couple of pounds sterling and a memo that she was wonderful but that he had a woman back home. She had taken to menial works to fend for herself. I was distraught, with my world falling apart. Then I began to feel depressed. I would see boys hanging out in joints to whiffs of Indian hemps. Afterwards their eyes were reddened like blood, they would spew loudly in pompous tone – about their girls, the oil prospecting firms, and their aspirations in life. I could glean with certainty that they did not inhabit the very world we all were in. They were in orbit in outer space like Major Yuri Gagarin. I began to think if this escapism was not the very answer to my travails, when Ibono, who had heard of Ningi’s sale of the ponds, came home.

It was, like his first homecoming, as sudden and dramatic. He ranted at everyone, pointed a gun menacingly at Ningi’s wife, dared me to run on pain of death, sent a shattering clap of gunshot against the roof, hit Ningi’s ten-year old son with the butt of his gun, who was whipped across the floor and landed in a heavy thud a short distance away.

'Where is the money, by thunder I am done for!'

Madam Ningi pleaded her innocence and ignorance of the sale, at which Ibono hit her with the butt of his gun.

'Speak out you fool.'

I did my best to hold my nerves. But I was shivering.

He faced me,’ you grubby fool, you will also deceive me? Where is the money?'

I stood my ground and boldly narrated all I knew – from my suspicions to the actual discovery of the sale. I told him too where Ningi was suspected to have absconded. He appeared a little pleased with my insight and quietened.

'Nice, boy,' said he 'you gotta have a taste of the Creeks. You are something, you know, to have painstakingly stalked Ningi...' he ran on for a while his voice growing foul as he spoke. His breath stank of Indian hemp, 'I will yet run him, I will. And as for the bold idiot that made the purchase, he gotta pay once more hahahaha to old Ibono and gang, he gotta pay ten times, I say!'

If I had a choice, I would probably not have objected after all. I was completely disenchanted with life and suicide could have been an option in lieu, but it was a great mistake, as I would later find out:

'Boy, up and away,' shouted Ibono.

I summed my possession into a sack eagerly. If I knew of the terrible ordeal that awaited me, I would have preferred to remain in the monotony of Ujanka.

Ibono took me by the hand and we left same evening through a Creek path. Running lightly we wound our way down the incline, forded a muddy little pond and continued on our way till we reached the gleaming waters. There we boarded a speedboat, flew across the waters like kite in a hard wind and alighted at the other end. There were trees towering above us. I had the feeling that we were in the dreaded Layan woods, which I had, as a child, heard of in stories. It was several miles from Ujanka and I was surprised, we had gone that far so quickly. Before full darkness, we were secreted in our hideout with scores of other boys, most of them my age mates and wearing a hard look. Shots from Ibono and cohorts kept up the night, as if unwilling to fall asleep, the pellets sometimes falling through the trees and spending in the waters. It was my first night in the dreaded pirates camp, not even as a hostage but as a terrorist!

My first few days in the camp were horrifying. I was taken before a massively bearded man. He looked scruffy, lost in a forest of hairs. He gave me a concoction to drink. I objected and a storm of slaps blinded me.

'You little thing. Drink it at once', his voice raged through the trees, echoing and re-echoing.

I feared Ibono would hear and quickly drank the potion. It was heady and bitter. Next, incisions were made on my thumb and I recited incantations and did many more rituals.

'Yea boy, here you are,' said he, whom we shall refer to as Bigjoe, for that was what I heard Ibono call him once, 'you wouldn’t think of divulging our secrets or you will die! You see, there’s no escape here'. He called out and three rough-looking boys stormed the hut and spirited me away as roughly as they looked. One exploded a slap on my face. The others took turns kicking me with their heavy boots while the first sent a loud boom through the air with his AK 47. My nerves were on edge to say the least.

That night of initiation I did not sleep. I was made to endure so many harsh beatings and other ordeals. The other boys laughed as I winced in pain.

For many days afterwards, my waking state alternated between illusions and reality. I nursed a sprained ankle; I was racked with grief as poignant as when I had lost my parents. I felt lonely in an uncaring world. I chewed my world like bad meat, woke up in the middle of terror-dreams with all kinds of alarming thoughts and fears and death itself ringing in my head. I had to sit up late at night, thinking of nothing, as vacant as though I had lost my mind or were in grave danger of so. But there was Ibono and cohorts, uncaring as ever, shouting orders and cocking their AK 47s. They stank perpetually of cheap whisky and Indian hemp, on which they fasted all day.

There were three hostages at the innermost part of the camp, and it became my kind duty, by order of Mr. Bigjoe, to send them their meals, pending when I would toughen up and be part of the jungle warfare against the government and other enemies of our people.

I was not permitted to fraternise with the hostages. Fierce-looking sentries armed to the teeth were always within sight. One of the captives was a Briton, the other two Germans. They looked frightened, certainly. I took to the Briton, Mr. John Smiths, who had a friendly mien that permeated his ordeals in captivity. On pain of punishment I would wink at him to little laughs on his part. The secretive communication was louder than the gunshots of the camp. I knew how he felt. I gleaned stories around camp about him and his colleagues. I was greatly surprised to learn that the Briton had been the one who purchased our ponds and that Ibono’s dragnets had caught him so soon. I felt he had done nothing wrong by making the purchase, and our brother, Ningi, was to blame. I was seized with pity for him, but I dared not ask Ibono’s mercy. He would skin me alive!

The two Germans, Niklas Schultz and Leon Klein, were of Fabber Construction, a Multinational Company engaged in road construction in the neighbourhoods of Ujanka. I was confused. Ibono had explained that we were fighting for the oppressed peoples of Ujanka, Oloibiri, Sapele and Onioro; that we wanted the federal government to transfer all rights concerning control of resources in our area to the natives; that the larger country marginalised us, with our land plundered and looted for the development of the other parts of the country, leaving it polluted, our people disgruntled.

I took one boy, Fred, aside one evening:

'Are these hostages the enemies of our people?'

'Yes, of course. They rape our land,' he said and drew from a roll of Indian hemp and blew the whiffs in the air.

I had actually become inured to the heady smell. I no longer coughed and spurted phlegm whenever I inhaled it, as was the case when I was new to the camp. I looked Fred in the face. We had been in the same class as pupils of Ujanka Primary School and he had been one of the dullest in the class. Here, he was at home with the rough life of the jungle and exploited this advantage to the fullest. He sounded intimidating.

'Yes, they rape our land,' he continued in my silence 'our ponds are polluted by oil spills, our farmlands are no more fertile, while acid rain wash our roofs bare…yet they cart money away to develop their own land.'

I looked at Fred. He sounded more intelligent than his primary school testimonial. But his reasoning was beclouded.

'You see.' I pointed out. 'We have a government in place. These people are here on one agreement or the other with our government.'

'And what are you driving at?' interjected Fred. His eyebrows met in a frown.

'They contribute to us. But we have among us the true enemies, who would not let it get to us. They hoard everything for themselves and their great great grand children'

Fred eyed me queerly.

'Yes,' I continued. 'I think that’s not fair to brand them rapists. They might be best of friends if you can get nearer to them. These two...” I pointed them out for effect 'were among those building a road for us. I can identify the other one. The other only bought a pond wrongly sold to him by my uncle.' I thought Fred was catching on, but his remark showed otherwise.

'If they are not our enemies, their brothers are.'

'Their brothers who did what?' I queried.

'Raped our land,' Fred insisted tenaciously.

'Even at then, it is not wise to punish another for the sins of a brother.'

'Firewood, the maggot in them – they are all one! If Ibono hears your comments you would be shot!'

I sank into deep thought that evening. I was troubled for the mere fact that we would attempt the cure of a sickness with a deadlier plague. Here we were, badly treated and we were trying to draw attention to that by badly treating others, who were not, in the true sense, the very culprits. It did not add up. My thoughts turned into a kind of obsession. I wanted to attempt an escape from this madness. I felt we were looking around for an enemy that lived within; and there would be no escape from the ugly situation we were in, unless the true enemies were identified. Ibono, the head of the camp and the very man of justice had a disgusting history. I wondered if others knew. He was deified in the camp. The mere fact that I was his cousin might have spared me some dangerous assignments.

I shuddered when once a clash was reported of our militant group and the federal troops led by Major Inyi. They were on mission of rescue of the hostages, whose abduction for over two months since had stretched the government to breaking point and portrayed our gang in bad light. It was a very bloody encounter, with loses of over twenty able-bodied men on both sides. The shots boomed for close to two hours with cries of victims tearing like a knife through the air. The wounded militants were dragged in screaming in low tones, while we administered palliatives to allay their pains. One of the hostages, my silent friend, Mr. John Smiths, was lucky in the mission. He was spirited away like a chick by kites and next it was heard on air that he had joyfully rejoined his family. One of the Germans, Mr. Leon Klein, was shot in a failed escape bid and lay writhing in pain. We tended to him as with our wounded colleagues. The other, Mr. Niklas Schultz, was unhurt, but was too dazed to express any emotion.

I heard of warfare in a nearby camp for the rescue of – wait – a three-year-old baby snatched at gunpoint from her guardian while being driven to school. What was the sin of the child? Was she also one of our enemies? From that moment I began to think of an escape, dangerous and grave as I knew that was.

About noon, I made a neat bundle of my possessions and swung it over my shoulders. In quietude, I picked my way through the wooded land...

No Escape was written by Clarius Ugwuoha.

Copyright © Clarius Ugwuoha 2010.

Clarius Ugwuoha is a Poet, Short Story Writer and Novelist. He has published three books: Monarchs of the Forest (2002), Beyond River Urashi (2002) and A Sage And The Throne (2008). His writings have appeared in various websites and iternational anthologies and have won prizes. He is also a freelance columnist whose incisive articles have appeared in leading World Dailies including: Vanguard, Champions Newspapers, The Punch (Nigeria), InsideAmerica, World News Network, US Politics Today, among many others.

A collection of his poetry can be found at The Web Poetry Corner of Clarius Ugwuoha.


uche peter umez said...

nice, vivid depiction of our Niger Delta mess...

Clarius Ugwuoha said...

Many thanks, Uche.

Clarius Ugwuoha said...

Many thanks, Uche.

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