29 February 2012

Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen (Book Excerpt)

It's 1995 in Benin, Nigeria. Students from all the nation’s universities are in the streets, demonstrating against the Abacha dictatorship. Our narrator, Ewaen, studies medicine at the University of Benin, and is caught up, along with his friends, in the frenzied looting, and rioting.

Goldland Investment Ltd. was a pyramid scheme that had gone bust in early ’94. Its warehouse on FGGC Road, about three electric poles from Ochuko’s place, had been locked up for months because Goldland’s customers — upset that their investments did not yield the promised fruit—took the company to court. The investment company did not dish out cash. What it had offered in exchange for a few months of cooking your miniscule investment were household items like refrigerators, microwave ovens and stereos. A few friends had been burnt by promises of cheap goods and we heard that the operators had upped and left the country. The place, which we observed on Saturday evenings from Ochuko’s balcony, was overgrown with weeds. A rusty ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign hung skewed off its iron gate.

When we got to Goldland that morning the warehouse was like a shopping mall from hell. Cars drove down the street, away from the compound, boots full, rear ends almost touching the ground, laden with fridges, sewing machines and gas-cookers. We saw a girl with a freezer on her head. She had a determined frown on her face and ignored us when we greeted her with a joke. As we passed Ochuko’s apartment building, we saw him on his first storey balcony sipping red wine from a glass as he watched the show.

He hailed us, “Efe! KO! Una too like free things!”

“You nko? We are sure you’ve already been there,” Harry shouted back. He had. Ochuko already had three fridges and a deep freezer upstairs in his apartment.

Someone started running. And by the time we knew it, we were sprinting headlong into the place of madness. People were pulling down burglary-proofing with their bare hands, chanting, ‘asheobey! asheobey!’ It was every man for himself, a tacit agreement reached without words.

KO leapt over the waist-high fence first; he walked to a couple of boys trying to load a fridge into the back seat of an impossibly small Datsun and asked them something. I caught up just as they were telling him that all the radios and other small stuff were already finished. They pointed to the first floor of the warehouse. I followed the directions and ran ahead of KO, to the stairs at the back of the building. There was heavy traffic on the steps, students and area boys helped each other down with loot. A dark boy, a student, stood beside me, and as we writhed up the steps he asked that we cooperate so that he would help me with mine and I would help with his. O yes, as long as we got mine down first, I said. Dark Boy and I followed the trail of polyurethane chippings and torn cartons to a room that was almost empty, apart from a few unopened cartons. Even the ceiling fan in the room had been ripped down. We walked to the padlocked door of another room. We were crowded on every side by other looters; pushing, sweating, cursing. The place was unbearably hot. I, too, was sweating and cursing under my breath as I struck the padlock again and again with an iron bar that Dark Boy handed to me. With each clang, I asked myself questions.


What was I doing here?


Where the hell were the police? It was almost nine, three hours since Harry said the looting started. They will come; I know the police will come!


What if I get caught? What if we all get caught?


Oh, to get a brand new fridge for our parlour. What about a lucky strike at a brand new sound system?


The padlock broke. The cacophony around me slowly receded and changed into Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Da da da da... da da da da!


Dark Boy and I rushed in, followed by a thousand others. We loaded laundry irons, deep fryers and boiling rings into a small freezer and headed for the fence. Back on the lawn, I saw Ejiro and Fra pushing a sewing machine with three electric stoves balanced on it down the street towards Ochuko’s house. Preppa saw me and shouted that I should take my things there. He was bent double with a freezer on his back. Dark Boy and I put the stuff under Ochuko’s staircase and ran back to the warehouse. A fight had broken out on the bushy lawn. Three guys were in a free for all. A small crowd of satisfied looters, not in the mood to brave the heat and darkness inside, sat on the fence and wagered on which of the three would cart away the freezer.

It was like a carnival, this place. Local women, mothers with children on their backs, fought over electric cookers and sewing machines, local men, chubby with singlets on and wrappers tied around their waists, haggled, naming ridiculous prices, with those who would sell the things they had just looted. KO was coming down the steps with Efe. They had a freezer between them and were shouting at a hanger-on to leave them alone. They weren’t sharing. As I followed Dark Boy past them, I patted KO’s back. He turned and smiled and said, “Hurry up o. Everything go soon finish.”

We had just got out when I heard the first sirens. Luckily, Dark Boy’s place was not far. A kid with a wheelbarrow offered to carry his fridge and sewing machine for thirty naira and off they went.

We watched from Ochuko’s balcony. Harry had jumped into the boot of a Peugeot with his new fridge and hitched a ride back to Estate. The first police pickup had appeared thirty minutes before, screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust. Out jumped its occupants: baton-wielding policemen in the regular uniform of black on black. These guys had proceeded to thrash everything and everyone in their path. They cut a wide swathe through the rapidly thinning crowd, but curiously, had not arrested anyone. We watched open-mouthed with the bravest of the stragglers. The policemen loaded their truck with goods. They went about coolly and were joined by two other vans. Those who could not fit into the full trucks mounted a guard. Some of the students and locals who were still around heckled and shouted abuses at the remaining officers. The policemen seemed unperturbed and one of them popped a teargas grenade and threw it. It bounced on the street, coming to rest just at Ochuko’s fence. We ran into the apartment and, with the windows closed, continued gawking.

Thirty minutes later, the stinging gas had cleared and we were back on the balcony. Ochuko served drinks as we watched an amazing thing. The looters and the police were working together to empty Goldland. I saw Dark Boy and hailed him from the balcony. He smiled and gave me the thumbs up. The vans came back and left again, not as full as before, thus all the policemen were able to leave with them. Goldland became spirit land, quiet and empty. We started discussing what to do with our loot.

“But you guys know that as the owner of this de-facto warehouse I’m entitled to a fraction of what you collected,” Ochuko said.

“My friend, stop that.” Efe knew him best and handled the haggling well. “I plan to put that freezer in our parlour. What do you want more for? Look at your own parlour.”

I sipped my beer and watched a few students, late to hear about the goldmine at Goldland, despondently turn over cartons and polyurethane bars. The place was empty. It seemed most of the good things were here in our friend’s apartment. Ochuko’s parlour had acquired a new stereo, recently defaced with soup stains and a nail file, he said, to convince any inspector that he bought it months before. And his kitchen had a microwave oven with a thawing bowl of soup from his filled-to-the-brim second freezer. He bought all of them last month. No, he had not heard the rioting and looting. Yes, he was a heavy sleeper. They would believe him, he was the Chief’s son.

A police van came back. The looters ignored it at first, thinking it was the same pillaging policemen. But this van was driven by mobile police officers sporting AK47 rifles, and bad moods. These new policemen started chasing the loiterers. I rushed in from the balcony, closed the sliding windows and called out to my friends. Soon we were all standing at the window, noses pressed against the tinted glass, watching the spectacle outside. The policemen used gun-butts, horsewhips, belts and sticks to beat the shit out of anyone they caught. I saw Dark Boy sprinting away from the warehouse towards the fence; what was the fool still doing here? A policeman reached after the running boy and caught him by his trousers. Dark Boy pulled away, swung free like a slippery fish and picked race again. The police officer threw his club, his mouth open in a snarl. The club struck Dark Boy on the back of his head. He had been in midstride, just gathering pace when the solid three-foot long two-by-four caught up with him. He fell down awkwardly, and lay still. KO gasped beside me, his quick breathing steaming up the window. I turned away from the scene and our eyes met. I looked back to see the mobile policeman stroll towards where Dark Boy lay. He picked up the stick and swung. Dark Boy jerked with each thwack on his back and buttocks, not from a reaction to the pain, but from the force of the strikes. After the fourth hit, I thought I saw the policeman hesitate. Around him, other officers dragged back protesting students, some of whom had stayed behind to watch, some just passing by, some from flats nearby. The mobile policeman reached down and prodded Dark Boy with the stick, it was a light touch, tentative. Another walked over to him and, without speaking, they reached down and caught my new friend under his armpits and dragged the unconscious boy to the back of their van. They threw him in, at the feet of crouching students the mobile police officers had already nabbed, and drove away.

I barely remember Dark Boy’s face now. I would wonder for years to come if he survived. I never caught his name.

We were sober for almost an hour after seeing this. We wandered around Ochuko’s flat. Someone shouted for Ochuko to turn that shit down, the music was too bloody loud, it was making a fucking racket.

It had not been that loud.

I got tipsy, sitting silent on the settee, Ochuko’s last bottle of brandy in front of KO and me. We agreed to share some of our loot with Ochuko if he promised to keep it safe, then we left for our flat. Fra and Preppa came with us. Ejiro remained behind and promised to keep an eye on our new property.

Fine Boys was written by Eghosa Imasuen, and published by Farafina Books (September 30, 2011).

Copyright © Eghosa Imasuen 2011.

Eghosa ImasuenEghosa Imasuen, a Nigerian novelist, was born on 19 May 1976, and grew up in Warri. He has had his short fiction published in online magazines; and has written articles for Farafina Magazine. His first novel, To Saint Patrick, an alternate history, murder mystery, about Nigeria's civil war, was published by Farafina in 2008 to critical acclaim. He was a member of the 9 writers, 4 cities book tour that was concluded in early June 2009 in Nigeria.

A polymath, he is also a medical doctor--graduated from the University of Benin in 1999--and lives in Benin City, Nigeria, with his wife and twin sons.

His second novel, Fine Boys, a story chronicling the voices of Nigeria's post-Biafra generation, is now available internationally on Amazon Kindle here; the print edition is expected in Nigeria in early 2012.


KT said...

Well done Eghosa.
Reading you is a delightful study in Nigerian English. There are words in this text whose usage mark this work as distinctly peculiar to you and to us: pickup, parlour, padlocked, deep freezer, Datsun, Peugeot, wheelbarrow...

Not only have I not found them in any other contemporary work, they are pointers to the presence of genuinely authentic voices that could only have come out of this part of the world, in English no less - and that is a good thing.

Elias Ozikpu said...

Quite interesting, Eghosa. Very intriguing and spell-bound. The unique approach, simplicity in language, and directness in style gives an added appeal to readers. I am impressed with what I read from this excerpt.

I thought the print edition was supposed to be out in January, 2012? This is almost March and nothing has happened.

Elias Ozikpu

abirhire omax .e said...

..it bring back the good old days at great uniben !.................

Eghosa Imasuen said...

Thank Kola. Praise on language from you is especially treasured. I have always hoped to convey the way we speak, to translate our urban oral traditions, into this genre, the novel. Thank you again. @Elias, due to some logistics issues, the print edition has been delayed. It will be out in late March.

Eghosa Imasuen said...

@Omax, exactly. Lol.

Zino Asalor said...

When I read your stories about UNIBEN I feel like this thing just happened yesterday. I see your characters doing what they're doing, in fact they are my guys. That said, I enjoyed this excerpt. An of course the language, Pick Race and others, nice. Congrats.

Anonymous said...

Great work, can actually picture the scenes reminds of the great Uniben days! Feeling nostalgic for the school days. Maybe I should write a book about the Obe Razaq α̲̅πϑ autonomy strike days using Ekosodin as the backdrop,ℓ☺ℓ. Am definitely getting the book as soon as possible.@ Ms_ Blingberry

Unknown said...

Hello! I'm 5 years late but I just read your book and I was BLEWN AWAY!!! I could not put it down! It was beautiful, it was informative (for someone like me who had NO IDEA of the state of Nigeria in the early 90's), it was funny, authentic, RAW!!!! I enjoyed every bit of it!

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