In Guarding The Green Hemmed Boxes by Ogenna Ojukwu

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My name is Ogbenta Ugboelu. I am a freedom fighter. I am not a freedom fighter in the guise of fighting against some perceived persecution or a personal injustice meted by an unyielding authority. I am fighting for the freedom of my government.

I once fought for my freedom. Crouched in a cell with a only a blank wall for view, an hour of still air under greying skies, and a tall decaying wall on which green and yellow creeper plants climbed surrounding me and other men in white and green striped jumpsuits which we wore as prisoners.

I regained my freedom on the sixteenth of June, 1999 at the cusp of the leadership transition in my country from Military to Democratic. But I was not freed by my captors. My freedom was not granted as routine. To regain my freedom from my prison of five years, I escaped.

As soon as I escaped from prison, I embarked on a most important mission. To secure the votes to be cast in the green-hemmed ballot boxes in my country’s first democratic election in fifteen years.
When I took on this mission I knew there was no going back. A target was on my back. My freedom was at risk but far greater, my life.

In prison I thought long and hard of the real consequences of losing my life – of dying.

Death has an indirect impact. It doesn't affect the one who dies. The dead do not continue to feel pain, sorrow, loss, or regret, it is for the living to experience.  And since no one living has been to the lands of the dead to know of their feelings, death might well be a joyous escape.

So in my cell, I had analysed the impact of my death on those I would leave behind.

Wimpish Father disowned me early in my agitation against the government. "You are going down a dangerous path," he said. Well he had other sons to carry on the family name if his first son failed to cease his senseless opposition to the government.

Father brought us up with the concept of paying obeisance to authority. It did not matter if the said authority was corrupt or immoral. It was a simple concept in his mind. The Old Testament, littered with scriptures of gore and furious bloodletting, read unwisely would make God appear unjust. Still, it was not enough reason not to worship God. We must have rulers, for good or bad. Otherwise, we are left with anarchy. I agreed with his vision for a time, seeing no reason to deviate from the words of a wise man. But later in the University I would conclude that, at best, Father was a few timid words away from being a righteous wimp.

Mother adored me. My actions and their earthly consequences would kill her a thousand times over. But Mother understood me. She told me that from childhood I had a spark in my eyes and her greatest worry was that I would use this spark for good. A mother knows her child. From how you prefer to move in the amniotic sac, to your first kick, to how you make your first appearance through her walls; how you went about this, furiously and taking no prisoners or teased out like a future wimp. It is safe to assume I am  more of the former.

I suspect my siblings might actually miss me when I’m gone. Not gone of old age but by force. Perhaps under a great hail of bullets, caught in the act and in the old medieval ways hung, drawn and quartered. They would go through a period of reflection, share a common pain and then, predictably they would ease back into weary lives, equating my existence to a grey footnote. I could not expect more. My siblings and I have since gone our separate ways. With siblings the urge is to pull apart. One does Sciences, the other chooses Arts. Siblings take sides. Some root for the black sheep, fervently wishing things were not so dire. It is foolish though, to mistake this as wishing the black sheep had the same ease as they. Some blindly support parents, blind to the inevitable; that they must continue on a righteous path or risk the great ignominy of the black sheep.

My siblings are as described as though I suspect were I to assume ghostly powers, able to surreptitiously listen, to familial thoughts and conversations the world over, I would find a boring sequence of oft repeated circumstances. If this were not so, how could the powers that be hope to rule with simple tools as television and the internet? Since my siblings were no different from others, I chose not to apportion any great blame for their predictability in the event of my death.

My wife, I know with a fearsome certainty, will miss me. As will my son. Though his will be a lifetime of whys and what ifs. For even with my regained freedom I have never met him.

My wife made a choice. She understood when we married that her journey would be different; I was due to go to prison. It was clear as mud that prison awaited yet Bridget married me. She planned the conception of our son. She needed me close. I was languishing in my cell when she gave birth to our son. I should make it clear that I have not purposefully declined the opportunity to see my son. Of course I had already missed the opportunity to hold him, cradle him and sing lullabies like ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ which I grew up with. I have not seen him because it is far too dangerous to visit them at our home in Makurdi in present day Benue State. Our home?

Bridget has been incredibly brave. She has needed to be. First ostracized by her family and then mine too. I have thrust her into an unknown world, to a journey with no certain destination. I do not know if we will live together again. Yet she carries on. I know what's in her heart. No not mystically as you might have imagined but we do have our way of communicating. Bridget’s last words to me before prison were ‘Be the man you have to be.’ Not ‘I love you’ or ‘I will pray for you’, or a tearful ‘We will miss you’, accommodating the feelings of the life growing inside her.

Bridget, I suspect, is borne of the same dogged genetic strands as I. A curious anomaly. Young and wise. Foolish with her love. Apolitical before we met yet with great understanding of sacrifice. By the time prison was inevitable, she’d assumed a militant edge with nerves for the long haul, a real freedom fighter’s wife.

Bridget had a peculiar upbringing. Her father is from the Muslim north and was in the military. Her mother was a Benue local and had been Jehovas’ Witness Christian. A couple of years before I met Bridget. Monochrome pictures, hung on grey stone walls – bedecked with military awards: plaque and medals, for bravery and courage, told that Bridget’s jaw dropping beauty came from her mother.

I was on a mission to assassinate Bridget’s father when I first met her. The assassination would trigger chaos in the country, perhaps lead to a change in the military structure or a clamour for a democratic government. Long winded?  I agree. Far fetched? Not really. Power is assumed and toppled on some basic tenets, a small set of rules, compact and precise, on small isolated events, a trigger. We found that trigger. Ripe and within reach. Nearby and mobile. Easy to read. Guard dropped. The death of a Colonel, Muslim, and residing in the Middle belt, who had married a Christian wife. Well that would solidify views against the military. Here was an ordinary good solider; stripped of tribalism, of religionism, of any ism of our sectarian culture, yet he was gunned down for the sins of his superiors.

Colonel Manji Abubakar's house was quite spectacular. A large compound in an even larger expanse of land. I had gained access through a fence at the back quarters. On this day the Colonel was to meet with his maker as long as I pulled the trigger. I was watching and waiting from behind one of the several mango trees in the fertile grounds when he returned without the fanfare due a military brass. Bridget was out in the compound, oblivious of his return. I first saw her some time before the Colonel returned, variously watering plants, picking wild red, white and yellow flowers, smelling and gathering them in a bunch. A peaceful serene evening spent outdoors in blooming nature.

The trigger for the next event was the low cut yellow dress she wore, baring her legs. Bridget was in a panic when she saw the Colonel and made to hide, running in my direction. Alas, it was too late. "Bridget, come here." Bridget froze. She turned around to face the Colonel. "I have told you several times not to disgrace me with these ungodly outfits, you this child."
"But Papa I am old enough to wear what I want," she said in a half distressed and half rebellious voice. "You're old enough to what? To talk back to me?" The colonel raised his hand and gave Bridget a resounding slap which reverberated into my ears and made me question as I hid behind the tree, my own ability to withstand such a slap – I, would-be assassin. You see, the military were not in power for child's play. Everything they did had added weight attached to it. The slap could have been an ordinary slap but from the hands of a decorated military man, it shook the very ground I stood on. It shook me to my core. I morphed from would-be killer to a mere boy as though waiting for a beating from Father for a judged misdeed.

"Go and change that immediately." the Colonel said as Bridget fell to the ground, holding her face, crying. I watched as though in a trance as the Colonel and my opportunity disappeared into his house. I stood, shaking, pondering my next course of action.
I believe that Bridget had seen me when she first tried to hide away from the Colonel. After the Colonel retreated, she roused herself, her yellow dress sullied with mud, and headed in my direction as my heart pounded, hard. I was not panicked because a mere girl was walking towards me – I had a gun and supposedly I was ready to gun down someone. My heart pounded because walking towards me, with tears streaming down her face, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

Bridget walked to the mango tree, stared right into my face before collapsing, with no forewarning. I reacted instinctively, catching her just before she could fall to the ground. I moved her behind the ginormous mango tree trunk and in her dazed state; I studied every contour of her face, falling in love with her before she roused again.
‘Who are you?’ But before I could answer we heard footsteps. "Bridget, Bridget." The Colonel must have felt remorseful because his tone was kinder, softer. He was headed away from us.

"I cannot be seen here with you," Bridget whispered, looking around the thicket and the trees. "Or we will both be dead today."

I am convinced Bridget believed this was true even as I felt the butt of my pistol against my stomach, assuring me that I need not die. But I was fooling myself if I still thought I was going to use that gun. I had already decided that I would not put Bridget in harm’s way. I had wished already that it had been I who was subjected to the slap. The Colonel disappeared entirely from our immediate sight. “He will come this way soon" she said. "What do you suggest that we do?"

Bridget looked me over. I was wearing a long kaftan and a skull cap, my subterfuge in case someone spotted me in the back quarters. I would pretend I was a deaf mute who foolishly roamed into the grounds. I might be whipped but that would be it, free then to re-plot. It was the holy month of Ramandan, and in my attire I looked like a Muslim.

 "You will say you are my classmate and your name is Abu Mansa.” I nodded as Bridget rose.  "Come," she said smiling sweetly. "Otherwise you will have to explain why you are hiding here and who you truly are. You will tell me this later but for now keep quiet and follow my plan." I quickly dispensed with my hesitation and followed her into the courtyard. The Colonel made an appearance as we got closer to the house. "Pa, this is Abu Mansa, my classmate. He has come to help me with my dissertation. He is the most brilliant writer that I know of at the University. With his help I will put my ideas into words effectively,"
"Good day, Sir," I quickly followed with.
"Young man, how are you?" the Colonel asked as he sized me up, appearing to decide that if I was decent enough to be around his daughter.

 "Good, sir"
"That is good. Now this is the first time I have seen you in my house, you will break fast with us and then you shall continue your work with my daughter. But not tonight, it is too late and as you know it is not right for a man to be with woman who he is not wedded to in the dark. Especially not a fine young man as yourself. Best writer you say, Bridget?"
"Yes Papa, he has won several awards."
"Good, that is good my daughter."
As I ate with the Colonel I fooled myself that I was on a rather timely reconnaissance mission. When it was time for me to go, Bridget saw me to the front door, as far as she was allowed by her chaperones. "I shall see you tomorrow Abu Mansa. At 10 am, yes?"
"Yes, I shall be here at 10 am."

I met Bridget the following day but we did not work on her dissertation. We spent hours in her room talking and from time to time, a chaperone would peer in. At these points we would bury our heads into books piled on the table. When the chaperone left, I would peer into Bridget’s eyes. She still did not know what I was doing in their compound on that first day but after two weeks of visiting the Colonel’s home, Bridget and I had fallen in love.

Bridget found new excuses to prop up the charade, insisting that it would take her some time to get into free flow. I believe now that Bridget is actually dyslexic and that the Colonel knew this. I do wonder how she completed her dissertation. I know it was not whilst I was there. Perhaps she worked late with light powered by a large generator in otherwise darkened nights.

My co-plotters’ agitation grew to boiling point. They questioned my intentions. As any partners in their right minds would do. To assuage them, I unleashed a long winded explanation of the benefits of understanding the whims, caprices and lifestyle of a military commandant. They bought this for a while until one evening when they inadvertently led an undercover military personnel to our shack who saw our cache of ammunition. Later that evening a military convoy landed and in a whiff the entire building was turned upside down, the ammunition seized and everyone placed under arrested. I was returning from the Colonel’s house, saw, and then detoured to my family home for a first time in six months.

In the room I shared with my youngest brother, I lay shivering, tossing and turning as I worried, not about my imminent arrest per se nor for my future in itself. I was worried about what would happen to the love Bridget and I shared.

I confessed my intended crime to Bridget. I told her that I had planned to kill her father, the Colonel. Bridget was a good listener. She kept a straight face until I had finished and then said, "We have to get married" I was shocked in no small measure. But Bridget saw things ahead of most. For a future yet, we had to be tied inextricably.

Convincing the Colonel was not difficult. We had spent several evenings breaking fast together. When he was in the mood, he would tell of assignments in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and The Congo DRC. Bridget was his only child and I figured he relished having someone to really tell these things. Someone it would impress. Someone like the son he did not have. I had come to respect the Colonel so when I asked for Bridget’s hand even as Abu Mansa, I wore a sombre mien deserving of a time honoured occasion.

The Colonel agreed.

Our marriage was officiated by an Imam. Bridget insisted on no fanfare. There were some light refreshments in the Colonel’s compound. Abu Mansa was an orphan so I had a only handful of surrogates attend. No one in my family knew I was marrying Bridget. The Colonel insisted we would live in his house until he found a place for us. Naturally then, my arrest happened in the courtyard of his house.

The Colonel? Upright, unfazed, without a trace of confusion in ungiving eyes, the essence of years of military training, his stint at Sandhurst perhaps.

But the die was cast. A seed, spun of urgency of time and passion, was already growing. And though now I think of my son, still, I think more of my plan to free my government.

Creative works (literature, art and culture) emerging from Nigeria.

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