He liked a bit of intervention, our man. He had once asked her, Iya Sheriff, in a fit of frustration, why she kept proliferating children when she and her husband had neither the means nor the space to cater for the needs of the children, the oldest of whom was seven.
Our man always means well. He had also meant well on that day. He couldn’t understand it, how stark, impoverished illiterates living in a two-room shack could just keep on and on at child-bearing. Well, some people argue sex is the poor man’s release valve. Fine, have all the sex you want. But at least watch it with the child-bearing, yes? Wasn’t the air plastered in family planning messaging? And wasn’t Honourable across the street, filthy rich, filthy rich, an exemplar of desirable behaviour, with his two children? Rich, potent, potent, and yet he decided – that’s right, he decided – to shutter the factory after just two. C’mon!
Iya Sheriff had been picking beans through all of that. She didn’t pick the impurities into a separate container, or to the edge of the tray, like everyone else did. She tossed them right into the gutter by which she sat, the gutter that ran in front of her house. When our man was done she’d rubbed her belly and smiled. You know that smile, that condescending smile that said maybe you didn’t think things through before you put voice to them.
Do the math, she’d told him, those years ago. I am investing. At even ten thousand naira every month, five children are a nice retirement plan. It pays to have lots of children. After all, wasn’t the first Great Commission a summons to fruit and multiply? And praise be to God that I am fertile, and my husband virile. Her husband, Baba Sheriff, sloth of a carpenter, nodded approvingly. The baby lashed to Iya Sheriff’s back began to bawl. Iya Sheriff stood up and began to shuffle and bounce and sing a song she made up on the spot in pacification. Ibikunle bam bam/Ibikunle bam bam/omo oloju tirin/Ibikunle bam bam.
Our man, erudite friend of the family, wanted to say many things at once that day. Feeding, school, school!, space, time, milieu. Did investment not need nurturing? But the words choked back one another at about his throat. And so the words never came, miscarried.
You see?, said Iya Sheriff. Then she’d given our man a smile for the road. Revving his rickety, almost lifeless okada, Baba Sheriff offered to drop him off.
Our man and Baba Sheriff had met some seven years ago. Someone, someone with some measure of say in SUBEB, owed our man’s brother, a small-time political jobber, a favour.
Government had built a new block of classrooms in some generally dilapidated school, to much fanfare. The classrooms needed desks and chairs. Our man’s brother – let’s call him Bro – had slipped the contract the way of his brilliant but lazy younger brother, after shaving it of what was needed to settle whom. All you need to do now is to find a carpenter, Bro had told our man. Surely, you can do that, can’t you?, he’d continued, in a tone that dripped with accusation. The search – extending just beyond our man’s street slightly into the next – for a carpenter had thrown up Baba Sheriff. There he was, Baba Sheriff, too young to be Baba, sweat cascading down a handsome body, a punk on his head and a chain round his neck. Soon he had submerged our man in a sea of bluster. And look, if there is anyone in this great round world who can build a castle in the air, it is Baba Sheriff. After all, that was how he had won Iya Sheriff over.
Iya Sheriff was a beautiful woman, her demeanour deceptively soft, her skin the tone of cocoa beans, her body trim in places and voluptuous in others. Neither time nor poverty nor marriage nor incessant childbirth seemed to have dimmed her shining light. Baba Sheriff had sold her big dreams till it was too late, till she became inextricable from him. The bump Iya Sheriff was rubbing last time around now had a long neck
and ran around in pants. In the bump’s place was a new bump, the second bump after last time, the seventh such bump in total. The cries of children could be heard from within the house. She sat cross-legged on a cane chair, under a skeletal almond tree whose unshed leaves stood gaunt against a golden evening sky, beside a reclining Baba Sheriff, and facing our bolt upright man, who once again was intervening.
Baba Sheriff’s hardly productive carpenter’s shed was to the left of this tree, around it a cocktail of sawdust and browned almond leaves. The house itself, set slightly back from the shed and tree, revealed some ambition, despite its ramshackleness and its slipshod workmanship. Of its planned six rooms, only two had been actualized: one by Baba Sheriff’s grandfather and the other by Baba Sheriff himself. The rest were stranded at foundation level.
Out on the street, a gang of intermittently hysterical boys in loud shirts dogged an unperturbed buxom girl voluptuously carrying home on her head a baff of water. A middle-aged man, trailing children and sacks of yam and vegetable behind him was returning from the farm, flinging salutations left, right and centre. Goats, pigs and chickens roamed without discernible aim.
In the distance and all around, a close ring of mountains encircled the village, doing what the Tower of Babel never could do: touching the heavens; arriving. Here, looking at these mountains and the clouds around them, he unversed in planetary science could gain evidence of the Earth’s hurtling through space.
Greenery was malnourished. What had been lush and verdant was now yellowing or brown-kissed, like some alchemistical Midas was on rampage. Only the green down the sides of the mountains looked unfazed by Harmattan, whose grim, haunting presence swept through town, hunting down any hint of moisture, proboscis at the ready.
Listen, I know these people, our man was telling Iya and Baba Sheriff. I know that man. He can’t be up to any good. He can’t – and the pause here must have about five, six commas in length – be up to any good.
That man was the newly elected governor of the Fountain of Knowledge. He’d been governor before, but had lost his seat to poultry, of all things. The story is funny; really funny. The governor was supposed to have established some great big poultry farm which he was to showcase to the president on the latter’s visit to the state. He did showcase the chickens. He did. But then the president found out somehow – you must note that the elite of the Fountain of Knowledge are renowned petition penners – the chickens had been rented specifically for his viewing pleasure, and were returned to source soon as he left. Mad, the president had sent his trusted terrier of an anti-corruption chief after the governor. And that could only have ended in one way.
But this is not the measure of the governor. He was liked. The first time around, he began his campaign a year into the then incumbent’s tenure, personally bearing the cost of supplying water in tankers to people around the state. Rather than be unduly troubled by his lack of refinement, he simply ignored the elite – who were the ones bothered by trifles such as refinement – and pandered to the lowest common denominator, the lowest of the lows, whose first couple of preoccupations is far from refinement. He spoke like them. Swore like them. Ate boli and epa beside the road like them. Walked the markets like them. The governor was populist in the little things, and cynically self-centred in the big, the things that really mattered.
But the balance of power had shifted. Though he tried his best to fight it, that president had been ousted by the term limit enshrined in the constitution. Another president had died within two years of his presidency. There was a third president in place now, the dead man’s former vice president. This current president traded in loyalty and subservience. No sin was big enough to not be expunged, so long as you agreed he was the best thing to happen to Nigeria since Independence. Or maybe even since Amalgamation.
Six years on, the governor was back in the saddle, assisted by a presidentially sanctioned prestidigitation. And he came bearing gifts through a most unusual vehicle.
You see, the people of the fountain had been nationally tarred and feathered for trading their votes for little bags of rice, bags of rice that couldn’t feed a family of three twice. Never mind actual infrastructure, some commentator had said, just cater to their most immediate stomach infrastructure, and grateful, the fountain of ignorance will spurt for you. The nation erupted in fits of memes and laughter.
And what would the governor do but to poke a finger in the nation’s eye by appointing a Special Assistant on Stomach Infrastructure in his inaugural speech. There was more: to exorcise – presumably – the ghost of rented chickens, he had declared a rainfall of chickens, Christmas chickens, to his persevering…
Ok, fine. So, what’s the point of all that? said Iya Sheriff, cutting in. She licked her lips every now and then. Her lower lip was split down the middle.
This man is preparing the way to rob you blind again.
So you’re saying we should forgo the chicken and rice? said Baba Sheriff, who could as well be mistaken for Harmattan, given how white he was.
Just because someone, ore mekunu mind you, made a mistake many years ago? Have you not sinned today? Say the Lord’s Prayer. Go on, say it, said Iya Sheriff, ever Baba Sheriff’s better half.
As we forgive those who trespass against us, said Baba Sheriff, helping our man out, the slant of italics unmistakable in his tone.
Look, if that man were serious about all of this largesse he’s declaring, he will decentralize the collection. Why should go all the way to Ado for chicken?, said our man.
Listen to yourself, began Iya Sheriff. So the governor, a whole governor, should travel down to Ilejemeje, this… this anus of nowhere, after having the good heart to give us chicken…
And rice, added Baba Sheriff.
And did you not collect election rice?, said Iya Sheriff.
Aha! Did you not?, said Baba Sheriff.
Listen you bastards!, our man wanted to scream. That isn’t the point. He wanted to tell them that those weren’t the points, election rice, stomach infrastructure, forgiveness, the elitism of alakowes. The point, he wanted to tell them, is a matter of economics, but for disbelief choking back the words that welled up in him. The chicken-rice combo could not cost more than a thousand naira by the most liberal of estimates. Six hours and a thousand six hundred naira were what took you from Ilejemeje to Ado and back, and that’s discounting the number of hours that will be spent hustling for the “largesse.”
You see?, said Iya Sheriff.
Once again, he saw.