The First Test
The villagers gathered around the small wiry man sitting on a short tree stump in the middle of the large open square. A small cluster of trees framed the square and a few houses stood at the end of it. The square was silent, save for a lone cock crowing in the distance as the sun set in the horizon. A group of men sat on a long bench in their wrappers and white vests, their wooden walking sticks between their legs. They were the members of the village’s revered secret society who bore their positions with as much flamboyance as their flowing lengths of colourful wrappers could allow. Behind them, men and women stood with clasped hands, waiting to hear from the small man who wore nothing but a small red cloth on his waist. Some of the women were young and wore simple patterned dresses with babies clutched to their sides. A few older women sat on small stools beside the men on the bench, their chests exposed to the elements as they stared ahead with rheumy eyes.
Some of the villagers strained their necks to follow the man’s movements as he threw the strange objects in his hands to the red earth of the ground and leaned across his knee to stare at the objects. His jaw moved up and down, a residue of red saliva gathered at the corners of his mouth. Suddenly, a wail of protest rent the air as a young woman standing at the front of the crowd in an oversized pastel coloured dress reached down to jerk back the half naked child running towards the revered still figure in the middle of the square. His cries were soon stifled as the woman clamped her hand over his mouth.
An old woman standing beside the young mother and her wriggling, crying child shook a crooked finger sternly in the boy’s face, words of reprimand hissing past the several missing gaps in her mouth. The little boy froze for a moment in his mother’s arms, his sobs reduced to curious hiccups as he stared in wide eyed fascination at the old woman.
The villagers shifted their attention again to the old man as a raspy dry cough pushed past his open mouth. The man spat out the chewed kolanut in his mouth and the chaff landed at his feet. He stretched the thin sinewy legs that poked from underneath the age worn wrapper around his waist and ground the chaff till it was completely buried in the ground. Giving a small nod of satisfaction, he straightened with effort and looked at the crowd that faced him.
“The bodies,” he began slowly, looking around with red sunken eyes under bushy eyebrows that stretched like wires in different directions, “shall be left where they were found.”
The men of the secret society lowered their heads and murmured among themselves. The small juju man watched them with cool indifference, stroking his whitened goatee as they conferred in low tones. Finally one of the men looked up.
“Ojang,” he began, clearing his throat. “I think we should do just what is good for the entire community.” He looked around the men sitting around him. “The bodies will be left just where they were found.”
One of the men sitting at the extreme end of the bench was shaking his head. “Ask Agbor here,” he said turning to the thin man beside him. “Who gave those men the right to go to the hills?” His chest heaved in annoyance. “Who allowed them go and cut the trees there?”
The old man continued to watch the men, his pose almost statue like. The man called Agbor shook his head slowly and turned to the man that spoke.
“Peter, I am not sure I know why you are calling my name.” His said, wheezing loudly. “Did I not mention that I know nothing of the men that went to the hills to cut trees?”
Peter gave a loud snort. “Even though you are one of us,” he said, pushing his chest out and scanning the rest of the bench and the crowd behind him. “I can say you are a disgrace to the society.”
Agbor sprang up from the bench. “Who are you Peter?” His wheezing grew louder but his voice managed to come out in a shout. “I say who are you to call me a disgrace to the society?”
There was tittering in the crowd now. Women nudged themselves and men wore wide grins at the promise of a showdown. Another one of the men on the bench stood and rushed to the middle of the two men.
“What is a disgrace is that both of you are acting like children!”’ He glared at the two men. “Ojang,” he pointed to the juju man, “has said that we should leave the bodies in the hills. What is the problem here?”
“Ayuk,” Peter said to the peacemaker, straining against his restraining arm. “The problem here is that Agbor knows something that he is not telling us.”
“Like what?” Agbor shot back, trying to shove Ayuk’s outstretched arm out of the way. “Like what Peter?” He repeated, the veins pushing hard against the delicate skin of his neck.
“So,” the juju man’s voice finally cut into the loud argument, “the bodies will be left where the guardian showed itself.” He gave a loud grunt and pushed to his feet. “That is all I shall say on this issue.”
The men of the society sat back on the bench and watched with the rest of the crowd as the juju man packed the objects on the ground and shoved them into a tan cowhide pouch. Slinging the pouch over his shoulder, he walked with a limp to the end of the square and out to the dusty narrow road, finally disappearing out of sight. Then the villagers began to disperse one by one, till only a few children remained, chasing each other around in circles till the darkness completely enveloped the land.
Ken walked down past the C-shaped leather sofas of the reception area, giving a quiet ‘good morning’ to the matronly looking woman behind a gadget packed desk. The woman’s head poked beside the back of a midnight gray laptop as she smiled at him and returned his greeting. She wanted to know if he liked his new office on the lower floor. Ken replied in the affirmative before knocking on the door of his father’s office. He heard his father’s gruff command to enter, and pushed the door open. He could not help shivering from the cool air in the room as he approached his father’s desk.
“Bashir,” his father said, spreading the silk Turkish prayer rug he held on the plush cream carpeting of the office floor. “I am just about to pray. Give me a few minutes.”
Ken nodded respectfully as his father folded his arms across his chest and began to pray. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had called him by his Hausa name. Being away from home for years had made him forget what it was like to have two names and two cultures. He walked to the beige coloured leather couch at the end of the office and sank into it. Stretching his legs ahead of him, he looked at his father as the man knelt down in prayer.
A handsome, tall man well over six feet with a copper complexion and thin straight nose, Ken’s father was trim and young looking for his age. A fitness fanatic who made it a habit to visit his personal gym in the house every morning before breakfast, he managed to keep the fat at bay. Despite his regular exercising and modest diet, Ken’s father attributed his well preserved looks to his Fulani heritage, something his Igbo wife liked to contest. Ken’s mother thought her healthy meals was the real reason behind her husband’s young look.
After a few minutes, Ken’s attention drifted and he studied the office. Framed wooden panels served as sliding window screens and the wood paneling on the wall matched the colour of the rug. A florid silk Oriental rug in muted tones was in the middle of the floor. His father’s desk was a sturdy oak wood desk with maroon coloured acrylic top framed with stainless steel. The large swivel chair behind the desk and the ones opposite the desk were beige like the couch he sat on. The venetian blinds on the window were parted halfway to allow the early morning sun into the office and the plastic plant that was built into a square wooden frame beside Ken glinted with the freshness of a real plant.
He was looking at the solid round face of his Michael Chors wristwatch with black leather bands when his father finished praying.
“So how do you like your new office?” Aminu Abdullahi asked his only son, folding his prayer mat carefully before placing it back in the corner where he had just finished his prayers.
“I think it is great,” Ken said, forcing some enthusiasm into his voice and wondering if his first day at work would be spent praising his new office when nothing about it excited him. He hadn’t particularly liked the bronze mirrors on the walls. He thought the design garish and unnecessarily flamboyant, but that was the last thing on his mind that morning. “I am also looking forward to actually working.”
“I think you will find a lot to do around here.”
“I can’t wait.” Ken said, flashing his father a grateful smile. If he could, he would pick up pruning shears and apply for a gardener’s job without a second thought. Anything to get Jata out of his mind was welcome.
He watched his father pop the top button of his plain white shirt open and pick up a sheaf of paper on his table.
“There is a job in Cross River state.”
Ken kept a straight face, keeping his nervousness hidden as his father raised his head to look at him. He had always suspected that the first test would be hard, but going thousands of miles away from the city he had grown up in wasn’t something he had thought of.
“What are we doing in Cross River state?”
Ken watched his father flip through the papers in his hands before holding them out to him. Ken rose to his feet and closed the gap between him and his father in swift long strides.
He briefly took note of the words KenCar which was written in gold at the top of the paper. The word ‘construction’ was more important to him. He hadn’t expected his father to move him to the construction branch of his conglomerate with other interests in crude oil exploration, flour, sugar and cement production just immediately after graduating, but his old man seemed determined to enjoy the fruits of having a civil engineer for a son.
“I want you to be the one to execute the job.”
Ken did not hear him. He was busy scanning the papers in his hand. It was a feasibility report on the building of a tourist resort in a place called Agbokim in Cross River state. Ken briefly looked over a scenic picture of a waterfall. At the end of the last paper, he was already weighing the enormity of building a tourist resort in the middle of nowhere.
“The area is quite beautiful,” his father said, leaning back in his seat and watching him, “at least, from what I have seen in the photographs.”
That morning was the first time Ken had ever heard about the place, but he wanted to sound more knowledgeable about the geography of the country than he really was. “Is the place close to the cattle ranch?”
“Yes it is quite close to the Obudu cattle ranch.”
“The governor wants to make the waterfall a proper tourist attraction, and thinks a resort will be a good idea.”
Ken exhaled slowly. “Dad,” he began with a worried look on his face. “What about uncle Kabir?”
Kabir Abdullahi was a consummate businessman and the head of his elder brother’s construction firm. He had been the driving force behind the firm’s success in the past ten years since he took over as M.D. The last thing Ken wanted to do was usurp his uncle’s position.
“He should be handling this.”
A slight frown settled briefly on his father’s forehead. “I am giving you the job Bashir.”
Ken knew that tone. It meant his father was in no mood for any argument. He decided not to ask any more questions on the matter. Uncle Kabir would take care of himself. He looked down at the papers in his hand again. The clear image of a dense forest and sheets of water cascading down a fall was beginning to leave an imprint on his mind.
“So when do I leave?”
Ken gave small absentminded nods. Friday was only four days away. He didn’t know what to think. He had wanted something to keep him from thinking about Jata, and now his wish had come true. He thought about pruning shears again, after all, his father was sending him to a big forest in a state he knew nothing about. As Ken sat thinking about his impending trip, his father was reaching for the slim blackberry phone on his desk.
“Jemila” he said, pushing back his chair till it was just an inch away from the blind covered window. “I will be coming home a little late tonight.” He listened to his wife at the other end of the phone with a small smile on his face. “Okay, I will be back before nine, dear.”
Ken sighed and wished just for a moment that he could trade places with his father. Being young, single and unattached was not all it was made out to be. He thought how nice it would be if someone apart from his parents worried about his whereabouts.