The day the Òrìsà of the land of my birth took a machete and set about cutting out a new path for my life, I was driving to church with my family on a Sunday morning.
Early on that day, twentieth of March 2011, along Gado Nasko Way—the longest, main thoroughfare of Kubwa—a Mercedes SUV pulled out from the light traffic behind us with a sharp screech and actively sought to overtake us. In the mist of that cold, dusty harmattan morning, Eṣu, the Òrìsà for whom mischief and trickery are the ways of directing the ways of men, erected the first giant tree in the unsure direction I alone knew my life seemed headed.
My children were seated in the back seat of my car. I could see them all with the aid of the rear-view mirror. My daughter, Mary, was chatting excitedly in hushed tones with Jerry, her younger brother. Their older brother, John Junior, stared blankly at me while I drove. Their mother was in the passenger seat beside me, regal in her blue native “and co” attire, identical with mine. Junior’s eyes and mine met several times in the mirror. As our glances locked briefly a couple of times, I suspected that despite all my attempts to shield the children, Junior had deciphered that all was not well. His eyes were inscrutable. By this time, I could already read people without difficulty. I could easily see through both the wayward and upstanding designs of most human beings around me, but it was extremely difficult for me to read my own first son.
I turned my 1993 Honda Accord—the type our people call Honda Ala—closer to the kerb as the jeep rolled past us, slowed down and drove abreast of us. I glanced at the jeep’s front seats and saw two men with clean-shaven heads in them. The one in the passenger seat had dark sunglasses on. They both glared at me.
“Bastard! We go finish you if you no talk weytin you suppose talk for that panel! We go finish you!” the one in the passenger seat shouted at me. His voice was guttural, carved by excessive cannabis-smoking, or igbo-cured, as my friend, Dennis Omoruyi, liked to describe it.
The excited whispering between Mary and Jerry stopped.
I saw a pistol with an attached silencer rise out of their window. My hands froze at the wheels. My guragura, that long-suffering car, slammed into a pothole. My wife screamed. I heard a slight pop, immediately followed by the sound of an exploding tyre. I gripped the steering wheel firmly and avoided braking so that the car would not somersault. I guided it to a stop beside the kerb, while the SUV disappeared into the rising sun, towards the overhead bridge connecting the Federal Housing Junction with the eight-lane expressway that led to Abuja’s city centre.
Twelve years before, I would have commandeered a car from another driver and chased after them, but things had changed. Twelve years before, I had no wife or children.
We all disembarked from my car.
Tears ran freely down my wife’s face, messing up her makeup.
“Baba Junior, kile se? What did you do to those people?” she asked me.
A number of cars sped past and blew small sprinklings of dust over us. I did not answer her. I merely looked from her to the children and back at her. I tried to tell her with my eyes that she needed to comport herself for the children’s sake.
Junior and I began the process of replacing the blown tyre with the half-worn spare tyre. While I took the jack and wheel spanner out of the boot, Junior turned his attention to the spare tyre but couldn’t muster enough energy to lift it out of the boot in one go. I did not try to stop him because I knew he was trying to prove that he was a man, as boys do.
“Leave the tyre alone if you can’t carry it!” his mother shouted at him.
He ignored her and successfully took it out after numerous attempts that left a slight blemish on his shirt.
“See you now! You’ve stained your shirt!” my wife screamed at him. “I don’t know when the spirit of not listening entered this your konkonlo head!”
The boy let go of a weak smile.
Had I not been around in the months Junior spent in his mother’s womb, I could have succumbed to the thought that he had simply strolled into my house straight from Òrun, the dwelling place of infinitely wise deities, off the very feet of the Òrìsà, where he had been soaked in the wisdom his eyes often radiated. As I watched him looking over the nuts I had loosened from the tyre, I was reminded of his ambition of becoming a medical doctor. I thought he looked like one already, dressed in his cheap black Chinese-made suit, white shirt and red tie. He topped his classes, right from primary to secondary school; no one ever beat him. His academic trophies and prizes were kept proudly in his mother’s shelf; she had, after all, done the home tutoring which I hadn’t the patience for. He rarely spoke but when he did, they were of things beyond his age. He discussed politics, international and local, with a maturity that surpassed many adults I knew; mostly with his mother, and older kids of the neighbours, not me—I always had to overhear his discussions. When I looked at him, I saw a statesman. With a stern expression and few words, he often easily silenced his siblings when they were becoming nuisances. His kadara, his destiny, seemed intertwined with greatness. His Ori, his inner, invisible spiritual head, appeared to be in great favour with the unseen forces that regulate the world around us.
“I won’t keep quiet any longer! What trouble have you got us into? See what your police work is doing to us! You see?” she said in Yoruba.
Again, I did not reply. With my two hands, I lifted the damaged tyre off the sandy tarmac, threw it into the boot, and then did the same to the jack and wheel spanner.
Mama Junior walked around the car to the boot just as I banged it shut. She stared at me, expecting an answer which I did not give. Her high heels made her seem taller than me, although I was actually a few inches taller at my six feet height. Junior was already showing signs that when he was through with his teenage stage, he would be taller than his parents. He was then already as high as my chest, taller than all his peers.
I ordered everyone back into the car. They obeyed without protest. My wife stopped crying as I started the car and continued in the direction of the church at Chikakore Layout, a large housing estate that was in the early stages of development. Houses were springing up there and there were a few residents. I expected houses to swallow up every available land before long, as it often happens in Abuja. The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture had a model farm in the area for experimental crop breeding.
Junior’s eyes and mine met again in the rear-view mirror. His eyes still remained inscrutable. I decided, for the umpteenth time, that I would try to spend more time at home getting closer to my children, no more staying alone in my bedroom to read or watch TV. As I drove, I remembered that whenever I walked into their room, the children suddenly went quiet and did not speak until I had exited. Their reactions sometimes caused me to doubt their existence because they would not even answer my questions until I barked at them twice or thrice. After they had made the transition from toddlers to primary school age, they often acted like statues whenever I was within eyesight or earshot. When I was around, they spoke loudly enough only for them to hear one another, so that I wouldn’t hear them. However, I could still read Mary and Jerry easily, maybe because they had not acquired the desperate secrecy of teenage existence.