The Chronicles of Okiemute in Lagos.
It is 6:45 in the morning. Okiemute was still curling under the duvet, sleeping like a newborn baby. Of course, he had just been reborn from the shackles of poverty to a new life of ‘affluence’. The only time he was privileged to sleep soundly like this was after a heavy downpour in Warri. But with time, such downpour, instead of heralding sweet sleep, soon became a time to keep emergency vigil. They have to stay awake to place buckets in the leaking parts of the roof else the whole house will be flooded. Prior to one of such nights, he had joined a group of boys in his neighbourhood to do a menial job locally called ‘digging and pouring’. He got back from school and the situation at home showed that he would likely not get the financial support that brought him home. So he followed a friend who told him that a new building would be erected down the street, and he can come along to make some money for himself if he is selected among the boys to do the work. ‘Luckily’ for him that day, one of the persons they had expected did not show up, so he replaced the person. He had never carried out such task before, as the most difficult menial job he had ever done was bush clearing with the use of a machete. After they finished digging the foundations with how’s and shovels, they poured concrete (a mixture of granite, cement, sand and water). While his muscles cried for help as he lifted those head pans filled with concrete, he was consoling himself with the four thousand Naira he will receive at the end of the day. By the time he got home, he was like a jellyfish, all he wanted was a good sleep. When it started to rain heavily at night and his younger sister came tapping him to wake up, not even the thunderous sound that followed as the rain landed on the iron roof. He simply shrugs his shoulders at every tap from his sister, and change his sleeping position, but refused to open his eyes. His sister got tired and went to do the little she could. By the time he woke up, the mattress he slept on was completely soaked with water, and it was in July, the peak of raining season. It took almost two months to have that mattress completely dry. Ever since he no longer fancy heavy downpour of rain at night.
But this night was different, the cold nature of the room was not due to any rain. There was power supply all through the night, and the air conditioner in the room was doing what it was supposed to do. He would have remained under that duvet for a long time was it not for his phone that rang. He managed to reach out for the phone to see who the caller was, and found that it was Bola. He was supposed to send him the address the previous day so that he can bring his clothes for him as they had agreed, but he forgot and slept off. He apologised and told him verbally, “House 97, Feriyan Estate, Lekki Phase 2”, he said. “My friend send it as a text message. Do you expect me to memorize it?” Bola reacted sharply. His response cleared the sleep off Okiemute’s eyes, and he told him he will be sending the text immediately, which he did. He looked at his phone, it was a few minutes to seven in the morning. He felt so good and refreshed, “money is really good. The cold night we only enjoy when it rains is what big men enjoy at their own will”, he said to himself. He was not even sure if his flatmates were back from the party they went to last night. He slept all through without waking up at all in the night. He went to the convenience to ease himself and then tried to say his morning prayers. Aside from Bola that he was expecting, he had nothing else on his schedule for that day. He thought of going back to bed and just stay there, but then he had not arranged the few books he brought, and his clothes were still in his box. He decided to start his day from there. By the time he was done, Bola called again, he had just left his house and was on his way to the Island. Though coming from the mainland, Saturday mornings are not as busy as weekdays on the third mainland bridge. Okiemute had to quickly find out where to get something to entertain his guest, as he was visiting him for the first time. The ‘housemaster’ came to mind as the ‘go-to’ person on such occasion. He left his room immediately to find him.
Pyole Johnson was dry cleaning at the back of the house when he met him. “Good morning sir”, he greeted Okiemute. “I forgot to ask your name yesterday”, he said. “Why wouldn’t you forget, when you were busy reciting a manual for me. Only God knows how many persons you’ve recited that manual for”, Okiemute replied. They both laughed. “My name is Okiemute, and hope you slept well?”, he asked rhetorically. “Can we continue from where we stopped last night?” Okiemute asked, trying to revisit their previous conversation. As he fed the clothes into the orifice of the washing machine, he raised his head looked at Okiemute and paused what he was doing. “What is it that you want to know? I already told you that I had a good secondary school education”, he said firmly but politely. Okiemute kept looking at him, not knowing the exact words to say. He was being cautious not to provoke the young man in the process. “We all have stories to tell, you know”, he started. “Telling it might not reduce the burden from our shoulders, but it might get to the right ears, and you never can tell where the solution will come from”, he said still trying to persuade the housemaster to open up to him. “There is nothing to tell you for real. You asked about my good use of the English language, and I told you that I had a very good secondary school education. What else do you want me to say?” he asked. “I loved the enthusiasm you displayed yesterday when briefing me, and you seem to be proud with what you’re doing”, Okiemute was still talking when he cuts in, “my enthusiasm on my job bothers you? Should I not be enthusiastic and proud of the job that offers me the financial freedom to help those looking up to me?” “Exactly my point! So you’re in this for survival”, Okiemute said. The housemaster smiled, shook his head, and asked, “are you not here for survival too? Our Governors, Senators, Ministers and even the President, are they not all there for survival? Or do you think it is because they love to serve?” “Let’s leave politicians out of this. We all know they are always there to protect their personal interest or that of a group. But as individuals we can choose a position, not just for survival but out of passion and possibility to thrive in that field”, he replied. “So are you saying this job is demeaning for a guy that speaks fluent Queen’s English?” He asked in a sarcastic manner. “Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, you know what I am talking about”, Okiemute said, as he threw his hands in the air giving up on the conversation.
“That reminds me, please where can I get something to buy to entertain my guest?”, he asked. “Guest!” The housemaster exclaimed, with his hands akimbo. “Yes, someone is coming to see me. Or is it against the house rules?” Okiemute asked. “Not against the house rules per se, but it just explained why you did not go with them to the party yesterday. You wanted to save your energy for today”, he replied winking at Okiemute and nodding his head as he spoke. “Oh, mine! See how dirty your mind is. Who says the visitor is a lady? My friend is bringing clothes for me from the mainland, and it’s a guy!”, Okiemute explained. With a disappointing look, the housemaster asked, “so why are you worried about entertaining him? If he meets lunch he can join you and if not, your colleagues would likely have a bottle of wine in the fridge. Or you want to go and spend a thousand Naira for a bottle of beer at the lounge in the estate?” They stared at each other, as Okiemute did the mathematics in his head. “I will go with your advice. When he comes, I will watch as things play out”, he said and turned to take his leave. Just then the housemaster spoke up, “about what you said that everyone has a story, I know that is true. But I hate sharing mine because it saps my enthusiasm, and my enthusiasm is my strength. Once I lose it, life becomes meaningless”. Okiemute turned back, took a few steps towards him and placed his right hand on his shoulder and said, “it’s okay then. If you don’t want to share it, I won’t pressure you”. As he was about to take his hand off the shoulder and leave, the housemaster held the hand. “I want to share it with you now. Since you asked last night, it had made me reflect on all that has happened all these years, and I want to let it out”, he said.
They sat on the balcony together, and he narrated his ordeals.
“My father was Pyang Johnson”, he started. “He was named after our home town by my grandfather. Farming was the only occupation of my people until mining activities started in our village. After my father finished secondary school, as most rural young men would do, he came to the state capital in Jos, to search for greener pastures. He got a job as a messenger at the airport. With his very submissive nature and always available for errands, he became a very popular lad. One day, two white men came and asked how they can locate Pyang. Not knowing that they were talking about a place, the immigration officer sent for my father. When he came, the white men were disappointed. ‘How can a learned officer be mixing a place for a person?’ In despair, one of them brought out a piece of paper. It was an exploratory license given to their company by the federal government to explore for solid minerals in Pyang. Then my Dad spoke up. He told them that he was from there and that he was named after the community. They were happy to have found someone that can speak fairly good English and also understands the native language. They spoke with the sectional head, and my Dad was given three days off to go with them. My Dad said the whole village came out when they saw him with two white men. No police escort, no security, nothing. The community was peaceful and quiet. With the wisdom of a child, my Dad took them to his father’s house. After they narrated their purpose of coming, my grandfather took them to see the monarch of our community. Though the monarch was educated, he discussed with strangers through the palace interpreter. My Dad was part of the entourage because the white men took him as the interpreter they could trust. That was his first time in the monarch’s courtyard. They told the monarch in the presence of the Chiefs their purpose of coming, and that they came with permission from the then military government. After that meeting, they started exploration in our farmlands and forest reserves. The white men recruited young men from the community to go with them in the bush, as they knew the terrain better, but my Dad was kept as their spokesperson and later made the community liaison officer (CLO) when exploitation started fully. My Dad said it was later in life that he realised that the two white men that came were geologists.
My Dad used the money he was being paid to further his education. He got his A-levels and went further to gain admission to study History at the University of Jos. By the time he was done, the company was fully on ground in Pyang. Trouble started when the community wanted to have an agreement with the company. My Dad advocated for the employment of indigenes of our community, scholarship, community development as the needs arise, amongst others. The herdsmen that have always grazed in our lands requested to see the company management to negotiate their interest in the deal as they were part of the community. My Dad bluntly refused to grant them access, standing on the grounds that the herdsmen were nomads and not from that place, and so have no right to discuss anything with the company. Our monarch shared the same point of view as my father. But my grandfather was not pleased. He requested that my father should allow the people to make their request, after all, he would say, ‘the company has the prerogative to comply or not’. But with the backing of the monarch, my Dad refused. After much pressure from my grandfather, my Dad pushed for a nomadic school to be built for these herders at the outskirt of the community. That gesture was like adding fuel to fire. They were livid. The community was progressing and my Dad later got married to my mum. They had two daughters, by the time they had me, my Dad was a senior management staff and was entitled to free accommodation in Jos. So they moved from Pyang to stay in Jos. That year, there was a religious crisis in Jos, and neighbouring communities were affected. These herders keyed into the crisis to vet their anger. They attacked the palace and made an attempt on the company facilities. But before they got there, information of what they had done at the palace had reached the company, and security men were on ground to wade them off.
The company wrote a petition against the herders to the state government, and an investigative committee was set up. Before the committee got to Pyang, the angry youths set the Nomadic school built for the herders ablaze. This became an alibi for the herders, as they too started complaining of being victims of attack too. The chairman of the committee, one Col AB Bako, took side with the herders and never allowed the report to see the light of the day. Several petitions were written against him, and in one occasion, it was reported that he boasted that ‘our people went to school, and that school taught them how to write, so they should keep writing’. My Dad said he told him specifically to come and meet him if he needs more paper to write petitions. It was that bad. In self-defence, our monarch commanded that the herders are no longer welcomed. At this time, my grandfather was a palace chief, thanks to the contribution of my father to the community. He was the only one against the palace declaration to drive out the herders. He solicited for restraint. The tussle continued for four years, and after that, there was relative peace. One night my grandfather’s house was set on fire, killing my grandparents in the inferno. My Dad went to court, suing the herders association that has always stood in defence of the herders in our community. They too came to court accusing the palace of trying to frame them up. Holding to the fact that how can they kill the only man that was seeing things from their perspective. The case was in court until my father died. As the case dragged in the court, the community became a war zone. The youths went everywhere looking for these herdsmen, and the herdsmen too were looking for indigenes of Pyang. Farmlands became dead zones for farmers, as they were slaughtered in their numbers, and their daughters and wives raped.
The once peaceful community became a theatre of war. One day, my Dad got a distress call from the palace. He was at the company premises that day for a function with my mother and my younger brother. He rushed to the palace and saw a memo with a threat that says; ‘the light of Pyang will be put out tonight’. He drew the attention of the company to it, and heavily armed mobile policemen were stationed at the palace. He then set forth for Jos, with my mother and younger brother. On their way to Jos, he was ambushed. They opened fire on him, but he refused to stop. He managed to drive the car through these armed guys and fell into a ditch. He died in the process with my younger brother. My mum made it alive but she lost the use of her legs in the accident. One was broken due to the car crash, while the other was destroyed by bullets from the shoot out. It was devastating, as I just entered secondary school. The company took over my education and sent me to Lagos. I was admitted into the same school attended by the kids of the expatriates. In my fifth year in secondary school, the company had shut down operations in Pyang due to security reasons. The manager pleaded that I should be allowed to finish because of my father’s contribution to the company. By the time I graduated, there were no more funds to further, so I had to be a man. My father’s entitlement had been spent on saving my mum’s life. Since she was not a staff of the company, they only helped with the burial of my father and with the promise to train me.” He ended the narration, as he tried to hold himself from crying.
Okiemute was short of words, “what a sad tale, and thanks for sharing it with me. It might interest you to know that I lost my father too before my fifth birthday. But you know it has not ended, because you’ve not explained how you got here”, he said. “You will read that in my autobiography”, replied Housemaster. “At least I will make some money by sharing my story in that format than the free one you just heard”, he added. They both laughed. Just then, Idongesit came around to call Okiemute. Breakfast was ready. “It seems the story will have to wait after all”, the housemaster said. “Yeah, but I can’t wait to hear all of it”. Okiemute stood up and followed Idongesit from behind, and the housemaster resumed his washing.
IDEDE Oseyande, a graduate of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, is an unrepentant believer in the Nigeria project.
His concern for the actualisation of a prosperous nation and the continent, in general, is reflected in his written works.
He currently runs an online advocacy platform (www.socialwatchdog.ng) where he engages the government and the people.
Among his published works are ‘What is Left of What is Right?’, ‘The Portrait of a Revolutionary Leader’ and ‘Warri No Dey Carry Last’.
He is a guest writer for several blogs and his Attitudinal and Behavioral Coaching classes has transformed many lives.