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Caught by Tolu Daniel
I have heard about the stars that encircle around a dazed man’s face after receiving a knock on the head or a brutal blow to the face, but I never thought any of it was real. My unbelief could have stemmed from the fact that I saw so many cartoons while I was growing up. Those yellow suspended birds that hover around the cartoon characters always seemed mythical to me; I never imagined that they could ever become so reachable, almost touchable. But there I was, standing in front of the igbo trader with the enormous sausages that were supposed to be his hands, as he dazed me with the biggest slap that my face had ever encountered. It felt as though I had run into a moving train, for a split second, I was in a universe that was neither here nor there, it was though all was on a merry go round. The birds danced, they even sang, so was the glory of Chibuzor’s slap on my face.
I would have cried a fountain, I would have shed buckets of tears there and then, because the sight of Chibuzor’s beefy hands should have been enough to make any child cry, but I was not a child or was I? A scrawny looking and witty nine years old with what many described as a bad habit would describe me. I didn’t feel any pain after the slap; however my head suddenly felt lighter, the world appeared as a shade of many colors with my brain suspended for a little while in a sepia configuration; the little birdies were still dancing around my head. I knew what I did was termed as wrong by the society but I had issues with societal stereotypes and what everybody defined as wrong or right. I couldn’t help myself, I felt as though I had a responsibility, like superman’s was to save the world, mine was to defy the generational belief system that certain things were wrong and certain others were right; I had questions that nobody was willing to give me answer to. So I developed theories for myself and ensured that I live by these theories, these seems a little too impossible for a child of nine, right? But I was not just any child.
For as long as I could remember, I had developed an affinity for seeing movies; I loved seeing movies, in whatever genre the movie was, I would watch. I remembered once when my mother needed to send me on an errand and after she had yelled my name over six to seven times, she had decided to come looking for me and found me sprawled carelessly on the rug, body facing down and my two arms holding my head firm, mouth slightly opened in reckless abandon as a long slimy salivary rope connected the floor and my mouth as I paid raft attention to the movie that I was seeing. My love for movies was never derailed by the fact that I lived in a town that could not boast of a single cinema, the best we could do was to buy these movies from the movie store at whatever price.
So whenever I went to Chibuzor’s store to buy movies, I always picked one extra without his knowledge. I was subscribed to the school of thought that stated that Chibuzor was cheating me, that the movies that he was selling to me were a lot cheaper than the amount that he was selling them and that I needed to ensure that I did my own back, a tit for tat philosophy from a nine year old could never go wrong, but I was mistaken, the music of the birdies still lingered in my head and was an unsubstantial proof.
Today Chibuzor un-customarily asked to check the backpack that I had brought into his store. As a witty nine year old, I tried to get myself out of the mess, I stalled, insulted him in Yoruba but unfortunately Chibuzor insisted that he had to see the contents of my bag. So, reluctantly I allowed him to check and the expression on his face was one that would remain with me even in my adult years.
“Ewo….oooo!!!” Chibuzor exclaimed, his eyes bulging like a ripe volcano ready to explode, I should have made a dash for the door at that instance, but I didn’t want to, I thought that I could talk myself out of it like most of my usual escapades. I was certain that he would understand once he heard my opinion and the reason why I was doing what I was doing, but like many of the things that happened that fateful day, I could not have been more wrong.
“You skinny little thief” He screamed as he threw my bag at me and followed it with a thunderous slap. I would have replied him like I normally do to my older siblings when they accuse me of testing out my theories on them, ‘what sort of nonsense was that? How dare he insult me like that? Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am? Just a mere road side trader’: but the slap was so resounding, that it drowned every thought from my head, Mr. Kokosari my Elementary School teacher whose palms my face had grown accustomed to would have been proud of Chibuzor.
I was still in my dazed state when I realized that our little squabble had attracted several on-lookers and interested participants and there was a crowd gathering slowly at the store and somewhere in my head, in the deepest of my recess, I could hear some diabolical chants or maybe it was my mind that was playing games on me.
“Ti owo ba te ole, Pipa ni e pa, ka roun jeba lola”
(If a thief is caught, he must be killed to make an example for the rest)
For a child that grew up in a very superstitious environment, who watched tales by moonlight without missing an episode, who was subjected to listening to ‘Nkan nbe’ by Kola Olawuyi on the radio every Friday night and who never missed a chance to sit by grandpa who was a major exporter of unrated and scary tales, I was certain that I was going to die; that song was always accompanied with bloodshed in all of grandpa’s tales and those crappy Yoruba movies that we saw at home, and yes, there were no age restrictions to most of them.
Chibuzor dragged me with the back of my shirt and dragged me outside to the main-street, and rained down another set of slaps on me, I didn’t wince once, neither did I pretend nor behave as though I felt any tinge of pain but I didn’t miss the chirping birds that hung over my head. The scene was so overwhelming; I could not bring myself to look up, by now I was feeling ashamed that I got caught. I still felt that I was supposed to get a chance to defend myself, because my unfortunate theory still lurked somewhere in my mind.
Among the several persons that were gathered watching the seeming movie that was unfolding, was a rather strange woman; she was strange because of the fact that she was strangely attired. Garbed in a traditional white attire, the blouse was hanging loosely to her lean shape and the Iro was held tightly too, she was jeweled in cowries and shells, and fairness of her skin made her all the more attractive. Chibuzor and his slap seemed to become the last thing on my mind as the woman got nearer. There was a longing in me to know more about her and the longing consumed me: She reminded me of the Yoruba mythical character called Yeye Osun , the first wife of Sango, the one whom a river in South-western Nigeria was also named after, she moved nearer to the scene where I was being manhandled and said something that I could not really understand to the orderlies that were with her and the next thing that I could remember was the manner in which the orderlies yanked me out of the clutches of Chibuzor and his cohorts.
“Don’t you know that this boy is the son of the soil?” the weird looking lady screamed at the angry igbo traders from whom I was just yanked off. “Do you want to take the law into your own hands?” I wondered what she meant by ‘the son of the soil’, I wondered if my crime was made any easier by the fact that I was an indigene of the town or the fact that I was a Yoruba and Chibuzor was Igbo. And why ethnicity was always a tool so easily used during the smallest of squabbles.
“Madam, I no send law o, do you know wetin my oga don do me because of this brat?” Chibuzor barked back at her. “Where law dey that time?”
“So you think beating him to death because of a few Nairas won’t cause you wahala? Abi?”
Chibuzor was angry and for good reasons too, the woman seemed as though she was not trying to understand at all. Ignoring Chibuzor she just snapped her fingers, a rather strange act that seemed overtly dramatic but which he orderlies understood only tool well as they came to drag me inside an ancient looking white 505 Peugeot.
“Madam, make I no disrespect you o, where you dey carry that pikin dey go? Me I wan collect my money…you think say I dey crase?” as he was uttering those words, the crowd was slowly thinning out, some of the onlookers were slowly losing interest, that was how such matters were solved these days, when the intertribal sword was drawn, nobody dares tackle it without having a better weapon in the fight. And without uttering another word back to Chibuzor, the lady checked her white handbag and removed a minty whole one thousand naira note and handed it over to Chibuzor. Despite myself, my eyes twitched with rage, I struggled to get free of my captors but they were a lot stronger than I was.
“But ma’m, he does not deserve the money”
“Did you deserve to get beaten?” she asked looking at me with face like an eagle, as though she could follow it up with a scarier version of Chibuzor’s slap. I had to change the direction of my gaze; her hawk face seemed to have had some sort of Kraken effect on me.
Tolu Daniel is a fiction writer, blogger and administrator of A Poet’s Diary. He blogs at http://toluojuola.wordpress.com and is @iamToluDaniel on twitter.