ONCE A TAFAWA by Nsikan Udokang

Often, I declared out with ill contempt “Only weak men believe whatever comes their way. They stronger ones choose what to believe in”. And I was in the latter side.

But upon the next two or three weeks, an event occurred, which spanned from the 3rd of July, 2005 to 6th of September, which I now post this mail to the Chief Judge of Appeal court. A baffled event which I now share with my readers, influenced my earlier declaration.

A visitor might wander around the south-side of Mamako, along Lagos-Oshodi axis. Where the ill-fated ones of life lived in clustered slums, whose rusty rooftops displayed gold color at daylight and laid like brown dead leaves at night when the winds are high.

Amongst this slums, I once lived as a clerk, working at a nearby Appeal court: whose only cases in recent years, have been that of stolen animals and family disputes. Such an unworthy place to be called a court.

At the slum, from the rusty gate that swung weightless, banging it sides against the sidewalls and displaying an unceremonious inscription of “Ghetto” on it body. At the entrance what greets you are a band of happy but dirty children, whose only aim life is to dance around a burn fire, set up by Mama Biko; the plantain seller. An entrance to an overwhelming but yet sad gathering of many, though poor and underprivileged, but many.

My room was at the tail end of the slum area, which meant I heard and bore witness to several unfriendly discussions and gossips by neighbors sitting at their entrance. Most times, I was a party to their discussions and gossips.

The free and fair government had forgotten about this part of her rule, it convinced me to frown upon whatever came from them. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, it seems the government had become their own Caesar, but who was I to decide with my five thousand naira monthly wage?

The pungent surrounding was an eyesore to outsiders, yet a pleasant and conducive one to her tenants, including I as I inserted my key into the wooden keyhole and withdrew for the night. Not minding the stack of thrash littered at my doorstep. Now I must quickly rush over my narrative of the queer event after making you acquainted with the surroundings of where it all happened.

“No Ifeajuna, no! Do not shoot!” Those screams had greeted me earlier the next morning. Again. Over the past two weeks it had become my involuntarily alarm clock. It had been my next room neighbor. Only the muddy walls separated our room. Each night was not complete without his screams and cries. First, it was “Nzeogwu”, now it`s “Ifeajuna”. Names every enlightened Nigerian must have grown acquainted with, in the course of Nigeria`s history.

Oben my neighbor! Oben the screamer! Oben the tall con-artist, Oben! Oben! Only the warmth of my darkroom had kept me from shouting out too! My flashlight came to life, it rays illuminating the clock`s fading figures. It had been past six; and past six meant I had an untrusted one hour to be prepared for work. I owe that to Oben, I was never late for work.

The countless tales, the mysteries about my next room neighbor, Oben, were not told by him, but by fellow neighbors. Most times they would gather like a pack of murmuring geese, and only dismissed when Oben approached.

Since my tall, broad neighbor moved in, the previous month, we had never incited any friendly conversation.

“John we need to talk”

Oben had announced the moment I had trotted towards my room. I had just returned from the day`s work and the sun was fast disappearing. Oben stood gauntly at his threshold like Goliath had just been woken and I was to be the unlucky David. His white loin shone brightly in the evening`s dim light

“About what?”

I had tried my best to sound less interested, but I must admit, I was interested. My interest was an avalanche of curiosity. Having to speak with the popular Oben for the first time. How did he know my name?

“About everything, my screams, my nightmares and about Nigeria”.

He oscillated his pupils and fiddled with ivory buttons on his loin. Perhaps one of his tricks, and I was not ready to give in.

He moved a step closer to me, his dark face coming to full glow. The long tribal marks that ran on his left cheek and disappeared into his collar bone was scary, but I stood my ground.
Nigeria is a large country with bigger problems, all her citizens are compounded with several personal problems. To think, my neighbor compounded his problems with that of the country made me sigh heavily.

“Oben, get a rest” I twisted my doorknob and walked into my room “and don`t knock on my door”.
Loud taps had followed immediately.

“Oben, what is the problem?” I glared through space I created on my threshold. “I told you not to knock”

“Won`t you listen?” my neighbor asked solemnly.

“Listen to what? About you being someone you are not? Listen to your fairy tales? Your tricks won`t work…”

The hard realization had punched me like a bag of stones falling on a helpless cat. My neighbor`s eyes had widened and his lips had twisted. I could not take back the conclusion I got from gossips, the damage had already been done.

“This is the first time we are speaking, how do you know so much about me?” He spoke after much hesitation, stuttering with his breadth. I opened the door wider.

“Okay, I will be safe inside my room” I offered.

“Safe from what? Am not a ghost”

“You claim to be one, to be a reincarnation of…”

His eyebrows raised and furrows appeared on his face.

“You must be hearing a lot about me, but do not believe all”

He pushed passed me into the room, towards where my arrays of books laid scattered like broken bricks from Jericho`s walls.

“You claim to have been whom by the way?”

“Tafewa…Tafawa Balewa” He stuttered plainly with slight reluctance.

“We once had Tafawa Balewa as the first indigenous prime minister, he was assassinated and I don`t think there lived any Balewa after him, except con-artists and liars”. The last line was intended for him. He shuddered and heaved heavily.

“That’s why… that’s why I came to you. You are hard to convince”.

“You don`t know me”

“I found out about you, the same way you found out about me”

“Whatever, you must be rich. How was your visit to the Queen`s palace? Does the emir know about you?”

Oben smiled, displaying a set of brown displaced dentition, a more reason my hatred and disgust grew.

“Goodnight Oben, get yourself a rest and stop living in an illusion”. I escorted him to the door, the last time I heard from him.

Hours ran by, like sand in an hourglass, and days grew into gray weeks. Two weeks had passed and I was yet to hear from my neighbor, Oben. There had been no signs of his presence. A “To let” signpost mired his door, my last caution must have tumbled his essence.

I smiled at the cars that jetted pass and the grin-grin of bicycles, announcing their presence to passersby on the road. The dark circles around my eyes had been replaced with a radiant smile.
“Sir, here is your tea”.

A plump waitress had announced her presence with a flirty smile. I returned her gesture with an extra note on my bill. An extra note I regretted in the days that followed.

She bent low and dropped a cup of tea on a wooden table. My eyes were fixated on her mountainous figure, till she disappeared into a store that stood high on the hills, overlooking the bustling bus stop in front of the tea shop.

The tea shop, my favorite place for the evenings; where the birds flapped their wings above freely and the winds danced in circles, where I had my evening teas and read old newsletters from the previous week.

What happened next shook my being. Photographs on one, two, and three; all of my newsletters bore a familiar man. Oben my lost neighbor was on the cover of every newsletter in my possession. Each, with an interesting news line.

It was actually Oben, but my prejudice personality caught up with me, and I must admit, I was a bitter man. I spat furiously to the curious stares of fellow tea customers. The news lines were, as I read.

“The queen reunites with an old friend”

“Tafawa Balewa`s killers are revealed by a reincarnated self”

“Tafawa Balewa`s reincarnated self: Sir, Oben visits his old home town in Bauchi”.

The last news lines confirmed what I dread to accept. How one man`s illusion story could be looked upon as gibberish by me, and yet believed by the whole country.

The last news letter read:

“Oben is Tafawa: Wounds and signs on Tafawa`s body found on a man`s body. Is Tafawa truly back?”.

I made a sudden dash for the stairs that lead down the road, knocking off my cup of tea. A written letter to the Judge of Appeal Court will address every wrong or gross conducts of a con-artist, one which has taken the whole country unaware.

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