Mum doesn’t wait for Jermaine to exhale, to change, to stretch his tired legs, before she breaks the news:
“Your Master Zambezi is dead.”
“Mum, please.” Jermaine tries to steady his breath. “Which Master Zambezi?”
“How many do you know?”
“The. . .?”
“Exactly. The unspeakable.”
“Seriously? How did he die?”
“The idiot drowned himself.” She lets out a rattly laugh. “I heard he told his neighbours that the river was calling him, so he went to answer its call. Can you imagine? I thought he’d live forever.”
“Wow. That’s. . . I don’t know. . .”
“Yeah, good news, I guess.”
“You’re not happy to hear it abi what?”
“Did they find his body?”
“My dear, none of my two eyes saw it o. I only heard.”
“How can we be so sure? I doubt it already.”
Mum squints at him, as though she’s seeing him for the first time after a decade and can’t remember where they first met. “You wanted your personal vengeance, didn’t you?”
Jermaine begins to unlace his shoes. He doesn’t know what else to do with his hands. He’s sitting with Mum on the veranda, where the wind has left a gauze of dust on the chipped tiles. It is almost midday, the sun filtering through jellied clouds, yet the morning cold has refused to go. Jermaine wishes he hadn’t come, that he’d remained in Benin City, watching the news and hoping people would make better electoral choices this time around.
Mum places a hand on his knee. “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s meant to be. Vengeance belongs to God.”
He doesn’t respond. Instead, he goes to his room, plops on the bed, and lets his mind wander. He hears the sound of splurging water, the heave of wind. He sees himself squatting by the sea, his sleeves and jeans rolled up, water dripping from his hands. In the distance, Master Zambezi’s body is bobbing toward the frothy edges of the sea. Master Zambezi’s face is stark white, his cheeks soft like dough, swollen like a smooth pouch of air. The rest of his body is submerged in the water. Behind it, the water breaks in wild ripples, swirls, falls calm and silent again. The water roars like a wounded beast, throws itself at the silent sky, leaves spumes in its wake. Master Zambezi is no longer there when Jermaine looks again. He opens his eyes that instant. He tries to watch TV so he can forget about Master Zambezi, but they’re showing a swimming pool somewhere in Ibadan, with its marble floors and turquoise waters, where two teenagers drowned days ago.
Later, when Mum brings him dinner, he tells her, “I’ll leave tomorrow, after voting.”
“Because Master Zambezi died, and you didn’t get to—”
“I only came to vote. Peter and I have something to do tomorrow evening.”
“I think there’s a way they do this PVC thing now. You don’t have to be coming home every time to vote. Visit their office in Benin and—”
“I don’t know. . . I’m convinced Master Zambezi can’t die just like that.”
The next day, in the pooling unit, Master Zambezi materialises behind Jermaine on the queue. Jermaine doesn’t scream, doesn’t nudge the woman before him to ask her if she can see the man behind him. His throat is parched; his breath has become concrete, bearing down against his lungs, but he remains there, in front of a ghost, hands fisted in pockets, eyes focused ahead. People are complaining that the card reader is faulty. It has rejected three PVCs, including that of a popular thug who breezes past, incurring thunder on the electoral chairman for providing a faulty card reader. Murmurs of sorry, take heart, eyah follow him, as if he’d just lost his mother. The woman before Jermaine lurches sideways and spits on the grass; it is round and iridescent, a boil on a magnifying lens, and Jermaine jolts backward, nauseated, nearly plunging his elbow into Master Zambezi’s side.
“I don taya for dis country,” the woman says.
“I swear to God,” the man ahead of her says. His jaws are sharp as if sculpted out of rock.
“Tins dey worst every day, and dem say make boys no follow road,” another adds, his voice sprinkly, like radio static.
“I pray o,” Sharp-Jaws says. “I go follow road next year. Who wan stop me?”
“But I hear say Tripoli don close. Dem dey kill boys for ordinary Agadez sef.”
The woman hisses. “No be our country una go blame? Voting is now technology, voting is now technology; get your PVC, get your PVC. But see as PVC manshin dey do like pikin wey convulsion catch.”
Static Voice throws a dry stick in the air. “Yeye manshin.”
Someone follows suit. “Yeye govment.”
Yet another. “Yeye election.”
“Yeye ballot box.”
Chorus: “Yeye country!” Sticks flying in the air like frightened doves. “Na we talk am. Dis country na yeye!”
The policeman allocated to the polling unit walks around, his rotund belly rolling ahead of him. “Make una be pashient,” he cries. “I take God beg una.” Baring his teeth at Jermaine, he says, “Bros Oyinbo, be pashient. Sun no go tamper with your skin in Jesus’ name.”
Jermaine has barely nodded when a cheer rises from the front. The woman ahead of him announces that the machine has read someone’s PVC. Two more are read successfully. The cheers increase, so does the impatient shuffling of feet, the dispersal of dust. Party agents are now scrambling for voters. One of them looks like a street kid out of a Peckham-set movie: dreads dyed a juicy yellow, lips shiny-black and scarred, a Chelsea jersey flung across his body, exposing steel-firm muscles and damp hair. The other agent is smiling like a born-again wary of sinning with a new body. He has his left hand in his boxers. Jermaine wonders where boys pick up this dirty habit, tucking your hands in your boxers like you’ve been invaded by lice.
An Audi pulls up, upsetting a surf of dust. Its owner steps out like a philanthropist about to donate elixirs, swinging folds of agbada, strutting up the queue, slapping the policeman on the forehead with a thousand naira note. After voting, he walks back to his car, all the while raising his thumbs at the boys, zealously handshaking the men, slapping the girls’ butts. They all call him chief: chief, chief, chief.
“Make sure you people vote for my party o,” he calls in a wrung-out voice. “After you vote, come with your party ID to acada, that pink building at the end of the field. My boys will see you fine fine.”
“Is this not the same corruption we’re fighting against?” Master Zambezi says to the man behind him. “Is this not why we’re here, to correct past mistakes?”
“Which mistakes? Which corruption?” The man’s tone is near-radical. “Abeg chop their money when they offer it. It doesn’t happen all the time!”
“And continue to vote ineligible people?”
“You can collect their money and still not vote for them na. After all, it’s our money. Are they not all the same sef? No good person will ever be a politician.”
“You know, our generation failed, but the saddest thing is that we’ve bequeathed the same ideologies to our youths, the so-called leaders of tomorrow. How can our tomorrow be better than today—”
“Abeg, it’s okay. I don’t want all these professor vibes this early morning.”
Jermaine finally turns to face Master Zambezi, to catch the bruised expression on his face. But Master Zambezi remains poker-faced, his eyes questioning the distance. He is thin and tall, with a toppling gait; an oval face hanging on a long neck like a wheel affixed to a scarecrow; lips shredded by the harmattan, stripes of mush-red and purple. He’s wearing what he’d have worn on a school day twenty years ago: a blue plaid shirt, a bowtie, sharply ironed khaki trousers, leather sandals, and a flat cap. He’s old enough to be slightly bent at the waist, doubled over a walking stick, gripping its question-mark-shaped handle. It occurs to Jermaine at that instant that he could actually do something. There’s no harm in raising an alarm or walking to the authorities at the front of the queue to make a report, or confronting Master Zambezi and steeling himself for consequences. Or he could simply scoop sand and hurl it at Master Zambezi’s blank face. Doing so, as he’d seen in Nollywood, could send a ghost back where it came.
It was from Nollywood Jermaine first heard French. That was twenty years ago; he was nine and innocent. Then, French was English language that glided with ease, that had tamed consonants and liquid vowels, that seemed to come from the nostrils. Some Nollywood actors, especially the fair-complexioned ones who played bad-boy or spoilt-girl roles, spoke French. NTA broadcasters spoke French. The red-haired lady who munched her words on the BBC spoke what Jermaine termed ‘higher French’. Jermaine had hoped one day to acquire an education that came pre-equipped with higher French, but he’d have to finish primary school first. Then secondary. By then, he’d have found a boy like Jack in Titanic and become his boyfriend. They’d kiss and hug, but never lie together on the same bed. He’d get pregnant if they did, and if that happened, he’d never go to higher French university. His father impregnated Mum and fled. That was why she stopped school at Form Four and ran away from her parents’ house.
Her parents wanted her to have an abortion; she wanted to cuddle her child, teach her child the alphabet, trim her child’s eyebrows into neat lines, tickle her child into white-toothed laughter. After leaving home, she moved into a shack by the market. Little by little, she built it into something protective: bricks and sticks and lathes and tarpaulin, and a home was ready. She started selling carrot oil at busy junctions instead of studying to become the nurse she’d dreamt of as a child. The sale of carrot oil was lucrative at that time. Within months, she could afford jewelry and Hollandaise. She bought Jermaine stuffed toys other kids worshipped through shop windows in impossible dreams. She cooked rice with green beans and carrots and corned beef. Jermaine became one of the first pupils to pay his school fees.
Mum wasn’t satisfied with Jermaine’s school, though. She thought the teachers were old and lazy. Many of them, grandparents who should have been fighting for their pensions, staggered to school and crashed on the veranda to catch their breaths. Others taught with shaky voices and trembling hands. One of them was Jermaine’s teacher. He was penalised over age forgery, claiming he was fifty when his last declaration of age revealed he was actually sixty-five. Mum withdrew Jermaine from the school after that incident and enrolled him in a private school.
It was there, in his new school, that Jermaine met Master Zambezi, his new teacher. Master Zambezi hopped while walking. He taught with the enthusiasm of megaphone preachers. And he spoke higher French: more musical, spoken with a chirpy, almost feminine voice, nothing like what Jermaine had heard before.
In his French, chair wasn’t cheier, like it would be in other French variants Jermaine knew. Instead, it was stretched—cheeeieeer—almost like he was breaking into music midsentence. Table became teeeeibl. Shirt became shurrrrrrt (“. . . raise your tongue towards your palate to pronounce ‘rrrrrrrrr’. . .”). Worm became werrrrrm. And, most outrageous of all, ferk became fuck.
During break, when the class had emptied out, Master Zambezi invited Jermaine to his table. “Spell children,” he said.
Jermaine looked down at the floor and picked flakes from his nose.
“Are you deaf or dumb? I say spell children.”
Jermaine could spell children. He could spell even more difficult words like congratulations, interesting, manufacturing. He picked up milk tins and matchboxes and crumpled newspapers and memorised every word he found on them. But now he was being asked to spell children—just children—and he was stunned, standing like he’d been struck by lightning.
“All these children from government schools. I hope you can cope here. I don’t fancy idle elements in my class. . .”
Jermaine stared at Master Zambezi’s toes. They were long and straight, like pencils. Did he sharpen his toenails? Was there a special sharpener for it?
“Well, I’ve not taught an albino before so I don’t know—”
“My name is not albino sir.”
“Of course, of course.” He chuckled. “Come see if you can pronounce these words I’ve written here.”
Jermaine stood tall beside him. First, on the balls of his feet. Then, properly on his toes. He couldn’t see anything. He craned his neck. Squinted hard. Silently promised never to give Mum a single headache again if God would open his eyes. But the words stayed blurry, like fog on a mirror. Master Zambezi pulled the paper away when his nose was almost touching it.
“Are you sure you can cope, Jermaine?”
“Yes sir. Ayam carrying first-first in my before-before school.”
“Well, that’s enough for today. It’s break, go and play.”
“My mummy say I will get black-black spot if I play in the sun.”
He sat by the window and watched the girls play Ten-Ten. He loved to play with girls, to play Ten-Ten, even though everyone teased him for being so feminine. “People like you will never find a girlfriend talk less of a wife,” Mum’s neighbour, Titi, always told him. The day he revealed he didn’t want a girlfriend, that he wanted a boyfriend, Titi laughed and laughed, and then dressed him in Mum’s gown, ran red eyeliners across his brows, wore him a maroon lipstick and asked him to smack, smack, smack, and they went outside to check out potential boyfriends.
Jermaine didn’t like any of them. “Is Master Zambezi I like,” he said. “I want to get pregnancy for him.”
Pregnancy, that’s the policeman’s nickname, ostensibly because of his belly. People are calling him—“Pregnancy, abeg come,” “Pregnancy, abeg show”—pulling his collar, pushing money into his hands because they want to vote and leave this field quickly. It’s five hundred naira to jump the queue. One thousand to get to the front and vote instantly. Two thousand if you’d like to leave while someone votes on your behalf. The woman before Jermaine shakes her head no-no-no: she can’t give anybody her kobo. How much does she make from her garri? How much did the district chairman give her to vote for his stupid and useless party? God forbid bad thing!
As Yellow Hair leads a woman to the ballot box, she snatches her hand from his grip. “How much una party give me?” she shouts, knotting her scarf around her waist as though ready for a fight. “How much? Only onions and salt. Dis oda party, dem give my oga ten k. Abeg shift.”
The Hand-in-Boxers guy sticks out his tongue at Yellow Hair because he has the woman now, his arms wrapped carefully around her shoulder. He’s still holding her hand to the paper when Yellow Hair pushes him against the cubicle. In retaliation, he swings around and sends an elbow into Yellow Hair’s neck. Yellow Hair moves backwards like a charging ram and pulls a switchblade from his belt. That’s when Pregnancy intervenes. He reminds them this is close balloting: no one should force or cajole voters or even accompany voters to the box. But he’s barely turned when Yellow Hair presses another man’s thumb to the paper.
Electoral malpractice, that’s what Master Zambezi called it. His voice was hoarse the day he taught it in class. It seemed to Jermaine that this electoral malpractice had taken something or someone from Master Zambezi. Something as precious as his canes. Someone as priceless as his mother. That day, Jermaine resolved to study in a French-awarding university that offered weapons in combating electoral malpractice for Master Zambezi’s sake.
After the lesson on the Seven Rivers of Africa, Jermaine realised studying French for Master Zambezi’s sake wasn’t worth it. His French only felt exceptional because everyone else spoke terrible English; Jermaine had discovered little kids in London and America who spoke a far better one.
That morning, Master Zambezi wrote the words on the board and, as usual, Jermaine could see them in a line, but he just couldn’t sort out the individual letters.
Congo, Senegal, Zambezi, Orange, Limpopo, Niger, Nile.
Carol Saw Zebra On Lady Nora’s Nose.
Carol for Congo, Saw for Senegal, Zebra for Zambezi, Orange for On, Limpopo for Lady, Niger for Nora, Nile for Nose.
Master Zambezi went round urging each pupil to spell and pronounce the words. Chris couldn’t pronounce Zambezi properly. He kept saying Sambesi because there was no z in his mother tongue. Master Zambezi pulled and twisted his ears in front of the class. “You must learn how to pronounce well in my class!” he said. “I can’t have idle elements whose first language is a barrier to their English!” Then he started asking everyone to pronounce Zambezi. By the end of the class, he’d earned the nickname, Master Zambezi.
When it was Jermaine’s turn to spell and pronounce, he only stared and picked his nose. The words were a long, ashen sponge.
“Primary Three and you can’t identify letters?” Master Zambezi threw his hands in the air. “I said it. These government school children!”
“I cannot see board,” Jermaine said to the floor.
Master Zambezi didn’t hear him, so he gave him six strokes of the cane.
The next day, Jermaine told him after morning assembly, his hands shielding his eyes, the words barely leaving his mouth. Master Zambezi placed him in the front seat. The letters on the board blinked like stars in a navy-blue sky. He didn’t realise he’d been straining his eyes until his forehead began to ache.
“Can you see the board from there?” Master Zambezi asked.
He nodded: a lie.
“Then what’s the topic on the board?”
Normally, someone would cup their mouth and whisper something, to spare a classmate the wrath of Master Zambezi’s cane. But in Jermaine’s case, no one intervened. It was him against the world. Him alone. A plucked chick amid a flight of kites.
“Class, what’s the ninth commandment?” Master Zambezi asked.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness!”
“And false means what?”
“And if you lie?”
“You will be corrected!”
“Master Do Good!”
After caning him, Master Zambezi paired him with Ato. Ato was called Grandma Primary Three because she’d developed breasts and sometimes, there were discs of dried blood on her skirt. Jermaine would be copying from her henceforth because Master Zambezi didn’t want an idle element in his class.
Ato wrote as if she pitied her notebook; Jermaine had to get really close to see her handwriting. And he couldn’t do so without having to rest his chin on Ato’s hand. Ato elbowed him away at first attempt. When they were given classwork, Ato shielded her work with her hands. “Promise you tell me answer first,” she said. “I read question for you if you promise.”
Jermaine traded his answers for Ato’s questions. Ato submitted first. Master Zambezi scribbled ‘copied’ across Jermaine’s work and caned him again for being a cheat alongside an idle element.
“Idle elements,” Master Zambezi mutters as the thug who’d incurred thunder on the electoral chairman alights from a Benz. “Imagine, leaders of tomorrow!”
The man behind him, obviously tired of his rants, says nothing. He looks on as a hefty man climbs out of the Benz after the thug. He’s wearing a shirt that struggles to protect his paunch from poking eyes. “Who be de goat wey disqualify my boy?” he asks. “Guy, who disqualify you?”
Pregnancy hurries to him, curtseying, briefly removing his cap. “Jando the moneybag! Anything for ya boy?”
“Ah, Pregnancy. So you dey here when dem dey disqualify my guy.”
“Chei!” Pregnancy jumps up in mock-alarm. “Who be de maga wey disqualify am? Dem kiss crase?”
“His PVC is invalid,” comes a soft voice. “The card reader couldn’t read it.”
“Oh, corper. Una don too try today o. You don even chop since morning?” Before she can answer, he’s already slapped a thousand naira note to her breasts. The thug grabs more than ten ballot papers and thumbprints on them while Pregnancy stands aloof, chewing a dongoyaro stick.
“What nonsense!” Master Zambezi howls. “This is just the height of it!” He produces his phone and taps Jermaine. “My son, I can’t see my phone properly, even with these glasses. Please help me search for Commissioner. Dial him for me. He has to be aware of these atrocities!”
That Master Zambezi doesn’t recognise him makes him both relieved and paranoid. Relieved because perhaps he’s not a ghost. Paranoid because. . .he can’t tell exactly. He muses over the irony: Master Zambezi handing him his phone because he can’t see it properly even with these glasses. He feels a fit of triumph, but because he doesn’t know if it’s part of Master Zambezi’s gimmicks, he hands the phone back. “You don’t have to call anyone, sir,” he says. “They’re all corrupt. A call can’t even move an ant.”
Master Zambezi looks at him with liquid eyes, the quizzical gaze of a child gradually losing their innocence. There are navy-blue rings around his eyes. Jermaine hasn’t seen such a thing before, and wonders, very briefly, if they are what tell ghosts from humans. He chuckles just as Master Zambezi cowers, swallowing his defeat in silence, realising, probably, that the world he’d known, the world of fairness and justice and unquestionable authority and uncompromising obeisance, is fast spinning out of his comprehension. Jermaine suddenly wants to hug him, kiss his forehead, hug him some more. Stripped of all the anger he’d been wrestling with, he feels deep pity for Master Zambezi, for his ignorance, for his purblindness, for his bowed head and clenched fists.
Jermaine pitied Headmistress because she was sad and lonely. They said she didn’t have children. Her husband left her for a university girl who could cook fried rice and chicken the proper way. Headmistress was still young, perhaps just five years older than Mum, but she was always sullen, like old people. The only thing that brought her to life was music. She danced like a whirlwind. She was twirling in her office the day Jermaine walked in.
“How may I help you?” she said, ignoring Jermaine’s greeting.
“I cannot see board ma. So, Master Zambezi say I should come and meet you.”
“And who’s Master Zambezi?”
“Sorry ma. Master Oboh. Primary three.”
“Interesting. Why can’t you see the board?”
“Because. . . ” He was twisting his hands, willing them to speak for him. “Because. . . Because…”
“Should I send for Oboh or—”
“Because ayam albino ma!”
“Wow. He won’t let you into his class until your problem is solved?”
“I’ll write a letter for you. Give it to your mother when you get home, okay? But we can beg Oboh to permit you for today—”
“No ma! He’ll beat me!”
Jermaine huddled in her office until she sent him off to play at breaktime. The sun was mild, almost watery, and the girls were skipping under the mango trees. Jermaine walked shyly to them. Ato nudged Suzanna, a thin girl with four teeth missing, and they laughed and clapped hands.
“You wan’ join?” Ato asked.
“Oya open your eye look sun. If not, you cannot join.”
The sun stung his eyes. He quickly brought his head down. The world around him was an endless shadow, as if some monstrous alien had sucked off all the lights. He felt about the ground and sat down, and the girls ran around him, clapping and singing about an albino who couldn’t see in the afternoon.
The sun, in the afternoon, burns with yellow ferocity. There are whistling sounds in the trees and a prickly smell in the air. People are passing sneezes around like bartenders serving wine at a party. The woman ahead of Jermaine sneezes, Sharp-Jaws takes it from there, then passes it to the front. Fortunately, the voting process is moving fast, more people are paying to vote and go. Pregnancy dozes off in a chair, a string of saliva pooling onto his shirt. In place of him, a hirsute man collects money from those willing to leave the field on time.
Jermaine wants to pay too, but if he does, he’d leave earlier and the mystery of Master Zambezi’s appearance would lay forever in his mind, unsolved. He hops out of the queue to call Mum but she doesn’t pick up. He saunters away in search of table water. Back to the queue, he hands Master Zambezi a bottle. The old man grabs the bottle like an entitlement, but he looks at Jermaine with his liquid eyes and says thank you. Jermaine asks him to go home since he considers paying to vote electoral malpractice, but the old man won’t stop talking about the man he’s here to vote for. “He’s the reason I didn’t die when I quit teaching. I’ll wait to vote. I’ll vote the right way.”
“Oh, you’re a teacher.”
“Was.” He twists his mouth into what Jermaine believes is a smile. “Did you not hear me say quit?”
“Of course. My apologies. Just curious, sir. Why did you quit teaching?”
“I’m tired, young man.”
Jermaine offers to find him a chair. The ones in the classrooms are broken and dusty. Some have lost a leg; they’re mostly propped against the wall for balance. The teacher’s padded chair is whole, only dusty. Jermaine takes off his hat and whips at it repeatedly, sending up a storm of dust. When he lifts the chair, its left arm falls off. In its place are red ants scurrying into the spaces between foam and wood.
There’s another thick queue at acada, the pink building at the edge of the field. People who’d voted for Agbada Man’s party converge here to collect their money. There are uniformed officers peering at party IDs while phoning their agents at the booth. Once they confirm these people voted for their party, the officers hand them thin envelopes. A woman with cropped hair and fisted jaws lingers at the doorway. “I vote for una,” she insists. “Una better gimme money before I swear for una!”
“But, madam, you don’t have our party ID,” an official says, his voice rash and prickly. “How do we know for sure?”
“I no blame you,” she says to the official. “You know who I blame? Your mama wey no see money take abort you!”
Linda had had an abortion. That was the latest rumour in school. But initially, Master Zambezi told the class she was ill. Ato was appointed acting monitor because she was the biggest in the class. Then, one day, Master Zambezi announced Linda wouldn’t be coming back and decided to give oral tests to determine the next monitor.
Jermaine scored highest. He was already imagining himself writing Ato’s name all over noisemaker lists when Master Zambezi announced, “Ojie Jermaine scored ninety-five, but he can’t be monitor. His eyes are bad, you see, because he’s an albino—sorry, he’s an oyinbo pepper.” He chuckled, then turned to Jermaine. “I reckon Headmistress sent a letter to your mum.”
Jermaine kept his face to the floor.
“Am I not talking to you?”
“Class, what’s the fifth commandment?”
“Honour thy father and thy mother!”
“And here in class, I’m your what?”
He caned Jermaine on his heels because every other part of his body was an overripe paw-paw. Then he made Samson, with sixty-two marks, monitor.
At home, Jermaine finally handed the letter to Mum. She tipped his chin up with her index finger. “What did you do?” she said. “Tell me, you know I won’t beat you.”
“I cannot see board because ayam albino. Why am I albino, Mummy?”
The letter slipped through her fingers and rested the floor. She took his hand and laid it on her chest, right on the spot where he could touch her heartbeat. “Can you feel it?” She sounded teary. “It beats just for you. It would still beat if you weren’t albino. And you’re albino because that’s just it. The same way I’m your mummy because that’s just it.”
“The same way daddy is not here because that’s just it?”
“Yes. We must adapt to the things we can’t change or control, Jemmy. But for now, come help me pick the dress I’ll wear to your school tomorrow.”
After the visit to Headmistress, they went to the teaching hospital in Benin City where he’d get glasses to see well. They walked through long corridors. They filled forms and waited in lobbies. They joined queues upon queues. Later, a smiling nurse in an over-starched uniform handed them a card and said, “Come back with this on Monday. Make sure you stay in the left queue.”
Master Zambezi has disappeared from the queue when Jermaine returns with a good chair. The man behind him makes vague gestures and looks away. The woman ahead of Jermaine says, “I resemble gbomo-gbomo for your eye?” Jermaine is still looking around for him when three boys leap out of the bush, threads of white mistflower stuck to their sweaty backs. Before anyone can react, they reach into their pockets and pull out guns. One of them fires a shot at a tree. The air goes piquant: the sting of burnt rubber. “Una wan vote, abi?” their leader asks the frozen crowd. His eyes, red with caged fury, sparkle in the sun. “Una sense no tell una say dis people dey use una head? Una tink say una vote go count? If una know wetin good for una, make una go house now!”
It is after the boys make away with the ballot boxes that life returns. People scaling the bamboo fence even though there’s an opening somewhere. Toddlers crying. Mothers running haphazardly, groping wildly for them. Pregnancy abandoning his motorcycle because it has refused to start. An old woman falling, rising, falling again. Jermaine stopping by the pile of blocks outside because something shiny catches his eyes: Master Zambezi’s glasses, broken, smeared with dust.
Jermaine could see nothing with the glasses, but after seven tests, he lied he could. His condition was becoming hopeless. The girl he’d met in the room saw with her fourth glasses. Another boy read perfectly with his second. But Jermaine’s case was different. The first, second and third glasses reduced everything to mist. The fourth were sharp, but the letters on the backlit board looked farther away. The fifth made him dizzy. With the sixth, it seemed he was looking at a mirror that distorted everything. The seventh left the room covered in spangles, but he said it was okay because he was beginning to feel hopeless.
When he wore the glasses to school, Master Zambezi asked him to stand up and read from the board. He couldn’t; the letters were motes of light and nothing more.
“Wow. This your albino stuff is serious.”
“Don’t call me albino again, Oboh!”
The class held its breath. Master Zambezi rose from his chair and went to the window, perhaps to see if the day had become night. He returned with his cane. The first whip hit Jermaine’s back, ripped off his uniform. The second plunged a splinter into his cuticle. The third smashed his glasses and a thick shard dug into his forehead and drew blood and skin. He fell, and the fifth, sixth and seventh landed on his arms.
Mum withdrew him from the school and Master Zambezi chose resignation over tendering an apology because he felt, no matter what happened, Jermaine shouldn’t have disrespected him the way he did. Jermaine stayed home for six months, then Mum enrolled him at a boarding school for shortsighted people in Warri. There, he learnt the art of self-confidence, of standing before a crowd to talk with his mind silent for once, not reminding him many people thought him stupid and blind. There, with sunscreen, he dared to experience things his condition denied him, such as playing in the sun, plucking velvet tamarinds with friends, trapping and releasing grasshoppers while walking the fields.
The field is empty now, but Master Zambezi is nowhere to be found. Jermaine hurries down the footpath where the grass is a morbid grey, the greenness sucked off by the harmattan. A droning hums in his ears. In the distance, a palm tree shoots into the sky as though heralding its survival after the apocalypse.
And there on the dirt-road, among the yellowing grass and silence, lies Master Zambezi. His teeth are clattering. There is sand in his hair. He’s wet himself; the dark shade runs from his groin down his legs, dripping from the hems of his trousers. Jermaine stops to help him, but then he wonders why he didn’t see his form in the distance. Or did it just appear as soon as he came close?
He decides to walk away, but just then, Master Zambezi grunts. “Please help me. Nobody else wants to.”
“And you think I’m your Messiah? I know what you’re doing, Master Zambezi! You’re staging all of this, right? You think you can—”
“I wanted to go and urinate,” he mutters. “I wanted to go and urinate when those idle elements came.”
“I don’t care! I’ve had enough of all this. You’re dead and gone! You better go back to your grave or wherever before—”
“That was when they came, those idle elements, when I wanted to urinate. . .”
Because, in Nollywood films, you could expel a ghost by throwing sand at them, Jermaine does just that. But he doesn’t wait to see the results. He snatches his sandals from his feet and breaks into a race. He doesn’t stop until he’s three streets away from Mum’s house. He buys iced water and sits under the palm-frond awnings to catch his breath. He’s missed three calls from Mum, two from his boyfriend Peter, and one from a female colleague who doesn’t call except she wants him to help her select the right dress for her casual dates with fleeting playboys.
He calls Mum first. “Guess who I saw today.”
“Oh, Jemmy, thank God! Are you okay? Your voice is shaking. Where are you? I heard there were gunshots at Ward Ten? Why aren’t you saying anything? I’m on my way now—”
“He’s. . .”
“Oh, he came to vote?”
“What do you mean he came to vote?”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he’d come to the unit, otherwise I’d have informed you as soon as I found out. I heard at the market that it wasn’t him who drowned. Don’t mind Titi. She misinformed me.”
“What are you saying?”
“Jermaine, come back home. Where are you, so we don’t miss each other?”
“So Master Zambezi is alive?”
“It’s another ex-teacher that drowned, another Mr Oboh, not Master Zambezi. You see? They share the same surname so I thought—”
“Jesus! Mum! I abandoned the poor old man on the road!”
He hangs up and dashes toward the tarred road, from where he’d come, the air stinging his nostrils and making him cough. At the junction, while he waits for a bike man to roll his motorcycle out from the shade, he places his hand on his chest and vows to resume church, to persuade Peter to join him, if God would keep Master Zambezi alive for him.
About the Author:
Ola W. Halim is a writer, teacher, and an amateur photographer of silhouetted trees and sunsets. His work has appeared in the African Writer, Lolwe, Brittle Paper, Black Pride Magazine, Iskanchi, ARTmosterrific, adda and elsewhere; with interviews available from PIN and Africa in Dialogue. He was shortlisted for the TFCN Teacher’s Prize for Literature 2019, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021, and the Sehvage Short Story Prize 2019. He won the LitFest Prize for Fiction and the 2020 PIN Annual Food Poetry Contest.
Fearture image by WenPhotos / Pixabay