Like a battalion captain rolling out orders to his army, Officer Balo storms Cell No 7 with his baton in hand. Looking a lot less like a captain, but nevertheless ready to pour invectives on you lot. The cell, a little wider than your mother’s kitchen, is home to about a dozen inmates. The inmates, all males, comprise men of different sizes, ages, and calibre. Yes! The cell had its “big men” and you are not part of them. Not willing, anyway.
Officer Balo steps into the cell and everyone rises. You peel your ears for the next line of instructions that the warden would say. You are used to it. His ceremonial entrance every morning, baton in his left hand, clapping his right hand in a rhythmic pattern. His uniform, well-ironed that its creases could cut a finger. His heavy boots dragging him back every time he takes a step forward. Despite his unwelcome appearance every morning, you are used to this invasion of privacy otherwise called “over-sabi” by your co-dwellers.
Officer Balo starts his speech and you help him finish it.
“If any of una try escape for here, na death sentence we go give am straight. With that said, I wish una happy staying oh!”
Laughter erupts at your accurate mimicry. But it soon quieted down within seconds. Officer Balo isn’t smiling. He makes one last sound with his baton and turns to go. His speech is over. Yours just started. With yourself.
“Never give up,” your inner man chides.
“Keep chasing your dreams,” your mother’s faint voice plasters its alto against your willing eardrums.
“If you can believe it, you can achieve it.” That’s your father’s, hitting hard against your eardrums and finding its way straight to your memory. To remain forever stuck there.
How can you keep chasing your dreams from the giant walls of a correctional facility? You can’t even remember what brought you here? But whatever it was, you never had a hand in it. Not with your innocence and modesty would you ever be driven to do such an evil act.
“My son didn’t do it,” your mother had begged the Police Constable the fateful day your home in Ore was stormed and you were carried away, never to be seen again. Efe, your younger and only surviving sister kept shaking her head and mouthing “no, no, no,” like a movie that has been kept on repeat. She couldn’t bring herself to imagine a world without you. Where would she get the constant encouragement to chase her dreams? Where would she get the reassurance that she was towing the right path, doing the right thing that had to be done to get a hold of the dreams she ever so desired since she was five? To become an OBGYN.
The first day she shared her dream with you, you laughed at how she pronounced the word.
“It’s not hob-gene,” you corrected her amusingly. “It’s o-b-g-y-n.”
You told her she had to pronounce the letters one after the other, or just simply say the full meaning of the compound name: obstetrician gynaecologist. Efe wanted to be a doctor who specialises in women’s health but also delivers babies and provides care during pregnancy. You were particularly happy for your sister for having such a lofty dream at such a young age.
“I’ll support you to the very end,” you promised her during one of your brother-sister moments.
But her last hopes were dashed the day the police invaded your home and carried you away, never to be seen again.
Papa Osas and Mama Osas not only lose their only son that day, but they also lost their will to live. What was there to live for if their only hope of a good life is being whisked away by brutal uniformed men and all they could do was wail and cry? Activities that didn’t make the unruly event any better? It only angered the uniformed men so much that they had to use the butt of their gun to beat your father up.
What exactly did you do to make your family suffer so much?
You hate to brood. So you start whistling and humming songs to yourself, as you always do to drift your thoughts away from the negatives.
“Osas, hear me na. Na you be my only hope laidiz. I know say you fit epp me na why I come meet you. Reason me na, guy.”
Your prison mate and friend, Tella, pleads with you for the umpteenth time.
How could anyone be so determined to leave a place they were rightfully supposed to be in for committing a grievous crime? Everyone knows what Tella did. It’s no rumour that he killed his girlfriend after catching her under his best friend. Cheating is morally wrong quite alright. But killing a person for cheating? That’s homicide.
No one else deserves to be here than Tella. If anyone should be trying to escape from this correctional facility, it should be you.
“Tella, there’s nothing I can do to help you o.” You raise your palms into the air and plead with him as well.
He looks at your face dryly and hiss, perhaps wondering why he came to you for help in the first place.
He had jerked you awake in the middle of the night to share what he called his ‘almighty escape plan’ from the correctional facility. Why he chose you as his possible aid in this escape plan, you couldn’t understand.
Was it not just yesterday that they caught Odafe charred like roasted chicken on the iron gate of the prison? Odafe had been trying to escape from what he called the pit of hell; the correctional facility that was beginning to look like home to you after living in it for six months. Ever since Odafe joined you in the prison, he was always crying day after day and wailing about how he didn’t commit the crime he was taken for. You would shake your head and wonder if sharing your own story would lessen his burden and make his mood light, but the delinquent never stopped wailing. His incessant cries appalled Rambo, the most notorious inmate, so much that he always dealt the young boy pitious blows for being such a nuisance. Perhaps Odafe had had enough but his decision was quick to bring him face-to-face with death than to reunite him with his family. You think about how the boy died and wonder where Tella got his untamed boldness from.
When Tella came to you, you had mixed feelings. Should you help him or should you not? But after hearing him explain what his “almighty escape plan” was, you conclude that you’re not going to be part of a plan that would lead to your untimely death.
If you die now, how would you chase your dreams, or guide Efe to chase hers? If you die now, who would take care of Papa Osas and Mama Osas in their old age? So you gave Tella one last look and shook your head vehemently. “You have to look for someone else for your escape plan o. No be me.”
You inspect the brush in your hand and imagine how you would wash the makeshift toilet without your hands getting stained. The last time you had asked Officer Balo for a hand glove, so as to protect yourself from germs, you had received a cold stare that sent chills down your spine.
“Na hand dem dey use wash shit bucket here o. If you need glove, wait for your one-year sentence to end so we fit release you back to civilization,” the warden said coldly but in an unusually calm manner.
Rambo scoffed and hissed at the middle-aged man, hating him for delivering on his job too well.
Whenever it was Rambo’s turn to do the washing, he sends you down to the ominous room to wash all the buckets clean. Rambo had taken a wicked liking to you since the day you were brought into the correctional facility. He had patted you on the shoulder and said you could both be friends if you cooperate well.
He even said he would help you escape if you want to. He wants to remove the mole in your eyes. Couldn’t he see the giant log in his? You shrug off the thoughts of Rambo or the prison warden and start to wash the buckets. In ten minutes, you are done and about to leave the tiny space.
“That thing wey you wash so, dem clean?”
You didn’t expect to jam Rambo at the entrance of the demarcated toilet.
“Y-y-yes sa, e clean,” you stammer and make way for him as he holds his bowels and moans softly. It was he who always messed up the toilet anyway. And what would anyone say?
“Rambo, why u dey always go toilet na?”
And that could only come from Kola, the oldest yet most gentle inmate. If it came from anyone else besides him, that person better be prepared to face Rambo’s wrath.
Safe from the most dreadful activity you despised so much, you scamper to your side of the cell and lay on your makeshift bed. A simple fixed gaze into the ceiling gets you revved up for the inspiration brewing inside of you.
“I’m a hustler, yeah.
Gotta do my thing, yeah.
Hell’s bent on making me fail. Haha!
But I’ll go hard at my dreams, yeah.“
You pick up a pen and scribble down your new lyrics in your music book. A small note that other inmates had learned not to touch. When tampered with, that’s the only thing that could make you start a fight. You smile as you write down the lyrics, replaying how you had bitten Rambo with your sharp teeth the day he tried to open your music book. You write down two more lines and asterisk them as the bridge of the song.
Perhaps this would be your hit song.
“Oga Kola, how you see my new song,” you ask delightfully.
Kola shakes his head and smiles. You smile and continue rapping.
“Oga Warder,” you call out to Officer Balo respectfully
“Na when you go epp me sell my music sa? You promise me say…”
You eat your words mid-sentence and swallow your spit uncomfortably.
The warden’s snide look tells you this is far from the best time to talk about your music. Your music. Your passion. Rambo’s biggest nightmare. Other inmates’ pastime. Officer Francis’s stress reliever. The prison’s only escape from the meaningless cacophony. Officer Balo’s dread.
You are disappointed by Officer Balo’s dismissal. But not discouraged. Discouragement has nothing to do with you.
You start to hum a favourite tune, just to evade the negative feeling brewing inside your belly. Officer Balo has always had this bad aura about him. His ever-present sullen look seems to seep into the mood of the next person, and you aren’t going to take chances.
You are only trying to move closer to him because he’d mentioned that he once helped an inmate produce a music album while the latter was still in incarceration. You thought he’d help you too if you fell into his good graces. But you’ve never had such a graceful fall.
None of the inmates seems to be bothered about becoming something, anything worthwhile in life. If nobody would stand up to life and get the best out of it, you aren’t going to take any chances. Even the Holy Writs say, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it well”. Why is everyone here always sulking all day and looking for one way or the other to hurt the next person? They’ve condemned themselves even before the world did so.
Because of your lively nature, most inmates wonder how you manage to stay happy in such an environment. Others wonder how you even landed in the prison in the first place.
“You dis boy, wetin dem say u do sef? Cos u no look like person wey fit commit any crime o.”
Timothy will quiz you nonstop and demand an answer, to which you’ll respond with a smile or a hum solemnly.
The young man never stops asking you the question, hoping that perhaps one day, you’ll open your mouth to talk, and not sing back a response.
It is one of your ‘free’ days when inmates are allowed to stretch and stroll around the compound. You could either play games, get some personal work done, or while away your time. Most of the guys here enjoy chit-chatting. You prefer taking steps towards your dreams.
You whistle one of your newly-composed-turned-favourite tunes in oblivion as you continue to scrub the toilet seat. Your nose has adapted to the stench that usually emerges from the bottom of the buckets. Your nostrils have acclimated to them so much that you don’t force your lips to shut like you used to, fearing that germs would fly into your mouth. You have outgrown that stage.
You hate to think that you’re becoming comfortable in the correctional facility, but hey. Helping others wash the toilet on their turn and getting paid for it is the next big thing to escaping from prison. So you keep scrubbing and smiling at your growing bank account. Thanks to Officer Francis who helps you deposit your money every time you get paid.
“Wherever you are, you must find happiness. People won’t give you happiness. Only you can create your joy from within.”
You remember the words of one of your favourite characters from a book whose title has eloped from your brain. You continue to whistle and scrub, whistle and scrub, whistle and scrub, until the ears of Rambo couldn’t take it anymore.
“My friend, will you gettat of hia.” You hear his voice towering over your loud tune from the entrance of the toilet.
You didn’t even notice when he got there. But if that marks the end of your cleaning, definitely it has nothing to do with your singing. No one can take your happiness away from you.
You clamp your palms together and beg Rambo not to be offended by the noise. He hisses and tells you to vamoose out of his sight immediately. Who are you not to obey?
Once outside, you walk across the corridor of the cells and straight to the warden’s office. You hope it would be Officer Francis — the kind prison warden — that would be on duty, so you can relive your dreams of becoming a renowned musician to him for the umpteenth time.
“Eh eh, you, wetin u dey find come?”
Officer Balo’s husky voice stops you in your tracks, and you turn back immediately to the direction you were coming from, still whistling away.
“I no even know how u dey manage stay happy for this kind place. Mumu boy,” you hear Officer Balo’s voice mock your free-spiritedness and you increase the tempo of your voice, much to his chagrin.
A whooshing sound of his baton missing you by an inch makes you stop whistling and scamper to the safety of your shared cell with ten other inmates.
Their laughter welcomes you back into the cell.
They are building another prison. They say it’s going to be in a secluded area. Unlike the one you’re currently in that is sitting pretty in the busiest part of town. They say this new prison will be on the outskirts of town. Standing alone. Breathing alone. And forcing inmates into a lonely life. They say this prison will have two hundred and forty-nine tiny cells. One cell per inmate. There would be no more sharing. No more rubbing of body parts together. No more ganging up to beat wardens or cooks when they come to serve food. They say this new prison will be for juvenile delinquents.
You don’t want anything to do with juveniles. You’re not one anymore. You celebrated your eighteenth birthday here just last week. You’re unbothered about the news. But bothered about why your father and mother didn’t visit the cell last week. There was no way Efe could have come alone. You know she would have if she had her way. But she’s only nine. You wonder if perhaps your parents have forgotten you here.
“Omo, that prison go make sense o. Imagine say person go get him own room and him personal bucket to dey shit,” Tella announces and jubilates.
His utterance breaks your reverie. You look at him with disdain and tell him he’s sick. You didn’t have to talk. Your forefinger making a circular motion around your left temple did the talking. But it didn’t meet Tella well.
“U sef dey mad,” he snarls at you and shouts for the whole cell to hear.
“Shey I beg you say make we escape together but you no gree. Ozuor,” he hisses and kicks your legs.
His outburst made it seem as though you always wanted to escape with him. You smirk at his audacity and call him a bastard. He kicks you again the second time. But that is not the end. Officer Balo had overheard the discussion.
“Eh ehn? So una been dey plan to escape before? Oga must hear dis ting.”
How Officer Balo metamorphoses in crucial situations is something to be studied. The warden didn’t wait for either of your reactions to his statement. He only whistles and beats his baton against his left hand. That passes his message faster than your confessions would have.
Like you do every time you’re apprehensive or even happy, you start to whistle some of your favourite tunes and allow your reverie to carry you back to Efe. Back to your father, Papa Osas. Your mother too. Perhaps people have even started calling her Mama Efe already. Your first tears in months drop as your rhythmic hums intensify.
About the author:
Winifred Òdúnóku is a young writer from Nigeria who sees writing as an art of self-expression. Her literary works have been published in Kalahari Review, Revista Periferias, Nnöko Stories, Punocracy, Ngiga Review, and The Moveee, among others. She loves listening to music and tweets at @majestic_winnie. Read more of her works on her blog: winifredodunoku.wordpress.com.
Feature image by Joel Filipe on Unsplash