Scoundrel Time

Twenty Thousand Cedis

The day the wind came down and brought rain, we were hanging on a guava tree along the hospital road. Our backpacks were filled with fruits. The wind was strong and pushed a cow herd our way. In the distance, the hot steam mixed with dust, and the herders appeared faintly and shimmered. I watched butterflies suckle flower buds and disappear amid the antenna poles raised above brown roofs. In a distant house with its door ajar, a boy was in the living room playing a game on the television with a Sega console. He moved stylishly around while playing Mortal Kombat. He did both fatality and brutality moves with Luke Kane, and I watched him with excitement. I wished I could have one, but we couldn’t afford it. I wondered how long it would take me to master all the moves in the game and become a pro. It was the only house around until a couple of miles down the road, away from the path that led to the river. On the other side of the road was an abandoned hospital from which people claimed to hear screams of the dead at night. We never took the path late, only when coming back from school.Cotton husks floated in the air. My sister said the cotton husks came from the north, a place where the land was dry and people thirsted for water.

“Like those men,” my sister said, pointing at herders marching with their cows. “They are from the north.”

“What are they doing here?”

“Feeding their cows.”

“Why can’t they do it in the north?”

“I guess we have healthier grass here.”

Their cows grazed on the dusty path that ran to the mouth of the river. I held a lower branch and let myself down. We hid behind a pawpaw tree and covered ourselves with big cocoyam leaves. We listened to the mooing of cows as the men walked down the road, speaking in foreign languages. They walked toward the mouth of the river, armed with sticks and machetes held behind their backs.

“Those men can turn you into a yam with their charms,” my sister said in a low tone. I listened with a frightened heart; I was barely twelve. I watched a snail slither on a cassava stem. It crawled all the way to a green leaf and fed on it. That was how much time we spent hidden from the caravan. The men spaced themselves and marched along with their cows. I took note of the men as they walked past. The first man was tall, lanky, black as charcoal, and a little cheerful. He sipped tea from a rusty blue cup as he walked along the road. He wore a white embroidered jellabiya and a white turban that covered his head and neck. He had a whip and brandished it on the cows that strayed. The second man was wearing a white jellabiya without embroidery. He had curly hair and his skin was olive. There were black tribal marks on his face, and his turban rested on his shoulders.

“That one is Fulani proper,” my sister said, pointing at the second man. “Their children are those kids we see at the market with beautiful hair, begging for alms. They have charms all over their bodies and can use them on you if you’re not careful.”

“What will they do to me?” I asked.

“Probably use the little money you give them to steal all your money. It’s just magic.” Silence floated between us for a little while. “Are you afraid?” she asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “Just a little bit,” I said.

“They can’t find us here.”

“I know.” I was afraid of them and the stories I heard about them. Everyone talked about how much charm and magic the men from the north possessed, and what they could do to children when no one was watching.

The second man soon faded, and a herd of cows followed. A brown cow strayed towards the bush and kept staring at me and mooing. I could have sworn that when our eyes met, we saw each other’s soul. I felt something like kindness and a strange kinship at the same time, emanating from the depth of my inside. We watched each other until strokes of cane fell on the cow’s brown hide. I wanted to save the cow, but that would have been giving myself up at the same time, and I couldn’t tell what the men would do to us. I decided to save myself. The cow blinked, snorted, and kept moving. A yellow sap from the papaw tree dropped on my sister’s white shirt and stained it. I wondered how she was going to clean it out. Probably with several drops of kerosene and hard scrubbing that could end up eating the fabric rather than getting it clean. I had seen it happen to my clothes over and over again. After a hard scrubbing, I would hang them on the yellow rope tied between two water reservoir tanks at the back of our flat. The green and blue rope belonged to our neighbors. When the clothes dried, they needed patching all over.

“But what will they do to us when they find us?” I asked my sister.

“Probably turn us into yams and carry us away in their bags,” she said, and she watched my jittery body. “Don’t be afraid; they can’t see us here. We can only see them.” I looked down at the black manured soil and began singing in my head, hoping that I would forget the mortal danger that loomed around us.

I heard my pants tearing again. It was the part that had been stitched before, right at my crotch. If we had money, I wouldn’t be wearing them. But Mama and Papa couldn’t afford to buy new ones because the government hadn’t paid them for three months now. I looked at my sister, and we laughed and laughed with our mouths covered and watched three more Fulani men walk past with their cows trudging along. When the rain came down and they were all gone, we hopped through the bush until we got to the dusty part and stared down the horizon. The men and their cows were far away, at the mouth of the river, and white clouds floated in the blue sky like the handwriting of God. I wondered what the river goddess would do to them, but I said nothing. We walked down the road and stopped by a mango tree where the men must have rested. At the foot of the tree, I found folded notes stuck in between two stones. I lifted the stone and unfolded the notes. “It looks like money,” I said and inspected the strange notes. I counted it.

“Twenty thousand cedis,” I said to my sister, smiling.

I laid them out on the soil and inspected them again to make sure they were all the same. Yes, they were all the same. I carefully counted them once again like I had been taught in school, and indeed, it was twenty thousand cedis.

“Is it twenty thousand cedis?” my sister asked to confirm, her brows raised and her eyes filled with excitement. She was two years older than me.

“Yes, it is. Twenty thousand cedis,” I said. I smiled and touched her face and we laughed together. We forgot about the mango we wanted to pluck and walked back home. The road was crooked and brown, and water ran through the potholes because it was raining. I nearly knocked my ankle on a stone out of excitement.

“How much do you think we can get for it?” I asked my sister.

“I don’t know. It’s supposed to be big, you know?”

“Yes. If we convert it to naira, we might get something bigger than fifty thousand naira. Remember when mummy changed the little money Uncle Herbert sent her from America, and she got a lot of money?” I asked her.

“Yes, I remember. I remember. Let’s say we are getting nothing less than fifty thousand naira. What are we going to do with all that money?” my sister asked me.

This was a time when my mother’s salary was thirty-five thousand naira, and my father’s salary was thirty-eight thousand naira, and a Sega console was only four thousand naira. I mean, a Sega console was all I could think of for myself. What else could I think of or ask for?

We walked past Nda Chibueze’s kiosk, and I could have sworn that her entire merchandise wasn’t up to five thousand naira. Mohammed’s shoemaking business was just at the front gate of New City Apartments, where he worked with leather, gum, thread, a hook, a set of shoe polish, a set of brushes, and a radio that spoke Hausa all day. I could have sworn that Mohammed’s entire merchandise and assets were not up to five hundred naira, including the gin and cigarette business he did on the side. Shawa man, the big boy, was standing beside the yellow fence of his apartment building with a toothpick stuck between his white teeth when we walked past. His eyes were big as snooker balls—boys called him “Big Boy Eye” because he was a big boy and had big eyes. Big Boy Eye once spent five thousand naira at the mama-put down the road and set a record for the highest amount ever paid to any eatery on our street. Girls loved him for that. That meant I could spend more than five thousand at the restaurant, too, and probably earn street credibility and respect. We could also help Mama and Papa out with money and buy new school uniforms for ourselves.

“Think about it: we will have enough money to buy everything on this street and a lot more. Remember that Papa Ajibo bought his car for five thousand naira,” I said.

“Yes, I remember, but Papa Ajibo’s car is almost dead. It spews enough carbon monoxide to kill everyone in this city. His car alone is the reason why everyone should wear a mask in this city,” she said, and we burst into fresh laughter.

“Maybe that’s not a good example, but look at Big Boy Eye here; he can get all the girls he wants because he has money,” I said. “Well, I am not saying that that is what I will use my money for. I just want a Sega console, like Jonathan’s. Then we can actually open a real bank account and save for our college.”

“No, we have to help mum and dad, too. You know that their salaries are not enough,” she said. “But we will buy clothes, too, kill a chicken, and eat rice every day for school.” She smiled as if she could already see herself doing it.

“But who do you think left the money?” I asked.

“Probably the men that just passed.”

“Do you think we will get in trouble for taking it?”

“No, it’s now ours—and as long as you don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t.”

We walked under the light showers of rain, and the sun soon drowned among a sea of white clouds. Nothing but the voice of Oriental Brothers band could be heard from hedges of hibiscus flowers with ladybugs buzzing all over. The music filled the air. In front of her house, where the hibiscus flower created a gate and orange trees formed a canopy, Mama Ogazi readied her palm oil by placing a container beside the fire. She cleaned a big pan while turning beans with the other hand. The air smelled like beans and smoke, and the burning woods crackled.

“Mama Ogazi will start selling akara soon,” I said.

“Soon, we will be rich enough to buy all the akara we can eat.”

“I want to take some of mine to school,” I said.

“I will keep mine in the fridge and eat them whenever I am back from school. It’s up to you, but don’t ask me for mine when you finish yours.”

“Let’s get the money and buy them first.”

By the cemented side of the blue apartment, we counted the money again, and it was complete. I gave the money to my sister because she was the eldest. We walked down the road and saw a sprouting seed growing up through the path that was eaten by erosion.

“It’s a pawpaw seed; look. It will grow into a pawpaw tree, and we will harvest it when it bears fruit,” my sister said.

In my head, I watched the plant grow into a small tree and into a big tree and into a really big tree with budding flowers.

“I can already smell the fruit,” I said.

We stopped by our fence and made final arrangements about our newfound wealth.

“Let’s give it to Uncle Mathew,” I suggested. “He will be afraid to cheat us because of Dad.” My sister agreed. Uncle Mathew was our uncle from my mother’s side. He was also a sailor and visited us each time he came out of the sea. He always talked about Fela and how much he cared about the street and homeless people. He was a socialist and talked about other sailors as “comrades.”

“You know he is a comrade,” my sister said.

“Yes, I know, he is a comrade. That why we can trust him. Remember the documentary we watched about Russia and how comradeship changed their way of life?” I asked.

“Yes, but I still prefer Chaka Zulu to that documentary,” she said.

“Who doesn’t prefer Chaka Zulu anyway? Maybe we can also buy our own VCR machine, and also change our old black and white television to colored,” I said. Not colored like Uncle Ajibo’s television; he hung a colored glass over his black and white television. We can buy a real colored television.”

“Yes, if we have our own VCR machine, we won’t have to go to other people’s house to watch movies. Uncle Mathew can help us buy it, too.”

“Well, let’s change the money first.”

We got to the steps and dusted our sandals before walking into the house. We took out our wet clothes and soaked them in water. Later, we worked on our assignments. We waited until everyone was asleep before waking Uncle Mathew to tell him about the money.

“Twenty thousand cedis will be a lot of money in naira oh!” Uncle Mathew said. He was almost as stupid as we were. He asked us: “Does your father know?”

“Yes, of course,” I said, and my sister nodded, too. Of course, he was indeed stupid enough to believe that my father knew about the money, and that was our ultimate goal.

“Then I will bring your money tomorrow,” he said.

“Father said you should bring nothing less than sixty thousand naira. He did the math already,” my sister said.

Uncle Mathew sat on his bed and looked at us.

“Then the money will be complete when it comes to you,” he said.

Beside the lamp, on a small stool, was a copy of Efuru by Flora Nwapa, which our uncle read sometimes. He removed his shirt, and we stared at his white hairy chest. He lay down and covered himself with a blanket. The velvety voice of Nelly Uchendu sang “Love Nwantinti” from the radio. I believe that the gods left their abode that night and dwelt among us. We went to bed, too.

In my dream, I was a rich man riding a horse, and in my left hand was a whip. My cows stretched from the river to the market, a little bit past Pine Wood Hotel, a little past the government office with scented flowers, past our family friend’s house where they sold beautiful flowers, and past the hospital gate and the path that led to the mortuary where we threw stones at each other and talked about blasphemy and northern invaders coming down to our city every day with truckloads of cows.

When morning came, it was a Saturday. We walked into the street with a joyous heart. We marched towards the stomach-adjusting scent of Mama Ogazi’s akara. Ije Love sat by his house, carefully arranging his mini-kiosk. He later smoked and paced around his house aimlessly. I waved, and he waved back. I bought akara on credit for twenty naira from Mama Ogazie and promised to bring the money later in the day. My sister bought chips on credit from the store by the carpenter’s shop. All evening we laughed and played ludo and waited for our money to arrive. When it was almost dark, a beggar wailed in the middle of the street asking for alms and cursing those that gave him small currency notes. He sang about his condition and repeatedly wailed: “It is convulsion that is troubling me.

If only I had my money by then, I would have given him a large note so he would be appreciative and not curse at me. My sister sat outside washing plates by the root of the hibiscus flower, while my mother with her pretty brown face sat beside the ube tree washing clothes. Every man that walked past that fence looked like my comrade Uncle Mathew until I saw him walk into the gates; then I knew it was him.

We waited patiently until he finished taking his bath and eating his food. We waited until Papa walked into the night to visit his dear friend who fell from a motorcycle, before asking Uncle Mathew about the money.

“Did you get the money?” we asked in chorus.

He first looked at us and smiled, and then he started laughing at us. We couldn’t tell if it was a crazy sailor, or a comrade, or our uncle, or something else, who was at play here. First, he bent towards the foot of his bed and took out his radio. Dusted a cassette and played “Onyeka Onwenu” —You and I—before talking to us.

“That money is worth nothing,” he said from the side of his mouth.

“What do you mean it’s worth nothing?” I asked, and my head started calculating how to pay for the items we took on credit. My sister began shedding tears and wailed uncontrollably, as if he was lying or trying to cheat us. A fly stupidly buzzed around my lips. I smacked it dead and smeared his messy inside on my face.

“So, nothing at all?” my sister asked.

“Ten naira only. It’s worth nothing,” he said again. “Nigerian currency is a hundred times bigger than cedis, so when you convert that to naira, it comes up to ten naira. Sorry I don’t have better news for you kids. Dollar is bigger than naira; that why people get a lot of money from it.”

“I know, Uncle, but we’ve already borrowed money, hoping that by now we would be rich,” I said.

“How much did you guys borrow?” he asked.

I quickly did a mental calculation, and it came up to thirty naira. I told him.

“No problem; I will pay all that for you guys,” he said. And my sister stopped crying and started laughing. I did the same, too. We laughed until my mother peeped through the curtain and asked us what was going on. She smelled like menthols and smiled all the time. We told her it was nothing. She ignored us and started talking with Uncle Mathew about palm oil and its medicinal uses.

That night we learned that all currencies are not equal, and we slept knowing that our debts were paid. That was enough peace. That was enough to live on and learn from. That was enough love to go around the family. Uncle Mathew returned to the sea a couple of days later, and we bid him farewell at the bus stop.

“Do you think someone ever came back for the money?” I asked my sister on our way home.

“It’s worth nothing. Probably that’s why they left it there,” my sister said.

“Will you confess it as a sin to the priest?”

“Yes. We took something that doesn’t belong to us, but God will forgive us as long as we confess to a priest.”

Soon we forgot everything about the money, and I started saving slowly for a Sega console by taking menial jobs around the street. The cotton husks floated in the air again and drifted towards the river. Everywhere smelled of cow dung and reminded us of the herders. Down the road, Ije Love was busy telling love stories about his days in Calabar while sitting in front of his store surrounded by eager listeners, men struck deaf by wanderlust, and drinking aromatic schnapps. We ran down the road and towards the river; we pushed through green grass as tall as we were. We got to front of the muddy river and pushed black silts at the simmering green rivers. We watched the surface of the river sparkle and tickled ourselves and laughed and laughed. We watched golden fishes furrow towards a labyrinth of roots. We swam in the river and listened to the birds sing and watched a big sun fold down the horizon. The mermaid must be resting in the grove of ferns, and her beacon of light beaming straight at us. For a second, the mermaid’s eye was on us.

“Look, sister! Look!” I said and pointed towards the fern.

“What?” she asked.

Indeed, what? It was just a figment of my imagination. Sometimes it seemed as if the river were boiling at the surface, covered by petals of flowers. We swam until night came and walked back. The sound of crickets followed us and reminded me how rich we could have been. I sighed and kept walking.






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