You were staring at the white screen of your computer when he called you that morning. You were in the middle of a terrible writer’s block. You could not write a word. So, you escaped into many worlds through the many open tabs on the browser. You were looking through websites; looking for events to attend as Christmas approached. You had been on Facebook; read the updates fast scrolling through ticker on the right. You were on a lifestyle website, looking at pictures from a wedding; a smile fixed on the couple’s face, a smile that left many things unsaid. You were reading through the many comments. Then, your phone rang.
Call me back, quickly please your friend, Kayode said, with urgency in his voice. You scrolled through your call history; dialled the first number. He picked immediately it rang. They say Sheriff is dead, his voice, laden with emotions said from the other end of the phone. Blood rushed to the front of your head. Sweat broke through your face. It was not hot. It was a misty morning, days before the harmattan would sweep through the entire city of Lagos. How? you wanted to know. He was driving along Nassarawa Road, which was the state he was serving the government. He was a youth corps member there, remember. That was all he said. That was all you had to know. Everything else, you imagined.
You never met Sheriff. He was your friend, Kayode’s close friend. He had become your friend, through your friend. The last time you spoke with him on phone, he sounded so full of life. That was Friday evening. That same evening—you gathered he died. There was numbness in your fingers, as its blood supply had been cut off. Yet, you typed. You typed several words into search engines. You typed out the images in your head on the plain MS.
How did he die? What really happened?
So, you googled the words: car accident, Nassarawa. There were over 200,000 results in less than five seconds. Some even dated two years earlier. There was none with the date of Sheriff’s death, nothing about Sheriff. Nothing. Your eyes clouded with tears, thoughts of his last minutes teasing your mind. Maybe he had just dropped the phone when the truck crashed into him. Maybe he ran into a truck. Maybe he lost control of the wheels as he dodged a pothole. Maybe there had even been an earlier crash on the same spot, an earlier year. All that you had were a series of unending maybes.
Now, you feel the need to know him more, the need to hold on, to unearth your past conversations.
All you knew about Sheriff, you knew through phone conversations, online chats or through Kayode. You knew that he had attended the same primary and secondary schools with Kayode. You knew that they lost contact for years only to re-unite at the NYSC Camp in Nassarawa. You knew that he was engaged to his university heartthrob, Hauwa, because he talked about her a lot.
All that you have is the memory of his voice, its sound in your ears. The bubbly “hello” that always wanted to speak with you. That voice that echoed in your head, long after he had dropped the phone.
You, Kayode and Sheriff chatted about the fate of the country. It seemed that you three cared about the country—way too much. You had saved Kayode’s name as Kayode the pessimist, Sherrif was the optimist; you were the realist. You would stay awake at nights in long debates. Night time was the time the internet was fast enough.
Kayode always stood his ground.
THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THIS COUNTRY. L L L LOOK AROUND YOU. EVERYTHING IS FALLING APART. L THE NEW GOVERNMENT SPENDS LAVISHLY ON ADMINISTRATION.
Really???, you had typed in, feigning ignorance, wanting him to say more, stoking the fires.
Kayode had continued.
THE PRESIDENT ATTENDED THE HEADS OF COMMONWEALTH MEETING WITH OVER TWO HUNDRED OFFICIALS; ON WHOSE BILL? THEN, WHEN IT WAS TIME TO MAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH AT THE MEETING, HE WAS AWAY CUTTING HIS WIFE’S BIRTHDAY CAKE AND STUFFING HIS STOMACH WITH ICING SUGAR. NOW, HE WANTS TO REMOVE THE FUEL SUBSIDY. IMAGINE????? HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THAT? HOW IS THAT A RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT?
You read through the messages and the smileys that indicated he was mad about the country. You had imagined his thin long fingers typing fast. He always capitalized his words. He never listened when you told him it made it seem like the words were shouting, as if he were at war with someone. You hear the sounds of his keyboard in your head, you see the green of the CAPS LOCK.
Sheriff took him up, typing in his characteristic italics.
Well, they are saying they will be responsible, if dey eliminate the subvention. Maybe there wld b some stability in oil sector. Do u know hw much disappears cos of subsidy? Do you know hw it institutionalizes corruption? Mayb dey wld build the destroyed refineries, and we wld stop exporting crude oil to import petrol. Maybe they would fix the roads. I am too hopeful that this country is too loaded to disappoint.
Sheriff was the verbose lawyer with the big big words, subvention instead of subsidy. You would laugh at how he chose his words Hanhan, D-Law, we no understand you again o?
How do you mean? You had typed.
Look ard u, the last elections, d youth was very active, people voted. Dey said dat asides June 12, dat was the most successful election in this country. Sheriff continued.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN? WHAT YOUTH? YOU, A MEMBER OF THE TWITTER GENERATION, WHOSE RAGE FIZZLES OUT SHORTLY, LIKE THE SMELL OF FART? YOU, WHO WOULD NOT IMPLEMENT YOUR RAGE OUTSIDE YOUR FACEBOOK AND TWITTER HOMES? OR THE ONES WITH NOTHING TO EAT AT THE MANY CAR PARKS? THE THUGS WHOSE VENT DISAPPEARED AFTER A BOTTLE OF BEER? THE ONES THAT RAN AFTER CARS FOR CHANGE IN TRAFFIC? WHICH OF WHAT YOUTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? WHICH OF THE YOUTH IS READY TO DIE FOR NIGERIA? WHICH OF THE YOUTH CAN MAKE OCCUPY NIGERIA OR ORGAINSE AN ARAB SPRING? Kayode’s shouting words questioned.
Sheriff explained that it was a process. He said that nothing would change overnight. Our own parents never cared to dissent. Sherriff told Kayode about the rising interest in social media by the politicians, how they now engaged the youth on Twitter, how the Minister for youth now held town hall meetings, how social media drew the government’s attention to the gang rape, how it was even believed that there was a Special Assistant to the President on Social Media.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE GOVERNMENT STEPPED IN? HAS ANYONE BEEN PUNISHED FOR THE RAPE? HANGED? KILLED? SINCE WE GOT INVOLVED WITH THE NATIONAL AWARDS UPROAR, HAVE ANY CERTIFICATES BEEN WITHDRAWN? NOW TO THE RUBBISH, PEOPLE DIE EVERYDAY AND THEY ARE BUSY CREATING OFFICES. WHAT RUBBISH? WHAT DISRESPECT, FOR LIFE, FOR DEATH? Kayode’s words hurled back.
It was time to step in. That time before their words started throwing punches at each other. You were the voice of reason. From your computer, you could imagine the two men, in hot debate, pouring it all on you. You could imagine them sitting in front of some screens, their computers or their phones and typing all these out. You were the one in the middle, catching the blow of words mid-air before it landed on the next person. You, the calmer of nerves.
You had read through another chat.
NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT ROADS, typed Kayode.
THEY WANT TO REBUILD TOLL GATES THAT WERE DESTROYED YEARS AGO. WHY? THEY SAY SO THAT THEY CAN HAVE ENOUGH FUNDS TO REPAIR THE ROADS. REALLY? THESE TOLL GATES WERE DESTROYED WITH MILLIONS OF NAIRA YEARS AGO. NOW, THEY WAKE UP IN A SLUMBER AND THINK THAT REBUILDING IT WILL CHANGE THINGS, WOULD FILL THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD, WOULD SAVE MORE LIVES. RUBBISH.
You see the sense in Kayode’s words. The sense is even clearer now. You wonder if this accident had happened on one of the potholed roads that some contractor had abandoned or used inferior materials to construct.
You always took sides with Sheriff. You really didn’t know why. Maybe it was in the gentleness with which he pushed forward his argument. Maybe it was with the way, you imagined him piling each premise on another, until he reached the major point. Maybe it was because you had not seen him and were bound by the spell that someday you would see him. That whenever that day was, he would fit into the image that you have in your head: kind passionate young man.
Earlier, you had issues with Sheriff’s trademark abbreviations.
What will it cost you to write ok instead of k? You had asked him.
Wat difference does it make? Save 1 word, save 1 sec. He would type back.
You had told him—in the phone conversation that followed the chats—that words were lost in abbreviations, meanings were swallowed. That for instance “k” could mean “Kay” the short form and nickname for Kayode. That it could be—in the worst cases—an abbreviation of anything with “k,” the worst instance being the three Yoruba words, oko, okó and okò. The three words had the same spellings, different tonal marks, different meanings; farm, hoe and penis, you had explained. He chuckled like a child, and added: Good, I am not Yoruba so I can state ignorance. Then, he told you that it was a habit he developed in Law School, where he had to write so fast as the lecturer dictated. It had stuck, even after.
The sound from the ticking clock and your clicking keyboard seemed to disturb the silence around you. You got up and walked around your work desk. It felt as if you were levitating, as if it was not you that was walking, as if you were being carried around and through your day by some unseen force, as if all the words that you should have told him were breaking through your heart. You feel that you should have said it, once and for all. That you should have had the courage to tell him, how much you wanted to see him. You feel that you should have taken that flight to Abuja at Sallah when he offered to pay. That you should not have proven to be that strong headed girl shoving her emotions to the back of her head, rationalizing it, suppressing it.
You walked to your bedroom. Lay on your bed. Picked your Blackberry phone. Searched for his name in your contact list. Typed in a hello. No message delivered. No response. You typed, in your status: death, where is your sting? Then, you turned it off.
You tried to sleep, to shut out the thoughts. His screams and the images did not let you. You imagined the chaos. That he screamed to his death. You saw him squashed in the car. The car you saw was a small red Toyota. You imagined the red of his flesh and his blood blending into that of his car. You did not see the bones. Then, he disappeared into oblivion, crushed into nothingness.
Sheriff’s voice rushed at you again.
Haba, Uche, come and spend some time with the boys in Abuja. Kai, you will enjoy it. You will meet Hauwa. He pronounced his spend as “sfend. He switched his f’s for p’s and p’s for f’s. You remembered laughing out loud and him asking you why you were laughing, at him, at his suggestion. Your mother was looking at you, a question written all over your face. That same question: are you speaking with that aboki again? And you replied her with your own silence: He is not an aboki. His name is Sherrif. Abokis are human too! Besides, Mum, it is not what you think. Sheriff is engaged to be married next year. So, stop having any ideas. We are just friends.
You wanted to go to Abuja. But what would you tell your Mum? You had used up your well of lies. If you said there was a workshop there, she would insist to call the organisers. If you said there was a business meeting there, she would make sure someone follows you. She said that those places are not safe again. She was right. The Boko Haram, the religious sect in the North did not care if you were Muslim or Hausa, they were against anything Western. They bombed everything, beer parlours and churches.
SHERIFF, YOUR NORTHERN BROTHERS ARE MAD AGAIN. Kayode had typed later that night.
Wat you mean, my brothers? Sheriff responded.
YOU DIDN’T WATCH THE NETWORK NEWS? 100 KILLED IN TWO DAYS, IN YOBE AND BAUCHI.
Tin is I watched it, and I was sad. But first to clear these tinz, they are not my brothers because some of them are Hausas; many of them are not even Nigerians. They are hungry men with poverty of the mind and body, used as political tools. You know who is my brother? U. These ones you call my brothers are bombing the wrong places and innocent people. And this lily livered government knows nothing to do than fly around countries looking 4 foreign investors. Who chases a bush rat when his house is on fire? Will he roast d rat with the fire 4rm his hut?
LOL!!! THAT’S A CLASSIC! *CLAPS HANDS* DID YOU SEE THE HEADLINES? NIGERIA IS SAFE. BOKO HARAM WILL BE HISTORY. PRESIDENT Continued Kayode.
The debate went on, melting into the many conversations about the country’s security on television and Twitter. This Boko Haram debate had become like every other thing in the country, normal. Normal like when there was no power and we put on our generators. It did not matter if we choked on the smoke. Normal like when the taps refuse to flow; we dig our wells. The debate had led to the birth of a new vocabulary. The word is now used as a verb. I will haram you: I will destroy you. It could be a noun. That is a haram: it is an abomination. Or You are a Boko Haramite: You are a wasteful person.
Don’t worry, you will be safe, Sherrif assured you. His springy voice in your ears calmed your tense nerves. Let us come face to face and have a proper debate, forget those e-debates. I want to see the expressions on your face, hear the power in the reperee’svoice. Ten minutes into the call, you had walked into your room; you turned the lock, so that the conversation stayed within the four walls of the room. He spent thirty minutes on the phone trying to assure you. OK. I will think about it. You said, so that he would go off the phone and stop bugging you. So that you would go and join your Mum in the kitchen, she had knocked on your door twice now. There was nothing to think about. You now wish you had told him everything, everything about your mother and her deep-seated feelings about Hausas.
You picked your phone again. Logged into Facebook. Typed in his name: Sheriff Ahmad. There were many faces. You clicked on the first. His face was there: the caricature which had always been his Facebook picture was still there, his unshaven beards in place, his smile making fun of you, grinning at death. Now, it said he had gone to rest, away from a country that never works, away from a world filled with too much grief. His smile seemed to tell you to live the best that you can now.
You read through his Facebook profile.
Education: Attended Nigeria Military School, Zaria. Attended University of Abuja.
Interests: Men and Women.
Philosophy: Live and let live.
Tears welled up your eyes; played around your eyelids. You forced them back. You swallowed hard. The bitterness locked in your chest, trying to force its way out as a loud cry.
His last words were “Gd 9te,” probably typed the night before. He was unaware that would be his last status. That it was really good night, not only to his Facebook friends but to the world.
You clicked on “load more.” As the page streamed, you drifted into sleep.
Then, you started walking. Through the door and past the cybercafé where you usually work when there was no power. The café attendant was at the door; he waved at you. You did not see his face. You walked on for miles, till your toes grew numb. The sun was setting now.
You reached into your pocket for your phone. You wanted to call your Mum, to pour it all on her. Instead, you punched in his number. You knew it in your head. The number you have called is not reachable at the moment, please try again later. You walked on, you saw the lights glow red. All the cars stopped. That’s what your blurry eyes saw. You heard your name in a distance “Uche.” There he was, Sheriff on the other side of the road, his voice, clear and springy, as always.
You did not see a fast approaching bike from the other side of the road. You blanked out.
You do not see blood now. You see the picture of Sheriff you had created in your mind. You see the caricature of him on Facebook. It all blended into one. He was surrounded by shiny white light. He seemed happy. He comes close, then, he fades. Your lids could not hold tears again; they poured.
Uche dear, thank God you are awake, after two days. It is your mother’s voice. It is Sheriff’s face. Your head throbs. You drift into oblivion again.
Temitayo Olofinlua is a freelance writer with a series of awards to her credit. Her work has been published by Next Newspapers, the Global Press Institute, Saraba Magazine and online. She was at the Ebedi Writers’ Residency in Oyo State, Nigeria, early 2012.