It will take two minutes to run from our bus stop to Ebo street, to wash my coloured jersey with Klin before I sleep shirtless and expect it to dry before morning, to dance the one corner chorus minus the verse, for my head to start feeling light after dragging Igbo. It was two minutes it took for Soja boy to flip Agbonze half a dozen times before feeding him wet soil at Urokpota hall. Two minutes is all it takes for the human body to start smelling like roast meat if it tastes fire.
These rickety benches that used to bear relief to our weary backs are doing nothing tonight to quell mine. If not for the nerve-wracking brutality of this morning, this unfamiliar quiet that is now strolling haughtily, sapping out air and filling it up with grief, would not find room here. Akhere would have made sure of it.
If he was not talking about the woman that God sent to leave her bag opened for him, it will be the girl whose breasts felt like cold moi-moi. Laughter would break out like rubber seeds. But today is not that day.
I’m staring at the empty spot that used to be Freeman’s. The moon is out this night, sitting in the naked sky as if to bear us witness. I close my eyes again to think of him, the whole version of him, the version of him before his nakedness became a sport, the one where the reality of an impending end did not beat his penis into a vanishing nut. Instead, my mind is still stuck on the soot, the smoke, and the helplessness. I’ve not been able to see anything else since we left his body.
When the news broke this morning that a nameless, faceless conductor had been caught trying to steal from Mama Wisdom’s shop, we all ran to the spot to see how he will end, the way all busted thieves ended up here in Ringroad. It was always entertaining to watch. They get what they deserve, I do not feel bad.
Slaps, blows, sticks, kicks, and stones landed on him so fast, it was impossible at first to see the face of the thief. Although, I could see that his naked body and bloody head had started to open up in swift obedience to the offerings of bash and lash. `
A woman with veins the colour of lime, running from her forehead into her neck like coconut roots kept shouting with so much spite,
“nah one of these boys stab my brother that day, after dem don thief he wallet finish! He must die follow am today oh!. I swear to God“.
It was the shirt that first struck me as something that was familiar, a blue Manchester United club jersey with ‘CARRICK 16’ crawled at the back. It was just lying on the ground. It could belong to anybody I kept telling myself, something I desperately needed to be true. Then it was the red pair of slippers, it had that distinctive hole eating through the heel of the left leg. Again, it could belong to a thousand other people in this booming market. It had to be.
While I was still trying to make sense of my discovery, I felt a slight tap on my shoulder, it was Stephen. His eyes were red. It was different from the way it looked when we smoked Igbo together. It would be red, yes, but not watery. Now, something watery was casting a layer over its redness. Tears. It was odd, he never cries, never. The only time I saw him cry was when we found Taiwo, his twin brother about four and half years ago.
That day, Taiwo and a few other children were taken by a bus that came to Ringroad with foods, drinks, toys, and new clothes. They said they were from a children-based NGO that took care of children who were vulnerable to the unrestricted elements prevalent in the streets and offered them better chances at life. Taiwo, who was a few months older than me and Akhere but was considerably smaller in size and a few other children were selected. They said the rest of us were too old and were already well over the age of fifteen in their estimation.
A few weeks after, Taiwo’s shirtless mutilated body was found at the mouth of the moat at Oguola Junction. It was Epa Okuta that brought the news to Ring Road. We recognized Taiwo even though his head was not on his body. He still had his diehard Kappa nicker on him. Stephen also pointed out the birthmark on his right yanch.
Obilor, the only other person who understood Yoruba, translated for the rest of us what Stephen said over his brother’s swollen body that night,
twins are not two people, they are one person. As these people have forced you from this earth, you have carried a part of me with you. My quarrel now is with life, it just stood there to watch as death danced towards you from your back. Goodbye Taiwo, it won’t be long now till we see.
After two days, the police came for the body. Taiwo was only thirteen years old. Stephen cried. We all cried. That night, Stephen changed his name from Kehinde. What is the use of the name without the twin?
So, when I saw the tears on Stephen’s eyes again this morning, I knew something had happened, something evil. With eyes still loosely holding back its water from overflowing its bank, he confirmed my fear. “Nah Freeman o. Our Freeman nah him dem dey beat so”.
My head suddenly became too heavy for my body, my heart dropped from my chest into my stomach or it felt so.
Stephen said that he and Freeman had gone from one bus to another earlier that morning, looking for a driver who will hire them as conductors but had been turned down by every single one. Drivers now, were cynical about hiring conductors because of the recent rising cases of rascally ones who would run away with a whole day’s work. They went around a few more buses and later got hired only to shadow passengers into the buses. Any work nah work. They got fifty naira for every bus they filled up, only after making about ₦300, were they driven off by agberos. It was after then that Freeman left him to go try out the other bus park in Ebo street.
It seemed like a minute, it felt so too, but it must have been over an hour or so after, that Nimat, the Etsako girl that sell gala and mineral ran to tell him that they caught his friend stealing sardine and that they were dragging him to the roundabout. He saw Freeman when he got there. His eyes were what he first saw, protesting his innocence or something like that.
Tears that have been hanging to Stephens eyes like cobweb began to gently trickle down as naturally as a ripe kola fruit would its tree. His tears must have summoned mine because as if in solidarity, I too started to weep. The jeering horde had left us at this time.
That was when Akhere found us. He did not hail us or anything, he just stood there, like a corn plant that had been betrayed by the rainy season. It was unlike him. Akhere is playful, it is his mouth that enters a place long before you see him. But not today as his face was stretched into seriousness. He too had heard. I was still scrambling for what to tell him when he beat me to it.
He asked slowly as if his words would break if he went any faster, ‘’Wetin we go do now nah?’’.
It is the usual practice in Ringroad when a thief is caught, he or she is stripped, beaten and paraded around the market, then dumped at the roundabout. The thief is usually seen in the market some weeks later with the remnant of shame still hanging loosely around him or her. And Akhere knew something about shame, a piece of memory he still carried about like Walkman.
Almost a year and a half ago before he came to Benin city, he was living with his father in Ekpoma. His mother had eloped with Omo, the rising local highlife musician 5 years before. One day, his elder brother, Okhilua did something that wrecked their lives.
It was on a Saturday, the way Akhere tells it. He had followed his father to farm that morning and his brother was supposed to go to work, where he was a carpenter’s apprentice. When Akhere and his father got home in the evening, their house, their father’s only worthy property had been razed to the ground by fire. Only the Ebelebo tree was left. It was the neighbours who then told them what had happened.
The angry villagers had torched the house after they caught Okhilua raping one of the village’s old women in her house. Not too long after, a witness narrated how a thick long broomstick was forced into Okhilua’s penis as the villagers felt death would be too humane a punishment. It was the last time anybody ever saw Okhilua.
His father, unable to live with himself gave his neck to the Ebelebo tree that same night. When the only thing the fire left took the only one Akhere had left, he knew then that it was time for him to leave.
But who knew that they would not just leave our Freeman with his shame?
The three of us were walking towards the roundabout. Stephen clasped his hands, resting them at the back of his head, muttering something. Akhere was looking straight down the whole time, intermittently wiping his eyes with the back of his hands. I must have been looking somewhere else because I did not see the smoke at first.
We had just passed Lagos street junction, when Seigha ran to meet us, panting and sweating, “Dem don put fire! Dem dey burn freeman!”
I looked up and saw that the smoke had started to travel up in a ring, thick black. I broke into a run and all three of them joined me.
It had never happened before. No thief had ever been burnt. There are usually people who were there to stop the others who were willing to cross the line. The furthest they had ever gone was with the girl that stole an iPhone in Agbado complex. Some base people took cover under the circumstance to prod her breasts and toto, using different objects as well as hands. But she did not die. They did not burn her.
By the time we got there, Freeman’s body only now made little twitching here and there. People look smaller when they die. When they burn.
A lot of people were watching from cars that were lined up on the road. Crowds huddled around the scene, not in one large mass like before. They were in various groups now, recording and peddling stories.
“Oga, you be nor dey here?” a woman carrying a tray of boiled groundnut on her head gleefully replied a man in a starched fan-patterned Ankara, clutching a newspaper tightly to his right armpit and holding an umbrella, who had thrown a wetin happen question. She had strapped to her back, a sun-baked baby, who had hair like a selectively grazed pasture.
“nah thief dem burn there o, dem say him go thief big money” she continued, her face wearing a smile of someone who is filling another person in on a sizzling episode of Super Story “nah from there we beat am come reach here, before them burn am so”.
“that one nah lie madam” a shirtless man, reeking of fuel and sweat angrily interjected “aproko woman! You don change the story nah nah. nor be money, Nah bread jor”.
“Wetin be the difference ehn?” the woman retorted, arms akimbo.
The man who was now clutching his newspaper and umbrella tightly to his chest, looked at the charred body one more time, shook his head histrionically and walked away. The woman and the shirtless man continued to argue.
Obilor was sitting down, both hands in between his legs, shaking like a rabbit that had been left under the hot sun for too long. When we got to where he was, I didn’t say anything. When there is grief, silence is the only right thing to say.
Obilor who never find words when he wants, who talks as scarcely as we get good food to eat tried to talk, narrated the story amid sobs.
He said people were already leaving when some people in the crowd started to shout, ajibole ole! Freeman was laying still on the ground, most people feared he was dead.
Then, like sudden Benin rain, a man started to dab a liquid Obilor thought was water on Freeman. Another man threw a tire to the first man who then proceeded to wear it around Freeman’s neck like a rosary. He still did not move.
“this one don kukuma die sef” a voice that must have belonged to a woman offhandedly commented.
As soon as the piece of tube that was used to carry the fire touched him, he jumped up and burst into a sprint. He was blazing yellow. He did not get very far before he was whipped across the chest, back to the ground where he wriggled for about two minutes and stopped. The way everyone stood, it was as if a normal thing was happening, something ordinary.
“When people burn they smell like meat”, he continued in Igbo without looking up. I had picked up enough Igbo to understand. He cried, beads of tears dribbled down his face and soaked his shirt.
“Death dey come for all of us one by one”, Stephen blurted, looking at no one in particular.
We sat there together, waiting for the night to crawl in.
Osamu Ekhator is a farmer and he writes. He’s @samuhub on social media