“Where’s the weirdest place you’ve spent Christmas and new year?” Ejiro asked.
No one really paid any attention to the hymn resonating out of the rusty radio. Burning wood crackling in the fire, steaming up with smoke and the smell of roasted meat hung loosely in the air.
Harmattan was intense in these parts of the country. Natives would go about their businesses wrapped over and over in funny looking clothes like moi moi in steaming, green leaves. Well, it was cold, so no one gave a fuck about fashion. This harmattan cracked lips open effortlessly just as it cracks wooden mortars and doors.
But the cloud of early morning fog and the smell of dust, the dryness, and sudden afternoon breeze came with the ease of Christmas and New Year, even when you are serving your country with cracked lips and an M16 loosely hanging around your neck, in a place thousands of miles away from home. It still smells like Christmas. Like fresh mint breathing down on you, the smell of the new year alongside harmattan. Christmas and new year without harmattan is like Jollof rice without its iconic party flavour, bland and inauthentic.
“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king…”
“Me?” Odun asked.
“Everyone,” Ejiro said.
“…Christ is born in Bethlehem, hark the herald angels sing…”
“A betnaija shop.” Onojah said, tugging at the sleeves of his khaki as if they had elastics.
Everyone burst out laughing.
“My nigga no even send, wetin concern am concern Christmas? Na that odd sure pass o.” Tega said tossing a chunk of meat in his mouth.
“That ticket later enter?” Odun asked.
“For where?” Onojah reclined against the log of wood he was sitting on. “You know how many games I play that day? You know how many times I play? Na all of them cut. I spent Christmas at that shop charging because NEPA no give us light. I spent the new year with my family in Warri.”
“What about you, Odun?” Ejiro asked, already slicing meat with his dagger. He licked his fingers and rubbed the remnant on his khaki trousers.
“The weirdest place I’ve spent Christmas? I spent both Christmas and New year in Jail three years ago. Alongside my inmates, broken people, rugged people, optimistic people; people who still think they’ll get out. I spent over 8 months there on remand, I met them there and I left them there.”
Silence. Save for the crackling wood already burning in the fire.
Odun continued, “We were over 100 in a cell meant for just about 20 inmates. Mad place.”
Just the breeze rolling around drying leaves, swooshing around twig trees as lifeless as the expression on Tega’s eyes. He looked as if he wasn’t there. Like he never was, like he wasn’t meant to be there, bored to death but just surviving, waiting for succor, the same way natives, just as the trees wait for rain.
But he looked like someone who needed redemption or the little ones he found in cutting out of the roasted meat and taking gulps of water, listening. Just listening.
“What took you to prison? Onojah asked, leaning over.
“I started a business, I need more money for capital, I borrowed money from a microfinance bank, I couldn’t payback. My rent expired. I got frustrated. The deadline passed, I still didn’t meet up, so I left Ibadan. I was at Lagos, hustling, but Lagos is the wrongest place to be when you are hiding from someone. I got caught, charged to court, they kept adjourning it, I wasn’t granted bail so I was in prison on remand.” Odun sighed and reclined, adjusted his AK47 while caressing the butt. “That was how I became a prisoner, eating charity rice and community service watery beans.”
They all smiled and squirmed in their positions.
“What about you?” Ejiro asked, pulling one of Tega’s legs.
“Here?” They all asked.
“Here.” Tega affirmed as he leans over the fire to push some twigs in the fire.
“Me too.” Ejiro said.
“This place is the weirdest place I’ve spent Christmas and new year. Just yesterday we were at a local church screaming ‘happy new year’ and all. Trying to mask our discomfort and pretend alongside everyone that 2020 is different as if it’s not just another Wednesday, and we’ll wake up to the sound of bangers thinking they are rounds of bullets and Boko Haram shelling another village.”
A certain mood hung stale over them, from breathing hard to shifty eyes and sighing, suddenly melancholic. Now that was Tega rubbing off on them.
“Why did you join the army, Tega?” Odun asked.
“I dunno, honestly, I just wanted to fight. Whether I live after this or not, I already signed my death. And the look on my mother’s eyes when I told her about my sudden decision, she looked at me like I was lost. Maybe I am lost. But I’ve always been lost, I guess that was what took me out of the hospital I was working as a surgeon. I made a mistake. I got sacked. Found myself in the military, removing bullets and sewing up gunshot wounds on the go whilst still manning an M16. Fate, man, fate.”
Everyone went silent.
The evening stretched with sullen silence. Unmistakably melancholic, now the cold hit differently and the meat, now tasteless. That was when the first thunderstruck. But there was no lightning.
Then several more.
It was then the soldiers knew it wasn’t a lost thunderstorm in the middle of harmattan. It was the enemy.
Something in the dark came whistling in the wind. So fast and in a split moment, Ejiro’s head came off his body and it rolled lifelessly away. The shrapnel had severed his head off.
In that same moment, Onojah and Odun picked up their assault rifles and started firing into the dark. Tega was too lost in thought as he watched Ejiro’s bloodied head, and all he could think of was ‘he was here just now…he was here just now.’ Thoughts flashed across his head and he caught the bloodied shrapnel stuck to a log. He thought how a piece of metal could be so hot yet so cold at the same time. He picked his rifle and started firing into the darkness alongside his comrades.
An explosion hit close by. Trees falling and twigs catching fire. The end of the world was so swift, Tega thought.
Tega heard Onojah screaming but he wasn’t sure if he himself was still alive, they said hell is a fiery place and it was one hell of a fiery night. Maybe he was dead and he was in hell.
Everything around Tega moved so fast, from watching Odun all blown up so quick and bullets ramming into Onojah’s chest in quick succession, watching his body shudder till he dropped on his knees and the last shot blew out his brain.
There was no time to scream. No time at all. Then several more explosions rocked the night. And Tega went numb of feelings just instincts and adrenaline pumping for survival.
But there was no surviving this. Tega felt bullets ram into his back and soon, he was in the dust, too.
“All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Ecclesiastes 3:20.
More silence. This time, silence as silent as death itself. The stillness. The blackout. Utter stretch of immeasurable darkness.
But then the smell of marijuana oozing out of an already stinking mouth barking out instructions and the shaky noise of a radio in a tight grip of a turbaned soldier interrupted the long silence.
That was how it felt like waking up from death.
Tega struggled to right himself as several more turbaned soldiers dragged him out of a makeshift tent. He was still wearing his bloodied military camouflage uniform. But without belt and the blood all dried out. He was chained arms and legs together and he struggled to walk as a soldier kept pulling and shoving him.
The soldiers were not proper soldiers. All turbaned or thoroughly masked, some wore boots. Some wore flip flops with socks.
Tega started to regain consciousness of everything and every detail.
Everyone moved around going about their businesses like it was normal to drag a wounded soldier around in chains across the yard.
Women in long, black hijabs and children running around like it was a normal market day. Tega wondered if they were hostages or wives or slaves or whatever.
“How long have I been dead?” Tega asked the soldier hoping he understood English and second hoping he replied.
The soldier, who looked like he was in his early 20s hesitated a little while, then he replied in good, almost perfect English but with a soft Hausa accent, “You’ve been half dead, half awake since midnight since they found your body. And today’s Thursday, 2nd of January, 2020.”
Tega felt the sharp contrast immediately. Young soldier. Heavily turbaned. Looks haggard, shabilly dressed with flip flops on khaki camouflage uniform. Soft Hausa accent sitting side by side an almost perfect English. Heavily contrasting circumstances.
The soldier shoved him on his knees, and he felt his eyes getting teary, sharp pain digging into his back that he almost felt it poking his inner organs.
Tega saw several more soldiers standing over him with bloodshot eyes. Ruthless. Ready to kill. Blood thirsty. Emotionless. Soulless.
A tripod, a camcorder sitting pretty on it, ready to cram in every detail, even the fear in his eyes and his shaky hands.
A soldier unchained him and pinned his hands to the back to cuff his hands again. Another soldier was holding a black banner with an Arabic inscription at his back.
Another soldier stood close by with an open Quran reading and the ground resounded with the chants of “Allahu Akbar” at intervals.
The camera already recording and probably transmitting live to wherever and whoever. That was when Tega knew he was about to get his redemption. His long-sought redemption.
A soldier, who appeared to be the leader leaned over and whispered in Tega’s ears “Happy New Year, Comrade.” It was the voice of his commander in the army. Major General Abdul-Malik.
Tega turned and it was him. Now he’d die with the conflicting reality of how these things correlate. If he had really died hours ago and this was part of hell, too. But the pain was too sharp to be in death. This was reality. Albeit a conflicting one. He knew that instant the country he had sworn to serve had been infiltrated by the very ones who took the oats and swore him in and there’s no going back, it’s now a cycle. It keeps going and going like the two wheels of a palm wine bicycle.
Nostalgia hit him. He thought about home. He thought about his mother and his father’s graveyard until things started to get gloomy, he felt his spirit wearing out.
Tega was still lost in his thoughts when a black cloth slipped over his head and he was shoved to the ground.
Now the chants of “Allahu Akbar” got louder and it filled the air. How can a simple phrase of worship be so menacing and threatening?
The first cut dug deep into Tega’s throat. His blood was everywhere. The executioner continued to severe his head off his neck with so much expertise, it left Tega’s body shuddering with pain and something much worse than pain.
The executioner severing Tega’s head off would remind you of a happy family on Christmas Day and a man disjointing an ill lucked Chicken’s head off its body while the children watched the blood spill and the severed head being tossed into a bowl of hot water. Christmas. Another one was killed on New Year’s Day. But a man’s head has been severed off his body on New Year. While the whole country watched the passive horror. Oblivious of the politics behind the scene and reverse patriotism from the ones who should be protecting the state.
The last sound Tega heard before he slipped off into the darkness and his eyes rolled back into his head was the sound of him choking on his blood that was before his head went completely off his head.