Infidel by Kenechi Uzor
I moved to Lagos for the infidel girls, the Christian girls Idris said abounded in that city. I moved for new life, and to find my cousin, Idris. Allah would help me with a job as a Motorcyclist or Shoe-shiner or Mai guard. But the girls I would get for myself. It was thoughts of the Christian girls that made my nights in Tofa so long, thoughts that blew on the flames that burned my heart for Lagos. No longer could I bear the Muslim girls of Tofa, with their hijabs and scents of fura and dawa.
I told Baba that Idris had found a Job for me in Lagos, and Allah be praised.
To convince my father on anything, you had to speak of Allah’s will and stare off to a distance with eyes narrowed and shoulders resigned to Allah’s supremacy. Baba would nod. Baba would agree. Baba would narrow his eyes too in obeisance to the Almighty.
Allah willed a lot of things in my lifetime, most of which the Almighty had not even known about.
Last I heard from Idris was three years earlier, when he came home without money but with stories of money and the great city of Lagos with the longest bridge in Africa, with stories of infidel girls with their long eyelashes, longer legs and easier ways.
Though Baba nodded to Allah’s will, I knew he did not see anything wrong with my life in Tofa. He would prefer I moved to Kano city, an hour away by car and half a day by donkey.
In Tofa, time had no potency and life slumbered. Without heart, nights came after the days and the rains came after the harmattan, without fail. I grew up with the silent sounds of the long nights and in days that stretched and merged till they ceased to be differentiated by names. My feet knew Tofa’s depths and bush paths, and once, as a boy, I had navigated the village blindfolded, imitating blind Aliyu.
The morning I left Tofa, we stood outside my father’s compound with its low fence of dry reeds and millet stalks. Baba gave me a hundred naira and a reminder to spend it here and there and not at one sitting. He told me to stay close to our people and be wary of the infidels.
“Do not talk back at them,” he said. “Unbelievers will hate you. They will try to cheat you and treat you like a cow. Be a cow to them— you will be safer that way. Allah guide you.”
A cow mooed from the pen behind the compound and my mother left hold of the fence and came to cry over me. My little brother watched, finger in nostril, large eyes blinking, morose.
I took a train from Kano and the train broke down in the bushes nowhere and took three days to fix. All that time, I shared a coach with a herd of cattle and Fulani herdsman on their way to Lagos abattoirs. I survived on the cow milk and wara the herdsmen graciously shared with me. When we arrived finally at the Iddo terminus, the cattle and I had gotten well acquainted, unified in appearance and smell.
The Iddo terminus looked like a huge market without stalls. It was bordered on one side by dead trains and trucks, and on the other side, fat, dirty buildings tried to touch the sky. The air shouted with voices and honks, and an underlying ear-filling rumble, much like the roar of River Hadejia, made you want to swallow air to free your ears. Lagos was the colour of mud and charcoal—the way we got after our tumbles in the first rains of Tofa.
There were too many animals in Lagos— driving, walking, all in great haste. I couldn’t tell what danger was behind the rush or what direction it came from. There were no spaces, even in my head, no space to think. The air was heavy, angry, and hard to breathe in. My eyes hurt from glimpses too fast, too much. I saw everything and everyone, but nothing looked back, no one saw me. I was shooed and shoved, pulled and pushed in every direction until I was smeared on the sidewall of an alley. There I hunkered with my face between my knees, trembling, sweating and heaving.
A muezzin’s call braved through the din; a familiar note amidst alien babble. A smile threatened my misery. As the call carried through, I detected its strange and nasal quality and knew the muezzin was a mere convert. True Muslims had Muslim ancestry and called for prayers with no modifications. But I craved respite, and with hope that a mosque would be a mosque anywhere, I entered again into the commotion and willed my eyes to spot the minaret.
In vain I searched, and with no luck with even a mosque, I began to despair and lose hope of finding Idris or any of the other goals I had set for Lagos.
It was only at dusk that I saw an uplifting sight. Leaning beside one of the fat buildings was a tea stall, complete with its table stack of noodles, tins of milk and sardine. This I knew to be a common trade of my people. My feet grew lighter as I drew closer; my chest expanded as I saw men in danshiki and heard words in Hausa. I saw other trademarks of my people: motorcycles, water carts, shoe shiner boxes, and trays filled with Kolanuts and root herbs. A man stood to the side roasting beef and chicken suya over a charcoal grill.
A tea stall was never just that. Like our mosques, a tea stall was our community centre in foreign land. There were many of these centres flung over Lagos. They thrived from dusk to midnight, and for those hours, you could forget you were not home in distant Hausa land. Our women clustered there too, with wares down before them, frying kwosei and yams, and loitering, selling hot corn pap and themselves. This was where talk and events from home were shared to the background drone of the BBC Hausa Radio Service.
As I waited for the Mai shayi to serve me, I picked up the conversation swirling around the stall. The police had raided the transport park again and made away with motorcycles. A lanky youth addressed as Jihad was one of the victims, and his tall frame shook as he shared his frustration. It had taken him a full year to finish the payments on that motorcycle and only two weeks later for Lagos State government to ban the use of motorcycles for commercial transport. Today they had seized the motorcycle.
My joy and relief at finding my people was not reciprocated. The evening was far from happy for the motorcyclists congregated in the stall. Most of them, like Jihad, were young men from Michika, Adamawa State, encouraged to come south in droves when their townsman, Colonel Buba Marwa, was military administrator of Lagos. There were a few old people my father’s age, like the man they called Alhaji Chinaka, who sold dollars and wasn’t as big as his oversized caftans made him look. He sat closest to me on the bench this evening, brooding, dipping large chunks of bread into his bowl of hot corn pap.
“They are the ones who claim to know better,” he said, commenting on the police raid. “But if the government decides to put young men out of honest livelihood, then they are calling trouble.”
“Wallahi,” said Jihad, slapping the table for emphasis, “Trouble is what they will get. They will get it, by Allah. Their plan is to chase us back to the north. That is all they want. As if we don’t have rights to stay anywhere in our own country.”
“Easy, Jihad,” said Mai Shayi, eyeing the stacks of noodles and milk cans on Jihad’s table. “Wasn’t everyone affected by the ban? It wasn’t just our people.”
“Maybe we should go back north. Maybe our people should stop rushing over here the way they do,” said Alhaji Chinaka. “Times have changed, and I think it is obvious now in this country that people are safer in their homelands.”
“Our people are still coming over, Alhaji, every day. Like this young man sitting beside you.” The Mai Shayi smiled as he served me a plate of noodles. “I can always tell the newcomers. They smell the same.”
Alhaji Chinaka gave me a handshake. The others looked up, and gestured their welcomes. And the advice began to fly: there was a mosque not far from here and used mostly by our people; I was not to go near any church for my own safety, not to go near their children, male or female; wear my dagger always, and never look the police in the eye. If I needed a woman, I should look to the ones here or follow them for their sisters in any of the angwa where our people lived.
When the Mai Shayi came for his money, I asked him if he knew my cousin, Idris.
“Idris? Which Idris?”
“Idris Musa, a dan Kano from Tofa, tall like full-grown millet and as thin.”
“Ah, many people bear Idris Musa in Lagos, Mai Shayi said, looking around. “That one over there, sitting on the motorcycle is Idris Musa. One Idris Musa died last month—fell off a moving truck… I think there was another Idris Musa— Allah forgive him— he married an infidel and hasn’t been seen in these parts since.” Mai Shayi raised his voice and asked the other men if they knew my cousin. I described him again, but no one was sure if they knew him.
Trade dwindled as night gained. A late train thundered by, whistling confidently to itself. I realized that I had not left the vicinity of the Iddo terminus, having merely wandered in circles during the afternoon. At night, the terminus was an abandoned battlefield. Things lay as if destroyed, and bundles littered the ground like dead bodies. Flickers and flashes came from inside the dead trains and trucks. Beyond the lights was danger.
The Mai Shayi took off his skullcap and began to turn the benches over for the night. “Listen,” he said to me. “I am sure in Tofa everybody knows every other, but this place is even bigger than Kano; it may take you years to find your cousin, if he is alive. It will be easier to find a place to sleep near our people, and tomorrow, Insha’Allah, you will find something to do if you want to work.”
I bade him good night, and staying in the light, I walked in the direction most leaving the stall had gone. I soon found the mosque; it looked like any old hall, even a church. I had not seen it during the day because it had no minaret. I slept on a prayer mat that first night in Lagos, chilled by the wind blowing through the mosque’s windows.
There were many jobs in Lagos for a man without pride or fear for diseases. Humility was a virtue held strongly by my family, and as for diseases, one would get only what Allah wished him to have. My first job in Lagos was as one of the dustbin boys that filled the government’s garbage trucks as they rumbled around the city dumps. I got fifty naira for a day’s worth of work and stench.
In the evenings, I went back to the Mai Shayi’s stall to eat and be among our people. The arguments were always the same: our people and their people, and the treatment between our peoples. And Boko Haram.
“In Yola, Adamawa,” said BBC Hausa Service, “seven children were killed and fifteen others injured in an attack on a school by armed men suspected to be of the Boko Haram sect.”
“Wai Allah!” exclaimed Mai Shayi as he added cubes of sugar to a customer’s cup of tea. “Why kill innocent children? Why? Our people never do things right!”
A piece of fried yam on its way to Jihad’s mouth stopped abruptly and began to tremble. “Our people? Mai Shayi, did you just say our people? How can you say they are our people? Do you know anyone who is a member of Boko Haram?”
“That is a good question, Jihad,” said Mai Nama, the butcher whose breaths came in wheezes and snorts.
“If they are not our people, who are they, then?” asked Mai Shayi.
“Well, they are not our people, is all I know,” said Jihad, chomping heavily on the piece of yam. “Our people are the ones dying—”
“It doesn’t matter who they are, really,” interrupted Alhaji Chinaka. “They could be from Mali, Niger or Chad… anywhere. What matters is that they stop the killing—”
“Or at least they should take the fight to the right people.”
“Do not say things like that, Jihad. Who are these right people that deserve to be butchered? Who?”
“I don’t know, Alhaji? But I remember we didn’t feel too bad when all these started and only policemen and churches were being attacked—”
“The way you talk, Jihad!” said Mai Shayi. “Speak for yourself, please. The infidels, police, government, we all are Allah’s creation and one in his sight.”
Jihad stood. “Mai Shayi, I will stop coming to your stall! How dare you equate me, us, with infidels? How do you imagine that Allah sees us as equal? Allah cares only for his servants, the believers; the rest are children of Shaitan.”
“Both of you are missing the point,” said Mai Nama, snorting calmly. “All of these are happening simply because we are no longer in power. What do you expect when infidels are in government?”
Sometimes new voices would join the popular four, but most times, many of us used only our necks, ears and eyes to participate in the conversation.
I had spent two years in Lagos before I found my cousin, Idris. In that time I had gone from dustbin boy to Kolanut hawker, and then back to dustbin boy. Then I became a water seller. In that time, I had been beaten up twice. The first time was when I called a non-northerner my aboki. I learnt that day, painfully, that the same word that meant friend in Hausa meant stupid to the non-northerner and was reserved for use by them when addressing northerners. Allah gave me strength to act like I had no feeling. But I swear, many times, only cowardice kept me from using my dagger. In that time, too, I had been with women: Hajara, who wore nothing under her hijab, and Laraba, whose cries of pleasure almost got us discovered that first time under Mai Nama’s shop awning. I had not yet found an infidel woman.
One afternoon, late, as I pushed my water cart in some different part of Lagos, I heard my name called. I heard it twice, and my whole life truly flashed before me. My feet curled in my slippers, my head loomed and expanded like I had seen a djini. I trembled, for that name had been dead to me these two years. Our people here called me Dan Tofa, and the others called me aboki.
“Shettima.” It came again, strange and as far off as my homeland. I saw this homeland then, serene and otherworldly. I smelled the Hadejiya and the harmattan and bush fires. I felt the dignity of arewa, the sheer space and the calm; I saw Baba, my mother, my brother.
I turned towards the voice and saw it came from a shop where a man stood amidst display cases of gold jewellery and wristwatches. I did not recognize the face or the voice, but the owner was smiling, squinting, and picking his way quickly towards me.
I returned his embrace because it felt right.
“It is you, Shettima,” he said as if to convince me. “You are a man now, but Allah, it is you. Haba, dan uwa, don’t you recognize me?”
My hands crept to my head. “Idris!”
I flung myself at him. We hugged and clapped each other on the back and for the last time became boys back in Tofa. Tears that had loomed over the past two years began to leak out my eyelids.
Older by a few years, we had been close. I had looked to him and ran in his footsteps back home. As I looked at him now, I could barely see that childhood hero of mine. It darted into my mind how one could be the same person and yet changed. Idris wore jeans and a T-shirt, and looked much fatter than a full-grown millet. We laughed. I cried. We tried to talk about everything at once.
His home was not in any of the angwan Hausa. He lived in a gated compound in that part of Lagos, and he lived like them, like a proper Lagosian. Idris spoke English well and even Yoruba. His living room had plastic chairs and a centre table, and a small television sat on a low stool by the window. He even had a wooden bed in an inside room. From this room a young woman emerged and greeted us in English, and something about her presence challenged the great happiness of our reunion.
Idris stood a while, looking from her to me, and then he took a deep breath. “Jumoke, this is Shettima, my brother, and Shettima, this is —” He spread his hands in her direction, like a show master introducing a new act to an uncertain audience. He had a tentative smile on his face and his eyes were fixed on mine. It was an unsure look, hopeful, at once a plea, and again resigned. My smile wavered as I reached for the hand she offered and said a word or two in my little English. A toddler came out from the room, rubbing his eyes. He looked up at me and wrapped himself around the woman’s legs. I looked from the child to Idris’ face and it all became clear.
My cousin, Idris was that Idris Musa. Allah be merciful.
I turned and walked out of the room.
I wanted to keep walking, to dissociate myself completely from Idris and his abomination, but it was still something to hear my name in these parts.
He caught up with me outside the compound and we stood there, him searching my eyes and me looking somewhere beside his face. I followed him back to sit on a mat outside his living room. It had gotten dark and other occupants of the compound threw greetings as they came home. Clothes on a line waved gently as a breeze laden with the aroma of cooking passed through. Close by, a food grinder roared to life.
An infidel wife, an infidel son too. What could be worse? We had not spoken a meaningful word since the introduction. Idris seemed perturbed. I wasn’t sure if he was troubled by thoughts he should have had before his atrocity, or if my presence had refreshed old thoughts he’d suppressed over time.
I understood the craving for strange women. I too, and many of our men, secretly longed for infidel women, but it was understood as a mere conquest, some kind of statement. No one went this far.
“Shetimma, I don’t know. I don’t know, but I will do it all over again.” His eyes burned into mine, and it seemed they explained things even he couldn’t put in words, things my innermost being seemed to understand.
Still damp with our thoughts, we went in to eat. As I ate with Idris, an almanac flapped on the wall and I made out the words: Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Idris followed my eyes and nodded solemnly at me.
“Oh Allah.” The laughter spurted from a distance inside me, and as it tumbled out, everything seemed pointless and absurd: the unwritten laws, taboos, infidels, humans, life.
My cousin looked at me a while, and then in jerks, he too began to laugh. It wasn’t clear if we were laughing for the same reasons. It didn’t seem to matter. The woman put her head through the curtain, smiled at our laughter and then brought us water. I loved her like an in-law at that moment.
Let a thing matter when it would, if it must, but for that moment, I laughed with my cousin Idris in the house he shared with his wife and child.
We talked far into the night. Idris did not explain his marriage or talk about the fears I knew he must have. He told me he had worked as a shoe shiner, as a motorcyclist, and then later apprenticed with an Alhaji who owned several jewellery shops, who eventually helped him start his own. He shocked me when he said he would soon be graduating with a diploma.
“You are an infidel now, Idris Musa,” I said ruefully. My cousin looked off into nothing and after a while, I saw his lips part in a smile. “Walahi, Shettima, I think I am. And I don’t know why.”
We laughed, gently at first, and then hard and long, the mirth salving our fears and uncertainty.
It was soon after I met Idris that I found Titi. Before I started sleeping with Titi, I was supplying water to her hair salon twice a day. After a week, I stopped accepting payment, content to see her tiny teeth when she smiled gratitude.
On the evening of that year’s Sallah, I took a bath, wore jeans and a T- shirt, and presented her with fried ram meat wrapped in paper. She laughed when she finally recognized me. I stayed a while, and we managed small talk. She kept looking at me and shaking her head with a smile. Every evening after that, I would wash myself, wear jeans, and sit in her shop to watch the small TV while she finished with late customers.
Alone together one evening, she put on a movie and a while into the film the people in the movie got naked and started climbing on each other. Titi took one look at me and began to laugh, then she turned the TV off and I left. The next evening she played the movie again and when I got up to leave, she blocked me off and locked the salon door.
That was the first time I slept with an infidel.
I started sleeping in Titi’s shop. She slept there too because the salon was also her home. At night she’d lock us in and would cradle me like my mother used to. She would ask me if I knew I was a fine man. She told me that I had a woman’s eyes, that I reminded her of pictures of men from Dubai and that if I grew my hair she could style it so I would look like a true Arab. I told her I was not an Arab, but I wished I was rich like them so I could take her to Mecca and Medina and Dubai. She liked to play with my thing and said it was very long and curvy. She said she loved my name, that it was the name of a boy in a book she had read in primary school. I told her the name was Kanuri, from my mother’s people. I liked her name too; I told her Titi in Hausa meant a wide, express road. She giggled and said she would open her road for me anytime I liked.
With my improving English and the little Hausa she said she learnt when she lived with an aunt in Kaduna, we got on well together. We got on well too on the thin mattress she unfurled at night in the middle of her salon. Many times when she moaned my name, I thought I was in paradise, in the arms of the Hur-al-ain virgins.
The first time I took her to visit Idris and Jumoke, Idris had laughed long, and when Titi frowned, he’d apologized and said that I would understand. She went into the room with Jumoke and they had a long talk together. That night Titi told me she wanted us to be like them.
I came back one evening and found a small kiosk had been built in front of the hair salon. Titi said it was my new shop and I would sell provisions because she didn’t want me hauling water like a common aboki. I told her that I liked being a common aboki. She said if I wanted to be near her, that I would try to be more like my brother, get some education and a better life. I got angry, we traded insults, and because it was all too much for me I left her alone for two weeks.
The night I went back to her salon she looked at me, cried, gave me a hug, and sent me to take a bath. Later that night, on the mattress, she took me on her wide, express road, and I agreed to everything she wanted, even the education. That was the first night I began to think about marriage and what it would be like if I had a life like Idris’.
The day it happened I was headed to Mai Shayi’s stall. I hadn’t been there in a long while, and as I walked again in the commotion of Iddo terminus I reflected on how little had changed, except that I now rushed too like the rest of the animals and shoved back when shoved.
I heard this great blast and felt the world move under my feet. There fell over Lagos a silence I never thought possible, a sort of underwater silence, silence far louder than the blast that had come before it. It lasted for some seconds and then it was like hell and its inhabitants were set loose. Chaos triumphed. It wasn’t yet clear what had made that boom, but it didn’t matter. The world was ending and nobody wanted to be in it. I ran with the world to nowhere. In the midst of the confusion, it filtered out that the Third Mainland Bridge had been blown apart and hundreds of cars had fallen into the lagoon. Boko Haram was suspected. As the news penetrated panicked minds, the unity in the chaos began to separate into identical groups. Our people began to run together and dusk lowered to night.
The attack on the mosque confirmed it: we were the enemies. Everyone from the north was Boko Haram. A yelling mass of people bearing weapons had run upon the mosque where we had gathered to catch our breath and consider. We scattered. Pain filled the air. I saw blood. I felt blows. I gave blows. I ran. I saw Mai Nama’s butcher knife strike once, twice. I saw him fall. Jihad flew past me, stained red. I ran, dodged, ran. I ran for most of the night.
It was when I saw the compound that I realized where my heart had been herding my feet. Idris’s compound was not burning well, more smoke than fire came from the buildings. I crouched by the gate and listened, my heart thumping. I heard no screams, no human sounds. I hoped. The fire picked up, crackling and whistling, and from its light I saw bodies lying still on the ground. I made my way to Idris’s door and saw I didn’t need to enter. Idris was beside Jumoke, both of them bloody and battered, lying in that unmistakable twist of death. I knew what the dark wetness under my feet was. I remembered the child only when I saw his body split on the threshold. Across the compound, the fire found something that made it boom.
I left my heart down there with my cousin Idris.
The kiosk and salon were on fire when I approached just before dawn, and I knew then just how the cow must feel when the butcher’s knife makes the first throat slash. I was too late. They had gone there for me quicker. All around, screams thrust the air and fires raged. I had no heart left in me to grief, yet I wailed for my Titi. What had they done to her? What had I brought on her? I could feel my blood draining as my eyes glazed over. Coward that I was, I let the blood drain, I let the eyes glaze.
Things the sound of a name on the right lips could do. My blood gushed, my eyes flashed and beamed. She had seen me. It was her voice. My Titi was about. I drew my dagger. I had yet my body, and for her I would lay it down.
I saw her then, my darling Titi, running through the crowd and fire, and waving, waving me away.
“Run, Shettima, run!”