THE GIFT HOUSE by Ahmed Maiwada
Albert Azubike tapped his wife on the shoulder. His dark face seemed to glow like the face of Moses, just returned from God’s presence.
“Here is the town,” he said, relishing the misty mid-August 1974 air. “My Zaria!”
She did not see the glowing teeth he flashed at her. She saw only the scars on his forehead and left temple—emblems of his last sojourn in Hausaland. O, the sanity of a man attached to a people that nearly took his life!
As the train from Port Harcourt whistled and clanked into the station, he blinked away happy tears, staring at the blur of images flying past in the light of dawn outside the window of their coach.
He beamed when his feet landed on the soft wet earth. He said to his wife and the four-year old twins, who stood backing the train, “General Gowon is correct. The civil war is over. Now, Mama Nnamdi, your mouth shall soon fill with the food you have lacked for very long! Now my pockets will know money, again!”
He stood at P & T Street near PZ, around 9 am. From there he saw the bungalow he had abandoned eight years ago to safety in Biafra. It sat on a lawn about two hundred metres from the street, wearing red black and green colours, evoking for him the objectionable Biafran flag. It was gated and surrounded with barbed wires, affixed to which were small square black boards bearing, “KEEP OFF” written in bold red letters.
He looked at her with anger and said, “I hope your evil tongue did not follow us to this paradise.”
“Please stop that joke and lead us to the house, ” she said.”
“That is the house you’re seeing there!” he pointed.
“Very well. Now, you lead us in.”
“Don’t act as if you didn’t notice something wrong, woman!”
“I’ll notice when you show me.”
“Well, since you’ve chosen to be blind; the house seems occupied.”
“So, where is your arrogance about everything returning to normal? Isn’t this Gowon’s city any more?”
“Shut your mouth!”
“Listen,” he said after a short while. “I just need to report this to the authorities. I know these people. They won’t fail to do me justice.”
He was in the Sabon Gari District Head’s court in ten minutes. The District Head knew about his case, but would rather send Albert with a letter to his boss, the Emir of Zazzau.
The chief sentry he met at the palace in the old town ushered Albert from the façade to the Emir’s court where the monarch sat, wearing a silver-coloured silk gown with a lavish gold embroidery. A white turban covered his head, framing his puffy dark face.
When the Emir’s Secretary read the District Head’s letter to him, the Emir sat on his throne as still as a toad sunning on a garden rock. He maintained the posture fifteen minutes afterwards, with all eyes looking towards him as though he was the eastern sky about to birth the Ramadan moon. His praises flowed from his praise singers in ceaseless streams.
Just then, a muezzin’s call to prayer streamed in. And at once, the praise singers grew louder, saying, “The Emir has ordered! That every transaction must cease! It is time to go. And say our greetings to Almighty Allah.”
The courtiers rose, a number of them fluttering to the throne and raising the spread arms of their big and colourful gowns to cover the monarch’s view.
“Be well, O Lion!”
“You may rise in peace, O Bachelor Elephant!”
When the cover parted, Albert saw the Emir’s slightly hunched back as he lumbered towards a doorway in the inner wall of the court. The courtiers pressed after him.
Shortly however, a praise singer re-entered. He crashed on his knees before Albert, who sat alone and still in the court like a laundry heap. He said, “The Emir has sent me, Igbo man. To call you, to join him to pray.”
It upset Albert. “Look!” he warned. “I didn’t come here to pray. Go and tell your Emir that I want my house back without further delay.”
The praise singer’s jaw dropped. Then he said, “You’re lucky the white man took away the Emir’s power to behead. Yet, we still have other punishments for any disrespect to our Emir.”
“The Head of State has forbidden this type of treatment against us Igbos. Why is your Emir wasting my time over my legitimate demand to have my house back?”
“I thought everybody was at peace before your brother Nzegu assassinated our Premier? We’ll never have him back!”
“What of my first wife and her four sons that were murdered at Lokoja during the Igbo pogrom. I was the only one who escaped alive in that lorry, though with axe cuts. You can see the scars!”
“What did you expect to receive after killing our leaders?”
“I didn’t expect sympathy from you. But I don’t expect Gowon’s order to be flouted either.”
“Igbo man, if Gowon’s order was flouted, the Emir wouldn’t have granted you audience. He would have ordered for your beating, as though you’re a difficult donkey. Rather, he wants to pray with you.”
“I’ve come here not to pray but to get my house back!”
Rising, the praise singer said, “If I were you I’d give the Emir the benefit of doubt and just play along, instead of sitting there looking left and right, like a monkey in a tree. Get up and come with me! Emirs don’t wait for anyone!”
Albert’s heart beat frantically to see the square adobe palace mosque, with small rectangular windows just below its ostrich-egg roof. With the courtiers swarming beside it and gazing at him like a dog among goats, he feared he had been cornered, for slaughter.
Albert’s pulse slowed when the arrowhead of the columns of praying men inside the mosque finally led everybody to a sitting position on the prayer mats. The Emir, seated to Albert’s left, extended a hand to him. Albert shook a palm soft and warm like a piece of cushion in the sun.
“What’s your name?” The Emir spoke in Queen’s English. Two gold-capped teeth twinkled in his mouth.
“My name is Albert Azubike, sir.”
“Yes, sir. I’m the one with the letter from the District Head’s office.”
“Yes, of course!” He patted Albert on the shoulder. “We’ll show you some new houses from which to choose.”
“What of my own house, sir?”
“A new UAC Manager was posted to Zaria from the Headquarters, after the war. There was no suitable accommodation. The company approached us. We found your house, abandoned. It was suitable, being quite close to the UAC office.”
“Sir, I’ve returned to Zaria, despite all oppositions by my people and the people of my new wife. Please don’t lock us out of the house I built by the sweat of my brow.”
“It is commendable that you returned. But, first-class monarchs don’t reverse their orders. That’s why you must consider our offer.”
“Very well. I’ll look at the alternatives. However, I must be compensated by a UAC commission agency, for the sacrifice.”
“That’s the spirit, Albert! By the way, your name sounds like Abubakar, the First Khalifa of Islam. You have done charity by giving us your house, just like the Khalifa would have done. Allow us to offer you the name, as a token of our friendship.”
“No, I don’t want it, Chief.”
“You don’t want the name or the friendship?”
“The name, sir.”
“The name doesn’t only fit you; it qualifies you for a UAC commission agency. Yet, how can you bear the Khalifa’s name without being a believer?”
“I’m believer, sir—a Catholic.”
“No. You need to take the shahada. It is the best way of integrating fully in this town.”
Albert took the shahada an hour later, when the Hausas observed, during his ghusl bath into the community of believers, that he would need no circumcision—even as an unbeliever, he was duly circumcised.
While Albert was gone from his family, hunger and exhaustion had driven his children into screaming bouts, which drove their mother to hysterics. Yet, his eventual reappearance, stumbling on the street towards them in full Hausa attire, drove her into a state of shock.
“We have a new house,” he said tauntingly. He looked into her clouded face and laughed. “Let me now see those accusing eyes, which you flashed at me this morning!”
“Why can’t you have your own house back?”
“The highest chief gave it out to UAC, thinking I wouldn’t return. I’ll tell you more later. Let’s go.”
Oblivious of the distance and the direction of their journey inside the bus he had chartered, and resisting the sleep tightening around her eyelids, she heard him talking, as though from a rooftop: “…my sacrifice has fetched us… compensation… UAC commission agent… ”
The bus stopped. She woke up. The children slept. It was pitch-dark outside on the right hand side and bright on the left, from the electric globes burning at the façade of a lofty adobe building, where her husband stood talking to some men in Hausa attires.
She opened the window and called to him. “We aren’t there yet?”
He hurried to her. “We’re almost there. Go back to sleep. You were already snoring.”
“Why did we stop?”
“To pick the servants showing us the houses.”
“Where is this place?”
“The Chief’s palace.”
“What? This is a Hausa neighbourhood!”
“Hush! Close the window and go back to sleep.”
Two elderly Hausa men, reeking with decayed sweat and cigarette smoke, joined them in the bus. She heard them speaking with him in that violent tone she associated with speaking Hausa. And it was a shame she could not hide even in the darkness inside the bus, that her husband spoke the language.
They had hardly restarted the journey when the clouds sitting quietly in the sky all evening started drizzling. She sat vigilantly as the bus rolled along a dark and down-sloping alley that cut through eerie adobe houses and compound walls—now and then bathing horses tethered at front yards in its headlamps.
The bus parked in the front yard of a blood-chilling adobe building, covered in darkness.
The Emir’s servants told Abubakar they had arrived at his gift house from their master.
She suspected something had gone wrong somewhere when she heard an even more violent-toned conversation holding between her husband and the Hausas. The bus conductor opened the passenger door violently, and hastily started gesturing her and her children out of the bus, saying, “Oya! Oya!” Then the Hausas started offloading their loads.
She stood in the cold wind holding her toddler in hand—the twins staggering under the influence of sleep at her sides, and watched as her husband yelled back at them, frantically picking the loads they had dropped on the wet ground and throwing them back into the bus.
It did not last long. There were too many hands to only his. Soon the offloaded bus was skipping away with the Hausas.
The round dark room leading into the building was the only shelter for them against the strong cold wind outside. She found her torchlight in her luggage. By its light, the family managed to chase away the goats sheltering in the room and then to huddle quietly among the load packed in from the ground outside.
She shined the torch in his bushy face—a storm cloud, threatening. She flashed it across the room and once again took in the filthy interior of what was certainly a long-abandoned room. Shaking her head, she shined the torch back in his face.
“Ngozi, remove that thing from my face,” he growled.
“You wanted a better place for us. Surely, this is it.”
“I thought you saw how I fought them for dumping us here. This can’t be the house for me. And, I’m taking it up tomorrow morning. I can’t take this!”
“The Hausas mentioned Abubaka several times. Could you have also given your Christian name away?”
“Mama Nnamdi, better allow me and my children to sleep.”
A steady drizzle fell on the roof, which caused a steady whirr that lulled them to sleep.
Suddenly, they awoke to the boom of a choir performing the Biafran anthem, Land of the Rising Sun. A brief whirring interlude, then the boom of Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s voice, chanting “On Aburi we stand!” A few solo performances of the secessionist anthem ran, after what seemed like the thousandth chant. This ushered in an invasion of the rafters by a thousand red-black-green-and-yellow-half-sun flags. Each flag, glowing as though woven with glow worms, fluttered in a breeze from God-knows-where.
By daybreak, the family observed that the room they had slept in was the gate-chamber of a house, which comprised three room-and-parlours, three rooms lacking doors and windows, a tamarind tree at the extreme end of a big courtyard — wiry and bowed as though under an enormous weight — and a well that sat at the centre of the yard, dipping straight down, its mouth oozing bullfrog croaks.
Abubakar arrived at a deserted Emir’s palace that morning. The chief sentry was at hand. “There is no God but Allah!” he said, in wonder. “It was you I ushered into the lion’s court yesterday, just before the Asr prayer.”
“Yes, indeed! I have an urgent need to see the Chief.”
“I’m sorry, the camel, who is famous for big mileages—the son of Aminu, has just left for the airport at Kaduna, on his way to England. You can even see the dust raised by his motorcade lingering on the horizon.”
“Who else can help? My case requires urgent attention. His servants had flouted his order to show me a number of his houses to choose from. Instead, they lodged me last night in an abandoned house that is infested by spirits.”
“We seek refuge in Allah from them!” the chief sentry intoned. “I’m certain the cloud that faces any direction it chooses will be upset to hear this. However, after making the order himself, no other mortal can rule on it.”
Abubakar looked downcast.
“You don’t need to be sad,” the chief sentry advised. “With the Ramadan starting in a week’s time, we expect the elephant to observe his tradition of starting the month at home.”
Albert trekked back to his new neighbourhood only to find his twins in the street playing with some gypsyish little boys and girls. Sending them scampering with a thunderous shout, he tramped after them.
He met his wife with two middle aged women at her sides—one dark-skinned and the other light-skinned. They sat on a mat in the gate-chamber.
“You’re here gossiping while my children played with strangers outside in the street?” he shouted at her.
“Omemma,” she lashed out at him. “I’d thought the horror of yesterday night inside this your new house was more than enough for my children to bear. But, no! You must carry on with the task by yourself.”
“I see you’re ignorant of the abductions going on in this town. But, you may ask these your gossip partners. The majority of cases in the Emir’s court yesterday were about missing persons.”
“There were no such cases in the east when we left.”
“Look, the time I have now is for tidying this house up, not for a debate. However, watch over my children!”
“You want to tidy up this place? That doesn’t give any hope of moving out, does it?”
He started walking past her towards the interior, as the two women with her greeted him effusively. He stopped beside her and said to her, “You can send these gossips away so we can get the work done, else we’ll sleep in this filth for another night.”
“I won’t live in this house, Omemma,” she said assertively, standing up to face him.
“Look; the Chief, who is the only person to correct this mistake, has travelled out. So, stop your nagging and get set to work. One room and a kitchen are all we need while we wait.”
“Did you know that the last occupant of this house was an Igbo family of eight, all of whom were slaughtered in this house by these Hausa murderers? Isn’t it likely that their spirits were the ones protesting last night over your dancing on their blood?”
“I’ve warned you about listening to rumours!”
“Rumours? So, all that we heard and saw last night are now rumours?”
“Shut up! You’re not to have anything to do with these women!”
“They’re Bajju women and tenants of a prince at the end of this street—a prince who attended a missionary school, converted to Christianity and then married his classmate, also a Christian. The prince would reconvert and then divorced her but, being less radicalised, he rented out his house across the street to the husband of this dark-skinned woman. They’ve paid all their rents, working as farmhands and house helps. But their little singing and clapping for the LORD inside his house is unacceptable. The prince, whom they know keeps a Bible under his pillow, has just served them a quit notice!”
“And so, what has that got to do with you?”
“I told you, so you may be rest assured that your order isn’t necessary. They won’t be around for long, even if I’m not leaving for the east today, with my children.”
“You’re free to leave. But, not with my children. Also try to avoid being abducted while leaving town. I won’t have any explanation for your father.”
Fear broke her resolve. Yet, she would not assist him in tidying up the house. He worked alone, with only the twins for inconsequential help.
There was so much dust in the room-and-parlour he chose. There were many spiders, cobwebs, rat holes, lizards and utensils and toys of little or lost value. Abubakar made it habitable and also cleaned one of the rooms with no doors and windows to serve as kitchen.
Later in the night, orchestral music suddenly exploded from somewhere in the courtyard, surrounding the room-and-parlour. It accompanied the Land of the Rising Sun anthem, first performed by obscure soloists and choirs, then—towards dawn, by Schubert, Mozart and the Westminster Choir, singing in all the pitches the human voice can phonate.
Louis Armstrong enrolled the following night. Ella Fitzgerald joined the night after. Land of the Rising Sun: each sweet performance a coating on Abubakar’s bitter memories of Biafra and the regrets associated with the secessionist venture.
The Emir’s town crier walked the streets one dry and quiet evening, announcing the sighting of a new moon of Ramadan and giving the order for all adult members of the emirate to start fasting as from dawn.
Abubakar hurried down to the palace, where he saw the chief sentry.
“You may check tomorrow,” the sentry advised. “The tiger’s growl doesn’t see visitors at night.”
“It’s been days of horrors for me and my young family,” he pleaded. “Isn’t there no way you can help me reach him and save our lives? Remember I’m also a believer.”
The chief sentry expressed his deep sympathy. “From my investigation,” he added, “the rock for breaking rocks did not order for your being lodged in Gidan Tsamiya. He is too humane to have ordered that. However, those rogues assigned to take you round, aware of his journey to England, did sell one of the GRA houses they should have lodged you in to another returnee Ibo man and disappeared with the money. Their names are all over the radio, as wanted criminals. Just wait and see what will happen to them when they are caught.”
“I pray they get caught. They have treated me badly. Yet, are you still saying there is nothing you can do about letting the Chief know I’m around?”
“Not tonight. To be honest, tomorrow isn’t possible either, even during the day. The tradition of the lion in times like this is to withdraw from all worldly affairs and devote the holy month to the worship of Allah.”
Abubakar broke down in tears. “My family and I won’t survive one more day inside that spirit-infested house. What shall we do now?”
“If it is only about the jinn in the house, then you need not cry, because as from tonight, all the world’s jinn will be bound in chains by the angels and locked away in the bowels of earth until the end of the blessed month. So, be assured of perfect peace in that house till the fasting is over.”
When Abubakar took his first sahur at dawn, Schuster, Mozart, Ella, Louis Armstrong and the Westminster Choir were doing a hair-raising final score of Land of the Rising Sun in the courtyard. Yet, in his grateful heart, he could hear the clanks of the chains in which they would all soon be bound.
He enjoyed the slumber of logs the following night, till dawn, when he woke up.
He lit the kerosene lamp. He saw Ngozi, lying on the mattress they shared with the toddler. She watched him with one eye, her head rested on a pillow.
“Well,” he said, with a dismissive smile. “Isn’t it amazing—spirits, bound in chains and bundled away for one month! When I converted, I did it because that seemed the easiest way I could recover my house. We all know that it isn’t humanly possible to bind spirits. And, since it is possible in Islam, I’m now wholly converted!”
Quietly watching him rummage around the room, she was more than convinced he had lost his mind.
“Of course I knew you wouldn’t be correct, Mama Nnamdi. It is dawn now. We have finally closed our eyes and slept all night. But you won’t speak. You won’t admit your mistake.”
“The point you’re missing,” she said, “is that you can never be correct about returning to the people that murdered your wife and children. You can never be correct to live in a house where the blood of your brothers was shed.”
“Oh! Forget that fiction. As for my late wife and children, I didn’t tell you they were killed in Zaria. The Lokoja people who killed them don’t speak Hausa.”
“Any person north of the River Niger is Hausa. That’s what I know.”
“And I’m saying you are wrong! You know, your major problem is you believe that as it was in the beginning, so is it now and so shall it ever be.”
“I see you still remember your Christian lines; even as you have crucified the LORD every day since your feet touched the soil of this forsaken town. Maybe all hope is not lost, after all?”
“I’ve told you just now that I’m now a true Muslim. But, rather than worry about that, you should worry about acquiring the know-how to look me in the eye at the end of this fasting month, when the Emir would have changed this house for me and connected me with that UAC Manager.”
“I’ll look you in the eye with my own eyes accusing you of being equally responsible with the Hausas for the murder of your wife and her children and every other Igbo killed by them.”
“Okay, listen to this: there was one man from a neighbouring village that accidentally killed an Umuofia woman. The neighbouring villagers could only avoid a war with Umuofia by offering a virgin and a lad as restitution. This happened in Things Fall Apart.”
“Yes. But there is a lesson in it. After Nzeogwu and his gang had murdered the Hausa leaders, what restitution did Nzeogwu’s people offer? Umuofia would have gone to war over the killing, even though accidental, of its member. But timely restitution was offered and accepted. The Hausas had waited. Not the slightest apology was offered. Rather, we taunted and ridiculed them and made Nzeogwu a hero.”
The following night did not go as Abubakar had envisaged. He and his family members had to endure the loud sounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth, issuing from the courtyard. It was as if Jeremiah the Prophet, doubly anointed, was unleashed. Horrible sounds of weeping and lamentations issued as though from the million strings of a goge orchestra of a million devils. But, as soon as the muezzin’s call to the dawn prayer filtered through, every sound ceased.
In the graveyard peace that descended, Ngozi could hear sounds as low as the snaps in the joints of her husband, as he rose to fix his sahur. She heard his fingers locating the matchbox on the floor beside the mattress where she lay. She heard him open the matchbox. She heard him fumble through the matchsticks. She heard him close the matchbox. Then she saw the matchstick flare in-between his fingers. Then, it leapt in the air, like a long jumper, and flew towards her. It landed before she moved.
She had rolled out of the mattress when she noticed that her toddler’s face was the main target of the flying flame. She scrambled for a blanket and charged at it, screaming.
The fire left a strong stench of burnt skin in the parlour. The twins, who slept in the inner room, huddled somewhere in the dark space, screaming for light. Somewhere in the middle of the parlour, Abubakar frantically struck one matchstick after the other, without succeeding in making any to flame.
The Bajju women came in the morning. They suggested Kingsley be rushed to a clinic near Kofar Gayan, famous for being run by a burn specialist. Therefore, accompanied by them, Ngozi trekked the distance, across footpaths skirting homesteads and farmlands high with maturing corn, millet and maize.
She returned home with the toddler, his frightful black eyeballs swimming in a red face trickling with blood.
The fasting of that day was drilling holes in Abubakar’s big and empty stomach when Ngozi attacked him over his setting of her baby’s face on fire.
“Your plan is to sacrifice my children to that bloodthirsty god you’re serving.”
“Ngozi, let me have some peace. I need to sleep.”
“You know the truth! So, you are like your Lodge members who know everything about any missing child in this town.”
He was on his feet and hotly chasing her around the courtyard before she could finish that sentence. He dragged her on the ground, screaming for help. He stopped at the tamarind tree. He tied her hands at her back with a rope. He tied one of her legs with another rope, which he tied around the trunk of the tree.
It was dark and lonely in the yard when he untied her, at the end of his day-long punishing fast. He dragged her away, saying, “Your gossip partners have told you my secret already. Now I can no longer pretend I don’t need more children so that my sacrifices can be big.”
He pushed her into the room-and-parlour, where he pummelled her into submitting to his forceful entrance into her.
Hungered, bruised and humiliated, she cried well into the night. When the brightest electric globes she had ever seen woke her up, shining from the ceiling in the four corners of the parlour, she had just slept for an hour.
She found Abubakar sitting in the middle of the room, distracted and muttering incomprehensible things. Her twins were screaming for help, being dragged frantically towards the exit door, each one by an armed soldier in camouflage.
She sprang to her feet and charged at them. She held a twin by the shirt and the other by the hem of his shorts and began to battle for their release.
“Where are you taking them?” she screamed. “Leave them alone!”
“No!” they said. “We have our orders. In this revolution we must cleanse the land with the blood of these corrupt politicians.”
“No! These are my children. Let them go.”
“You don’t know who these two are; one is Ahmadu Bello, the Premier and the other Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister. We must kill them tonight!”
Three red-eyed soldiers sprouted through the floor, like merry dolphins leaping out of water into the air. They surrounded Kingsley on the mattress, who screamed for his mother’s help. The taller spirit pointed at Kingsley and said, “We’ve found Maimalari!” The other two, jubilant, answered, “Sure, it’s him! We have our order to waste him!” The taller spirit aimed and fired his rifle point-blank at the toddler. Kingsley screamed one last time. He went limp on the mattress, his raw face looking towards his mother.
When she awoke from this nightmare, the soldiers dragging her twins had exited the room. Ngozi charged after them, into the yard, which she found filled with soldiers dressed in army green and air force white and navy blue. They were busy marching on the spot to the beats of Land of the Rising Sun, played by a band somewhere in the crowd.
The entire yard was lit by a cocktail of bright lights shining directly from the tamarind tree, which seemed to have borne fruits of light.
She emerged in time to see the twins being dragged towards the mouth of the well in the middle of the yard.
She continued to charge after them.
Back in the parlour, Abubakar struggled to rise on his feet, still distracted and still muttering incomprehensible things, about the Emir, about his house and about a certain UAC Manager.
Photocredit: Oluwatomilola Boyinde
About The Author:
Poet, novelist, literary critic and lawyer. Published works include Fossils, Eye Rhymes and Musdoki. This story is an except from “A Town You Wouldn’t Know”, a collection of short stories or a novel. Author resides in Abuja, Nigeria.